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The Mystara Chronicles III: "Retaliation"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
"What ought we to do?" whispered Fyodor. After parting ways with Janner, Fyodor and his companions had made their way to the cave opening that the old woodsman had spotted in the distance. Their journey had taken a whole hour of hard travel, for the forest remained very thick and the rugged terrain often prohibited them from plotting a direct path. Without Janner to guide them, the group soon lost the trail of the orcs. Varis was quite troubled about this, and frequently commented that all that the group had to go on was a vague sense of certainty regarding the identity of some quickly glimpsed figures in the distance. It only took one strong word from Thalaric to shut him up, and the rest of the trip was made in silence.
The cave opened like a carnivorous maw into the side of the hillock, surrounded by a clearing where the pine forest and deep humus gave way to thin grasses poking out from between grey-black rock. The group huddled at the base of the hill, seeking cover from the rain and prying eyes in a particularly dense copse of pine trees, catching their breath, biding their time. Fyodor felt ridiculous hiding there, crouching behind a tree as if he were playing hide-and-go-seek with his friends. He quickly realised that this feeling came about not because he did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation, but because he did. Picking off feral wolves with a longbow from the relative safety of the hayloft of his parents' barn was one thing, but venturing into a chthonic cavern with a sword in hand, this was almost too much to deal with. It was as if he were telling himself that his very presence here was completely and utterly ludicrous. A perching bird seemed to feel likewise, for it had shat upon Fyodor's left rerebrace when he and the others had arrived at the base of the hill. He had pretended not to notice, and the rest of the party was either too engrossed in their current situation or too polite to make mention, but it had added a layer of absurdity to the already thick tension, as though the Immortals themselves were mocking him. Fyodor was not confident.
"We should take a look at the cave," Thalaric whispered in response to Fyodor's question. The elf pushed aside a tree branch with one pale, delicate hand, trying to examine the cave opening as well as possible. "I can't see anything from here." He glanced at the group quickly, sizing them up with military efficiency. "Alexander, you're the only one of us not wearing chain. Do you think you could scout it out?"
Alexander nodded calmly, although Fyodor could see the panic in his countenance. "Okay. I'll take a look." He handed his crossbow over to the elf and moved out from behind the trees, pulling the hood of his cloak over his head as he went. He darted from tree to tree, keeping his weight low.
Thalaric nodded approvingly as he watched the youth move quickly and silently away from the rest. "He is light on his feet," the elf said. The party watched as Alexander, having crept around the perimeter of the base of the hill, set out through the drizzle up the hill itself, moving faster, bent over with his cloak fluttering after him.
Those who remained behind, watching, could barely take the tension. Varis nervously reached into his belt-pouch and removed a sling. It was his guilty pleasure as a boy, one that had turned into a favourite tool of mischief at seminary, a grown-up version of a child's toy that could split a skull with the egg-shaped stones that he carried for ammunition instead of pebbles, but a toy nevertheless, not a weapon. Or so Varis justified his possession of his sling to himself as he fit a smooth stone, rounded by the waters of the Hillfollow, into its leather pouch (a stone, a child's missile, not the lead pellets used by slingsmen in war), not knowing if it might be needed as a signal or distraction for Alexander should any danger emerge from the cave.
Alexander moved up into the clearing, running quickly behind some rock outcroppings for cover, and then striking out again, until finally he could be seen sneaking a peak into the mouth of the cave, his back pressed flat against the stony side of the hill. Although the day was mostly overcast, a small bit of morning sunlight nevertheless managed to glint off his brooch, that fey gift given him by the dryad. Boldar cursed under his breath and Thalaric hissed as he bit back a reproving remark. Best to tell him to leave his fancies at home next time,the Vyalia thought to himself. The companions waited with baited breath as Alexander peered around the corner, taking a few furtive glances inside the dark, forbidding jaws of the cave. After what seemed like an eternity, he broke away, retracing his steps lightly and swiftly down the hill to return to the cover of the trees surrounding the clearing, and from there, silently coming back to the company of his fellows.
"It's hard to tell," he said, breathing hard. "There's some light in there, but it's very dim. I thought I heard a noise, but I wasn't sure what it was. It sounded like breathing...I don't know." Alexander's face was flushed with excitement.
"What do you think?" Fyodor asked Thalaric. He wished that he had some idea as to what to do, but he found himself struggling to find anything in "The Song of King Halav" that would be applicable to this situation.
The elf thought for a moment. "Let us hope for surprise. They shouldn't be expecting us." As he said this, he drew his sword. "Are you ready?" he asked, to no one in particular.
"I am, for one," Boldar said. The dwarf had donned his strange-looking sallet, with its slim, movable visor that extended a metal finger of protection over his nose and its fan-shaped design to its rear that protected the back of his neck. Boldar had also drawn his axe from his belt and was readying his shield. Fyodor pulled his sword from its sheath. Alexander, having retrieved his crossbow, fit a bolt to it and concentrated on making sure his hand wasn't shaking (although at this point he wasn't sure if it was with fear or excitement). Varis reluctantly swapped his sling for his sceptre and tried to summon his courage.
