Chapter 03

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                             -- 7/24/6526 --

     Aristo pulled the cinches on his pack tightly closed.
     This was too much.  He was itching to get on with his exploration.
From his estimates, he had been down in these tunnels for well neigh two
weeks.  He had brought along three weeks worth of provisions, and only a
third remained.  It was past time to resume his explorations.  His wounds
were adequately healed.  They no longer troubled him and were well on
their respective ways to becoming nothing more than scars to add to his
copious collection.
     Aristo pulled on his cloak and shouldered his pack.  He looked at the
spear leaning against one crate.  He considered leaving it behind, but
you could never tell when something would come in handy.  He chose to
keep it with him until it became a hindrance.  Then he could find some
intriguing way to dispose of it.
     He journeyed up the passage once again, pausing at the side-passage
which led to the humans' area.  Although there was a door up ahead where
the passage ended, he was curious as to what the humans were up to.
     Looking through the peephole, he could see only one guard, who was
quite awake.  No overtly interesting pranks came to mind, so he went to
check up on the goblins down the other fork.  The revolting yellow-skinned
humanoids were still up to their usually dull existences.  Ari had
returned in a couple of his more bored moments to check out these two
peepholes, but had witnessed nothing to pique his interest.  He had kept
himself in check from inciting anything entertaining.  He had, after all,
sworn to himself that he would not do anything until his wounds were more
fully healed.  It had been a painful oath, but he had succeeded in keeping
it, if only barely.
     He settled on the decision to not stir up either the humans or the
goblins -- or, at least, not right then.
     Ari returned to the door in the main passage.  He pushed on the door.
It was stiff, but some convincing from his shoulder got the door to open.
He found himself in a room with the attire of an office or a study, albeit
an empty one.  A desk, two work tables, and some shelving units adorned
the room, but the only thing they held were thick blankets of dust.
Though a nice effect to Aristobulus, this failed to gather his interest.
The doorway on the opposite side of the room, however, did.  The door was
of the same type as the concealed ones leading into the human and goblin
     Peeking through the peephole, he saw the rather disgusting sight of
five humanoids dismembering and devouring what appeared to have once been
an orc.  Aristo had never seen the like of them before.  These creatures
were taller and exceptionally burlier than himself, with thick, scaly skin
and long unkempt hair, clad only in rags.  They seemed to be not the least
bit affected by the lack of light, so they must possess infravision as
well.  Aristo was surprised that there actually existed creatures more
repulsive than orcs.  This place was certainly filled with surprises.
     Aristo was curious about these creatures.  He wondered whether or not
they were reasonable -- or at least as reasonable as is possible for a
humanoid.  Mayhap he could gain some information from them.  Right, and
orcs are docile scholars.  The worst these creatures could do to would be
to attack Aristo and devour him also.  Of course, he would be dead before
that point and it would obviously not matter to him what they did.
     Releasing the door latch, he pushed it open, only to find himself
confronted by all five of the creatures.  He had not made that much noise.
They must have exceptionally good hearing.  They grabbed up their weapons
as he stepped through the door.  That did not leave him with too many
options.  He assumed that they were not partial to charming elven wit --
as though he possessed any.
     So Aristobulus hurled his spear into the chest of the front creature
and pulled his weapons.  Ari jumped over the body and danced under the
swing of another of the creatures, gutting the poor wight in the process.
A broadsword bounced off of Aristo's sorcerous armor.  He twisted out of
the way of a battleaxe and continued the turn to cut down two more of the
uncouth critters.  Another sword was deflected by his magic while Aristo's
sword and dagger sliced up an additional beastie.  He just barely dodged
out of the path of the blow of another sword and then the last of the
creatures dropped to the ground, streaming blood onto the floor.  Aristo
watched the blood, which glowed warm to his heat-sensitive eyes.  He could
detect swirling currents of heat in the blood as it came in contact with
the cold stone.  Beautiful.
     He swept his eyes over the room.  It appeared to be someone's trash
heap.  The smell was quite offensive, and the dead bodies did nothing to
improve the matter.
     Cleaning up his blades, Aristobulus considered restoring his weakened
protection spell.  Since he was sick of being carved up by every other
idiot carrying a sword, he gladly restored the dweomer.
