The three followed Erik through the doorway, closing it as they passed. The light from Rankin’s lantern showed that the area beyond was a tunnel; the walls rough dirt braced by wood beams and expanses of natural rock. The passage was so narrow the three had to follow in single-file. It twisted back and forth, around large mineral deposits, dipping sometimes and climbing at others. Hundreds of yards later, the tunnel ended, opening to a fissure of a natural cavern that was not much wider than the tunnel had been.
Dobber panted as he raced to keep up with Erik. “This place feels like goblins. They live in caves like these.”
Erik said, “It is true, goblins do live in caverns. In fact, the very goblins that have taken possession of the castle above came from the caverns below the castle. Ashmoor was in league with the goblins and their ilk. His dungeon opens directly onto a cavern that leads into the heart of the goblin’s realm.”
“And that is where you lead us?” Rankin said.
Dobber stomped his foot on the ground. “I knew we were being double crossed. I just knew it.”
Erik said, “Be still. There are no goblins in this particular cavern. They would not find it much to their liking.”
“And why is that?” Nora asked. “What danger do we face?”
The passage abruptly widened, and came to a sudden stop. A reinforced wall made from cut stone blocks had been constructed across its breadth. In the center stood a pair of iron doors. Large metal beams hung within thick loops ready to bar the doors from swinging open.
“Nothing you won’t be able to overcome,” said Erik.
“An armored door would not keep out a band of goblins for long either,” Rankin said.
Dobber said, “And I can pick a lock, but surely this is not what you brought me all the way here for. There is no lock on this door. Just pull the bars and it will open.”
“Well, you are not here for this door anyway. And no, it is not the primary reason the goblins have kept out.” Erik walked to the door and slid back the bars. With both hands firmly on the handle of one door, he pulled it open.
Nora held both her knives at the ready.
Beyond was an open expanse of darkness. Nora stepped forward and through the door, Rankin directly behind her. The light from his lantern spanned outward but found little to shine upon. The circle it did make on the far wall was very faint.
Rankin spun the lantern around and traced out the edge of the cavern near him, following it outward. A few yards beyond the door the floor fell away, as well did the ceiling. The four of them stood on the edge of a very wide and very deep chasm.
“We are near the top,” Erik said. “Beyond the edge is a sheer cliff. Hundreds of feet below the walls of the chasm meet in a very narrow channel. There is no ground to walk below and the walls, all the way up, are as sharp as knives. No one would survive the climb.”
“Or the fall,” Nora said.
Dobber stood mostly in the doorway, unwilling to commit himself further. He said, “Where is the gold?”
“Rankin, if you would point your lamp directly out,” said Erik. He waited for Rankin to do so. Panning the light across the far wall slowly brought it to shine upon a metallic surface. Erik said, “Another door and another ledge. Behind that door is the treasure room and everything we seek.”
The door looked similar in size to the one they stood in front of, except that this one was decorated in carved relief and it held the mechanism of an elaborate lock.
Nora came forward and gestured at Rankin to move the lantern. She helped him aim the light down along the far ledge. A few wooden posts marked the remnants of an old rope bridge. The tatters of rotted hemp hung dangling down the side of the cliff.
Nora held her mouth slack for a long moment. “And how do you suggest we get across? Do you expect us to jump?”
Erik said, “No. I expect you to use the skills I know you posses, and the tools I have for you to use.” Erik pointed at a mound resting in the corner made by the wall and cavern. It was a small pile of leather satchels.
Rankin rolled his eyes. “Of course. How many times have you been here, Paladin? Are we just the latest attempt at achieving your goal? How many others have you brought here? How many others have died for you vanity?”
Erik said, “Yes Rankin, I have been here before. That should not be a surprise to you. I did try to succeed on my own. The information I discovered has carried me safely to this ledge twice before. However, upon reflection I realized that I could not accomplish this alone. I went looking for people with skills like yours. Your reputation is quite well known in certain circles.”
“You waste your flattery,” said Rankin. “We are here. Explain to us your plan.”
“My plan was nothing more than to get you here. I need you, Rankin, because word tells that you have done such things before, the Castle at Brisbane, the Temple of the T’Kar. The soldiers in Fespar are still looking for you.”
Rankin said, “Interesting bits of information you posses. Regrettably, I must deny involvement in such charades.”
“I am not judging you,” said Erik. “I do not judge any of you. In fact, I pray that the stories are true. I need the person that scaled the walls of T’Kar and raided the temple spire from the outside. I need the team that passed through the gates at Brisbane under the nose of Lord Fayette’s special guard, in broad daylight. Such men can make miracles happen.”
Rankin narrowed the gap between them. “Contrary to your delusions, I am not a man of miracles. I have talents that I find useful under certain circumstances. Those circumstances I tend to choose quite methodically. You have kept us in the dark all along in this little adventure of yours and now you wish us to perform on cue? We are not prepared.”
Erik nodded but kept smiling. “It is unfortunate that the details of this location and the challenges to come were necessary to keep secret. I explained from the very beginning. Others would stop at nothing to beat me here. I have faith in you, Rankin.”
Nora edged closer as well and touched Rankin’s arm. “We can do this. It is not much different than the cross at the Rush. There we did not even get wet.”
Rankin stared out into the darkness as he tried to make up his mind. He sighed. “You probably didn’t even bring any hooks.” He walked over to the pile and began loosing the strings on the topmost satchel. “There had better be a lot of gold on the other side of that door.”
Erik laughed. “More than you can carry.”
Rankin looked up at Nora. “And you, you had better limber up. You are going across first. It is about time you earned your keep.”
Nora was surprised, but her mouth formed into an eager smile. It was not easy to spot of compliment coming from Rankin.
“And me? The door is mine?” Dobber said.