* * *
The move towards the cave was ill planned, a fact that Varis recognised as they crossed the clearing, weapons drawn, and headed towards the cavern's maw with grim determination. There was no battle strategy, no marching order, just nervous energy. So it was that Fyodor and Thalaric found themselves bursting into the cave with the others not far behind, charging through maybe ten feet of passage into the gloom (it was hard to tell for sure; everything was happening so quickly): then, the cave passage widened into a larger chamber. In the dim, flickering torchlight, they saw a humanoid figure sitting at a table holding a tankard. It snarled and grabbed for a sword at its belt. But before it could do so, Thalaric lunged forward and with a single thrust, pinned the creature to its chair. Fyodor turned to his left as he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. There, two more figures were rising from cots and grabbing for weapons. "Surrender!" Fyodor shouted in what he thought was a commanding voice.
"Fool!" Fyodor was surprised to hear the voice of Boldar. The dwarf, moving with a quickness that belied his short stature, reached the second orc, and with two quick, merciless strokes, dispatched him.
The last one, for there were only these three in the room, began to speak in a tongue, a tongue whose syllables and cadences were offensive to Fyodor's ears. It dropped the sword that it held and raised its arms skywards, as if to placate the group.
Thalaric, quick as lightning, crossed the room and backed the larger orc against the wall, his sword at its throat. Fyodor was shocked to hear Thalaric answer the beast in its own tongue! The words, guttural and pointed, seemed so out of place coming from the elf's mouth. Thalaric spoke something to the orc in a menacing whisper and the orc replied in turn. Varis' hair stood up on the back of his neck as he watched this questioning. Finally, Thalaric said in a soft, insistent voice: "Fyodor, tie up this piece of filth. Alexander, Varis, guard the entrance." Thalaric pointed, not to the cave mouth, but deeper into the cave system. "These are the ones who invaded Stallanford. They brought the priest in here alive. We have to move fast. We cannot risk being cornered and outnumbered."
"Where is Aralic?" Fyodor whispered.
"This one says that the chieftain has him prisoner, although he does not know why," the elf replied in a hushed voice. "I do not as a rule trust the testimony of these beasts. No more questions!" It pained Thalaric to let the thing live, but even his overwhelming hatred of orcs couldn't allow him to strike it down, defenceless.
Despite Fyodor's shout and the cries of the slain orcs, the battle had been resolved rather quickly in favour of the invaders. Since no new foes presented themselves, the companions quickly made preparations. Fyodor, on Thalaric's whispered order, took a length of rope he found lying on the ground and bound the surrendered orc. It was the youth's first good look at one of these foul creatures, but despite his disgust he performed his duties quickly and firmly. The beast was tall, taller than him by a hand, and covered with pink-spotted blubbery fat. The most disturbing part of it to Fyodor was its snouted, porcine face. The smell of the thing about to make him retch, the young Traladaran stuffed a length of dirty cloth torn from the orc's cloak into its mouth. Upon his first attempt, it had tried to bite him, but after Fyodor backhanded it stiffly across its face, it submissively accepted the gag, its red eyes smouldering with hate.
The attack had gone off without a hitch because the orcs had been drinking, that much seemed clear. There still remained on the crude wooden table a flagon half-full of putrid swill (although it must be noted that it was unclear also whether the overall stench of the place was more due to the orcs themselves or to their drink). Celebrating their successful attack on Stallanford, perhaps, left them unprepared for this retributive strike. The thought briefly occurred to Varis that this was twice now in one day's time that the overindulgence of alcohol had led to unpreparedness in time of battle.
The cavern chamber that they found themselves in was roughly square, about thirty feet a side. There was one exit from the room, a stone passage that led deeper into the hill. Boldar, examining the floors and walls with a craftsman's appraising eye, noted that, the entrance notwithstanding, the passages were not natural. "It's been carved out of the rock," he whispered. "But I do not think that it was done by the orcs. The work is very old."
Thalaric nodded. "Let us move swiftly; make no noise." He looked pointedly at Fyodor, who tried his best to ignore the elf's gaze. Thalaric pointed to Boldar. "You and Fyodor in front, myself behind, Varis and Alexander in the rear. Agreed?"
No one had anything to say. The feeling that they had not thought this out well at all began to sink in, but at the same time, the necessity of it all seemed to press down on them. Their path, their duty, even, seemed clear. Thalaric slung his shield over his back and took down the single smoky torch from the wall as they ordered themselves according to his plan. The philosopher put his mace away, realising that he would be more useful in combat if he were to use his sling. If they were to find themselves in another melee, he knew that he would most likely just get in the way of the others. And after seeing the kind of force that Boldar was capable of putting into his axe strikes, he wanted to be as far away from swinging blades as possible lest he find himself the accidental recipient of one of those horrid blows. Alexander, thinking likewise, readied his crossbow.
The group entered deeper into the cave.
* * *
Boldar hadn't realised how quickly he would forget about his personal problems once combat began. Although he had never struck down an orc before, the enmity between the dwarves and the orcs went back at least two thousand years, to the time of the reign of Blystar III. Although the orcish threat to the security of Rockhome was effectively destroyed when the dwarvish armies were victorious at the Battle of Sardal Pass, Boldar had the long memory of his people, and he hated these things just as much as his ancestors must have hated them when they were locked in battle, contending for the future of the Stahl Lowlands.