     There were two other exits from this room.  He closed the secret
panel.  There was no need to let anyone stumble upon his bolt-hole.  With
his luck, he was likely to have need of it again.  Aristo noted that one
of the doors opened in the direction of the rooms wherein he had defeated
those orcs on the first evening of his arrival in this subterranean realm.
     He examined the door.  It should have swung outwards, but it resisted
his attempt to open it.  It must need a bit of friendly persuasion.  He
slammed into it with all of his strength.  There was a splintering of wood
and he found himself laying on the floor looking up at a trio of
astonished orcs.  He noticed that he had broken the plank which had barred
the door shut.
     In orcish, he quipped, "You chaps might want to look into having that
plank replaced.  It seems a little rotten to me."
     The orcs voiced some select, vilesome orcish curses... as though
there were any other kind.  They truthfully did hate elves.
     Ari rolled to one side in time to avoid getting his silver hair
parted by one of the orcs' swords.  He twisted out of the path of two more
swords and jumped to his feet, executing a passable leap kick to distract
them while he readied his weapons.  His kick connected with the side of an
orc's head.  The force of the blow spun the orc into the wall, which was
possibly the only thing that kept the orc from falling on his face.
     The two remaining orcs called out coarse battlecries and charged.
The first contrived to bounce her sword off of Ari's defensive wards.  The
orc croaked more curses, bouncing her sword off of the wall in another
attempt to part his hair.
     "Ohh.  Such insults," replied Ari, wondering how her sword ever
stayed intact, what with all of the bouncing it was doing off of hard
surfaces.  He considered querying her on it, but almost before he was
aware of it, he had struck down the both of them, and his opportunity to
do so had passed.  Oh well, so it goes.
     He stepped over to have a look at the unconscious orc who, by this
time, had slid down the wall.  The fellow was starting to come around.
Aristo must not have put enough kick into his leap.  His thoughts were cut
off as one of the three other doors leading into the room slammed open and
in charged several more orcs.  The waking orc did not look like he was in
any condition to enjoy any more fights this day, so Ari cracked the fellow
over the skull with the hilt of his sword, and the orc was comatose once
     Ari hopped into the midst of the new arrivals, trying to keep them
off balance.  Two more of the orcs were busy collapsing to the floor when
an axe finally penetrated Ari's magics, putting a slight crease in his
arm.  Aristo spun and spitted the cad who would do such a deed, noticing
in the process that a couple more orcs were spilling into the room.
     Aristo's dagger immediately found its mark in the throat of one of
the new orcs.  But at the same time, a sword in the hand of the other cut
deeply into Ari's shoulder.  Ari let loose a ferocious growl and plunged
both his blades into the offending orc.  He twisted out of the path of
another sword-swing and bestowed the same gift upon the last orc standing.
     Aristobulus was busy cursing his wounds when he heard shouting and
saw even more orcs piling into the room from the same direction as the
others.  Now this was starting to get on his nerves.  These orcs
multiplied as bad as rabbits and al-mi'raj.
     He recognized that he would likely not be able to survive another
fight with the painful wound in his shoulder, and he had not the strength
to cast another spell just then.  So maybe he could have a little fun
playing with their minds, such as they were.
     "Right then, who's next?" he called out, gesturing to the ten orcs
scattered about the rooms in various gory displays.
     These newly-arrived orcs saw themselves confronting a wounded elf who
had just single-handedly defeated ten of their comrades.  They knew not
what to think of such a foe, so they started to back towards the door.
However, the largest of the lot noticed this retreating motion -- he was,
after all, in the rear -- and roared, "We can take 'im.  'E's wounded."
     "That's what these fellows thought.  Nevertheless, if you insist, I
guess I could do with the extra practice."  Aristo hurled his dagger at
the nearest orc, who clutched at the hilt suddenly protruding from his
chest.  The orc dropped to his knees, then sprawled on the floor.  Ari
hoped his dagger had not been scratched on the floor.  He did so very much
hate it when that happened.
     The remaining orcs started to cower back against the door again, but
the large one bellowed, "Take 'im or I'll crack your 'eads!"  That left
the three other orcs trapped between an unknown danger and a known one.
That made things easier.  They started to advance on Aristo.
