Oath of the Fallen
Bukkreg wasn’t all that much smarter than any other orc, per say, but in their terms, intelligence wasn’t what mattered. Size and brawn were the only things that registered in their tiny minds, and that was what made him the Boss for his group of followers. Besides, he had someone else to do the thinking for him, that niggling little voice in the back of his head that whispered things to him, ripe with promises of strength, immortality… Power. He was touched by Gork or Mork, his followers supposed, perhaps even both, though some argued that they were one of the same. It could be the only reason that he had risen so fast, and led them to so many victories.
What neither Bukkreg, nor any of his followers, knew is that the voice in his head belonged not to Gork nor Mork, nay, not even of any of the other numerous gods of the world, but to a dragon. The altar at which they left numerous offerings, which always disappeared in the middle of the night, was set at the entrance to a cave which always seemed to be conveniently nearby, one which the orcs had no wish to venture into, or even closer than need be. The curious that had ventured in, or had waited in hiding near the altar, trying to catch sight of their great god, had disappeared, never to return. In truth, the bones piled just inside were warning enough by this time, especially since Bukkreg had taken to leaving troublemakers staked out next to the altar, unable to escape.
The dragon, Zuilikrazigar, had lived in this portion of the World’s Edge Mountain for centuries, having seen the rise and fall of the various tribes, and then kingdoms, of mankind, the sundering of the mountains that saw many dwarf holds lost, and the rise and swell of the tides of Chaos were like ripples in a pond to him. When the orc tribe had ventured near his cave, he saw an opportunity. Why waste his time, and perhaps even his life, precious as it was, when he could just as easily “encourage” these primitives to do the work for him? He had already scouted out the surrounding area, perhaps three hundred miles square, making note of all the changes that had occurred since he had last woken and roamed about, pillaging, burning, and eating all in his path. He had only retreated when, after years of terrorizing the countryside below, he had caught wind of a trio of Grail Knights that decided to test their lances on his scale. It wasn’t that he was a cowardly dragon, though he had been years younger at the time, but in truth, he could probably have wiped them out easily. It was a guided caution that had allowed him to live this long, and he wasn’t about to chance fate and have it all end. Yes, enlisting the orcs, without their knowledge, was a wise idea. No one would ever think to look beyond them, and if they got wiped out in the process, it didn’t matter.
It hadn’t taken long to find a mind with the right qualities within the orc tribe. The leader at the time had been a large Black Orc named Murizek, and favor for him had begun to wane in light of a string of unlucky defeats against a rival orc tribe. They had been forced up into the mountains, and had camped a short distance from the cave, where the infighting began. In the end, Zuilikrazigar had decided on the young Choppa, Bukkreg, and, deciding that a small investment in the Choppa was necessary, Zuilikrazigar fished around in the pile of gold, armor, weapons and jewels until he found a pair of claws that had snapped off in his younger days, and a few shed scales. Even parted from the dragon, these would serve as strong weapons and armament for the young orc, and if properly applied, could possibly even extend the young orc’s life. Insinuating himself into Bukkreg’s mind, he whispered the promises of power that would be granted if the orc followed his instructions.
Bukkreg had heard the first whispering in his head mere hours after they had stopped in the grove of pines. The warband had stopped at the orders of Warboss Murizek, and set about felling trees for a fire. Glaring at the Warboss, he laid into a nearby pine with his rusted blades, notching huge chunks of wood from the tree as he vented his frustration. They wouldn’t be going any further this night, no matter where they were going. Gork and Murizek only knew that. This was not how things were supposed to be going, and it was all Murizek’s fault. The tree cracked loudly, announcing its demise, but not all were wise or swift enough to get out of the path of the falling tree, and a pair of goblins was crushed beneath the thick trunk and branches. Several of the orcs roared with laughter until they were thumped over the head by Murizek. “Getz da fire going, you gitz!” The Warboss roared. “We iz gonna camp here tonight!” The laughing orcs glared at him briefly, then started chopping away at the fallen pine, sending wood chips flying.
A short time later and a sizable bonfire was burning in what was now a clearing, the ruined corpses of the pine trees now mostly serving as firewood or a place to sit. The band caroused loudly, quickly draining the small reserve of grog they had left, and fights began over even the smallest skin of it.
Off in the dimmer edges of the firelight sat Bukkreg, grinding his teeth and glaring at Murizek, oblivious to the random fights breaking out or the laughter at others’ misfortune. A whisper came in his ear, just noticeable over the din of the warband. He quickly stood, whirling around, his weapons finding their place in his hands. The whisper continued soothing him, beckoning him away from the clearing. Stealing a glance at the warband and the bright bonfire, Bukkreg slipped into the tree line and disappeared into the black night.
The whisper kept on, guiding him this way and that. Several times he tripped over a root or rock and fell, cursing loudly as he picked himself up. It didn’t take long to get where he was being led though, and he knew he was at the end of the journey when he stepped into another large clearing, and the whispers stopped.
Mannsleib was a bright white disk in the sky, beaming its rays down into the clearing and illuminating everything. Bukkreg could see quite clearly now, and a short distance before him, something glittered from atop a large rock. He approached it slowly, cautiously trying to make out what it was. The rock was taller than he could see over up close, so after shoving his weapons into the crude belt around his waist, he clambered up. There, on the rock before him, lay a treasure like none he had ever seen. Suddenly the whispers returned with surprising force, stronger, more powerful, and commanding. In a daze, Bukkreg flopped down, picking up a few of the items before him, and set to work.