Boldar was blooded, having skirmished with goblins in the Wufwolde Hills when he made his residence in Highforge, but had not fought since then, months ago. He remained strong from his labour, and the swinging of the blacksmith's hammer was similar in motion to the swinging of the axe in battle, but he was still slightly surprised at how effective his assault had been. That, at least, was a relief, although, he noted, that fool Fyodor had almost announced their presence to the entire compound, or hive, or whatever this was. Looking at that poor excuse for ale that the orcs were drinking made him wish for a pint of Skullburster Black himself. Wistfully, he thought about the small barrel of dark deliciousness that he had strapped to his backpack, the finest brew that the dwarves of Rockhome were capable of fashioning. He had heard humans sing the praises of Minrothad brews, but he found them to be too fruity, and the lauded ales of the hin he found to be too spicy. Boldar felt that they were overly fancy things, trying to make up with exotic additives what they lacked in solid brew mastery.
But now there was no time for beer, for the party advanced into the hallway, moving as carefully as possible into the dimly lit dark. Up ahead, sounds of drunken laughter and shouts could be heard, and a faint light, as from under a door hanging, could be seen. Fyodor and the dwarf stopped and turned to look at the rest of their companions, asking silently about their next course of action. "The side corridor," Thalaric whispered to Fyodor. Here, the cavern branched off to form a passage to their left. The orc that he had questioned had told him that this was the way to the chieftain's chamber. Although he was predisposed not to trust the word of an orc in any matter, the elf reasoned that if their captive were going to give them false information, he would have sent them up ahead, to where many orcs were certainly gathered in revelry.
For several minutes they continued on this way, with only the light of Thalaric's torch to guide them. Paranoia was beginning to set in; the elf knew that the torchlight was announcing their presence to all who might come upon them, but he didn't see that they had much of a choice. With the exception of the dwarf (if the tales told in the Dymrak were correct), the rest of the group, unable to discern the living by their heat, would be totally lost without this torch and its flickering light. And so we must display ourselves like this for all to see, Thalaric thought. It would be better if we were able to sneak through this evil place. Not that it matters, he quickly corrected himself. Our sojourn here would surely end in swordplay, regardless of the circumstances of our visit. With a realisation that was part anticipation and part resignation, he conceded that he had no doubt that they would be discovered.
Still no sign of life presented itself to them. The quiet of the cave was broken only by the shallow reverberations of their footfalls, their nervous intakes of breath, and the sound of the orcs' drunken revelry resounding in the corridor behind them. Thus it was that Boldar, travelling in the front row, was surprised when he discovered alongside the right side of the corridor a wooden door. The party stopped, glancing nervously up and down the corridor. The dwarf was willing to ignore for the time being the fact that the passage that they were walking down was not natural, but now a door? Thalaric squinted in confusion. The orc had said nothing about a door. After a moment's hesitation, Boldar turned and continued on along the passage, not willing to break his blood-seeking mindset to wrestle with this puzzling new development. The others, confused and thankful that someone else was showing some initiative and leadership, followed. Without consultation, and acting as one, their steps seemed to get a little lighter as they pressed on.
But they had not travelled more than ten feet when they saw yet another wooden door in the east wall. This was too strange for the dwarf to ignore. He could overlook the first, but two handcrafted doors within ten feet of each other in the middle of what external observation would lend one to believe was a cave system fit only to house mountain lions and bears, this one could not turn one's back on. Crudely done, thought the dwarf to himself as he examined the door with a tentative curiosity. This the karrwarf might have made for themselves. In reaction to the dwarf's questioning look, Thalaric shrugged his shoulders in puzzlement. Boldar nodded and gestured to Fyodor to lift the latch. And without question, the young Traladaran did.
The door creaked open to reveal a room lit by a single torch that gave off a dim, oily light. Standing there, glowering at them, was an unusual sight. It was an orc, larger than the ones they had seen before, at least a head taller than Fyodor, wearing a black patch over its left eye. The creature was clothed in furs, and it growled with what seemed to the group to be surprise as Fyodor, followed closely by Boldar, entered the room. Although he had only a moment with which to size up the situation, Fyodor immediately noticed something most odd, a horrid creature by the side of the orc. It seemed to him, in the quick glance that he afforded it, to be some kind of large malnourished rat with yellowish fur and a slim, almost serpentine body, about three feet long (if the shadows in the room did not deceive his eyes). Its eyes were red and vicious, and it charged at Boldar at a shout from the orc. As it did so, the patch-wearing man-beast drew a sword from its side and scooped up a whip from where it was lying on a shelf. With a cry, it threw itself at the party.
It was met by Fyodor, who, eager to prove his courage against his opponent, attacked with his sword as soon as the other had closed to within arm's reach. His blow was well aimed, but the orc brushed it aside easily with its blade and countered with a savage strike of its own. Fyodor barely got his shield up in time, but as it was the blow landed with such strength that he was sent reeling. Stumbling backwards, he tripped over his own feet and went down with a crash.
