Wren gritted his teeth and frowned as Iyokus's fingers probed his hand and wrist, the long purple digits pressing hard to the livid bruised flesh and twisted bone.
'Nothing broken, but it'll be a while before it's good for much,' Iyokus whispered to him, his bright golden eyes still focused on the hand.
There was a throaty cackle from a short distance away and the two warriors both turned to look at a deeper pool of shadows in the cramped, rocky crack that they had fallen into.
'"It'll be a while before it's good for much,"' the voice said mockingly, it's tones wispy and thin, 'Quill, your endless confidence in your ability to survive grows tiresome in the face of..' the voice grew in volume and began to crack around the edges, 'inconvenient reality!'
The words echoed ominously in the darkness, and all three figures fell into silence, their ears straining to hear any answering noise. But there were no sounds of sudden pursuit, or angry vengeance, only the endless grunting symphony of the hostile denizens of the Blackrock Spire littering the space, like jagged stones on a sandy shore.
Iyokus could not see the gnome mage where he sat, even his Kaldorei eyes unable to pierce the unnatural gloom, but he spoke anyway, his tone calm and measured. 'Do not forget where we are Wedge. Take a hold of yourself before you bring the whole of Hordemar down upon us.'
The gnome's face was visible for a brief moment, as if a cloud of shadow had passed, and his pale skin could be seen, sickly green hair a mad tuft haloing his large head, his features set into a sneer. He snorted and once again disappeared from sight.
Wren sighed quietly to himself and clumsily pulled a length of bandage from a pouch at his waist, and began winding it around his waist before Iyokus gently slapped away his hand away and continued for him. The magic woven into the netherweave would speed healing, but with Emilia dead the only force healing he would get would be somewhere outside of the damn mountain.
Wren winced. He knew he was a canny fighter and he had faced dire odds before. There were few that would fear to confront with sword and shield in hand – this and his veteran status had earned him a powerful reputation. But he had seem too many handy warriors die stupid deaths to have developed the unshakable faith in his own destiny that burned like a fever in Quill.
With Emilia dead, his hand wouldn't be healed.
With half their party dead…Blackrock Spire would be their tomb.
'We're going to need more men'
Wren nodded and looked at his partner, who was leaning casually against the wall, his expression pensive. Where Wren was short, Quill was tall, towering over most humans and many other elves as well. Where Wren was thick and well-fed and covered in hair, Quill was rangy and thin, powerful muscles straining under his dark purple skin. The two men had their similarities though. Both wore their hair long, Wren's dropped to his shoulder and was braided in the manner of the dwarves [a habit he had picked up fighting in the Valley], while Quill's bright white hair was wild and loose and hung half way down his back. Both were scarred, Wren's clothes covering most of his, though an ugly scar cuts through his beard, leaving a hairless line in an otherwise thick brown beard. Quill's care arms were a testament to his violent life, banded like the pelt of a tiger, and he wears them proudly. A hand that has grasped at naked blades pushes him off the wall and Iyokus matches gazes with Wren, one finger scratching at his eye patch.
Wren nods again.
Through social convention, the Pig and Whistle had become the place to find mercenaries, but not only them, but ex-communicated priests and radical wizards also found their way to the grotty tavern, where no one asked any questions and the Guard left well enough alone.
Iyokus entered with his usual bravado, grinning like a madman, white teeth glittering in the low light. He instantly saw Onasis skulking in the corner and beckoned him over. The blank-faced assassin nodded once and sauntered towards them as Iyokus spread his arms wide, catching the attention of the various creatures that quietly drank.
'Bloody work needs doing,' he bellowed, gaze circling the room, 'blood that hides the glint of gold.'
With that, the tall elf sat at an empty table, hands resting on his knees. Sighing, Wren joined him, spinning his own chair around so he could lean his arms on the low back [old habits died hard, and it had saved his life recently]. Quill had his own way of doing things, but a lot of the better sellswords did not like their business shouted for all the world to hear. He could already see The Bastard and Heironymous returning their attention to their drinks and conversations. However, he had to give credit where it was due – Onasis would definitely join them, and despite what Wren might think of the man, the Slide was a handy man to have in a tight spot – and not only that, but others were filtering over to their table.
