As Gideon had said, they reached the edge of the forest after only a few hours of walking. Gideon signaled a halt, and then beckoned Dan forwards, where he and the others crouched.
“What can you see?” Gideon whispered when Dan arrived.
Dan crouched down behind a thin bush and looked in the direction Gideon indicated, his night vision rendering everything visible. In the darkness, Dan had only been able to make out a black mass against the star-strewn sky, but with the night vision, he could easily see that it was a large outcropping of rock, jagged, rising from the ground suddenly, as if it had been pushed up from beneath. It was dark against the green-lit sky, but Dan could still make out the gaping hole in the front of it, completely black, even to the night vision. It was the entrance of a cave.
“Any guards?” Gideon asked.
Dan quickly scanned the rock-face. He couldn’t tell if it was all jagged rock, or if there might be a person hidden somewhere. He flipped a switch on his helmet, switching to thermal. Instantly, two faintly warm blobs appeared, motionless, sitting about halfway up the rock face.
Dan switched back to night vision. He could see nothing. Unless… that must be it. The only hint Dan had that a person was perched on a ledge of the outcropping was the faint motion of long white hair in a slight breeze. He quickly spotted the second guard the same way. They were sitting on a thin ledge of the outcropping, wearing some sort of jagged armor which blended perfectly with the rock. Dan pointed them out to Gideon.
“Kaori,” Gideon said, nodding to the ninja. Kaori nodded, and a moment later vanished from sight. Dan blinked, and then saw her and two of her ninjas crawling through the tall grass separating the edge of the forest and the cave entrance.
Gideon saw Dan looking at where Kaori had disappeared.
“Never get on a ninja’s bad side,” he whispered, grinning. “They’ll slit your throat before you even know they moved.”
Watching Kaori and her two ninjas snake through the grass, Dan thoroughly believed it.
He kept an eye on the two sentinels, which he guessed must be drow, but they didn’t move. Silently, the three ninjas reached the edge of the rock-face, and then began to scale it. Dan watched through his night vision. They didn’t even seem to need handholds. It was as if they gripped the flat rock itself and simply moved upwards. He watched them spread out, one going for each sentinel and one in the middle, presumably to lend aid to whichever should need it. Dan couldn’t tell who was who, as all three had drawn black cloth masks over their faces.
All Dan caught was a faint flash of steel from the ninjas on either side. The sentinels rolled forwards cleanly, now plainly visible since they were moving, and dropped, silently, off of the outcropping. Silently, the three ninjas dropped to the ground after them, snaked back through the grass, and then popped up next to Gideon as suddenly as they had disappeared.
“Drow,” Kaori confirmed, pulling her mask from her face. “Two of them. Males. This must be the weak link.”
Gideon nodded. “Right,” he said. “Our strategy will be to hit it hard and fast. Catch them by surprise. Kaori, you take a few of Francois’ knights and as many ninjas as you need, and set up a perimeter around the cave. I don’t want anyone escaping.”
Kaori nodded and slithered away, back to where Francois and his knights waited.
“Mages and healers hang back,” Gideon said, turning to Ana and the others. “Go in only after everyone else. Me and Laelia and the knights will go in front. Dan, you’re in front too. Tell us if we’re about to run into anything.”
“It’s going to be pitch black in there,” Dan said. “How will you all see?”
“We don’t want to lose the advantage of surprise,” Gideon said. “Tell us when we’re right on top of them. Then Trela, Jaseff, and Ana will provide all the light we need. Ready?”
“Then let’s move out. Keep it quiet.”
It was only a short ways across the grass to the cave entrance, but to Dan, it seemed to take at least an hour. He, Gideon, and Laelia went first, followed by Francois and his knights. Glancing back, Dan saw Ana and the others take up the rear, crouching low as they moved across the field.
They moved past Kaori’s perimeter of ninjas, the black-clad figures lying flat on the ground, motionless and silent. Dan himself was crawling on his stomach, along with most everyone else, using his knees and elbows to pull himself along. Eventually they arrived, the shadow of the giant outcropping of rock hiding the starlight as they moved into it. Gideon sat up against the rock-face.
“All good?” he asked.
Everyone nodded. Dan’s mouth was dry.
Gideon turned, crouched, and moved into the cave without a word. Laelia closely followed him, and Dan followed her, switching on his night vision as he did so.
They were in a narrow tunnel. Dan doubted there would be enough room for them to stand up if they had wanted to. The tunnel was roughly circular in shape, and twisted and turned, all the while going down. It doubled back on itself, made one final sharp turn, and then Dan saw that it widened out up ahead, and the far wall was gone. A room.
He put a hand on Gideon’s shoulder. Everyone instantly stopped.
“Room up ahead,” Dan breathed.