Thalaric, who had his sword in one hand and the still-burning torch in the other, leaped over Fyodor's body to engage the orc. His green eyes flashed as he faced his much taller opponent, who stood, its chest at the elf's eye level, snorting and growling fearfully. With a roar of hatred, the orc swung its steel. Thalaric caught it neatly, sidestepping slightly and letting the orc's momentum lead it off balance. He was then able to strike the orc's exposed upper arm with the torch, pressing it into the flesh of its sword arm. The orc shrieked in pain, but kept its grip on its sword nevertheless, and even managed to beat Thalaric back with a savage series of blows, oblivious to its smouldering furs.
The elf had stepped backwards, working on regaining his footing and rethinking the melee, when his opponent lashed out with the whip that it held in its off hand. The sharp burrs on the end of the leather cruelly cut Thalaric on the cheek. But this damage, purely superficial on its own, was exacerbated by the fact that the weapon had wrapped itself around the elf's throat. The orc gave a sharp tug on the whip, jerking Thalaric to his right. In an attempt to keep his balance, Thalaric lowered his sword arm to steady himself. With a cry of triumph the orc raised its sword to finish off the grievously exposed elf.
But suddenly was heard the twang of a crossbow, and, following almost immediately upon it, a bolt lodged itself directly in the orc's throat. Alexander, who had kept his bow cocked ever since the initial run for the cave, had at last found an opening. He fired with pinpoint accuracy, piercing the orc's neck cleanly. Dropping both its weapons, the beast grabbed desperately at its throat, only to fall over stone dead. Meanwhile, the furred beast that had leapt at Boldar was attached to the dwarf's boot. It had gotten hold of his leg and gripped him with a vicelike strength. Boldar could feel its teeth penetrating the tough leather of his boot as it shook his leg like a dog trying to break the neck of a goose. The dwarf remained still, his strong, sturdy frame preventing the beast from knocking him off balance. With one blow of his axe, the dwarf released the beast's hold on his leg. With his second, he ripped the disgusting, yellowed beast completely in twain, leaving what was left of the thing twitching in its pooling blood on the floor. As if to drive the point home, Boldar raised his boot high and brought it down with all of his might on its skull, shattering it with a sickening crunch.
Varis, struggling to see the way in which the melee played itself out, was extremely startled to hear guttural shouts coming from down the corridor, along the path that they had just traced. He could see nothing in the darkness. By this point, Alexander had realised that something was wrong on their rear flank. Seeing Varis backing away from the corridor into the chamber, struggling to swap his sling for his mace, he quickly hissed a word of warning to the others.
At that very moment, a small group of orcs emerged from the darkness. Varis moved with an instinctive speed that surprised him. Moving in-between the beasts and Alexander, raising his shield to counter a thrust of an orcish blade, bringing his sceptre down heavily on the head of another, continuing to retreat as he did, Varis fought with surprising ferocity. Fyodor, who had righted himself, moved swiftly to his friend's side, slashing at the creatures, feeling his blade catch in flesh, and then withdrawing and bringing it down again, striking until there was nothing left to strike, and the door could be closed and a chair dragged over to prop it shut.
"What are you doing?" asked Alexander with a note of panic in his voice.
"Trying to keep them out," Fyodor replied, his face flushed with battle.
"No," said Varis, scooping up his sling. "If we stay here, we're dead. We have to leave. In fact, we should leave now. We are not prepared for this; we ought to have waited for the other townsmen before barging into these caves. Let us leave before it is too late."
"I will not leave." Surprisingly, it was the quiet Boldar who spoke. The dwarf was bent over the body of the dead patch-wearing orc. With one hand, he was fondling something on its wrist, a thick bracelet made of silver from the looks of it. "This is inscribed in my native tongue." Without warning, he grabbed hold of his axe and swung it with great force, chopping the orc's arm cleanly in half. Varis shuddered as Boldar calmly removed the chain from the bloody appendage. "A dwarf was slain by this beast," Boldar intoned, his voice quivering with a subtle vibrato. "I cannot let it go unavenged. Go if you must, Karameikan, but I, at least, will stay."
"But it's dead!" Varis hissed insistently. "The orcs have paid their damn wergild, so let's be gone!"
"Your way is not the way of the Rockborn!" the dwarf glowered at Varis. "Kagyar's justice is not appeased!"
"We cannot leave now, Varis," Thalaric said. "Look, we have slain at least six, maybe seven of them, and we have nary a mark on us to show for it." The elf wiped the blood from his cheek with a smile (Fyodor was relieved to see that it was, indeed, red). "Let us go; surely Ilsundal is with us."
While Thalaric was exhorting the group, Alexander stood stock-still, completely flummoxed. Maybe it was just the stress of the past week numbing him to new horrors, but as he stared at the bleeding corpse of the orc and the severely disfigured remains of the large, weasel-like creature, he found himself feeling strangely calm. A lot has happened to me lately, he thought to himself. First, the faun and the strange dance, the wonders of the world entering into his horizon. Then, the assault on Stallanford and the horrors, the evils of the wild making themselves known. And now he was in the very den of the Reaper himself, and he felt more alive than he ever had before. He looked at the group, men that he knew not well at all, some not even men, but elf and dwarf. We are strong, he thought, and we are doing what is right. For the first time in many years, and almost unconsciously, he muttered a quick prayer, to Tarastia, asking for her assistance in the pursuit of justice.
