A scout rode back along the road toward a company of others. “Lord Wang Xue, there’s a tiger in the pass.”
“So? Kill it.” Lord Wang Xue waved his hand impassively.
“It’s a dire tiger. From the markings… it might be the lord of the shadowed forest.”
“What? Why would he be in the pass? His territory is miles away.”
“It might be some other dire tiger. There appears to be a human sized figure with it.”
“Someone who can tame a dire tiger?” Lord Wang Xue scratched his chin, “Impressive. Wait, human sized?”
“The figure wears armor of a sort rarely used here. In fact, it’s more reminiscent of the type of armor… that demons wear.”
“A demon scout? How did they get all the way out here?” Lord Wang Xue frowned slightly, “No matter, we’ll know soon enough. We’ll kill the tiger, and capture him.”
Deep underground a company of gevai soldiers marched through long tunnels. If not for the lack of windows or anything letting in light, it might have appeared to be a castle corridor. The walls were all worked stone, occasionally covered in tapestries. There were many traits they didn’t immediately associate with a castle either, but it would just have been a strange sort of castle.
No torch sconces lined the walls. Instead, phosphorescent moss grew in fanciful patterns. In some places they relied on carried glowstones and the like to see, but never was there the flame of a torch.
The company of soldiers walked behind a handful of dwarves guiding the way. Though the corridors weren’t so twisting or turning as to cause one to be easily lost, it also wasn’t possible to climb a tree and reorient oneself. The sun and moon were of no help, and over the course of a gross of miles a slight turn in the corridor could find one walking in entirely the wrong direction. The dwarven escort also provided another function- that of assuring the citizens in the various cities they passed through or by that they would cause no harm.
“Think we’re almost there?” one of the soldiers asked another next to him.
“You ask that every day, and every day the answer is, ‘no, not yet.’ If you’d been paying attention, however, you’d know that today is the one exception. We’re the last group to get into position, and once we reach the stairs all of the companies will surface at the same time.”
“Does that mean we have to go on stairs again? Up this time? That was so many stairs…”
“That’s the point, idiot. Do you think they could hide a place like this just under the ground? The Demon King was trying to wipe them out, and a mile of stairs is nothing next to people trying to kill you.”
“I don’t know… I think I might prefer people trying to kill me.”
“If you don’t shut up you’ll get to find out.”
Soon enough, as promised, they reached the stairs. At least, they reached the gatehouse that led to the stairs. The guards at the gatehouse looked over their paperwork before letting them through in groups. First, one portcullis would go up… then a dozen men would step into the area beneath the gatehouse. Then that portcullis would descend before the other one was raised and the group walked down a sloped corridor toward the bottom of the stairs. Then they started the long climb up the clockwise spinning stairs.
“Why isn’t it dead yet?” Lord Wang Xue asked impatiently.
“My lord, the pass is narrow… barely wide enough for a wagon in some places. Our archers aren’t able to do anything to either the demon or the tiger. The men can only fight three or four at a time, and the dire tiger is very strong.”
“What of the demon on its back? Have the men rush in and take him down. Even if we lose a few, we could have a dozen men fighting.”
“We’ve already tried that, my lord. The tiger is a great threat, and the demon can slay a man with every blow. Even when the men sacrifice their life to injure him, he seems to ignore the wounds.”
“Is that so? He is wounded then? How many men have we lost?”
“Three dozen casualties… though some escaped with their lives and severe wounds. Both the demon and dire tiger are covered in wounds.”
Lord Wang Xue sighed, “Fine then. We shall wait for them to drop their guard, or to bleed out. No point in wasting any more men.”
“So why are we going this way?” the complaining soldier asked the other. “I thought we were going to a city. They said were were going to go there and kill a human lord. It was supposed to be within view from the underground but we didn’t go toward that city at all. Now we’re walking into the night for no reason.”
The second soldier sighed in exasperation. “If you’d been listening, the lord from that city has left. We’re following after him. Right now, his company is being held off by Tiburcio but eventually they’ll overwhelm him and the lord will get away and then we’ll have to march even harder to catch him.”
“Tiburcio?” the first guard’s jaw dropped, “Tiburcio the Immortal?”
“Tiburcio the Undying?”
“That’s just another word that means the same thing.”
“Tiburcio the Mad?”
“That was that lord who tried to live on a diet solely of glass.”
“Oh, right.” The first guard laughed, “I liked that story.” The guard blinked, “But Tiburcio… the one from the civil war?”
“Yes, that’s the one! We already established that.”
“Didn’t he like… lose an arm and a leg when a dozen of the old lords dropped a mountain on him?”
“It was just a fight with one of the lords, no mountain dropping involved. He was just injured.”
“Oh. I heard he couldn’t walk. Are you sure it’s him?”
“Is there any other Tiburcio that could hold off a company alone?”
“Well… if it’s him, why are we walking so slow?”
“You’re the one walking slowly, idiot! Now hurry up so we can catch up with the rest of the group!”