The Crimson Campaign(The Powder Mage Trilogy)(5)
Author:Brian McClellan




    Tamas found himself a quarter mile under a thousand tons of rock just a few hours after leaving Budwiel’s walls. His torch flickered in the darkness, casting light and shadows across the row after row of recessed graves carved into the walls of the caverns. Skulls hung from the ceilings by the hundred in a grisly tribute to the dead, and he wondered if this was what the pathway to the afterlife looked like.

    More fire, he imagined.

    He fought off his initial claustrophobia by reminding himself that these catacombs had been used for a thousand years. They weren’t likely to collapse anytime soon.

    The size of the passageway surprised him. At times the rooms were wide enough to hold hundreds of men. At their narrowest, even a carriage could pass through them without scraping the sides.

    The two artillery men Hilanska had spoken of walked on ahead. They carried their own torches and they talked excitedly, their voices echoing as they passed through the varied chambers. Beside Tamas, his bodyguard Olem kept pace with a hand on his pistol and a suspicious eye on the two soldiers ahead of him. Bringing up the rear were two of Tamas’s best powder mages: Vlora and Andriya.

    “These caverns,” Olem said, running his fingers along the stone walls, “were widened with tools. But look at the ceiling.” He pointed upward. “No tool marks.”

    “They were carved out by water,” Tamas said. “Probably thousands of years ago.” He let his eyes run over the ceiling and then down to the floor. Their path sloped gently downward, punctuated from time to time by steps cut into the floor and worn by the passing of thousands of pilgrims, families, and priests every year. Despite these signs of use, these catacombs were empty of anything living – the priests had suspended burials during the siege, worried that artillery fire might collapse some of the caves.

    Tamas used to play in caverns like these when his father, an apothecary, searched the mountains every summer for rare flowers, mushrooms, and fungus. Some cave systems went incredibly deep into the heart of the mountain. Others ended abruptly, just when things seemed to be getting interesting.

    The passageway opened up into a wide cavern. The torchlight no longer danced on the ceiling and far walls, but disappeared into the darkness above. They stood on the edge of a pool of still water blacker than a moonless night. Their voices echoed in the great hollow space.

    Tamas came to a stop beside the waiting artillery men. He cracked a powder charge in between his fingers and sprinkled it on his tongue. The trance swept through him, bringing dizziness and clarity all at once. The ache of his leg disappeared and the tendrils of light caused by the torches were suddenly more than enough for him to examine the cavern in its entirety.

    The walls were lined with stone sarcophagi, stacked almost haphazardly upon one another thirty, maybe forty feet into the air. A dripping sound echoed through the chamber: the source of the underground lake. Tamas could see no exit but the one through which they’d come.

    “Sir?” one of the artillerymen said. His name was Ludik, and he held his torch over the pool, trying to gauge the depths.

    “We’re thousands of feet beneath the West Pillar,” Tamas said. “And no closer to Kez. I don’t like being led into strange places.”

    The cock of Olem’s pistol stirred the silence of the cave. Behind Tamas, Vlora and Andriya stood with their rifles at the ready. Ludik exchanged a nervous glance with his comrade and swallowed hard.

    “It looks like the cave system ends,” Ludik said, pointing with his torch across the pond. “But it doesn’t. It keeps going, and goes straight toward Kez.”

    “How do you know?” Tamas asked.

    Ludik hesitated, expecting reproach. “Because, sir, we followed it through.”

    “Show me.”

    They passed behind a pair of sarcophagi on the other side of the pond and ducked beneath a ledge that proved deeper than it looked. A moment later, and Tamas was standing on the other side. The cavern opened up again and led down into the dark.

    Tamas turned to the bodyguard at his shoulder. “Try not to shoot anyone unless I say so.”

    Olem stroked his neatly trimmed beard, eyeing the artillerymen. “Of course, sir.” His hand didn’t leave the butt of his pistol. Olem wasn’t the trusting sort these days.

    An hour later, Tamas left the cavern and climbed up through brush and scree into daylight. The sun had passed over the mountains to the east and the valley was in shadow.

    “All clear, sir,” Olem said, helping him up to steady footing.

    Tamas checked his pistol, then absently thumbed the contents of another powder charge onto his tongue. They stood in a steep valley on the southern slope of the Adran Mountains. By his guess, they were less than two miles from Budwiel. If that was correct, they now flanked the Kez army perfectly.

    “An old riverbed, sir,” Vlora said, picking her way among the small boulders. “It points to the west, then cuts south. The base of the valley is obscured by a hillock. We’re not more than a half mile from the Kez right now, but there’s no sign they’ve even bothered scouting this valley.”

    “Sir!” a voice called from within the cave.

    Tamas whirled. Vlora, Olem, and Andriya all raised their rifles, pointing into the darkness.

    An Adran soldier emerged. His shoulder sported a chevron with a powder horn beneath it. The man was a lance corporal, one of Olem’s new company of elite soldiers, the Riflejacks.

    “Quiet, fool,” Olem hissed. “You want all of Kez to hear?”

    The messenger wiped the sweat from his brow, blinking up at the brightness of day. “Sorry, sir,” he said to Tamas. “I got lost in the mountain. General Hilanska sent me after you not more than a moment after you left.”

    “What is it, man?” Tamas demanded. Gasping messengers were never a good sign. They never hurried unless it was of utmost importance.

    “The Kez, sir,” the messenger said. “Our spies report they will attack en masse the day after tomorrow. General Hilanska requests you back at the wall immediately.”

    Tamas ran his eyes across the steep valley in which they stood. “How many men do you think we could bring through here in two days?”

    “Thousands,” Vlora said.

    “Ten thousand,” Olem added.

    “A hammer of two brigades,” Tamas said. “And Budwiel will be the anvil.”

    Vlora seemed doubtful. “That’s a small hammer, sir, compared with that monstrous force out there.”

    “Then we’ll have to strike hard and fast.” Tamas examined the valley one more time. “Let’s head back. Have the engineers start widening the tunnel. Get some men up here to shore up this scree so our passage won’t cause a ruckus. When the Kez attack, we’ll smash them against the gates of Budwiel.”





    CHAPTER




    4




    There were few things in the world more tedious, Nila reflected as she sat on the kitchen floor and watched flames curl around the base of the immense iron pot hanging over the fire, than waiting for water to boil.

    Most manor houses would be silent at this hour. She’d always relished the quiet – the still night air that insulated her from the chaos of a servant’s life when the master and mistress were at home and the house bustled with movement. There was a night not more than a few months past, though it felt like years, that Nila had known no life but the one in which she boiled water and did the laundry every week for Duke Eldaminse’s family and the serving staff.

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