Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 16

Sanna was furious with herself. Twice, in barely as many minutes, she had been bested. First, one of the accursed orcs had avoided death by acting like it was slain. She should have known- she should have been able to tell from a mile away. But she was distracted. She had let her fury get the best of her. If she hadn't lost her focus, she could have kept better track of how many arrows she had used. Then she would have known that one was still alive. These beasts would now be on high alarm, and it was her fault.

And now, someone had locked them all down here. As she peered through the opening of the trap door, she had seen someone. Some thing. It had feet like a human, but it was wrinkled, with long toenails like talons. It had blocked off the door, and, knowing that she was trying to look out, had cut the vine. If she had been more alert, she could have Stepped through to the other side of the door, and taken her chances fighting whatever that… thing… was.

But, she had hesitated. And to top it all off, she had fallen into Fru’al's arms. Lecherous Fru’al, with his ever-wandering hands. She simply did not have the time for this.

Tarrow was quick to help her to her feet. "What did you see?" he asked.

"A pair of feet," she began. "Possibly human. Assuming so, old, and unkempt. Cutting the vine was no accident."

Fru’al's floating lanterns were floating near the trap door, where their heatless light could illuminate the entire room. Artemis held a hand to shield his eyes slightly, as if trying to peer at the door.

"Sanna, can't you… 'vanish' yourself up there?" he asked uncertainly.

She shook her head impatiently. "I am unable to Step anywhere I cannot see." Her racial ability to circumvent space was useful, though best in open areas. It was one of the many reasons Sanna preferred the wilderness to the indoors. "This had proven little hindrance in the last few years spent in forest and field, but I should say that walls are a… certain weakness of mine."

"And, more importantly," added Grash, "we don't know what's up there. We don't want to lessen our numbers any further." He made eye contact with Sanna, as if he knew that she was regretting her hesitation.

Artemis nodded, still staring at the closed doorway above. "So… if we aren't able to find an exit soon, how do we find a way to stop the villagers from coming here? Do we have any way of sending a message?"

Sanna turned to Fru’al, who shook his head. "I do not have anything prepared that would function from inside this place. If we were outside, I could send a message through a woodland creature, but only if it had clear passage."

"Burn it," said Tarrow, who appeared to have returned to rifling through the dead orcs' pockets. The others looked at him, unsure of how to take such a comment. "Burn it," he repeated. "Burn the trap door, and whatever is on top of it. With any luck, the entire cottage will go up in flames. If the townsfolk reach a burning building, they're not likely to go inside and take cover. And besides, we're not going to be able to get through a blocked door in the ceiling of an empty room. We'll have to find another exit regardless."

It took a moment, but everyone nodded in agreement. Grash motioned for the others to step aside. He looked up at the trap door in the ceiling, and took a deep breath. With the sound of a loud belch, a blast of fire burst from his maw, and with subtle movements of his mouth, the draconian was able to focus it all onto the small wooden portal. Within moments, its planks were on fire, and shortly after, pieces of shouldering furniture began to fall down from above. Sanna and the rest of the Horselords stepped aside, and watched as charred timbers fell and jammed themselves in the hole, some smoke beginning to fill the chamber.

"And now, we find another exit before the smoke kills us," said Tarrow.
The chamber had two remaining possible exits: The door through which the surviving orc had fled, and another similar door on the opposite side. Tarrow pulled the door open, Artemis and Grash standing ready to charge through the doorway at first notice. Behind was yet another dark room, and Fru’al sent his floating lanterns on ahead immediately, illuminating the room and hiding the Horselords in dancing shadow.

The room beyond was empty, however. The stench of orcs and scraps of cloth and refuse on the ground implied use as a crude barracks, but whatever the case, it was not currently in use. By quickly tallying the visible tracks and remaining spoors and possible bedding sites, Sanna estimated their number to be two dozen, possibly thirty. More than double what they had recently killed. She was surprised- orcs were said to reproduce like a disease, and where one lives, a hundred more are lurking. If this room was their only place of rest, then the Horselords just might be able to stamp them out. But things were rarely so easy. It wouldn't help to lower one's guard, especially after such idiotic lapses of judgment earlier.

