Author: Chris Cook
Willow and Tara walked slowly forward, each peering into every alley and doorway inside the gates, searching for any sign of life. A thought occurred to Tara, and she turned around to inspect the gates themselves.
"No damage," she said quietly.
"What?" Willow asked.
"The gates," Tara explained, "there's no damage. No broken timbers, the beam is intact."
"You mean they weren't attacked?"
"Or it was so sudden they didn't have time to bar the gates," Tara frowned. "Can you see any signs of fighting?"
Willow joined Tara in surveying as much of the village as they could see. She pointed out a door here and there that hung open, and venturing closer to the nearest building, a small general store, they saw the latch had been broken, as if the door was kicked in. Inside the shelves were bare, and on the floor lay scattered piles of produce and dry goods. A chair was turned over, several glasses had fallen to the floor and shattered, but among the debris there were no signs of actual fighting - no nicks in the counter to indicate a sword had struck, no furniture or tabletops shattered as if an axe had struck them, no blood stains on the wooden floor.
"What happened?" Willow wondered aloud. Tara shrugged, her worried gaze taking in every detail she could see.
"It looks like the place was abandoned and then looted," she murmured.
"Maybe the townspeople thought it was getting too dangerous out here?" Willow said, picking up a wooden plate and turning it over thoughtfully. "They packed up and went somewhere else? Maybe they're in the keep on the hill?"
"They didn't pack up," Tara said, "they'd have taken the food, not left it here to rot." She poked a mouldy loaf of bread with the toe of her boot. "This doesn't make sense, if they were attacked they'd have barred the gates and tried to hold out until help could come."
"Maybe they saw their attackers coming out on the plains," Willow suggested, "they had enough time to get everyone out?" Tara shook her head thoughtfully.
"It takes longer than you'd think to evacuate a village this size," she said, "back home, if we're threatened, all the adults know what to do, who looks after the children and gets them to safety, who packs up all the supplied that can be moved, who helps the elderly... it all has to be planned. For a village like this," she shrugged, "maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't look like the kind of place where they'd be that prepared to move. It would have taken too long, and unless the enemy was very slow they'd have arrived... there'd at least have been signs of fighting outside, where the rearguard protected the last of the villagers as they escaped."
She checked a handful of the fallen items beneath the shelves, finding the food too spoiled to take, and stood up with a forlorn expression. Willow took her hand and followed her back outside, where they made for a smith's forge a few doors away.
"Maybe they did just decide to leave," Tara went on, though she didn't sound convinced, "maybe they knew about the demons out there, and figured they'd be safer in the keep, and they should leave the village before they were directly under threat."
"What about everything they left behind?" Willow asked. Tara shrugged.
"It's possible they were careless," she said, "I don't know."
"Do you think that's likely?" Willow asked. Tara shook her head morosely. "Me neither," Willow went on, "besides, the Kingsway Highlands had their share of trouble during the Reckoning. They weren't involved in the worst of it, with the Prime Evils, but there were more demons than they could comfortably deal with, according to the records the Order kept. They wouldn't have forgotten how to take care of themselves this quickly."
"It's as if they just," Tara mimed a bubble bursting, "poof! Vanished into thin air." She looked inside the smithy, and her frown deepened. Willow followed her gaze, and her shoulders slumped.
"There's no way anyone would have left this behind," Tara said, leaning over to pick up a sword, half out of its scabbard, from where it had fallen on the ground. She leant the sword against the forge itself, and lay her hand against its stones.
"Cold," she said, "I didn't think anyone had been here for at least a few days, but that confirms it." Willow looked around, counting on her fingers.
"I see at least a dozen scabbards," she said, worried, "but only three swords."
"Looted," Tara said grimly. "Bandits would at least take the scabbards, but..."
"...demons wouldn't bother," Willow finished, "you're right. Carvers have been here, or something like them."
"Goat-men?" Tara suggested, glancing around alertly. Willow shook her head.
"I doubt it," she said, pointing, "look over there, polearms." Tara followed Willow's gaze and saw a stack of simple halberds stacked in a corner. "Goat-men would have taken those, they're supposed to prefer two-handed weapons. Less speed, more power. Probably one of those Carver bands we saw the tracks of up on the ridge." She and Tara returned to the open, and Willow followed Tara across the square to the small village church.