Morning dawned on the sleeping orc warband, but they slumbered on, oblivious to the first rays of sun touching the clearing. Their drunken carousing and fights had lasted long into the night, and most had only fallen asleep a few short hours ago. The only movement in the camp was a pair of goblins that were running from orc to dozing orc, filching items here and there, their high pitched cackles filling the newly formed clearing. As they drew close to Warboss Murizek, one of the goblins glanced malevolently at his compatriot, and stuck his foot out. The other goblin tripped, and with a startled screech, landed smack on the Murizek’s face.
The warboss roared in anger at his sleep being disturbed, and quickly snatched up the offending goblin. The one that had stuck his foot out squealed in terror and ran. He didn’t get very far, as Murizek flung the goblin in his hand, knocking the runner flat. Others were beginning to wake, rising to stare at the ruckus as Murizek grabbed his huge battle axe and flung it at the two goblins heaped on top of each other, bisecting them both. Murizek grinned – surely this was a good omen of their luck changing?
A roar shattered the silence, and Murizek looked up to see an orc at the far end of the clearing with weapons held high. No one had missed Bukkreg in the night, and if the warband had moved on sooner, it was likely that one less orc would ever have been noticed. It was hard not to notice him now, with the sunlight reflecting off of the dragon scale armor covering his body, or the two sharp talons in his hands seeming to absorb all light.
Murizek’s eyes widened as Bukkreg roared again, smashing his weapons together, and charged. Growling, Murizek bounded forward and snatched his axe up from the goblin corpses. With a savage roar of his own, he met Bukkreg head on, swinging his axe with primal fury.
In the end, it was the size of the great axe that spelled Murizek’s doom. Easily seeing the oncoming blade, Bukkreg stepped to the left and inside of the swing, lashing out with the razor sharp dragon’s talons. They punched holes in his opponent’s ramshackle armor as if it were made of paper, and the warboss suddenly found himself on the defensive, slowly coming to realize the threat he was facing. He did not have long to contemplate this however, as Bukkreg unleashed a rage-borne flurry of attacks, smashing through desperate parries. Moments later, the dismembered and headless corpse of Murizek struck the ground.
Bukkreg raised his weapons and roared. “We’s is done running! Get yer lazy asses up, we’s is going to go face smash da Face Smasha!” Most of the orcs had risen by now, and Bukkreg moved through the clearing, planting a boot into the sides of those that hadn’t, repeating his call to war.
The sun hadn’t even gone halfway in its traverse through the sky when Zuilikrazigar, winging high overhead, spotted the warband, now under the command of Bukkreg, they were heading towards the camp of Ogli da Face Smasha, feeling assured of victory despite the fact that they had been defeated by the same foe only a few short days prior.
Fifty miles to the north, in the Halls of the Silvershield, Haegan Silvershield, commander of the dwarf hold’s Ironbreaker Guard, listened to the reports of the same warband and the strange coup d’état that had occurred that morning. Lookouts had spotted the band the day prior as they moved in and destroyed the grove of pines. He had intended to take a force to deal with them, wipe them out. Now it seemed that he would be saved the trouble, as the latest reports had the warband racing north and west, out of the mountains. It would be impossible to catch them on foot now, even if he had wanted to, and he was loathe to send either of the hold’s two precious gyrocopters.
The only thing that bothered him was one lone report that stood out from all the others. A single lookout had thought he had spotted a dragon flying high in the clouds above the warband, but no others had stepped forward to corroborate the report. Still, it bore some looking into, and he sent word to the lookouts to shadow the warband as best possible, and try to discover their intentions.
In the meantime, he would do some research into the matter. If there was a dragon, and it had been in the area for any length of time in the past, there might be record of it in the Halls’ massive library. It did not hurt to be prepared, especially with half the hold’s forces gone with King Beregan and his sons, plus his own brother and his wife, off supporting Karak Hirn in an attempt to stomp out the early flames of another orc warband.
Several hours later found him sitting at a table in the library, pouring over old records, and even consulting the hold’s own Book of Grudges. Oh, how he wished Beregan or his brother was here. They had a better mind for words and reading, not to mention a better grasp of past significant events that had occurred. The only note of a dragon that he had found thus far was from the annals from the time of his great-grandfather, Gadri the Foesmasher. Three Grail Knights on quest from Brettonia had passed through searching for information on a dragon that was allegedly terrorizing the countryside at the time. Though no information was available to be given, the knights had been welcomed with open arms, and after several days of searching the local area they had left empty handed, but with blessings of luck upon them.
After three hours further hours of continued searching, still finding no other word of any dragon, Haegan flopped back in his chair, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. He felt a hand on his shoulder and reopened his eyes, turning to look up into the face of his wife, Ilsa. “It is late, my lord, and you need sleep. Can this not wait until tomorrow?”
Grinning, he made a grab for her. “Sleep isn’t what I need, lass!” He missed as she danced away from his grasp. “Ah, but you are right, it can wait. I doubt I’ll find anything further.”
“Then come to bed, my lord… Haegan.” She grasped his hand, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “And perhaps I’ll let you tell me what you need?” He let her pull himself out of the chair, and they left the room, hand in hand, heading for their quarters.
