Nothing about life in Nasarat had prepared Yorrin for the Underpass.
Yorrin was used to tight spaces. He was a small man, and felt at home navigating the narrow back alleys of the city. It didn’t perturb him, whether ducking beneath the piers on the shore of the Encircled Sea, clambering through windows, or even hiding out in trash heaps, cellars, and the like.
He also welcomed the darkness. His eyes adjusted quickly, and on a good night the moon was the only light he needed. The shadows were the best shroud a man like him could ask for. He had once stood less than three feet from a man intent on finding him, and escaped notice. The dark was his friend, and his home.
But no matter how tight a space in Nasarat, there was still the sky above him. No matter how dark a night, there was some glimmer of moonlight, a twinkling of stars, a distant lantern hanging on a streetcorner.
The Underpass was different.
The ceiling hung over them, and the walls closed in around them. The only light was the one he carried with him, and he kept his lantern hooded. A dim orange glow emanated from the cracks of the metal shutters, illuminating perhaps ten feet ahead of him.
He felt as if he had entered an alien world.
The passageway was cool and dusty. At the edge of hearing, he could detect distant echoes of rocks and other, harder to discern sounds. The sound of Prudence’s footfalls behind him felt incredibly loud, but he knew she was stepping as lightly as he was.
Lighter, Yorrin admitted to himself. The girl was even shorter and more slender than he was. A girl of her build was born to prowl unheard.
He stifled the urge to tell her to quiet down. The whispered remark would be louder than the sound of her footsteps.
Yorrin kept his eyes forward, scanning the walls and the upcoming passage as best he could in the dim light. Ahead, the walls and ceiling began to spread out, opening into a wider, taller cavern.
Much wider, Yorrin realized.
To the right, the cave stretched out a few feet, and the ceiling rose from maybe ten or twelve feet to nearly double that. But on the left, the wall opened up, and the ground dropped away. The Underpass seemed to cut through a massive, open cavern. He carefully picked his way a little closer to the edge, and looked down.
In the dim gloom, he couldn’t see a bottom. Nor could he see the far wall. Just empty blackness. He felt an urge to unshutter the lantern and cast its glow as far as he could. But if there were goblins out there, he’d give away his position. For no gain that he could think of, either. So the cavern dropped steeply. Did it matter if it was fifty feet to the cave floor, or a hundred? Either way, they’d best stay to the right side of the road.
Yorrin shuffled back from the edge. He and Prudence kept pacing ahead, trying to scout without giving away their presence. His eyes kept drifting up, drawn by the vastness of the sweeping cavern around him. He felt as though goblins could be hiding above them, around them, anywhere. As the cave grew larger, he saw less and less of the area around him
Strange that this place could be so tight and closed-in in some areas, Yorrin thought. And yet here it’s so open that I feel like I’m trying to sneak down a main thoroughfare. Not sure which is worse.
He paused. Nearby, he sensed Prudence stop as well. Yorrin was staring up again, but this time he was staring at something. It jutted out from the wall high above, and the small amount of light from his lantern gleamed on something metallic. He squinted, trying to make out the details. It looked large, almost like a ledge or a shelf of stone, but the coloration was all wrong.
Goosebumps prickled on the back of his neck as Yorrin reached down to lower the shutter of his lantern. He heard Prudence exhale a quiet breath of surprise, and he heard her light feet as she shied away from him. He shined the light up, half expecting to illuminate a goblin war party brandishing iron weapons.
What the hell… Yorrin thought, cocking his head in confusion.
There was a ledge, indeed. But no goblins. Instead, he saw a crude wooden scaffolding built around the ledge. The metallic gleam was small, just a series of iron spikes hammered into crudely hacked planks. The wood formed a sort of cage, and it was holding back what appeared to be a considerable mass of stones.
The rocks were not uniformly shaped, but they were mostly big stones about the size of Yorrin’s torso. But what were they doing up there? He studied them for a few moments longer, trying to understand. He tracked the length of the cage, and paused. The light had cast a strange shadow…
A thin cord was strung, taut, from the base of the cage. He traced the bullseye light of the lantern down the wall, where the cord was looped through a hook spiked into the stone ground in the corner where the wall met the floor. Yorrin knew what he’d found, now, but he finished following the cord. It continued across the path up ahead, forming a tripwire running across the length of the Underpass road.
Clever little bastards, Yorrin had to give the goblins that much. A solid tug on the tripwire would no doubt pull a release on the cage. And unless Yorrin missed his guess, that would in turn send hundreds of pounds of stones cascading down onto the road. Likely crushing any unfortunate fools that didn’t get out of the way fast enough, or at least breaking a few bones and causing a ruckus loud enough to draw in goblins from the depths of the caves.
Yorrin slid the shutter to three quarters closed, and made his way over to the hook where the wire reached the ground. Prudence was already there when he arrived. They wordlessly looked the rig over together. They tested the tension on the line, and the thickness. They both knew that there were two possibilities here.
Either the line was sturdy, and the trap was designed to trigger when sufficient additional tension tugged open a hatch in the cage. Or the line was weaker, designed to snap, and the trap would trigger when the tension released.
If the first, disarming it was as simple as cutting the cord. But if the second, then cutting the cord would just spring the trap, and with them directly beneath it. Hardly ideal.
Yorrin gestured towards the trap, and motioned for Prudence to go up. He shifted his position to give her a boost. She understood instantly, of course, and he helped to launch her up. The cage was a good distance up the wall of the cave. He tried to spot her with the partial light from his lantern, illuminating her path. She clambered up closer to the cage, and inspected it.