Iyokus's grin widened.
In the end, there were nine people gathered around the table; Iyokus, Wren and Onasis and six others wanting the details. Wren examined each of them in turn, he only knew two of the faces and one of those was only from hearsay – the human who called himself Knuckles. Tightly muscled and ugly as an orc hit in the face with a shovel, he had made his name in the Pits. Stansen Wren had talked to before and he nodded in greeting to him now. The narrow shouldered man was a wizard of some skill who, if you believed the rumours, had more in common with Kel'thuzad than was good for him. The rest Wren had never seen before; there was a gnome who looked worse for wear than the lepers and who seemed to only drink water he had conjured himself. Wren's gaze lingered on the draenai – he hadn't seen many of the females of their kind and he was currently regretting that fact. She said something as she sat down [he assumed she said it, he was admiring her breast at the time and couldn't see her face], 'Arak'Ormana,' and he assumed it was her name.
The last two at the table were something of a conundrum.
She was clearly a priest, but not only that, an elf priest. Her upraised hood may have hidden her pointed ears, but it could not hide that fact. He, after some long looks, was definitely not a priest, and just maybe was human. Even with the intoxicating fragrance of the draenai filling his mind, Wren spent the longest time eyeing up the man.
He was a giant.
Wren had thought that Quill was tall but this fellow towered over even him, and more than that, he was built to scale – his shoulders were frighteningly broad and his mug looked like a thimble in his thick-fingered hands. The short warrior could not guess at the two's relationship or history, but the giant clearly doted over the girl, even now he had a protective arm over the back of her chair. Wren wondered if it was ogre blood that had made him so big. He stopped himself before he could visualize how that might have happened [contrary to Wren's slightly confused wonderings, Janefer's heritage ran true with the blood of giants].
Iyokus was speaking.
'Myself and my partner have accepted a job, a job that even we would be hard pressed to complete with just the two of us. So we are looking for some able bodies to join us. You would be entitled to an equal share of the reward and whatever loot you can dig up while we are there.' As he spoke, Iyokus slide his eye patch to cover his other eye. That made the elf smile behind her hand and Iyokus gave her a sly wink.
'How much are we talking here?' asked Stansen, his hands steepled before his face.
Quill eyed him up, 'the total sum is in the three figures. Gold,' he said and Stansen scoffed.
'That's a lot of gold,' the mage looked at Wren sardonically, 'where does the asher want to take us then Wren?'
Iyokus's smile did not disappear at the slur, but it did take on a more feral aspect and he stared unblinking at Stansen for a moment before inclining his head at Wren.
'Blackrock Spire Stansen,' he said, slowly and calmly.
Knuckles sneered and pushed his chair out. Stansen was not quite as quick as the fighter but stood too.
'Should have said that at the start,' he waved a lazy hand as he drifted off and Knuckles stalked away. The table watched them go with different expressions, but Wren didn't need to look at Iyokus's to know that he would be unconcerned. On the other hand, the elf girl watched them leave with worry etched clearly onto her pretty face.
Iyokus continued speaking unperturbed, 'There is a man who is tired of waiting for the Alliance to do nothing about the Spire on their doorstep and so we have been hired to go after the leadership of this so-called 'True Horde.'
Arak'Ormana continued her silence, but frowned and simply disappeared. Wren, who was familiar with some very specific magics had thought there would have at least been some showy sparkles, but there was nothing, and another of their number was lost.
Quill lowered his gaze to the table for a moment before looking sternly at the three remaining waverers.
'Look, I don't accept jobs that I don't think I will be able to survive [Wren did an admirable job of looking serious as he listened, considering he had never had any formal training in acting]. I happen to very much like being alive, and so this is not a suicide run,' he jabbed his finger on the table as he spoke, 'With the Horde constantly occupied by the Dark Irons below them, this is the best time for a small group to punch through and take out the leadership.'
Over his shoulder, Onasis was nodding, and the middle aged man spoke, his voice curiously beautiful, 'The plan makes sense – and would be one few ways, short of an army, to achieve the objective. We would need only pass through the outer layers of defence to find ourselves some room to work with.'