Indeed though, there was nothing more to find in the library, and several days later the scouts returned. The warband had absorbed another and continued north and west, on a path that would carry them into Brettonia. The scouts had been unable to keep up with the orcs at that point, though the trail was easy enough to follow, but given the information at hand, Haegan decided that it was not worth the bother. Besides, the king’s party would be returning in less than a month. If they wished to send out a force then, when they were at full strength, so be it.
Zuilikrazigar swept north on leathery wings, keeping the orc warband in sight as best he could as they raced through the trees towards the small Brettonian village. Thanks to his unseen guidance through Bukkreg’s feeble mind, the newly appointed leader had won several victories, the first of them over Ogli da Face Smasha, which despite the numerous losses had doubled the motley pack of orcs and goblins. This particular raid meant little, aside for two small details. The first involved gathering supplies for the upcoming trek that would have the band backtracking their path, all the way to the beginning. Only one other key battle lay in their path after this, and this is where the second detail lay, for this area had been claimed by another warband. Zuilikrazigar wanted his little pawns to have a bit more power at their disposal before returning to the mountains – power of the sorcerous kind. For this, they would have to face off against the only other significant group of orcs left in this little corner of Brettonia, as most of the others had either joined Bukkreg of their own free will, or had been conquered by force of arms. The difference this time was that the boss of the band in question had a shaman at his disposal, rumored to be rather powerful. Ah, but power is such a subjective term, isn’t it, thought the dragon as he watched the orcs reach the edge of the forest. The townspeople quickly spotted them, alerted no part in thanks to a ferocious roar from the orcs, and the screaming began.
Bukkreg marveled at the short amount of time that it took for the slaughter to be complete. Corpses of men, women, and children littered the path that amounted to a street running through the small cluster of houses. None were spared, as it should be, thought Bukkreg. Keeping in mind the directions given by the voice of Gork, he directed his band in gathering up whatever items of use they could lay their hands on, and then put the town to the torch. Pillage first, then burn – the voice had been very specific about this. Bukkreg knew that the other Warboss would see the smoke and come and investigate. Even he didn’t need Mork to tell him this. All they had to do is sit in the forest and wait for the inevitable. The other Warboss would bow to Bukkreg’s will, or would die. Either way, it didn’t matter to him, so long as he gained the additional warriors, not to mention the shaman. Satisfied with the results of the burning town, Bukkreg turned and led his warriors back into the forest to wait.
As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait long. The crashing of underbrush being swept aside by pounding feet and large bodies announced the approach of the rival warband. With his warriors arrayed out behind him, Bukkreg stood at the fore of his band, raised his blades high, and roared. Those behind roared with him, the sound shaking leaves and sending birds and other small critters fleeing in terror. The oncoming warband skidded to a stop, eyes wide. Clearly this is not the way they had expected things to play out.
A single orc stepped forward through the throng, crushing plants underfoot, to glower at Bukkreg. He was a large Black Orc, larger than Murizek had been, and darker skinned as well. He carried a dented and nicked blade that could have only been held with both hands by any human, and a door strapped to his arm as a shield, its hinges still hanging from the edge. A smaller figure slipped from behind him, a goblin cloaked in rough black wool, a gnarled and knotted staff capped with a wolf’s skull in its hand.
The orc spoke first, his voice a rumbling growl, yet still appearing sufficiently cowed. “I’s Durkit, and yous be tresspassn’ on our land. Good thing Sniggin ‘ere tole me about yer strength an’ power… An’ ‘ow Gork favors yous.” The goblin beside him sniggered as he continued. “We’s’ll join yous, for now.”
Bukkreg bristled at this, but then the voice was there, soothing him, urging him to bide his time and exact his punishment at a more fortuitous time. Grudgingly, he nodded. “Fine den. We’s goin’ south at dusk.” Having said all he was going to say, he sheathed his weapons and turned his back on the newcomers.
Wheeling high above them, Zuilikrazigar grinned inwardly to himself. Now everything was set, and his plans could come into fruition. The dwarves in the northern hold would never know what hit them.
Indeed, and so it was, for between the magic of the shaman and the dragon, the entire warband, even as large as it was, was cloaked from prying eyes the minute that they entered the dwarves’ domain. Barely a week had passed since they had left the lowlands of Brettonia, making good time into the mountains. They barely stopped to rest or eat, driven forward by Brexar, and by sheer coincidence it was upon the night before the king was to return that they attacked.
They fell upon the keep with no warning, the cloak dropping only moments after a sorcerous blast from the shaman, again suffused with the help of the dragon’s unseen help, tore the main gates asunder. The horde of greenskins charged through, wild eyed and bloodthirsty, Bukkreg at their fore. As they saw it, the time of the dwarves’ doom drew near. Zuilikrazigar winged off towards the cave to wait, knowing that once the greenskins were inside, there would be little he could do to help without revealing himself, but that the compulsion and instructions he had given Brexar would see the band through the attack, and come dawn there would be a large pile of loot in front of the cave.
Haegan’s first clue that they were under attack was the muffled yelling filtering its way through his closed door. Rubbing his eyes with one free hand, still groggy from sleep he peered at the door, wondering if the noise he heard was still the remnants of some unremembered dream. The answer was given to him however, when a loud pounding sounded from outside, followed by a “To arms! Greenskins have entered the hold!”
