In a time long since passed, the three great realms of Albion, Hibernia and Midgard lived in an uneasy peace, brokered by the sheer strength of will of Albion's King Arthur. From his home in Camelot, the capital city of Albion, Arthur presided over an era of prosperity that was unprecedented in the history of the three realms. But it was also a time for resentments and rivalries to simmer below the surface. Arthur's era of peace was about to end...
Albion was the fertile land of the Britons and Highlanders, led by the great King Arthur himself. Along with their mystical Avalonian allies, as well as the Saracens, dark-skinned warriors from the south whom Arthur himself had recruited to the cause, the people of Albion sought to become a mighty kingdom that would bring order to their corner of the world. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with Arthur's vision.
Midgard was the frozen land of the north, home of the Norsemen, Trolls, Dwarves and Kobolds. The Norsemen were viking raiders, led by King Eiric, who sought to find new lands where they could stake their claim. The hardy Dwarves were their allies, as were the giant, stone-skinned Trolls from the mountains and the small, blue-skinned Kobolds from the Undercity.
These races of Midgard, unable to live off the land of their birth, needed to expand their reach, but Albion, and Arthur, blocked their way.
Hibernia was the magical land of the Celts, fierce warriors who had long been subjugated by their more powerful neighbor, Albion. The Celts, led by Lug Lamfhota allied themselves with the 'old races' of Hibernia, the mighty Firbolgs, the diminutive Lurikeen and the haughty Elves, to free themselves of Albion's long-standing dominion over them. All they needed was an opportunity to show their strength.
On Arthur's death, the realms mourned, for they knew times were about to change for the worse. War came shortly after as Midgard invaded, looking for new lands, Hibernia threw off the yoke of their Albion masters, and Albion sought to defend their homeland against two great aggressors. At stake was not only the future of the realms, but of the frontier lands between them, where powerful magical artifacts known as Relics were housed. Whoever controlled these Relics, controlled the strength and power that their magic provided to an entire realm.
For thirty years now these realms have fought, trading lands, Relics, and lives. The balance of power has shifted back and forth among them, but none of the three realms has ever been able to strike a blow decisive enough to claim a final victory. But times are changing. Midgard's ageing armies have been slowly dwindling in numbers, and Hibernia's forces have suffered several notable defeats. Albion, long under siege, is slowly but surely reaching the brink of victory.
But old enemies lurk beneath the surface, waiting for the right time to strike. And the three realms, weakened by decades of war, are at their most vulnerable. The fate of the realms, and their people, is at stake.
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Book 1 – The Gathering
by Patrick Underhill
Gruesome roared as he swung his axe and hammer in a sideways arc at the long, bony frame before him. The frore lich screeched in agony as its arm and chest splintered from the force of the troll's blow. The gangly arms and legs of the pale-skinned nightmare flailed as it hissed out its final breath. Gruesome kicked the lifeless husk away with one massive foot even as he turned and leapt past another lich tangled in brambles, its long-clawed fingers raking harmlessly against the studded leather of his armor. His heavily-muscled arms windmilled to bring his weapons to bear on a third ghoul as it clawed at the little shield Blade held high against his body. The old dwarf smashed at the creature with lightning speed, his teeth bared in a ferocious grin. His right eye gleamed with bloodlust, and a worn patch covered the scarred hole of his left. From behind Blade, a small figure chanted in a clear voice and energy poured forth from his hands. Pellien's shaman magic swirled around Blade, healing some wound Gruesome couldn't see. The axe in his left hand cleaved into the lich's shoulder, as his hammer crushed its neck awkwardly to the side. The crack and pop of ancient bones brought a triumphant guffaw from Blade.
The entangled lich hissed and clawed while Gruesome spun around to face it. The dead eyes showed no fear as he arched his powerful shoulders to send the beast back to Hel. The fickle goddess spat these creatures upon Midgard to test its warriors, even as the war with Hibernia and Albion waged in full. Fewer Midgardians were available to cull the numbers of dangerous beasts that roamed the frontier - most able-bodied warriors were in the frontlines. Only the aged or "disobedient" were put to this task. Those deemed unworthy of defending the realm in combat. Gruesome's stony visage sank into a grimace when the air filled with the dust of the lich's long-dried blood.
Gruesome sank to his knees and buried his weapons in the snow to cleanse them as he offered his latest kills to Modi in prayer. These meager offerings were all he could offer the berserk god, and it riled him. He was a mighty troll, strong of arm and quick of foot...the blood of dozens of Midgard's enemies should coat his hammer and axe before he supplicated himself before Modi. He thought back to just a few short years before, when Blade, Pellien and Zalathorn took him under their wings. Zalathorn was a fierce son of Modi, and taught Gruesome that the god's mighty gifts were not to be wasted. But wasted they were, fighting simple beasts such as the lich. He couldn't remember the last time he needed to ask Modi to transform him into a bear. The sweet release of reason, the embrace of savage power…those were the gifts of Modi. But all gifts brought a price. Lack of awareness in battle from a berserker's rage was Modi's. Even old bears got lost in the rage. Even old bears died under a swarm of Albion's armsmen.
And some wounds not even an old son of Eir could heal. Gruesome looked to Blade, as the aged dwarf leaned against a tree, knocking bits of lich flesh from his hammer. Blade used to be the first to announce his conquests to Eir. He would shout them for all the world to hear, and any that questioned offering the dead to the goddess of healing got a shield upside their head. "Their deaths be bringing more life to Midgard, fool!" Blade would shout in his raspy voice, heavy with the tongue of the mountian folk. Gruesome grimaced at the thought of what his old friend once was, and cursed King Eirik for keeping him from his true reward.
Gruesome rose to his feet and shook the snow from his hammer and axe. These were his weapons of choice, forged from strong, light arcanium; only the most proven warriors were given items of this precious metal. His gaze shifted to Pellien, the wrinkled kobold pulled his hood from his face and held his hand over his eyes as he peered west through the trees of Greip Forest. This was the chosen hunting grounds for the liches, the shadows of the trees and snowdrifts offered good hiding places for the pale ghouls. Clearing the beasts was more tedious than hazardous for the trio, especially as they grew more brazen with fewer Midgardians to thin their numbers. It was King Eirik's decree that the denizens of the frontiers be kept at bay to allow his soldiers to pass as swiftly as possible. Yet, only warriors past their prime were allotted for such menial work. Gruesome was there when General Aminad told Pellien that Blade was unfit for duty in the war. Even the kobold's blue face paled at the words. He argued, but to no avail. Of course, Pellien was ever loyal to his old comrade, he would not leave him to his fate alone. It is doubtful the old dwarf would have survived long without the little shaman taking care of him in the harsh lands. It was not the fighting that Blade couldn't handle, those were the only times he seemed to come alive; it was the times between the fights that Blade moved as if lost. His mind drifted elsewhere as a condition of too many times ripped from Valhalla at the cursed bind stones, a necessity brought on by the bloody war with Albion and Hibernia after King Arthur's death. The peace and unity of the three realms were ripped to pieces with his final breath.
Gruesome volunteered to join his fellows, to keep them safe; but Aminad denied him. A fit, young warrior such as he was needed in the war. Such were the orders of the King. Gruesome had railed, begged to stay with Blade and Pellien. Aminad had told him he was too loyal to the realm to be put to such lesser work. "What could you possibly do to deserve such punishment?" Aminad had asked in that way he had, that said you already know the answer. Hitting Aminad was the hardest thing Gruesome had ever done. It was a solid blow, but the great thane was a stout troll. Still, he had no choice but to charge Gruesome and sentence him to time in the frontier. That was several months ago, and Gruesome had learned to regret hasty decisions.
"There," Pellien's voice brought Gruesome out of his reverie. "Someone is fighting." His tiny hand pointed to somewhere just this side of Hverdrungr Hill. Gruesome could see nothing, but he trusted the kobold's senses, age had not affected his eyes or ears. It oftened seemed as if he could hear the enemies' arrows even before they left the bow. "Blade, we move."
Blade simply followed Pellien's command and chanted the song that would quicken their feet. The same magic that allowed his allies to attack with uncanny speed was used to make them outpace even a mighty warsteed. Coupled with Pellien's ability to stave off fatigue, the three could travel almost as quickly as one of the children of Bragi. Gruesome fell in line between Blade and the shaman without thinking, allowing the kobold to lead them while he maintained a good position to attack anyone that might attack from any side. Blade would follow and do whatever he deemed necessary in a fight.
Gruesome considered himself a means of pure destruction, yet the subtleties of Blade's and Pellien's abilities fascinated him. He swung his hammer, something died. Blade waved his hand in the air, and raging beasts quelled and slept on their feet. Pellien said a word, and blistering sores broke out on a dozen men. But the two also made Gruesome a devastating warrior. His natural strength and agility was augmented by their gifts and turned him into a maelstrom of carnage. Their healing abilities gave him the spirit to throw himself into any fray. With Blade and Pellien at his back, he knew that no force of man or elf would stand before him.
Pellien brought them to a quick stop a few yards from several bodies lying in the snow. Two Midgardians lay prone, blood still seeping from their wounds. The three others looked to be two Hibernians and one Albion. One of the Hibernians, a female elf, was torn to shreds…most likely by the two shadowblades of Midgard; the other celt and highlander had no marks upon them save for the ice that melted from their still-warm bodies. Gruesome watched as Pellien moved quickly to the shadow blades, his hands waving over their bodies as he chanted hurriedly under his breath.
"I can't," he said, almost inaudibly. Gruesome regarded him quizzically. The shaman looked at him, his face wide in amazement. "They're gone, just gone…"
The crunch of snow up the hill ahead of them stole the question from Gruesome's mouth. He looked up to see a thin figure dash from a covering of brush towards the ruins surrounding the outpost of Blendrake Faste.
"Enemy!" he shouted as he ran up the hill. Blade's chant carried him swiftly, but the avalonian he saw was close to one of the broken walls of the old settlement. It disappeared into the ruins, as Gruesome drew his weapons. He rounded a crumbled wall, his great arms swinging in anticipation of an ambush. He hit only empty air, as his frantic quarry stumbled towards another building. The dirty robe the man wore caught on a bush, shredding even more of the tattered cloth. Gruesome leapt after him, his excitement building at the thought of killing a true enemy of the realm. Only the midday's sun kept him from running his guts right onto the infiltrator's daggers. The stealthed man placed himself perfectly to cut off Gruesome from his prey violently, but the sun's glare off the tip of the blades alerted the troll at the last moment. He shifted his body sideways as he brought his axe down to slap the blades away. He swung his hammer wildly at the assassin, missing but giving himself the room he wanted between them.
As they circled each other, pain lanced Gruesome's back. Of course, he thought, no infiltrator attacks an enemy solo. The wound was light, but he moved to his left to keep the two from surrounding him. The bitter enemies slowly circled each other in the room of a building shattered long ago by Albion siege. Gruesome's eyes shifted from one to the other, gauging which would attack first. The two sneaks held their ground for a moment, eyes peering at Gruesome through tight slits. Then looked at each other and smiled, ever so slightly.
With a roar, Gruesome spun to his right. Keeping the blade of his axe between himself and the assassins, he brought his hammer down in a slashing motion behind him. The dark-skinned saracen poised to end the troll's life barely registered surprise before the massive blow caught him on the shoulder and drove his body into the rocky ground. Heavily wounded, but not dead, he rolled to a corner and raised his tiny blades in a defensive manner. The other two wasted no time in pouncing on Gruesome. He knew that he was much stronger and almost as quick as them, but no match alone for the seasoned infiltrators. But he wasn't alone. Red light danced in the eyes of the one to his right, and the lean Briton stood as if in a daze. Blade had found them! Gruesome heard the dwarf chant behind him and felt the speed of the gods infuse his muscles. He threw himself at his first assailant, large arms whirling in deadly blows. Pellien leapt into the room to his left, saw the saracen on the ground and motioned a single hand at him. The man convulsed in agony and writhed in pain. Gruesome felt energy swarm around him and knew that Blade was cleansing his wounds of any poison before casting the spell that would heal him. Meanwhile, he made short work of the briton before him, crushing the man before the onslaught of his blows. Pellien waved his arms in a circle, and barbs of shamanic energy flew toward the dazed assassin. Gruesome swung hammer and axe just as clarity returned to the man's eyes. Unlike the lich's, they definitely showed fear before the light of life left them in a collision of arcanium rage.
Gruesome turned, surveying the carnage around him. All was silent in the ruins as the three warriors listened to their surroundings. Even Blade's one, redshot eye was alight with the fever of anticipated combat. Where three sneaks were, usually many more followed. Albion was not known for doing anything without the benefit of larger numbers. Pellien's eyes widened suddenly.
"Scouts!" he yelled and raised his shield above his head. Blade followed suit and Gruesome threw himself down to a half-broken wall. Arrows thudded against rock, save for the two that barely penetrated the back of Gruesome's armor. Chuckles from the archers echoed off the stone walls. A disembodied voice like pure venom spoke in Albion's native tongue, the unintelligible words sounded soft but menacing. The sneaks were using stealth magic very close, getting position to finish off their trapped prey. Gruesome wasn't sure how many infiltrators might be closing on them, but experience told him at least two for each of them. The arrogance of these cowards seethed him. By Modi, he would not go easily to such as these. He looked to Blade, the old dwarf nodded at him and smiled grimly. Pellien looked calm, as always. Gruesome clutched his weapons to his chest. This was why he was born. This was his moment. Life and death would be decided by his strength in battle, by the power of his comrades. The number of enemies they faced would not matter. They had some cover from the scouts, and the infiltrators would have to get close to do their damage. Gruesome preferred having more room to swing his long arms, but trusted his strength even in close quarters. He didn't doubt the qualities of Pellien and Blade, the seasoned veterans had seen more battles than even the Valkyries could count.
They sat and waited in the silence of the ruined hall. The sun held its place high above them. A breeze rustled the rough brush that grew in the rocky ground around them. In the distance, Gruesome thought he heard the stretching of a sinewy string as a scout pulled his bow taut, perhaps the slide of an infiltrator's boot across a dusty surface. He pulled in his breath, focused his eyes ahead and drew his rage into himself.
The silence broke in the rush of leather boots, and a cry of pain…
Trapped in the broken remains of a Midgardian fort atop Hverdrungr Hill, Gruesome and his companions waited for the inevitable strike of hidden daggers. They had come to this outpost near Blendrake Faste while chasing a single Albion, only to find themselves surrounded by an army of infiltrators and scouts. Rushing footsteps drifted on the wind, followed by a scream of pain. The tense troll's weapons jumped in his hands, towards an enemy that was not there. Another howl echoed the first, followed by an odd clatter and raspy battlecries from the direction the arrows had come that sent them into hiding in this corner of what seemed to be a ruined bedchamber. An alarmed shout went up among the nearby assassins, and Pellien reacted first. His fingers pointed at an empty spot of ground a few feet in front of him and a white-skinned inconnu, almost as short as the kobold, popped into view with a squawk of pain. The dark energy summoned by Pellien spread out from the odd-looking creature, and four other infiltrators' stealth magic was interrupted painfully by the shaman's spell. Blade chanted to Gruesome's right, and the big troll wasted no time. He knew he had to keep himself between his comrades and the Albion sneaks. He stepped forward and whirled his right hand in a huge uppercut blow, his hammer caught the inconnu's oversized head and sent the man flying through the air. Though short for a troll, Gruesome towered over all the men before him; and he knew they saw him as a mindless beast, hungry for their blood. They were half right.
The life-giver Ymir had pulled trolls into the world from the stones in the mountains; that is why their skin, though warm to the touch, had the texture of rock. They stood two heads taller than most men, and their faces were mostly featureless…just two eyes and a broad, lip-less mouth. They were the strength of Midgard, but some were able to harness the more earthly powers of the shaman and bonedancer. Outsiders thought them senseless brutes; and trolls used that to their advantage, painting their faces with grim symbols to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies.
Gruesome counted on all this, as well as the abilities of Blade and Pellien to heal his wounds, when he threw himself at the other assassins. He knew there would be more, only a fool would think Pellien had uncovered all of their attackers. But maybe a big, flailing troll would keep the others from gaining any kind of position for a critical strike. He brandished his hammer and axe with a roar and launched himself at a strong-looking man on the left; most likely a Briton, Gruesome judged by the tufts of yellow hair that protruded from his leather cap. The Albion had no chance to parry Gruesome's larger weapons with his much smaller ones and the blow drove the man into the ground with a crunch of broken bones. With the loss of surprise, these sneaky bastards had lost the advantage…and they most likely had no cleric or friar to heal them in battle.
Of course, they will just smother us with numbers, Gruesome thought grimly.
Blade had already placed a Saracen to his right in a mesmerized sleep; and creeping roots wound themselves around another's feet behind him, courtesy of Pellien. The fourth was recovered and advanced on Gruesome, clearly he was a bit more experienced than his comrades. Still, these were the youngest of Albion's infiltrators. The veterans, and most dangerous, preferred to hunt alone; they trusted in nothing but their own skills and magics. That gave the mighty warrior the confidence that he could take more than a few of these down before they were completely overrun. He almost absently noted that no arrows had flown his way, and thanked Modi for small favors. He wouldn't give in to a hope for survival, that would only lessen his killing rage.
Just as he narrowly evaded the twin daggers of the attacking infiltrator, Gruesome's left side erupted in pain as another pale-skinned Briton came into view with his weapons buried in the troll. He roared and tried to ignore the burning of poison in his veins. He spun in place, knocking the little man away with his left arm while his momentum brought his hammer into the assassin's back. He would have liked to savor the ugly crunch of bones and scream of agony, but he knew he had to keep moving. The other one's daggers grazed his back, finding no purchase in the sturdy armor.
His mentor Zalathorn had taught him well. "You're only as good as your equipment, and the friend behind you," the old dwarf would say. "Make sure they're both in good sorts." They wore studded leather, as opposed to the chain mail of most of Midgard's warriors. As berserkers, they needed the movement of both arms as much as possible. The wide-bladed axes in their left hands didn't require as much skill to block incoming attacks, and were less delicate weapons. But where Zalathorn liked a sword in his right hand, Gruesome preferred a hammer. The heavy-headed weapon was difficult to parry and could easily smash through shield and armor, especially with his strength augmented by Pellien's and Blade's enchantments.
The Saracen attacking him jerked in anguish and coughed out a red mist, as the little shaman's poison coursed through his body. Gruesome finished the man with a double-handed sweep of his hammer and axe. He felt the wound in his side close and the poison and rot begin to leave his body, but didn't take time to question which of his companions was healing him.
The venomous voice from before shouted orders somewhere past the broken wall behind them, and the sounds of combat continued beyond that. The first wave was failing, so that meant the rest would just swarm them. Gruesome's rage rumbled from his throat, and Blade howled defiantly. The Saracen trapped in vegetation scrambled to free himself, his eyes wide with fear. The menacing troll stepped in front of the assassin still sleeping on his feet, flipped his weapons into the air, raised his arms high above his head and caught both handles as he smashed hammer and axe into the spellbound man.
That ought to give them some pause, he chuckled to himself.
He stepped back, to take a more protective stance in front of the kobold and dwarf. He couldn't afford to let them come into melee combat, he stronghad /strongto stay between them and the sneaks. He heard the two preparing spells and held his weapons in front of him as he crouched as low as he could.
