Chapter 3 - Dwarven Stronghold
The air was dusty and stale, reminding Elbreth of an unused attic. Light cast by the open doorway quickly dimmed, and Elbreth found her eyes getting used to the pale light of the passageway. It was a corridor, hewn from the rock, and just wide enough for her outstretched arms. Her eyes followed a trail of lichen up the cracking walls to the rough ceiling. The mossy plants were giving off a faint, green luminescence of their own. This is like the fey kingdoms I've heard about in bedtime stories!
Following close behind her uncle, she could see little of the path ahead. Cora was immediately behind her, followed by Erkie, the two smaller party members blocked some of the wan light filtering in from the outside. There were no torches on the walls, no sconces of oil to light. The further they went from the doorway, the darker it grew.
"Okay, seriously now, I can't see a thing in here!" Cora sounded irritated.
"But, I can see just fine," Elbreth replied, turning to look back at the halfling. Cora's pupils were wide in her scowling face, an arrow nocked formidably.
"It's because you're a halfling," Immeral offered matter-of-factly. "The magic in the elven and gnomish bloodlines gives them better visual acuity, and apparently Elbreth inherited more than just the colour of her father's eyes." He didn't turn around, but continued forward at a steady pace. Elbreth scurried to catch up, filing away questions to ask another time.
Not ten minutes passed before they came to a junction, a passage branching off to their left. Immeral paused.
"If we're going to find this hobgoblin, we're going to need to scour the place." Erkie's sword and face eerily reflected the pale green of the lichen.
Immeral nodded decisively before turning down the new hallway. Just a handful of strides and the path turned again, this time to the right, before the high elf suddenly stopped. They were blocked. A blackened portcullis was lowered across their way and, from what Elbreth could see, there was no mechanism on this side of the doorway.
Through the gate was, what seemed to be, a large room. The green lichen was markedly absent from its walls, although Elbreth could still see enough to tell that the room had a higher ceiling. A bright blue light flickered back and forth on one of the walls inside the chamber, almost the way firelight does, only colder.
"Hey, what's in there?" Elbreth pushed her way past her uncle and grabbed onto the old bars of the portcullis, pressing her face up against it in an effort to see into the room.
"Hina!" Immeral spoke sharply, but it was too late. A tortured, airy scream filled the air, interrupting anything more he might have said.
Startled, Elbreth's eyes gazed in terror at the creature within. Blue light crackled along the humanoid form, its angry, featureless face turned in their direction so that it seemed to be staring right at the half-elf girl. Empty sockets and gaping jaw only added to the horror, as did its claws and razor-sharp teeth. Vapourous, its movements were fluid. Its bottom half was comprised of blue and purple fog, and it hovered over what looked to be its own human remains. A hand jerked her back from the iron bars. It was her uncle.
"Thank the gods for this gate," he muttered, a strange tension in his voice. He shoved Elbreth behind him and peered into the room, cautiously.
"What is that?" Cora stepped up beside him.
"It's a spectre," Erkie spoke from the back, "an anguished spirit that destroys any form of life it finds. The only way to stop it is to kill it." Another scream from the lifeless humanoid figure.
Elbreth peeked past her uncle's shoulder, the spectre immediately locked eyes with her again. "Let's go," she whispered.
"I agree," Immeral said grimly, "I don't really feel like fighting something undead today." He looked once around the inaccessible area, "It looks as though there's one other doorway in and out of this room, let's pray it isn't smart enough to find its way around." A shiver crept down Elbreth's spine.
Turning around, the company backtracked to the original hallway, Erkie in the lead, the women in the middle, and Immeral bringing up the rear. Once there, they turned left to continue the way they had been going.
The air moistened comfortably, as they progressed, and became cleaner. Less dust. Healthier lichen. Even Cora said she was able to see a little further than Erkie's head. Just over the gnome's tousled mop of hair, Elbreth could see a bend in the hallway. Erkie slowed, listening, his rapier ready. Cora followed suit by drawing her arrow back and taking up a position against the opposite wall.