“Give it a glance,” Gideon whispered back. “Tell us what’s in there.”
Dan nodded and squeezed past Gideon, hugging the left wall. He felt a change in air pressure as he approached the room; it was definitely a good size. He switched to thermal, and instantly at least twenty dull signatures sprang to life inside the room. They were nowhere near as warm as Dan and the others were, but they were still easily distinguishable from the dark of the cave wall.
Dan switched back to night vision and scanned the far wall. As far as he could tell, this was it. There were no other exits, no additional tunnels. Just one giant room. He crawled back up the tunnel and reported what he had seen to Gideon.
“Then it’s time,” Gideon said. “Dan, hang back and stay at a safe distance. You don’t have the experience the knights do.”
Dan nodded. That was perfectly fine with him.
“Find the mages. Tell them we’ll charge when they light our way.”
Moving cautiously, Dan pulled himself back up the tunnel, passing the long line of knights. He finally found Ana, Trela, Jaseff, and Sharwin at the very back of the line.
“They’ll move on your signal,” he said to Trela. “It’s just one big room down there, no extra tunnels that I can see.”
“That’s good,” Trela whispered. “Stand back, Dan. On the count of three.”
The four mages all closed their eyes. Dan expected some sort of chanting or hand waving, but nothing happened. They remained completely silent. And then, without warning, a brilliant white light flooded the bottom of the tunnel.
As one, the knights yelled and surged forwards, getting a firmer grip on their swords and shields. Screams and shrill cries of anguish echoed up from the burning light.
“Come on!” Trela called to Dan as the knights moved forwards as fast as they could in a crouched position.
Dan had no desire to get close to the battle, but he followed the mages, knowing that they would stay in the back, where it would be much safer. Gideon was right: Dan didn’t have the experience the knights did.
It was an odd experience, following the tunnel slowly downwards, not being able to run as the sounds of battle echoed up from below. They inched along behind the knights, half-standing up, forced to stay low against the rough rock ceiling of the tunnel. Soon they rounded the bend, and only two knights remained, hanging back at the entrance of the room. Dan guessed they were there to guard the mages.
They all entered the room, just far enough to stand up. Then Trela, Ana, and Sharwin stood shoulder to shoulder, Dan behind them, his gun at the ready, and did… nothing. For a few long seconds, they simply stood there. And then Ana raised a hand, and instantly there was a corresponding flash of light in the middle of the room, followed by a deafening report of sound. The ground shook, and Dan braced himself against the wall. Sharwin raised her hand, and a similar explosion occurred to the left of Ana’s. Several drow were flung to the ground, where they did not stir.
In fact, drow were hitting the ground all over the room. Two balls of light illuminated the large cave, each just a slightly different shade of white – one the palest of reds, and one glowing with a blazing shade of blue. They easily illuminated the whole of the cave, and their light alone seemed to have stunned the drow.
Several, black skinned with pure white hair, were writhing on the ground beneath the balls of light, covering their eyes with their dark hands. One was even kneeling on the ground, his face similarly covered, his mouth locked open in an unending cry of pain. At least seven drow were already dead, their black blood pooling beneath their strewn bodies on the cave floor. But the rest – Dan guessed there were nine in total – were still fighting.
He had never seen combat like he saw it now. The drow were pushed up against the wall, each dueling two or three knights. As far as Dan could see, they were evenly matched. If anything, the drow were winning. This was not the case with the drow which Gideon was fighting.
Shoulder to shoulder with Laelia, Gideon had his sword out, the long dark blade oddly flickering blue. The sword went in and out, over and under, moving so fast that Dan was amazed Gideon could keep a hold of it. What was even more amazing was that he didn’t hit Laelia, who was right next to him.
She was using a shield and a short sword, but her skill was nowhere near that of Gideon. He twirled his blade from side to side, attacking first one side of the drow and then the other. Dan counted four strikes in one second, two on each side. The drow, her face a mask of snarling concentration, could only manage to fend off his attacks and Laelia’s, leaving no time to strike any of her own.
Dan glanced at the mages. Sharwin, her face locked on the nearest drow in concentration, was muttering something under her breath, though Dan couldn’t hear what. Sparks leapt from her fingers. Trela, her feet apart in a wide stance, had both arms held slightly out. Dan couldn’t tell what she was doing.
Ana, on the other hand, was full of action. Her red hair whipped about her face as she pointed at individual drow. Nothing seemed to happen, which made the motion look a bit odd, as she pointed from one to another, as if about to pronounce doom on them. But then Dan noticed that the ones she pointed to seemed to sag under the blows they received, and their swords seemed to slow. Nearly all of them received an injury, if they didn’t go down to the ground outright under the continued assault of the knights.
