Chapter 4: The Tunnels of Drechton

 Heath dropped down into the tunnel, his boots impacting softly on the dirt ground. The stream of light from above illuminated him, but the tunnel quickly vanished into blackness. Around him, the faces of the others looked back at him with a stoic seriousness that hadn’t been there before. 

Nambu shifted in place, the shadows playing tricks with the fine fur that covered his body, making it seem like he was drifting in and out of the shadows. He grunted as he gave one last look up to the light. “These tunnels are a complex network that runs beneath Drechton. They’re a remnant of old catacombs, smuggler’s tunnels, and recently excavated passageways, so it’s a maze. Don’t wander too far and get lost.”

“Little chance,” Heath muttered. “Might be a tunnel, but it smells like a sewer.”

Nambu chuckled. “Would you expect anything else from Drechton? We should move carefully. These tunnels are run by a gang calling themselves the Rats. The guard above said they’re a pack of rowdy goblins.”

Westro stood up from where he had crouched down to inspect the ground. “And what did Kriv say about them?”

“Apparently they’re new players in the criminal circles,” Nambu said. “They’ve been here a while, but only recently have they been making more ambitious moves, trying to gain notoriety. As far as he knows, they’re how Adrian got into the city, and likely how he’ll be moved out. The Rats aren’t affiliated with many of the larger organizations or factions, so that’s probably why our prize went through them. Fewer threads means fewer opportunities for news to spread too quickly.”

“Hunting rodents through the sewers, must be our lucky day,” Heath said as he pulled a length of cloth to cover his mouth and nose. 

Nambu nodded. “I’ll take point, I think I’m best suited to see in the dark and move quietly. Iden, follow me at a distance so that armor doesn’t completely give us away.” 

Iden shifted and growled his acknowledgement. His heavy plate armor was about as subtle as an iron pot thrown down a well, but moving slowly would hopefully make a difference. 

Nambu looked back at Westro and Heath. “You’ll need to be able to see, moving through here in the dark here will just as easily give up our element of surprise as anything. Light a torch and follow a distance behind Iden. And be ready to run if we need you.”

Westro nodded and pulled a satchel from his shoulder. He took out a tightly wrapped torch, set flint to steel, and with a flash, light filled the tunnel.

Heath watched as Nambu and then Iden slowly began making their way down the passageway into the darkness. The confines of the underground brought a hint of relief as the feeling of being watched on the street faded. It was quickly replaced with the dread of traveling through the narrow, foul-smelling, darkened network of tunnels beneath the district. 

They walked in silence, Nambu leading them with silent footfalls, pausing occasionally to listen for any small sound or sign of danger. Every few minutes he would crouch down, and inspect the soft ground for footprints before continuing on. Iden followed ten or so strides behind him, the faintest clanks and shifts coming from his heavy armor as he walked, evidently unbothered by the lack of light in the darkness. Farther back, Westro followed closely by Heath, relying on the illumination from the torch to guide their path. 

Heath found himself frustratingly remembering another time when the shadows had been his ally. There had been times when the darkness offered a sense of security, it was a place of power and control. It had welcomed him once, but now the shadows were a detriment, a reminder of his weakness. So he took care to move silently and carefully, following behind the lightly robed man in front of him. 

Westro seemed to have entered a completely different headspace as they descended into the tunnels. A seriousness had settled upon him, and there was a steady focus that Heath hadn’t seen earlier. He tread softly across the ground, making no sound, and his movements were quick and lithe like a dancer. He reminded Heath of some of the students at the Grey Tower. 

After navigating through the twisting and winding passageways, they drew to a halt as Nambu raised his hand from the lead. Westro lowered his torch and Heath could make out the barest hint of light from up ahead. As they held their breath, faint sounds came from the same direction. With a nod, Westro extinguished the torch, and they all carefully moved forward until they reached the opening of the tunnel.

