Ramn crouched at the beginning of a winding hall that supposedly led to where The Dragon-Rider had destroyed a terrible wraith that had been praying on the townspeople. The tall, dark-skinned man found that hard to believe. Wartoks and grull were enough fodder for nightmares without people reviving ancient superstitions.
Ramn had been born to a large family in a small river valley nearly twenty years ago. His father had been killed only two months ago in a raid by a wandering clan of wartoks that had been displaced by The Dragon-Rider's destruction of an entire army. Ramn, the oldest of six, had decided to heed traveler's tales of Surdana, what everyone said was the last bastion of hope for humanity. The travelers had said that a new age was dawning and that humanity would once again reign supreme across the lands. Ramn had not given much credence to those vainglorious, at least to him, boasts. The tales of the vast might of the Surdanan army had swayed him. Ramn had wanted his mother to live in a place where she would never have to worry about her sons and daughters being slaughtered by all manner of horrible monsters. So Ramn had convinced his mother to pack up the family's meager belongings and make the long, dangerous trek to Surdana.
Ramn had been shocked to discover that he and his family were a small part of a mass flood of humans seeking safety in Surdana. He had been even more shocked to hear the rumors of a dragon-rider among the caravan he and his family had joined. The caravan had passed through a checkpoint manned by a squad of soldiers and the young farmer had been impressed by their aura of power and authority. The local area had seemed free of grull, wartoks, and even scavenger-beasts. It had seemed to be all that the travelers had said. His family had been given nice farmland in the surrounding countryside for the price of a very small yearly tithe to Lady Myschala. It had not taken Ramn long to find out the sad truth about the "great" army of Surdana.
It was a wonderful dream.
Apparently The Dragon-Rider had single-handedly turned the tide for the last human enclave in the region. Rumors had it that the army had been on the verge of defeat before The Dragon-Rider had appeared. Ramn had no trouble believing it after carefully observing the soldiers in and around the town proper. Their numbers were much smaller than he had believed. The soldiers all looked imposing in their plate-and-mail armor but they also looked as though they got too little sleep. Surdana's army was undermanned and spread much too thinly.
Then word had spread of a group of bandits terrorizing the countryside. The Dragon-Rider was rumored to be away and the army had its hands full with the influx of refugees from the wastelands bordering Surdana. Official word had come down from the Palace that General Dehrimon was seeking volunteers for a special company of militia that would help protect the "environs of Surdana". The first assignment of this special company would be to hunt down and eliminate the bandits plaguing the countryside. Ramn had not been at all interested until a neighboring farm had been hit… and everyone killed in barbaric fashion.
So Ramn had volunteers, despite the tearful protests of his mother, and now he found himself in the bowels of the earth with who knew how many fiends. Ramn had always been strong, fast, and good with his hands but he had no idea if he had what it took to be a warrior even though he had passed the trials for the volunteers easily. The palace armory was literally overflowing with superior quality blades and armor. Rumors said that this was also the work of The Dragon-Rider. So Ramn had suddenly found himself the proud owner of glistening chainmail armor, a steel scimitar, and an iron round shield.
The trappings of a hero did little for his courage though.
Ramn looked across the tiny hall at his "partner" and wondered why fate seemed to enjoy laughing at him. He could have gotten the big ox with a steel battleaxe named Bruly or the whipcord slim mercenary with his twin mithril shortswords. He had gotten a woman instead. A scrawny, underfed looking woman at that. Crayla barely came up to Ramn's chest. She had eyes that were an odd blue-green instead of Ramn's more normal dark brown. Her hair was a scraggly, strawberry blonde mess that she had cut as short as a boy's. Ramn's head was completely bald thanks to his upbringing in warmer climes. She was probably the palest person Ramn had even seen and he was probably the darkest person she had ever seen. Ramn was not overflowing with confidence but Crayla looked downright terrified.
"What'd'ya think is going on, eh?" Craya whispered, and unfortunately Ramn had already let her know he had excellent hearing.
"I have no idea," he whispered in reply.
"Why's this place so empty, Ramn?"
"I don't know?"
"Why're there so many empty braziers if the place is so warm?"
"I don't know," Ramn growled through gritted teeth.
The damn woman was setting his nerves on edge.
Ramn held up a hand and hissed,"Listen!"
Crayla actually stopped her irritating chatter for a moment and looked as though she were paying attention to her surroundings. Ramn was surprised to see her hand edging towards the leather wrapped hilt of the longsword sheathed across her back. The volunteer found his own hand straying to the hilt of the scimitar at his waist and made sure his iron shield was secure on his forearm. The air had been still and silent a moment ago. Only a whisper of wind had alerted Ramn that something had changed and only a childhood spent playing in caves had given him the experience to guess what it meant. A passage had been unblocked or opened somewhere ahead of them. Ramn and Crayla instinctively moved closer as they waited for something to happen.
The scream came echoing down the tunnel, chilling them to the bone, only to be drowned out by the sounds of steel meeting steel and flesh. It was quickly followed by the sounds of armored feet running and a dozen members of the militia came running towards them. The mercenary was in the lead, both bloody shortswords in his hands, with blood streaming down his face. Bruly was right behind the mercenary but the big man was holding a hand to his side and grimacing with every step.
