Chapter 32

"Why the Underchasm?" Rosie asks just beyond the walls of Delzimmer. Then she pivots, "Actually, I'd like to know how you knew about the ambush first. At the time I didn't say anything because of necessity. Now that we're safe, I want to know."

Kanti trots up on Swiftdancer and declares, "I don't think anyone is following."

"Don't be silly Rosie," Hame replies with a smile. "We're not safe in the least."

"I'm serious."

"So am I. For now I'm keeping my contact a secret because if he wanted his presence known, he would have revealed himself to all of us. I met him just after entering Delzimmer. I believe his goals are in line with ours. He warned me that the first lord of Delzimmer would invite me to his palace. He also said that we'd be ambushed by Shadowhammers immediately afterwards. So far, everything he has said has come true."

"They can't have been Shadowhammers! They must have gone rogue or…"

Hamezaar sighs as Delzimmer disappears behind them, the sun rising higher into the sky on their march back the way they came. Gundur's reaction is no surprise, such loyalty is one of the Dwarves' greatest traits. "Your loyalty does you credit Gundur but here and now it's a chink in your armor, one that might get us all killed. Iune? Are you going to keep that hammer?"

The Drow glances at the weapon already rubbing her hip raw. There wasn't a bruise…yet…but she knew the weapon couldn't remain there much longer. Although she found it intriguing, in the brutal Shaar heat, any excess weight may get her killed. She shakes her head.

"Give it to Gundur. Take it paladin; think about what holding that weapon means. You know the consequences of having it more than most."

Gundur looks at the Drow, disdain twisting his lips as he holds out a hand. Iune draws the weapon from her belt, holds it out and drops it into the sand. Smirking, she ignores his glare.

"Wretched Drow," Gundur curses as he retrieves it. For a long moment he stares at the weapon before catching up to the group.

"Do you believe we'll see more of these…Shadowhammers?" Hukir inquires.

"I've never fought anyone that skilled before," Rosie admits. "I'd rather not."

"They're not that good," Roan huffs. "They died, not us."

"One escaped and he was seriously wounded," Hame comments. "I doubt he'll pursue us now, he's more like to report back and recover after he gathers the two fallen hammers."

"Three," Iune corrects him.

Hamezaar halts suddenly with an intense look, "Why do you say three? There were four Shadowhammers. One escaped and three were slain." He pauses, his eyes moving as he reviews the battle in his mind. "Where did you get your hammer from?"

"I slew one on a rooftop before I reached you; it is from him I took the hammer. There were five of them."

"See I told you it couldn't be Shadowhammers," Gundur replies triumphantly. He notices their puzzlement and explains. "Shadowhammers only work in groups of four. There couldn't have been a fifth unless they had gone rogue and violated their rules."

"Four is a holy number for Dwarves," Hamezaar adds. "Four corners, four table legs, it provides a sturdy yet efficient base of structures. Shadowhammers act singularly or in fours."

"Your people are full of silly superstitions," Iune hisses.

"…and yet you serve him," Rosie points out. "She says five and the hammer is evidence she slew someone. You don't just stumble across something like that."

"Which proves I'm right," Gundur adds.

"Unless there were two teams," Hamezaar strokes his bearded chin as he contemplates it.

"No one gets two teams of Shadowhammers," Gundur whispers before he puts more conviction into it. "No one gets two, not Drow Matriarchs and certainly not a Deep Lord. They would have sent the best team but not two. No one gets two, no one."

"You trying to convince us or yourself?" Roan mocks him before asking. "If there was a second team, why wouldn't they help?"

"I can't be certain, pride maybe," Hamezaar shrugs. "You'd think they'd coordinate their efforts. Unless they had different orders, maybe to observe and report. They might have been there to silence the assassins so there's no chance word would get out. Maybe the Dwarf Iune killed was their lookout and they didn't know the attack failed."

"I don't mean to be divisive," Hukir hesitates to say. "How do we know she actually killed one, all we have is her word. She might have made a deal to diminish our suspicion."

"A Shadowhammer would never give up their weapon," Gundur replies. "There are tales solely of their clansmen crossing the face of Toril just to retrieve one lost by an ancestor. Those caught in possession of their weapons suffer terrible vengence."

"I saved their lives and you still assume I seek to do you harm," Iune scowls.

Hukir winces but Rosie replies, "Yes, you're Drow."

"Fair enough," Iune nods approvingly. "You'll make a good adversary."

"Um…thanks?"

"It can't be helped, not now," Hamezaar determines. "As to why, all of the great houses of the Rift originally lived in Underhome, beneath Eartheart. Before we continue our journey, I must retrieve something from my house's treasury, if I can retrieve it."

"What is it? A weapon?"

"Hah, what am I a Human? No, it's a suit of armor, ancient as my house. It's our namesake. As for your second question, we will reach the Underchasm on the Herder's Stairs."