The tunnel they had followed opened to a large chamber, emerging ten feet or so up a wall. A large subterranean cavern expanded until it faded into shadows, as only the central portion was illuminated in dim light. A cluster of small, ramshackle structures arranged in a loose semicircle stood maybe forty yards from the tunnel opening. Heath relaxed his eyes, allowing them to adjust to the low light. In the edges of his periphery, he spotted the faint outlines of several small creatures moving in and around the hovels. Hooked noses. Pointed ears. And that skittering was unmistakable. 

“I see maybe a dozen of them,” he said softly. “Do we think this is their stronghold, or do they have something farther in?”

“One way to find out.” Nambu said. He looked to the others. “Wait here, watch my back and keep out of sight.” Before Heath could protest, Nambu stepped forward and dropped from the tunnel, landing softly on the ground below. 

Heath looked at Westro. “Is he usually like this?”

The scruffy man only chuckled. “When it suits him. He’s careful, but he trusts us to get him out if his plan doesn’t work.” Recognizing that Heath wasn’t convinced, he became serious again. “Nambu’s been around a while, he’s dealt with worse than a gang of goblin thieves.”

Heath didn’t offer any argument, but he pulled an arrow from his quiver as he watched Nambu step into the flickering light and towards the center of the cavern. 

The tall bugbear held his hands outward to his sides, his long limbs extended to show his hands were empty. He called out a greeting in Goblin, drawing shrieks and cries of surprise from several directions within the cluster of structures. The sounds of movement came from all around the chamber, echoing across the walls giving no indication of where it was coming from. Heath saw rapid movement from the structures and shadows as he tensed, waiting for a sign of a threat. Nambu stepped into the light, pausing ten or so yards from the closest hovel. 

A moment passed before three goblin figures rushed out into the light, dragging a comparatively large object. They set it down several yards from Nambu, and tilted it up to reveal a tall-backed chair. One of the goblins disappeared back into the darkness, the other two clutching hooked daggers and baring their teeth from behind the chair. 

Another figure stepped out into the light, coming from within on the dilapidated domiciles. Larger than the other goblins, this one stood close to four feet tall, had a long, hooked nose and a mousy look to its leathery green skin. Its dark eyes were set above a sneer and it walked with a swagger that belied a sense of self importance. 

Close to fifty yards away from the tunnel where Heath crouched with the others, Nambu offered another greeting to the goblin as it settled into the chair. Heath could make out bits and pieces of their dialogue, conducted in the harsh sounds of Goblin. Following the conversation with only partial focus, he kept his gaze intent on the shadows spaces of the buildings.

“I am Nybarg,” the goblin was saying, his tone confident and condescending. “I am the boss of this lair.”

“I thank you then for your hospitality,” Nambu said, interrupting Nybarg. “I have come here because I think there might be a way for us to help each other.”

“And how might that come about?” the goblin asked from his throne, looking to the bugbear that stood nearly twice his height.  

Nambu clasped his hands behind his back. “There is a man I am searching for. He goes by the name Adrian. Dark hair, beard, likes fine clothes. I was told that you and he have some sort of arrangement. I’d like to find him, and I believe you are the one to help me do it.”

“Heh heh heh,” Nybarg chortled. “What makes you think I would help you find this man, especially if he is an associate of mine? If you haven’t found him, I can only assume it’s because he doesn’t want you to find him.”

“Damn them for speaking that language,” Westro muttered as they continued talking. “I can barely see what’s happening around them, and we can’t even understand what they’re saying.”

“Nambu’s asking about Adrian,” Heath whispered without removing his eyes from the buildings. He paused, listening. “He’s trying to see if they actually know Adrian, and to get a feel for what they actually want. Trying to negotiate.”

“But if Adrian is leaving this city, then your business is concluded,” Nambu continued. “Tell me why you should continue to protect someone who has no further use for you, when I’m offering the means to benefit us both.”

“A client is still a client,” Nybarg hissed through bared teeth. “Are you suggesting I’m that easily bought?”

“I’m suggesting you’re smart,” Nambu replied, hands still behind his back while the goblin bristled. “I am committed to finding Adrian, as are my allies. We have resources that make us dangerous to our enemies, of which Adrian has become. We will be taking him down. But we have no quarrel with you. We have the means to be valuable to our friends. Let us make a deal. Adrian has already paid for the services you have rendered to him. Avoid any unpleasantness with me and my allies, and earn our goodwill. And perhaps a little coin to sweeten the deal.”