     Ari shifted his sword to his left hand and unhooked the whip from his
belt.  It was so rare that he ever had the opportunity to use his favored
weapon.  The whip lashed out, cracking above the orcs' heads.  The
advancing trio of orcs flinched away from the sound and the whip snaked
out through the resulting opening in their ranks.
     The length of rawhide wrapped itself tightly around the burly orc's
neck.  He dropped his sword, trying to free himself as his eyes bulged
from their deep sockets.  Rather than try to help their feared leader, the
other three orcs took the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat.  Gurgling
incomprehensibly, the orc leader finally fell over... unconscious or dead,
it did not matter to Aristobulus.  With a flick of his wrist, he freed his
whip, coiling it up and returning it to his hip.
     Aristo recovered his weapons and picked up the remains of the wooden
plank.  Noticing the one orc was starting to come around again, Ari conked
him in the side of the head with the plank, thinking to himself about what
thick skulls orcs must have.  Aristo then used the plank to jam shut the
door all of the orcs had been running in and out of.
     Stalking back through the refuse chamber, Aristobulus returned to the
abandoned office where he bound his wounds.  Staring off into space, he
considered how much his tactics were getting him carved up in every other
encounter with someone.  He did so hate having to bide his time letting
wounds heal.  Maybe he should just stick to sneaking around in the dark,
cracking people over the head with his blackjack.
     Leaning over the desk, he rested his head on his arms and drifted off
to sleep.  Of course, he could now spend the time while his shoulder
healed in thinking of engaging activities which were less likely to get
him hacked and slashed.

                             -- 7/26/6526 --

     By way of the peephole, Ari stared at the guard who was seated on one
of the sofas.  Gazing around at the walls of the room, he appeared almost
as bored as Ari was.
     In contrast to the guard, Aristobulus had something in mind to do
that would break his boredom.  The elf was wondering what the humans' new
leader was like.  Their previous one had been noteworthy.  It was a shame
that Ari's little talk with him had not lasted longer.  Maybe this one
would.  Besides, Aristo was curious as to what he could learn about these
tunnels from the new leader.
     Aristobulus cast his spell of sleep on the guard, whose head lolled
back on the couch.  Ari crept through the secret panel and looked down at
the human.  The enchantment would last only a short time, and he had a
reason for not wanting it obvious that he had put the guard to sleep.
Stepping behind the couch, he cracked the guard behind the ear with his
blackjack.  Not only would the guard be out of it longer, but it would
also be the obvious reason for why the guard was unconscious.
     Aristo rapped a knuckle on the door to the office.  A slightly irate
feminine voice demanded what he wanted.  Now, he wondered, was she as
gullible a fool as were most humanoids?  Aristo stuck his head in the
door.  "G'day."
     The office appeared little changed from his last visit, except for
being somewhat more orderly.  How drear.  The sole occupant of the office
was the woman seated at the desk.  She gave Aristo a look of intense
annoyance at being disturbed.  "What do you..."  Her voice faded as she
realized that she was not looking at one of her own underlings.
     She jumped to her feet and grabbed for the sword laying on one edge
of the desk.  "Who are you?"
     Ari popped into the room and dropped into a moderately comfortable
chair.  "Oh, do please sit down.  There is no need to stand on my
     She glared at the elf, considering whether or not to run him through
with her sword -- if only to be on the safe side.  Instead, she demanded,
"How did you get in here?"
     "I have my ways...  Mareillar, isn't it?"
     "How came you to know my name?"
     "I know a number of things.  Now do be seated.  We have a bit of
discussion to attend to."
     Mareillar advanced on him, brandishing her weapon.  "Answer my
questions, elf, or you will die, here and now."
     Aristo gazed at the ceiling in exasperation.  "If you would sit down,
we could get this over with much quicker.  I have other business that
needs tending."
     She pointed her blade at his chest.  "How did you get past my
     This was beginning to sound familiar.  Dull, dull, dull.
     "I swear, answer me or you will die," threatened Mareillar.  Aristo
knew he was not that lucky.
     "Please be seated, Mareillar.  I'm here to discuss business, not
study you interrogation techniques."
     "Cease your babbling, elf, or it will be the last thing you will ever
     Sigh.  This was not going the way Ari wanted.  It would seem that he
needed to take command of this situation.  His sword flashing from its
scabbard, Ari bounded from his chair and struck the weapon from
Mareillar's hand.  His sword was back in its sheath before the woman's
shortsword landed on the rug at her feet.
