All right! It’s time for a new adventure. Let’s dig in and see what happens =)
Eight heart beats.
From past experience, you know that’s how long it will be before your feet hit the ground.
As you fall, you hold your coat tight to your sides to keep the wind from slapping the leather up against your face.
You bend your knees slightly to help absorb the impact you know is coming.
The walls of the tunnel, a vertical shaft leading from the forest floor above to the chalk caverns below, race by you, faster and faster, in a wash of white and red.
The air’s changing. It’s no longer cold and crisp with a hint of snow but damp and earthy like wet clay.
It’s growing dimmer, the sunlight from above only faintly touching the walls.
There’s a grunt from below. Markus touching down just a second before you do. The rustle of motion tells you he’s already rolled out of the way to allow for your own landing.
Shock hits your knees as your feet hit earth. You tuck into a roll that carries you over your right shoulder and back onto your feet, away from the floor directly under the shaft. You run off your extra momentum with another five steps. Behind, there’s an ‘oomph’ and the shuffle of someone else landing.
Jama, the third member of your team runs to a stop beside you.
In the dim light from above, her narrow face looks pinched, hollow in the cheeks.
“Here,” Markus calls from the darkness ahead. “There are two tunnels. One must lead to the catacombs. The other heads toward the river.”
“Which direction would a murderer like Stevano run?” Jana wonders aloud.
“Any indication?” you ask Markus as you join him in the dark.
His silver eyes glint, two metallic circles in the hulking shadow of the hunter’s crouched figure. He scans the floor with those night seeing eyes and then shrugs.
“No,” he admits. “Which way, Captain?” he asks you.
You sigh. You’d hoped there’d be some clue at the bottom of the shaft. Stevano grew up exploring the catacombs. They’d be familiar ground to him. But he’s no simple criminal. Would he rely on the familiar ground to escape or would he avoid the catacombs, knowing you’d search for him there.
Heart Beats- Catacombs
Jana joins Markus’ hulking dark shape by the two tunnel openings. Beside the towering man, she’s a wisp of a figure but you know just how deceiving that ‘frail’ look is.
There comes the deep, slow inhalation of breath as Jana smells the slight breeze wafting from each direction.
“Clay, water, damp earth, dry bones, and something—” Jana mumbles, “unwashed bodies?” she guesses.
“Anything resembling Stevano’s hair gel?” you ask. The murderer slicks his dark hair back against his head. The gel, according to Jana, has hints of rose and jasmine.
After a moment considering, Jana gives a, “Nah, no hint.”
“Catacombs then,” you decide.
Markus leads the way down the left tunnel. With his silver night vision, the darkness is meaningless to him.
Jana follows and you take up the rear.
You trail your fingers along the wall. The clay leaves white powder that you can faintly see, like tiny ghosts on each finger tip. The powder’s gritty but not unpleasant. You continue to trail your touch on the wall until there’s a disturbance that meets your skin. A slight vibration. You time it with the steady beat of your heart.
“Stop,” you whisper.
Jana and Markus freeze.
The vibration grows a tiny bit stronger. You count.
“Forty Five seconds. Hide.” Your short-hand command sends the other two into a silent scurry.
Markus runs forward and then back tracks down the tunnel. His eyes glint as he scans for a place, any place, for the three of you to tuck away out of sight.
Jana does the same except she pauses periodically, scenting for subtle changes to the air that’ll tell her of hidden side passages.
You count the time in your head as you kneel down and lay your palms flat against the floor. The vibrations are there, fainter due to their path through the ground, but also more solid in an indefinable way.
Thirty five seconds. You lay down and press your ear against the clay. The vibrations thrum with the pound of each man’s heel. Four men, you can tell from the weight behind every footfall.
But the thrumming isn’t consistent. With the next footfall you count one, two—five, six—you get to twenty five and there’s a whoosh before the vibration continues, much diminished, toward your location.
“Follow,” you whisper and Jana and Markus fall in as you run forward. Within five seconds, you locate the grate, the vent in the floor, that muffled the approaching steps. If you hadn’t known to look for it, you wouldn’t have seen it due to the white and gray coloring of its bars against the chalk white floor.
With a heave, Markus lifts it free. Jana vanishes inside by descending a tight ladder down, and you follow. Markus brings up the rear and settles the grate back into place only five seconds before four men traipse by over top the grate.
Jana muffles an ‘ugh’ at their stench. Even though you don’t have her nose, you cover your face in the crook of your elbow to blunt the smell of sweat and urine.