"Retreat! Retreat!" lieutenant Miles' voice carried down the corridor.
"What happened?!" Ramn yelled as he stepped out of the way of the panicked flight of his fellow miltiamen.
The mercenary didn't even pause as he passed Ramn and Crayla, but Bruly paused beside Ramn. The big man let his axehead fall to the floor as he leaned against the wall to catch his breath.
"It… was… a trap… grull… hundreds of the little… we have to go!"
Then Bruly pushed himself away from the wall and continued his run. Crayla was looking back down the darkened tunnel and biting her lip.
Ramn grabbed her arm and shouted," Let's go!"
The woman ran back down the corridor to the bridge they had crossed that led to the passageway. Ramn was right behind her and nearly collided with the lieutenant where the passageway branched off into two directions. The lieutenant was encased in mithril plate armor and was armed with a mithril shield and an enchanted longsword covered in flame. The lieutenant's eyes were slightly widened with fear of whatever they were running from.
"Don't stop," Miles said breathlessly, and ran through the entrance to the passageway.
Ramn ran, faster than he would have thought possible in chainmail, and tried not to listen to the leathery scuffle of feet on the stone floor behind him. It did sound like there were hundreds of the little bastards chasing them. Crayla and Ramn somehow ended up behind everyone else. Crayla looked as though she would pass out at any moment. It probably had not been a good idea for her to wear half-plate armor. But who would have thought there were so many grulls under Surdana proper? The wounded company fled passed the ruins, crossed the bridge, and blew through the doorway into another room. They made a right where they had come from a braced cave and were stopped short.
Someone had lowered the gate.
There was a pair of wartoks barring their way.
"Oh great," Ramn heard Crayla mumble.
A slim figure, dwarfed by the bulk of the wartoks, stepped from behind the huge beasts. It stepped into the dim brazier light and removed the hood covering features. It looked like a huge reptile with glowing red eyes.
"It's a damn trog!" someone shouted in disbelief.
The trog, whatever those were, held up a scaly hand and hissed at them. Ramn turned just as the grull reached them. The stupid little bastards stood there looking smugly truiumphant. There couldn't have been more than three dozen. The militia had numbered two dozen when they had entered the caverns. Now they were little more than a dozen and half of those were injured. Ramn drew his scimitar and held it in the guard position he had been hastily taught a few days ago. Suddenly a weeks worth of sword training seemed far too little. The grull were armed with a variety of weapons; spiked clubs, iron maces, and even a shortsword or two. At least they weren't armored like the damn wartoks were. Ramn hoped the mercenary and the lieutenant, the only ones in their group with weapons that could cut through steel like warm butter, were up to dealing with them.
A crack of lightning, followed closely by a strangled cry and the smell of burned flesh, caused Ramn to jump involuntarily. A body, whipcord slim, flew through the air and landed in front of the grull with a sickening crunch. Twin mithril swords glittered beautifully in the corpses hands. The lieutenant gave a valiant battlecry that was closely followed by Bruly's. Ramn held his ground though and watched with a sinking heart as the masses of grull charged. The grull were shorter than Crayla even but very strong. Ramn held his ground, his body trembling uncontrollably the closer they got, and he didn't think he was going to be able to move when they came to kill him.
I'm sorry, mother, he thought as the first grull came within reach.
The grull hefted its iron mace and whipped it towards Ramn's knee. A piercing cry cut through the air as Crayla parried the mace and slashed the grull across the face. Blood sprayed into the faces of the three grull behind the mace-wielding one. Crayla went forward to meet them with wild slashes that lacked true skill but the dimunitive woman more than made up for that with unbridled enthusiasm. Ramn stood there in shock as he watched the woman carve her way through their enemy. She moved as though she would live forever.
A grull got around Crayla and leaped into the air in order to bring its mace down on her skull. Ramn swung his scimitar in a blindingly fast arc that caught the grull in mid-air. The grull was flung to the side with a guttural shriek that closely resembled a pig's squeal. Once Ramn's scimitar began to move it was as if could not stop. His sword arm was in constant motion, hacking into the bodies of whatever beast got too close, while his shield kept him from being brained on more than
Thus he found himself fighting back-to-back with Crayla against a seeming inexhaustible supply of grull.
Ramn kicked away a mace and brought his scimitar downward across the grull's throat. The beast rolled away squealing while it held a hand to try to halt the flow of its spurting lifeblood. A blow clanged off of Ret's shield and, in a moment of blind panic, he bashed it full in the face with his shield. Blood gushed from the little bastard's nose and it lashed out wildly as it stumbled away. The scimitar lashed out again and spun another grull off its feet. Ramn twirled his scimitar in his hand, a trick he had learned during his brief training, and brought it down between the ears of a grull that looked as though it were foaming from the mouth. Crayla gave a shout and Ramn instinctively ducked as a grull came flying across the cavern.
How the hell did she do that?
