I stared at the two leaders of the village’s fighters. “How are you two drunk this early? It;s barely past noon!”
“We got shtarted early,” Harold’s father slurred. “About right when you guysh left for your shuicide mishun.” He waved his half-empty beer mug, splashing some of it on the floor. “Orange gave us our own shuicide mishun.”
“I do not like suicide missions,” Captain Gaven declared loudly. “Too much…suicide.”
“Wench!” Mallern called. “Another round!”
The annoyed waitress from the morning looked even more annoyed than usual, and for good reason. I had a feeling that if she came over with drinks, it would be to dump them on their heads. I caught her eye and made a cutting motion with my hand, indicating she should ignore their order. She seemed only too happy to comply.
“What was that for?” Gaven demanded, eying me with sharp—but drunk—eyes. “You sig…sig…signed something at the taverness. Ess. There some sort of conspiracy at work here, boy? A vile plot against virtuous men?”
He could not say signaled, but he could manage virtuous just fine. “Yes. A conspiracy to keep you two from drinking yourselves to death.” I glared at them both, Mallern especially. “Seriously, you should be happy your son was called away on errands. Do you really want him to see you like this?”
He seemed like he was slipping into a depression, and my words did not help. “No…but I want to shend him on a shuicide mishun even lesh.”
I sighed and turned to Vale. “See, we tried it your way. You cannot argue with drunks.”
My blond subordinate bowed. “All I could do was ask.”
“Now, we do this our way.” I nodded to Norn, Roark, and Jack.
Norn and Roark took Gaven, while Jack and I took Mallern. We did not give them time to react, just slipped under their shoulder and pulled them away from their table, ignoring the beer they were spilling on us in the process. They complained, but they were too drunk to do much more than mumble incoherently.
“Apologies for the mess,” I said to the waitress as we passed. She was still frowning, but managed to nod in acceptance. She understood that this was the best way this could end. “Vale! Pay the girl a little something extra for her trouble!”
We dragged the two men down the tunnels, past our quarters and to the bathing caverns. As I understood it, a couple of the other caves in the Hellpit had natural hot springs, but there were none connected to the Town Hall cave. These were just big caves with pools of water in them.
That meant they were very cold.
We dumped the men in them without hesitation. After only a moment, they jumped up, screaming bloody murder and hacking water out of their lungs. They sat there in the waist-high water for a few minutes, leaning against the shore and shivering as they got their breath back.
“Sober?” I asked.
Nathan Mallern groaned. “…no. But enough that I think we will both take some of that clone fruit wine Miss Grandsbriar has.”
Jack stepped forward, holding a wineskin and two wooden mugs. She placed the mugs on the stone ground of the shore, within reach of both men, and poured a pink liquid into each cup. The men took the cups, clinked them against each other in a mock toast, and downed them in a single gulp each.
They then immediately turned around and wretched into the pool.
“Ugh,” Gaven muttered, wiping his mouth and staring at his clothes in disgust. “Should have gotten out first.”
“Yes, you should have,” I noted. We had seen this coming, but there was not really a way around it. “No one is going to be able to use this pool for a couple days, you know. Not until the underground river cycles out the water.”
Mallern pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed against what I assumed was a pretty bad headache. “I hate clone fruit wine. Worst hangover cure in the world. Whatever happened to that thick red stuff?”
“Too expensive,” Jack grunted. Presumably, she knew what he was referencing, because I did not have a clue. “Clone fruit wine is good enough for two idiot soldiers who got drunk a few hours before they knew they had an important mission.”
Both men groaned. “do not remind us…” Gaven murmured.
I had no sympathy for them. “You have ten minutes to get up, get dressed, and meet us in the briefing room. If you are not there by then, we are coming back and dragging you there by force. And you will not be getting new clothes.”
Nathan waved vaguely to acknowledge that he understood.