A few drow, seeing the mages, raised their own hands. Orbs of dark mist shot from their palms, but the magic passed harmlessly through Dan and the mages. Glancing behind him, Dan saw the orbs drawn to Ana, only to dissipate into the air the instant they touched her. It was as if she were sucking the energy right out of them. She turned burning eyes on the drow who had attacked, and soon they were writhing on the ground.
Meanwhile, the single drow who Dan had seen crying out in pain at the light had, by this time, gotten to his feet and drawn his sword. The two knights protecting the mages were already battling him, but the remaining three – all female – were slowly staggering to their feet as well.
Dan quickly raised his gun, sighted down the short barrel as he had been taught, found the head of the nearest drow, and pulled the trigger. A jolt instantly went down both of his arms, reverberating unpleasantly in his gloves. A blast of light shot out from the gun and smote the drow cleanly on the forehead, leaving a black hole where a moment before had been only black skin and pure white hair. The drow dropped to the ground instantly, twitching slightly.
Dan watched the drow, the only sensation he felt a morbid sense of curiosity. He had never seen anyone die before, not outside SR anyway. And he had certainly never killed anyone. How should he feel? Revolted? Elated? In control? Should he panic? Should he be calm and collected? Dan didn’t know. He simply turned to the next closest drow, and pulled the trigger again. She too dropped to the floor, dead.
However, that was all the time Dan had. The third and final drow had arrived, and now the knights were outmatched. Dan had only his gun, and the mages certainly had nothing longer than a dagger. They couldn’t help. They backed into the tunnel as the knights tried to hold the drow off.
Or at least, most of them did. Sharwin stayed behind, seemingly looking for an opening in the fight. Dan wondered what she could be doing, until she darted forward, and grabbed the male drow by the shoulder.
At first the drow simply looked at her in surprise. Then his expression turned to one of shock. Dan saw a spark fly from Sharwin’s hand. The drow seemed to convulse, and then dropped to the floor instantly, twitching where he lay, a trail of blood leaking from his mouth. Sharwin stepped back.
Dan was just thinking that they would kill all of the drow with no losses, when three cloaked and hooded figures dropped from the ceiling. Why hadn’t he checked the ceiling? Now that Dan looked, he could see a small hole in the middle of the rough ceiling, just big enough for one man to drop through at a time.
The three figures made straight for the nearest fight. The two in front leapt into action, white hair flying out from under their hoods, long blades snaking towards the knights. One knight went down before he even knew what had happened. The other had just long enough to look behind himself, before he too was felled. The liberated drow joined the others, and leapt to the next fight. However, the third hooded figure remained standing, observing the whole scene. And then he lowered his hood.
The figure wasn’t a drow. It was a man, his skin pale, his hair almost all white. His face was young, and Dan knew instantly that this must be Caius. Any doubt was instantly driven from his mind when Laelia looked up and saw the man.
“CAIUS!” She screamed, trying to shove the drow she was fighting out of the way to get to him. The drow nearly sliced her from head to foot for her loss of concentration; only a quick block from Gideon saved her.
Dan moved to the side, trying to get a clear shot at Caius, and stumbled into something on the floor. Looking down, he saw that it was Jaseff, crouching low to the ground, hands over his head.
“Jaseff!” Dan shouted over the din of swords clashing. “Are you hurt?”
Jaseff didn’t look up. He flinched at every nearby sword strike, and only moved further back, trying to keep in the shadows. Dan didn’t have time to wonder what he was doing. He moved around him, but Caius had moved. He was now fighting Laelia.
Laelia had apparently left the drow she was fighting to Gideon, who, skilled as he was, was hard-pressed on his own. Now Laelia was fighting Caius, fury written all across her face, her blows wide and arcing, not focused and precise like Gideon’s. Dan realized she was fighting without focus or control. He knew enough from his training to realize that if Caius even remotely knew how to fight, he could wound her in an instant.
Caius was apparently content to block Laelia’s blows. He ducked, sidestepped, and dodged her, blocking only when he needed to. Dan could see that his unwillingness to fight back was infuriating Laelia even further, making her make more mistakes, opening herself up further. A wicked smile was on Caius’ face, and it was growing with every second.
Ana pointed at the drow Gideon was fighting, holding the position for a few precious seconds. The drow failed to block one blow, and Gideon quickly followed up with a crashing downwards slice from the other side. The drow dropped to the ground, screaming in agony, dark blood coating her entire side. Gideon didn’t bother finishing her off. Instead he leapt over her and raced to where Laelia and Caius were dueling, now in the center of the cave.
Caius saw him coming. In a split second, he threw Laelia’s attack aside with his short sword and delivered a back-hand blow to the side of her head with his free fist. She dropped to the ground like a sack of stones, stunned.
