Wylie, with all his practice and sharp eyesight as an archer, led the group through the base. It stank of mold, mildew and rotten meat, with dust littering the surfaces except for the several sets of footprints dashing madly in every direction. Ephraim was but a step behind Wylie and Lia took up the rear with her stronger armor and skills. Finn stayed in the middle of the group, although he bumped into Ephraim several times as the group explored the first floor.
“There’s nothing of use around here,” Wylie whispered when they had circled around into what must have been the common area. “Let’s try the next floor. Does anyone remember where the stairs were?”
“Weren’t they beyond the kitchen?” Lia asked. “I believe I saw some by the stove.”
With Lia’s direction, they found the stairs and attempted to climb them quietly. However, some of the wood creaked beneath their steps and Finn accidentally knocked the end of his staff against the steps more than once.
“He should have stayed behind,” Wylie hissed when they reached the second floor.
“Believe me, I’ve thought that myself plenty of times,” Finn retorted. “I’m not doing any of this on purpose.”
“Both of you, be quiet.” Lia stepped in front of Finn, obscuring the healer from view. “Let’s see if Wylie’s friend is here and get out.”
“I don’t see anyone,” Finn’s voice said from behind the knight. “Can we leave now?”
“We haven’t seen anyone,” Ephraim said, not bothering to speak in a whisper, despite Wylie trying to shush him. “Come on, we can probably just go to the top of the base. That’s where we heard the last of the shrieking, right—”
A shadow fell over the wall beyond Ephraim. He turned, sword raised, just as Lia shouted his name.
His blade clanged with the large man’s, but Ephraim didn’t need to put too much pressure on his defense stance. A dagger came around the man’s throat and neatly sliced it through.
“A sword to the back?” an unruffled voice asked as the dead man slipped to the floor. “I suppose there’s no honor code among these spineless men.”
Ephraim’s vision was suddenly filled with Lia and Finn as he was pushed behind them. “You’ve the looks of a thief yourself,” Finn said to the dagger’s owner. “What kind of honor code do you follow?”
“My own,” was the smooth reply as he cleaned his dagger of the dead bandit’s blood. The man stepped closer to the group, his height allowing Ephraim to see him over Finn’s shoulder, but not Lia’s. The thief’s dark eyes scrutinized the group, his limbs lithe and silent as he circled them in curiosity.
“Put that down,” the thief said, scoffing at Wylie for readying an arrow against him. “You’d all be bleeding through your throats by now if I had wanted you dead.”
“That a challenge?” Lia asked, her tone mild, her stance aggressive.
“You’d probably be the only one to provide that, m’lady,” the thief said, tipping his hat to her. “What are you all doing in here?”
“We heard shrieks coming from the outside,” Ephraim said after the other three had turned to him to answer. “We came to investigate. What is your business?”
“My partner also came here to investigate this base,” the thief said, “although not for the same noble reason as you. When she didn’t return in her usual timeframe, I came after her.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Ephraim said, “the shrieks we heard hadn’t sounded female.”
The thief grinned like a wolf. “Oh, I’m not worried about her getting hurt at all, but I thank you for the concern, Your Highness.”
Ephraim tried to ignore the thief’s unsettling smile and instead focused on the unsettling fact that the thief knew who he was. “How…?”
“Your stances, the grips your knight and yourself have on your swords,” the thief said easily. “You developed them from long days of practice with a tutor experienced in a structured army. Your healer has one of the best crafted staves I’ve ever come across, which means money from nobility. Both the healer and the knight had turned to you to respond to my questions, so I presumed you were the highest ranked.” He paused, letting all that sink in Ephraim’s head before casually adding, “That, and the insignia for the Tavalon Kingdom is etched on your sword’s sheath. If incognito was what you were going for, Your Highness, you sorely missed.”
Ephraim ignored the burning sensation of his neck and ears flushing, and it didn’t help when Wylie piped up with, “They are a bit ridiculous, aren’t they?”
“You are the only one I couldn’t quite figure out,” the thief said to the archer. “With your mismatched clothes and common bow, how did you get mixed up with them?”
“Put simply, they followed me,” Wylie said with a shrug.
“You heard the shrieks first?”
“While this conversation is utterly fascinating,” Finn interrupted, “may I remind you all we’re having it in an old and dim base? Can we either keep moving or get the hell out of here—”
There was a shout from above and the ceiling rattled when something collided with the eastern walls of the base.
Once everything was still again, Finn said, “I vote we get the hell out.”
“I’m guessing that came from two floors above,” the thief said with a casual glance at the ceiling. With a gesture toward the stairs, he asked, “Shall we?”
“Wait, now you’re coming?” Finn asked.
“I was here before you,” the thief said. “If we’re all heading in the same direction, may as well stick together, yes?”
Another base-rattling collision spurred Ephraim toward the stairs. “Fine, then, introductions will happen later!”
He vaguely heard the thief said, “Very well,” from somewhere behind him before the sounds of following footsteps reached his ears.