Onto the second door- through which the coward orc had fled. Grash gripped the wedged axe by the haft, and, bracing his boot against the doorjamb, yanked the bladed weapon free with a small shower of splinters. Tarrow once again pulled the door open, and Artemis and the draconian stood at the ready. Beyond was a stone hallway, once again lit up by Fru’al's magic, that spanned beyond their field of vision. The walls were rough, and the floor was smooth and dusty.

As Artemis began to walk through the doorway, Sanna's eyes caught something. The floor, directly before the boy, was dusty. Beyond a few steps, there were footprints. But not in front of the door. She saw his foot reach forward, and she quickly pushed Grash out of the way, grabbed Artemis' armor by the collar, braced a knee up against the door frame, and pulled him back just in time. He, and the rest of the Horselords, looked at her, puzzled, but she put a finger to her lips. Balancing heavily on her left foot, she inched her right along the floor, tapping the ground in front of the door gently. It bowed, ever-so-slightly, betraying little structural support.

"I expected a pressure plate, but I'm guessing a covered pit," she said in a whisper. "I'll take point," she added.

She felt carefully along the ground to find a safe spot beyond the pit trap, and luckily it was easy to avoid. She pulled out her bow, her hands having felt naked without it. Without even thinking she already had an arrow ready, and she stooped low as she tiptoed along the stone floor. One of Fru’al's lights trailed above her head, the other two lighting the way for the others. Further down the hallway, she found another weak spot on the floor, so she gathered up a bit of dust from the floor and drew a vague perimeter around it. She could hear the others behind her, trying eagerly to be quiet, but even from down the hall she knew that anyone that was trying could hear them. Some day they'd learn.

Soon, she came to a fork in the dark hallway. The main passage continued on straight, and a slightly narrow hall veered off to the left. She held up a hand to halt the others, and listened carefully. She could hear noises coming from both directions (to which the others were likely oblivious), but, wishing to cut off any loose ends, she gestured to the others to follow her down the narrow hall.

A short way down the hall, they reached a large, metal-barred door. It was open a crack, and Sanna could hear heavy breathing and a slight rattling of metal on metal. The stench of orcs permeated the entire hall, but she could almost see the odor wafting from beyond the door. When the rest of the Horselords arrived, she stood beside the door, bow at the ready. Tarrow once more pulled the door open, and Sanna, eager to slay every orc that still lived, dashed into the room.

The arrow left her bow before she had even bothered to register what she was firing at. Something huge, standing like an orc but easily twice as tall, was hunched beside a massive stone pillar, chewing on something that was likely once human. Her arrow buried itself into its shoulder, and before the hulking giant could tell what was happening, another appeared in its stomach. Artemis, Tarrow, and Grash followed into the room shortly after, but the monster was still stunned. Sanna now mentally acknowledged her surroundings- they were in a circular room with a series of jail cells built into the walls, positioned around the central stone pillar. Chained to the pillar was this horror, an orc the size of a small dragon.

By the time the rest of the Horselords arrived and began to maneuver into position, the giant orc had begun to react. It knocked Artemis aside easily, and lunged directly for the silver-haired edhel who had just put two holes into its body. She rolled to one side, and then to the next- the monstrosity was strong, but its movements were foolishly slow and easy to predict. Moreover, it seemed to ignore the sword-wielders, and focus solely on her. As she carefully stepped back and forth around the circular room, dodging the beast's club-like hands with ease, there was a rustling inside one of the cells, taking Sanna completely by surprise. Whatever it was knew how to be quiet, and just made itself known either by horrific mistake, or by planned precision.

Whatever the reason, it was just what the orc beast needed.