The mention of making a deal brought a greedy grin to Nybarg’s twisted features, and the goblins behind him began muttering quickly to each other. As the goblin boss leaned forward and began to reply to Nambu, movement scattered amongst the scattered structures caught Heath’s eye.

Despite his focus, his attention had been drawn by the conversation. In the protection of the low light and darkness, Heath saw multiple forms standing in doorways or crouched in the shadow of buildings, and the reflection of torchlight on metal. His attention was pulled again as he saw two scramble up onto the roof of a building, crouching low and staying out of Nambu’s line of sight. 

A sharp retort came from Nybarg as Nambu held his hands up in front of him.

“We can make it worth your while,” he was saying. “It can be worth more than coin.”

Nybarg spat, clearly infuriated, though Heath couldn’t tell if it was the insinuation of making a deal that boiled over, or simply the amount Nambu had offered. The other goblins noticed, and the ones standing behind Nybarg moved a step closer as they clutched their daggers. 

Heath saw another group of goblins moving to the side,  getting in position to flank Nambu as the bugbear remained focused on talking down the goblin boss. Heath bit back a curse as he spotted another goblin clambering onto a rooftop holding a bow.

“It’s gone bad,” Heath hissed to Iden and Westro, stabilizing himself on one knee while he raised his bow. “We have one group moving to the right, and I spot three on the rooftops.”

“Nambu hasn’t called it yet,” Westro protested. “We need to trust him!”

“He can’t see everything,” Heath muttered as he set an arrow to his bowstring. He looked at Westro. “Get ready to run, you need to get to him to make sure he doesn’t get swarmed. Iden, I hope you’re a good shot with those javelins.”

Westro set his jaw, but nodded as he crouched low, prepared to run. Iden pulled two javelins from his back, standing just behind Westro. Heath watched as Nybarg was standing, spewing and swearing about the insult Nambu had just given him, that he’d never forget the day he crossed the Rats.

As Nybarg’s shouts grew louder, one of the goblins perched on a roof raised their bow and began to take aim in Nambu’s direction. Heath immediately slowed his breathing, allowing a deep sense of calm wash over him. 

“Here we go,” he whispered, almost completely silent as he drew back an arrow in one smooth motion. He focused on the slight figure of the goblin, dark against the shadowed backdrop of the cavern, but its form was unmistakable. One heartbeat. He released the arrow.

The arrow impacted, the goblin crumpling in a heap with barely a grunt. Before anyone in the cavern had time to react, Heath drew another arrow and fired again. 

One of the goblins standing behind Nybarg coughed as an arrow sprouted from its neck, dark blood staining its mouth. Shrieks and cries of confusion echoed from the other goblins as one of the goblins moving to flank Nambu stumbled and collapsed as a six foot javelin pinned it to the ground.

Within an instant, Westro hit the ground and sprinted towards Nambu. The tall bugbear drew his twin longswords and took a defensive stance as Nybarg shouted in fury and a cluster of other goblins screamed as they ran at him with daggers and rusted swords. 

Another goblin tumbled with a cry before falling to the ground unmoving as Iden’s second javelin impaled it like a skewer. Heath drew another arrow, focusing on the goblins crouched on top of the buildings.

“Go!” He called to Iden. “I’ve got this, go help them!” Another goblin fell screaming, an arrow piercing its shoulder. 

“Glad to,” Iden’s deep voice echoed from within his helmet. He drew his battle axes and leapt from the tunnel opening. He impacted with a heavy thud and immediately charged towards Westro and Nambu.

Nambu drew his blades in a parallel slash, carving through the first two goblins that threw themselves at him. He stepped back, brandishing his blades as Nybarg began circling him as more goblins appeared from the shadows. Heath let another arrow fly toward the rooftops, the goblin archers beginning to duck behind cover while taking shots of their own. 

Heath ducked back behind the lip of the passageway as he drew another handful of arrows, preparing for a rapid volley. As he looked back, he caught sight of Nambu and Westro unmoving in front of Nybarg. The goblin boss- was he growing?