Three of them hit him at once, six different little blades tearing skin and muscle. If not for the healing powers of Blade and Pellien , he would have died. He swung out wildly, just hoping to make contact. He tried to ignore the pain, but why did the little sons of whores always have to use poison? They were quick, and so was he. But he was much stronger. His axe clipped the side of one's head, his hammer slammed one to the ground. The air before him was a blur of shiny metal, tiny blades cut into him from all sides it seemed. Even as one infiltrator fell, another took its place. He didn't see faces, just bodies while he fought to hit them before they could hit him. The chanting of his friends filled his ears, casting spells as fast as they could to keep him alive. They knew if he fell, they fell. He cleaved an Albion almost in two when it tried to get past him to Pellien. Gruesome almost wished more would go after one of his comrades, if only to give him a bit of relief from the constant stabs of pain. He'd once seen a cook stabbing a slab of elk with a fork to tenderize it before roasting. He now knew how that meat felt.
Pellien coughed and emitted a cloud of green haze that covered the horde of Albion men. The debilitating mist caused some of the attackers to shudder in surprise and gave Gruesome the small window he needed to dispatch two more of them with swift, strong blows. The remains of the tiny room they fought in was filled with bodies, the living stepping over the dead. The assassins cheered or taunted each other on, Gruesome couldn't tell. Their voices echoed off the stone walls, and grated in his head. Their arrogance enraged him, and he vowed to leave a mountain of their dead as his memorial. He only hoped that he could mangle their bodies beyond all chance of being revived at a bind stone.
Except for the pain of being constantly stabbed by these little prickers, his body was fresh. Pellien and Blade healed him almost as quickly as the infiltrators cut him, but he could only imagine that the two were exhausting themselves. He feared their mana would wane before his stamina and urged his arms to swing harder and faster. Some of the cowardly sneaks lost heart and backed away from him, clearly hoping their fellows would get the better of him. He evaded what blades he could, parried others and always followed with a big swing designed to either kill or give him space. A couple of the more brazen actually got in range of the kobold and dwarf, but he was able to knock them away before they could really hurt either. But how long could he keep this up?
Frustration and anger began to cloud his mind; he wanted to charge through the ranks of assassins like a bull, let the power of Modi sweep him away and smash them all into the ground. He felt his chest rumble, heard the words of prayer forming in his throat. He knew that this would bring on all their deaths, knew that he was condemning his friends. He also knew that he would sweep through their enemies like a maelstrom of death. Tears of rage or sorrow, he couldn't tell which exactly, pooled in his eyes. He tried to tell his friends that he was sorry, but all that came out was a deafening roar. Then he was pleading with his rage to take him away, to remove the pain and let him die as any Midgardian should.
Just as Gruesome was starting the prayer that would unleash the mighty bear from his soul, the wall to his left shattered from some great force. A thin body clad in black leather flailed through the air, slamming into four of the Albion invaders before him. Shock brought instant clarity to him. He heard the horrific screams of men, and the terrified voice of the Albion leader lost all of its venom as it shouted what could only be a retreat. The assassins before him jumped back with wide-eyed confusion.
"Kill 'em all!" Blade screamed behind him, and Gruesome obeyed. He slammed both weapons down on the back of an infiltrator, then swung both arms out to knock two others sprawling. He didn't even care if he killed, he was just hitting everything in front of him while maintaining his cover of the shaman and old dwarf. He would make sure no Albion sneak got close to his friends while the cavalry beyond wiped them out.
"For Midgard!" Gruesome shouted.
Then he learned that trolls were not the only avatars of strength. He had assumed another troll had thrown the little assassin through the wall, but this was no rescue force. The huge-horned head of a bull attached to the massive body of a man pushed through the remains of the wall. The beast wore thick, leathery armor and swung a large staff in its hands. Men scattered from its reach like mice in a barn. Around them, Gruesome heard the sounds of animalistic roars and screams of dying men. What sneaks were left vanished as quickly as they could. They wanted no part of a group of angry minotaurs.
And why were these minotaurs so angry? This was Midgard, not their subterranean labyrinth! Or maybe he was wrong. Maybe they had finally chosen sides and decided to help defend the frozen north!
He looked to the minotaur, their eyes met. The blood-shot eyes of the beast bulged with murderous rage. The creature raised the staff in its massive arms and bellowed at Gruesome. When it charged him, he knew for certain that this was no rescue.
The reddish-brown minotaur snorted and threw itself at Gruesome, its head shaking violently as if to make sure everyone saw the long horns that stuck out at least two feet on either side. The huge staff it held in both hands was thick, and covered in runes. The big troll braced himself to catch the staff in both weapons. He was still a head taller than the beast, but it looked incredibly strong.
This might hurt.
Then it stopped. The minotaur stood motionless, it's head still down as though it were charging. Red lights danced in its eyes.
"Get on with it, boy," Blade sounded impatient.
Gruesome smiled and set his hammer and axe in the large leather loops that hang on his sides. He shrugged his right shoulder to move the heavy cloak enough to uncover the massive hammer strapped to his back. The weapon was taller than most men, and the strong troll had to use two hands to wield it. He took two steps toward the dazed minotaur, shifting his torso to bring the full force of his blow to his target. The head of the hammer was almost as wide as the bull's head, and it hit right between its eyes with a heavy THUNK! The creature fell to the ground in a heap.
"Hel's tits, boy, ye 'bout knocked the beef off a-that one!"
"Carve it up, Blade. It has to taste better than dried venison." Pellien moved as he spoke, toward a hole in the crumbling wall. Moments before, the now-dead beast had smashed an infiltrator completely through the wall. The minotaur's presence might have saved the three from painful, stabbing deaths at the hands of Albion assassins, but Gruesome knew the enemy of his enemy hadn't become his ally. Especially after the man-bull had charged him with violence on its mind.
The shaman peeked out to what used to be a small lane between buildings in this ruined fort, as the sounds of combat beyond began to lighten. "They seem to have run off all the Albs, and a few are right beneath the outpost." He paused for a moment, studying the new arrivals. "There's a big one in black armor that seems to be the leader, he's sending some this way and taking some off…" His blue face pursed in thought. "Interesting."
"What, Pell?" Gruesome stepped behind the little kobold, crouching as low as he could to avoid being seen above the cracked wall.
"Four are coming this way. You two handle them, while I go see what those others are doing." He slipped behind Gruesome and Blade with a quickness that belied the wrinkles in his face and went out the shattered wall they'd used as an entrance to the stone building not half an hour earlier.
"Wait!" The troll tried to stop his friend, but he was gone.
"Fool runt," Blade shook his head as he pushed past Gruesome into the narrow lane. Gruesome immediately followed the old dwarf, knowing his comrade's lack of discretion could bring an army of minotaurs upon them. At least Blade seemed like his old self though, confident and brazen. It had been months since Gruesome heard him speak more than a word or two, longer even since the scarred old dwarf had moved with any sense of purpose. He found himself bolstered by his friend's newfound vigor.
Perhaps this was all Blade needed, to be thrust into a constant chain of battle. First, they had killed some frore liches in Greip Forest for the better part of the morning, though that was hardly a test of any of their skills. Then, they had stumbled upon what looked to be an Albion wizard, the sole survivor of a fight between warriors from Hibernia, Albion and Midgard. They chased him to the top of Hverdrungr Hill, to the ruined fort that surrounded the Blendrake Faste outpost here in the southern parts of Midgard's dangerous frontier. That had proved to be a well-laid trap to lead them to an army of infiltrators and scouts. Well, perhaps not so well-laid; but it had been long since Gruesome felt the crush of Albion and Hibernian bones beneath his hammer. Who could blame him for losing some caution to his thirst for a real enemy's blood?
They would surely have died to the archers and assassins, if some unseen ally hadn't attacked the scouts. As it was, the infiltrators almost overran them until the minotaurs showed up. And so they would now cast these beasts back into their labyrinthine home, or send them to their cow-faced gods!
The lane was wide enough for Gruesome and Blade to stand side by side. The crumbled walls of the buildings gave enough cover to keep them safe on their left and right, but someone could attack them from behind. Some of the infiltrators could be sneaking around, but they were a cowardly lot. They wouldn't chance getting hit by Gruesome's big weapons, or those of the minotaurs. Four of the creatures approached them, two behind the others. The ones in the fore carefully checked each side passage as they went, each holding a large, double-bladed axe in both hands. The other two wore metal gloves with twin blades protruding from the backs, and every finger was tipped with a long, fierce-looking claw. Their armor was all similar, thick brown leather that left their arms and legs bare. Where Gruesome expected hooves, they actually had feet covered in metal boots. He found himself oddly surprised, having only glimpsed a minotaur previously from afar in the great capital of Jordheim. And he didn't really bother to look at the one that tried to kill him before all that closely, but it had seemed to be lost in some sort of bloodlust.
These moved like trained warriors, with great concern for their surroundings. A black-hided one in the back, with a white swatch across its face noticed them first and brayed a warning to its companions. All four eyed the two sons of Midgard warily and hefted their weapons.
"What be ye name, boy?" Blade never took his eye off their foes. Gruesome remembered this game from better times, but knew it wouldn't do to let the enemy see a fearsome troll smile.
"They call me Gruesome, old man."
"Show me why then."
The fierce old dwarf began casting as Gruesome pulled his weapons free and charged the first two. To their credit, they didn't even balk at the larger troll running into four armed and armored warriors. Gruesome felt his muscles surge at Blade's behest, inhuman speed given to his inhuman strength. The brown minotaur on his right caught his hammer and axe with the shaft of its weapon; but the force of the troll's attack pushed it back, leaving grooves in the rocky ground from its large boots. The one on the left raised its axe in a strike, then wobbled suddenly on its feet. Blade had placed it in a waking sleep. The black one in back shouted in a booming voice and pushed past Gruesome and his adversary. Blade was only a few paces behind him, but the troll knew better than to turn his back. The dwarf chanted a quick spell, and the charging minotaur abruptly stopped and smashed itself into a wall. Gruesome pressed the attack while Blade cast spell after spell, sending each minotaur save the one the troll fought into a mesmerized haze. They would stay that way until physically awoken by another, unless they had enough training to actually bring themselves out of it. Gruesome knew it could be done, but it was very difficult.
Keeping his foe on the defensive, he brought hammer and axe to bear from either side. The minotaur could only parry one, and feared the axe's blade more. He smashed into its left shoulder, and the beast bellowed out its pain.
"Watch it, boy!" He heard Blade's warning and turned his head to see the other axe-bearer shaking off its spellbound reverie. These were definitely well-trained. Blade chanted again and the wounded minotaur stood in place like a statue. "Aye, I got ye, beastie!" the old dwarf taunted. "Quit dawdlin' and kill 'em quick, ye big lump!"
Gruesome deftly sidestepped a wild swing by his newly-woken attacker and sandwiched the stunned bull's head with twin crushing blows. Thick black blood poured from the gash made by his axe. He slammed his left shoulder into the other, a big red minotaur with large rings that jangled from its curved horns, before it could bring it's huge weapon up for another try at him. These foes were strong, but he doubted they could match his might even if it wasn't enhanced by Blade's and Pellien's magics. He followed through with his right hand, jabbing his hammer into the beast's exposed left side. It grunted as the air left its body.
Pain lanced through Gruesome's right side. The last minotaur, another brown one with those nasty gloves, sliced through armor and thick troll skin to open an ugly wound. He spun quicker than any troll should to catch its left hand with the head of his mallet. This one was faster than its axe-wielding brother, its right hand coming up in a punch meant to spill his guts on the ground. Gruesome moved his hips slightly, causing the metal blades of the glove to slice through his armor and barely graze his belly. He couldn't quite bring his axe in for a good cleave on the bastard's head, so he smashed his fist into it. The minotaur reeled backwards and Gruesome brought himself around again to face Red just as the big bull was heaving its axe behind it for a devastating blow. Gruesome struck first with rapid movements of his long arms; his hammer glanced off the minotaur's armor, but his axe found purchase in his target's right armpit, cutting into meat and bone. The beast gurgled an anguished cry and dropped the axe behind it.
"Hel take ye!" Blade cursed behind him, and there was a clang of metal on metal.
Gruesome turned to face Mr. Claws, hammer and axe swinging in tandem arcs as he went. It wasn't a good hit, but he had enough force to throw the minotaur into the wall behind it. He charged into it, pinning both of their arms between their large bodies. They spat and growled at each other, but Gruesome was far too strong to give it any room to maneuver. He crushed it bodily into the wall.
A large ring dangled from the bull's nose, and the troll seized the opportunity. Gripping the ring with his teeth, he jerked back hard while pushing the minotaur away with all his might. The ring came free with a gush of blood and a howl of searing pain. Gruesome pounded his hammer and axe into the tormented creature repeatedly until he was satisfied it had no life.
He looked behind him, to where Blade furiously defended blows from the much faster Black. Ignoring the pain in his side, Gruesome leapt to his old friend's aid. He whirled his tree-trunk arms, but the quicker minotaur must have sensed him. It moved to the right, and he barely missed smashing in its skull. With only a cursory glance to its fallen comrades, Black jumped past Gruesome to where Mr. Claws had fallen. Red was picking up the other axe-bull with his good left arm, as the two guarded their fallen cohorts. Black bellowed out something in their throaty language, and more bellows answered it from closer to the outpost just south of them.
Gruesome stood with both weapons raised, daring the bulls to attack. The taste of metal and blood fueled his ire, the warmth of his enemy's essence still coated his jaw. He stomped a heavy foot at his beaten foes and spat out the bloody ring. It landed about halfway between them and laid on the ground like a grim challenge to the minotaurs. His chest rumbled, and he summoned his most ferocious victory roar. It poured from his throat like a dragon's call, telling every creature for miles that he was Troll, and Troll would not be defeated.
Two light brown minotaurs appeared at the end of the lane, each holding long staves. Black and Red gathered their comrades and retreated warily toward the outpost. Gruesome stood his ground before Blade and soon felt the dwarf's healing magic work its way over his wound.
Thank Modi those beasts didn't have such as you, old friend.
"So, those be the mighty minotaurs, eh?" Blade waited until Gruesome's wound was fully healed before he turned his recuperative magic on himself, the big troll noted. "Maybe next time they ought to be bringin' the whole herd, eh, boy?"
"Aye, old man." Gruesome watched, sure the minotaurs would launch another attack, if only to retrieve the ornate axes left behind by his vanquished foes. They looked to be worth a hefty weight of gold. A few short brays drifted on the air, but they sounded further than before. It was as if the minotaurs had come to test he and Blade and found them too hearty for their tastes.
"Hmmph," the old dwarf grunted. "Looks like we scared 'em plenty. What say we go find the runt and see if he still lives."
Gruesome flexed his broad shoulders. "I still feel his magic in me, he must be alive."
"Don't mean he don't plan on dyin' soon, boy."
Gruesome smiled as he followed the stout dwarf to where Pellien left them.
Bring on the bull-headed beasts. Bring on every sneak in Albion. I've got Blade with me, and you will all know my name.
Pellien moved with hurried purpose to the edge of what remained of the small fort atop an old hill in the Midgard frontier. From his brief glimpse of the minotaurs, it was obvious they were searching for someone, or something. His mind wandered to his old friend Blade, the crotchety dwarf actually had his head up for once! He quickly returned his thoughts to the task at hand. Why had the big one in black armor taken two and headed east through the ruins? What were they looking for? A grin creased his wrinkled face. Had he actually seen Blade smile when Gruesome felled that taur? By Ymir's blood, this cold was making his bones creak! Was he getting too old to be sneaking around by himself?
You're only as old as you feel, shaman.
He peeked around the broken wall of the building that housed his two friends and a pile of dead Albs and listened for sounds that might alert him to any of the assassin's returns. He hadn't survived three decades of a two-front war with Albion and Hibernia with only two trips to a bind stone by being careless. Fighting was all well and good if you were a stout dwarf or big troll, but a kobold's greatest strength was knowing when to run. He shook his head to clear the thoughts of how his friends had almost just gotten him killed, then cursed his own judgment for choosing Ymir's path as a youth. Few shamans had the luxury of sitting back and letting a runemaster or warlock destroy their enemies from afar, their talents were just too useful in more brutish efforts. His abilities to strengthen and quicken muscles, and fend off fatigue, had managed to keep him surrounded by a bunch of brash, slaphappy berserkers. And they were never known for their inhibitions in battle!
The snowy hill beneath him was quiet and still. He darted from his cover to the shattered remains of a wall further down. His small size made it easy to find a hiding space while he watched to the south for any sign of the minotaurs. The dull brown of his cloak and painted gray armor wouldn't be as noticeable as most. Gruesome favored black armor, like most warriors. Pellien supposed it gave them a more fearsome countenance in battle, but they never blended well in the snowy landscape of Midgard. Blade kept the soft gold of his arcanium armor shiny at all times and wore a cloak of deep purple. The old dwarf could look incredibly regal…until he opened his mouth and spewed out enough curses to make Loki blush. Of course, he hadn't done that in the past year.
Dark thoughts clouded the kobold's blue face, as he replayed the scene that had led the three of them to this fate. He absently rubbed the gray-streaked beard on his chin with his right hand before bringing his mind back to his present circumstance. Daydreaming and mourning could wait for simpler times.
Two minotaurs emerged from the ruins up the hill, closer to the outpost that sat atop it. They were ruddy-brown and carried large axes in both hands. Pellien crouched low and stayed still as the two surveyed the land before them briefly, then nodded and spoke to another behind them. The dark red one in black armor he'd spotted giving orders to the rest stepped from between two crumbling buildings with an air of superiority. It was a large brute, as tall as a troll and almost as wide. An ornate, two-handed sword was strapped to its back, the blade's hilt seemed to be longer than the little kobold. It pointed down the hill, past the shaman's hiding spot, and the three beasts lumbered steadily toward their goal. The big, steel boots they wore crunched snow as they went. Their armor was all similar in style, though the first two wore thick, brown leather as opposed to the black of their commander. He was the only one of them with a cloak on his back…a long black cloak with red interior. They wore nothing on their heavily-muscled arms and legs, apparently oblivious to Midgard's cold. The two underlings had shorter, curved horns, while their leader had long ones that only curved slightly at the tips. His were adorned with rings, all shiny gold. Pellien wondered if they were awarded as medals of a sort, or just a sign of the beast's station.
He'd never talked to any of the minotaurs he'd seen in Jordheim. They kept to themselves, and only took counsel with King Eirik himself. They were an odd race, that fascinated his curious mind…but not enough to go ask these hearty warriors anything face to face. He was content with only watching from afar for now.
When they passed where he could not possibly be in their line of sight, he poked his head over the top of the little wall. The minotaurs spread out about twenty yards northwest of where he hid, looking at the five corpses they had found before Gruesome had chased after a single avalonian. Yet more strangeness they had discovered this day. Two Midgardian shadowblades, one dead Albion warrior and two Hibernians. Even though the wounds were fresh on the two norsemen, Pellien could not bring them back from death's door. He had never seen anyone with blood in their veins that couldn't be brought back and healed before. At the very least, they could have taken them to a bind stone; but it was as if the very essences of the two had been severed with whatever blades had killed them.
The taurs fussed over the Alb and Hibs, but Pellien could not tell what exactly they were doing. The angle of the hill kept the wall hiding whatever occurred below the creatures waists. The little bit of wall was only a few feet across, so he slowly slid to the right edge, careful not to make any sound that might alert them to his presence.