"The Stairs are a myth," Gundur gives Hame a skeptical look.

"No they're not, I've used them before," Hamezaar replies. "Prepare yourselves; we have a three day journey across the Shaar."

Instead of following the road, Hamezaar points them northwest. There is little noticeable difference visually about the Shaar but once they lose sight of Delzimmer, the cool ocean breeze ends. The air grows still and hot, the heat becomes a burden that sucks the life from them. Sweat pours down their faces, stinging their eyes, and leaving their lips with the taste of salt. Of all of them, Kanti is the least affected, as this is her home. The rest bear their lot without complaint. Roan and Iune suffer the worst.

The heartlander sighs as weary eyes take in the bright day before he trudges on. Iune, while used to hard travel on foot, discovers quickly how different traveling in the Underdark is from the surface. Her cloak becomes stifling, cooking her beneath it. Her clothes are no better, intended for creeping in the lightless depths, not the blinding surface. She's used to the surface. Still, her eyes burn if she looks directly into sun and her skin doesn't enjoy its touch.

The first day is spent casually marching until the brutal heat sucks any desire to converse. Unlike the hard-packed road, the sand gives way beneath their feet and clings to every step. Where the heat sucks the life from them the sand slows, dragging their travel to a crawl.

"Why did we leave the road?" Rosie asks at the end of the first night. Roan collapses under the weight of his armor and exhaustion. Iune is a touch more graceful, at least lowering herself to the ground to rest.

"They need to get used to the Shaar," he answers. "This area is relatively safe and the roads might be watched. Once we leave the relative security of the watchtowers and Eartheart, we can't risk the heat and desert as an opponent. We'll set watch and rest."

Stifling day gives way to a chilly night, many of them waking with frost on their cloaks. Iune refuses to shiver and clenches her teeth to keep them from chattering. Rosie is not so proud, shivering beneath her blanket, she joins Roan beneath his. "I'm freezing, mind company?"

"Of course not," he chuckles softly as she snuggles against his chest like a child.

The second day is no kinder, hard travel across rocky soil as a forest appears on their northern horizon. Kanti circles them on Swiftdancer while Iune takes the lead with Rosie. Gundur and the hollow-eyed Roan follow several paces behind. In spite of his Dwarven constitution, the paladin had spent his life in Eartheart. While he has marched, he had never traveled this hard with full armor. By mid-day, he's as spent as the burly Human. Hame and Hukir keep a sharp watch on the weary two and for anyone following them. By day's end they begin to see patches of grass and the occasional wispy tree.

"I'm not trusting some Drow bitch on watch!" Roan yells.

"That is why colnbluth filth such as you belong as slaves," She responds.

"Enough!" Hame roars at them both before it could escalate any further. "We're taking watches in twos. You both have the first watch, then Kanti and I, followed by Rosie, Gundur, and Hukir. Predators here strike at dawn more often than night." They're silent for the rest of the night. Gundur is too proud to admit his weariness but Rosie thanks him for the last watch.

On their third day of marching cool winds begin to brush their skin and hair. What passes for grasslands, sparse and patchy shoots rise up from hard packed sand. Their steps grow steadier as the day gets a touch cooler from the breeze. Far to the west they can see the edge of the Rift. To their south and in the distance they can see Eartheart on the horizon. By mid-day they reach the Molhorandi Road, leading north out of Eartheart.

"We're going to follow this road for a few more hours," Hame explains on a break. "Then we're going to reach a curve and turn southwest to a notch along the edge of the rift. It's there we'll find the Herder Stairs."

"Why is it so much easier here?" Roan asks.

"There's water in the Rift and the wind along the edge of the cliff drives away the stillness you experienced over the last two days. There's also a lot more rock in the ground."

"Be glad the wind did not pick up," Kanti adds. "That would mean a storm."

"I've been in storms before."

"Not like these," Rosie explains. "The wind picks up the sand and turns them into thousands of tiny blades that will tear the skin from your bones."

"For now," Hame tells them. "Today's end comes when we reach the Stairs. We'll rest tomorrow; the Herder Stairs are a trial in and of themselves."

Roan huffs acknowledgement and climbs back to his feet along with Gundur. The hours pass easier, in the gentler climate along the Rift. Kanti walks Swiftdancer, who gladly snacks on the grasses. It isn't until the last few hours of day that they reach the edge, with a broken arch cleared off to one side. A pair of pillars once held the arch but they had snapped.

Then as they approach the edge, they see thousands of stairs and landings leading down into the depths. The steps are far wider and longer than normal with a swell and low wall to mark the edge. Hundreds of feet down plateaus and shelves stick out of the walls. In what seems like an eternity, they can see the floor of the East Rift.

"By Moradin's beard!" Gundur gasps. "It's real!"