Quill nodded at the assassin, 'Exactly. We're going to be in and out before anyone knows what's going on,' his glowing eyes met the stares of those left around the table, 'So…are you in?'
They were six. Emilia and Janefer, the elf and her massive companion. She in white robes and a dark cloak, him all in leather and mail, padding quietly for all his bulk. Wedge Chaostorque, the ill-looking gnome had joined them without complaint. Onasis, who would find a way to survive no matter what. Iyokus of course, and me, thought Wren, the handsome one. His laughs were torn away by the rushing wind as he crouched iver the back of the gryphon – the steaming heat of the blasted land below him lifting the beast high into the endless sky.
Wren pulled his hand down his face and reluctantly opened his eyes. He hurt everywhere and it was a moment before he realised that the cracked, womanly moan was coming from his lips and he clamped his mouth shut shamefully. He pushed the memories of recent events
…the javelin had punched effortlessly through Emilia, the tiny woman lifted off her feet by the force of the blow…Janefer bellowing like a bull, trolls swarming around the giant like worgs around a shoveltusk…blood hanging in the air like a mist…Onasis disappearing backwards into the fray, a blade cutting across his throat…the fall…
and looked about himself, taking in his surroundings.
It was dark, flickering light filtering in through the bars that made up the fourth wall of the room he was in, which was cramped and short – if he stood, his head would scrape against the rough-cut stone ceiling. He was not alone. The lump next to him was not a pile of rags as he had first thought, rather, it was Wedge. Wren carefully turned the gnome over, laying the tiny, limp figure onto his back. The ugly gnome's face was viciously bruised and his nose was bent out of shape. A large, angry bump was raised from his forehead. Wren shook his head quietly when he noticed the mage's fingers – they had been systematically broken. He could only hope that the trolls had beaten Wedge into unconsciousness before they had started on his hands. The Smolderthorn clearly knew how to deal with wizards.
Wren sat back on his haunches , his thoughts moving sluggishly and with terrifying intensity. The trolls that had captured them – they were not the Darkspear who ran with the New Horde, those Wren had fought against and beside. No, these were the trolls of the dark places, the forests and caves, the blood drinkers and flesh eaters. All the stories Wren had heard of them were disturbing
…bodies stripped of skin hanging in obscene gardens…cooking pots filled with human limbs…the Man Hunt…
and he could feel his fingers beginning to shake though his limbs felt as limp as wet rope. To die here, so deep in the earth, so far from the sun…Wren had always been a pragmatic believer – he tipped his head at Iyokus's Red God before and after battle – but now he genuinely feared that the Light would not be able to find his soul should he die, so deep in Darkness had he fallen.
A muffled sob broke through his cracked lips.
'Do not give in to despair just yet Wren.'
His eyes shot open as he whirled in place, trying to find the source of the sound. There, in the corner, two glowing orbs hung unblinking. As the gloom lifted, Wren could see the condition of his closest friend. Like the rest of them, Quill had been stripped of his weapons and armour, left wearing only his undershirt and leggings, even his boots ripped away. His face had been heavily beaten, his dark purple skin punished into almost black in places, only livid red cuts breaking the darkness. His lips cracked and bleeding, his teeth stained red – but his eyes were bright yet and Wren could still see a trace if the humour that coloured the elf's words.
Iyokus sidled towards him, and took his hand and Wren felt some of the Night Elf's indomitable strength pass through their grip. They were still trapped at the mercy of nightmarish trolls, they had still led three innocents to their deaths, but suddenly Wren did not feel quite so weak and he squeezed his fingers in Iyokus's hand. He was about to say something when the bars of their cage turned out to be a kind of portcullis and were noisily pulled up.
Both men looked out into the space that had been revealed to them. It was a pit, maybe thirty yards across, the walls perhaps ten feet high and set with other cages like their own.
Above the walls were the trolls.
'Com out com out little elf!' a troll voice shouted in badly accented common
Iyokus and Wren shared a look.
'Don't,' whispered Wren.
Iyokus smiled at him, a glint of mischief in his eye.
'Doubt is hesitation, and hesitation is death – not only in the field of battle, but also in the field of souls. Don't doubt me just yet friend.' With that he winked and pulled himself out into the pit that was an arena.