Ramn turned to thank the woman just in time to slice a grull from hip to shoulder as it snuck up behind her. The grull tried to run away but its severed spine simply wouldn't let it. Moving a state of numb disbelief, Ramn kicked the writhing grull away, and stepped to Crayla's side.
The warning came too late as horrible pain flared in Ramn's thigh. He looked down to see a grull's head being hacked off by Crayla, the little woman was inhumanly strong, and then his leg gave out. Ramn fell heavily to the ground and instinctively knew that he was dead if he didn't stand. Using his sword as a crutch, Ramn struggled to his feet to help Crayla in her increasingly frantic defense. His partner had seemed to be driven insane sometime during the battle. Crayla attacked with a feverish intensity that obviously scared the grull but the injured Ramn was just too irresistible a target for them.
Ramn glanced around them and saw that the rest of the company was in no better condition. The lieutenant had killed one of the wartoks but was having trouble with the last and the trog-mage. Bruly and another man wielding a steel greatsword were trying to aide them but their weapons were proving ineffective against the wartok's armor.
Ramn howled in agony as a spiked club was driven into nearly the exact spot of his previous injury. Cursing his lapse of concentration, Ramn slashed the grull across the face. It howled quite shrilly as it stumbled away clutching at its ruined face. Ramn tried to remove the club but only succeeded in falling on his ass. Crayla screamed as an iron mace was bashed against her vulnerable midriff. The fury-filled woman crumpled to the ground beside Ramn and he knew at that moment he was going to die.
A thunderous explosion blew the portcullis from its hinges and blew apart a number of grull as well.
Where are they all coming from? Ramn thought hazily.
A figure stepped through the settling debris and a light-hearted, feminine voice spoke into the din of battle,"It's a party, is it?"
Ramn watched as the figure streaked through the shattered doorway and the beasts began falling apart around them. A grull turned to run and had its head split down the middle in mid-stride. A huge fireball seemed to materialize from a blur of motion and hit the last wartok in the chest. The beast howled in delirious agony, incredibly still alive, and began lashing wildly in all directions. The grull around Ramn and Crayla hesitated with nervousness but neither of the two were capable of taking advantage.
A lightning bolt erupted from a shadowy blur a short distance away from the two. It arched through several grull before disappearing. Ramn watched in disbelief as a woman appeared with a burst of green light that curled around her like vapor. She was tall for a woman with dazzling red hair and green eyes. The woman was wearing red-purplish scaled armor with odd spikes coming out of the shoulders. A glittering shield was held in one hand while the other wielded a jeweled longsword wreathed in eldritch energy. The woman gave a peculiar smirk before she charged at the grull with a predatory grin.
The grull surrounded Ramn and Crayla attacked the woman with grunting battle-cries. Ramn watched, mouth agape, as the warrior swept two grull to the side with a single swipe of her longsword as though they weighed no more than feathers. She turned in a graceful spin that ended with a grull's head rolling in the dirt. Low grunts of exertion escaped the swordswomen as she carved a path to Ramn and Crayla. The warrior smashed an airborne grull aside with her shield, again with effortless strength, and continued her march. She blocked a bone-shattering blow and the mace-head separated from its shaft. The offending grull's mace-wielding arm was soon flopping on the ground spastically.
Finally the woman reached their side through a gauntlet of blood. The swordmaster held up a glowing hand and traced an arcane symbol in the air. She punched her fist in Ramn's direction and a wave of warmth passed over him. His leg, where his worst injuries were, burned as though someone had thrust a hot poker into his flesh. Ramn clenched his teeth against the pain and watched in wonderment as his wounds magically knit themselves. He stood to find that Crayla was rising as well.
"Are you two going to stare or fight?" the mysterious woman asked before turning back and charging at the regrouping grull.
The swordmaster drew another symbol in the air and again became a blur of motion. Ramn went forward, Crayla at his side, and began to enthusiastically hack into the thinning ranks of the grull. Hot, steaming blood seemed to cover every inch of Ramn. His breath came in ragged pants that never seemed to fill his lungs. Screams filled his ears, the dying screams of grull and men, but mostly the battlecry of Crayla. His partner stayed by his time the entire time and attacked the grull with wild abandon. Ramn hopped backwards to avoid a mace-head that was too close to his knee. Almost without conscious thought he carved a niche into the grull's face.
Then the sounds of fighting died to be replaced by the piteous moans of dying grull.
Ramn looked around him and saw the sad remnants of the volunteer company. The lieutenant was still alive despite his mithril armor being burned and dented. Somehow Bruly had managed to survive as well. There were only three other survivors, none that Ramn knew at all, and they looked as though they could scarcely believe they had lived. Ramn knew exactly how that felt. The cavern floor was littered with the dead and dying. Huge pools of blood, usually with a body part in their midst, were everywhere.
Lieutenant Miles raised his flaming longsword into the air and shouted," Victory!"
"A little premature," the warrior said, pointing with her longsword.
Ramn turned and watched in horror as dozens of giant spiders emerged from the darkened corners of the ceiling.
"Time for killin'," Crayla whispered before charging at the spiders with a hoarse shout.
Ramn shook his head in disbelief as his legs carried her to his side.