Heath watched in horror as the goblin’s form began to shift and grow. His shoulders hunched forward, then expanded as his arms grew long and claws sprouted from his fingers. The green of his skin faded beneath fine grey fur that spread across his skin, while his nose elongated into a snout and grew whiskers. His dark eyes glowed with anger as large teeth erupted from the top of his mouth as he snarled, standing nearly a foot taller.

The Rats… Heath thought with a mixture of revulsion and dread. The Rats are lycanthropes! They’re wererats! He watched as another two goblins behind Nybarg began twitching as their forms began to shift and grow as well. The clatter of arrows on stone made him flinch backwards as two arrows skated off the tunnel wall behind him. 

Not my problem right now, Heath thought as he crouched down and sent another two arrows into the low light of the cavern. Two goblins shrieked, one falling from the roof while the other ducked behind a broken wall. 

By that point, Iden had reached Westro and Nambu. So had the rest of the goblins along with Nybarg and two other wererats. Nambu was a flurry of strikes, his blades carving patterns with practiced precision as he deflected a torrent of blows. Iden slammed into a clump of goblins, their diminutive forms crumbling beneath his bulk. His axes began hacking into their forms, and their shrieks of fury quickly turned to cries of terror. One goblin lept from the side of a building towards Iden’s back, but Heath’s arrow caught it mid-flight and its body was flung towards the ground like a puppet on a string. 

Westro spun and struck like the tempest’s wind, every part of his body was a weapon that he brought to bear on the goblins. From spins that turned into kicks, to a flurry of strikes from his fists, elbows, and knees, he moved with an elegance that defied the melee around him. However dynamic his movements were, he never moved far from Nambu. He never remained still for long, and made sure none of the goblins could reach Nambu’s back.

Heath fired again, watching with satisfaction as another goblin fell with an arrow in its chest. More were focused on him. He ducked back again, barely catching sight of one of the wererats breaking off and sprinting towards him.

Damnation, he thought, spinning as he grabbed another handful of arrows. He was going to be running low soon. He raised his bow, sending a shaft buzzing through the air and slamming into the chest of the creature. It grunted but didn’t slow its pace, barely reacting to the strike. He muttered a Dwarven curse and sent two more arrows at the wererat. It shrieked as it drew closer, the arrows slamming into it, but not halting its progress. He reached for his quiver, but his fingers found only two arrows remaining.

Heath took a quick glance back towards the center of the chamber, and in a split second decision, sent his last two arrows at the goblins on the rooftops. They both found their mark, but one more goblin archer rose from behind cover, looking at the skirmish below. The wererat was almost upon him. 

Heath slung his bow over his shoulder and drew his hunting knife and heavy baton. The wererat was less than twenty feet from the tunnel entrance.

“Westro!” He shouted. The bearded man spun and looked in his direction. “Roof on your left!”

Without the time to see if he understood, Heath gritted his teeth and leapt from the tunnel. He arced over the head of the creature, who pulled to a stop as Heath landed behind it. It was truly horrifying, a hybrid creature with the features of a rat and the body of a stunted human. And it smelled like goblin.

It screeched in his face as its razor sharp claws swung towards him. Heath sidestepped, slamming his baton into the side of the creature. Barely reacting to the impact, it responded with incredible speed as it thrust its claws at his chest. Heath felt the claws tear into the leather of his jerkin as his parry was too slow.

He brought the ironwood baton down onto the creature’s hand, causing it to screech in pain. The wererat’s head slammed into Heath’s and the teeth snapped a hairbreadth from his face. Its hide is too thick, Heath thought quickly, shifting his weight and thrusting the point of the baton towards the wererat’s throat. 

A strangled gurgle told him that he had found his target, and Heath threw his weight into his shoulder, shoving the creature to the ground. Claws scraping against his sides, Heath fell on top of the creature, stabbing his dagger towards its neck, trying to cut through the thick fur. He felt hot blood running down his side as the claws pierced his armor, but he felt his knife catch. Heath drew his weight up, and with both hands on the bone handle of his hunting knife, threw his body downward. The body convulsed as the knife cut deeply into the wererat’s neck, carving past the fur, and then fell still. 

