Barak Ironhand sat on the throne watching the scene of frantic activity. The quakes that plagued the area now for the last three months were steadily getting worse. Two days ago there had been one quite severe. The Blood Axe Clan holding had almost been destroyed in the last quake. The underground river had come through the cracked wall. The rescue workers had raced against the rising water to get the survivors out of the collapsed buildings. The cavern itself was badly damaged. As a result, many lives and valuable equipment was lost. The entrance had to be sealed to stop the water from flooding the whole Hold. Then he had heard that miners at Site Two had been attacked by some foul beast and wiped out. A patrol to the lower tunnels also met the same fate, and another dispatched to the Forge to investigate stories of intruders, was overdue. Other than a few outposts and the closer mines, the entire population was here now in his Hold. The two other subterranean cities had been abandoned as more creatures came through the damn Chaos Gate. His advisers had told him that the Gate touched the Chaos Plane, and the quakes grew stronger the longer the Gate was left open.
To make matters worse, the tunnel to the BloodHeartCave had been destroyed. Now, the only access to it was through the cavern of a pair of mating myvir, and maybe their young. One myvir was bad enough, but two in the time of the Blood Rage was just too much to wish on any rival. Barak had spent the whole of the day before with the Seer, reading the Chronicles of Truth and Justice. They had been written almost two thousand years ago. They foretold of two races replacing the one. Then there would come a time of death and destruction when even the bravest would not be strong enough to stand before the enemy. Countless number would be lost without the foe leaving any remains. Following these events, the writing told of how a stranger would walk the halls. One of the younger races, he would be the one who brought truth and justice with him. Well, as far as Barak was concerned, the elves and dwarves had replaced the Old Ones as the elder race. Then the chaos invasion was the death and destruction, and the disappearance of the surface dwarves fitted the third part. Now, there was supposed to be humans in the Forge. Barak didn’t need the roof to fall on him to know something was happening. Then, they heard an ominous grinding noise that stopped all the yelling and bickering. The candle wheel swayed from the ceiling and dust filtered down, covering the dwarves below. Now, there was real cause for alarm. Never in the Hold’s history, had it ever moved with an earthquake. The Gate had to be closed and soon. It was ironic, the bad earthquakes, the myvir and the chaos invasion and subsequent war, didn’t cause the confusion. It was the question of asking for a human’s help.
Barak fiddled with the long wiry beard tucked into his belt; it was almost gray now. But when some of the younger men had asked him to step down, Barak had called for the upstart to proclaim ‘his righteousness’ in single combat. The winner would be king and the loser would usually be buried. Since the Gate had opened, Barak had defended his throne four times. At two hundred and forty five years of age, he was still as strong as many of the younger men still in their prime. The double door banged open and a tired and bloody dwarf came in. He knelt before the throne and tapped the head of his hammer on the marble floor.
“Hail, Barak, High King of Dur-mor.”
“Hail, warrior,” the king answered the time-honored greeting.
The dwarf stood. “Barak, we found where a group has been camping in various buildings of the Forge.”
There was a general uproar, yelling and shouting. Barak smashed his hammerhead down on the stone step, the electrical snap and the smell of ozone brought instant silence.
“They touched none of the contents. They searched for the sealed tunnel into the Dark Reaches.”
Now there were surprised mummers and cries of madness, or prayers to the Maker.
The warrior continued. “Barak, they travel with dragon warriors and they carry the Cold Stone.”
The Hold erupted with yelling and more cries, soon there was fighting around the room. Again Barak’s hammer crashed down, and the lighting bolt actually discharged, arcing across the hall to blow a trophy of captured arms to splinters. Smoke and the heavy smell of ozone hung heavily in the hall.
“Is there more?” Barak asked he could see the look on the messenger’s face.
“My lord, there are chaos troops in the upper halls and the hill fort has been seized as well. Even now they battle with human mercenaries. My patrol ran into the soldiers as they found their way down. They too traveled into the Dark Reaches. We fought them. It was glorious; we killed twenty of the spawn. Only two of my men survived.”
Baraks eyes brimmed with tears of pride, eight dead dwarves for twenty chaos warriors.
“You have done well. After the healer finishes with you, come and sit at my right hand for our evening meal.”
The man straightened, his chest swelling with pride. “I must beg your forgiveness but I have one man wounded and we must bring our dead home.”
The king nodded. “Go then, and take our thanks with you.”
Barak turned to his general. “Gather some warriors, we hunt chaos prey.”
The dwarf dropped to his knee, and tapped his battle-axe on the floor striding from the room.
Barak sat down heavily; the chaos warlord would be the least of the human’s problems if they passed through the myvir cavern.