The next thing Sanna felt was a pair of giant hands lift her up, crushing her, trying to squash her like an insect. Her left arm was likely broken by the initial blow, but the pain was little concern to the battle-hardened archer of Eodon. The beast, however, held her tight, and as she struggled to free an arm, she saw the giant's cracked and blood-stained mouth coming closer to end her.

Aiming her focus at the opposite end of the room, she envisioned herself standing there, looking back at the orc beast from a safe distance. With a familiar sensation, like that of water slipping between rocks, she felt the floor steady under her feet once more. In an instant, her Step was complete.

The beast still stood, bringing its brutish hands to its mouth, eager to make a meal of her, unaware of her absence. Below its hands lay her bow, having fallen from her grip during the grapple, luckily undamaged. She ran and slid across the floor, grabbing onto the weapon with her right hand, her left clutched useless at her side. The beast, seeing its prey no longer in its hands, let out a roar, and lunged for her again. Balancing on her left leg, she raised her right, bracing the grip of the bow against the arch of her foot. She pulled back the string with a fresh arrow with her good hand, leaned backwards to rest her shoulders on the ground, and fired one arrow point-blank as the giant hunched over her. The arrow passed straight through the monster's maw, exiting the back of its head in a spray of red.

It fell to the ground, narrowly missing the wounded archer still holding her bow.

She lifted herself to her feet, Grash and Artemis rushing to her aid as Tarrow made sure the giant chained beast was dead. Fru’al was nowhere to be seen. Grash arrived, his weapon and armor covered in the giant's blood, and took off one of his gauntlets. "Are you wounded?" he asked, raising his hand in healing.

Sanna nodded, indicating her arm. "My bow won't be much use like this," she said.

Grash took hold of it, gently feeling the position of her bones. He handed her a piece of wood, which she declined. "Just do it," she said. He nodded, and with a snap, he set the bones in her arm. She clenched her teeth, grinding them with pain, but made no other outward indication of discomfort. After he was done, Grash covered the set bones with his hand, which pulsed with light momentarily. Most of the pain left her, but the arm was still stiff. It would do for now.

"That's the last of my healing," he said slowly, a small amount of guilt audible in his voice.

"We'll manage," she said to him, knowing the gravity of the situation.

She turned around, her eyes staring straight into the cell behind her. She had heard something there, she was sure of it. It had nearly cost Sanna her life. "In there," she began. "Something moved."

Tarrow and Grash approached the section of the floor-to-ceiling bars that were held by a battered lock. The trystborn raised his wide-bladed falchion, and with a single clean swipe, split the lock in two. The cell door noisily swung open, and beyond the bars sat a bucket, a dried puddle of what looked like blood, and a pile of decaying rags. Other than that, the cell was empty. Except… Sanna heard movement again- the tiniest of movements, betrayed only by sound of cloth rubbing against the rough stone floor. She gestured towards the pile of rags, and Tarrow began moving slowly towards them. When he got close, he sheathed his sword, and knelt beside the pile.

"You're safe now. We've come to help," he said.

The pile shifted suddenly, and from beneath it sprang a child- no, not a child, a halfling. A short, emaciated halfling woman, barely wearing better rags than the refuse in which she was hiding, with matted hair and filth covering her skin, jumped from her hiding place and fell into Tarrow's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Tarrow motioned for Sanna to lower her weapon, but she only lowered it slightly. It couldn't hurt to be cautious, she reasoned.

Tarrow comforted the young woman, patting her on the back. He waited just long enough to let her finish her sobbing, and then he turned her to face him. "Please, miss. There will be plenty of time for grief and joy later. For the time being, I need to know anything you can tell me about yourself, your captors, and how you came to be here."

She wiped the tears from her face, and blinked her brown sorrow-filled eyes as she looked around at the gang surrounding her. "My name is Talarin," she began. "Talarin Needlemaker. My family was traveling across the land when our caravan was attacked by those… those savages. My father called them 'Orcs', but I always thought orcs were killed off years ago."