Breathing heavily, Heath twisted the knife. He felt one last shudder from the corpse, then nothing. He stood shakily, looking towards the cluster of buildings as he saw Westro standing on top of a building spin and deliver a heel kick into the face of the last goblin archer. Iden stood holding the limp bodies of two goblins, one in each hand, before tossing them aside like dolls. Nambu swung his blade, the severed head of the other wererat sent spinning into the darkness as Nybarg was crawling backwards away from the group, hands up and pleading, his form back to that of a goblin. 

Heath saw a surviving goblin pull itself from a cluster of bloodied corpses and attempt to run through the buildings to escape. Westro took one step back before running and jumping from the rooftop. He soared in the air before slamming down upon the helpless goblin, his knee crushing its skull before it knew what had happened. 

Heath slowly walked towards the others, feeling to make sure the wounds in his side weren’t serious. He watched as Nambu kicked Nybarg back to the ground as he attempted to stand. The bugbear knelt down menacingly, leveling a blade to the goblin’s neck. 

“Now we’re going to have a conversation that is far less beneficial to you,” he growled, baring his teeth at the figure before him. 

“Ack,” Nybarg grunted and spat defiantly. “You won’t get anything out of me. I won’t tell you anything about him. He paid well for his anonymity.”

Nambu pressed his boot against the goblins throat, a strained wheeze escaping his mouth as he struggled to no avail.

With gasping breaths, Nybarg began to chuckle. “You’re all dead, you won’t make it out of here alive. Heh heh heh, there are dozens of us down here. You’ll never find the way out. No one will come for you, and if they do, there won’t be any bodies to find.” He strained again, craned his neck against the edge of Nambu’s boot.

“I found a tunnel!” Westro called from the far side of the chamber. He held a torch to a stone passageway that disappeared into darkness.

“We don’t have time for this,” Heath muttered, pushing Nambu aside.

Nybarg drew in a ragged breath a moment before Heath lifted his body with strength that defied his stature, and slammed the goblin against the stone wall. Nybarg cursed and struggled, but Heath only leaned his weight into the goblin’s chest. 

“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” Heath said, speaking slowly and quietly in Goblin. Nybarg froze and his eyes grew wide. “The only reason you are still alive and in one piece is because you still might be of use to us. There is no other reason. Now show me you understand.”

Nybarg nodded quickly, his eyes betraying a hint of fear at the coldness emanating from Heath’s words. 

“I also want you to understand that unless you help us, the final moments of your life will be excruciatingly painful.” Heath raised his hunting dagger, the blood of the wererat still wet on its blade. “First to go will be your whiskers. I hear vermin like you need those to help them hunt for food in the filth. Next I will carve away your ears, meaning you won’t be able to hear the creatures that stalk you in the darkness. Then your eyes, so you will stumble about in the darkness like some helpless child. Next your hands, so you won’t be able to defend yourself, and last will be your tongue, so you have no way to cry for help in your final moments of pain. We will leave you here, helpless and in pain. Only then will I let you die.”

The fear in Nybarg’s eyes betrayed an utter and total terror at the words of the ranger. He felt no pity towards this creature, only disgust. “You will answer my questions.” Heath stated with a cold ruthlessness. Nybarg nodded, his eyes wide and his body shaking. 

“Where is Adrian?” Heath asked loudly, reverting to Common. 

“At a safehouse,” Nybarg strained, his voice tight with fear. “We moved him there a few days ago, before he could be smuggled out of the city.”

“Why does he need to be smuggled?” Nambu asked.

“I don’t know,” Nybarg grunted, his feet kicking in the open air. “All I know is that he couldn’t leave right away, but it needed to be secret! That’s what he paid us for, so that’s what we gave him!”

Heath thought for a moment, then tightened his fist around Nybarg’s throat. The goblin gurgled as his eyes bulged. “Is he still in the city?” Nybarg nodded. “Do you know where this safehouse is?” Another nod. “Lead us to him.”