"Thalaric is right," he said aloud. "We cannot stay here. We must continue on and save that priest before harm befalls him." The group said nothing in reply, but Alexander could see that no one, not even Varis, was willing to speak up in disagreement. Boldar nodded his approval of Alexander's words as he put the bracelet in his sack. His stony face, so impregnable to his companions, grew even more emotionless.
* * *
Varis was interested in sitting down with the dwarf, once all of this was over with. If it ever is over with, he quickly reminded himself, saying the Prex ad Halava to himself. The dwarvish race had interested him ever since the day when he heard the Patriarch of Specularum speak about them at an ordination ceremony in Kelvin. The topic of His Eminence's graduation speech was the importance that the Church must put upon spreading the message of the Unstained Spirit to all of Karameikos, rich and poor, Traladaran and Thyatian, human and non-human alike.
The philosopher, who always considered himself more of a metaphysician than a missionologist, was nevertheless captivated by the address, and not only because it was delivered by Olliver Jowett himself. This was the man who, along with the others of the Five Fathers, founded the church. Through his holiness and vision, Jowett was able to imagine a church dedicated to bringing together the cults of the True Immortals of Thyatis into a single body, but in such a way that the older, fleshly interpretations of sacred texts and visions were replaced with the deeper, more spiritual meanings. He and the other fathers recognised that the will of all of the Immortal Ones was basically the same, that the Deathless desired for man to live in harmony with them both now and for all eternity, but only those who were pure in spirit were able to do so.
But as Varis gazed that day at that most holy man and listened with deferential admiration, he was singularly struck by Patriarch Olliver's treatment of the dwarvish people. For example, Varis had not known that Kagyar the Artisan was worshipped first among the dwarves, and that his cult had spread to the Thyatians when Rockhome émigrés moved to Thyatis during the first days of the empire. The speech by His Eminence impelled Varis to investigate these matters further. Since much of his free time during his seminary years was spent in the library, he had plenty of opportunities to investigate the history and legends of the dwarves. His favourite tale was the creation account, where it was written that Kagyar fashioned the dwarves from the bones of the earth. Varis looked at Boldar with his short, stocky, powerful frame. He is stubborn, he thought, as unlikely to be moved as the roots of the earth. He had also seen the kind of strength that had gone into his blows, and suddenly the story, which Varis had dismissed as charming though heretical and nonsensical, seemed to the philosopher to be at least plausible. If we ever got out of these caves alive (Halav be with us), Varis thought, I must have a long talk with Boldar.
Varis was so caught up in his thoughts that he almost forgot that he had crushed the skull of an orc when he and Alexander had been surprised in the corridor.
* * *
"What exactly did that orc say to you, Thalaric?" Alexander asked. "Where is this priest?"
Thalaric removed his small metal helm and shook the sweat from his fiery locks. "It told me that the chieftain was down this passage, but that is all that it said. It is quite possible that it had never actually seen the chambers in question, but only known that they lay somewhere along this track." The elf looked down at the body of the orc that Alexander had slain. "Surely, this beast is not their king. We need to leave this room before more of them fall upon us."
After a brief discussion, Boldar volunteered to open the door and take a quick look around. "I don't need a torch," he said when Fyodor tried to hand him one. "Unlike your kind, Karameikan, the dark of the cave holds no mystery to the Rockborn; by the gift of Kagyar the living will reveal themselves." At this, Fyodor looked confused and Alexander opened his mouth as if to speak, but in the end both decided to ask their questions at a later time. Death was all around them, and they knew that they had best be careful lest a sudden lapse in concentration spell their doom.
Boldar moved aside the chair and gently opened the door, wincing as its rusty hinges squeaked from the effort. He opened the door just wide enough to peek his helmeted head out. The cave was completely unlit, and the dwarf blinked several times to clear his eyes of the residual light from the burning brands inside the room. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to see the corpses that Fyodor and Varis had laid low at the foot of the door, their quickly fading life-blood still showing their heat. The rest of the corridor was cool, blues speckled with purples and indigos, but as Boldar turned his head to the right, deeper into the cave system, he saw the warmth of a humanoid figure, walking upright, maybe fifty feet away, carrying a yellow-white heat source. The dwarf had only just caught glimpse of it before it vanished behind some coldness, and Boldar saw no residual heat but the faintest of handprints on the stone wall.
He pulled his head back in and shut the crude door again as quietly as possible. "It was well that we were mindful," he began, as his eyes quickly adjusted to the presence of torchlight, "for I saw one of those filthy creatures up ahead. It went through a door, I think, because I lost sight of it. We have our quarry; let us pursue!" Boldar was insistent. The others nodded in agreement, if a bit slowly. Even Varis seemed to the others to have lost some of his fear that he had expressed only minutes earlier. In truth, he was still nervous and scared, but as the reality of his kill dawned on him, he began to feel a bit more like a warrior-priest and less like an academic. Hardening his heart, the novice said quick prayers not only to Halav, but to Diulanna and Viuden as well.
As they readied themselves for departure, Boldar turned to look at Fyodor. "You managed to make quite a mess of those orcs," he said. Stoic just moments before, now the dwarf's eyes didn't burn with passion quite so much as lust.