He spotted her on her way back down. She shook her head, making a simple cutting hand gesture. Not the easy option. Snap trigger.
Shit. Yorrin nodded, and he set the lantern down beside the hook where the cord reached the ground. Disarming this would take both of them. He took hold of the cord before it reached the hook, tugging it a hare more taut than normal. Once he was confident he had a good tight grip, and he was emulating the tension it was normally under, he nodded to Prudence
She drew a small, razor-edged knife from her belt. She knelt beside the tripwire, about a foot out from where it began crossing the road. Yorrin held his breath, and watched as she severed the cord with a quick flick of her wrist.
They weren’t crushed by a sudden rockfall. Yorrin held the cord taut, and Prudence scooped up the excess between Yorrin’s grip and the place she’d cut it. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, not so much from the exertion of holding the cord steady as the sheer tension of what they were doing. Prudence looped it through the hook a few times, until she was replicating the tension Yorrin was applying. Then she tied it off.
Here goes, Yorrin thought. Do or die. He jerked his chin at Prudence, signaling for her to back off. No point in us both getting crushed.
As she backed away, Yorrin closed his eyes. I haven’t always been a good man, Torath, he thought. But I’m trying. If these rocks send me to you, I hope you take that into consideration.
Once Prudence was clear, he let go of the cord and frantically dove after her. It only took a moment to realize that the only thunderous sound he heard was his heart pounding in his ears. The cord was still taut, tied off to the cord. The trap remained unsprung.
Yorrin heard a stifled snicker. He glanced at Prudence, who gave him a cool look. He scowled, climbed to his feet, and dusted himself off.
“Shut up, Prudence,” he muttered.
Thank you, Yorrin offered a silent prayer to Torath. He retrieved his lantern, kicked the slack cord off the road, and turned back. Even with the trap disarmed, they’d best warn Aleksandr and the others to tread carefully. Prudence fell in behind him. They’d gone a ways ahead of Aleksandr and the others, but they’d been at the rockfall for some time. No doubt the party was nearly caught up with them by now…
The silence was torn asunder all at once. Goblin screams echoed through the tunnel. Shouts followed, and the clash of iron. Yorrin and Prudence exchanged a look, and began sprinting towards the sounds of battle.
By the time they rejoined the company, the fighting was nearly over. Several goblins were scattered across the bloody stone floor, dead or dying. Aleksandr engaged two goblins with his longsword, wheeling Dascha around to kick a third off his feet. Dylan had his spear drawn, and Yorrin watched him impale a goblin against the wall. Borthul and Alaina had fallen back, and Bear stood in front of them, axe ready and already bloodstained. A cluster of dismembered parts that Yorrin judged to have once been two, maybe three, goblins was piled in front of the barbarian.
The goblins seemed to be coming out of a side passage, which Aleksandr was struggling to hold. But that didn’t make any sense. There hadn’t been any side passages here. Yorrin was sure of it.
No time to worry about that now, Yorrin told himself. He came upon the goblin that Dascha had kicked away. The poor little bastard was wheezing, one arm broken, struggling to gain his footing. Yorrin drew his sword and rammed it into the goblin’s back. The iron slid through his rags and flesh with equal ease, and he crumpled to the ground.
A grinding noise erupted through the narrow passage. Heavy stone scraping across stone. Yorrin looked around, trying to see what was causing it. Looking past where Aleksandr and the Whip had hedged the last two goblins in, he saw the opening to the side passage.
It was closing.
The damnable goblins could open and close pathways through the Underpass at will.
How? Yorrin thought. He ducked behind Aleksandr, trying to get closer to the rapidly closing doorway. Through the threshold, he saw more goblins waiting in a narrow side passage. Most of them brandished weapons and snarled at him, but one in particular caught his eye.
The goblin was shrunken and wizened, even for his kind. His oversized ears were ragged, sporting numerous small rings piercing what passed for goblin earlobes. His hair hung from a wrinkled scalp in thin, scraggly clumps. He held a gnarled staff in one hand, topped with a hunk of stone shot through with some sort of glittering ore.
And he was chanting. He held the staff aloft, his empty hand curled into a twisted claw. Yorrin watched the stone wall grind closed, seemingly without any goblins pushing on it at all.
Aleksandr felled a goblin, and the Whip kept his at bay with the reach of his spear. Yorrin’s path to the doorway was clear, and he darted for it. It kept closing, growing faster and faster. When he was no more than ten feet away, it rolled fully closed. As it closed, a crossbow bolt streaked out from behind Yorrin, nearly hitting him as it passed. It clattered off the rough stone wall.
He glared over his shoulder at Prudence. If she’d made the shot, and killed the strange goblin, then he’d have been elated. But she hadn’t, so he felt perfectly justified in his annoyance.
But he had bigger concerns. He reached the wall, and searched for the seams of the opening. He tried to find some mechanism, some trick, that allowed the wall to roll away like that.
He found nothing.
Just blank, featureless stone. No cracks, no passages, no doorways.
Yorrin turned back to where Aleksandr and the others were catching their breath. Aleksandr himself was spattered with blood. He nodded at Yorrin.
“Everything alright, Yorrin?” he asked.
Yorrin blinked. “Everything alright? You're asking us that? Yeah, we're fine. There was a trap up ahead, but we took care of it. What happened here?”
Aleksandr nodded. A thin smile played across his lips. “Good,” he said. “Here? Here there was trap, too.”
The Whip, bringing his mount up just behind Aleksandr, smirked. “Yeah, but we took care of it,” he said.