* * *
Manuel looked at his men as they crouched behind the rocks firing at the chaos troops in the hill fort. He could see bodies lying outside the walls where they had fallen, after arrows had found them. He kicked himself for not having brought more men. If he tried to force the wall with scouts and archers, they would be slaughtered. But time was running out and something had to be done.
He turned to a man nearby. “Soldier, can you get me the company commanders.”
“Yes, sir.” The man saluted with his arm across his chest and hurried off.
It was a few minutes later that the three men arrived. He explained what he wanted, the officers looked worried, but they were also determined. Pride ran deep, and none of the three men wanted to disappoint any other Black Arrow.
The archers’ lieutenant said. “If the need is that great that you would risk it with the men we have, then what we have, will have to be enough.”
It was said with such sincerity that Manuel almost faltered, but Brendan had to be given a chance, and now there were probably soldiers in the Forge as well.
Manuel kicked a rock in frustration. “Of all the stupid, senseless foul-ups.”
Every man in the small command felt the driving need to get moving. That time was precious and slipping away. The plan was almost ridiculously simple, as they didn’t have grapples and ropes and there wasn’t time to make ladders. The ten-foot wall wasn’t really that high. The men would literally build a ramp with their bodies for those behind to get over the wall. With luck, enough would survive to open the main gate. The archers took up position and targeted each wall. They didn’t want to give the defenders a hint of what was happening. The rest of the soldiers were hurriedly briefed. They didn’t seem all that surprised, but there were a few raised eyebrows. This time was the first time they were to be used as assault troops. They all quietly moved into position, while the archers kept the enemy’s heads down.
Manuel stood and looked at the small fort. There weren’t many defenders on the walls now. He nodded and the officers gave the orders, and the soldiers went running forward as fast and as silently as possible, no cries or yells. There was no alarm. The men actually made the wall. The first line leaned into the wood. The next grabbed their hips and leaned head down between the two. The third line ran lightly up their backs, and then they boosted the next man over the wall. As the first man rolled over the top, the alarm went up. Chaos warriors scrambled up the ramps. The first soldiers came off the wall, swords drawn and attacked, trying to hold the defenders on the ramp to give the rest of the humans time to get over the wall. The few sentries who were guarding the walls died from arrows as they ran to intercept the attackers. Soon, more troops were coming over the top. Now there were ten, soon twenty. Even though the chaos troops were armored, most had been wounded. The mercenary troops fought with grim determination. When one fell, another took their place with ferocity that they often forced the enemy back. Now, Black Arrows dropped into the courtyard, and rushed the enemy on the ramps. It became a bitter, no-holds barred, fight. The chaos troops knew they were already dead, but they would take as many of the humans with them as they could. They were buying the warlord time with their blood. More scouts came over the wall. The chaos warriors stopped trying to hold them on the battlement and joined the fight in the courtyard. Ten soldiers urged on by their sergeant headed for the main gate and the heavy wooden double doors. The chaos warriors were very few in number, but the survivors rallied and moved to head them off. But, more Black Arrows pressed forward, yelling and screaming. The defenders at the gates were hacked down. Four men dropped their weapons and put their shoulders into the heavy bar. When the wooden block was dropped to the ground, the gates were pulled from the inside, and pushed from the outside, and the few soldiers left surged in.
From the time the major had given the order, until the sudden silence falling on the courtyard, only ten minutes had passed. The chaos troops died to a man. Manuel ordered the dead enemy to be carried outside where they were laid in a row. Manuel lost twenty-two men with another thirty-five injured. The butcher’s bill should have been worse, but what had worked in the attackers’ favor was, all of their enemies had been wounded.
Manuel saw the sergeant who had made it to the gate. “Sergeant!” he called out.
The man ran over saluting. “Sir?”
“What’s your name?”
“Wirrow, sir, sergeant, third squad, troop eight.”
“Well you’re Lieutenant Wirrow now, your company commander was killed,” Manuel said sadly.
“Yes, sir,” the man said and straightened in pride.
“Take five men; find the entrance to the Forge. I want a quick scout.”
“Yes, sir.” The new lieutenant ran off swiftly.
“Lieutenant James?” Manuel called out.
A tired looking bloody man came trotting forward.
“Secure the gate, then, get the wounded cared for.”
The man skidded to a stop. “Aye, sir.” He went off again at a much-reduced rate, calling out orders.
Manuel looked at the towering mountain. He wouldn’t take everyone below; a lot of the men weren’t in any shape to be going anywhere. He didn’t have any idea where Brendan was, but he hoped the man would be able to cope with the few chaos troops that had gotten away.