The bars clanged down behind him.
Wren watched as Quill hobbled slowly forward to the centre of the pit, to his tuned eye, seeming to wear every year of his ancient life. Iyokus limped, his left leg dragging slightly and his shoulders were hunched, his right arm couched in his left. Even with the hooting from above, Wren was sure he could hear his friend's laboured breathing, everything about him shouting weakness and defeat. Wren gripped the bars of the cage tightly, torn between looking away, and witnessing the end of the Shatterstar.
Iyokus looked at his feet and started to speak, not much louder than normal, but the trolls' yelling trailed into silence all the same.
'Hunters without peer. You stalked us, paced us through the depths…culled us. You trapped and ambushed us. We were no more than impotent prey before you. You broke us and dominated us with your fists and your blades, made us into less than men – turned us into your victims.'
The elf's feet shifted slightly, his weight balancing on both legs and his voice gained a little strength, yet he did not look up.
'You have cut us, broken our bones – you have marked us with bruises.'
Wren watched his friend's hands slowly drop to hang rigid by his waist – even after the years he had spent in his company, he found it difficult to know what was posturing and what was real.
'But bruises fade!' Iyokus's shoulders were set back as he took a breath, his voice resounding in the chamber – yet still he looked down, his straggly hair hiding his face, 'And that is all your lives are. Bruises on the skin of Time! When your wives and mates have died, and your people have all but forgotten you, your marks that you have beaten onto history will fade and you will be less than a memory.'
Wren jolted as Iyokus's head snapped up, his eyes burning, not as stars do but as pyres, a demonic grin upon his face.
'I am an ever bleeding wound!' His voice resonating with deep and dark harmonics that sent the skin to shivering, 'Where I walk, I scar forever. Come,' he bellowed, beckoning to the silent trolls above him mockingly, 'face the weight of the inevitable. I will write another chapter of my history with your blood. I will mark the face of your people with your deaths. You will be remembered only as my victims – a drop of blood from the gaping hole that I will open here today.'
Wren almost cried with the sheer audacity of the figure radiating terrible fury – there was no way he could hope to stand against the weight of the mountain arrayed in opposition to him, but Iyokus could not help but throw his shoulder against it.
Until the clapping began – slow and cruel. Wren turned in his cage, but the source of the noise was coming from directly above him, and he could not see who it was.
'Yousa speak dem pretty words well forda dead man, coz,' the trollish voice said, loudly and unafraid. Iyokus turned to face the voice, looking unimpressed.
'I am deh Mog'Phal, priest of deh Hidden Loa, and I is speaking your comman' [The Hidden Loa; a mystery cult in some trollish tribes – whenever a brave disappeared or was killed by means that could not be fathomed he was said to have been taken by the Hidden Loa. The priests had access to dark and shadowy powers and were respected as much as feared].
The troll began to laugh, 'But as you is seeing, I am being deh only one who is – yousa fancy words are wasted on me bruddas,' the voice snarled, 'notin' but aer.'
Iyokus curled his lip at the unseen figure, 'I do not need words to make my boast. Come down and I will show you.'
There was a snort and then some quickly spoken trollish. Wren started and the unconscious Wedge moaned as a troll thumped into the pit only a few feet in front of their cell.
'This be the Warmaster Voone. He be teaching you that deh trolls is capable of much more than just deh bruising.'
Even to those who knew him well, the Warmaster was a living legend, the epitome of troll-kind. His exploits were treated with the reverence normally reserved for tales of the ancestors, embellished with heavenly portents and omens woven in with the perfect accuracy of hindsight and admiration. How the solid old war-maker reacted to this deification of his person was unknown, for he kept his distance, emotionally if not physically, content to lead only when his formidable talents were called upon – leaving the rule of the tribe to the squabbling witch doctors and cultic priests.