“The door is yours,” said Rankin. He dumped the contents of two leather sacks. “You had better start sizing it up. I’m not going to put up with your bumbling around like last time.”
Dobber ignored the rebuke and cracked his knuckles.
It took the three of them less than ten minutes to rig up a line using a grappling hook and a long slender rope. Rankin used a strong pitch and delicate aim to place the hook directly on the wooden post. With Erik’s help they tied the rope off tautly using the bar hoops on the inside of the nearby door.
Nora trembled as she stood at the edge of the cliff. “I’d much rather there be a raging river below me.” She stepped out onto the rope. She had walked on ropes many times before, but never in the dark. Rankin had taught her the skill, but the balance was her own. “Keep the spot on the line.”
Rankin pointed the lantern to her feet.
“Wait!” Erik shouted. “Surely, that is not the safest way to cross. She will fall.”
Rankin shook his head. “She is young. She wants to impress you. We have a tether around her waste and it is looped to the footrope. She will be fine.”
Nora walked out over and into pitch-black darkness, her arms wide at her side, the glow from the lantern illuminating her body. She ignored Rankin’s remark and imagined herself alone. With each footstep gracefully crossing over the last, she made the act seem effortless.
Erik said, “I hope you have another plan to get me across.”
“Relax, we have more yet to build,” said Rankin.
Nora reached the opposite side without catastrophe. For a few tense moments, her footing was in question as the rope undulated below her feet, but she rode the wave until it subsided. She bounded the last few steps and leapt to the safety of the ledge.
With her on the opposite shore, they tied off two more lines using the handle rungs of the iron doors to hold them steady. By the time they were finished they had assembled a clever makeshift rope bridge.
Dobber was the second to make the crossing. He tied himself to hooks looped around two separate lines. “Always better to be sure,” he said. “I’d rather there be dirt beneath my feet, but I go where I must.”
“Am I next?” Erik asked as Dobber neared the center of the expanse. “The girl and the halfling are one thing. Are you certain this contraption will hold my weight?”
“Your weight to be sure, but that armor will have to go; and the sword. You’ll need all the strength you can muster if you slip.”
For a moment, Erik’s face grimaced with indecision. Then he said, “You are right. I see the wisdom in it.”
Nora watched from across the gap. Half-heartedly, Erik removed his plate and mail. Beneath the metal, he wore thick padded cloth, beneath that, simple clothes. Yet, even without the foreboding suit his stature and strength were self-evident. Where Rankin was lithe and limber, Erik was muscled and stout.
Rankin rigged him with his own tether line and gave him instructions as he set out onto the ropes. His footsteps were clumsy and he fell almost immediately. His arm and shoulder caught the rope by luck and he hung there helpless until Rankin talked him back up. He pulled himself the rest of the way with his legs wrapped around the footrope; hand over hand, inch by inch.
Nora took his hand and helped him to the ledge. She noticed his legs and arms trembling as he stood. His deep blue eyes and wide smile could not mask it. “Are you alright,” she said.
Erik nodded and continued to smile, but it was apparent he was still recovering from the ordeal. Nora smiled back. She led him by the hand to stand as far as they could form the door.
By the time Rankin took to the rope and reached the rest, Dobber had already begun work on the lock.
“Stand back,” Dobber said. “No telling what kind of trap is set in this thing.” He prodded a metal tool at several exposed tumblers and wheels. “Something this elaborate has always got traps.”
“You are not quite dead yet,” Nora said with a laugh. She still held Erik’s hand as they sat on the ground against the cavern wall. Erik has since regained his composure, but her hand seemed still to comfort him.
“Quit whining and get that open.” Rankin steered clear of the door and joined Nora and Erik in the corner along the ledge.
Nora flushed as Rankin approached. She let Erik’s hand fall away and hoped that Rankin had not noticed.
“Was this Ashmoor ever credited for his cleverness?” said Rankin. He looked at Nora as he spoke.
“You mean with traps and things?” Erik said. “Before just now, I would have thought the location of this vault precaution enough. You three have shown me wrong.”
Rankin said, “He seems to me to be quite a cunning fellow. With all the secrets, he seems not to have been a man to trust merely a locked door.”
Erik said, “He used deception well. He kept his cult hidden for a years, and the traitors he had planted were never suspected until they revealed themselves by their actions. Though he was mad, he was a gifted strategist. He predicted the possibility of his own downfall and prepared. Together the great churches defeated him, but his revenge was already in place. By crushing the unity of the churches, he did more damage than his cult ever would have.”
“Sounds like a man that would trap a door,” Nora said. Her voice cracked uneasily.
Twangs of arrows launched into the air sent the halfling rolling for cover; only there was no cover nearby. A rapid succession of metal tipped shafts whizzed over his body as he continued to scramble away from the door. Two struck the dirt inches from his torso as he pitched himself off the ledge.
“Dobber!” Nora shouted.
The explosion of arrows stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Many shafts peppered the area in front of the door and all the way back to the ledge. Nora and the others had been spared only by a margin of a few yards.
Nora sprang to her feet followed by Erik. They raced to the edge over which Dobber had disappeared.
“Dobber!” Nora cried once more. She cringed and peered over the edge.
“Not so loud. I’m right here.” Dobber held on to a frayed length of hemp rope, just inches below the ledge. “Give me a hand, will you.”
Erik pulled him up by the collar.
“Well, is it open?” Rankin strolled through the field of arrows, paying little mind to the struggling rescue.
Dobber panted out of breath. “Yes,” he said.
Nora looked back a Rankin. Both she and Dobber grinned with glee.
“Allow me.” Nora raced to the door. She grabbed one handle while Rankin grabbed the other.
They pulled in unison.
“Hang on!” Dobber hurried to their side.
The Story Continues: Nobody Trusts a Paladin - The Conclusion