Chapter 4 - Initiation
Dawn found the group of adventurers already on the move, quietly working their way back to the stronghold. The dead orc had gathered flies, and a few scavengers had already been nibbling at his extremities during the night. Several fingers were missing, as well as his right ear. Elbreth swallowed hard and kept her eyes forward as she stepped over the body for the third time.
Again, eerily, it was as though nothing had changed. When they reached the intersection where the spectre waited around the corner, Elbreth's heart began to beat more quickly.
"Just a minute, I'll be right back," she spoke low to Cora, who was right behind her.
"Elbreth!" The halfling hissed after her.
Heedless, the half-elf darted down the narrow corridor toward the spectre's room. Determination marked her face. On nearing the lowered portcullis, the girl's footsteps slowed. Blue light still danced along the far wall, moving with a rhythm she now knew was the weaving of the undead spectre, back and forth, over its human remains. Slowly, silently, she crept to the iron gateway. Grasping the bars with her hands, she leaned forward until she could see the spectre. Immediately, its head turned, locking eyes with Elbreth; its hollow sockets bore down heavily on the girl's pale grey eyes. Although frightened, the half-elf couldn't bring herself to look away. The spectre drifted closer, it's jaw opening, sharp teeth glimmering with their own blue flame.
A hand clamped down tightly on Elbreth's shoulder, and her heart leapt high in her chest. She was pulled backwards, the strength of that one hand loosening her grip on the iron bars of the portcullis.
"What do you think you're doing, child?" Immeral's voice was stern. His tone said he was unimpressed, and believed her to be foolish. He let go of her shoulder after turning her to face him.
"I just wanted to see. . . ." Elbreth's voice trailed off. Looking at her uncle's face, the question was rhetorical. Elbreth lowered her eyes, but her voice maintained its independence. "I'm sorry, it was dangerous of me to run off by myself."
"Let's rejoin the others, then, hina." His voice softer now, the elf guided Elbreth back to the party from behind, staying between her and the unhealthily fascinated gaze of the spectre.
Returning to the group, Elbreth was met with Cora's anger and Erkie's boredom.
"What was that about? You could have gotten yourself killed!" The halfling waved her arms in the air. Elbreth raised her chin proudly, ignoring the question and returning to her place in front of the diminutive blacksmith.
"Can we get going? We don't need to waste any more time." The gnome looked pointedly over his shoulder in Elbreth's direction.
"Yes, let's continue." Immeral once more taking the lead, the group continued down the passageway.
Glowing lichen. Gravel floor. I'm really not that much of a burden, am I? Am I contributing? I stood watch last night. Granted, nothing happened. Glowing lichen. Gravel floor. Really, I must have some value to the party. I guess I am rather a tagalong at the moment, aren't I? I really need to thank these fine people for what they're doing to help us. Glowing lichen. Gravel floor. Right turn. I know, once I get back to Carhouth, I'll have them rewarded in an official presentation! I must! I'll find some way to thank them! Elbreth followed Erkie's footsteps closely, but her thoughts drifted elsewhere. She barely noticed the small empty room with strange words about the Dragon and Unicorn, its door still standing open. It wasn't until they drew near the room in which they'd fought the orog that the situation grabbed her attention.
Immeral had stopped, his hand raised for silence. Through the broken door, one thick voice and two high-pitched squeaky voices were exclaiming. They'd just discovered the remains of yesterday's orog.
"Damn it!" Cora muttered, "I hate fighting in the dark!"
Immeral motioned for a hasty retreat, and the party sped as silently as they could back down the hallway.
"In here!" Erkie hissed, ducking into the small empty room.
Elbreth followed quickly, staying as far back from the doorway as she could, tucking herself into a corner and drawing her bow. Fumbling, she found an arrow and managed to load it onto her bowstring. Cora joined them, nocking her own arrow and standing with her back to centre of the Dragon and Unicorn wall. Erkie stood just behind the door, rapier drawn, Immeral taking the other side and closing the door behind him. With a flourish, he pulled both his long swords from their scabbards.