But this doesn’t muffle your ears. You hear the distinct tha-thump of each man’s heart beat as they pass. You’re used to Jana and Markus’ and are able to ignore theirs as you listen to the heightened pace of the four above.
When they’re past for more than five seconds, Jana taps your foot on the rung above her head.
You wait until you can no longer hear the heart beats before relaxing.
“Yes,” you whisper to Jana, both giving her permission to speak and confirming the men are beyond ear shot.
“Under that ick,” Jana answers, “one of the men is wearing the same hair gel as Stevano.”
Markus grunts. “But none of them looked like him.” From his position directly below the grate, Markus would have had a clear view, even in the dark, of all four men.
“We’re almost to the catacombs,” she whispers, “and there are more men that way. Probably a group of them, judging by the smell.”
“Follow the smaller group or continue to the catacombs, Captain?” Markus asks.
Continue to Catacombs?
Heart Beats-Follow the Men
“Follow,” you say simply after considering your options.
The hair gel Stevano uses is not a common item, as far as you’re aware. The fact that one of the men is using it, then, is not a coincidence.
Jana sniffs once you’re all free of the vent and points the way for Markus to lead.
You fall into line and retrace your steps back to the cavern in which you entered the cave systems. Even here, the dry smell of the catacombs continues to permeate the air, but as Markus leads you down the second tunnel, the one leading to the river, that smell fades until it’s completely drowned out by the damp, chill scent of the river.
Your sense of the men’s footsteps, those faint vibrations, are also drowned out as you’re overwhelmed by the deep, pounding rhythm of a raging river.
At last, the tunnel opens up into a cavern so large that you have no sense of its far wall.
You do not need Markus’ gift of dark sight, however, to realize that there’s something wrong with the scene in front of you. Very wrong.
The river that runs through the middle of the cavern heads straight toward the Crimson Keep, your home and the seat of Maxim Artus, your employer. You’ve always been aware that the river feeding the Keep runs from the caverns and the ruins behind it.
What’s unusual are the shapes bobbing erratically on the surging water. Boats. Dozens of boats.
After a moment of stillness, Markus grunts. “No sign of the four men,” he tells you.
As there are multiple caves leading from this one, that does not entirely surprise you.
“Inspect the boats,” you instruct.
The three of you split up and approach the boats.
The one you make your way to is nothing fancy, but it’s sturdy enough to manage the torrent of the river. And it’s deep enough to hold up to ten men plus supplies. You know the supplies part simply because the boat’s loaded down.
An inspection of one of the bundles reveals mostly weapons. A sword with several long knives in one, a bow, carefully wrapped against the cave’s damp, in another. Other than that, there are kegs. You sniff around the edges and shudder, realizing the powder these kegs hold is enough to blow a hole the size of a house in the Keep wall.
The water enters the back of the Keep through several large, heavily barred grates. There’s almost no room between the Keep’s back wall and the caverns housing the river, so it’s mostly protected. No one’s ever dared ride the river to approach the Keep at that point. No one until now, it seems.
Jana rejoins you and, even in the darkness, her face shows white, ashen from what she’s realized. Her heart rate pounds a steady but fast beat that you can hear even over the roar of the water.
“This is much larger than Stevano,” you mutter.
“Much,” Markus agrees as he joins you too.
“We could warn the Keep,” Jana suggests.
“That would be cutting it close,” Markus says. “From everything here, it looks like the group’s about to launch within hours. This river will take them to the Keep much faster than we could move on foot.”
“Take a boat?” Jana asks.
“How would you get through the grate into the Keep?” you ask, searching for options.
“There’s almost always a guard stationed near the inside, we shout loud enough, they’ll hear, especially with the river carrying our voices.”
“That still leaves us stuck against the outside of the grates,” Markus objects.
“There are small locked doors,” you mutter, “under the water that the guards can open for us. Few know of them but sometimes the outside of the grate has to be cleaned of debris.”
Markus grunts, not voicing his disagreement, but obviously not thrilled with this plan.
“Other ideas?” you ask.
He nods toward the powder. “The leadership of these riffraff is probably back in the catacombs. Take the powder and blow up the tunnels, trapping them inside. We can then go get help to take them all in.”
“Do you know all the exits?” you ask.
Markus, after a moment, shakes his head.
“So dare the river,” you muse, “and warn the Keep, or bring down the tunnels and hope we get them all.”
Jana and Markus nod and wait for your decision.
Warn the Keep?
Blow up the Tunnels?
