Neither of the scouts had yet to return when they heard that final transmission, which consisted mostly of Rawne’s team’s frantic, garbled screams and intermittent laser fire over the radio, followed by silence. Most of them looking ready to panic, Freedan ordered them to form a circle around him, trying to remain as calm as he could while all but begging his own hirelings not to desert him. Weapons bristling, lights trained on all three directions to cover any angle of attack.
The minutes dragged on, and no news from any front, the tension visibly getting to everyone.
Finally, the two scouts from the left-hand passage returned, reporting another dead end, then joining the others’ defense amid creepy rumors Freedan couldn’t find the words to squelch.
Much to his consternation, he was beginning to fear he might have to call off the entire expedition if they received no word from Rawne soon.
Unsure if any amount of money could persuade any of them to go after their leader, Freedan was about propose the idea anyway, when they spotted a light around the bend back the way they came from.
“Hold your fire!” Freedan ordered, hoping it would stick. Wanting to see for himself what was back there before they started shooting blindly.
A lone figure stumbled into their concentrated light, shielding his eyes against the glare. His own men recognized him first as Aden Rawne ran up to them. Relief quickly gave way to dismay as they got a good look at him.
Duster shredded, pantlegs torn, combined with the mortified expression on his face, of fear as Freedan had never seen before, fear that might be the last straw to break his own men.
“What the hell happened to you?” he demanded.
“Underdwellers…” Rawne breathed, his voice reflecting his ragged appearance. “They’re real…”
“What are you talking about?”
The men began to murmur amongst themselves.
“There were hundreds of them,” Rawne reported. “Just kept coming… I escaped only by using my last flash grenade.”
“And they killed the rest of your party?”
“It was a slaughter.” Rawne already seemed to visibly pulling himself back together, now that he was back in the company of his own men, to say nothing of the presence of his employer. “They may have got the sentry, as well. He was nowhere to be found when I got back to the fork.”
“Wonderful…” Freedan muttered, trying to figure out a way to not say what seemed like the most logical course of action under the circumstances. “So does that mean that no one used that entrance? I thought your spies were more reliable than this.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I really think we should return to the surface,” Rawne recommended. “We need more men. A larger force, more lights, maybe a flamethrower…”
Freedan stood there, fists quivering, torn between the threat Rawne had uncovered, and the fear that his own right hand would overrule him.
And that was when the other search party returned from the right-hand passage.
“Sir,” one of them reported, “we’ve found another passage up ahead. We also found the remains of someone who has been down here recently, though it’s kinda… Um, what happened here?”
Trailing off at the apprehension of the other men, as well as Rawne’s ragged-out state, as some of the others began to fill the two in in ominous whispers.
“So, what now?” Rawne deferred to his employer, who looked to him to be just about ready to call it quits.
“Show me the body,” Freedan said darkly.
“But sir, what about the un—”
“I’ve come too far to turn back, Rawne.” Freedan’s demeanor having changed drastically since he regained his voice. “I will not let them slip through my fingers this time! I told you I want to see them dead with my own eyes, and I meant it.”
After a long, tense moment, Rawne turned to his men. Ordering them to stay alert, and doubling the rear guard. Their reduced numbers alone incentive enough for greater vigilance.
After a long, slow trudge, they finally came to the corpse that the scouting party spoke of.
“Percy?” Freedan cocked his head, barely able to place anything of his old partner’s remains.
“Has to be,” Rawne affirmed. “Looks like the work of underdwellers.”
“Even better than I’d hoped…” Both Freedan’s voice and expression receiving odd looks from the rest of his men. “The old fool did himself in, all on his own!”
Rawne stooped down to examine the body.
“Someone’s been here before us,” he said grimly. Holding up the man’s bag: “The dust has been disturbed, and something’s clearly missing.”
“Edric’s journal?” Freedan pressed him. “Is it there?”
“That’s what appears to be missing,” Rawne muttered, tossing the bag aside.
“Dammit!” Freedan stamped his foot. “That brat and his friends got here first! And now we have to deal with another fork!? Which way did they go?”
“Sir!” One of the guards pointed up ahead. “Take a look at this!”
“Underdwellers.” Rawne recognized them immediately. Or rather what was left of them. “It looks like a chase went down this tunnel, so at least we know which way they went now.”
Even Freedan seemed visibly shaken by the sight of these subterranean predators, now that he had seen them for himself, looking just like the trophy in Percy’s den, his expression looking little different than the rest of the crew as they whispered among themselves.
“Let’s follow them,” Freedan said, sounding more and more stubborn with every syllable. “If they have the journal, we have no time to lose.”
“Freedan,” Rawne reminded him, “we’ve marked all these tunnels. It would only take a few hours, and we’ll be back with a larger company to face the under—”
“We’re not wasting any more time,” Freedan cut him off, forcing Rawne and his men keep up with him in order to continue the conversation as he advanced. “Send a team back to the surface to bring more men, if you want, but they’re not getting away this time. They’re going to lead me to that treasure.”
And so the argument went for the next couple minutes, ending with Rawne’s exasperated sigh, and resolution to round up the four or five men who seemed most anxious to return to the surface, who would likely be the weakest links down here, when the chase abruptly ended.
No more underdweller corpses, no more stampede of tiny clawprints in either direction, and no more human footprints, either.
“I don’t get it…” Rawne muttered. As if all trace of their quarry had been wiped away entirely. “And I don’t like it, either.”
Even as they stood, milling about, Freedan fuming furiously at yet another delay, one of the scouts cried out in alarm at a faint, shimmering green light down the tunnel.
Fearing it might have something to do with those creatures, Rawne drew his new laser sword again, fearing the worst.