The five of us left, headed for the briefing room I had mentioned. I frowned at Jack as we walked. “You are sure it is fine to just leave them like that? I do not want to come back to find that they have drowned.”
She shook her head. “They will not. They have killer headaches right now, but they are sober.”
I sighed. “I suppose that is all we could ask for. Now we just need to make sure word of this does not get out. It would have a devastating effect on morale.” I turned to Vale. “You need to go back to the waitress—”
“Already bribed both her and the tavernkeeper to stay quiet,” he assured me. “They say no one really came through all day, so we do not have to worry about anyone else talking either. Everyone was busy with clearing the caves.”
“Small favors,” I muttered.
Ten minutes later, in the small and cramped cave that qualified as a briefing room at the moment, we were joined by the two haggard men in fresh clothes, armed and armored for battle. Harold had met up with us on the way.
The archer eyed his father up and down, especially his wet hair. “Did you take a bath?”
Nathan glanced in my direction; I kept my face carefully neutral. After a moment, the hunter managed an awkward shrug. “Well, I…yes. I was a bit dirtier than usual. Ran into a dire rock colony this morning. Lots of mud.”
“All right, whatever,” the young archer muttered. “Let us just get on with this.”
The two leaders strode up the the stone table, where someone had spent an inordinate amount of time carving a surprisingly detailed map into the rock of the table itself. Unlike the stout four-legged tables in the tavern, this was just a solid block of stone, carved directly from the floor. For all I knew, it could have been here since Gregor’s bandits owned the place. In fact, this seemed exactly like something he would commission.
The point was, the map showed quite clearly the Hellpit and the surrounding area. The scale was not wide enough to see Old Grandsbriar to the north, but the Hellwood to the south had a representation etched into the rock, and someone had placed a few small stone buildings to show the location of the budding war camp.
“The camp is about three hours away,” I noted. “It is almost two o’clock now, so even if we left right now, we would only get there right as it is getting dark.” I looked at Jack and Harold. “I have a feeling sinhearts have excellent night-vision.”
They both nodded. “Very.”
“All right, but what about bright lights?”
“You fought the ones at Old Grandsbriar during the day,” Jack reminded me, a puzzled expression on her face as she questioned why I needed reminding. “They are perfectly fine with bright lights.”
“No, I mean bright lights at night. Sudden flashes, like those sky flowers.”
“That is something to consider,” Nathan mused. “I would have to check our stores, but we should have enough to make a few more big booms.” He frowned at me. “But they are smarter than they look. They will remember from yesterday the sound of them going up, and will close their eyes.”
“Only if we send them up,” I insisted. “What if we detonate them closer to the ground? Has that ever been tried before?”
Gaven chuckled. “Not on purpose. These things are not weapons, but they are dangerous. Playing around with them without knowing what you are doing is just going to get a lot of people hurt.”
“And letting the sinhearts build a fortress on your doorstep will hurt more.”
The captain sighed. “Fine. I am not an expert, but I will talk to the delvers, see what they think about the idea.” He pointed a finger at me. “But if they say no, that is it, we are not doing it. You have to listen to the experts.”
I nodded. “That is fine, and I agree completely.”
Gaven nodded as well. “Good. So what is the plan after that?”
Norn frowned at him. “Look, I trust my lord’s judgment, but should not you be the one making the plans? you are the one with the men.” He waved his hand at Nathan Mallern. “Both of you are, that is. And you have more experience fighting sinhearts.”
The armored man grinned mirthlessly. “Enough experience to know all that will come to squat. Nathan, what was the biggest group of sinhearts we ever fought at once? Not counting the suicide run on the Dire Abbey.”
“Thirty, I think,” the hunter mused. “Well, each wave was thirty of them.” He looked up at the rest of us. “They came in waves about five minutes apart, twenty or thirty at a time. We never did find out why they did not just rush us all at once.”
“Well, Let us not make that same mistake,” I said firmly. “I think this should work…”