* * *
The group made their way as swiftly and as silently as they were able in pursuit of the orc that Boldar had seen. Thalaric, his old torch exchanged for a fresh one, continued in the middle of the party as he had before, lighting the way. It was not long before they came to the end of the passage. To their left, the cavernous tunnel continued. The dwarf stroked his beard and stared at the wall. Then, in a whisper: "I saw him go through a door, I know I did," he murmured. He laid a hand on the cold rock while the others glanced furtively about, weapons at the ready. More than one of them felt that either they had been extremely lucky up until this point or that the orcs were much more aware of them than they were of the orcs. Boldar's confusion spread quickly, in a manner of seconds. Thalaric saw the way that Varis was clutching the shaft of this mace, but said nothing, for he saw that his own knuckles were growing white as his hand gripped the leather-wrapped handle of his longsword.
The dwarf continued to stare at the rock, as if he could not believe, could not reconcile or synthesise his two experiences: that of seeing an orc travelling through a door and the present confrontation with solid rock. And then- behold! - Boldar saw. It was a hidden door, so cleverly made that the dwarf didn't notice it at first. In fact, it took him doubly long to spot it because never would he have expected this crude, barbarous folk to be capable of working stone this finely. Yet it took only a flick of one of Boldar's earthy thumbs upon a small latch and firm pressure applied from his strong hand and a door, heretofore hidden, glided open on near-silent hinges.
Into the exposed tunnel the party made their way, edgy with nervous energy and repressed excitement. There was no source of light here save the torch that the elf bore aloft in his left hand (almost as a standard does he bear it, Varis thought, the light of truth overcoming the darkness of shame and villainy). Thus it was with a great deal of surprise that the group reacted to the sight of a large orc rounding a corner, brand in one hand, blade dripping with blood in the other!
Those in the front, Boldar and Fyodor, were caught totally off guard. In the brief second or two that it took for them to react the orc had already begun to run away, yelping in its disgusting tongue as it went. Boldar was about to take off after it when Thalaric put his hand down on the dwarf's shoulder. "It may be a trap." The dwarf nodded his head as if ruefully acknowledging the truth of Thalaric's word and led the party on, quickly but carefully.
And so they went, weapons at the ready, hearts a volatile mixture of rage and fear.
Alexander began to have the distinct premonition that they were being expertly led by a wily, defence-minded opponent into a fatal ambush. Taking up the rear as he was, he had become extremely concerned that the orcs were going to attack from behind at any moment. He had fit a new quarrel to his crossbow, and held it with both hands, sweeping the corridor as he walked backwards, wary of any assault.
Alexander wiped the sweat from his forehead as the party turned the corner. The companions could see the figure of the orc at the end of the passage, passing around a bend in the corridor. Almost instinctively, they picked up their pace, when suddenly the dwarf stopped short, whispering an insistent "Halt!"
"What is it?" Alexander hissed nervously.
The dwarf pointed to the ground. There, barely visible in the torchlight, the companions could see what appeared to be a large dark cloth of some kind laid out on the floor. "Don't step on that," Boldar whispered. "It's covering a pit." Thankful for the dwarf's notice and caution, the party carefully moved to one side of the corridor to pass it by single-file.
The companions continued along the twists of the passage, growing ever more mindful that they were slowly but surely leaving the relative freedom and protection of the open wilderness further and further behind each step they took into the orc-infested darkness. It was with much trepidation that they finally came to a door of stout, dark wood (and what sort of place is this, anyway? Varis wondered). Inscribed upon it was a sort of rune, thickly painted on the door with what the companions hoped was not blood.
"Assuming the dialect is the same that I am accustomed to, this is the orc symbol for 'great chieftain'," Thalaric whispered. No one said another word or made any undue sound. Their ears strained intently to catch any noise at all from behind the portal, any indication of what they were soon to face. But even Alexander, who had the most astute ears of the group, could hear nothing. After several moments, the tension became unbearable.
"Go, just go!" Alexander hissed with nervous impatience.
"Yes," said Thalaric. "Let us kill!" he shouted triumphantly. Boldar needed no further prodding. He crashed through the door, and with his wicked axe raised high and a cry of "Sardal Pass!" the dwarf prepared to deal death to those who had previously dealt death to his people.
* * *
When Boldar finally responded to the party's promptings and barrelled through the door, Alexander was strangely relieved at the sight of the orcs in the room beyond. The caverns had begun to play with him, suggesting, murmuring to him from its dark corners. It was the promise that in the shadows fey mysteries lay hidden, beyond the ken of which he had ever imagined, waiting to work their magic on him. Like the dryad, he thought.
Thus, surprisingly, it was with some jubilation that beyond that strange door, in these strange, well-worked passages, were orcs, five of them, the likes of which he had almost gotten used to seeing. Good, Alexander thought to himself. There's one for each of us. And then, a second later: Why on earth did I think that? But it was too late to think. The largest of the five, a huge, scarred thing, wielding a massive mace in one hand and a gleaming blade in the other, its eyes glowing red with hatred, charged right for Fyodor.
And then the entire room erupted in violence. Blades and maces flashed with dizzying speed as the combatants locked in contest. The companions fought with a combination of desperate fear and overwhelming race-hatred. Boldar, fuelled by the discovery of the dwarven bracelet and informed by centuries of conflict between his people and the orcs, fought with dour resolve, wielding his axe with great swings, laying mercilessly into his attackers with heavy strokes. Alexander danced on the outside of the melee, firing his crossbow one-handed when the ebb of the battle allowed it.