He cursed silently as a small brush blocked his view just an arm's length down the hill from the wall. Leaning around the crumbling stone, he gently pushed the dried limbs of the mostly-dead bush with his right hand to give him an unobstructed view of just what these three were about.
While the leader spoke in authoritative tones in a basso voice, one of the subordinates had strapped his axe to his back and carefully held three swords in his hands. The blades were wrapped in a cloak of one of the fallen, but shiny hilts stood out of one end. The other brown taur also had his axe strapped to his back, and was crouched amid the dead bodies. The commander waved his hand dismissively at the elf female and pointed at the other Hib and the Alb. The kneeling minotaur, hefted each of the corpses with one hand as if he was carrying just-filled waterskins back to camp.
Then Pellien was falling forward.
His weight was too much for the dying little bush. It came free of its shallow roots and the kobold tumbled bodily down the steep hill, before stopping his descent only a few yards from the startled minotaurs. He stared at six, large brown eyes from his hands and knees for an eternal moment.
"Hello, lads, a little far from home, aren't you?" Pellien was never a fan of uncomfortable silences.
The leader pointed at him and bellowed what was clearly a less-than-friendly order. The one minotaur dropped the corpses and charged the little kobold, drawing its axe from its back. Pellien leapt to his feet and scrambled quickly back up the hill. The forest was closer, but wights and liches waited in those shadows. Better to hope to outrun the taurs and lead them closer to Gruesome and Blade. Pellien's tiny legs pumped through the snow, but he heard the heavy thumps of the minotaurs' boots gaining ground.
Come on, Ymir, don't let your favorite son die to an angry cow!
He reached the little wall and threw himself over with both hands. It cracked behind him as the heavy axe-blade barely missed its target. He rolled to his left and shot to his feet. His knees popped in aged dissent.
To Hel with you!
He cursed his own body as he pulled his shield from his back and kept running. These boys certainly didn't believe in negotiating peaceful resolutions. What danger could one little shaman pose to such large and stalwart champions of the underground? The massive sword blade struck his shield and sent his small body flying. As he lay briefly in the snow, he mentally checked his arm and decided no bones were broken. Of course, his pursuers would amend that.
He rolled to his right, away from his attacker and raised himself to his knees unsteadily. The two minotaurs advanced on him, each moving to one side to pen him between them. Two long-legged steps from each would bring them in striking range, and he deduced quickly that no spell would pass his lips in time to stop them. He thought another tumble down the hill might be his quickest escape.
Tendrils of dark-red energy curled around the leader's legs. The brute struggled violently to free itself from the magic that held it in place. At the same time, raspy battlecries came from higher up the hill to Pellien's right. The brown minotaur cried out in pain and spun its attention from the shaman.
Pellien stared in awe as three rattling skeletons attacked the much larger taur. Two were smaller and batted at the beast with maces not much bigger than his own hammer; while the third, a taller bony figure wearing dull chain armor, swung a large sword with both hands. The minotaur caught the sword with the shaft if its axe, then swung the flat of the blade into a smaller skeleton and tossed it easily to the side. The other mace smacked into the big monster's arm with a thud that elicited a grunt. Dark magic surrounded the beast and it roared in agony.
A small figure appeared at Pellien's side. He looked to his right to see a kobold, about half a head taller than himself. The younger man wore simple clothes, with fur lined boots and a heavy black cloak. An easy smile adorned the light blue face above a tuft of golden hair on his chin. In his left hand was a wicked staff of ornately carved black wood with a small animal's skull atop it; his right was outstretched to Pellien in an offertory manner.
"Let me help you up, grandfather, then we can manage these cretins together."
Pellien stared at the hand for a brief moment before allowing the kobold to help him to his feet.
Could this day get any odder?
He quickly focused his attention to the minotaur in the black armor. The larger beast shook its head with a mighty, jingling rage and shouted something to the other. With a force that shook the ground, it ripped itself free of the entangling magic laid by the other kobold and charged the two blue countrymen. The large blade swung over their heads, as both dodged to either side. The minotaur charged past and kept running. The smaller, brown one followed in its wake, limping from a small gash in its left leg. They ran up the hill toward the ruins, and Pellien realized he'd somehow lost the third in all the excitement of trying not to die.
His savior ran to his side, followed by the group of clattering skeletons. He eagerly offered his hand to Pellien again, which the shaman accepted. A fourth, even smaller skeleton rushed to him and reached its bony hands for his legs.
"Get off me, creature!" He batted the hands away even as he realized it hadn't grasped him, only knocked some snow and dirt from his chain armor.
"Apologies, grandfather! We mean you no harm!" The younger kobold's voice sounded almost hurt.
"Why are you calling me that? You're no relation of mine!" Pellien looked behind to where the minotaurs had fled. The large pair disappeared into the ruins, among a cacophony of deep-throated braying. "You let them get away, why didn't you stop them?"
"Apologies again, grandfather, I only wanted to make sure you were safe. And I think your friends might still be in danger!"
A leonine roar erupted from the shambled fort up the hill and echoed from the forest wall. Pellien smiled in recognition.
"I think my friends are fine, boy. Just keep those…things…away from me. If they belong to you, that is."
"You could say that, grandfather,." the young man smiled again, his purple eyes wide. To Pellien, it appeared the kobold didn't blink much. It gave him an unnerving air.
"Don't call me grandfather, boy." Pellien eyed the man warily. "None of my grandchildren have ever trafficked with the dead."
"Oh, I apologize, good elder," His face took an immediate remorseful turn, and his head bowed deeply. "I meant no disrespect, none at all!"
"Hmmph," the little shaman watched as the skeletons comically mimicked the younger kobold's actions. Well, it would have been comical if they had been anything but animated bones in sparse clothing and armor. "My name is Pellien, you can call me that, bonedancer."
The smile returned instantly to the man's face, and the skeletons behind him lost their prostrate poses just as quickly. "And my name is Tarac, good elder! Bogdar's blessings be upon us all!"
Pellien's stomach churned at the thought of accepting the blessings of an ancient god of the dead. He'd not had much contact with bonedancers, they were a strange lot and not accepted by most Midgardians. This one seemed pleasant enough, but there was an oddness about him.
"Ymir grant you long life, Tarac," he looked past his younger cousin to the eerie, bony beings behind him. "If that's your thing, that is."
Gruesome and Blade stepped into the Midgard sun to the last sight they expected. Trudging up the hill toward them came Pellien and another kobold with four skeletons shambling behind them. Blade crossed two fingers in front of his good eye and spat at the ground. The dwarf was a true child of the old ways, and used the sign to ward off evil. Gruesome wished he had a similar way to show his disapproval of the bonedancer that followed his friend. Instead, he raised one hand in a short wave to the odd group before them, and made his way down the hill with Blade in tow.
"We won the day, Pell. The minotaurs retreated with their dead."
"Aye, brute, they heard of your victory all the way in Nifleheim." The shaman seemed nonplussed by the ghastly creatures behind him. Unlike Blade, whose scowl Gruesome could feel without looking.
"Keep ye beasties away, conjurer. I'll not breathe the good air of Eir with such."
The younger kobold held his ground, a shocked look upon his face.
"Apologies, good dwarf, " His hands came up in surrender, as did the hands of the abominations behind him. "We mean no harm. No, no harm at all!"
"Easy, Blade, this is Tarac," Pellien's tone was chiding. "I owe him my life. I dare say we all might."
"Aye, until he needs more bones for his pets!"
"Good dwarf, I would never! Well, not until it was the proper time!"
Gruesome growled. "You won't touch our bones, little man! I'll crush yours before you do!"
"Oh, good troll, no...no, I never meant..."
"Let's all just settle down, why don't we. Haven't we all nearly died enough today without fighting amongst our kinsmen?"
Gruesome acquiesced to Pellien's logic, but knew that Blade would take more convincing. He studied the clattering remains that stood before them. One was larger than the others. It wore a horned helm atop it's empty-eyed skull and loose, durable-looking chain covered its torso. A shabby gray cloak adorned its back, covering a large sword that hung from sturdy straps. Two others carried small maces on their hips, held on by worn belts around their bones; and a third stayed behind the rest, with no weapon visible. All four wore sturdy-looking boots of thick leather, and each one's equipment seemed in good condition. Gruesome had seen younger warriors in the field that would have gladly traded with these undead beasts.
He turned his attention to the young kobold. The man's smooth skin was a lighter blue than Pellien's. His golden hair was mostly covered by a light cloth cap of deep purple. His clothes were dyed accordingly, and seemed to be of practical, sturdy material. His boots were of thick cloth, lined with fur against the northern cold. They were dyed black, as well as the thick cloak he wore. A necklace of charms draped over his shirt, his wrists and fingers shined with runecarved bracelets and rings. The most impressive item the boy carried was his staff. It was pure ebon, save for the skull on top, and looked old and steeped with power. At first glance, the young kobold looked unremarkable...it was only after close inspection that Gruesome could see that he might be a very powerful conjurer.
He looked again to the skeletons behind Tarac. Powerful and evil.
"If the taurs and Albs have all fled, let's adjourn to the outpost." Pellien interrupted the short silence as Blade and Gruesome sized up their new arrivals. "We can make our formal introductions there, and get my old bones out of this cold!"
The old outpost was empty, no guards had been stationed here for some time. Standing three stories tall, the stone structure was barren inside, save the stairs that wound up to each floor and a small rock pit to one rounded side. Gruesome easily hefted the large wooden plank that kept the thick oak door from being opened from without. Tarac made his way up the wide stone staircase, skeleton minions behind with drawn weapons. Pellien coaxed a fire to life after dropping what few logs were left into the pit. Gruesome knew they would be expected to replace the wood for whomever might use the outpost next.
Having fewer numbers than Hibernia and Albion, Midgard could not maintain a standing force at every outpost in their frontiers. Men and elves seemed to reproduce faster than rats, and their nights weren't near as cold as those in the frozen north! These outposts were more a waypoint for roaming bands of warriors, and havens for cowardly assassins looking for easy pickings.
Tarac's soft steps returning down the stairs were masked by the rattling sounds of his charges' bones as they walked. His pets aped his relaxed attitude and Gruesome figured they were safe from stealthy daggers. Blade made a more grandiose gesture with his right hand from where he sat against the wall, and only barely missed the bonedancer's boot with a thick wad of spit. Gruesome noted with respect that Tarac managed to ignore Blade's actions.
At least the boy knows not to challenge him.
"Good troll, I noticed your armor is in disrepair from your recent endeavors," Tarac's earnest face was offputting to the big troll. "I would be honored to mend it for you. I've had quite a bit of experience repairing my own equipment, and that of my others here."
Gruesome stared at the little kobold intently, but could not deny the boy kept his things in good order. If he spoke the truth, of course. Then he looked down at his own thick, studded jerkin. Numerous jagged holes showed in the black material. Both sides hung loose from the stitching, evidence of a couple of harsh blows he'd received earlier.
"Alright, little man." Gruesome unclasped his heavy, black cloak and carefully pulled the massive mallet from the straps on his back. He gingerly removed the jerkin and dropped it into Tarac's outstreched arms.
"Unph!" The little kobold buckled under the armor's weight. "You're a big one, mighty troll!"
Gruesome's stomach turned as three of the skeletons rushed to their master's aid, hefting the massive jerkin for his perusal. Blade grunted in disgust. Tarac sat upon the steps and examined the torn armor.
"Hmm, nothing some patching and heavy thread can't fix. Luckily, all the studs are intact. I'll have you all set quick as a wink!" A broad smile creased Tarac's face.
"While you do that, Tarac, why don't you tell us how you came to be out here," Pellien pushed the logs around with his hammer to stoke the fire. Warmth began to creep through the small room, for which Gruesome was thankful as he stood in just a simple, sleeveless shirt. "By the way, my large friend is Gruesome, a mighty son of Modi. Blade is the old goat, devoted zealot of the glorious Eir." He never turned his back as he spoke.
"A pleasure, good sires, I am Tarac. Bogdar's blessings to you both!" The young kobold's good cheer seemed honest to Gruesome, and that unnerved him even more. The kobold's small hands worked deftly with a large needle as he spoke. "Well, good elder, I make my way all around the frontier. Like yourselves, I am unguilded; but that does not mean that we do not defend our lands, does it not? I find these towers to be excellent hunting for assassins, and the beasts of the land are all about. There are unending means of making coin through bounties and the like.
"I buy supplies from the keeps, and have no real reason to return to more civilized surroundings...not that we are necessarily welcome there." He looked up from his patchwork, and Gruesome met his large, purple eyes. "The life of a bonedancer is one of solitude. For some reason, we are seen as undesirable because of our practices."
The troll cast his gaze downward and shifted uneasily on his feet. Only then did he realize that he was the only one that stood. He lumbered to the wall and lowered himself down slowly. His gray, rocky-textured skin blended well with the stone of the outpost.
"I've been in this area for some weeks," Tarac continued. "Ever since I saw the odd ones coming from the hole."
"Odd ones? Hole?" Pellien finally turned his back to the fire.
"Aye, good elder, the ones down the hill you saw. They came from the hole with the minotaurs. I'm sure that's where the minotaurs ran."
Gruesome leaned forward. He wished Tarac would explain himself.
"What do you mean 'odd', Tarac? Why are they odd?" Pellien had more patience with the bizarre kobold than the troll and dwarf combined.
"Well, it's quite odd for the peoples of Hibernia, Midgard and Albion to fight alongside each other." He stopped his work and raised his head. "But there's more. They are..different." He turned his attention back to Gruesome's jerkin.
"And they are enchanted."
"Hmmph," Blade finally joined the conversation as he pulled a hunk of dried venison from a pouch and ripped a large piece off with his teeth. "Reckon ye be knowin' all about enchantin' things, eh, graverobber?"
Tarac's head shot up. "Enchant? Oh, no, no no, good dwarf. I have no knowledge of such slave magics. Such is the work of Albion and Hibernia. Binding one's will to your own is abominable. Abominable!"
"Aye," Blade's bloodshot eye glared at the skeletal figures before him. "Abominable."
"How are they different, bonedancer?" Gruesome's curiosity was piqued by this strange kobold.
"Not right, good troll, not right at all. They do things they shouldn't. No warrior from Midgard should unleash fire from his very hands. I don't know many people, but I know that's not right." He pulled his head back to inspect his work, and the skeletons spun the jerkin without a word from the bonedancer. He found another area that needed work and pulled more heavy leather thread through the eye of the big needle.
They sat without speaking for a few moments, Blade's loud smacking echoed from the high stone ceiling. Tarac seemed content working in silence. Peliien rubbed his chin in a manner that Gruesome knew well; it meant the old kobold was deep in thought, probably mulling over Tarac's ridiculous statements. Men from all three realms fighting together? Though traitors were not unheard of, they were dealt with harshly in Midgard. Members of their own guild, if they belonged to one, were expected to beat them to death as brutally as possible. If the treason was significant enough, their children and families would share their fate. Bad blood begat bad blood. Whatever the crime, their songs would never be sung. No funeral pyre built for them, they would be food for the wolves. To lose your path to Valhalla was enough to keep all but the most evil-hearted men from betraying their king. Gruesome had only heard of two men ever accused of such treachery in the decade he'd spent fighting in the frontier. The young kobold spoke as if he'd seen more than one in just a few weeks. Impossible.
But he said enchanted...
"What is this hole you mentioned, Tarac?" Pellien broke Gruesome's thoughts with his question.
Tarac raised one golden eyebrow. "Aah, yes, the new entrance to the minotaurs' underground lair. I don't know when it was made, but it wasn't here four months ago. And now it is. Though they normally only use it at night. Perhaps they fear the invisible hordes of Albion?" His mouth quirked to one side as if he'd just told a joke for everyone's amusement.
Pellien's gray eyes stared into nothingness and his small hand stroked his copper and silver beard as if it were a cherished pet. Gruesome watched his old friend intently, trying to read the old shaman's thoughts to ease his own mind. Their old commander Aminad was a thinker, Pellien was a thinker...Gruesome just needed his weapons and a target. He wished he could be more like them at times, a man of tactics and ideas. He looked down at his large, stony hands clenched into fists between his legs.
"And why did they want the weapons, Tarac? And they completely ignored the two dead Mids. They took three swords, two from the Hibs and one from the Alb. Why? And why couldn't we save the norsemen? They were dead, even though their bodies were still warm. Their lives were gone."
Blade stopped eating at Pellien's words. The dwarf stared at the kobold slackjawed.
"What are ye on about, runt? Ye make no sense. Why didn't ye grab those boys from death's halls and get 'em back up?"
"I couldn't, Blade. Their souls were gone. There was nothing to grab."
It was Blade's turn to stare into nothingness. His mouth absently went back to work on the venison, his gray beard shiny with his own drool.
"Souls don't move so quickly, shaman. Eir knows they linger." Gruesome wondered if Blade's words meant he was aware of his condition as of late. Until this day, the dwarf had spent most of a year in a walking trance, taking no notice of his surroundings unless they were in combat. Even in fighting the beasts of the frontier, Blade was barely active...a shadow of himself.
Tarac shifted his wide-eyed gaze from the kobold to the dwarf, then back again. "I don't know about any weapons, good elder. I mean, all the ones I've seen carry weapons, except for the minotaurs in robes. Scary lot, those." He lost himself in his work again.
"Where is this entrance to the labyrinth, Tarac. How do we get there?"
"Oh, it's not far, not far at all. They come from it and take whoever they can back. I've never seen anyone return, and the moon has turned twice since I've started watching. As a matter of fact, I've never seen the same ones come out of there. Except for the minotaurs in the robes. I believe they are always the same. Always behind the odd ones. Always singing some dirge."
Blade took a long, noisy draught from a waterskin. Water flowed down his long beard and beaded on the golden chain tunic he wore. He wiped his mouth with the edge of his thick, purple cloak, then dabbed the droplets off his armor while he belched loudly.
"Well," Pellien rose to his feet and stretched. "We need to report this to Jarl Sigund at Blendrake. Perhaps he can give us a few men to search this new entrance. Or maybe we'll find some hearty souls to join us."
"Oh, do you know the Blendrake jarl?" Tarac's smile returned. "I've never met the man, I usually only deal with their supply captain." His face quirked. "He's not a pleasant man."
"Aye," Gruesome rumbled. "We report to Sigund every fortnight. He pays us bounties for the talons and fangs of whatever we kill. He is our sponsor."
"Sponsor, good troll? What do you mean? I've never had any military experience."
"We're not in the military, Tarac," Pellien spoke as if to a child. "We've been...sequestered...from fighting in the frontlines."
"Aye, the big brute decided to slap one of the king's own counsel and brought us to this end!"
Gruesome's jaw tightened at Blade's words. He doubted if the old dwarf even knew the real reason for his actions.
"Then he would have let us die to those Albs if ye and the bulls hadn't come along, graverobber. Ever hear of a son of Modi too afraid to use his own god's greatest gift?"
"Blade..." Gruesome's fingers dug into his palms.
"'Tis true, boy! Ye haven't used the call since Zalathorn died, and ye could have crushed them all today!"
"There were too many, Blade. There's no way Gruesome could have killed them all and kept them from us while in a berserker's rage."