"We shouldn't stay here," Tara said quickly, "but I want to try to find out what happened, why the village is like this."
"Agreed," Willow said, "even if it was Carvers that came through here, that doesn't explain how the village was overrun, or why the gates weren't closed. Besides, there'd have to be a hundred of them before they'd dare attack a place this size. What are we looking for?" Tara pushed open the door of the church and looked around inside, noting the building was largely untouched, though the pews were in places scratched and broken, and one of the tapestries adorning the walls had been torn.
"Back home each of the smaller villages keeps its own records," Tara said, "sort of like a journal of the village's life. They record when visitors pass through, when the harvests are taken in, any notable events, that sort of thing. I want to see if these people kept anything like that."
"Some of the towns we passed through in Entsteig did the same sort of thing," Willow said, joining Tara in searching the long church hall's shelves on either side of the pews, which mostly contained old maps and scrolls. "A few of them had us all sign our names when we stayed the night."
"Here," Tara said after a moment, "this looks likely." She took the last one of a series of identical tomes from a far shelf and opened it on the table at the end of the hall, beneath a wooden Zakarum cross. Willow looked over her shoulder, scanning through the neatly-recorded dates and notes, all written in the same heavy hand.
"This is the last one," Tara said, "that's... two weeks ago?"
"Two weeks," Willow agreed, "'Arrival of Tomas, brother of our smith Piter, from Harthim. Excess grain from harvest sent to monastery for safe-keeping.' That must be the monastery up on the hill. That's it?" She turned the next couple of pages, finding them blank. "The blacksmith's brother shows up and they send some food up to the monastery? What about 'Evacuating village now, sorry we missed you'?"
"No pages have been torn out," Tara mused, "and you're right, I'm sure they wouldn't have left without someone at least leaving a record of where they were going." Willow frowned, and absently toyed with a corner of the frayed carpet with her boot.
"Tara?" she asked.
"What do we do now?" Tara paused, leaned against the table, and thought for a moment.
"We'll check the monastery," she said, "if a rider from the caravan came here and found the place like this, that's where he'd have gone. If not..." she trailed off.
"What?" Willow asked nervously.
"I don't know," Tara admitted, "something's not right. If this happened two weeks ago, but they didn't know about it in Harthim - and I'm sure they'd have mentioned it if they did - that means no-one from here reached there. If they went to the monastery to hide, surely they'd have sent a rider to the nearest safe town."
"The monastery?" Willow asked. "It's stone, and those places are built like fortresses, the demons can't have got in there... could they?" Tara shook her head again.
"I don't know," she repeated. "If the monastery isn't safe, I think we should head for the river, and try to get on a boat going to Duncraig."
"Not Harthim?" Willow asked.
"It's four days to Harthim from here," Tara said, "that's if we take the road, which leaves us visible. If we go across country, maybe five days. The river is only two days away, and you saw how many boats are travelling along it. I think that's what we should do."
"Okay," Willow agreed, "then that's what we'll do." Tara nodded, took Willow's hand, and together they left the church.
"Wait a moment," Tara said as they reached the street, "we should check the stores, just in case there's dried food we can take. We might run low on rations if we have to make for the river." Willow nodded, and they moved towards a pair of storehouses on either side of the road, just beyond the square. Willow poked her head through the door, which hung ajar, and found the shelves had been swept clean, their former contents scattered on the ground, barrels broken open, sacks of grain slashed. A cursory examination yielded nothing worth taking, so she sighed and came back to the door.
She saw Tara leaning on the wall of the building she had gone into, breathing deeply and staring off into the sky. Tara's eyes fixed on Willow, and she quickly came to meet her halfway across the street, taking her shoulders.
"We h-have to l-leave," she said, as Willow glanced at the door of the storehouse behind her.
"Tara?" she asked. "What's wrong? What's in there?"
"Th-the people," Tara said in a haunted voice.
"What?" Willow exclaimed, keeping her voice down. She ducked around Tara, making for the door, but Tara's hand closed around her arm and held her in a grip that, gentle as it was, was unbreakable.
"They're dead," Tara said quietly. Willow studied her expression, and a chill crept over her.
"What..." she began. Tara shook her head.