Instantly awake, he disentangled himself from his wife and hauled himself out of bed, grabbing for clothes. Ilsa sat up, rubbing her eyes, the fur blanket falling from her ample form. “What’s going on?”
Haegan turned and grinned at the sight. “Greenskins. Probably nothing – go back to sleep.” He replied, giving her a kiss as he finished buckling his light mail armor on. With luck, this would be over quickly, he mused, grabbing his shield and axe as he stepped out the door.
There, waiting for him, was a young beardling in mail, helm tucked under one arm. Haegan glowered at him. “Keldrin, what are you doing here? You should be up at the gate, fighting off…”
He got no further as Keldrin interrupted him. “I’m sorry, father, but there’s little time to explain. Daengar sent me to fetch you as quickly as possible, and the gate has been breached.”
“Breached!” Haegan’s eyes widened, and then narrowed in anger. “Come then,” he growled, setting off at a brisk pace. “You can explain on the way.”
Keldrin nodded, quickly falling into step with his father as they made their way through the passages. “As I said, the gate is breached. The gate house was either overrun or destroyed, but certainly no dwarf is alive there. The grobi struck with no warning from our lookouts, and we have no idea how they took out the gate. They appear to have a shaman, but it’s power isn’t near enough to cause the damage that was done… Or so Daengar says. We still don’t know how many there are either.”
As they progressed further up the passageways of the hold, the sounds of fighting grew louder. Haegan scowled, picturing the layout of the hold in his head. They hadn’t even reached the first level yet, and the orcs were this far in? Something did not feel right here. Haegan wished he had his gromril plate armor, but that would be in the upper deep, in the armory, behind where the fighting seemed to be. Saying a silent prayer to Grugni to not turn his wife into a widow this night, he hefted his axe and shield and pressed on, Keldrin at his side.
At first appearances, the situation did not appear to be nearly as dire as it truly was. Haegan and Keldrin found the dwarven forces arrayed not far from the gates between the first and second deeps. The hold had been designed in such a way that if any section were breached, it could be sealed off by a pair of gates, preventing further incursion. While the gates were not nearly as strong and powerful as the main gates the orcs had already blasted through, they were none the less quite formidable.
Haegan surveyed the forces at hand, taking stock of the situation, until he was spotted by his second in command, Daengar, and hailed. The other dwarf, clad in full plate and hefting a shield as large as he was, clanked over. “My lord, we’ve got them stalled for the time being, but at our strength, it’s only a matter of time before they break through. The main gatehouse was utterly destroyed and overrun, and an entire company lost in the initial attack. That shaman of theirs isn’t making things easy for us either, and we’ve no one left to counter him. Of the forces we have left, the first company of Ironbreakers is only at half strength, as they took the brunt of the attack after the gates were destroyed. Beyond that, we have another company of Ironbreakers, two regular companies, and a company of Thunderers. There are still a few other warriors trickling in from the rest of the hold, but this is it.”
Haegan nodded at this, stroking his beard. “Right then. We’ll close one of the gates, force them to funnel down to this one. In the meantime, take a quarter company of the regulars and evacuate the second deeps, then close the both gates to the third. I’ll not have some grobi rabble running rampant through the hold whilst I’ve been entrusted with its care. When you get a chance, send a runner up the Undgrin road to meet with the returning forces, tell them to return with all haste."
“Understood, my lord. May Grugni watch over you.” Daengar saluted.
“And over you. Now get going!” Haegan grinned, and turned to head for the main force. “Keldrin, make yourself useful, there are grobi to kill!”
Bukkreg growled, smashing hapless dwarves aside with powerful blows. Their progress through the hold had been brought to a near halt, now that the dwarf forces had organized themselves. Even now, a gate before them was beginning to close as the sons of Grugni sought to bar their way. Roaring in fury, he yelled to his followers, spurring them on. “Ifn’ yer louts get through da gate, I’ll ‘ave yer ‘eads for breakfast!” Several orcs surged past him in response, smashing into the dwarf lines. He felt a poke in his rear and suddenly the goblin shaman was beside him, looking up expectantly. “Wot you want?”
“Lift me up, an’ we stop da gate!” replied Sniggin in a high pitched voice. Scowling, Bukkreg looked at the shaman, then at the steadily closing gate, and grunted, reaching down for the shaman. Sniggin scrambled up and balanced on the Choppa’s shoulders to begin his incantation, as green energy flickered about his tiny body. A shout went up from behind the dwarves, followed by a grinding crash as the gate mechanism sheared, and the doors ground to a halt, only half closed. Bukkreg grinned wickedly, then began moving forward back into the fray, forcing Sniggin to scramble back down. The orcs surged against the dwarven lines once more, this time breaking through.
Down at the other gate, the dwarves were faring no better, even under Haegan’s expert guidance. The orcs were twice as thick there, and had already pushed past the gate doors, there would be little hope of getting them closed, even if they had known the dire circumstances the forces at the first gate were in. In the tight quarters and low ceiling of the passage way beyond the gate, there was little the Thunderers could do, though most had long since run out of ammunition. Abandoning their normal arms, they hefted hand axes, and moved to reinforce the center, where the heavier losses were being taken. Haegan had split the company of Ironbreakers at his disposal in two and was using them to cover the flanks of his force. Their heavy armor protected them from all but the worst of attacks, but even their numbers were thinning, and there seemed to be no end to the orcs.