     Not bad, Aristo thought to himself as he put on his best incensed
face.  He pointed one slender finger at the seat on the other side of the
desk.  "Sit down," he articulated slowly to be certain that she understood
him.  Aristo had learned long ago that with humans the obvious quite often
was not.
     When it seemed as if she had other ideas on her mind, Ari added in an
indifferent voice, "If you want to die, that wish can be easily granted.
If not, then sit down."
     Considering her position against this unfamiliar opponent, she
finally stamped behind her desk and sat down, the expression on her face
an odd combination of anger and fear.
     Ari smiled inwardly.  This was turning out quite well.  He picked up
her sword, replacing it to its original position on the desk before
resuming his seat.  "Now, shall we try this again, preferably in a more
civilized manner?  I do so hate speaking from a position of power.  It is
much more pleasurable conducting business as equals.
     "It has been brought to my attention that you've recently..." he
paused a breath, as if considering his next word, "...replaced Alta'karoll
as the leader of this band."
     Mareillar remained silent, glowering across the desk at him.  He
raised his eyebrows and inclined his head warningly.  She swallowed her
pride.  "How came you to know that?"
     "I should rather not reveal my sources."
     "Then who are you and what do you want?" she demanded a little more
gently this time, but not by much.
     "They call me Aristobulus the Dark.  I am something of a dealer in
information and other wares.  When I heard that one of my valued...
assistants... had perished, I decided to drop in and see if I could
discover what had happened to him."  Aristo cocked his head as he took
note of a recent bloodstain on one of the tapestries.  "I take it
Alta'karoll was... against the idea of your replacing him as leader?"
     "You could say that.  An elf snuck in here and killed him and several
other of our number."  Upon pointing his out, she started to look at
Aristobulus contemplatively.
     "An elf, you say?  I don't suppose you got a good look at this
     "All I know is that he was an elf dressed in a black cloak."  Her
face grew darker as she eyed Ari's own black cloak.
     "An elf in a cloak.  Hmm.  Not very specific.  Could be just about
any elf.  I don't supposed he had a big scar across the left side of his
face?" He looked at her speculatively, tracing his finger down the side of
his face to indicate the mentioned wound.
     Confusion inched its way into her face as she responded, "No, the
guard who saw him made no mention of it."
     "Oh well, then it wasn't that son of a drow.  Still, I might be able
to dig up something about this.  Alta'karoll was most useful at times."
     Leaning forwards in her chair, Mareillar stated flatly, "It is very
rare to hear of any elves around here.  How do I know that you are not the
one responsible for these deaths?"
     Ari made a brief show of choking on something imaginary.  "Me?!  Why
would I do such a thing?  Alta'karoll was one of my best agents."
     "Agents in what?"
     Aristo put on a professional face.  "I deal in information.  There
are a number of people throughout these caverns who keep me informed of
various events and notable facts.  In return, I keep them up to date on
any information that might be worthwhile to them.  I also ask the
occasional favor of them, for which I pay them handsomely.  Alta'karoll
was quite good at it.
     "However, since Alta'karoll's lamentable demise, I now need to find
someone else to replace him.  That is why I am here.  Your band has proved
quite useful to me previously.  Therefore, I am hoping to recruit you as
Alta'karoll's replacement.  I should rather not lose the usefulness of
this group."
     Mareillar became pensive, thinking about how this would explain some
of Alta'karoll's more unusual and daring raids.  Perhaps this elf was
speaking the truth.  If that was the case, then she would need to find out
how she could turn this to her advantage.
     "So how much would this be worth to you?"  The sparkle of greed
showed in her eyes.  Simple things for simple minds.  Aristo saw that this
could become most entertaining.
     "Well, that does depend.  You mentioned that this mysterious elf slew
several of your people.  Just how many of your number are still alive, and
in what condition are they?"
     At the reference to the elf, Mareillar's previous suspicion of Aristo
resurfaced to challenge her greed.  Good.  Ari was not about to let any of
the enjoyment slip out of this information gathering session.  Now it was
a matter of whether the woman's distrust of Aristo was greater than her
innate greed.  And Ari was about to push them both to the extreme to see
how she would handle it.
