The wizard Xax peeked out from behind the boulder at the cave entrance. The dark hole was at the back of a small rock-strewn ravine in a wall of crumbling limestone. He glanced over at his three hirelings.
“You’re sure that’s it?” he whispered.
The slender red-haired woman with all the knives nodded and leaned close to him. “It's as they said it would be. It must be it.”
Xax stared back at the cave mouth. “ Doesn't look so bad.”
There was an odd stench here, something Xax couldn't place. Little grew other than some patches of brown grass.
No one in the nearby hamlets could say exactly what sort of creature made this its lair. Some said a dragon, which was absurd given how small the entrance was. Others said it was a huge snake, or perhaps some large spiders. The only thing they all agreed on was that no one who had entered the hole had ever returned.
Xax hadn't come here for whatever beast might inhabit the lair. A priest of Pelius had told him that a member of their sect had carried a knucklebone of St. Cletus into the lair. They wanted it back, and they were willing to pay a lot of gold if he would retrieve it. And I need that gold if I’m ever to find my sister again, he thought.
He caught the eye of the huge bald-headed fellow with the crisscrossing scars on his face and the rusty mace. “What do you say, Surly? Lead the way?”
Surly scowled and grunted, which was about as articulate as the man got. He slid around the edge of the boulder and stalked toward the lair entrance.
The red-haired woman, Telia, readied a pair of throwing knives and followed.
The last of Xax's companions, a nearly blind old man with a rusty voulge, grinned and said, “Go on, sorcerer. I've got your back.”
What good a blind man would do, Xax had no idea, but the sparsely populated nearby villages had offered few henchmen for hire. “With a blade like that and bad eyes, Lovash, I’d much rather have you in front of me.”
Lovash's grin widened. “Don’t hurt to try.” He hopped up and crept after Telia.
Xax tightened his grip on his staff and peered over the top of the boulder. Telia was lighting a torch, while Surly stood across from her at the entrance, ready to hand her a second torch once she got the first lit. Lovash poked the blade of his voulge into the blackness of the cave entrance, then grinned back at Xax and waved him forward.
Xax breathed deeply three times before scurrying out from behind the boulder. He imagined the dead eyes of a vast scaly snake bursting forth from the darkness to plunge long fangs into his side. He panicked, stumbled, and fell directly into the hole.
Gravel bit into his arms as Xax desperately tried to stop his slide. He couldn't see in the darkness. He twisted to his side and crashed into hard stone. With a groan, he blindly tried to assess the damage. His hands and arms burned from deep scrapes, and his hip bone was bruised. He had no idea where his staff was.
Then there was light, and scuffing sounds as the three hirelings entered the cave. Xax groaned again and looked up at Surly as the bald man drew near, a flickering torch held high.
“You all right, old man?” said Telia as she crept in next to Surly. “ Didn't realize you were that eager to get inside.”
“You see it?” Xax said, unable to keep the fear from his voice. “Anything moving?”
“Only Lovash,” Telia replied. “I don’t see...oh, hellfire!”
“What?” said Xax. “What is it?”
“Pick him up, Surly,” Telia said, her voice shaking. “ We've gotta get outta here now.”
“I can’t see nothing,” Lovash said. “What do you see?”
Surly stuck the torch in Lovash's hand and reached down to yank Xax up by the clasp of his cloak.
Xax was too frightened to care about the rough handling. The pillar of stone that had halted his fall was not a stalagmite as he had thought. It was a statue of an armored man, perfect in every detail. He looked past the man and saw that they were in a large cavern. Dozens of such statues filled the room, some holding their hands up in fright, others gripping stone weapons. Xax turned his wide eyes to Telia and saw his own horror reflected in the flickering light in her eyes.
“Surly,” she screamed.
Xax whirled to see the huge bald warrior frozen in place, his eyes blank and his mouth gaping. Like a pebble dropped into a pool of water, a ripple spread from Surly’s eyes, flesh turning to stone with the slightest of crackling sounds.
Telia yelled, “Run!” and scrambled up the gravelly slope toward the light of the entrance.
“What is it?” cried Lovash, dropping the torch and swinging his voulge in a sweep until it clanged against one of the stone statues.
Xax had trouble catching his breath. “Basilisk,” he whispered. He tried crawling after Telia, but was yanked back by Surly’s stone hand, still gripping his cloak.
Lovash dropped the voulge and rushed after Telia.
“Ah, gods!” Xax finally found his voice. “Come back, Lovash. I’m stuck!”
The old man ignored him and vanished into the sunlight pouring through the entrance.
Xax heard Telia's voice shout something and the sound of running before all was silent save for the crackling of the two abandoned torches lying on the floor. He saw his staff lying near his feet and reached for it, but Surly’s arm held him up.
Xax froze as a slight scraping sound reached his ears. Scales slithering over stone?
He redoubled his efforts to reach his staff, but his fingers came up inches short. Blood pattered onto the stone floor from the scrapes on his hands. He grasped for the clasp, but it was buried in Surly’s stone fist. In desperation he thrust himself up and let himself fall, hoping his cloak would tear.
A hissing sound came from somewhere just behind, much too close. Xax wedged a foot up against Surly and pushed with all his strength, but the cloak didn't give.
Sorry to leave you with a cliffhanger, but the direction the story takes from this point in my WIP doesn't fit with this particular post, so I decided to cut it off there. Hopefully some of you might read the actual book someday, once I get it finished.