Sanna and Grash glanced at each other uneasily.

"Most of us were killed," she continued. "And the survivors were brought here. The men… my father… my brothers… they were all killed, and their bodies taken away. My sisters and I were forced to make clothing for a group of four old witches, and any that refused were fed to… to that… that monster!" She pointed at the dead giant orc, and she began sobbing again.

Tarrow patted the back of her head as she cried into his shoulder. "How long have you been here, Talarin? Do you have any idea?"

She controlled her sobs for a moment. "I have no idea. Days… weeks… months… all I've seen are the insides of these cells."

Sanna watched the trystborn reach down to his belt, and retrieve a crossbow taken off a dead orc. "Listen, Talarin. It's going to be difficult, and scary, but we're going to get you out of here. You're going to come with us, and if any orcs come near you, I want you to kill them. With this. Can you do that?"

She took the crossbow, nodded, and started crying again, but only for a moment. "I'll do it… for my family."

With Talarin in tow, the Horselords met up with Fru’al, who had been standing outside the room, at the point where the dark hallway forked. He stood there, in the darkness, chanting near-silently with his staff held up in front of him. Just in front of him, where the narrow hall joined the main passage, the air shimmered slightly- from this side, there was little effect. But for anyone standing out in the main passage, it would appear as if the wall continued seamlessly, hiding their location. It would not stop someone who knew what to look for, but it could buy some time.

Sanna took point once more, leading the rest down the dark hall, watching again for traps. As she walked, she counted her arrows mentally. She was running low. She had gathered up any that were salvageable after each battle, but still, her quiver was limited. She could have to be careful in the event of another battle. The end of the main passage finally came into view, but before she could reach it, the edhel found another covered pit. Across the trap stood another wooden door barred with bands of iron, and through it Sanna could hear noises, and the orc stench was once again strong. By pressing gently against the floor, she could see that the pit reached from one side of the hall to the other, and was too broad to step over. At a guess, she estimated that there was about enough space on the other side for one or two people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. This meant, unfortunately, that unless they wanted to activate the trap (possibly causing noise and setting off additional harmful mechanisms or snares) they would all have to jump across, onto a landing that couldn't hold them all at once.

Once the others had caught up, she relayed the information quietly. Tarrow shook his head, whispering back. "For all we know, there are going to be orcs on the other side of that door. We don't want to strand any of us on their end. Fru’al, can you open the door from afar?"

The old man nodded. "I can, but with my limited remaining magic I will have little else to contribute during battle."

"And then," began Tarrow, "we have the possibility of them standing on their end and attacking us with ranged weapons."

Sanna held her bow at the ready. "I'd like to see them try."

Tarrow held up a hand. "Yes, I'm sure you can best them at archery. But keep in mind that currently, we are trapped. Our only exit is through that door. If they anticipate failure, they can always just go on the defensive and block us out. With a trench in front of their only point of defense, they have the upper hand."

He walked to the edge of the covered pit, and studied the distance. He turned to the rest, and pointed at Grash and Artemis. "I want you two to go first. If we're met with resistance, make room and push them back. I will follow after, and then Sanna. Fru’al, keep Talarin safe, and the two of you provide support from afar if possible. But any ranged combat will be through that door, so only fire if you're sure you won't hit one of us. Everyone clear?"

Everyone nodded. Sanna didn't like being bottlenecked one bit, but she promised herself that by the day's end, many orcs would be dead.

Grash and Artemis got a rood running start, and leapt across the covered trap. They landed with a loud clatter of armor and weapons, and Tarrow whistled, the signal to open the door. Grash pulled it open, and the Horselords saw what they had feared: the torchlit room held another group of orcs, standing at the ready, weapons drawn, as if they had been waiting for exactly this plan.

Sanna fired off two arrows through the doorway before Artemis rushed in, catching two of the orcs in the chest. Artemis' shield collided with one in the front row, knocking it back. He tried to follow up by pressing into the opening, but another orc was already there. Grash joined the fray as well, but his axe was so long that it was difficult to make effective contact through such cramped quarters. Tarrow barked orders from Sanna's side of the pit, but with such limited visibility there was little that could be done.