Sul watched as the green skinned troll, his shocking blue hair cultivated into a proud mohawk, paraded around the arena. Like most males, he walked hunched over, long arms brushing past his knees, but Voone's pride was his pair of tusks, easily extending past his long, sharply pointed nose and wrapped in Spider sigils, etched, if it were to be believed, by Spider herself. His clothes were nothing remarkable – he needed no mark of station to be identified by his people and his hide jacket and trews could be found on any of the Smolderthorn. The weapon that had won some of Voone's reputation was no where to be seen, the massive ancient artifact called a sword only by convention. Voone's retrieval of the obsidian bladed Shard was more myth than fact and the stone-toothed sword was rarely seen and rarely used.
There had been one time, before the Smolderthorn had left their Northern forests and homes to come to this desolate place, when Sul had been lucky enough to see the true extent of Voone's powers. He had been chosen personally by the Warmaster for his Snake-blessed arm, which could launch a javelin as fast and accurate as to catch a bird in flight. He and a small group of hunters were to count coup from the Withervine, the tribe that lived closest to the Smolderthorn and were eternal rivals. One of the hunters was barely a man, having just come through his Sleepless Night and was along to earn favour and win himself some respect.
They had camped in the forest, still a days trek away from Withervine lands and they were enjoying the heat of a fire when Vojlan suddenly froze. Behind them, a fully grown grizzly had wandered into the camp, drawn by the smell of food. It was a beast of a male, well-fed and dominant, and it was riled by the sight and smell of the trolls. All the hunters began edging towards their weapons when Voone, releasing a blood-curdling roar of his own, charged the bear empty handed.
Sul could only gape as the warrior wrestled with the creature, somehow able to withstand the full rage of nature's champion. He did not even think to help as the Warmaster maneuvered into a position and began to choke the life from the bear, its plaintive cries a trumpeting of trollish victory.
The boy has hustled back to the camp at the sound of the struggle. He had been on watch. He had fallen asleep. Voone had not been pleased. Dripping with sweat, chest heaving from the exertion, Voone had snapped the boy's tusks off almost at the base. It had been a humbling lesson, but one that Polmeen No-tusk had learned well – becoming one of the more fearsome of the Smolderthorn in future years.
Sul remembered those days fondly. Voone had won himself a handsome bearskin mantle and on that very raid, Sul won himself his first wife, who had been ever bit as feisty and as full of spirit as Withervine females were rumoured to be. He missed her greatly, as he missed No-tusk, both lost in the wars.
Voone had finished circling the elf and he leaned in, large nostrils flaring as he drew in a deep breath. Face cracking into a cruel grin, he addressed the crowd above him.
'Can you smell the fear!' he said loudly and the trolls roared and laughed along with him.
Sul laughed too, but he also watched the elf, and he could not see any fear, only focus. Pain perhaps, but strength as well. The moon elf was studying Voone intently, seeming to gauge his every move.
Voone strode to one end of the arena, drawing a small dagger as he did. In a grand gesture he cut threw the ties of his jerkin and threw it off his shoulder – there was an appreciative howl from the crowd.
Trolls, with their violent cults and extraordinary healing, highly valued scarification. Where some cultures tattooed, they cut and healed, and Voone, again, was the height of this practice. Along his heavily muscled arms wound Snake, her jaws open and ready to strike. On his broad back was Eagle, his wings outstretched, talons reaching for his cringing prey. And on his stomach and chest was Bear, great maw open in a thunderous, never-ending roar. Thus, Voone fought always with the gods at his side.
Voone spun his dagger in his hand, blade pointing towards his chest. Sul knew what was coming and held his tongue, knowing Voone waited to be heard.
'The gods will watch this fight this day,' the Warmaster intoned, before dipping the blade to his chest. Carefully, slowly, and without a trace of pain crossing his age creased features, Voone cut the outline of Bear's eyes, the twin orbs soon filling and then leaking an angry red.
Perhaps it was just the fever of the jostling crowd around him, or the heat of the mountain they had been forced to hide in, but Sul Spearborn really did feel that the gods had come a little closer.
The elf just smiled, as if someone had made a joke that only he could understand.
What, in the name of all those who delve, am I doing HERE?
That thought, and others like it, with slight variations on the theme of expletives, had been plaguing Wedge Chaostorque for some time now. He was a gnome, so he shouldn't have been worried about being underground, but he did have an aversion, a very strong aversion, to the lingering threat of a city of bloodthirsty orcs, ogres and trolls hanging over his precious head.