"Pups, runt, they were all pups. Such live in fear. One look at a rampaging beast, and they would have run to their mama's skirts!"
Blade's words struck Gruesome in the heart. He knew his old friend spoke the truth. His own fear of losing control kept him from calling for Modi's help. How must the mighty bear god be disappointed in him? How could he call himself a viking?
"Oh, so now you would take a bonedancer as your ally, old goat?" Pellien's wry smile confused Gruesome. "Or would you rather a two-legged cow stand before you on the battlefield?"
"And who kept you from dying to those bulls up there while I was away? I'm sure you'd like to think you fought an army of them yourself."
"The boy did alright, I suppose." Blade's eye lit up. "Hah! Ye bit that cow's nose right off, boy! Did ye see 'em run after that? Tails between their legs!"
Gruesome's chest was still tight. The dwarf had stung him with truth, as was his way. His eyes studied the floor beneath him. A hand on his shoulder brought his head up. Tarac stood before him with an apologetic smile on his face.
"Your jerkin is good as new, mighty troll. May it serve you well."
The troll stared at the young face and saw not pity, as he expected. The bonedancer actually seemed to feel bad with Gruesome, not for him. Behind Tarac stood the three skeletons, eagerly offering his jerkin to him. He took it and examined the boy's work. It was artful. The troll could scarce believe he'd been close to death's door today while wearing this. And to be done so quickly. He looked to Tarac again, a new curiosity in his eyes.
"My thanks, bonedancer, it's fine work you've done." He heard Blade spit again.
"Anything to be of service, good troll!" The compliment brought a new smile to his face, and he bounded back to his perch upon the steps.
"Now that that is settled, let's be off before we lose good daylight," Pellien clapped his hands together. "Or before Blade resorts to his life as a stable foal and squats in the corner. Ymir's blood, you old goat, you act like you've never been around civilized folk!"
"My apologies, runt. I didn't know I dined in the company of the ladies of Albion court!" The old dwarf rose to his feet and made a deep bow, then gestured toward Tarac's brood. "And which of these be ye fool to dance for us while ye regale us with tales of ye new skirts and dresses?"
"Oh, you play that part admirably enough, old fool."
"The only dancin' I'll be doin' is on ye bones a-fore this one be raisin' 'em up for his unnatural purposes. How do ye think he stays out here so long without the company of a woman?"
Tarac's face matched his shirt as the young kobold blushed. "Oh, no, good elder, I would never...I could never...it would be unthinkable!"
"You'd have to beat Blade off me anyways. Sometimes he looks at me like a lovesick girl."
"Ye wish, shaman. Ye wish."
Guresome chuckled at his two old friends. As harsh as Blade could be, there's no other dwarf he'd want at his side when the man's mind was right. He met Pellien's eyes and saw a twinkle there he hadn't seen since they were sent away from the war. It filled his heart with excitement for whatever they might encounter next. He wished the horde of infiltrators had returned and brought some friends with them. His hammer and axe felt heavy on his hips, they longed to be out and spilling blood.
Pellien wished to speak more with Blade, to ask him how much of the past year he could recall. The old healer seemed to remember Gruesome hitting Aminad, but not why. The boy had done it so he could accompany the kobold and dwarf...to protect them. But Blade didn't remember the five dead bodies from just a couple of hours before. Pellien wanted to ask the old dwarf about all of this, but knew Blade would never be forthright in front of Gruesome and the bonedancer. He said a silent prayer to Ymir that the two would have a few moments together later.
He would have sent Gruesome and Tarac to gather firewood to replace what they'd used, but the kobold's undead minions were all too useful at such tasks. Tarac had simply asked Gruesome to open the door, and the skeletons ran out and were back with four armloads of dried wood from around the ruins before Pellien was finished dousing their fire. Every time the unnerving creatures moved, Blade watched them as if he expected an attack at any moment; and he greeted their return with a warding gesture and a hock of spit. Pellien couldn't help but smile to himself.
Tarac was another riddle for the shaman. He had many more questions for the bonedancer, but knew there was no time. At two hours past midday, they only had a few more hours of sunlight. He wished to speak to Jarl Sigund at Blendrake Faste before night fell.
The old kobold looked to Gruesome. The big troll was a stalwart companion and the fiercest berserker he'd ever seen, but Blade's words had hurt the mighty warrior. As terrible as he was on the battlefield, Gruesome was too kindhearted to respond to the dwarf's harsh barbs. Pellien wanted to console the big brute, but would never unman him in such a way in front of others. Once again, he prayed Ymir would grant him the proper time for a friend.
He rose to his feet, feeling his years, and prepared himself for what he foresaw being the most difficult task of the day.
"Blade, we need to move soon."
"Before we do, let us grant Tarac our blessings."
The mighty son of Eir glared at Peliien as if he'd just asked him to invite the king of Albion to share a warm cup of mead.
"Madness, runt. I'll not be tied to the likes of yon." Tarac's face paled at the dwarf's words.
"Like it or not, dwarf, you are tied to him. We all owe him our lives today. We need him to tell his tale to Sigund, and there could be untold numbers of enemies between us and there. Minotaurs, assassins...who knows who else might be roaming around. We'll travel fast, which means no time to hide in the forest. We'll take the coast, and be targets for any that might see us first. Would you have us die because of your pride?"
He paused as he considered his friend's mind. "You'll make a fine pet for one of his kind later. Dead, because you refuse to make your countryman stronger as he faces the same enemies as you. That's if your bones are ever found. I hear the Hibs like to sink our bodies to the bottom of the sea, to keep us from our glory."
"Madness, runt!" Blade shot again, but rose to his feet and began casting the spells that would enhance Tarac's own prowess. Pellien grinned as he joined him. Both could magnify others' abilities, in some ways similar. Being masters of healing arts, they knew ways to strengthen and quicken muscles, to harden bones. Pellien could go further, increasing coordination and removing fatigue from those around him. He could also increase the concentration of powerful mages, making their spells even more malevolent. Blade's abilities were more subtle, reaching into his allies' minds and giving them a clarity of purpose. Warriors' attacks would be swifter, mages would cast with deadly efficiency from their inner pools of mana. They could even combine their powers to grant wards protecting everyone around them from the magics of others.
From Tarac's reactions, he'd never experienced such changes to his body. The young kobold virtually glowed.
"Amazing, sirs! I feel as if the whole of Albion would fall before me!"
"Well," Pellien chided. "The war should finally be over then. I don't know why Asgard kept you from us for so long, boy."
Before leaving the ruins on Hverdrungr Hill, they checked and found to no surprise that all of the infiltrators' bodies had been removed, as well as the one minotaur they'd faced alone. It was customary for all sides in this war to leave no dead behind, whether they could be revived at a bindstone or not. They each wanted to at least make their enemies think they'd have to face the fallen again. With that in mind, the vikings then returned to the site of the battle that originally brought them to this place. Gruesome hefted the two dead shadowblades and draped them over his shoulders as they ran west along the snow-covered coast toward the large keep. They made good time, thanks to Blade's quickening magic and Pellien's spell of endurance. Within an hour of leaving the edge of Greip Forest, Blendrake Faste came into view atop a small hill. It was a huge, stone structure that covered most of the hilltop. At each corner were parapets, where archers and runemasters sat, surveying the landscape before them. Blendrake was an easily defensible keep, surrounded on the north, east and west by thick forests. No large army could easily maneuver through these, as they were teeming with deadly creatures. Smaller forces could make use of the trails though, which was why Pellien and his friends were tasked with keeping them clear of pesky beasts. Scarcely ever did more than a score of vikings move at once.
There were only two entrances to Blendrake Faste, a small portcullis to the north, not even big enough for two men to walk abreast, and a large gate to the south. The south was the only means of entrance with siege, and it faced the sea. Most attacking forces could be seen for miles ahead of time, which gave the defenders plenty of time to send scouts to light signal fires at the surrounding outposts spread out in all directions a few miles from the keep.
The keep's tower was situated along the eastern wall. A three story structure with a large hall in the bottom used for sleeping and eating. The middle tier was home to the quartermaster's and jarl's bedchambers, as well as the food stores and weapon supplies. The third floor was the war room, a large room with access to the roof by way of large wooden stairs, but only a small door led into it from the lower level. In dire circumstances, this room offered the best choice for a last stand. Small numbers had been known to hold off great forces in such rooms. They were laden with great wards from magic and siege engines. All could be decided by the heart of the defenders or attackers.
Three large norsemen met them at the southern gate. Pellien, Blade and Gruesome had never been questioned before, they were always allowed to enter the keep without a word of protest. No viking doubted the identities of a troll, dwarf and kobold traveling together. No, it wasn't the four companions that gave these guardsmen pause.
"Those things go no further than this gate, bonedancer," the larger of the three shouted through his bushy beard, waving a gauntleted hand at the skeletons that shadowed Tarac.
The younger kobold stepped forward and bowed his head to the man that towered over him. "We know they are not welcome inside, good sir. But I must warn you my others prefer to remain close to me."
"Warn me?" The big man glared down at Tarac. "You think to threaten me, little one?" His fellow guardsmen's hands went for axe handles at their waists. Pellien could feel Gruesome tense behind him. The troll could handle three men easily, but had never fought his own countrymen before.
"Oh, no, no, no, good sir. No threat at all!" Tarac's hands went up in surrender and the skeletal figures behind him mimicked his actions. "I only mean that they will not sit idly in the snow out here. They will follow me along the wall. I only warn you in the hopes that my others will not disarm you or your comrades. I swear on my honor that they mean no harm."
"Your honor, eh?" The rugged guardsmen eyed the kobold warily.
"I will vouch for the kobold's word." Gruesome's rumbling voice brought every eye to him. Pellien was shocked the troll spoke in the bonedancer's behalf. emThe boy repairs his armor once, and he starts jumping to his defense./em
"Aye, troll. His deeds be on your head then." The viking warrior nodded to the group then shouted an order to the wall behind him. Heavy chains creaked and the massive doors parted outward.
Inside the courtyard men and women moved with purpose. A group of ten or so men surrounded another two as they sparred, cheering whichever one they'd placed wagers on. A couple of women filled pitchers of water from a well near the main hall. A small kobold with a large bow on his back raced from one parapet to the next along the top of the keep's walls. Gruesome carried the corpses of the shadowblades to a spot in the southeast corner of the courtyard, and two guardsmen immediately left the nearest parapet's entrance to inspect the bodies. Pellien told them how they found the bodies, leaving out the part of how quickly they'd found them, and that the dead were beyond any hope of reviving.
"Mead," Blade growled as he walked straight to the hall's door.
"I will meet you inside," was all Gruesome said before he jogged toward the crowd of men watching the fighters. Pellien saw him slap another troll hard on the back. This one was taller than Gruesome, but not as thick. The two brutes clasped each other's right forearms in a gesture the kobold knew well. It was a test of strength and respect. They squeezed each other's arm with all their might. The one to surrender first would show deference to the victor, and answer any question asked of him. Pellien had heard of stubborn trolls refusing to concede and walking away with a broken arm. This taller one was not so obstinate. He slapped Gruesome hard on the chest a few times, indicating the berserker's victory. Pellien took great pride in the fact that he'd never seen his friend lose such a contest. The boy's strength was the stuff of legend.
Pellien nudged Tarac's shoulder. "Come with me, and we'll see if we can get an audience with Sigund. Of course, we'll have to get through Borgin first."
"Oh, yes, him." Tarac's face lost its youthful exuberance at the mention of Blendrake's quartermaster.
The small pair rushed toward the main hall, well behind their dwarf companion. They saw Blade throw open the door and greet those inside with a hearty roar. Some already drinking roared back at him. As Pellien and Tarac entered, the cantankerous old dwarf was already slapping the hindquarters of a serving wench that hurried off to get him a mug.
"Ye walk slow; bring me two, girl!" Pellien smiled at Blade's vigor. It reminded him of good times past and many a night prying his old friend from a drunken brawl.
The kobolds trudged up the wide stairs to the second level, where a troll and norseman stood at either side of an open doorway. The troll held up a large hand. "What business have you here?"
"We have urgent news for Jarl Sigund, tell him Pellien would have his ear."
"I know you, shaman, but no one sees the jarl without word from Borgin."
"Then go get him, we've no time to waste. There's treachery afoot!"
The troll harumphed Pellien's order, then lumbered into the doorway. Pellien heard him speaking to someone beyond and recognized Borgin's sharp voice. After only a moment, a tall, thin norseman stepped into the door's frame. Immaculate scarlet robes covered his entire body, save for his hands and head. Ornate trinkets and charms were placed in the most conspicuous manner possible around his bony frame, and a long black cloak adorned his back. The white emblem of his guild Dragons of Ragnarok was embroidered across his chest, a portrayal of the world serpent Jormungandr devouring its own tail. He made a grand gesture of tapping his staff heavily on the floor once with a reverberation of raw power, then raised his left hand to his hawk-like face to calmly stroke his neatly-trimmed beard and surveyed the two kobolds before him. The troll shifted impatiently behind the lean man, clearly displeased at being trapped inside the room and away from his post.
Borgin was a runemaster of purported great power. Purported, because Pellien had never seen the man in a battle. Sitting at a desk, meagerly rationing out supplies? Yes. Arguing the veracity of every talon or fang brought to him? Yes. Carefully weighing each gold piece he handed out to make sure none were heavier than the others? Yes. Using Odin's gifts to lay waste to a horde of Albion or Hibernian invaders? Not so much. His clear green eyes focused on Pellien.
"You're back too soon, guildless. You and your cohorts aren't due back from your patrol for another ten days. Unless you're here to tell me that every wight, liche, jotun and fenrir has been driven from our lands?"
"No, master Borgin. You'll not have a night of sleep free from their howling and screeching on our account. I know how unsettling the beasts can be to younger folk." Pellien never minded the man's verbal barbs, which only drove the runemaster to taunt the shaman more.
"Then why are you here, interrupting my serious business, kobold? What could possibly be so important that you need bother Sigund with your senile ramblings? And since when has this conjurer joined your little troop? Is killing the simple beasts of the forest too difficult a task for the three of you? I thought your troll was supposed to be some sort of mighty berserker. Did I judge him too highly?"
The guard behind Borgin tensed at his words and Pellien saw a snarl curl his upper lip. Trolls were notoriously loyal to their own, an insult to one was an insult to all when it came from one of the smaller races. Pellien knew the big warrior wouldn't dare cause harm to the overbearing quartermaster and that Borgin knew this as well, which was why the man never bothered to hold his tongue. Pellien steeled himself to deal with the runemaster.
"We ran into a small army of Albion assassins near the tower to the east. They were hidden in the ruins there-"
"And why were you so close to the tower?" Borgin interrupted. "You are not charged with the defense of any tower. You and your guildless friends have been set out to make sure the trails are kept clear for the real warriors of Midgard. Who gave you permission to engage the enemy?"
Pellien sighed and recanted the events of the morning, ignoring the grunts of disbelief from the hate-filled man. When he told of the minotaur's part in the day's activities, Borgin actually seemed to take notice. Pellien decided the runemaster must have thought that even a senile old kobold wouldn't have made up anything to do with the masters of the labyrinth.
"An interesting tale, shaman. Also an unbelievable one. The four of you defeating an entire army of Albion infiltrators, then running off a pack of angry minotaurs? How preposterous!"
"Tarac has seen more queerness from the minotaurs than we, Borgin. He's been watching them for some time now, and I think Sigund would want to know this!"
"Well, if it's anything a bonedancer knows, it's what is odd and what isn't. So, tell me, Tarac-" Borgin said his name as if it were a curse in and of itself. "-what have these minotaurs been doing that is so odd?"
Tarac looked as if Loki himself had asked him the question. Pellien felt genuine sympathy for the young kobold. "Well, master Borgin, there are many answers to that question-"
"Then it should be easy for you to think of one to answer me!"
"Yes, yes, of course," the bonedancer cleared his throat. "I have seen them taking men from around the tower. They take them to a hole in the ground. They take Midgardians, Hibernians and Albions indiscriminantly. Anyone in small numbers they take. Sometimes they use others to take them, men, trolls, elves, firbolg, half-ogres...I've seen them all work with the minotaurs. Even viking men."
"You make even less sense than this one, fool! The minotaurs have never attacked any of the other realms. And we've lost no more men than is usual given these times."
"BORGIN!" Pellien's voice rang with authority, and four sets of eyes focused on the aged shaman. "I normally put up with your boorishness because I have no choice. I usually allow you to treat me like an ankle-biting goblin because Sigund finds you necessary here, Odin only knows why. But I am tired of your childish prattling. You will announce our presence to Sigund now, or I will sink your bones so far into Ymir's belly you'll have to look up to see Nifleheim!"
Silence reigned outside the wide door. The two guardsmen shared a worried glance. Borgin's face went from pale white to a shade of red only slightly lighter than his robes.
"You DARE threaten me, old man?" The runemaster spread his arms and focused power into his staff. Energy crackled in the air around him.
Pellien stepped forward and crossed his arms. Ymir answered his silent summons and the stone walls of the keep shook around them. It was only a simple trick, which held no danger to anyone; but all old shamen could rattle the earth around them. Ymir was the earth, and he knew his children needed ways to remind haughty mages of the power he gave them. Tarac and the guards grabbed for the wall to steady themselves, but Borgin was ill-prepared for the minor quake. He fell backward and landed painfully on his rump. The color drained from his face again.
"You're beginning to bore me, runemaster," Pellien's voice was calm and steady. "Your power is for show, but I have led armies into battle. I have moved the mountains of Pennine, and commanded the irewoods of Cruachan Gorge. I am the favored son of the Lifegiver, and all creation bows to my will." His cool gray eyes bore into the norsemen's wide, green ones.
"Now. Go. Get. Sigund."
A hearty chuckle drifted toward them. "I'm already here, shaman. Would you kindly stop trying to tear my keep down from the inside?"
"My apologies, lord jarl," Pellien's eyes never left the runemaster as he bowed toward the stout dwarf that came into view behind him. "I was only trying to make a point."
"I would say point made, then!" Sigund helped his quartermaster to his feet. "Borgin, why don't you go make sure no one was hurt from the tremor, and that no stores were lost?" He nodded toward the troll and other norseman. "You two go see about the watchers on the walls, then retire for the evening."
"Y-yes, lord jarl," the shaken runemaster left hurriedly, giving Pellien and Tarac only momentary scowls. The guards rushed after him.
"Those two will have to be kept out of his sight until his ego heals." Sigund mused, then turned a sharp eye to the shaman. "But he'll make you pay for that, sir. You know it to be true."
"Aye, Sigund," Pellien nodded at the dwarf's words. "But, Ymir's blood, that boy should be sent to the front. Make a respectful man of him, it would."
"I can't do that, Pellien. He's important to our guild, and too important here. Blendrake is right in the middle of our frontier border, we have to support Bledmeer Faste, Hlidskialf and Glenlock at first signal fires." The jarl shook his head. "Borgin might be an insufferable bastard, but he's honest. He keeps the stores accurate, and his theatrics actually scare most of the men into behaving themselves." He tugged at his long brown beard before fixing his dark eyes on the older kobold. "But I am sorry for how he treated you. I know you and your friends aren't deserving of such."
Pellien's face softened and he waved off the dwarf's compliment nonchalantly. "Things are what they are, lord jarl. I don't blame him for his lack of respect to an old guildless wretch. But my friend here and I do have important matters to discuss with you. 'Tis a strange tale that only produces more puzzles."