"Let's just go," she said. Willow nodded, and they jogged towards the village gates. Tara stopped in her tracks as they were almost at the gate, holding out an arm to stop Willow, who almost ran into her.
"Something's out there," she said at Willow's confused look, "I'm not sure what... I think it might be Carvers."
"How many?" Willow whispered. Tara closed her eyes, and Willow held herself still, not wanting to interfere with Tara's concentration.
"Lots," Tara said darkly, "to the south, coming this way." She cautiously edged to the gate and peered around it.
"Damn," she said quietly, pulling back. Willow looked, keeping herself as much out of sight as she could. On the horizon, spread out on either side of the road leading away from the village, dark shapes were moving closer. She saw a pair of crude banners raised on standards, flapping in the breeze, and on either side, a hundred metres or so distant from the main group, small handfuls of the creatures kept pace with them.
"Will they see us?" Willow wondered. "They move faster than goat-men, I don't think we'll outrun them."
"If we go out, we'll have to fight," Tara said as Willow ducked back. "They're too far spread out to miss us, and it's open ground anyway, they're sure to see us."
"Can we take that many?" Willow asked. "I think there's two old ones, probably magic users. It might take a minute or two for me to get rid of them."
"I'm not sure I can hold off the others for that long," Tara said quickly. "Do these villages have a back gate? They can't just have the one gate, can they?"
"I don't know," Willow said, "come on, let's find out while we've got time. If we have to fight, we'd be better off in here, where they won't be able to come at us all at once." She and Tara took off at a run, dodging between the church and the village tavern, through an alley, into the street running behind them, and between a pair of houses. Beyond those were crude sheds, intended only to keep stores dry and out of the wind, and they backed onto the village's wall.
"Hell," Tara swore uncharacteristically.
"Where's the back gate?" Willow complained, looking frantically from side to side. "You've got to have a back gate, otherwise you get trapped in when someone shows up and lays siege to the place and damn it!"
"I don't see anything we could use to climb over," Tara said quickly. Willow turned around, her back to the earth wall, and thought furiously.
"Okay," she said, her brow furrowed, "Carvers have already been here, right? And there's a bunch of them coming. What're the odds it's two separate groups?"
"No way to tell," Tara said, "there might be more than one band of them, or it might just be the same one coming back. Why would they come back?"
"They sometimes take over abandoned towns," Willow explained briefly, "for protection during the day, and to store food. If it's the same band as looted the place originally, that means they won't stay, they'll leave again once it's dark, and we'll be able to get out safely once they're gone!"
"You mean hide?" Tara asked, sceptical. "Would it be safe? What if they find us?" Willow took her hand and led her back between the storehouses, towards the village square.
"I think I saw a trapdoor in the church," she said, "it hadn't been disturbed. They think the place is deserted, they won't search it again. We haven't left any trace of us being here, have we?"
"Not much," Tara said, her mind working fast, "maybe a footprint, a couple of things moved... we took that book off its shelf."
"They won't notice," Willow said, "I'm sure they won't, Carvers aren't smart enough to notice things like that, I'm sure." They reached the square and darted inside the church, running along between the pews to the end of the hall. Willow reached for the carpet, hesitated, grabbed the book and shoved it back on its shelf, then bent down and drew the carpet back. Beneath there was a trapdoor, made from heavy wood bracketed with iron, unscarred and dusty around the heavy iron ring that would open it. Together they managed to heave the door open, and Tara held it while Willow stepped onto the sturdy ladder within and looked down.
"Nothing's damaged down here," she said, turning back to Tara and helping hold the door. "What do you think?" Tara thought for a moment.
"It's our best option," she said, "I don't think we can get out without being seen, and the odds aren't in our favour in a running battle. Can you hold the door for a moment?" Willow braced herself and kept the door open, while Tara dragged the carpet up over it. Handing Willow her spear, she climbed with her onto the ladder, and slowly they lowered the trapdoor down as they descended.
"I can hear them," Tara said softly, "at the gate. I think they're coming in." She reached over and tugged on the edges of the rug, hanging over the sides of the door, straightening it so it would lie flat, as it had been before, once the door was shut.
"Their eyesight's decent, but they can't smell or hear too well," Willow whispered, "so long as they don't see us we'll be alright."
"Memorise the cellar," Tara said, "there won't be much light, not enough for you to see by."