Heath paused, then dropped Nybarg’s quivering frame to the ground where it landed in a heap. He looked back and saw Nambu watching him intently, his brow furrowed. 

“He’ll take us to Adrian,” Heath said, kicking the goblin to its feet. He fixed Nybarg with an icy glare. “If you try to run, if you try to attack us or lead us into an ambush… you know what will happen.” Nybarg snarled, but bowed his head and nodded. 

Westro stepped over to Heath, extending a hand clutching a dozen bloodstained arrows. “It’s all I could recover,” he said apologetically. 

Heath took them gratefully. “I didn’t expect we’d have to deal with so many.” He looked back to the center of the cavern where more than a dozen bodies lay crumbled and still, their dark blood slowly seeping into the soft ground. 

Following the cowed form of Nybarg, the group made their way deeper into the network of tunnels. Nambu walked closely behind the goblin, his blades out. The others followed, their weapons also at the ready. Dim light from torches set in sconces on the walls cast long shadows that danced and shifted as the group passed. 

They walked for close to an hour in tense silence before they reached a large, broad timber door set into the stone. Piles of crates and barrels lined the walls on either side of the door. A thick chain stretched across the door, both ends embedded into the stone. Nybarg came to a stop, as Nambu stepped up to the door. 

“What’s this?” Nambu asked sharply, tugging on the heavy lock. 

“Security,” Nybarg said with a sly grin. “Makes sure no one comes sneaking about that wasn’t invited.” He glared at Heath.

Heath sighed as Nambu shoved Nybarg back. “How do we get past it? Is it trapped?”

Nybarg shook his head. “Not trapped. Just locked. And I won’t tell you how to get it open.” He grinned, evidently regaining his confidence over the duration of their walk. “We’re deep enough into these tunnels that you won’t find your way back out without me. And you can’t get through that door into the safehouse without my help either.” He looked at them with a smugness that made Heath’s skin crawl. Heath felt his hands begin to twitch as he looked over to Nambu.

Nambu looked unconcerned as he turned back towards the door. “Westro,” he asked casually, “think you can handle this?”

A grin broke through the man’s beard as he lifted a leather pouch. “Thought you’d never ask.” He opened the pouch, revealing a gleaming set of lockpicks. 

Nybarg’s eye bulged at the sight and he opened his mouth to protest, but his words were cut short as Heath grabbed the goblin by the throat. He squirmed in the ranger’s grasp as Heath held him in an iron grip and drug him back down the tunnel. 

“Still think you’re that necessary?” Heath asked in Goblin, tightening his grip. The sounds of Westro working with his tools on the door came from behind them, but Heath kept his gaze intent on the goblin boss in his hand. 

“You might think you’re somebody, that you mean something because you run things down here in Drechton.” Heath kept the emotion out of his voice other than a seething, icy fury carried through his words. “You really don’t matter. Maybe you did some work for the larger factions, maybe you helped smuggle this high profile criminal into the city. It doesn’t matter. The crime families, the syndicates, the gangs, they don’t care about you or what you did. You think you’ve earned something? They’d discard you in a moment and move on to the next slavering lowlife dreg willing to take your place. You’re nothing. Filth living in a sewer, barely worth killing.”

Heath pulled out his knife, casually inspecting the blade as Nybarg’s wriggling intensified. He fixed his gaze on Nybarg, whose struggling immediately ceased. “I won’t kill you, only because now I know you. I don’t want to have to track down your replacement. The devil you know and the devil you don’t. But make no mistake, this is the only warning you’ll be receiving. And I will see you again.”

Nybarg hissed and bared his teeth. He opened his mouth to make a retort, before Heath slammed the hilt of his knife into his temple. The body immediately went limp and collapsed into a pile at Heath’s feet. He grabbed a length of rope from atop a nearby crate and securely tied up the limp body of Nybarg before stuffing it upside down into a barrel.

He walked back towards the others just as Westro turned his picks and with a click, the lock unlatched and the chains fell away. Nambu looked back towards the hallway.

“Where’s the goblin?”

Heath kept walking. “He fulfilled his usefulness,’ he said matter-of-factly. “The safehouse is through there.”