Sigund nodded in acceptance. "Then meet me upstairs and we will see what answers might be found." He turned and walked briskly to another wide wooden staircase.
"Good elder," Tarac whispered to Pellien as they followed the jarl. "You can truly move mountains?" Awe shone in his wide, purple eyes.
"Don't be silly, boy, no one can move a mountain," Pellien hissed back and hurried after the dwarf.
Pellien and Tarac stood unspeaking as Jarl Sigund looked down upon the large oak table that separated them. He had listened intently as the kobolds relayed their tales of the day to him, only interrupting them to ask perceptive questions. Pellien knew the warrior's mind worked now to understand the bizarre happenings. Tarac opened his mouth to speak, and the shaman silenced him with a raised hand. He caught the bonedancer's eyes and nodded softly. Finally, Sigund addressed them in his strong voice.
"I don't know what to make of this, shaman." He lifted his head to match eyes with the old kobold. "Assassins, I understand. Your friend there has redeemed enough of their emblems for gold to warrant a large bounty for himself. I'm sure they would cherish his death...with no thought of a bindstone returning him."
Pellien raised an eyebrow at the younger kobold and noticed the boy's cheeks grow purple in embarrassment. It seemed the more he learned about the bonedancer, the more questions arose.
"But the minotaurs?" Sigund regained Pellien's attention. "Taking men, and using others to fight for them? And so far from the Isle of Agramon? I don't doubt your words, but this is quite odd." He rapped his thick knuckles on the table.
"I understand, lord jarl." Pellien thought it best to ask for what he wanted quickly before the master of Blendrake Faste decided to waste time sending messengers back and forth between himself and King Eirik. Once rulers and their counselors got involved in any situation, decisions got made in weeks instead of hours. "All that I ask is that you excuse us from our duties on the trails and grant us the company of a few men. No more than six or seven should suffice. I feel we must search out this new entrance to the labyrinth before the Albion infiltrators return with their newly woken brothers."
Sigund nodded at Pellien. "Sound words, old friend."
The shaman felt his heart quicken in hope. Thoughts of Blade's renewed zeal raced through his mind, perhaps his old friend would maintain his bellicose ways with such activity occupying him. By Ymir, he never thought he'd dream to see the evil old dwarf tormenting others with word and deed.
"But such cannot be." Pellien's blood slowed at the dwarf's words. "I have no men to spare. And you were put to your task by General Aminad, who sits at the king's own hand. I have no authority to remove you for any reason."
Sigund tugged at his long beard as he thought. "No, you, Gruesome and Blade must return to your task. Events are happening soon that will require our troops have free roam of the frontier. I will send a couple of shadowblades to Hverdrungr Hill to search out this hole and see what is to be seen.
"You," he pointed a stubby finger at Tarac. "I have no sway over. Go where you wish, do what you will." He looked to Pellien again. "But worry not, I will send word to the king. I'm sure he will have much to discuss with the minotaur emissary about their people attacking vikings in their own land."
Pellien's heart sank further. He understood the jarl's position, but wished the dwarf's sensibility would win over. His left hand involuntarily rose to stroke his beard as he weighed the options before him, neither of which brought him joy.
"As you say, lord jarl. May we rest the night here? I feel it may be necessary, as Blade has already found his thirst."
"The old goat drinks mead today? I've only seen him take water since the three of you were sent here."
"Aye." Pellien forced a smile. "He has also found his old senses."
Sigund laughed heartily. "Well, this I cannot miss! Join me both for a mug then." He waited for no reply as he walked briskly to the door. Pellien grabbed Tarac by the arm as the dwarf passed them.
"Do you have gold?" He whispered.
"Of-of course, good elder," Tarac stammered. His eyes were wide with confusion. "Do you wish me to buy you a drink?"
"No, boy, there are more important things I need you to do. Wait until the sun sets, then find a kobold hunter in the courtyard. It doesn't matter which one. Ask him if he has any news of your cousin, then buy enough provisions for four men for a week. Get plenty of dried meat and bread, the gods only know what is down there."
"Down where?" Tarac's eyes got impossibly wider. "And I don't even have a cousin!"
"Just do this, Tarac, and prepare yourself to leave by sunrise. We'll need to be gone before the sky loses its gray." Pellien turned the younger kobold to face him directly. "All will be explained after we leave. I ask nothing ill of you. But we do what we must, understand?"
"I do, good elder. You can count on me!" His earnest face emboldened Pellien, he was glad to have found the young bonedancer. Or to have had the young bonedancer find him.
Raucous laughter greeted the kobolds as they stepped into the main hall. Blade held court with his back to the large door that led to the courtyard. Pellien and Tarac walked around to join him.
"What did you do then, old goat?" Jarl Sigund stood near the bottom of the stairs.
"What do ye think I did, fool? I headbutted him right in the coin purse!" Blade slapped his forehead as the crowd of warriors erupted again. "Ye never saw a troll drop so fast!"
Gruesome sat to Blade's left on the long stool they shared. He finished a large tankard of mead and waved to the serving wench. She hefted another of the troll-sized mugs from the bar with both hands and carried it to him. As she set it carefully before him, Blade's red-rimmed eye kept a sharp vigil on her bosom. Pellien thought the girl was barely into womanhood, a mere fraction of his wretched friend's own age. Blade had always had an appetite for younger women.
"Would you have another, sir?" she meekly asked the old dwarf.
"Aye," he drawled. "And there's other refreshment I'll have later, to be sure."
Pellien grasped her hand as she passed, slipping a few coins into her palm. He pulled her so that she had to bend down to bring her ear next to his lips. "Make his next few drinks grog instead of mead, and he will forget his lecherous ways, girl."
She nodded briskly, then hurried on her way. The shaman walked up and clapped Blade hard on the back.
"I see you're enjoying your share of drink, old friend."
"Aye, runt, my throat feels as dry as the Stygian Delta. Where have ye and the grave-robber been?"
"Sharing the day's business with the jarl. We will speak of it later." Pellien silenced himself as Sigund took a seat across from his old friend. He moved to look up at Gruesome, even sitting the troll was twice again as tall as the kobold. He placed a hand on his large arm. "Walk with me outside."
Gruesome nodded and downed his mug in a large draught before he stood and followed the shaman into the courtyard. Pellien waved a staying hand to Tarac to keep the boy from following them. He wanted to speak freely with the berserker.
The cold air that greeted them from the door was a sharp contrast to the large fire that ruled the center of the hall. Pellien's bones ached from age; and he often dreamed of retiring to the warm climate of Myrkwood, where snow rarely fell. He supposed he could always return to the Kobold Undercity that lay beneath Jordheim, but few older kobolds ever went back there to find their ends. That place bred few pleasant memories. He drew his cloak tighter about himself.
"Any news from home?" He speculated on Gruesome's conversation with the other troll.
"Aye," the big brute rumbled. "Orkag is only just come here in the past two days. Modi favors me in that his clan knows of mine. My son grows strong and has taken up the axes. He follows my path."
"He will probably surpass you in ferocity before he takes his test of manhood, knowing his mother."
Gruesome chuckled at thoughts of his mate. "Aye, Jaba is most fierce. But she is a good wife and mother."
"And how many of your ribs did she break on the night of your binding?" Pellien favored his large friend with a wry smile.
"Only three! I will make no apologies for her spirit, old man!" Pellien knew the troll's anger was feigned, but that he was also honor-bound to defend his wife.
Family and honor was important to trollkind, and the old kobold often envied it of his friend. To be raised in the underground city of his own people was to learn deceit and betrayal. Cunning and wickedness were treasured traits, to be learned at an early age. His wife had raised their sons there, against his desires; and both had followed her into the path of shadows, Loki was their master. So few kobolds chose to learn the ways of the shaman and such was the downfall of his people. To heal and strengthen those around you was not seen as a source of power, most preferred to kill in stealth or train in destructive magics.
They did not see the power the earth gave the shaman. To have mighty Ymir, the maker of the world, at your behest was the greatest power of all. No, none of his people cared for a shaman until they were falling in battle. He looked up at the troll that lumbered to keep the slower pace of a tiny, old kobold.
This is my family. Troll and dwarf. Brothers in blood.
"Gruesome, I know Blade's words hurt you earlier." Pellien's voice was such that only the troll could hear it. "At times, his tongue is more cruel than your hammer. Even so, isn't that why we call him 'Blade'?"
The big warrior nodded solemnly, but made no reply.
"But you must know his reasons, even if the old goat can't speak of them himself." He saw the questioning look in the mighty warrior's clear, blue eyes. "He only speaks crossly to you because he expects much of you. And he expects so much of you because he knows what you are capable of. Ymir's blood, he expects the same of us all, even himself!"
Pellien stopped as they reached an empty quarter of the courtyard. "Remember the time Zalathorn ran into that tower near Nottmoor Faste that was being taken by Hibs?"
"Aye, he fell before we could follow him."
"And who ran in after him, to bring him back from death's brink?"
A deep chuckle issued from Gruesome's wide chest. "Blade. But then those skinny firbolgs shut the door in our faces!"
"Aye, but somehow Blade got Zalathorn on his feet with what must have been twenty Hibs around them. Got him up and got him fighting."
"Then there was Modi's roar, and all those Hibs were screaming!" The troll's face gritted in remembered glee.
"It took all my strength to heal them unseen through that wall while the rest of you beat down the door. If I ever have trouble sleeping, I just recall how I felt that day."
"Pell," Gruesome's tone was somber again. "Is your point to tell me that I am not the warrior that Zalathorn was?"
Pellien sighed. "You're the fiercest berserker I've ever seen in battle, Gruesome. My point was that Blade would never want more from you than he'd want from himself. Such is his way."
The troll nodded slowly. "Aye, it is so. I have seen him perform deeds that would set the gods to trembling. All around him become stronger for his presence."
"Isn't that why you are here, young friend? Not only are you fierce, but you have heart beyond measure." Pellien thought that Gruesome would blush at his words, if such were possible from a troll. "We are both lucky to call you friend. We would have no purpose in battle without you. Just two old warriors cast to the wayside to rot." He caught the berserker's eyes again.
"Any guild would have you, Gruesome. Your skills are wasted keeping the two of us active." The troll held his gaze, but made no move to speak. "But perhaps we can change our fortunes."
"What do you mean?"
Pellien's hand found his beard. "Insubordination, my friend. You've dishonored yourself before for us, I hesitate to ask it of you again. Especially for a danger we do not know."
"You are my brothers, Pell. I go where you go. I fight your fights."
Pellien patted the side of Gruesome's thick leg. "That you do, lad. That you do." He scanned the shadowed courtyard, as the sun had already dipped past its walls. The vikings that called Blendrake Faste home wouldn't light torches until the day's light was almost gone though, and even those would be few. The moon and snow would show the guards much of what they needed to see. "We must leave before sunrise," he finally spoke. "We'll use the twilight to mask our travel. Tarac will lead us to the labyrinth."
The shaman paused again to study his friend's eyes. "I need to know what is happening here, Gruesome. I don't like questions without answers, and it seems we're the only ones that might be willing to decipher this. But you must know that we do this against orders. Even though we are not to engage the enemy, I fear we have little choice. The common beasts of the frontier will have to find their own ends without us. Do you understand what I'm asking of you?"
Gruesome's steady gaze matched his. "I do, Pellien. When it's discovered we've forsaken our duties, we will be punished. We may even be called deserters."
"Aye, my friend, it may be." Pellien's shoulders slumped as he contemplated the choice he forced this honorable warrior to make. He didn't like putting the boy in such straits.
"But, we were attacked in our own realm by the minotaurs. The bonedancer has witnessed them kidnapping our people. They make war on us." The berserker's back went straight and his broad, flat teeth gritted with displeasure. "They bring our reckoning on themselves."
Pellien chuckled at his friend's resolve. "I'm sure they will come to regret your acquaintance, boy."
Pellien was glad for the heat of the hall again. More bodies filled the tables that surrounded the long pit of crackling flames, most with a mug in front of them. The kobold knew from experience that few would match drinks with Blade. A viking's life was dedicated to battle, and to that end most preferred to keep their wits. In this time of war, sleep would come only with the fear that the enemy might attack in the night. His old friend's stubborn confidence had always given him the freedom to drink himself into a stupor. Yet even impaired, Blade was a force of nature in battle. His was truly a life given to war, it was all the dwarf knew.
Pellien saw that Blade sat in the same spot, with Tarac to his left. The bonedancer watched the old healer as one might a child playing on a high ledge, his nimble blue fingers constantly spun a dented mug. Blade sat still, his shoulders rigid and Pellien's heart sank. It was a pose he knew well after the past several months. Hopes for meaningful talk with his old friend were crushed under a weight of despair. He stepped to the dwarf's right and placed a small hand on Blade's shoulder, the dark blue of his skin was a stark contrast to the soft gold of the polished chain mail. To Pellien's surprise, Blade turned his head and clarity rose in his good right eye as if he were seeing an old friend for the first time in years.
"Runt," he exclaimed. "Sit and have a mug with me, aye. None of these bearded women can hold their mead." He lifted his own mug and chugged the strong-smelling grog within like a man dying of thirst. The dark-colored swill dribbled down his beard and fell on his belly. He swiped the back of his hand across his lips and belched. "Aye, the young folk today don't know the joy of a good drink. Look at 'em. They sit as if they'll be drawn and quartered in the morning."
Pellien looked around the great hall. Warriors talked in hushed tones, here and there a few chuckled at some jest from their companions...but the mood was undoubtedly somber. He thought it odd that he'd never noticed such gloom during the past year spent with most of these men. All were fit vikings, but there seemed to be no zest to any of them. No loud boasts of foes defeated. No brazen claims of female conquest. No gambling with cards or dice. It was a grim spectacle. Had he been so wrapped up in his own situation that he missed the lack of spirit in his fellow Midgardians?
But why cheer your victory, when you will face the same foe the next day? What joy will Valhalla bring, if your life is already a constant battle?
His thoughts angered him. He gripped Blade's shoulder tighter.
"Darkness falls, old goat. Keep their glowering from your mind and get some rest. We embark tomorrow on a new adventure. We go to the minotaur's labyrinth, and find ouselves a new enemy."
"New, eh?" Blade's eye almost twinkled. "Have ye grown bored of elves and ogres then, shaman?"
"No, old friend, I just woke up this morning and realized we haven't seen everything yet...and I can't die with mystery in my heart." He held the dwarf's good eye for a moment. The dwarf nodded knowingly.
"Aye, runt, no mysteries for us." He stood unsteadily and moved toward the door. "I'm off to piss."
Pellien smiled as he took Blade's seat beside Tarac. He pushed the dwarf's empty mug away and met the younger kobold's gaze. "Don't drink too much tonight, we'll be leaving early."
Tarac hefted his own mug. "Oh, never, good elder. I only partake of water. Mead and the like dull my senses, and that is not good for my others."
"Good, good," Pellien agreed. The bench shifted noticeably as Gruesome settled his bulk beside the shaman. He rested his heavy arms on the table and the old wood creaked. The three sat silently for a time until Tarac spoke again.
"Blade sat for some moments without speaking. I thought he might have fallen asleep where he was."
Pellien pursed his lips, unsure what exactly to tell the bonedancer about Blade's condition. His thoughts were broken by the cold blast of air from the drunken dwarf's return. He simply nodded, then looked up at Gruesome. The big troll's eyes matched the grim air about them. The aged shaman wondered to himself if he was driving them all to this for the right reasons. Was he truly worried about a threat to Midgard.
Or did his old bones crave the excitement of a new battle?
Erliga slumped against cool, carved stone of the tunnel. Weariness permeated her entire being. Sounds echoed around her, but seemed to come from nowhere. Every way she went, only found her more lost. Without the sun and stars, time no longer had meaning for her. Had she been here a day? A week? She knew that sleep would bring the dream, and the dream would bring direction; but how could she sleep in this place? Beasts shadowed her at every turn, she could feel their eyes. Only the steel of her blade and weight of her shield gave her comfort in the unnatural light of the minotaurs' home. Again she closed her eyes in prayer.
All Father, why do you test me so? I am your battle maiden, and yet I flounder in this maze. Set your enemies before me, or deliver me from this perdition of oblivion.
She sighed and pushed herself away from the wall. She was Valkyrie, mistress of Odin...she would not sit idly and waste away while her master's task went undone. Even if that task was unknown to her.
Gruesome was shaken awake. His troll eyes adjusted easily to the dark and Pellien's dark blue, age-lined face came into view.
"We leave soon," the shaman whispered before he moved off to wake Tarac in the same manner.
Gruesome rolled to a sitting position on the hard floor of Blendrake Faste's hall and stretched his broad back. The embers of the great fire pit glowed softly in the center of the big room, and all around him vikings snored. Before him, Blade donned his armor as if in a trance. The dwarf stared ahead, his fingers working straps on their own volition. The big troll's heart sank. He hoped drink and sleep hadn't returned Blade to the living shell his friend had been for the past year. Ever since his last Returning. Gruesome reached for his armor from where it lay in a large pile beside him and busied his mind with the thoughts of mundane tasks instead.
Outside the hall, dark still held the day. The four vikings made their way to the small postern on the north wall of the keep. Gruesome hefted the tightly packed bundle Tarac had brought in the night before. The berserker was amazed at how kobolds always seemed to be able to get supplies after the quartermaster had retired for the night. The bonedancer's pack was filled with dried meat and hard bread. Gruesome thought he even smelled some cheese, but that would be ridiculous. Only the jarl got cheese.
They were greeted at the gate by two stern vikings, a dwarf and a troll, both bearing large shields. They nodded curtly to Blade and Pellien before Gruesome caught the wary stares they gave Tarac. The troll rapped a large fist on his shield at the berserker, then slowly shifted his gaze back to the bonedancer while craning his neck ever so slightly. Gruesome took the gesture as a warning, but didn't know why. Then he was halted by Blade's thick frame.
The old dwarf stood a few paces outside the small gate, staring along the wall to the west. Gruesome followed his gaze to the small strip of earth at the wall's base where the snow had been stripped away. Blade walked along the cleared ground and the troll trudged after him. He caught Pellien watching them with a bemused grin, but Tarac kept his head down. The three let Blade lead them to the western corner of the keep, where all but the bonedancer stood in stomach-churning awe.
"What in Hel's arse have ye done, boy?" Blade's raspy voice was almost hushed.
Four skeletons knelt before a huge pile of snow that had been raked by bony fingers into the shape of a man. It stood three heads taller than Gruesome and twice as wide. Large eye sockets were carved into the face, and a wide ghostly smile spread underneath those. While there wasn't much of a resemblance, Gruesome had the sick feeling that these creatures had built this as an homage to their master. The snowy form glowed in the moonlight and the troll felt a chill that had nothing to do with the Midgard winter cold. Tarac broke the stunned silence after Blade's question.
"I grew up on the isle of Aegirhamn." He stopped and cleared his throat nervously. "We never had snow. I've always enjoyed the snow since I've been out here, I wish I could have seen some as a child." He spread his hands out towards his minions, and they sprang to their feet and rushed to their places behind him. Blade cursed loudly and lifted his shield high across his body. Tarac raised his head and fixed Gruesome with an imploring gaze. "Last night, I dreamed I was a boy again. And that it snowed in Aegirhamn, and I gathered all that fell and built a snowman in the middle of the city. All the people came out and marveled at what I'd done."