"You?" Willow asked, glancing down, noting the positions of barrels, crates and the walls relative to the bottom of the ladder.
"Maybe," Tara said, "a little. Not much."
"Mind your fingers," Willow warned, as Tara reached through the narrowing gap between the floor and the lowering trapdoor, ensuring there would be no evidence the carpet had been moved. Tara gave a thumbs-up, and together they gently lowered the door closed, plunging the cellar into darkness.
Moving carefully, testing each step they descended the ladder and finally reached the floor. Tara heard the slight sound as Willow lowered the blankets and satchel she was carrying, and a moment later felt her spear against her hand. She took it and switched it to her other hand, wanting to keep hold of Willow until her eyes adjusted. She blinked in the gloom, finding the light even more elusive than she had thought. On the one hand that was good - the less light was being let in, the fewer cracks there were for a stray sound to escape - but Tara had always found it disconcerting to have to navigate by tracker senses, imagining the shape of her surroundings more by the way the air circulated when she moved. Here and there a tiny shaft of light ventured through the floorboards, but they were few and far between.
She felt Willow turn her hand over, and then a fingertip was tracing against her palm: 's-e-e', then a question mark. Tara blinked again, doing her best to focus her senses, and found she could tell at least where the walls were, as well as get a rough idea what was open space and what was blocked by crates. She traced a 'y' on Willow's palm, and felt a reassuring squeeze of her hand in return.
Tara led Willow across the floor and gently pulled her down, helping her spread out the blankets to provide some comfort as they sat. She carefully laid her spear on the ground, and her bow, memorising exactly where they were so that she could snatch them up again at a moment's notice.
For a little while all was silent in the hall above them, and only Tara's superior hearing allowed her to detect the faintest hint of movement from the street outside. She felt Willow lean against her, and gratefully put an arm around her shoulders, the close contact between them reassuring her. Then both women tensed as there came the dull sound of claws tapping on wooden floorboards. Tara's hand went to her spear, and she felt a vague sensation of gathering power from Willow beside her. More and more footsteps came, some of them from directly above, but the trapdoor remained undisturbed, and the little cracks of daylight in the floorboards remained cut off abruptly around the door, indicating the carpet hadn't been moved. In spite of the continued presence above them, Tara relaxed a little, and felt Willow do likewise.
Up above there seemed to be some commotion. Snarling and chittering echoed down, a sort of guttural language composed of sharp, harsh sounds, accompanied by what seemed to be a background chorus of hissing from other voices. Occasionally there was a growling shout, and the other voices would join in. Now and then a sharp sound echoed through the cellar, as if something heavy were being rapped on the floor. For a nervous moment Tara wondered if the creatures were testing the floor, looking for cellars such as the one they were in, but when nothing came of it she decided it had to be something else - a gesture of authority? She imagined the old Carvers slamming the hafts of their standards on the ground as they snarled and barked at their tribes.
Being so close to Willow, Tara sensed at once when she moved her arm, and so was not startled when she felt her fingertip on her palm again, tracing letters. She concentrated, having missed the first letter but catching the others: 'l-d,' she traced, then a tap, then 'o-n-e-s,' tap, 'a-r-g-u-i-n-g.' Figuring out Willow's system - the taps were spaces - she re-imagined the scene above, now with two old Carvers growling at each other, as the tribe divided up behind them, snarling support or derision. She realised suddenly that, unless Willow were guessing - and she wouldn't have gone to the trouble of laboriously conveying it to Tara, if it were just a random guess - she must have been able to understand the creatures' language. Tara's respect for the Zann Esu's teaching, already high on the evidence of Willow's broad and often encyclopaedic knowledge, increased again.
Up above, the argument seemed to suddenly escalate, with a crash as something - probably one of the pews, Tara guessed - tipped over, to a general accompaniment of growls and shouts. A rhythmic chanting began, raw and primal, accented by the stamping of many clawed feet. A couple of the tiny cracks of light wavered as something passed above them, then a moment later there was a great cheer, and a screech of pain.