A runner came up from their rear, pulling Haegan off to the side, bringing the dire news of the occurrences at the other gate. Haegan scowled before turning to shout out to his forces. “Thunderers, to me! The other gate needs our assistance!” The Thunderer company peeled off from the rear of the blockade of flesh and steel, and followed Haegan down the passageway towards the intersection that would take them to the first gate.
The sounds of fighting faded as they moved down the passage way, then picked up again even before they reached the intersection. Calling a halt at the intersection, Haegan instructed the company to quickly split any ammunition remaining before moving on. Just as they turned the corner, the first fleeing dwarf ran past, the stoic resolve of the troops at the damaged gate finally broken. Haegan shouted out to him, and he turned, a dazed look in his eyes. Looking down the passage that the dwarf had come from, Haegan called a halt. “We’ll make our stand here. Let our brothers past, then lay waste to any behind them.” The Thunderers replied with a shout and spread themselves the width of the passage, aiming down their barrels as the sounds of running feet approached.
It didn’t take long for more dwarves to appear, and the sight of Haegan and the Thunderer company arrested their progress. They ran through the lines of riflemen, then began forming up under the Ironbreaker’s direction just as the greenskins began to appear. Haegan strode to the front as the last dwarves ran through. “Hold your fire until my command!” he shouted, planting himself in the center of the dwarf line and raising his axe. The greenskins stampeded down the passageway, a giant wall of green flesh and steel. “Steady… FIRE!!!” He swung his axe, and the dwarven guns roared in unison. The orc charge crumpled under the withering fire from the Thunderers as lead shot ripped through the first two ranks, and the ranks behind them were tripped up on the falling bodies. Quickly reloading, the Thunderers fired again, at point blank range, then dropped their rifles and drew axes with a yell as the hallway dissolved into a rampant melee.
Haegan and his fellows swiftly found themselves outnumbered, though not necessarily outmatched, and it wasn’t long before those remaining found themselves clustered together in a circle, each covering each other’s flanks as they hewed at the slathering greenskins. The floor was slick with blood and gore, and more than once some would have lost their footing if it hadn’t been for the dwarf next to him, but it was clear that this was a losing battle. Still, none of them were about to give up, each willing to fight to the last breath. Haegan gritted his teeth as he fought, once again wishing for his heavier armor, but it was too late for that now. A savage roar sounded behind him, followed by a cry from the dwarf warriors at his back. Suddenly he felt a blow from behind, denting his helm, and as he tried to turn to face his foe, his world went black.
Miles to the east towards Karak Hirn, deep beneath the mountains the ground vibrated to the steady marching of several hundred dwarven feet. King Beregan was returning home at last. At the head of the column marched King Beregan himself, his two sons, Gadri and Kerik, at his side. He was followed closely by twenty armored warriors, Ironbreakers all, the king’s personal guard; behind them, five hundred more sturdy dwarf warriors - Ironbreakers, Thunderers, quarrelers - six columns deep, plus several wagons and a brace of cannon.
Returning via the Undgrin, the great underground road that connected every dwarf hold in the Black and World’s Edge Mountains, had saved the returning force from an extra week’s travel that the passage would have cost if done via the overland route. Now, perhaps only a day out, the dwarves were talking animatedly of their plans upon their arrival at the hold. Some were returning home to family, and most had friends that had remained behind, but most importantly of all, it was home.
Kerik’s young eyes spotted the figure first, pointing it out to his father. It was difficult to tell at that distance, but it appeared to be another dwarf headed towards them, carrying a lamp or torch to light the way in the infinite blackness of the deep road. King Beregan nodded and stepped up his pace, intrigued at whatever knowledge this messenger might have, to have come so far, alone.
Suddenly the light wavered from side to side as the approaching dwarf – for they could see now that it indeed was – swayed and fell. The light winked out. With a shout, Kerik took off at a run before his father had a chance to restrain him. Shaking his head slowly at the youth, he urged Gadri ahead before him, then motioned to his guard to follow him.
As King Beregan approached he could see now who it was – Daengar, one of the Ironbreaker Guard, and Haegan’s closest companion – and that he was now unconscious. Kerik looked up at his father, a scowl on his face, his voice grating. “He spoke before passing out. One word only: ‘grobi’.”
King Beregan paled briefly. That one word could only mean one thing for Daengar to have come this far, in this condition, abandoning his post at the hold: Somehow, some way, greenskins had breached the gates. Turning to his guard, he began giving orders and calling for a healer. Several Ironbreakers split off, heading back for the main force. A shout went up as the orders were passed on, and the stead tramp of dwarf feet increased as the army picked up its pace, passing by the group clustered off to the side of the road.
A healer appeared from the throng, rushing over as swiftly as her short legs could carry her, and bega looking over the unconscious dwarf until a cart rumbled up, hauled by two small draft ponies. Daengar was lifted carefully up into the cart, and both the healer and King Berengar climbed aboard after him. Gadri and Kerik were about to climb up as well when the king shook his head, his face grim. “No, the cart is full enough, and the healer must do her work. You are welcome to walk alongside, or go back to the head of the column.” His sons nodded their consent in unison, and then returned to the head of the guard, which had automatically fallen into step behind the wagon.