The four stood quietly for a moment, the bitter wind ruffling their cloaks. A hearty laugh cracked the silence.
"Ymir's blood, boy," Pellien said between guffaws. "You mean these demons made this for you because of a dream?" He drew the last word out like it was a fine wine on his tongue, then laughed again.
"They only wish to please, good elder," the bonedancer exclaimed defensively.
"Well, tonight, I hope you dream of Blade in pigtails then. Now that would be a sight!" The shaman's goad brought a grumbled curse from the dwarf. Gruesome couldn't help but laugh.
"I don't know that I could if I tried." Tarac actually seemed to consider the idea.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon when they reached an area south of Hverdrungr Hill that contained the remains of a farm. Some bold norsemen had sought to make a true home here in the dangerous frontier of Midgard. Gruesome wondered if it was the weather, the wild beasts or the war that ended whoever's experiment it was.
Maybe his name was Hverdrungr, that would explain the hill's name.
His idle musings were interrupted by the bonedancer.
"There is an outcropping of rock this way, it looks like it might have been a well at one time. I've often wondered if it always led to the minotaur's labyrinth."
Gruesome imagined a band of bloodthirsty minotaurs rising from the farm's drinking water and taking umbrage with an old norseman milking a cow, and the thought made him chuckle. Pellien gave him a sidelong glance.
"Have you ever been into the labyrinth, Tarac?" The older kobold turned his attention back to the bonedancer.
"I? Oh, never, good elder." Tarac clasped his purple-gloved hands in front of himself. "My others and I prefer more open ground."
"Hmm," Pellien rubbed his beard idly. "None of us have ever been either. I've talked to some that have, but they only spoke of entering from the Isle of Agramon. We've no idea what to expect once we enter here."
Gruesome looked forward to fighting more of the two-legged cows. "I expect to kill more of them, Pell. How about you, Blade?"
"Hmph," was all the old dwarf offered. The trip from Blendrake Faste found Blade more distant with each moment. Gruesome found it hard to look into his glassy right eye again, so he focused on the worn black patch that covered the healer's left. The past year caught up to the troll again, Blade's vitality from the day before seeming to have passed.
They followed Tarac to a crumbled mound of stones, steam rising from a mostly circular hole in the middle. Two ropes, each as thick as a norseman's arm, were wrapped around large stones laying on the ground. Heavy iron spikes were driven through the ropes into the stones of what used to be the well. Whoever had set these ropes here meant for them to hold a heavy load. Gruesome peered into the misting hole and could make out a faint yellow light a few yards down. He shared a nod with Pellien, then swung himself easily into the well, grasping a heavy cord in each hand.
The bulky troll walked backwards down the wall of the well with ease, his mind prepared for the sharp pain of a stab in the back. He trusted the kobold and dwarf to mend any wound. Gruesome dropped the final few feet and brought his hammer and axe to bear before his large boots thumped heavily on the stone floor. He whirled around to face whatever enemy might be coming at him. But none were there. He faced a large opening as wide as two trolls that led to a set of stone stairs three strides away. A large crystal glowed with soft yellow light and gave the small tunnel an odd sense of warmth. He listened intently, but heard no approaching steps or warning snarls.
"Seems clear," Gruesome called up to his friends as he stepped closer to the opening.
He spun with weapons raised at the sound of a rattling crash behind him. A mass of bones writhed around at the bottom of the well. Tarac's larger pet pulled itself free from the rest, it's left leg and right arm twisted sickeningly. The two that carried maces moved to the side in hitched steps, one's head hanging upside down against its back while the other held its own leg in place with its left hand. The smallest skeleton crawled on the ground, dragging bent and broken legs behind it.
Blade followed soon after them, his stubby fingers gripping one of the large ropes as he lowered himself down. Pellien was right behind him using the other rope. Once they were safely at the bottom, Gruesome saw Tarac begin to lower himself down in a similar fashion. The troll noted with respect that the bonedancer had waited at the top to protect the shaman and healer from any danger.
"What do we do about them?" Gruesome waved his hammer at Tarac's skeletal lackeys. The bonedancer smiled broadly.
"Worry not, good troll."
The little weaponless skeleton made its way to one of the walls and braced its back against it. Once its torso was upright, it waved it's bony hands in the air. To Gruesome's shock, magic energy spread around its body and its misshapen legs contorted and cracked and pulled themselves back into shape.
"Ymir take me and spit me back up," Pellien said with awe. The shaman approached the little skeleton and keenly inspected it. The ghastly healer raised its arms again and repeated its spell on each of the other skeletons. Their blanched bodies reshaped themsleves with snaps and cracks. Pellien clapped his hands together and laughed.
"I had no idea these things could use magic!" The older kobold turned to face a beaming Tarac. "How is such a thing possible?"
"This one was a healer in life, good elder, not a warrior like the others." The bonedancer walked to the little skeleton and brushed dirt off it's gleaming skull. "What the body knows in life, it knows in death. She must have been a mighty one, she has saved us all from the great void many times." It was an odd sight to Gruesome, to see a small kobold looking at a skeleton head and shoulders taller than himself with fatherly eyes.
"You and I must have a long talk someday, Tarac." Pellien arched an eyebrow at the younger kobold. "But let's see what we can find down here first." The old shaman turned toward the stone steps, his sharp eyes studying the illuminating crystal. "These beasts use magic freely, it seems."
"Aye, Pell," Gruesome rumbled. "Who knows what traps lie ahead."
The kobold nodded at his words as he took his place at the fore of their group. Gruesome fell in step behind him, returning his hammer and axe to their straps on his hips. Blade followed after without a word, and Tarac shadowed the dwarf while his skeletal servants clattered behind him. Together, the four vikings began their descent into the labyrinth of the minotaurs.
Erliga waved aside the goblin's spear with her heavy shield and sliced her sword in a downward arc at the creature's exposed side. It yelped in pain and she quickly ended its life with a thrust to its wicked heart. Another of the beasts lunged at her with spear held low. She parried its weapon to the side and opened her mouth in a piercing scream. The magic of Valhalla flowed from her voice and the goblin's head was wreathed with white fire. Her right arm shot forward, and her blood-coated blade found its way through the monster's throat. It gargled its final breath out as it fell to the ground.
She wiped the black blood from her sword on one of the creatures' thin tunics, then held her ground defensively. No attack came from the shadows, no arrow whizzed toward her. emOnly two this time, only two. Thank All Father only two. /emDespite the cool of the tunnel, sweat ran from her brow. She rummaged through the corpses and hope and joy coursed through her at her find. The first one had a small water-skin on its belt. Her hands shook as she untied it and brought it to her lips. She greedily slurped the few swallows of acrid water.
No food, but at least she was able to quench her thirst somewhat. She felt her strength renewed and her spirit quickened. As long as she drew breath, she would see to Odin's purpose.
One thing worried Gruesome more than the mystical lights and the quaking tunnel...the eerie silence. No sounds drifted up to them. No trickle of water, no soft breeze to indicate a large opening ahead, no echo of even their own footsteps. It was as if the very air was muted around them. The troll had been to every underground lair imaginable, from the caverns that were home to the savage vendos to the frozen tomb of an ancient dragon in the Tuscaran Glacier; and none were as unnatural as the minotaurs' home. His hands found comfort on the heads of the arcanium hammer and axe that swung on his hips.
Pellien dropped to one knee and placed his right hand on the floor. Gruesome couldn't see the shaman's face from the veil of his cloak's hood, but could feel the old kobold's concentration thicken the air around them. The troll could hear Tarac shift restlessly behind him. Finally, Pellien lifted himself up slowly.
"None of this is as Ymir made it," the shaman's clear voice was barely above a whisper, but still easily heard. "Old magic made this place. Old magic keeps it."
"What do you mean, Pell?" Gruesome felt his own words rumble too loudly from his throat and feared discovery by unknown spies. But Pellien seemed unworried.
"These halls, these stairs...they were not carved with hammer and chisel. Do you feel the heaviness of the air? It is a magic I've never felt before." He paused and stroked his beard. "It is ancient, unlike anything I've felt in all of Midgard, Albion or Hibernia. It reminds me of Atlantis. But darker."
"Darker, good elder?" It was Tarac's turn to question the older kobold.
"Aye, boy." Pellien turned to face them all. Then locked eyes with the bonedancer. "You are a conjurer. Do you only use your senses to draw on your own power?"
"I-," the younger kobold stopped, then rubbed his hands together nervously. Pellien dismissed further comment with a wave of his hand.
"Matters for another time, Tarac. Just know that this entire labyrinth is unnatural, and perhaps that is why it trembles so. It is a place that should not be." He turned back toward the descending steps. "Strong magic keeps this place. But it cannot hold the world at bay forever."
The companions resumed their wordless journey. They passed three more landings before the stairs ended in a short room with a high ceiling. A large open doorway stood opposite them. Gruesome drew his weapons from his sides and stepped in front of Pellien.
A huge hall stretched out before him, with equal-sized branches going left and right. The troll noted more of the minotaur statues dotting long intervals along every wall. More mystical torches and crystals maintained the same level of light as in the stairwell, but the air was not so dense in the larger space here. Still, a spine-tingling silence pervaded the area.
"No guards?" Pellien asked behind him.
"None to be seen," Gruesome cautioned. "I've never known a people so arrogant as to dismiss any thought of intruders."
"Aye, good troll," Tarac appeared at the berserker's side, his shambling minions close behind him with weapons drawn. "Even the savage Redcaps of Modernagrav keep sentries, and they are barely more than animals." Gruesome had heard tales of the misshapen gnomes that lived in the wilds of the isle of Aegir.
"Well," Pellien said as he took his place in front of the big troll again. "At least they keep their home well-lit for us. There's no way one of those cows will be able to sneak up on us."
Tarac gasped in pain to Gruesome's right as if to rebut the shaman's words. A spear stuck out from his side, and holding the spear was a goblin. It was large for its kind, bigger than the kobold; and its yellow eyes gleamed with an intelligence the troll had never seen from such a creature. It wrenched its weapon from the bonedancer and grinned evilly.
Before Pellien or Blade could begin to cast a healing spell, Tarac reached his left hand toward the goblin. A dark mist bridged the gap between the two, and the kobold's green-skinned foe hissed in agony. Immediately, Tarac regained his composure from his wound at the same time as his skeletal guardians threw themselves upon their master's attacker.
Instinct drew Gruesome's weapons to bear in front of Pellien before he made out the shadowy form of another goblin getting position on the shaman. These beasts could use stealth magic! The tiny spear bounced harmlessly off his big axe blade. Just as the goblin came into view, the troll's hammer found its head and sent its lifeless body tumbling to the left. Two more of the creatures popped into sight as they tumbled over their comrade. Gruesome heard Blade casting a spell behind him, and felt the dwarf's quickening magic course through his muscles. He was on the two goblins before they were ready. One was relieved of its head by his axe. The other was sent flying into the halls' intersection like a rag doll. As it landed on a large plate of checkered stone, huge spikes shot from the floor and impaled the dying beast before disappearing just as quickly.
Gruesome turned, looking for more attackers, only to find Tarac's skeletons finishing off one goblin while the bonedancer ended another's life in a cloud of blood-red energy. The troll counted six dead among their enemies, and no others bold enough to join them. He felt certain wicked eyes watched them though.
"They were a brazen lot," Pellien said as he nudged the decapitated corpse with his boot. "They bear no markings of rank or clan, just like assassins from the surface." He bent down and picked at the body. "Nothing of value on this one, just a small water-skin and a few coins."
Gruesome pointed his hammer at the goblin that lay in the middle of the three great halls. "And now we see why the minotaurs don't guard this place themselves."
"Aye," Pellien agreed. "Goblin assassins, floor spikes...and we've only just entered this gods-forsaken place!"
"Whichever way should we go?" Tarac was wide-eyed beside them now, in a bony cage of protective skeletons.
"Hmmph," the shaman thought briefly. "Left, we go left. Just keep to the walls."
"Why left, good elder?" The bonedancer peered at Pellien intently. "Do you sense more of their magic that way?"
"What? Magic? No! Left because it's closer. Stop reading into everything, boy."
Gruesome grinned to himself as he took his place behind the old kobold. The four stayed close to the labyrinth's wall, avoiding any other traps that might lie in the wide floor of the hall. Blade followed silently behind the troll, and Tarac's minions tailed the bonedancer carefully. Gruesome imagined they made for an odd sight, four vikings trailed by four skeletons walking single file along the wall of such a great space. But Pellien's caution always served them well.
Soon, the massive tunnel they followed turned right, with still no sign of more goblins. Gruesome discovered that the light was such that it gave good visibility close, but made what lay ahead hard to discern. It didn't help that the light spread evenly throughout the whole cavern. There were no shadows to judge distance; the floors and walls were uniform, broken only by the large statues. It gave the whole place a sense of endlessness.
Eventually, they came to another intersection of halls. Pellien stopped them and studied each, his head cocked to one side as he listened. He lifted his wrinkled blue face and sniffed the air. The shaman rubbed his beard in thought.
"What is it, Pell?" Gruesome knelt behind the small kobold so he wouldn't have to raise his voice. He could feel Tarac and Blade press in behind him.
"Noise to the right, but it is faint. Like a large crowd in the distance." He looked to the passage ahead, then turned to stare at the one leading left. To Gruesome, they all looked the same. "This way goes down. The air is cooler, denser. But there is something else."
Pellien turned his head to look Gruesome in the eyes. The berserker saw worry in the shaman's gray ones.
"I smell blood."
Gruesome rose and pulled his hammer and axe from their straps. Blood always demanded more blood.
The left passage led to another wide stairwell going further down. After two of the half-moon landings, they found themselves facing a long hall identical to the ones above, except for two small doorways to the left and right. And the dead goblins. Four of the beasts' bodies lay strewn about. Gruesome joined Pellien in checking the corpses while Tarac stood dutifully beside the mute Blade.
"Clean kills," the troll announced. "With a good blade."
"Hmph," Pellien grunted his agreement. "Some magic was used here. Familiar, but unknown to me." The kobold followed a blood trail to the open passage on the left. Gruesome and the other followed.
They were in a small room with a dark opening on the opposite wall. Voices drifted to them from the darkness. They were angry, taunting voices. Gruesome looked from Pellien to Tarac, then hefted his weapons and stepped into the blackness.
He entered a narrow, unlit hallway that ended in a rectangle of dull, red light. He could make out snarls of rage coming from the same direction. Gruesome jogged toward the end of the hall, prepared to smash whatever came at him first. He heard the clattering of the bonedancer's pets hurrying to catch up to him.
He stepped into the red-lit room, to be greeted by the back of a troll about his own height. It wore brown, studded armor and held an axe in each hand. In front of the troll was a dwarf, also holding two axes and similarly armored. A wild-haired celt in scale armor banged a large mace on a shield, while two thin figures in robes pointed long staves at a smaller form huddled against the wall.
It was a woman, a norsewoman, Gruesome could tell. Her long blonde hair was tied into a warrior's tail that hung from the back of a winged helm. She held a large, ornate shield high against her chest; and her right arm waved an equally-impressive longsword at her tormentors. Her helm and chain armor gleamed like pure gold, but her face was a contest of fear and determination. As her blue eyes discovered Gruesome, fear won out. She shook her head, defeated.
"Hey!" The berserker roared at the troll and dwarf before him. "What's going on here?"
Shock replaced fear on the pretty norsewoman's face. The other five turned slowly to acknowledge Gruesome's presence. The troll and dwarf, fellow sons of Modi as it seemed, glared at him. He found no brotherhood in their eyes, only manic rage. They lifted their weapons in unison and charged Gruesome with anguished roars.
For the first time in his life, Gruesome found himself facing his own countrymen in a battle for blood.
The two berserkers lunged at him, axes swinging. Gruesome stepped to the right, avoiding the troll, and slapped the dwarf's axes away with his hammer. He slashed down with his own axe, and the stout dwarf yelped in pain as blood gushed from its shoulder. The troll leapt toward Gruesome and was halted by twining roots rising from cracks in the floor. Pellien's spell went unheard over the roars of their foes.
The celt thrashed his arms about, trying to free himself. Then he stopped and spread his arms wide. Alien words bellowed from his throat and pinpoints of bright light invaded Gruesome's mind. The tiny stars danced in his eyes, and he felt his limbs grow heavy. His own voice screamed at him, from some great distance away
Break the hold, fool! Wake yourself!
But the lights pushed the thought away.
Pain washed over him like cold water and pulled him from his mystical slumber in an instant. His eyes focused on the troll in front of him, its axe still buried in his side. With a roar, Gruesome kicked the treacherous brute square in the gut and sent it flying back, where it tripped over the wounded dwarf. He screamed in agony as the axe was wrenched from his flesh.
Orange flames surrounded Gruesome and crashed against the elemental barriers held in place by Pellien. The troll looked past the downed berserkers to see one of the thin figures stamp its foot in outrage, it looked to be a pale-skinned avalonian. The other mage, a long-haired elf woman, raised her staff and began casting a spell. She was interrupted by the young norsewoman's shield when it was slammed into her side. Pellien leapt into action to Gruesome's right; his tiny hands wove through the air and their five adversaries all howled in pain as a reddish cloud of poisoned air covered them. Tarac's larger skeleton threw itself at the celt, two-handed sword ringing loudly in the small room off the Hibernian's shield. The troll and dwarf charged Gruesome together while Blade's healing magic burned through his wound.
Gruesome had the advantage of strength and quickness over the two, and used both. He punched his hammer at the dwarf's head, causing the smaller man to duck away from him. The slower troll's axes were easily evaded, but Gruesome's made a long gash up the brute's left arm. He followed the attack with a whirl of his right arm over his head, catching the troll on its shoulder and using his momentum to spin around and slash his axe down at the dwarf. The little berserker caught the blow with both axes, but was knocked back by the force. Gruesome heard the sounds of mixed combat around him. A male voice grunted in pain amid the cacophony of spells being cast. He faced his two traitorous countrymen, rage exploding from their eyes.
They roared in tandem and threw their weapons to the stone floor as they charged. Gruesome looked on in shock as an all-too-familiar scene played out in stark perversion before him. All berserkers wore armor designed to survive the change, and these were no different. The seams along the insides of their arms, along their ribs and down their legs split from the instant growth of bone and muscle. Their faces elongated and hair sprouted from every area of exposed flesh as Modi's terrible gift transformed them into half-bear beasts of savage destruction. And just like that, Gruesome's advantage of strength was lost.
The dwarf-bear slammed into him, powerful jaws locking onto his upper thigh. He smashed the haft of his hammer down on the beast's back, to no avail. He knew from experience that the creature would ignore all pain and only continue to press the attack. A berserker in this form had only one thought...kill as brutally as possible. Sharp claws dug into his flesh through his armor as the troll-bear grabbed him by the shoulders and flung him like a sack of wheat. He flew through the air with the dwarf-bear still attached to his leg and landed roughly on Blade before sliding into the wall behind him.