Tara pushed her senses as far as they would go, preparing for the possibility that, somehow, the fight above might somehow give away her and Willow's hiding place - a scrabbling claw catching the edge of the carpet, perhaps, or even a falling body breaking a floorboard, though she allowed that was unlikely, given the size of the Carvers, and the sturdy construction of the church hall. She frowned, trying to place something that didn't quite seem right - 'Then again,' she mused to herself, 'what is it supposed to feel like when you're hiding under the floor with demons fighting up above?' Willow seemed to be taking the situation with more calm, remaining alert but not unduly tense at Tara's side.
The combatants seemed to have come to grips properly, to judge by the raucous cheering and shrieking. There was the thud of a body falling, far off to one side of the trapdoor thankfully, a hasty scrambling noise, a brief pause, then a clang of blades. The swords clashed twice more, then there was another pained shriek, and a cheer.
'The same one as got hurt before?' Tara wondered. 'Or are they even now?' She mentally shook herself, reminding herself that it hardly mattered how the duel was going, so long as she and Willow remained undiscovered.
For a few seconds there were only footsteps, and Tara imagined the combatants circling each other, then the noise of the other creatures died down, there was a breathless pause, and a body hit the floor. Tara let out a breath as the silence ended with another cheer, slowly turning into more chanting. She felt Willow lean back against the wall beside her, and acknowledged that the end of the fight above did seem to ease the tension down below. If anything, perhaps now the creatures would be too enthused with cheering the victor to devote any of their marginal brainpower to searching the building any further than they had already done. She relaxed too, and reached around Willow with both arms, holding her close.
"Love you," she whispered in a tiny voice, quite sure the raucous yelling in the hall above would prevent her being overheard. Willow's arm snaked around her waist, her other hand on Tara's arm as it crossed her chest, and she hugged Tara tightly in response.
For the next few minutes they remained still and silent, listening as the sounds above dwindled into chittering exchanges, and the footsteps became fewer. There was a muffled dragging sound and a thud at one point, from roughly where the loser of the combat had fallen, and Tara wondered idly, with black humour, if Carvers buried their dead or ate them. From what she had seen in the storehouse - and she did her best not to dwell on that - they had no compunctions about eating anything else.
Something still nagged her senses, and to keep herself from thinking too much about the Carvers and the fate of the people who had lived in the village above, Tara let her thoughts dwell on the space around her and Willow, wondering what it was she felt. The air was almost still now that neither of them were moving, and she had only the vaguest sense of where the walls and crates were, mostly from the tiny amount light shining through the floorboards above. With a jolt she realised what it was - the air was moving, a tiny, almost imperceptible motion where there should have been none.
Willow's grip tightened as she felt Tara's surprise, and Tara took a moment to reassure her silently, stroking her side and back. She felt Willow's head, tucked in against her shoulder, nod once, and returned her attention to the tremor in the air. For a moment she wondered if, unlikely though it was, there was something else in the cellar with them, but she immediately discarded that thought - the motion was too regular. It was almost like - Tara frowned in thought - like a breeze, the kind of thing that, had she been outside, she would have ignored without even thinking about it, filtering it out so that she could more readily sense other things. 'But in here,' she thought, 'there shouldn't be any breeze at all. You don't get breezes in sealed cellars, only in... tunnels,' she finished with a widening of her eyes. She gently took Willow's hand.
'W-a-i-t,' she traced on it, feeling Willow nod again that she understood. Making no sound at all Tara extracted herself from Willow's arms and got to her feet, picking up her spear just in case. She took a step forward, then another, and suddenly she could actually feel the air moving against her face. She turned towards the movement, and gingerly walked towards the wall of the cellar, slowly feeling her way with each step just in case there was some obstruction on the ground she hadn't already detected.
She came to the wall and, holding the spear in the crook of one arm, laid both her palms on it and felt around experimentally. She worked her way along the stone surface, following the tiny breeze, until she reached a stack of crates. She slipped her hand between them and the wall, and with a start felt her fingers touch wood, not stone, behind them. She felt around for a moment, tracing the edge of the wood, where it met the stone - it was sturdy, thick... she felt cold metal under her fingers, and examining it in the dark, realised it was a hinge. A door.
Quickly she returned to Willow, gently taking her hand as she saw, by a thin ray of light, Willow sensing her approach and reaching out for her. She sat down and curled Willow's fingers over, except for one which she pointed at the crates, then she opened her hand and traced 'd-o-o-r.'