Fyodor was having hard luck against his attacker, doubtless the great chieftain indicated by the blood-smeared sigil on the door. Many times, the orc almost managed to slip a sword stroke past Fyodor's shield or bring its mace down upon his helmed head. It was only his strength of body and faith in Halav that allowed the youth to fare as well as he was against his larger, stronger, and more experienced opponent. Fyodor had already sustained a glancing blow to his right shoulder from the orc's mace after the youth had failed to recover quickly enough following an overzealous slash when the orc brought its sword down hard on Fyodor's shield, seemingly for the thousandth time. His arm was already almost numb from the force of the orc's attack, and this one was enough to turn the tide: the blow forced down his left arm, and the chieftain, a cry of victory on its bestial lips, quickly brought its sword down again. Fyodor, with a desperate strength, managed to bring his shield arm up to guard himself. However, his weariness prevented him from catching the stroke cleanly, and the orc's sword deflected off the top of his shield and struck hard against his rerebrace, hitting with such strength that it nearly caved the iron plate in two, bruising his arm and sending him reeling.
Varis, who had already brained an orc with a lucky roundhouse swing of his sceptre, moved to assist his friend, but the huge orc moved with blinding speed and lashed out at him, crashing down on his weapon arm with its sword and cutting through chain and gambeson and skin, lodging its weapon in the philosopher's flesh and knocking him to the floor. However, this distraction was enough to allow Fyodor to recover, who, ignoring his pain for the moment, delivered a powerful blow, slicing through the chieftain's chest armour (a byrnie of chainmail too small to conceal completely its massive stomach). The orc roared, a sound that was to prove to be its last. For somehow Alexander had manoeuvred himself behind the orc and drove his slim sword into its back at the same time that Thalaric, who had just decapitated one of the lesser orcs, danced forwards to the chieftain's flank and forced his blade diagonally into its chest. The great chieftain, doubly skewered, fell silently to the ground, joining its subjects in death, who lay around the room in the quiet grip of mortality.
The battle was over.
* * *
The quiet of the room was punctuated only by heavy breathing; all were exhausted from the melee. Boldar and Thalaric, freed from genocidal fury, struggled to regain their composure as they wiped dark orc-blood from their weapons.
The miracle was that they were all still alive. Considering the circumstances, their wounds were for the most part minor: an orc had stuck Alexander in the leg with a thrown dagger and Fyodor had been battered and bruised by the chieftain's fell weapons. But the sword wound that Varis bore was quite dire. The blade had cut into the fleshy part of his right upper arm, penetrating the links of his chain and loosing his blood. The wound was fairly clean, but deep, and Varis could not even manage to retain his grip on his sceptre.
It was Thalaric who went to him first. "Friend, how do you fare?" The question was unnecessary; the elf could see that his newfound friend's arm was gently spurting life-blood. He immediately tore a length of cloth from his cloak and set about bandaging the wound.
"Not well," Varis said, face wracked with pain. "Please, we cannot stay here; I'll die if we meet more of these things!" The thought had occurred to the philosopher that although Halav clearly had worked a great miracle here this day, it would not be meet to tempt the Immortals' wrath by refusing to learn their lesson. And this lesson was that Varis and his companions ought not to be in these caves, in the north of the Duchy, locked in life and death struggle with evil beasts. The quest, the search for Aralic, was the only factor that legitimated and sanctioned what was otherwise foolhardiness to the highest degree. Halav, you are merciful, he prayed fervently. I am so afraid; I would not have been able to fight if you had not strengthened my spirit. But please, let this burden of combat not come upon me again. Koryis, Gentle Master and Bringer of Peace, may I dwell in your presence for the rest of my days!
As the elf did his best to bind Varis' wounds, and Alexander examined his own injury, wincing at the sight of it, Fyodor, urgency overriding his discomfort, had the opportunity to really examine the room. He could see that it was dominated by two large objects: a wooden throne that stood on a dais on one side of the room and a scrap-laden table that stood on the other. Completing the primitive and dark décor was a black curtain or wall hanging, smeared with foul symbols in what Fyodor knew was most certainly blood.
The silence of the party was interrupted by a voice coming from behind a door in the wall, moaning faintly. Upon hearing this, Fyodor ran to the door and tried the latch. The portal was locked shut. "Father Aralic, is it you?" Removing his metal helm, he placed his ear up against the large keyhole. From within, he heard soft, nearly incomprehensibly mumbled words in Traladaran. "It's him!" he cried. Then, softer, with a mind to the group's surroundings, "I know it's him. I need a key; there must be one here somewhere..."
Alexander, who after crudely bandaging his dagger-wounded leg had been going over the bodies of the slain, pulled a heavy chain from the chieftain's belt that had several keys strung upon it. "Here, Fyodor," he said, handing over his find. Fyodor took the chain and, after a few tries, found the correct key and opened the door.