Then, she heard it over the cacophony: voices. Shrill, dry, female voices. Their words were indistinguishable, but before she could ponder their meaning, there was a flash of light, and an arc of lightning broke through the ranks of orcs and struck Artemis, arcing through him and connecting with Grash. The two shook, stunned momentarily, before the lightning stopped and they were able to come back to their senses. Artemis tried once more to knock the front rank back, but each time he pushed, they pushed back.

Sanna had to act. They needed an opening.

She jumped back, past Fru’al and the cowering halfling Talarin. Tarrow yelled something to her, probably telling her not to do exactly what she was about to do, but this had to be done. She ran towards the pit, leaping easily across. At the top of her leap, she saw- for only the briefest of moments- three shriveled women, standing close in a triangle, their hands crackling with electricity. Nocking an arrow mid-leap, she saw the crowd of orcs from behind, pushing back against Artemis and Grash. She saw the three hags, chanting magical incantations and directing their power to destroy. She felt once again like she were liquid, pouring like wine into a goblet, and she let the arrow fly.

The arrow impaled the closest of the witches through the neck, and her body stiffened and shook slightly from the magical energy still coursing between her and her sistren. By the time she fell to her knees Sanna had already nocked two more, firing them at the orc directly in front of Artemis, and as the arrows appeared in the orc's back the boy used that opportunity to rush the brute down, charging across its lifeless body. Sanna could see two of the orcs land grazing blows onto his back as he trampled through, but she knew that he had taken the risk on purpose.

Sanna narrowly dodged a blast of magical energy from the two remaining hags, feeling its magical heat searing a trail across her cheek as it hit the wall. Just when they were about to loose another ball of energy, Artemis pushed her out of the way, holding his shield bravely in front. But as the blast left the witches' fingertips, it passed through his shield as if it were immaterial, striking him square in the chest and knocking him back against the stone wall behind him. As he fell to the floor, Sanna fired another volley of arrows, but without the element of surprise she was not able to land a killing shot.

But help was not far away. Grash and Tarrow, after Artemis created the opening, forced their way into the room, killing one orc each with their heavy blades, taking full advantage of the open room.

"Artemis!" yelled Tarrow, deflecting an axe blow with the edge of his falchion. "Get up! This is no time to relax!"

Sanna fired another two shots, her last two arrows, at the witches to draw their attention. Artemis was stirring, but not quickly. Tossing her bow aside, she grabbed his sword, charging at the witches in an attempt to throw them off balance. She threw slash after slash at the shriveled hags, but their appearance hid their unnatural quickness. They dodged, deflected, and parried with their bare hands. Sanna foolishly overextended on one strike, and one of the hags threw a sharp punch directly into her face, knocking her off balance. The two hags stood side-to-side, their hands glowing with crackling electricity, when suddenly a crossbow bolt appeared sticking out of one hag's chest. Behind her, through the doorway, across the pit, was Talarin Needlemaker, holding her crossbow.

The last hag watched her second sister fall to the ground, but she opened her cracked mouth in a roar of fury as she released a blast of lightning that arced around the room. She was cut short, however, by the now-risen Artemis, charging into her and bashing her down with his shield. As she fell to the floor, he jumped on top of her, holding her down and shoving a piece of his tattered cloak into her mouth.

Tarrow and Grash continued to fight the remaining orcs, but the brutes could tell that they were in danger. When two remained, one tried to run past Grash through a nearby archway, but the draconian easily caught its chest on his axe and felled the beast. The last tried to flee as well, but he ran through the door back into the hall, and with a crash the covered pit gave way, dropping him to his doom.

Sanna looked around the room, where the floor was littered with bodies. Artemis was still holding down the last of the three hags, and none of the Horselords looked like they could take much more combat. Tarrow pointed to Grash and Sanna, and said, "Check every body. EVERY BODY. If any are still alive, bring one to me. Kill the rest."