Immeral's hand held Elbreth firmly by the shoulder, ostensibly to keep her from running ahead. I suppose I deserve that, the half-elf thought to herself. I need to remember that this is a real adventure, not a story. People die. Being foolish could get someone hurt. She shook off her uncle's hand and pulled out her short bow.
Since discovering the spectre, they'd been marching much more quietly. Now that they'd reached a corner that could be hiding something, they were almost silent. Erkie peered around the corner, then waved the group forward. The way was clear. Rounding the corner, Elbreth saw a wooden door directly ahead and the corridor continuing off to their right. The gnome was listening at the door.
"Nothing," he reported, his voice low. Erkie tried the handle. The door didn't budge. Wordlessly, he pulled a ring of lockpicks from his pocket and began working at the latch. Immeral moved to stand on his right, looking down the unexplored hallway, bow at the ready.
Cora put her back to the corner, looking down the way they'd come. "Hey, Elbreth, would you mind being my eyes?"
Nodding, the young half-elf joined the halfling against the wall. "How far can you see?" Elbreth questioned.
"About ten feet," came the grim answer. "So, if someone starts coming down this hallway, you're going to have to tell me distances."
"Right, got it."
There were a few minutes of silence until, finally, there came a satisfied grunt from Erkie. Turning her head, Elbreth saw the gnome edge open the door cautiously, sword in hand.
"It's clear." He drew back his head, pushing the door open all the way and stepping inside. Cora and Elbreth followed him in, with Immeral coming last.
The room was small, only about ten-foot square, and was literally empty. The stone ceiling matched the height of the hallway and the walls were covered in glowing moss. The only thing that gave the room any character were the words painted on the far wall.
"'I'd rather be at the Dragon and Unicorn,' what's that supposed to mean?" Cora walked up to the wall, examining the dark lettering written just above her head.
"Are they painted in blood?" Elbreth stayed near the door, her back to the wall. Her voice tremored a little. I'm not going anywhere near that.
"I can't tell," Cora mused. Erkie walked up beside her, craning his neck comically to take a closer look at the inscription.
Elbreth looked at Immeral. Her uncle stood nearby, his back to the wood of the open door. His lips were pursed, but his eyes were expressionless.
"Huh," Erkie said. "Well," the gnome shrugged and turned around, "no use staying here, let's move on."
Immeral was first out the door; Elbreth was close behind him. The half-elf turned to watch Cora leave the room, followed by Erkie, who hesitated briefly before leaving the door wide open.
It was nearly ten minutes more before the corridor ended in another wooden door, this time without an alternate direction in which to proceed. Immeral slowed to a halt, and Erkie moved forward to inspect the door.
"It's not locked," he said, peering at the locking mechanism. Suddenly, the gnome stood up a little straighter. "There's someone in here," he whispered. "I think they're asleep. I can hear snoring." The whole party fell silent. Sure enough, the sound of heavy breathing mingled with the occasional snort could be heard through the old wood.
Each readying a weapon and preparing to dash in, they looked at Erkie, who pushed at the door abruptly. It remained fast, a corner of the old wood springing back and forth with the energy of the shove and making a significant clatter. From inside, Elbreth could hear a heavy snort and movement.
"Nalkriuk'uk avhere?" A deep, rough, orcish voice called out from beyond the door.
"He's asking who's here," Immeral translated softly. Then, deepening his voice, he answered, "Ul dar iuk ukavuck. Sha!" Then, back to his companions, "I said the door was stuck again." From inside there came a scuffle, a scrape of wood on stone, and the sound of metal on metal.
"Vuuh farr avhe dar farr avhe counav ro avhree." The voice was much closer now, and a hand fumbled with the handle on the other side.
Immeral placed a shoulder to the door, "We're going to shove the door on the count of three."
The high elf barely had time to translate before the large orcish voice could be heard counting, "Nii!" Erkie quickly added his shoulder to the door, as did Cora. "...avwo!" Elbreth stood back with an arrow nocked, "...avhree!" Suddenly the door gave way and Erkie tumbled in, only to fall at the feet of an enormous orc.