Inside the dark cell, illuminated now by the torchlight of the chieftain's chamber, was a man lying in the corner. "Father Aralic?" Fyodor asked tentatively as he went to his side. The man lay on a pile of filthy straw next to a wooden bowl half-filled with water. Upon drawing near to him, Fyodor could see that the priest had obviously been beaten: his curly brown hair was matted with blood and his torn garments revealed cruel bruises underneath.
"Bless you," Aralic mumbled feebly. "Help me...I am going mad here..." There was a panicked gleam to his eyes.
Fyodor smiled and gently grasped the priest's arm, doing his best to appear calm and reassuring. "Of course, gios. Can you stand? We have to move fast before more orcs find us." At a weary nod from Aralic, Fyodor helped him gently to his feet. This slight effort caused no little amount of soreness and pain in his arms, especially his sword-wounded left, but the young Traladaran knew that there was little time for him to be concerned with this. Speed was of the essence. He paused only to retrieve his shield, which he had dropped after the battle, before heading out the door of this perverse throne room, stepping over the bodies of the slain as he did.
* * *
And so the heroes-in-waiting made their way swiftly out of the caves, retracing their steps with all of the speed that they could manage, Aralic supported by Fyodor's strong arms, and Varis helped along by his friend Alexander, who held his slim, death-dealing blade in his right hand. Thalaric and Boldar took the lead, and when a small group of three orcs confronted the fleeing group, shouting at the companions in their foul tongue, the two lay into them brutally and mechanically, hacking and slashing with a detached violence spawned of dire necessity. Within seconds, the orcs lay dead, dismembered and disfigured in horrible fashion as the group pressed on with a renewed sense of urgency.
It was with great joy, therefore, that they at long last exited the caves. Out of force of habit, Alexander began a pagan prayer, an ecstatic exaltation of the sun, whose rays he had missed so much while he was in the midst of the cursed orcs. As it was, only the slimmest sliver of sunlight was visible through the overcast sky, and Alexander soon stopped his silent, impromptu laudation, struck by something. Maybe it was the fact that he supported Varis, the church novice, as they struggled along, but he thought perhaps that it was something else. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he felt, in a mysterious way, that he had changed as a person. It was something about this experience with the orcs that had taught him something, something about life and death that he had never quite seen before. Alexander wasn't sure exactly what that was, or even what this meant, but as he gazed up at the sun's all-seeing eye, he felt not the comradeship, the sense of unity with the stellar bodies and with all the earth, the mystical identity with everything that was that he once did when he wandered the Darokin countryside almost as a pastoral pilgrim. This is not like the songs, Alexander thought. This is not like the poems or the writings of the mystics and the wanderers. Rising up to fill this sudden void inside him was a sense of the difference between himself and the earth, the stars, the sun- the terrible difference, the difference that one day the sun would rise, but he, Alexander Kantpatcalites, would not.
And for some reason, he could no longer adore the sun. He did not know if this was merely a knee-jerk reaction to stressful times, born of the stress of combat and the pain of injury, but right then, as he helped his friend Varis who was bleeding from orc-delivered wounds, he did not feel that mystical connection with nature, with all things living, that he had felt before in the past and fully expected to feel now that he was leaving that abode of death. Neither could he pray as he had been taught by his family manor's tonsured Asterian, as Varis would want him to if he were privy to his thoughts, as he did almost instinctively to the Patroness of Justice when he was in the caves. At this time, at this moment, Alexander could do nothing but utter a profound and deep-issuing thank you. It was addressed to no one in particular.
"The orcs despise the daylight, and avoid it whenever possible," Thalaric said, cutting into Alexander's reverie. The elf still held his sleek longsword in his hand. Alexander could see the orc blood darkly staining its surface. "However, this tribe, at least, has proven their willingness to travel during the day if they must, as we witnessed this morning. We dare not move at any pace except our fastest."
So down the hill, and up again another, through the forests, pushing aside the heavier branches as they did before, they continued, ever wary and watchful lest the orcs retaliate for the slaying of their chieftain (a retaliation for a retaliation? Varis wondered). The group was silent, their emotions on edge. Even when they had travelled for a good half-hour without any sight or sound of pursuit, they did not relax their guard. The terrain was terrible, and if any of these beasts decided to ambush them in the woods, they would be hard-pressed to defend themselves adequately.
It was at midday, however, that they arrived back on the bald hill where Janner had left them. Fyodor saw in the fact that they had made it back to this very point, despite their haste and preoccupation, a sign of the hand of Zirchev, guiding them when they were unable to guide themselves. He was doubly sure of the hand of the Huntsman when, just as they emerged onto the crest of the tor, they were met by a group of fighting men from Stallanford, little more than a dozen in all. At first, when the companions caught a glimpse of movement on the other side of the hillock, they feared that the orcs had caught them at last, but these initial fears soon turned to sighs of relief, especially when they saw that the old man Janner was at their forefront. Here were some of Stallanford's irregulars, those who shook off the effects of the previous night's drinking, left the fighting of fires and the continued defence of the town to others, and made for Detoria Pass. Upon seeing Fyodor and the rest accompanied by Aralic, they burst into spontaneous cheers and hurrahs, and even upon Janner's tear-stained face could be seen a smile.
The remainder of the trip back to Stallanford was quite pleasant, and none of the companions even remembered that the orc that they had tied up in their initial assault was missing when they left the caves.