The troll-bear slapped Pellien away with a strong paw as it advanced on Gruesome, the little kobold tumbled into a mass of skeletons. The dwarf-bear's claws tore into the troll's leg and it pulled away from him in an attempt to rip armor, flesh and muscle from his leg. Gruesome roared in pain and brought both clenched fists down on the little berserker's back. The deviant beast broke away with a snarl and lunged again, Gruesome saw his own blood dripping from its fangs. He dropped his useless hammer and axe and wrestled the dwarf-bear into his arms. The two rolled on the floor as Gruesome tried to get his arms around the traitor's neck while it scraped his body with its claws. Pain erupted in his sides as the troll-bear lifted him up, then agony turned his vision white. The larger berserker clamped vicious jaws on his right shoulder from behind. Gruesome used his own anger to push through the pain. He wrapped his left arm around the dwarf-bear's head and grabbed its snout. With a strength born of rage and desperation, he held onto the smaller form with his inflamed right arm and twisted with his left. The beast's head twisted awkwardly, tendons and hardened muscles snapped from the force.
Gruesome kicked the thing away, then reached up to the troll-bear's face still buried in his flesh. His left thumb found an eye, and he gouged into it. Still, the savage heretic did not release itself. It shook him violently, sending a shock wave of pain throughout his body. He groped blindly at the floor until his right hand found the rounded shaft of his hammer. Gruesome grasped the weapon at the base of its arcanium head and brought it up as hard as he could. He smashed into the troll-bear's head, but the beast still held firm. He felt his feet lifted off the floor, then he was slammed face-first into the wall. The jaws ripped free of his shoulder, only to clamp onto his neck. He screamed in anger and pain.
Gruesome was dropped to the floor in a heap. He rolled painfully to his side and stared up at his killer. Blood and drool trailed from the troll-bear's gaping maw and its eyes stared dully ahead. A sword protruded from its belly, then was wrenched free with a feminine grunt. The beast fell to its knees, then the blade appeared again through its open mouth. The pretty norsewoman stood over the crumpling form and wiped her sword clean on its fur. She met Gruesome's eyes and nodded solemnly.
His bones and flesh knit themselves painfully as Pellien and Blade poured mending magic into him. Gruesome looked around in a daze. The celt, elf and avalonian lay dead. Tarac and his minions stood beyond the corpses. Blade, Pellien and the norsewoman stood behind the fallen troll. All five vikings watched silently as the dwarf- and troll-bears reverted to their natural forms, Modi's gift leaving their dead bodies. The shaman waved a hand over each, then shook his head slowly, his eyes locked on the floor. Gruesome knew his meaning...they would not be brought back to this life.
Rage, sorrow and frustration filled the troll to breaking. An anguished roar released them from his soul.
Tarac cringed at Gruesome's animalistic bellow. The troll pounded his fists into the ground and leapt to his feet.
"NO!" The berserker shouted then kicked the fallen troll's body. He roared again and charged at the dead celt, lifting the corpse with one massive hand. Gruesome brought the face to his own and stared briefly at it before he threw it against the wall. "NO, NO, NO, NO!"
The enraged troll grabbed the female elf's form and smashed it into the stone floor. Bones crunched and blood spurted out of the woman's death wound. Three of Tarac's others shrank away from Gruesome, as if they feared he might turn his rage on them. But his champion pushed himself in front of its master protectively. Tarac only stared in horror as the troll stomped on the body of the Albion man. He'd never seen the dead treated with such contempt. This was not the quiet warrior he'd met the day before; and Tarac felt like a perverse voyeur, peeking at Gruesome's grief through an open window. Wide tears flowed down the troll's cheeks as he railed against the loss of his fellow vikings.
"WHY? Why would they make us kill them?" Gruesome asked the ceiling. He sank to his knees and moaned as he wept.
"They were not themselves." All eyes turned to the young norsewoman as she spoke, her voice was clear and filled with authority. "There was nothing left in them that made them vikings, troll. No dream of Valhalla remained in their souls."
"They were the odd ones, good lady." Tarac felt embarrassed when she turned her attention to him, and cast his eyes to the floor.
Tarac moved to where he could see the woman's face. She was beautiful, her skin pale and smooth. Her long, blonde hair shined like the gold of her armor and her eyes were the deep blue of the ocean that surrounded his home, Aegir. There was a slight gauntness to her cheeks born of exhaustion, but the determination that showed in the set of her full lips and bright eyes only made her more beautiful for it. He couldn't help but feel a quiet reverence for this woman who seemed to be no older than himself.
Pellien approached Gruesome and placed a hand on the troll's shoulder. "You did what you had to do, son." He nodded to the young woman. "We all did."
The mournful berserker shook his head. "Then why did Modi let them use his gift against me? Am I not his son as well? Why would he punish me so?"
"Bogdar teaches that the gods do not make us what we are, Gruesome." Tarac stepped in front of the big troll. "The spirit of rage existed within them, just as you. Can you say that you have only used the power of the bear to honor Modi? Or was it for your own glory?"
Gruesome's eyes flickered anger at the bonedancer, then softened as he considered his words.
"Aye, it is so." He nodded his large head. "Modi does not care how I kill my enemies, only that I do so."
"If it brings you any solace, I believe that Bogdar will shepherd their souls until such time as they are ready to redeem themselves. Only then will he let them be born anew. Perhaps this was the only way they could have escaped the minotaurs' enslavement."
"No, bonedancer," Gruesome's eyes were clear and grim. "That does not comfort the fact that I drew lifeblood from my brothers." He rose to his feet slowly, then walked over to where his hammer lay on the floor and picked it up.
Pellien walked over to the young woman and eyed her carefully. His hands waved in her direction, and he cast several spells upon her. She took a deep breath as the enhancing magic flowed through her body. Tarac remembered how he felt when Blade and Pellien had first placed their charms on him. He felt stronger, his hands more nimble, his mind clearer. Magic flowed through his body with ease, and spells seemed to throw themselves from his hands. It was an amazing feeling, to be made more than what he was.
"Thank you," the pretty woman said once the older kobold was finished. "I've heard of the power you shamans grant to others. But it's another thing to experience it for one's self."
Pellien nodded. "My pleasure, young lady. You look like you haven't slept in days." He pulled a water-skin from his waist, and pulled out a small pouch and removed some dried meat from it. He handed both to the norsewoman. "You look as if you could use these as well. Don't worry, we have plenty."
She lightly licked her lips and quickly sheathed her sword. She gently took the waterskin from Pellien and bowed her head to him. "My thanks again, shaman."
"Drink slowly at first, girl. Or you'll hurt yourself."
She nodded at Pellien and tentatively sipped the water, her eyes closed in sweet relief. Pellien walked towards the fallen mages, felled by the woman's own sword in the fight. For one fighting thirst and exhaustion, Tarac had seen her move with deadly speed once the conjurers' attentions were drawn from her. The bonedancer could scarcely take his eyes off the young woman. The hardness in her eyes did nothing to lessen her beauty. But it wasn't just her physical allure that entranced him, there was an aura about her that he'd never encountered before. After a few sips, she took a longer draught, then began working on the bit of meat.
"My name is Pellien." The shaman's voice broke Tarac's reverie. He turned to see the older kobold examining the pulpy remains of the elf. "The dwarf there is called Blade, a proven son of the goddess Eir."
"I am Gruesome," the troll said flatly from where he stood by the door they had entered.
"And I am Tarac!" The younger kobold wished he hadn't sounded so eager when he answered, and felt his face flush when the pretty young woman looked at him. She gently swallowed the mouthful of meat.
"My name is Erliga." Her back straightened as she said her name, and her eyes brightened from within as if by fire. "Mistress of Odin, Shieldmaiden of the Aesir, Chooser of the Slain." Power flowed from her words, as if they were spoken by more than one voice.
Pellien and Gruesome turned toward the Valkyrie, their faces wide with awe. Each slowly bent to one knee and bowed their heads low. Tarac knew such women were important to vikings that worshipped the gods of Asgard, but wasn't sure why. He looked from the shaman to the berserker, then to Blade. He felt awkward at being the only one besides the dwarf not bowing to the young lady, so he dropped to his knee. His others gathered around him, but remained standing. He was sure they would give away his ruse to the woman. Shame caused him to drop his face, and he hoped she would not see his false reverence.
"Rise, children," she waved her hand to include them all. "I have been sent here to serve you, not be served by you." Tarac rose to his feet first, but kept silent.
"Dear lady, why are you here? And why alone in this place not of our gods?" Worry filled Pellien's words.
"The All-Father has sent me here on a quest, but he does not tell me why. I have only come to Midgard in the past few weeks." She walked to the wall and settled herself down with a sigh. "As soon as I entered the mortal world, I was plagued with strange, terrible dreams. I would see the souls of vikings disappear into a dark void. They ran to it as if to war, willingly. I asked other valkyrie about it, but none knew of what I spoke. They told me it was merely my spirit adjusting to the flesh."
She looked up and Tarac saw fear cloud her beautiful eyes. "But there was more. A voice spoke to me, told me that the souls fled here. It was a man's voice, but I could not say that it belonged to Odin. It was so far away. But it told me that something stole my warriors from me, drew them from Valhalla's call."
Pellien and Gruesome listened raptly to Erliga's words. Tarac found himself more cowed by her tale. He was raised in Bogdar's faith, an ancient god that only dealt with souls. He never manifested himself in the physical world. Even the magic that bonedancers used came from themselves. His others were the bones of fallen warriors, the souls long since gone. That was the bargain with Bogdar, only spiritless bodies could be used by his followers. They would never manipulate a person's soul for their own gain.
"So, I joined a large expedition to the Isle of Agramon," Erliga's clear voice began again after another sip of water. "Once inside, the dreams were stronger. I was with the group for two days, but they refused to go where I needed. I set out on my own.
"That's when I first began to encounter the goblins. They attacked me when I tried to sleep the first time. Five of them. They thought me easy prey. Then three, then almost always two at a time. I ran out of food and water and stopped sleeping. Without the sun and sleep, time ran from me. I have no idea how long I have been down in this place." She nodded to the entrance. "Outside there, an army of the beasts fell upon me. I slew four of them and ran this way. As soon as I entered the dark hallway, they stopped following me. They simply stared at me as I backed away from them."
"Aye, we saw your kills, lady." Pellien regarded her solemnly. "Were you wounded?"
"I was, but I was able to heal myself once they refused to follow."
"It was your blood that drew us this way then." The shaman approached the valkyrie and held his palm out toward her. "Your skills at healing must be great indeed. I have no sense of any harm to you."
Her headed lifted sharply. "I am no stranger to battle, shaman!"
Pellien chuckled softly. "Forgive an old man his worry, my dear. It's what I do best."
Her eyes softened. "My apologies, kobold. I'm sure you meant no disrespect." Her shoulders slumped a bit as if a weight had been removed. "Once I found my way to this room, I became a bit more cautious. With good cause, it was only a few yards from here that these five found me. As soon as I saw those two," she gestured to the dead dwarf and troll. "I knew that they were not right. They did not have viking souls.
"I ran, but they were faster. They trapped me in here."
"Then we came at the right time, good lady," Tarac smiled toward her.
Erliga shook her head. "I do not think they meant to kill me, Tarac. And there was no lust in their eyes. I think they meant to take me prisoner. They had ample time to do what violence upon me that they wished."
"But the celt was able to spellbind me," Gruesome's deep voice rumbled for the first time since he'd introduced himself. "Why did he not just put you to sleep?"
Erliga's head shook again. "I cannot say, troll."
"He placed his spell on all of us, Gruesome," Tarac remembered the bright lights that had mesmerized him. "Luckily, the wizard's fire interrupted it."
"Yes," Pellien laughed. "They were not so good at combining their efforts. Even those berserkers rushed to Modi's gift a little soon, it seemed to me."
"Aye," Gruesome agreed and rubbed his right shoulder. Tarac winced as he thought of how the two had mauled the troll. The kobold knew that his small body could not have survived such an assault.
"Now," Erliga fixed each of them with her deep eyes. "What brings you four here?"
"Them," Pellien waved his hand at the dead bodies.
"The odd ones," Tarac spoke without thinking. When the valkyrie and shaman looked at him, he felt his color rise. "Well, they seem odd to me." He smiled and lowered his face, silently cursing himself for not holding his tongue. He was sure they all thought him a fool.
"That they are, boy." Pellien walked to the celt's corpse and kicked at it.
"And what of the dwarf?" Erliga drew the shaman's attention again. "What ails him?" She pulled herself to her feet and approached Blade. "His spirit feels so thin to me." She studied the old dwarf's face. He stared back at her impassively.
"I fear that might be an effect of the binding stones, my lady." Pellien turned to face her.
Erliga swore in an un-ladylike manner under her breath. "Cursed creations," she said a bit louder. "Have you all been corrupted so by these things?"
"I have been Returned three times." Tarac was shocked by Gruesome's words. The bonedancer had always heard of warriors being revived from death at the stones, but never experienced it for himself. The assassins he fought had never proven themselves his betters.
"And I two." Gruesome started at Pellien's admission. "It was before your time, boy. When I was young and foolish."
"And what about this one?" Erliga motioned to Blade.
"Five times," Gruesome bowed his head as he said the number.
"Nine times." Pellien raised an eyebrow at the troll's wide eyes. "Also before your time."
Tarac felt light-headed. Nine times. The old dwarf had known death nine times. His soul had crossed the threshold of the mortal world nine times. He had never heard of such a thing. He heard the valkyrie drawn in a sharp breath. She removed the chain gauntlet from her right hand and stepped closer to Blade.
"You poor soul," she whispered as she caressed his cheek with her fingers.
Blade drew in a deep breath, like a drowning man pulled to the surface. His right eye focused on Erliga and he stumbled backwards and fell soundly on his rump. The pretty woman knelt beside him, her hand pressed against his face, like a mother comforting her child.
"The drums, lady. I hear the drums always." The old dwarf's voice was raspy and broken. Tears streamed down his right cheek. He drew in another ragged breath.
"Valhalla calls you, son of Eir. It draws you ever closer." Silent tears shone on the valkyrie's face. Tarac watched in awe. Pellien and Gruesome stood silently, eyes cast to the floor. Erliga bent down and kissed Blade gently on the forehead. "I would release you if I could, child." Blade closed his eye and held her hand close to his face. Tarac felt his stomach tighten, and he somehow knew that no person had ever seen this grizzled dwarf so vulnerable. The young kobold choked back tears of his own.
Finally, Erliga pulled her hand from the dwarf's grasp and rose to her feet. Almost instantly, Blade's eye clouded and his face became a mask of dispassion. Except for the drying tears on his cheek, there was no sign that the old man had ever been cognizant of their presence. The valkyrie shook her head, her beauty only enhanced by the sadness in her eyes.
"How could you have let this happen to him? Why would you bring him back so many times?"
Gruesome shrank within himself. Pellien merely shook his head.
"The king has given his orders. Any viking that can be Returned, must be." He met Erliga's eyes, almost defiantly. "And it's what Blade would have wanted. Can't you see his soul? Can't you see the man he is? The warrior he is?"
Erliga closed her eyes and seemed to concentrate. "He stretches so far between here and Valhalla. He is in so many places." She caught the shaman's gaze finally. "I do not envy my sister that must ferry his soul. It spreads out like a spiderweb. It may take him years to make the journey."
"Battle is all he knows, lady. All he's ever known. Perhaps that's why he still fights. It's all he can do. I tell him when to eat, when to drink, when to sleep. He would not do any of those on his own. He would stand in one place, waiting for a battle to come to him. He would waste away."
Erliga walked to Pellien and looked down at the little kobold. "Then it is your duty to see that he dies in battle, shaman. Do not let his many sacrifices be wasted!"
Pellien met her eyes with just as much authority as she. "Don't presume to tell me how to take care of my friend, girl. Odin's maiden or no, you can't begin to understand how much that man's sacrifices have meant to me! Ymir take my bones now, if you think I'd see him cast to Helheim!" He took a long breath and released it. "My care is for his soul, not just his body."
Tarac swallowed hard. The tension made him incredibly uncomfortable, and the past few moments made him realize why he did not keep much company. His others never argued, or showed their grief. For the first time, he wondered if joining the three warriors was a good idea.
After a small pause, Erliga bowed her head to Pellien. "My apologies again, shaman. I can see that you do not treat your friend lightly. I promise to never question your motives toward him again."
"Hmmph," Pellien nodded his acceptance. "Again, eh? Are you asking us to join you on your quest?"
"Well, it seems our quests are somewhat the same. Odin surely brought you here to save me, or perhaps me to guide you."
Pellien bowed slightly to the pretty valkyrie. "So it seems."
She fixed the older kobold with a stern smile. "Then let us see what answers we might find."
"Your answers do not interest me, my lady." Tarac turned toward the grim-faced Gruesome as the troll spoke. "Every minotaur I see, dies."
The berserker's words rang of promise, not threat.
Gruesome's head felt heavy on his neck. Pellien and the valkyrie spoke to each other as they walked ahead of him, but he could not bring himself to focus on their words. In his mind, he saw the troll and dwarf charging him again and again, their mouths opening wider as they drew closer until they could swallow him whole. He kept his eyes focused ahead of the small group of vikings, muscles tensed for the enemies he knew lay ahead. They emhad /emto be coming for them, because his rage boiled in his blood and he needed to release it. He still felt the dwarf's pulse pushing against his arm before he had ended the man's enslavement with a twist of his neck, still heard the awful tearing of muscle and flesh from the troll's fangs sinking into his shoulder. His wounds were healed, his strength returned... but the despair still filled his heart. His own brothers-in-arms had tried to kill him. Had called upon his own god's reward to do so.
The minotaurs. The minotaurs did this, brought his kinsmen to this end. Gruesome wished to feel their horns in his hands. How easily he could end their lives like the dwarf berserker. His fingers brushed the head of his hammer. He almost felt it crushing one of the bull's skulls, smelled their blood pouring from their throats thanks to his axe. He wanted to kill them all.
Something moved in the shadows before them. Gruesome's weapons were in his hands in a flash of arcanium gold. He lept completely over Pellien and past Erliga. His hammer was met by two long blades of steel as a young elf came into full view from the stealth magic that cloaked him. But rage fueled the troll's strength, rage and the augmentations of Pellien's and Blade's magics. The elf was crushed to the floor, then Gruesome's axe split its face in a shower of pink blood. He felt an attack from his right and moved his body just enough to cause a large blade to graze his right arm. He spun to his left, bringing his axe in a sideways swing. A tall firbolg caught the blow with his massive sword, but the berserker was already bringing his hammer around to smash the Hibernian in the shoulder. He didn't even hear the creature's grunt, didn't stop to look at its eyes to see the fear that must have been there. His axe found the firbolg's spine, then Gruesome was moving past. More bodies approached him quickly from a doorway in the left wall of the tunnel, and he rushed forward to meet them.
The first was a tall woman, well-groomed like a briton. Her shield stopped his hammer from crushing her skull, but the force carried her back. The troll pushed on, axe and hammer twin whirls of death. More blades struck him and dark magic enveloped him, but the pain only fed his anger. The sound of his own blood rushing in his ears blocked all other sounds. He saw mouths open, but could not determine if they were screams of pain or rage. It did not matter to him. He would end all their misery.
They were not themselves.
The valkyrie's words urged him on. Half-ogre, celt, kobold...none of these were themselves. They were mindless slaves that needed to die. They needed to die because Gruesome knew they stood between him and the minotaurs.