He was easily nine feet tall, had dark bluish-green skin, sported extremely large tusks, and had his long black hair pulled up into a topknot. He was wider than the doorway, and would have had to angle himself to walk through it. Black iron plate mail covered his body, and in one hand he held an ominous-looking greataxe. Although his features were difficult for Elbreth to read, she was pretty sure he was both surprised and very angry.
Immeral and Cora both stepped back from the doorway and let arrows fly, the elf's arrow catching the orc between plates of iron, but the smith's glancing off. Erkie scrambled to draw his sword from his fallen position, Elbreth stepped past the large orc, backing away to a corner, before the doorway erupted into a flurry of activity as the startled orc attempted to regain control of the situation. Suddenly the orc's greataxe was soaring in great, fell arcs towards his attackers. Erkie took the first of those hits, reeling back as it sliced into his arm. The second swung high over Cora's head, and landed in the wood of the door, sticking firm. Grunting, the orc began pulling at it with both hands, the spittle of frustration forming on his lips. Elbreth took the opportunity to loose her own arrow, catching the large orc in an exposed part of his neck. He whirled toward her, glaring. One hand freed his axe while the other hand raised to the arrow wound. A shiver coursed through Elbreth's body.
Just then, the orc contorted in pain as bright snaps of energy crackled across his body. The young half-elf looked to see her uncle's hand outstretched, touching the orc on his armoured shoulder, tendrils of energy lancing out from where his palm made contact. Immeral's face was hard and cold. Infuriated, the orc swung back to face the high elf. The first blow from the greataxe landed solidly against Immeral's ribs, winding the elf and loosening some of the links in his scale mail. The second swing went wide, glancing off Immeral's shoulder. The weight of it twisted the orc around, exposing his armpit to Cora who by this time had drawn her broadsword and was waiting for just such an opportunity. Leaping up to gain height, the halfling launched herself up and drove the point of her sword into the exposed tissue. The orc roared in pain. Erkie's own rapier was flashing, finding weaknesses in leg armour and unbalancing their enemy with aggravating and painful distraction. Immeral reached out again, his palm landing solidly on the iron breastplate of the orc's armour. Once again, energy laced from the elf's hand across the great body of the orc, contorting it. After a few seconds, the orc's eyes rolled back and he fell lifeless to the floor.
Elbreth stared at her uncle, her mouth felt dry. "What did you do?" Her uncle looked up at her from the dead orc, the remnants of a sneer fading.
"Are you hurt, hina?" His voice, as usual, carried little emotion, but his eyes scanned her for wounds.
"I'm fine," she shook her head briefly. "But what was that? What did you do to him?"
"Most elves have a little magic, mine happens to be a weapon." Immeral spoke matter-of-factly. "Orcs are the scum of the earth. Honourless and cruel, they add nothing of value to life. For all their extra strength and intelligence, orogs," the elf nudged the arm of the dead with his toe, "are no different than their lesser brothers."
Orog, Elbreth filed the name away for future reference. An intelligent orc with extra strength and, therefore, likely an authority among their tribesmen. Cora was helping Erkie bind his shoulder; the blood flow wasn't heavy. Her uncle was crouching over the dead orc, methodically looking through bags and pouches. Elbreth looked around the room. It was mid-sized, probably about fifteen feet squared. The one corner had a large three-legged stool, which must have been where the orog was sitting and had fallen asleep. The rest of the room was empty and featureless. Same incandescent lichen, same hewn stone. The wall just behind her, at right angles to the door they'd come in through, was an archway that seemed to lead to another hallway.
"So what now?" Erkie and Cora were finished and standing by the door. Erkie's voice sounded grim. "Do we move on? Or find a spot to rest?" The gnome looked at Immeral, "To be perfectly honest, today's taken a lot out of me."
Immeral nodded, looking at Erkie but handing a few coins to Cora. "Yes, a good night's sleep would be beneficial." He turned to focus on the halfling. "Cora, why don't you be our party treasurer?"
Cora grinned, "Sure!" She seemed delighted with her new job, and quickly stashed away the few plundered coins into her coin purse.
"So, where do we rest, then?" Elbreth asked. She didn't relish the idea of staying in the stronghold overnight, but didn't want to say as much.
"What about just outside this fortress?" Cora offered. "We could set up camp just inside the trees, and watch if anyone is coming or going."