It was several hours before Daengar awoke and was able to speak of the evil that had befallen the hold. Still exhausted from the lengths he had pushed himself, he sat in the back of the cart, propped up against some supplies. King Beregan and his close cousin, Handri Grimtome, a Rune Priest and Haegan’s younger brother, sat with him, waiting patiently for him to tell his tale. The healer had urged this patience, cautioning that in such a condition, undue stress could cause Daengar to lapse back into unconsciousness. Handri, well versed in healing lore himself, concurred, but the need here was greater at the moment.
Sipping at some water, Daengar looked down at his feet, as if they were miles away, and sighed. “We… I… still cannot understand how they managed to get a force of their size past our lookouts, even with a shaman. I had the night watch, and Haegan was asleep… But, such that it was, we never knew what was about to happen until the gates were destroyed. The gatehouse was overrun or destroyed in moments, which I can’t be sure, for we were never able to see it once the orc forces came pouring through the breach, and no one that I know of was able to reach us from there. When I left, we had sealed the gates between the second and third deeps after evacuating everyone that we could from the second deeps. Haegan stayed behind to command what forces we had, with plans to seal one of the gates between the first and second deeps, in order to funnel the orcs to where we could concentrate our forces. I don’t know if that succeeded or not, but I do know that they were completely overrun – the orcs were pounding away uselessly on the sealed gates when I left. I had less than a quarter of a company that I left to guard the gates, and evacuated everyone to the fourth deeps, with hopefully enough supplies to last a week or two, three if rationed properly. All the gates in between are sealed, so I doubt the orcs will be getting any farther, even if they do manage to breach the third deep. Their shaman’s magic wasn’t enough to do so, which makes me wonder how they took down the main gates.”
Handri stared off into space, in shock. “My brother… Dead?”
Beregan scowled. “We’ve certainly enough troops to deal with this greenskin menace, though the cannon will be useless. We’ll leave it below for the time being. I’m trusting your judgment in this, Daengar – if you believe that they cannot breach the deeps gates, then we’ll slow our pace, and rest up a bit before smashing those grobi to death. I know by now the news has spread, and each and every one of us will be eager for vengeance, but I would rather have us rested instead of going into battle weary.”
Daengar nodded. “That seems sound enough, my lord. I’d like to be at your side when we attack.”
“Rest yourself, Ironbreaker, and perhaps you may.”
The dwarves pushed hard, and within fourteen hours had reached the gates leading into the hold from the Undgrin road, but true to his word, King Beregan had them rest for several hours. Scouts were sent out into the halls, through the most secret and hidden routes, which only a few knew of, to discern the status of the enemy. Most returned, some did not, but all told the same story – blocked from further passage into the deeps, the greenskins had turned to looting and pillaging, with some of the more valuable items being carted off, out of the hold to an unknown location. The few that had not returned had gone in the direction of the throne room, and others who had venture near there attested to the stench of grobi magic, to which Daengar confirmed the presence of the shaman.
Calling a council of war, King Beregan laid out his plan to all in attendance. “This may be underhanded, but I’ll hold nothing back in cleansing the greenskin filth from our halls.” He growled. “We’ll wait until early dawn, after they’ve drunk their fill. Most will be asleep, or have their senses dulled. We move through the halls, purging as we go, and seal off everything behind us. I won’t have them getting back in, even if through some horror we fail in this. I’ve already sent a messenger back up to Karak Hirn – anyone they send can be reinforcements, or our vengeance. Questions? No? Good. Get your rest, we march before dawn.” The assembled troops gave a collective shout, and dispersed.
Zuilikrazigar was worried. This didn’t happen often, but the orcs were spending too much time in the hold for his liking, despite the nightly “offerings” that were found outside his home. It took a great deal of effort now to reach Bukkreg’s mind, and sometimes that wasn’t even enough. Clearly he had underestimated the dwarves, but now it was too late to ponder that.
Bukkreg was getting worried too, though for entirely different reasons. Mork didn’t speak to him often now, and Sniggin and Durkit were becoming troublesome, and he couldn’t get rid of them without having half of the warband turn on him. It didn’t help that Mork had insisted before they had smashed the gates that they clean out the ENTIRE hold, and now their way was blocked. Bukkreg was no shaman, but he surmised that unless they were able to delve deeper, that Mork would likely talk to them less and less. The few dwarf captives that were still alive were not being very cooperative in getting them deeper into the hold either.
Morning crept closer, but Haegan still could not find rest. Battered, bloodied, and bruised, the pain from his wounds, in addition to being tied up to a pole for nearly three days straight, sleep was eluding him tonight… Or perhaps it was the feeling of tension in the air, as if something was going to happen. He supposed one way or another something would – if Beregan didn’t return with his forces, the orcs were likely to tear themselves apart, based on what he could make out from their crude speech. The shaman was clearly trying to make a rift in the warband, making a play for power. Suddenly, Haegan felt something… Yes, there it was again, a faint tremor in the floor, constant and steady as a drum – the tramp of dwarf feet on stone! Beregan had finally arrived, and the dwarves were marching to war.
Resistance in the second deeps was light, and the army rolled through relentlessly, a solid marching mass of armor, axes, and hammers, slaying all in their path. Word travelled fast though, and by the time they had reached the gates leading into the first deeps, the orcs were gathering in force. Beregan was forced to split the host into two groups, sending one to close the undamaged gate, and the other to push through and hold until the gate was closed.