Willow kept herself calm, but Tara could nevertheless feel her sudden excitement. Willow guided her hand first to her own chest, then Tara's, then pointed both their hands where Tara had indicated. Tara drew their joined hands to her cheek and, when they were touching, nodded so Willow could feel it. Together they stood and moved over to the stack of crates concealing the doorway.
Tara guided Willow's hands to the concealed doorway, and waited as she examined it. Willow turned back to her, taking her hand, and touched it to the crates. Tara nodded, forgetting that Willow likely couldn't see her at all, and moved to the other side of the stack. Careful not to make any noise, she lifted the first of the three crates off the other two, feeling Willow lifting the other side of it. Slowly, tentatively guided by each other's movements, they moved a few paces away from the wall and gingerly lowered their burden to the ground.
It was the work of a few moments to move the other two crates, and then Tara and Willow both traced the outline of the revealed door with their fingers. There was no latch, but when Tara experimentally put her weight against the door and pushed, it shifted slightly. Willow felt the heavy door move, and joined Tara in pushing against it. Together they managed to open it inwards about a third of its travel, before Tara froze as the hinges let out a warning creak. Willow's hands flew off the door as if it were hot, and Tara knew they couldn't risk moving it any further. With one hand on the edge of the door and one on the stone wall of the tunnel, she guessed there was just enough space to slip through the gap.
She took Willow's hand and together they went back to where they had left their blankets and bags, gathering them up quickly and quietly. Tara went through the door first, spear held protectively in front of her, and let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding as she managed to wriggle through without causing more than a tiny scratching sound between the back of her armour and the wall. She reached through the door and took the bags that Willow handed to her, setting them down around her feet as she learned what she could of the tunnel she had stepped into.
The breeze flowing through the tunnel was steady and, now that she was through the door, quite strong. Tara had a sensation of a long space ahead of her, and the air had a chilly bite to it that made her think of subterranean caverns. She bent down and felt the floor, finding it smooth and, more surprisingly, paved. Feeling around, Tara felt a strange indentation in one of the pavers, far too regularly-formed to have been caused by wear or damage, but otherwise there were no irregularities in the surface. She stood again as she felt Willow slip through the doorway behind her.
"What is it?" Willow asked in a whisper, after taking Tara's arm and guiding her behind the door, to contain the sound as much as possible.
"I don't know," Tara whispered in reply, "catacombs?"
"I wouldn't have thought so in a village this size," Willow said. "Do you see any tombs? In the walls maybe?"
"I can't see much," Tara murmured, "just feel the air moving." For a moment she was silent, then Willow grabbed her arm excitedly.
"Back gate," she whispered, "if there's air moving, this has to come out somewhere, right?"
"Uh-huh," Tara confirmed.
"This must be the back gate," Willow went on, "it's a tunnel to outside the village, so they can't be trapped in!"
"Help me close the door," Tara said, "we'll move the crates back then close the door behind them. Even if those things find the cellar, they might not search it too carefully, and that'll buy us time."
"Okay," Willow said, in lieu of a nod. Together they carefully moved the crates back as close as they could, risking a scraping sound now and then as they pulled all three close to the wall once they had both scrambled back through the doorway. The hinges let out a tiny creak as they started to move, but then the door swung back into place silently. Pushing against the back of it, Tara felt an odd feature, a wooden beam attached vertically to the door.
"Wait a moment," she said as Willow turned away. She heard Willow stop, but she didn't seem alarmed - probably because Tara had sounded more curious than concerned. Tara ran her hands over the door, feeling the shape of the strange attachment. She found hinges at the bottom and a latch at the top, and with a dawning understanding of its purpose she undid the latch and lowered the beam, feeling its base nudge up against the surface of the door just as the end slid into the indentation carved in the floor.
"It braces the door shut," she explained, guiding Willow's hands to the beam, "do you think it'll hold a Carver?"
"Definitely," Willow whispered, "there's no way they could break through, not without a battering ram. Maybe the old one could blast it in with fire, but I wouldn't be surprised if it brought the whole cellar and the entrance to the tunnel down as well. Fire's tricky to control, and they don't make good mages."
"We should move on," Tara said, "put some distance between us and them. With luck, even if they do find the cellar and get through the door, we'll have enough of a head start." They picked up their belongings and, Tara leading the way, walked into the darkness.