Sunday, May 24, 2015
Last of the King's Men, Chapter 15
The trap door stood ajar, its edges seeming to not agree with the illusion cast upon the floor of the cabin. Artemis knelt down beside it, trying to see the bottom. Fru’al, with the same intent, produced two more balls of light, which floated down into the pit, circling slowly around one another. The light soon revealed a floor, some thirty feet below, and the space was less a pit and more of a chamber- its walls were not visible from their narrow vantage point in the cabin above.
Grash left the cabin and came back a few moments later, holding one end of a thick vine from out in the swamp. He tossed his end down into the pit, and it dangled several feet above the earthen floor. He gave it a few good tugs, to ensure its other end was secure, and then let go.
"Well, Artemis, it's your lucky day," Sir Tarrow said with a grin. "You get to go first."
Artemis knew better than to protest. It scared him, of course, heading down into a dark chamber he knew to be a trap- but he knew that they would be close behind. Beneath his jovial demeanor, Sir Tarrow was never off guard.
Stowing his shield onto his back, Artemis grabbed hold of the vine, gripping it tightly. He sat on the edge of the trap door, once again finding his senses at odds with the reality of the room's illusion. He pushed himself off, and climbed down the vine. The room below was far larger than the one above- still not big enough to hold an entire village, but at least a group of fifty to sixty men standing comfortably. One side of the room was dominated by a massive wooden door, with a fresco painted upon it depicting a crowd of people following a single portly man, possibly Ben Arons, to a brilliant light off in the distance. A pungent odor filled the air, but Artemis didn't recognize the scent.
"There's a big doorway down here," he began. "With some kind of mural on it."
Before Artemis had time to study the door, however, Sanna was already sliding down above him. He helped her to the floor of the chamber, and Sir Tarrow, Grash, and Fru’al followed soon after. The five knights walked up to the fresco upon the doors for closer inspection, the three floating lanterns dancing around, illuminating the art before them.
As he neared the door, however, Sir Tarrow held up a hand, and took a few deep breaths. He glanced at the ground in front of the door, looked at where the door met the wall, and placed an ear up against the doorway. His head snapped back towards the others. "At arms, men." Pulling out his falchion, he braced his feet against the stone door, and kicked it open.
Behind the doors was the stuff of nightmares. A dozen beasts stood before the Horselords, standing tall like a man, with features each more feral and brutish than the last. Their grey skin bore countless scars and knots of muscle, and their hideous faces showed tusks protruding from their blood-slathered lips. Their yellowed eyes showed no emotion but pure hatred. Each brute wore armor fashioned from the hides of untold creatures, and each held a crude axe in their fists. The stench of death and offal filled the air around them.
Sanna's voice, whispered through clenched teeth, heavy with the fury of a lifetime, answered Artemis' fears.
They were the monsters that inhabited his dreams, that threatened to tear him apart if he gave them the chance. He wasn't going to give them the chance. He couldn't let himself.
Artemis ran forward, feeling the sting of stale, foul air against his face, the very breath of these horrors flowing through his hair. The first orc stood, towering over him, drool lingering on its bloody tusks. Before the brute could react to him, Artemis braced his shield against his shoulder, driving it into the beast's chest, keeping his weight low. The blow had enough power behind it to knock the orc, sturdy as it was, backwards. Artemis let his momentum carry him forward until he was standing astride the now-prone monster, one boot holding down the beast's neck as it flailed about. He kept his center low, his shield in front, sword in hand, daring the surrounding savages to advance. He knew they would, but he'd be ready. He waved the sword around at his side, trying to disguise the fact that his hands were shaking with fear. But he had to maintain control.
One began to advance on him, but two arrows suddenly appeared in its chest and it fell back. Another swung a crude axe in a wide arc at him, but the moment he caught it on his shield, he delivered a lightning-fast riposte- faster than he meant to, but it did the job. He thrust his foot down on the pinned orc's neck, then jumped back, narrowly deflecting another blow as he dodged. Half intuition, half luck, he anticipated each attack coming at him, even from a crowd of enemies, through the training and muscle memory of two years on non-stop combat drills. He told himself his shield was an impenetrable barrier between life and death, his sword an extension of his will. Every time an orc took a swing at Artemis, it had to be deflected and the pain had to be dealt back with precision. Every time an orc tried to attack Grash, or Sir Tarrow, Artemis had to use it as an opening to deal punishment. This was the type of battle that he had been trained for. This was the type of battle he was meant to win.