Heart Beats-Warn the Keep
“We’ll warn the Keep,” you tell the others as you decide against trying to blow up parts of the tunnels. “But first,” you add, “take an axe and stave in the bottom of all the other boats.”
Markus grins at this last part.
You each find an axe among the weapons and soon the chop of metal into wood echoes in the cavern. You cringe at each thud but it’s better than simply cutting each boat lose and having to deal with the wreckage down stream at the grate. Plus, this’ll prevent the bandits from following you.
But it does make a lot of noise and it takes precious time.
The three of you make as quick work of it as you can but, as you finish with the last boat, you catch the heavy tread of boots back in the tunnels.
“Time’s up,” you holler to the others.
You rush to the last whole boat and, as you pull the line free of the shore, you see figures emerging into the cavern. The group’s lanterns flood the picture of slowly sinking boats as you flee downstream.
Markus takes up the only set of oars. His powerful strokes pull you into the raging river but then there’s a heavy thud and he falters.
His face turns ashen. The point of a crossbow bolt protrudes from his right shoulder like a shaft of darkness. Its black wood almost hides the blood seeping out around the wound. He somehow continues pulling on the oars.
Jana half shrieks as two more figures on the shore raise crossbows but you move faster than she does.
Pulling the lid free from the barrel next to you, you stand in the rocking boat and catch the first bolt, aimed for Markus’ torso, in the center of the round lid. The force of it pulls you off balance and bucks your knees up against the bench behind you. Your knees collapse.
Landing solidly on your backside, your legs shoot into the air over your head and a second bolt thuds into your left calf.
A wry part of you finds this fortunate. If it hadn’t been your calf, it would have been Markus’ back, and subsequently his lung.
But then the pain hits you and all humor vanishes. Raging fire suffuses you leg like the bite of a giant wolf.
If you could remain still, you would, but the boat tosses along into the cave leading to the Keep and you’re soon not sure the boat, or any of its passengers, are going to make it to the grate in one piece.
Markus maintains some control until one of the oars catches a rock and the following crack tells you exactly how much control any of you have.
Markus rolls off the rowing bench and slams into the left hand wall.
“Left side! Left side!” he shouts.
Jana pushes herself against the side with Markus and they pull you by your arm pits to join them.
The boat tilts precariously but moments later you understand Markus’ maneuver.
A rock scrapes against the exposed hull of the boat. If you hadn’t rolled it up onto the left hand wall, the boulder would’ve taken out the whole side of your small craft.
The grinding vibrates through the wood like an ominous rumble of thunder. Then it’s gone and all three of you roll back to the center of the boat before it capsizes.
Your sigh of relief comes too soon, however, as a deafening crunch shocks the vessel. Wood splinters and whatever security you had in the boat vanishes.
Icy water tumbles over your head. It catches at the bolt still in your leg, sending a renewed burst of fire through your limb. It doesn’t take long, thankfully, for the freezing water to dull that fire.
But you’ve got bigger problems. There’s water everywhere and only brief spurts of air in which to breath. Between the dark and the churning cold, you’re hopelessly lost for direction.
A hand grasps your arm and latches on with a desperation that’s painful. That grasp pulls against the chaos and your head breaks free of the water.
Markus hauls you onto a small rock and holds you steady as you cough up enough water to drown a horse.
“Jana,” Markus tries to say.
“What?” you ask.
“I don’t know—” he stutters, “I lost her.”
There’s a desperate gulp but it’s not from the big man next to you.
That single sound is all the warning you get.
“Grab my feet,” you shout and dive back into the river, hoping you have a good gauge on how fast the current is carrying Jana past your rock.
You find fabric and latch onto it. Moments later, fire engulfs your leg anew as Markus grabs ahold of you.
The current tears at your grip. You tighten your fingers in the fabric until your knuckles pop.
Then you break the surface again and you haul Jana’s limp form after you. Jana coughs. She doesn’t regain consciousness, however. You try to hold your breath and listen for her breathing, for another cough, for a heart beat even.
After an interminable moment, You catch a tha-thump that even the river can’t fully drown out.
“Her heart’s beating,” you assure Markus.
The relief in his sigh is mimicked in your own chest.
“Grate’s right there,” Markus says.
It takes some time for your shouting to get the attention of the guard in the Keep but finally they send a diver to retrieve you and your companions.
You warn of the impending attack from infirmary beds. They send troops to the catacombs but only find the mess of destroyed boats and one cavern that appears to have been used to house a large group.
Maxim sends you hunting for more than Stevano once you recover.
Yay, you survived =) Thank you for joining this adventure!
Until next time, blessings,