Daengar took his place at the fore of the gate holders, determined to exact a price in blood and flesh for the travesty the orcs had wrought. Hefting his axe, he grinned at the dwarf next to him. “Now we make 'em pay, eh?”
“Oh, aye. And a good fight it'll be. I just hope that there might be some that survived. My brother...” The dwarf trailed off, looking down the hall, and then the call to march came. The dwarves moved forward as a whole once again, ready for the onslaught to come.
The sound of orcs could be heard echoing through the halls as they worked themselves to a frenzy. The shouting reached a crescendo until coalescing into a primal roar, and the dwarves spotted their foe. “Lock shields!” Daengar yelled, and the Ironbreakers slipped their shields into formation and braced themselves.
The orcs crashed into the shield wall like waves against cliffs, and axes flashed out from the dwarf line, cleaving off limbs, fingers, and heads. In moments, the orc momentum was lost, and with another shout from Daengar, they pushed forward, stepping over the fallen bodies.
Meanwhile, in the throne room, Haegan watched the orcs through swollen eyes. The one that appeared to be their leader was in the midst of an unintelligible argument with a large Black Orc, and the shaman that had accompanied them was dancing around gibbering. It was an interesting exchange, and Haegan was glad for the reprieve from the beatings.
Suddenly, the shaman froze as it danced behind the leader, and Haegan could clearly see the nod that it gave to the larger orc. Too dimwitted to realize what was going on, the smaller orc had no time to react as the Black Orc whipped his axe out and beheaded the other. The goblin sniggered and danced after the head as it bounced and rolled along the floor, before grabbing it up and sticking it to the top of its staff as a grisly trophy. The Black Orc spat a question at the shaman, pointing at Haegan and the other captives tied up around the room. His intent was clear, but the shaman appeared to dissuade him, and they both quickly ran from the room.
The battle in the halls quickly turned into a rout as Bukkreg’s head was paraded through the rear ranks, heading for the gate in the hands of the shaman. Those that could, disengaged from the battle and ran after it, and those that couldn’t were mowed down by the relentless march of the dwarves.
Zuilikrazigar knew immediately of Bukkreg’s demise when the slender thread that connected their minds was severed. What he didn’t know, was the exact nature of that demise, and so he folded his wings and dove, dropping beneath the clouds to circle over the dwarf hold. His was given his answer when he spotted the greenskins streaming out of the hold, the shaman and Black Orc in the lead… And Bukkreg’s head mounted on the shaman’s staff. The dragon knew the need for mobility now. It would not be long before the dwarves regrouped their forces and headed out to find those responsible for the destruction of their home and kin. Making one last circle over the line of fleeing greenskins, he turned south, rising over the mountains and disappearing into the clouds.
Haegan heard the shouting of dwarf voices first, along with the rattle of weapons and armor. A company of Ironbreakers charged into the throne room, headed by Daengar, weapons raised. Their momentum slowed as they realized that there was nothing left there to fight. Daengar pointed at the captives and began shouting orders. “Cut them down, and get them to the infirmary!” A number of dwarf hands grabbed hold of Haegan’s body, and he felt the rope binding him loosen as it was cut free. He mumbled incoherently as he was laid on the floor, and then Daengar’s face swam into view. “We’re back, old friend. You can rest now.” He heard, as his vision swum again and blackness claimed him.
All throughout the hold, the final pockets of orc resistance were being snuffed out, and the recovery work had already begun. Beregan walked the passageways, giving words of praise and encouragement here and there. He had already heard of Haegan’s miraculous survival, and he was heartened, despite the fact that the Ironbreaker had still not regained consciousness. He looked up at the pounding of feet as a runner sprinted up to him. “My lord, you should come see this…” Beregan caught the sorrowful look in the runner’s eyes, and nodded. The dwarf turned and headed down the passageway, leading the way into the second deep.
Beregan began to realize where they were headed almost as soon as they entered the second deep, winding their way past living quarters whose doors had been stove in by the marauding orcs. Greenskin corpses still littered the passageways here and there, and dread began to fill his heart as he considered the possibilities of what he might be shown. His fears were founded when they came to a stop outside Haegan’s quarters, a pile of dead orcs and goblins just outside the door. Daengar was there, waiting for him, his face drawn. “Inside, my lord.”
The king stepped over a mutilated orc, and through the doorway, the door itself lying shattered on the floor. A ring of orc corpses was piled around that of two dwarves, one armored, the other wearing a dress, both with axes in their hands – Haegan’s wife and son. Tears welled up in Beregan’s eyes at the sight, and he dropped to a knee. He looked up to find Daengar standing beside him. “Is he awake yet?” the king asked.
Daengar shook his head. “Not last I checked, my lord. They put him through quite a bit.”
Beregan nodded. “Then I want you to go wait by his side. The minute he wakes, send someone for me, no matter what. I want him to hear this from my lips, no one else’s.”
“Yes, my lord.” Daengar turned and walked out of the room.
Beregan turned and motioned to several Ironbreakers standing guard. “Get these filthy grobi out of here, and clean the place up. Do what you can for your captain’s kin first though.”
“Yes, my lord!” The dwarves answered in unison, and Beregan nodded once before stomping out.