What am I doing here?
He struggled awkwardly over another piece of fallen masonry. Gnomes were not built for this dammit, they were designed for sitting in a workshop, at a desk, using their damn big brains to tinker, not tripping over rocks half their size.
He knew exactly why he was here, risking his rotten life, the same reason everyone stuck their neck out…Gold.
The dwarven moneylender, Krage, was becoming more and more insistent, and no longer was the smooth and cultured Vinche the one was politely asking for the coins. No, now it was very much the threat of broken legs, and worse, fingers that were doing the asking. Only last week it had been Flashpan kicking in Wedge's door. For the longlegs it was somewhat difficult for them to imagine a gnome ever being intimidating, but anyone who had met Krage's enforcer knew it was just the same amount of rage and cruelty bottled into a smaller container – which just meant it was liable to explode more often. Flashpan had toured the workshop, blunt fingers trailing over Wedge's various tools and equipment, pausing to feign interest in the notes scrawled in the mage's crabby script. He had been as obsequious as he could, gabbling about a senator's interest in one of his transmutation spells, how some income was just around the corner and how it would all be for Krage, yessir thank you so much for coming!
There was no such thing. Wedge had not placed an order for weeks, and had already borrowed from another lender to tide him over and keep Krage off his back a month ago. He had learned from Suzi that the dwarf had bought up that debt as well, and Wedge had run out of options. Why couldn't they just let him work in peace? He was so close to piercing through the murk!
He stumbled over a large bone and for a moment the net of shadows that he had cast over their small party wavered. A troll woman, clad in smoky grey leathers, stopped suddenly in the adjoining hallway she had been walking down. No one moved and Wedge began to trickle power and stability back into the spell, darkness blooming in unnatural places, cloaking them once more. Still every breath was held as the troll peered directly at them, her eyes squinting as she tried to pierce the gloom. Wedge could hear someone behind him, probably Onasis, sliding metal across leather.
The troll shrugged and continued on her way
Concentrate you fool!
If he could do this, get this job done, then he would be set. Not only would he be able to pay off all his debts but he could complete his research as well, afford some decent equipment and maybe an assistant. There might even be enough for Suzi and the little one as well, let her know that there was at least one brother who was worth something.
If, of course, they could just get this job done…
He had to admit, these people knew what they were doing. All that Wedge had been expected to do so far was keep them in darkness, otherwise, things were left mainly to the scary human, Onasis, and the giant, Janefer, who could pad silently for all his bulk. Onasis would skulk off, disappearing even more completely than anything Wedge could achieve with his magic, returning in short order to exchange hand signals with Janefer. Then the two of them would draw knives and daggers and lose themselves in the gloom. The party would move on and Wedge would studiously try to avoid looking at the slumped bodies, their fronts drenched in arterial blood, glassy eyes staring with confusion at their ineffective weapons.
It was only at one of the entrances to the Spire that the other two warriors played their hand, the four orc watchmen bathed in torchlight and rigidly aware. The stocky one, Wren, had roared forward, leading with his oversized shield, Iyokus on his heels. It was immediately clear the two had fought together before; while Wren herded the orcs from behind his shield, the elf tore into them, his greatsword trailed by streamers of rich orcish blood, his flank protected by Wren's stabbing shortsword. It had not lasted long and Wedge had been slightly sickened when Iyokus had callously sliced off one of the female's fingers in order to get at a ring that had caught his eye. If it had slightly troubled Wedge than it affected the priest much worse, she had squeezed her eyes shut and trembled constantly. She had missed watching her overlarge companion casually shooting down the runner in the back with a well placed crossbow bolt.
The guards had been mainly orcs at first, but soon there had been more and more trolls amongst the bodies as the party journeyed deeper into Hordemar and the Spire. This had concerned Wren apparently, and in blunt whispers he had entreated Wedge to strengthen his spells on concealment. Trolls were hunters, he had said, and their favourite prey is gnome. It had meant he was constantly chanting under his breath, but Wedge had poured power into the net – muffling footfalls, inky blackness leaking from his fingers and caressing their bodies.