Beyond the door, a stone staircase spiraled upwards from what looked to be the base of a circular tower. They all exchanged looks before slowly ascending single file until the staircase reached a landing with a shut door. Westro stepped up and pressed his ear to the door, motioning for the others to stop. 

He pulled away from the door with a look of urgency on his face. “They’re in there,” he whispered. “I heard movement, it sounds urgent.”

Nambu nodded. “Break it down.”

“With pleasure,” Iden said, stepping forward. He hefted his battle axe with two hands and with a mighty swing, brought it down on the door. With a crunch, the wood splintered and followed by a hefty kick from the armored knight, it gave way completely. The four of them spilled into the chamber, weapons at the ready. 

The room was finely furnished, far more than the tunnels below, but it was the robed figure on the far side that caught their focus. The man spun at the sound of intruders, dropping a bundle of cloth he had been carrying with a cry of alarm. He looked to be in his middle years, with streaks of grey in his dark hair and beard. Not Adrian. He immediately raised his hand in a complicated gesture towards the group as they all turned to focus on him. 

Iden and Nambu charged forward, but before they reached the center of the chamber, a heavy figure crashed into them, blocking their path. Standing before them was a massive, armored humanoid nearly eight feet tall.

Heath saw the faint arcs of arcane energy at the seams of the armor, and when he looked closer, saw only empty space in the joints and beneath the helmet. Before he could shout, the arcanely animated armor swung its armored fists, slamming into Iden and Nambu again. Westro dashed forward, delivering a flying kick to its back as Heath drew an arrow. 

The melee in the center of the chamber obscured his vision of the robed figure until Heath saw him climbing a ladder on the far side of the room towards an opening in the ceiling. He released the arrow, which struck the man in the shoulder. The man grunted in pain, but pulled himself upward and disappeared from sight. 

“He went up the ladder!” Heath yelled, sprinting across the room. “He’s getting away!”

Nambu ducked under a wide haymaker from the armor, then looked in the direction of the mage. “Take care of this!” He shouted, then ran to follow Heath.

Heath reached the ladder first, quickly ascending as the sound of metal clashing came from below. At the top, a hatch had been closed. He pressed up, but something was blocking it. Not like this, Heath thought through gritted teeth. He set his feet and threw his shoulder upward. He felt a spike of pain, but felt something give on the other side of the trapdoor. He forced it open with a splintering of wood, and pulled himself through the opening. 

He stood to face the mage in a much smaller chamber. He reached for his knife but the man had been waiting for him. He extended his hand and held out a piece of iron as Heath felt his muscles burn and tense, locked and held in place by excruciating. He struggled against the pain, but his body refused to respond, held in place. Helpless. Useless. At the mercy of another mage’s magic. 

A flash of steel and a spray of blood across the wall. Nambu’s tall form was a blur as he descended upon the mage who raised his hands in a futile attempt to cast a defensive ward. A final slash brought the man’s body to rest at Nambu’s feet, unmoving. The magic dissipated as Heath collapsed to his knees, the residual magic fading through his fingertips. He forced his breathing back under control just as the door across the room slammed open and a gust of wind blew into the room. 

Heath looked over to Nambu as the bugbear ran to the door, cursing as he hefted his blades. “It’s Adrian! He has to be under an illusion of invisibility!”

Dread rising in his stomach, Heath rushed to follow. The doorway opened to a small patch of grass on what Heath assumed to be the southern walls of the city. The evening air was cool as the wind blew across the low marshland that covered much of the region to the south of Aleria. Heath looked around, but saw no sign of Adrian or any other person, visible or not.

Nambu roared in frustration, slamming his sword into the ground. Heath blinked away his rising frustration, straining to see into the growing darkness. Looking for a sign, a bit of movement, anything. Any sign. He raised his bow, scanning for paths of least resistance, paths that offered cover. Nothing. No sign. He was gone. 

Westro and Iden found them with their shoulders slumped and heads bowed. Nambu didn’t speak.

“He got away,” Heath said, more so to himself. A reminder. An unspoken promise. “He got away.”

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