"I'm pretty sure that was a half-ogre," Erkie informed them quietly. "Or at least something as large. And some goblins, sounded like."
"Stay clear of the door and you won't get shot," Cora intoned evenly from Elbreth's left.
"Let's hope they just pass us by." Immeral stood ready, steel gleaming in the cold light of the phosphorescent moss.
Elbreth shook. Her heart was pounding. Her ears imagined sounds in the thick silence of the stone room. Sweat trickled down her back and her arm began to ache from holding her bowstring taut.
Voices in the corridor. Angry. Scuffling footsteps outside the door.
Suddenly a loud sneeze erupted beside Elbreth. The girl looked askance at the halfling. Cora sheepishly met the half-elf's gaze, her sleeve to her nose. Cora's other hand still held the nocked arrow in place, but the bow was no longer drawn.
"Sorry!" The halfling mouthed. Before she could draw her bow again, there came a terrific clobbering at the door, and it flew open on its hinges. Erkie stepped back to avoid being hit as it swung hard.
The gaping doorway was filled with the huge form of a half-ogre, tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, a large battleaxe glinting in his hand. Roaring with fury, spittle flying from his thin lips and around his small, pointed tusks, he stepped forward. From behind him, a pair of arrows whizzed into the room, pinging harmlessly off the back wall, too high to catch Cora. Two pairs of wide-set red eyes poked from behind the half-ogre's knees. Sharp, pointed teeth grimaced wildly beneath wide pointed noses. Goblins. Cora drew back her bow and let fly, catching the half-ogre in the thigh. Simultaneously, a flash of steel came from the left, behind the door, and another hollar from the half-ogre. Erkie looked determined, unfazed by the size of this challenger.
Once again firing around the half-ogre, the two goblins took aim. Elbreth realised, too late, that one of those arrows was aimed at her. Drawing back her own bow, but not taking the time to aim, her arrow flew harmlessly wide. Just then, a fiery pain burst just beneath her collar bone. Elbreth gasped and looked down. The goblin's arrow had hit, the dark wood with its black fletching protruding from her skin; a foreign object, surreal. Head spinning, Elbreth attempted to focus on the battle at hand.
Her uncle was standing over the body of the goblin who'd shot her, his bloodied torso run through. Swords flashing, he now fought the half-ogre, parrying the strikes of the battleaxe smoothly and fairly gliding away from his lumbering assailant. Cora was dropping her bow, drawing her sword and charging in to join Immeral. Erkie was just finishing off the second goblin. Taking a cue from Cora, Elbreth dropped her own bow and drew her dagger, joining the others in the fray.
The half-ogre looked brutish. His face was covered in spatters of blood, his legs were a mass of stickiness, and slashes marked up his arms and one side of his ribcage. He was surrounded now, and Elbreth saw resoluteness in his face. He was not going to back down. Eyes wide and brow furrowed, he took aim. Battleaxe high, eyes locked on Elbreth's face, he seemed to be ignoring the stabs coming from his left and right.
Elbreth imagined herself his prize. I think not, her eyes narrowed. Turning her dagger in her hand, she slashed as hard as she could across his exposed belly. The dagger sank in down to the hilt, and a wash of dark, warm fluid bathed across Elbreth's face and chest. She recoiled, spitting, as the copper tang of blood hit her tongue. Shock registered on the half-ogre's face before he crumpled to the ground at the half-elf's feet. For a moment, there was silence.
"Yeah!" Erkie pumped a fist in the air. "Now that's a dead half-ogre! Great job, little lady!"
"Good one, nicely done." Cora clapped Elbreth on the back. She then noticed the goblin's arrow still protruding from Elbreth's shoulder. "Gods, you're hurt!"
Immeral's eyes zeroed in on Elbreth, scanning her quickly for wounds. "Anything more than the arrow?" His eyebrows furrowed as he stepped around their felled foe, "You're so covered in gore, I can't tell which blood is yours and which is the half-ogre's."
"No, it's just. . ." Elbreth winced, the pain taking her breath. "Just the arrow. I'm fine otherwise." She sat down against the back wall, bracing herself against the stone.