     "Well, come on.  If you don't tell me, I'll have no idea of what
nature of fees to pay you for those special requests I occasionally make,"
he prompted.
     Greed won this battle and she said, "Thanks to those cursed orcs and
Alta'karoll's murderer, more than half our number have perished in the
past dozen spans.  I've only got eleven of my men left.  And two of them
are recovering from wounds, thanks to an orc raid."
     Hmm.  Spans?  Their equivalent of a day?  It made sense: with no sun,
they did need some way to keep track of their day/night rhythms.  And did
she say that she had eleven men?  His head count only tallied ten of them,
including Mareillar.  Of course, it was a reasonable assumption that they
maintained guardposts.  How large of a guard did they have?
     That was an easy question to have answered.  "And exactly how many of
them are you keeping on watch?"
     Mareillar started to respond, except that she cut herself off when
her mistrust of the elf reasserted itself.  If he had snuck past their
guards, then he should know the answer to that question.  Evasively, she
merely said that they were keeping the same guard rotations as when
Alta'karoll had been in charge.  If this elf were speaking the truth, then
he should already know what that was.
     "Ah, but with your reduced number, isn't that putting a strain on
your people?"  Aristobulus knew how to play this game as well.
     "If I reduce the guards, the orcs, if not somebody else, would
certainly wipe us out."
     "Then perhaps we could think about relocating your group somewhere
else.  Somewhere more profitable."
     That caught the attention of her greed again.  "You know of such a
     "Several, actually.  However, I'll need to check out my other sources
to find which ones would be suitable for your group."  His eyes grew
distant for several seconds as if he were considering the problem.
Actually, he was contemplating what to throw at her next to keep her off
balance.  "You say the orcs around here have become more aggressive of
     Mareillar nodded at the displeasing reminder of her troubles as new
leader of this band of brigands.  "They've been roaming about in droves.
Seems to me as though they are looking for something or someone."
     "Not too surprising, that.  I've heard some rumors that some warrior,
or warriors -- it depends on who you ask -- has been hunting them down
recently.  About two score of the nasty buggers have been slain by him
already... or by them.  That is something else I shall have to look into
whilst I'm up here."
     "Up here?  You mean to say that you spend time on the lower levels?"
That seemed to catch her respect.  Then it must indeed be true that the
more dangerous foes were to be found in the deeper reaches of the tunnels,
and hence, so were the more valuable wisdoms and objects of power.  That
was something Ari would have to keep in mind when he went in search of
greater challenges.
     "Oh course.  I find them to have more interesting denizens."  To
Mareillar, this explained why Aristobulus the Dark acted as he did.  If he
truthfully spent much of his time in the lower levels, it made the elf a
truly formidable opponent.  She would keep that detail in mind so as to
not make the mistake of underestimating him.  Of course, it also made him
a valuable associate.  Therefore, she might be able to obtain more power
and a higher station in these regions.  It also explained how Alta'karoll
had become such an excellent swordswinger.  Perhaps she too could become
as skilled as that bloody beggar had been in battle, if not better.  Then
she would be able to travel freely through these tunnels, rather than
cowering in a few defended chambers.  She assuredly would have to find out
how to turn this elf's proposals to her own advantage.
     "Then perchance you have access to some of the enchanted weapons I
have heard stories about?"
     "What items I have are not for petty use," Ari warned her.  "They are
most costly -- in many a way -- to obtain.  Many are more a danger to have
than not have.  I would counsel you to not dream about such items.  They
attract thieves like rot grubs to a corpse.  If you had an enchanted item
and word of it was spread 'round, you would have no peace until someone
had slain you and taken the item as his own."  It was so nice having an
over-active imagination.  It made lying such an easy task.
     Mareillar did not believe that.  If she had a magicked blade, she
would assuredly be invincible!  And she would not let her dreams of power
be flung to the wayside so easily.  She had no intention of letting any
information on any items pass her by.  "You sound as though you speak from
experience," prompted Mareillar.
     Ari's eyes grew distant.  "Indeed I do," he muttered to himself.  He
also was not about to let this thread be lost.  An idea came to him.  With
a cautioning air, he stated, "I would caution you to stick with what
simple spells are in your reach."