"Arrows up!" cried Sanna. At the far end of the room, two orcs stood behind the rest, with raised crossbows. Artemis raised his shield, and the other Horselords ducked away from view as the bolts flew past. Sanna focused her fire at them, and Fru’al provided support with the missiles of magical energy that he could spare. Sir Tarrow kept close to Artemis, feinting and slipping into pockets in the battlefield to flank and provide openings. Grash was tearing through the wall of orcs with his unadorned axe, glowing with holy light. His bulky weapon was slow, but when it connected, it rent armor, flesh, and bone in one mighty swing. He never had a spare moment to relax in the thought, but Artemis was among his closest allies. Where he faltered, they picked up the slack.
Before long, the crowd of orcs lay fallen on the ground. The Horselords stood panting, dirty orcish blood covering their weapons and spattered upon their cloaks. Artemis had sustained quite a few bruises and minor cuts from mis-judged parries, and his shield, already torn and battered from the battle with the dragon, now had its edges lined with dents and gouges from the orcs' crude blades. Grash, bruised and bleeding himself, placed his hand on his shoulder, and spoke a word of healing. Artemis could feel the fatigue and pain from his wounds stop, and for a moment he was reminded of the day's earlier fight in the town square, but he wasn't sure why. The rest of the Horselords began walking around the room, checking the bodies for anything of value.
"So," began Grash, breaking the quiet. "These are the first orcs that we've seen alive." The others continued checking the bodies, rifling through pockets, studying craftsmanship. "I think the question we're all wondering is how they got here. They were supposed to all be dead thirty years ago."
Sir Tarrow looked over, crouched beside a dead brute. "Simple. Our beloved king was wrong."
Fru’al got to his feet, glaring at the trystborn. "Lainen was not 'wrong'. The nation's most powerful mages determined that the last living creature of orc blood was dead. I would know. I was one of them."
"Deceived, then," corrected Sir Tarrow. "We already know that Galex was one of the king's closest confidants, and he was able to plot against him for years. Is it possible one of them could have hidden the truth with the very magic that they were supposed to be using for good?"
Fru’al brushed away the idea, annoyed.
Artemis spoke up. "Is it possible that magic could have… brought them back? From the dead?"
The old man shook his head. "Of course not. Not even magic can loosen the Ebony Raven's embrace. Even if such a spell existed, it would be an affront to her authority as the harbinger of fate."
"Look," began Grash, trying to rein in the conversation. "We know that, whatever the case, orcs still live to this day. Another thing that bothers me is the question of whether this means that Galex's influence reaches this far. Even Kellonville may not be a safe haven for us."
Sir Tarrow corrected again. "We still don't know whether Galex was responsible for the orc menace in Eodon, or if he just used it as an opportunity to take the throne. There's no use making a retreat, even a strategic one, before knowing where your enemy hides. You may well retreat directly into his trap."
Suddenly, a loud bang from above jerked all of the Horselords to attention. The trap door, as if on cue, had slammed shut, pinning the climbing vine in place. At the same moment, one of the orc bodies on the floor leapt to its feet and darted towards one of the two doors on the far end of the room. The knights drew their weapons, and Sanna let off an arrow in an instant, but it was too late- the wounded brute disappeared through the door, and the arrow stuck sharply into its wooden boards. She cursed loudly, and Sir Tarrow ordered the knights to halt as they each ran towards the passage.
"It's too late. Let him go. If you can, wedge the door shut. We need to get this trap door open and warn the townspeople, who are likely already on their way, what they are blindly walking into."
Artemis nodded, and he and Grash took two of the dead orcs' axes to the doorway. It opened into a long dark hallway. Artemis cautiously closed the door, half expecting something to jump out of the darkness. After a few moments, he and Grash were able to get one of the axes wedged between the door and its frame.
"That should hold it for a little while," said the draconian.
Meanwhile, Sir Tarrow had been helping Sanna back onto the climbing vine. She quickly made her way to the top, where the trap door was closed, but not tightly. Artemis watched her cautiously push the door upwards, but it appeared to hit an obstruction almost immediately. Through the small gap, some light filtered in from above, as Sanna peered through. Suddenly, something eclipsed the light, and Sanna fell, the trapdoor slamming shut once more. The vine, severed, fell after her. Fru’al caught her, and as she got to her feet, she said two words.