"All right," Immeral looked around, "how are you two?"
"Nothing new," Erkie gingerly flexed his wounded shoulder.
"I'm good," Cora was using her sword to rip strips of cloth from the clothing of the goblins.
Immeral, kneeling in front of Elbreth, examined the wound closely. His fingers delicately prodded where the shaft protruded from her angry skin.
"This will hurt, child," he warned.
With the flat of his hand, he pressed down firmly around the arrow; a wave of pain and heat radiated across Elbreth's body as, with a swift tug, he pulled the arrow straight out. Elbreth's brain barely registered the long, narrow, bloodied tip of the armour-piercing arrow - her mind preoccupied with pain. The pressure of her uncle's hand was a sharpness in the midst of a sea of angry throbbing.
Now Cora was back, her small fingers laying a water-sodden bandage over the gaping hole and wrapping and then tying tight a few layers of dry cloth. The pressure of her uncle's hand released, replaced by the firm tension of the cloth binding. Elbreth felt the room tilt and closed her eyes for a moment. On opening them, she found herself staring at the gruesome visage of the deceased half-ogre. His face contorted, the splatter of his own entrails covering his torso, he looked a nightmare. Involuntarily, Elbreth began to gag and, not wanting to chance soiling herself or her caregivers, turned and retched into the cold stone corner of the room.
She felt a small hand on her back, and heard Cora's voice. "That's all right, now. There you go, girl."
"I killed him," Elbreth said weakly, turning back to look at her uncle. His eyes held a gravity she couldn't read. She looked down again at the still form of the half-ogre.
"You had to, hina," Immeral's voice was gentle. "He would have killed you. There is no shame in defending yourself."
Elbreth nodded, still staring at the gore strewn across the stone floor. Then she looked at herself. She was covered. Her hair was a sticky, bloody, mass. She was sure her face was, too. The leather breastplate she was wearing was coated with the thick, deep crimson blood of her enemy. In fact, it was nearly black.
"Can I - can I wash?" Elbreth looked around, still dazed, as though expecting to see a basin of water somewhere nearby.
"Here," Cora poured a little water from her waterskin over an extra strip of cloth and handed it to the half-elf.
Frantically, almost feverishly, Elbreth began to scrub her face with the rag. Then her hands. Eventually, her frenetic motions began to slow and she began to breathe at an even pace. Finally, as best she could, she used the cloth to wipe the worst of the blood from the strands of her long, dark hair. As she did so, Immeral stood. She watched him gather her dagger and bow from where she'd dropped them. A twinge of guilt stayed her hand for a moment. I shouldn't be so careless with my weapons, she thought. If I'm going to be adventuring, I need to take care of them properly. Elbreth shook out the rag, looking absently for a cleaner corner.
"Is the bow okay? I shouldn't have dropped it like that," the young half-elf acknowledged. Her uncle didn't speak, but handed the short bow and dagger to her for inspection. Conscious of Immeral's measuring gaze, Elbreth examined her weapons closely. Although a little spattered from the carnage, her bow was undamaged. The string was free of blood. She huffed a little sigh of relief, slinging it onto her back before looking at her knife. The weapon that made her into a killer.
Her dagger was coated in viscid red fluid, pommel to tip. It was almost as though she'd dunked it into a vat of blood. Pursing her lips, Elbreth used the soiled cloth in her hand to wipe off most of the gore from the knife, then used the hem of her own cloak to clean the rest of it. Immeral nodded and then turned to survey the room.
"Well, then, shall we move on?" He looked pointedly at Erkie and Cora.
"I'm game," the gnome folded his arms across his chest. He had been watching Elbreth.
"Yep, I'm good to go, too." Cora had been systematically searching the bodies and had pocketed a few coins from their belt pouches.
"Excellent," Immeral smiled thinly. His eyes were sad, Elbreth thought. Or, at least, sadder than they used to be. Sheathing her dagger, Elbreth took her place behind her uncle as they moved to continue down the quiet corridor. Once more, they left the door to the small room wide open. Once more they readied their weapons. Once more they approached the room where they left the dead orog.