It was several days before Haegan awoke to find Daengar sitting by his bedside, smoking a pipe. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a croak. Daengar looked up, his eyes lighting up. “You’re awake! Good... I expect you’ll want some water.” Haegan nodded, and Daengar stood up, walking over to a small table with a pitcher and a mug, rapping twice on the door as he passed it. “You’ve been out for quite some time, old friend.” Daengar picked up the pitcher and poured some of the contents into the mug before handing it to Haegan.
Taking it with shaking hands, Haegan brought the mug to his lips and took a deep drink. His eyes lit up in surprise. “Bugman’s?” He asked, his voice coming back to him.
Daengar grinned, and pointed at a small keg beneath the chair he had been sitting in. “I thought you might like it better than water. I’ve been expecting you to wake for a few minutes now – you seemed to be getting restless. Oh, and there’s someone here to see you…”
“Ilsa?” Haegan asked.
Daengar turned toward the door, hiding his face, and shook his head. “No…” Opening the door, he stuck his head out. “My lord?” Daengar stepped back to let Beregan in, then slipped out, closing the door behind him.
“My lord!” Haegan tried to sit up, but swayed unsteadily and fell back as his vision swam.
“No, no… Rest, my friend.” Beregan said, pulling up the chair. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“My lord?” Haegan asked, frowning as he caught the look in Beregan’s eyes. “What is it?”
“Ilsa… and Keldrin…” the king began, “were both slain in the attack. We found them both, a pile of corpses around them. I’m sorry.”
Haegan shook, sinking back into the bed and staring up at the ceiling. “Dead…”
“We only found one orc in the throne room with you, minus its head. It was clad in armor made from red dragon’s scales, so it must have been a formidable foe – who killed it, if not one of ours?”
“Treachery from their own kind.” Haegan growled, then paused. “Wait… You said RED dragon’s scales?”
“Yes, and it had two claws as weapons… Why?” Beregan asked, his head cocked to one side in curiosity.
The query fell on deaf ears, however, as Haegan’s face drew into a snarl, his vision going red with rage. Quickly sweeping back the covers, he swung his feet to the floor and smashed the door down, storming out into the corridors before anyone could stop him. Daengar appeared in the doorway, looking in on a startled Beregan. “What happened, my lord?”
“I mentioned the orc in the throne room, and its armor... Dragon scale armor. Can you shed any light on this? What could have set him off so?” Beregan looked at Daengar, a worried frown on his face.
“We spotted one, not long before the attack – a week or two ago at most, but only a few saw it, so we thought nothing of it.” Daengar shook his head and looked at the floor. “Though now, thinking about it, that might explain how they were able to destroy the main gates, and bypass all our scouts and lookouts.”
Beregan stood slowly and walked out into the corridor, looking down in the direction that Haegan had taken. “A dragon, eh? This is grave news indeed.”
“The repairs on the gates will take time, my lord… But I will see what I can do about arranging some ‘dragon-proofing’ if you wish. I’m sure the Engineer’s Guild will relish the task.” Daengar offered.
“Very well. I will see what I can do about Haegan.” Beregan nodded, and headed down the passage after the grieving dwarf.
Haegan had a good head start, and so it was several hours before Beregan found him, pounding away at a glowing piece of metal, hot from the forge. A pile of armor lay beside the forge, stripped of straps and attachments. Haegan glanced back briefly before flipping the metal over on the anvil and slamming the smithing hammer down on it again, showering sparks everywhere.
“Planning something, Haegan?” Beregan asked, moving around to forge and giving the bellows a few pumps, setting the coals aglow, white-hot.
“A short trip to Karak Kadrin, I suppose… And then to find me a dragon.” Haegan didn’t look up from his work.
“Ahh, so you picture yourself one of Grimnir’s chosen then? A Slayer?”
Haegan ceased his hammering and pushed the tinted goggles up on his forehead, fixing Beregan with a glare. “Aye, I do. And there’s nothing you, nor anyone else can do to stop it. I failed in my duties, and my son and wife are dead.” He dropped the goggles back down over his eyes and started hammering again. “And I know I’ll be breaking my oath to you by leaving, so all the reason more for it.”
Beregan gave a nod towards the pile of armor. “And that?”
“Melting it down and putting it to better use. I’ll not have need for armor nor shield in the future. And if you’re not here to help, you’d kindly leave.”
Beregan strode forward and laid his hand on Haegan’s shoulder, and the hammer froze in mid swing before lowering. “And you and I both know that there’s more than enough gromril in that armor to make five axes or hammers. You plan on wielding all of them?”
Haegan looked up with a sigh, and Beregan could see the tracks the tears had made through the soot and grime. “No, I reckon not. Only two.”
“Then put that stuff up, and I’ll get you your axes. Save the armor for Handri’s son… A last request from me, if you will, and I’ll release you from your oath. No need to have that hovering over your head as well.” To emphasize his point, he reached over and scooped up one of the greaves, holding it out. Haegan nodded and dropped the hammer, letting it fall to the floor with a clang as he took the armor from Beregan.
Haegan left that night, under the cover of darkness, taking the overland route through the mountains. He carried nothing but a small pack of provisions, and a pair of gromril axes at his side. His head was already shaved into a crest, his hair and beard dyed bright orange. Beregan stood at the main gates, still under repair, and watched him go, until he disappeared into the gloom and there was nothing more to see.