The party was on a ledge, a rope bridge leading onwards, a bridge exposed to full view to anyone who might look up. After some hushed consultation, it was decided that Onasis would cross first and ensure that the other side was clear. Only then would the others hurry their way over.
Wedge's heart was in his throat as he watched Onasis sidle over the rickety bridge. Suddenly, the broad shouldered killer froze, crouching low, halfway across the span. Wedge followed his gaze and in his shock, dropped the net of shadows.
Standing on the other side, staring straight at Onasis was the troll woman from earlier. For a long silence the pair simply glared at each other. The impasse was broken when Iyokus, his voice strangely hollow from behind his demonic helm, growled out, 'Get her.'
Neither the troll nor Onasis needed further instruction, she disappearing around the corner and he sprinting off across the bridge with astonishing speed. Wren and Iyokus wasted no time either, the bearded man pushing past Wedge in his hurry to get across the bridge. Janefer almost rushed off too, but skidded to a halt at the last moment. He looked at Emilia, pain in his eyes, for she was rooted to the spot. With a grunt, the big man seized the elf in one muscled arm and threw her over his shoulder, running across the bridge as if she weighed nothing.
Wedge dusted off his knees. It was clear that no one was going to carry –him- across the gap. He muttered some choice curses under his breath, a whisper of power scorching the expletives into the air. Then it hit him that he was very much alone on this side of the span, and huffing, his lungs quickly beginning to burn, the gnome ran after his companions.
Corridor after corridor streaked past him, torches flashing like fireballs in the corner of his eyes. He thanked the architects that there were few diverging corridors and that footsteps echoed loudly in the stone tunnels.
Though there were far, far too many footfalls, and not all of them were coming from in front of him. Wedge desperately tried to increase his pace, gasping for air.
At last! He caught up with the others, who stood silently arrayed in a line. Each was breathing heavily, though none with the breathless intensity of the stubby gnome.
It was a dead end, a square ledge that led nowhere but to a dark drop. And waiting to send them over were a group of grinning trolls, the female standing triumphantly at their centre.
Wedge spun in place as more of the fetish strewn monsters began to file out of the corridor he had just run through. Evil looking axes and spears glinted in the spluttering but illuminating torchlight.
-Let me help you-, whispered the chaos
Wedge's arms hung limply at his side, his face slack. He could not summon the strength to say anything, even thinking seemed tremendously difficult. Gone was any hope of paying his debts, having a better life.
They were all going to die.
The two men circled each other, about six feet or so apart. Voone had flung aside his knife, closing those stubby, thick fingers into massive fists while Iyokus clenched and unclenched his fingers, his fiery eyes never leaving the grinning troll. Wren ignored the howling and cheering of the crowd above him as he held desperately to the bars of his prison. Behind him, Wedge was stirring, and seemed to be having a mumbled conversation with someone. Wren disregarded him; he had seen Quill fight with his fists a few times, but never in anything worse than a drunken bar fight.
The troll arched his back and unleashed a roar that was straight from the throat of some primeval terror and sent icy shivers running down Wren's spine. Iyokus just leapt forward into Voone's reach, foot lashing out against the troll's knee as his elbow swept up between the tusks to crush against the jaw. Voone jerked his leg out of the way but walked into the elbow, staggering back, blinking in pain.
But the troll was far from done.
Iyokus moved in to grab Voone, but the troll launched a swift jab into his face, his broad trollish knuckles pulverizing already bruised flesh. Voone followed with another and another before the elf could raise his arms and fall into the troll's reach. Voone did not relent, and Wren hissed in torment as blow after blow rained into Iyokus's stomach.
The two largely fought quietly, though they grunted as fists slapped against meat, and of course, Quill laughed his mirthless laugh. Suddenly Voone's head snapped back and Iyokus grabbed his tusks in both hands, ramming his forehead into the troll's nose again, flattening and breaking the once sharpely pointed organ. Wren knew from experience the blinding pain that followed from that, the sparks of light and filaments of fire that exploded from the nose – the urge to cry and just get away from the hurt. Iyokus did not let Voone hide, throwing his head back once again, his white mane whipping about him, before head butting the troll again. Voone looked unsteady on his feet, but Iyokus still held onto his tusks, and he tilted the troll's head back, exposing his throat. At this point the trolls above were almost screaming their anger while Wren cheered himself hoarse.