Familiar magic filled his body. Was he being healed? Or was Blade quickening his muscles? Probably both. Metal flurries came from both sides, and he knew some of them were his companions. He gutted a troll in ragged chain armor, then threw its body into a line of enemies. His arms and legs never stopped moving, and none of his foes defenses could hold him. He was so close. His rage was almost all-consuming. It would be so easy to give in and let Modi take him. With the shaman's and dwarf's spells enhancing him as well, he would tear through bones like a knife through bread.
But no. He wanted his senses. He wanted to know when the minotaurs would show themselves. He wanted to see their bovine heads with his own eyes. And these warriors were not worth Modi's gift. These must have been inexperienced fighters, because they fell all too quickly. Gruesome's hammer turned a celt's tattooed face into pulp. A tiny lurikeen drove tiny daggers at him and he slapped the little man or woman's body to the side with the broad side of his axe.
Another troll fell to his axe, and Gruesome wondered if he'd ever met him before. It looked young. Fire burned his face and he slashed his hammer down. Something to his right fell in a heap, then he was swinging both weapons at a firbolg with a large shield. It caught both blows, then blood spurted from its neck. Erliga's silvery sword darted backwards, and Gruesome turned to face more enemies on his left. Magic swirled all around him, bathing the dimly lit passage in changing colors. He tried to look past the mass of bodies, but saw no horned figures beyond. That meant he just had to keep killing.
He began to feel almost calm, his arms swinging easily. He parried a hammer from his left, and sidestepped a sword from his right. He heard the clang of his own hammer ringing off the shiny plate helm of an Albion highlander. He smiled to himself at the man's short skirt. They could be fierce warriors, but why would they adorn themselves in women's clothes? Blade's voice broke over the din of battle as the dwarf cast some spell behind him. Erliga shouted beside him and he felt a wound on his side instantly knit itself closed. Tarac's armored skeleton slashed wildly to his left. Suddenly, the tunnel was filled with the snarl of countless warriors, cries of pain and the voices of multiple conjurers.
Gruesome crossed hammer and axe and caught a dwarf's larger sword before it struck his face. With a roar, he kicked the stout man away and backhanded his hammer at a norseman that rushed up to take the dwarf's place.
The troll looked at the line of attackers before him, seeing their faces clearly. Ugly boils covered their skin, and he recognized Pellien's handiwork. A wave of energy poured from Erliga's entire body and they all screamed in pain. One of Tarac's dark spells washed over an elf, and the thin figure crumpled to the ground. Everyone that faced them was young, some not even wearing armor. Gruesome knew this tactic. These were a first line, expendable soldiers sent to die to tire the enemy. He took a defensive stance and tried to count their numbers.
Maybe ten or fifteen enslaved warriors stood between them and a larger door. He and his four companions could easily defeat them all, but what waited for them beyond?
"Would you wait one Hel-damned moment?" Pellien's voice brought Gruesome completely to his senses. The shaman chanted and dark roots broke through the floor and tangled the feet of all their young enemies. Most struggled to break the holds, causing the vines to cling tighter. "Back, you stupid brute. Back up!"
Gruesome back-stepped towards the old kobold, Erliga and the bonedancer's minions moved with him. Pellien led them out of the smaller passage and into the larger one where the troll had first noticed the poorly-stealthed elf. The shaman looked impatiently around the larger tunnel.
"Damn these miserable beasts! Don't they believe in doors?" His grey eyes bored into Gruesome. "You big fool, what in Hel's heart got into you?"
The berserker merely stared back at the little kobold. Pellien shook his head.
"Blade! We move!" At the shaman's behest the dwarf chanted the spell that would quicken their feet with magical earnest. Gruesome ran with the group, now with the valkyrie between himself and Pellien. She seemed to take a protective posture close behind the small kobold, her shield held at the ready. Gruesome felt the weight of his hammer and axe in his hands. He was reluctant to give up their solid comfort. Twice, Pellien stopped at larger intersecting tunnels and took brief stock of each with whatever senses he used to navigate this dank pit. The first he quickly passed by, but at the second one he took the left turn. After a few moments, he stopped at a small doorway cut neatly into the right wall and sniffed the air.
"This way, quickly!" The little shaman darted into the darkened hall that emptied into a small room. Two torches to the left and right of the entrance burned with dull, red fire. A stone table large enough for a family of trolls dominated the center of the room, the top scratched and nicked to various depths all over. Part of the wall in the back was cut away waist-high, and a bowl was carved into the lower jut. Clear water filled the bowl from a small spring beneath. The overflow dripped from a small cleft in one side into a hole in the floor directly beneath it. Pellien removed the chain glove from his right hand and sipped tentatively from it. "It's bitter, but it's clean."
Tarac and Erliga moved quickly to the bowl and began refilling water-skins while Pellien turned his sharp eyes on Gruesome once again. He sighed heavily, and the troll felt his stomach tighten at his old friend's disappointment. Pellien spoke slowly, as if choosing his words.
"I think we all knew before we entered here that we would see things that would disturb us. Tarac even mentioned such." The kobold stopped Gruesome's words with a raised hand. "But if you're going to lose your wits every time one of our enslaved countrymen tries to kill us, boy..."
"Well, I just don't think we can do this without you."
Gruesome's head dropped in shame. "I needed to, Pell. I needed it. I am berserker, and that is what I do."
"Aye, boy, and you do it well. But those were the chaff. Perhaps they thought the numbers were enough to kill us few. Perhaps they were using them to draw us toward them, but none of the ones you killed there were of any skill. Not like the ones we first met, not like ones we're likely to meet sooner than I'd hoped, either!" Pellien stepped in front of Gruesome and looked up at the towering warrior with stern eyes. "Boy, you don't go charging into enemies you don't know like that! I expected that from Zalathorn, but not you!"
Gruesome was taken aback by the shaman's words. He had never heard the old kobold speak an ill word about their dead friend. Zalathorn and Pellien had been like brothers before the dwarf berserker died in a large battle while trying to defend Thor's hammer from an Albion horde at Mjollner Faste. Thoughts of the day still brought pain to the big troll's heart. He met Pellien's eyes and felt his chest rise with the anger he felt at the little shaman. The kobold's grey eyes held his coolly.
"Umm, good troll?" Tarac interrupted them. "Would you like me to stitch up your armor a bit there?"
"We've no time for that now." Pellien's eyes never wavered. "Who knows how close they might be?" He stepped past Gruesome into the small hall leading to the larger tunnel.
"Where are we going?" The troll felt his anger subside somewhat with his words.
"If I'm right, and mind you it will only be by Gefion's grace that I am." One sharp eye twinkled with mischief over the old kobold's shoulder. "We just might come up behind them."
Gruesome gripped his weapons tightly and grinned at his friend. "It's hard to stay mad at you, you old fiend."
"Someone has to keep you fools alive. Tarac, stay with Blade at our backs. I still think those young ones might be heading our way. Erliga, stay by Gruesome with that shield like you were earlier. The only way we're going to find ourselves some rest is to take care of the minotaurs driving these, I think." Pellien slapped Blade on the shoulder. "Let's move, old goat!"
Blade's spell once again filled their legs with vigor and they were off. Pellien led them through another couple of left turns, then right into a narrow, dark passage with a bright red light at the end. He slowed their pace as they approached the opening and held his hand up to halt the rest. He moved quietly to the door, and Gruesome thought for not the first time in all the years that the shaman might have made an excellent shadowblade as well. After peering into the brighter room, Pellien waved them forward. The four vikings stopped behind the little kobold, and took in the bizarre scene before them.
The room sloped slightly up from their vantage point, and was as large as two drinking halls. Three large forges were arranged in a triangle pattern, with heavily-muscled minotaurs working each. A tall one in black armor stood in the middle, braying orders in a deep voice. At the forge nearest the viking's spypost, a firbolg and half-ogre in fine armor stood. A troll and highlander stood statue-still at the forge to the left, and the last forge was guarded by another troll and another firbolg. Beyond them all, three minotaurs in long robes faced the opposite wall.
"The chanters," Tarac whispered as he pointed to the robed ones. "They sing the songs behind the odd ones. I've seen them!"
Around the minotaur conjurers, seven of the warrior beasts milled. Gruesome recognized three of them definitely. One was reddish-brown and carried a large staff, the same creature he'd killed after fighting the Albion assassins. Another was brown, wearing shiny clawed gloves and with a large scar running the width of its nose. The troll could still remember the taste of the beast's blood. The third minotaur was black except for a wide stripe of white fur across its face. Gruesome was sure these were the same minotaurs from the day before, plus the ones Pellien and Tarac had fought. Beyond the bulls, a handful of Hibernians, Albions and Midgardians stood still as stone.
"The big one," Pellien pointed a small finger to the minotaur in black armor. "He's the leader. He was with the two retrieving the weapons from before." He paused and rubbed his chin absently. "Now what did they want with those? And what in Hel's arse are they doing here?"
"Well, they aren't supplying an army." Gruesome looked to the bonedancer at his words, the young kobold caught his eye and blushed. "Well, what i mean is that they have three forges. Three forges, but only one smith at each. That means they are making single items that require great skill. And, if they were only using them to forge armor and weapons, they could have armed every odd one we've seen ten times over in just a few days."
Erliga nodded. "But some of the ones earlier didn't even have armor, and their weapons were all of poor quality. So what are they forging here, bonedancer?"
Tarac smiled and shrugged. "I'm sorry, good lady. I have no idea."
"I killed some of those earlier." Gruesome stared at the minotaurs beyond the forge. "They have bindstones somewhere close then."
"That's a lot of them," Pellien mused. "And they must have healers somewhere to have bindstones. And those odd ones by the forges don't look so weak as the others. And I want to see those weapons up close."
"There's something else." Erliga drew all their attention with her clear voice. "I know this much, my dreams drew me deeper than this. We are not at the source of what is taking your norsemen brothers from their rightful end. Whatever this is here, it is only a small part. A dark, cold power lies somewhere lower."
"Hmm," Pellien's eyes narrowed in concentration.
"What are you thinking, Pell?"
The shaman shifted his eyes to meet Gruesome's. "We do what we do best, boy. Hit 'em hard, hit 'em quick." His wrinkled, blue face widened in a big smile.
"Then we run like the wind."
Gruesome gripped his hammer and axe tightly. He was not used to following others into a fight, it was always his place to lead a charge. He was a big target to distract their enemies from Blade and Pellien. And he could usually fell a mage or two before they knew what hit them. Hibernia and Albion had mages like Uppland had snow. However, the shaman's plan called for a more indirect approach, and experience told the troll that Pellien knew best. If the six odd ones near the forges were anything like the others, they wouldn't be very observant. Gruesome hoped the minotaurs at the forges would be too busy to notice Tarac and the older kobold sneaking around piles of coal and iron weapons along both walls. Gruesome looked to his right, where the bonedancer's "others" stirred impatiently. It seemed they didn't like being even this far from their master. The younger kobold had assured Pellien that he could control them.
Erliga shivered beside Gruesome, as if a chill wind touched only her in the mystical warmth of the labyrinth. The berserker wondered if her appearance of strength was a facade. Who knew what horrors she had endured before the vikings found her? He nudged her gently with his elbow and whispered as low as he could, despite the loud roars and clangs of the forges.
"Are you alright, my lady?"
"I am fine for the battle, troll, but there is a coldness in this place." She nodded tersely in the direction of the group of odd ones beyond the trio of forges. "It drifts to me from those lost souls, and from those forges. And from beneath us."
Gruesome stared at the young norsewoman for a moment. Her natural beauty enhanced the quality of her character, from her unblemished alabaster skin to her blue eyes that churned like the sea. They brought to the surface a strength that far surpassed her youth, a strength that could only have been born of the gods. Even the beads of sweat that trailed her cheek from under her winged helm shimmered with otherworldly presence. The mighty troll found himself in awe of the battlemaiden, and wondered how he ever doubted her fortitude.
"Am I the first valkyrie you have met, warrior?" Her voice was as hushed as his.
Gruesome nodded soberly. "Forgive me, lady. I do not mean to stare."
"No offense taken, troll. Your people are noble, and I know you mean no disrespect." Erliga smiled softly, and her beauty enhanced tenfold with the small expression. "Sometimes I find it hard to believe the same gods made your kind as made man."
Despite their circumstance, Gruesome found himself grinning. He enjoyed the thought of fighting alongside this valkyrie. The big troll turned his attention to Pellien, as the little shaman crept in the dark shadows of the left wall of the large room. "I think our friends are almost ready."
The old kobold knelt behind a stack of coal a few yards from the leftmost forge. He peered around it at the big minotaur in black armor, then looked across the room to where Tarac hid in a similar spot. Gruesome doubted the two kobolds could see each other past the bright fires of the forges, and he hoped the bonedancer was timely with his spells for Pellien's sake. The berserker hated being farther from his little friend than their enemies were. But surprise and speed were the keys to the shaman's plan.
Of course, success here did not mean they would all survive the day. For all Gruesome knew, the vikings had no real idea just what they were doing here, or where they would go from these forges. The troll's stomach tightened with uncertainty. He had no fear of caves, no fear of fighting...but not knowing what the near future held troubled him greatly. He hoped Pellien knew what he was doing, and whispered a low prayer to Modi for all the strength he could give. He prepared himself to rush forward as fast as Blade's magic would carry him at the shaman's attack.
Pellien pulled himself atop the pile of coal and gestured toward the minotaurs and odd ones around the forges, his words lost in sounds of the bull smiths' work. Gruesome threw himself forward, followed by Erliga, Blade and Tarac's others. Smooth, green vegetation ripped through the stone floor and entangled all in the area near the forges. The swift shaman immediately turned his attention to the minotaurs up the cave's slope and cast the same spell. The large minotaur bellowed an order that turned into a cry of pain as Tarac unleashed a barrage of dark energy upon him. Gruesome and the rest were still thirty paces away, but closing fast.
Erliga shouted and white light surrounded the minotaur leader's head. His brown fur erupted in red sores from another spell by the shaman.
"Now, Blade! Cast them into dreams!" Somehow, Pellien's voice broke over the screams of animal rage. Like a true warrior, the dwarf wasted no time in casting his mesmerizing spell over each large form closest to them.
Gruesome bounded between the three forges like a rampaging beast, slapping a wild swing by one of the firbolgs aside with ease. The odd ones tangled in the shaman's spell swung their weapons in frenzy at Erliga and the skeletons with no success. The berserker rushed to one of the smiths and smashed both weapons down upon it. Axe cut deep in the creature's shoulder, and hammer smashed its skull. Gruesome kicked the fatally wounded bull into its fiery forge and spun toward the minotaur's commander, who was on his knees in ultimate agony from Tarac's continued assault.
Erliga slammed her shield into another smith before pushing the big beast into its own forge with a mighty heave. Two of Tarac's skeletons battered at the third smith while the armored minion shoved it toward the white hot fire. The valkyrie shouted above the din and pointed at a sword that lay on the floor near one of the forges, "There!"
Tarac's smallest other rushed and grabbed the blade, then turned to run to its master's side. A troll between it and Tarac swiped a large axe at the skeleton's leg, cutting it cleanly off. The bony little figure crashed to the floor and slid to a rattling stop, but never let go of the sword. Gruesome lunged at the troll and his axe cut deeply into its armored side. He brought his hammer down on the back of the odd troll's head, then deftly stepped to his left to avoid the wide blade of a firbolg's sword. The large-headed Hibernian roared in pain as Tarac's largest other drove its sword into the lanky other's side. Another skeleton grabbed the little one's leg while the last scooped up the little healer like a mother carrying a child.
"Ha-hah!" Pellien laughed behind them. "Off we go!"
Gruesome threw his shoulder into the firbolg and headed toward the small door they'd entered. Blade still cast his spell upon their enemies beyond, his teeth bared in concentration. Pellien grabbed the old dwarf by the shoulder and pulled him back as he went. A few paces from the small door, the big troll stopped and waited for all of his companions to pass. Erliga stood by his side, sword and shield held high. Tarac was the last to reach them.
"Give me but a moment to fix her, and we can go!" The bonedancer's eyes were wide with excitement. He snatched the leg from his other and aligned the bone on the little healer. His hands were a blur as he cast a spell that knitted the bone together.
Minotaurs and odd ones began to rush toward the vikings, passing the forges where two large bodies still thrashed in the flames. Gruesome's eyes met those of the white-faced bull. It shook its horned head and brayed a challenge to him. The troll clashed hammer and axe together in answer.
"It's done!" Tarac shouted wildly.
Gruesome roared defiantly, but turned to run with his comrades. He knew that he was not backing down from a fight. He knew that he would face these foes again. But his friends needed him more than he needed to kill one minotaur. The berserker followed close behind Erliga, while the dwarf's magic propelled them faster than the minotaurs and odd ones could follow and Pellien's spell of everlasting endurance kept them running. The little shaman led them out of the small hallway and turned left in the larger tunnel, which constantly curved right. He kept their pace a steady rush past four openings, three to the right and one to the left. Gruesome trusted the kobold's instincts in caverns such as these; he reasoned anyone raised in the Kobold Undercity, then trained in the subterranean arts of the shaman knew his way around a tunnel. Pellien brought them to an abrupt stop and lifted his face toward the smooth stone of the ceiling.
"Down you say, lady?"
Erliga stepped to the older kobold's side. "Aye, shaman. There is a great darkness below. Much greater than at the forges."
"Well," Pellien wrinkled his blue nose. "The air is getting thicker, cooler. We must be close to a way down, be prepared for anything. Blade!" He turned and faced the old dwarf. "Let's not have anyone raising an alarm, eh?"
The son of Eir stared vacantly, and Gruesome wondered if his old friend even heard the shaman; but Pellien seemed satisfied. The troll felt excitement welling from the bonedancer and valkyrie, and himself...only the dwarf and Pellien seemed undaunted by the group's mad rush. He knew the little kobold's calm came from decades of experience, but Blade's was a different sort.
The shaman nodded at the four vikings, then sped off again down the large tunnel. The curve sharpened until they could only see a few yards ahead, then straightened toward a large doorway. Two large minotaurs in chain armor, both holding tall pikes, stood on either side of the opening. The bulls looked at the oncoming warriors and brayed in surprise. The one on the right rushed into the doorway, but Blade was already chanting before his stubby dwarf feet had stopped. The retreating minotaur stood still while the other ran to meet the intruders.
Gruesome charged ahead of Pellien, pulling hammer and axe from his hips. He prepared himself to dodge the pike's deadly tip, then saw red swirls fill the bull's eyes as Blade worked his magic. The troll swung his weapons in deadly arcs at the beast's head and was rewarded with the crunch of bone and gush of blood. He yanked his axe from under its jaw and let the body fall to the floor. Magic coursed over the second minotaur as Erliga, Tarac and Pellien unleashed malevolent forces upon it. The bonedancer's others slashed and wailed at the helpless creature with reckless abandon. Gruesome rushed past the dying bull in search of more foes.
A short landing past the doorway led to a wide, spiraling set of stone steps, much like the ones they first encountered after they all dropped down the well. The only sounds were the thumps of armored viking feet, the clacking of skeletons and the gurgle of dying minotaurs. Pellien stopped beside the waiting berserker.
"After you, boy. You make a better first impression."
Gruesome flexed his broad shoulders and gritted his teeth. Behind them, a small army of minotaurs and enslaved topsiders. Before them, the unknown. He took his first step into their destiny.
To Be Continued