Gideon leapt to the attack, a cry of rage escaping him, his dark blade flickering with a blue energy. Caius side stepped, allowing Gideon to pass him, and then leapt to the attack. Short sword met long in a flurry of sparks, and Caius’ smile instantly vanished. As if by an invisible punch, he was flung back from the deadlock. Dan saw a painful smile creep onto Gideon’s face. Caius snarled in anger, and leapt back to Gideon, now dodging his every blow.
Dan knew the difference: Caius was fighting now. He had merely been toying with Laelia, not bothering to return her blows, but he was trying to kill Gideon. And Gideon seemed to know it. He also appeared to know that he was losing.
Caius never once touched blades with him, instead ducking and swerving around Gideon’s long sword with an agility which almost convinced Dan he must have no spinal cord. Gideon managed to block Caius’ every blow, but only just. Finally, one got through. Caius’ blade snaked across Gideon’s armor, finding the edge and plunging deep into Gideon’s side.
Gideon let out a gasp of pain, but flicked his sword downwards, attempting to bring it down on Caius’ shoulder. Caius leaned to the side, avoiding the blow, and whipped his short sword around, slicing towards Gideon’s other side.
The blade was met by another amid a shower of sparks. Laelia had rejoined the conflict. Gideon twisted away from the sword, and Laelia leapt to the attack. Caius spun away, blocking Laelia’s blows and dodging Gideon’s, but now he had met his match.
During this whole time, Dan had been searching for a way to land a clean shot on Caius, but none was to be had. He was moving too fast, and he was too close to Gideon and Laelia. Dan could easily hit one of them by accident. Having no other weapons, he stood by helplessly and watched.
Caius knew he was outmatched. He ducked under a blow and delivered a quick punch to Laelia’s stomach. She doubled up and staggered backwards, but quickly rejoined the fight. However, in that time, Caius had spun around, under Gideon’s sword, and swung his elbow clean into Gideon’s face.
Dan saw blood fly from Gideon’s mouth as he was knocked backwards. He fell, stumbling at the force of the blow, and his sword left his hands, clattering to the ground, the blade now dark. Caius turned burning eyes on Laelia as she re-engaged him.
Now Caius was fighting to kill. He easily blocked Laelia’s blows, and delivered another punch to her stomach. She doubled up again. He faked low, and slammed the hilt of his sword into the side of her head. She staggered sideways, but somehow managed to stay on her feet. However, she was now completely off balance, her sword held loosely at her side. Dan saw Caius grip his sword with both hands, and swing at Laelia’s head, a fiery gleam in his eyes.
There was a yell, a flash of blue, and Gideon’s sword, flaming blue, punched through Caius’ back. Gideon had stabbed Caius straight through the chest, armor and all. Gideon stood, lifting Caius with him. Caius gasped, blood flying from his mouth as his eyes circled wildly in their sockets. His blade fell to the ground, and then he followed, as Gideon threw him off of his sword and onto the hard stone.
Glancing at the rest of the cave, Dan saw that Gideon’s success was being repeated. Four of the drow were now dead, slain against the hard rock wall, and the freed knights were quickly finishing off those which remained.
Gideon pulled Laelia to her feet as the last of the drow fell, and the knights let out a hoarse cheer at their victory. Dan and the mages quickly moved forward.
Laelia was completely silent, but her eyes were fixed on Caius’ body, his lifeless eyes still wide with shock and terror, the gaping hole running through him leaking red blood in copious amounts. She said nothing, simply stared at his lifeless body.
“He’s dead now,” Gideon said reassuringly to her.
“You killed him,” Laelia said blankly.
“Yes,” Gideon said gently. “I killed him, because he was about to kill you.”
Laelia didn’t reply, but let Gideon lead her away, back up the tunnel. One by one, the knights followed, leaving only Dan and the mages left in the cave.
“Jaseff!” It was Trela. “Get up!”
Jaseff got shakily to his feet, still standing where Dan had last seen him. “I’m sorry, Trela,” he said. “I tried, I really did, but then the fighting started, and I—”
Trela turned him towards the tunnel – gently – and led him up it. Ana and Sharwin quickly followed. The mage-lights slowly grew dim.
Dan looked around at the cave as the light dwindled. So that was it? Bodies littered the place, black blood was splashed across the walls and pooled on the ground. In the middle of the room lay Caius, in a growing pool of his own blood, bright red against the black of the drow.
Dan wasn’t sure what he had expected. The battle had seemed to end so… suddenly. Dan glanced at the gun he still held. He had fired two shots, and killed two drow. He was sure he should feel something; but all he felt was a strange emptiness.
Without a word, he put his gun back in its holster, and followed the mages back up the tunnel.