Behind him, Wedge continued his frenzied, incomprehensible debate.
Iyokus's back was to him, so Wren could not see exactly what happened next, but judging from the silence that descended, it was something vicious. Voone stopped grunting and began yelling, his long arms flailing, banging hard against the elf's scarred body, but Quill did not stop doing whatever it was he was doing. Soon Voone's screams fell into gasps and then gurgles and Iyokus released his hold on him. The meat dropped to the sandy floor, fingers twitching mindlessly.
His friend slowly turned to face him, and Wren could see what he had done. The elf's jaws, his bared teeth and neck were slathered in blood, flecks of flesh still hanging from his mouth. He had bitten Voone. Wren knew that Night Elven teeth were sharper than human's, but he had not until this moment considered the use and he had to admit he was a little sickened, though he had no doubt that his eventual fate at the hands of these monsters would be worse.
Iyokus had spotted the discarded knife and stalked over to it, staggering slightly. Retrieving the weapon he returned to Voone, who still struggled to hold onto life. The elf paused for a moment - looking at the priest maybe, Wren reckoned – before raising his right leg, bent at the knee. There was no noise as he stood there, balanced on one leg, staring at his enemy.
Then the foot stamped down.
Voone's body convulsed and then was still. Iyokus raised his leg again, foot dripping gore, and stamped down once more on Voone's neck. He did this again and again until the bones in the troll's neck were cracked and broken and his foot wore a red boot of blood.
Wren was not normally queasy, he had seen and down things that would turn the stomach of most men, but even he turned away as Iyokus knelt by the pulverized body, knife in hand. There was the sound of sawing meat and Iyokus's heavy breathing, and when Wren looked back his friend was standing, Voone's head hanging from its hair in one bloodstained hand.
'A master of war amongst children is still a child,' the elf said, his voice containing none of the fever that burned in his eyes, and he tossed the head up to the silent audience.
Discordent hissing and howls sounded from above, louds yells of rapidly spoken trollish. Wren relished in every one of them, and he peered through the bars to look at the trolls opposite him. Some looked back with a mixture of horror and grief, but most had twisted their faces into masks of rage and anger. They begged to be allowed to kill the elf, exact painful vengeance, cut out his heart and feast on his skin.
There was a bark and the hunters murmured to quiet. Wedge's one-sided conversation continued a pace, louder now.
'Yousa realleh tink dat deat' be stoppin' a troll?' Wren heard the voice of the priest above him rise into a spittle-filled shriek, 'deh spirit of Voone curses you!'
The chamber filled with guttural chanting that seemed to emanate from the very walls and Wedge began to twitch fitfully. When it stopped, Wren pushed his dirt-caked face against the bars, eyes darting about in his sockets, trying to see the effect, and he could see Quill staring at a point above him, knees bent, ready to dart aside should some fel spell be cast at him.
A gobbet of spit arched through the air, splatting audibly onto the bloody chest of Voone. Nothing happened for a long moment, until the body twitched, as though subjected to gnomish electricity. The heavy arms rose from the dust, clawing at the air as a keening scream broke from the lips of the head. Wren watched, eyes widening, as a smoky shape pushed out of the muscular body and though it boiled and twisted through the air, he could see that it coalesced into the shape of the once-warmaster. It lunged for Iyokus who tried to dance aside, but the spirit moved like steam blown in the wind, sweeping into the elf's eyes, nostrils and mouth.
Quill froze in place, arms flung out and jaw working madly as he tried to sense the changes in his body. On his skin, cryptic symbols blossomed into life, glowing a sickly green before they wriggled like worms and burrowed under his skin.
Iyokus threw his head back, eyes closed and teeth gritted, neck muscles taut cables.
He screamed and fell to his knees, the curse tunneling pathways of pain through his soul.
As the trolls jeered and laughed at the elf's torment, Wren roared and rattled the bars. He could no more fight the magic than Iyokus could, but he also couldn't watch him being tortured. The rough and rusted metal cut into the flesh of his palms but it was no use, it was too heavy and it only creaked, mocking his anger.