"I'm good with that," Erkie nodded curtly, standing.
"Very well, then," Immeral agreed. "Let's head back out the way we came."
Elbreth breathed a quiet sigh of relief, shouldered her bow, and began following the others out the door. The way back was uneventful. Nothing had changed behind them - the same pale green lichen gave off the same soft glow, their footsteps padded a soft cadence on the gravel accompanied by the squeaking and jingling of armour. Adrenaline gone, the young half-elf found herself impossibly sleepy. The long trek back down the hallway only grew interesting as they neared the intersection near where the spectre had taken up residence. Automatically the party slowed, seemingly wary of the undead spirit that guarded the gated room just beyond. While she knew the spectre was behind the portcullis, Elbreth felt her chest tighten and her breath come in shallow gasps. Just a few more steps, quietly now. At any moment, she was sure she would hear the blood-curdling screech of the spectre, and the fine hairs on the back of her neck bristled at the thought of it.
It wasn't until they actually reached the open maw of the stronghold that Elbreth began to breathe normally again. The fresh air banished ghostly thoughts, making them seem nonsensical in the bright orange of an evening sunset. The pungent odour of deceased orc assaulted her as she stepped through the doorway and over his stiffened and outstretched arm. Still cautiously silent, the adventurers spread out slightly. Erkie's head was cocked, listening; Cora's bow was drawn, and Immeral's eye darted about, taking in everything with as much adroitness as a hawk. Elbreth, from the back of the party, began scanning, too. The gods forbid something happen to us because I'm not alert! Especially when we've come so far!
Reaching a more heavily treed area about halfway down the glade, yet easily within sight of the stronghold entrance, Erkie dropped his backpack to the ground with a weary thud.
"My vote's for here," his voice was tired, and he was obviously favouring the injured shoulder as he attempted to pull rations from his bag.
"Yep! This is about perfect!" Cora approved, hands on hips as she looked around.
The poplars served to mask their camp from casual passersby, and hopefully was enough cover to protect them from both being seen and from an attack. Elbreth looked around the knot of trees they'd chosen, her thoughts tuning out the slow chatter of her companions. There was an unclaimed fallen log nearby. That will do nicely, she thought, no need to soil my dress by sitting on the ground. Placing her backpack carefully on the leaf-strewn grass and removing her cloak, she spread the heavy burgundy cloth across the log, and perched.
Immeral was sitting cross-legged on the ground, his back against one of the larger trees. His pack was open beside him, and he was munching on a handful of nuts. "Who wants to take first watch?"
Erkie had plopped down beside his backpack, still keeping his one arm as still as he could, and was tearing hungrily into some salted pork. Cora had found a stump, and sat swinging her legs as she chewed on a hard corner of some journey bread. Her heels thumped hollowly against the old wood.
"I can take the first watch," the halfling volunteered, taking a swig from her canteen.
"Okay, I'll go second; hina, do you want third watch?" Her uncle was casually picking out choice pieces from the dried berries he was now eating.
Elbreth nodded, "Of course, I'll do whatever needs to be done." She pulled some of her own rations from her bag and laid them out on her lap: a few nuts, some dried apple, and a piece of salted venison.
"Good," her uncle approved. "Are you okay with taking the dawn watch, then, Erkie?"
The gnome nodded, his face grateful. "I appreciate the uninterrupted sleep."
Elbreth sighed; it felt like the horror was behind them. They had done good. As they continued to settle in for the night, rolling out their bedrolls and wiping down or oiling their equipment, the young half-elf decided she enjoyed adventuring. She pulled a small wooden chest from her backpack and opened it. Inside she kept the more refined tools of her past life: several sheets of paper, her pen and ink, some sealing wax, some oiled leather cases, a lamp with oil, and some soap and perfume. One of the oiled leather cases carried her patent of nobility, proof of who she was, should she ever need it.
At the bottom of the chest rested a small, leatherbound book; her father's journal. Turning past the pages covered in her father's bold hand, she took up her pen and, in the quickly fading light of dusk, began to write. Someday, she thought, it might be worth knowing what it took to return to Carhouth.