     He suddenly snapped his fingers, his eyes brightening as though a
thought had come to him out of the blue as he put the idea into effect.
"I know just the thing for you.  I know an acolyte of the temple of Ares.
She has grown weary of the intrigue and dangers that lie in the lower
levels.  She is none too strong in her powers, but she would serve you
excellently as an advisor and lieutenant.  I shall have to tell her about
you.  With any luck, she will happily assist you in carving out a larger
domain in these tunnels."
     Mareillar put on the appearance of interest at the idea.  It did have
merit, but she had no trust for spell casters.  They could do something
she did not understand, and that gave them an edge over her.  The cleric
of a war god would be of great assistance in Mareillar's lust for power
and domination.  Such an ally would be quite useful, but also dangerous.
Still, she knew how to deal with such a person.  A knife in the back would
put an end to any threat to her power.
     "I agree.  That alliance would indeed be profitable.  When might this
friend of yours come to me?"  If this cleric were a friend of Aristobulus,
it would make her a danger to dispose of for Mareillar, should the need
ever arrive.  But that could be taken care of in time.
     "I couldn't say," Ari returned thoughtfully.  "I would first have to
find her and speak with her.  I will need to get back to you on this."  He
sat back in the chair pensively.  "I do believe this is an excellent point
to end this discussion on.  I shall gladly look forward to our future
dealings."  Aristo stood up to leave.
     Mareillar's doubt about the elf returned.  If he were what he
claimed, she would not care to be one of his servants.  But if she would
profit from him, then happily would she sap from him all she might.
However, she had no proof of what he claimed.  Perhaps he was what he
said, and Alta'karoll had betrayed him.  Aristobulus did fit the dying
guard's description of the killer, vague as it had been.  But the guard
had been drunk as well as delirious.  She could only be certain that the
killer had been an elf.
     And that this elf could just waltz into her sanctum without anyone in
the common-room seeing him meant that he was a great danger to her, should
he choose to slay her.  Perhaps a simple test would reveal something to
her.  As he started for the door, she edged her hand towards her sword.
"What if I do not permit you to leave?"
     Aristo simply raised one eyebrow.  Her doubt had finally returned.
He had believed she had finally been taken in by him.  "Do you believe you
can stop me?"
     "I can call to my warriors."
     "Do you believe that even they can stop me?  I assure you that even
if they could overpower or slay me, which I doubt, you would be dead err
that happened.  Are you willing to take that chance?"
     Inner turmoil showed in her eyes.  Finally, she crossed her arms and
said nothing.  She would not take such a gamble with her life.  His
earlier display of swordsmanship had proved to her that she could not take
him in battle.  She cursed herself for not bothering to keep a loaded
crossbow hidden under her desk as Alta'karoll had done, a fact she had
once learned by almost forcing him to use it on her.
     Still, she thought as the elf strode out the door, she could always
discover what the elf did from her guard.  Most likely he simply made
himself invisible.  Elves knew magic, didn't they?

     Once again back in the secret tunnel, Aristo watched the guard's
room.  As he suspected, Mareillar soon exited her office, trying to find
out where he had gone.  Upon discovering her guard to be unconscious, she
dealt him a savage kick with her boot.  Ari barely resisted the urge to
double over in sympathy.  When the guard finally came to, the pain in his
skull would surely be the least of his concerns.
     When Mareillar had confronted those in the common-room, assuring
herself that none of her underlings had seen an elf sneak out that way,
she stood in the guard's room, oblivious to the painful groans of the
awakening guard.  A twisted half-smile tugged at Ari's mouth.  The woman
was trying to figure out how he had exited the room unseen.  Eventually,
she turned her attention to the walls, trying to find out if the elf had
exited via a secret passage.  Therefore she could not be quite as dense as
Ari had been beginning to suspect.
     He double-checked to make certain that the locking bolt was in place
on the secret panel.  Even if she did manage to locate the means of
opening the panel, she would be unable to do so.  However, she finally
gave up her search when she could not find any secret doors, which allowed
Aristobulus to relax.  He could therefore continue to play with her mind.
     He grinned inwardly.  Now he could start planning his next visit with
Mareillar.  But first, he would find some other diversions.  The sword-
wound to his shoulder would still be some time in healing, even with the
healing salves speeding it along.

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