As Sanna followed the order, she watched Tarrow take the incapacitated hag from Artemis. He tied her hands behind her back with a scrap of cloth, and sat her up against the wall. He took the gag out of her mouth, and said, "Tell me everything you know."

She grinned, opened her mouth, closed it sharply, and spit out her now-severed tongue at him in a spray of red. Tarrow shook his head, wiped off his face, and let her sit and choke on her own blood.

After a few moments, Sanna found one orc that was still alive, but mortally wounded. She brought it to Tarrow, who sat it up against the wall next to the now-dying hag.

"Artemis, Grash, go help Fru’al and Talarin across the pit. Sanna, stay here with me."

He crouched down in front of the orc, who was breathing heavily and was bleeding profusely from its midsection. Tarrow opened his mouth, and spoke a deep, guttural language that Sanna had not heard in many years, though she would never lose her ability to understand it.

"You are beaten, whelp," he said in the orc's native tongue. "You will die soon, by my hand. I can make it easy for you or I can cause you the pain of a thousand lifetimes. Tell me what I need to know and I will consider the first choice."

The orc coughed up a small amount of blood, and Sanna realized the coughing was part laughter. Then, it spoke, though in a much slower, more slurred tone.

"I need to tell you nothing. I have served my purpose."

Tarrow's stony expression sharpened. He took a deep breath, and stood up. He bent at the waist, taking hold of the orc's tusks. He raised his foot, placing it firmly against the brute's face. With a swift kick, the orc let out a horrifying scream of pain as blood poured from the holes in its jaw where its tusks once stood.

"Tell me," Tarrow said, placing his face a hair's breadth from the orc's. "Tell me how you and your kin were not erased from this world."

The orc's eyes were losing focus from the pain, but it tried to respond. "He… he saved us… he saved us from… from death…"

Tarrow grabbed the orc's shoulders, slamming its head against the wall. "WHO?" he screamed in the guttural tongue. "WHO DID THIS?"

The orc was fading fast, but he made out his last words before death. The words sent a shiver down Sanna's spine.

"The Dark One, our savior."

Artemis, Grash, Fru’al and Talarin returned from crossing the pit, and Sanna was looking for any arrows that survived the last battle. Across from the door they had entered, there was a small wooden door that remained closed throughout the battle, and a stone archway leading off down another dark, but open, passage. Sanna could feel a light breeze coming from the archway. She turned around to mention this, and saw Tarrow opening the wooden door. He glanced inside, and looked disappointed.

"Just a small office," he said, in case anyone was listening. It was certainly disappointing; after so much strife in one day, a hidden cache of gold would have been nice. Tarrow lingered by the door, staring off into the distance.

"Something wrong, Tarrow?" Sanna asked.

He shook his head. "No. I guess not. Did you find anything through that arch, Sanna?"

She nodded, gesturing down the open passage. "I can feel a breeze. It likely leads to the river."

"Well," began Tarrow, "no need to stay in this gods-forsaken place any longer than necessary. Men, let's move out."

Grash, Fru’al, Artemis, and Talarin followed along, all looking exhausted. They passed through the arch and began following the breeze, and Fru’al once again conjured his floating lanterns to guide them. They kept their weapons drawn, just in case.

"Tarrow," said Artemis, "Do you think those three witches were the leaders? Or do you think there's someone else?"

Tarrow furrowed his brow, shaking his head absentmindedly. "I spoke with one of the surviving orcs, and he said something about a… 'Dark One' or something. Probably just some religious icon. Certainly the ravings of a madman."

Talarin, hurrying to keep up with the rest of the knights, tugged on Tarrow's cloak. "Um… sir," she said, out of breath. "You only killed three of the witches."

Tarrow stopped and turned to her. "…I'm sorry?"

"You only killed three. There were four. One is still out there."

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