Boss walked backwards, away from the screaming down the passage, his legs struck the body of Derue and he fell. Below him the bound man gave a grunt as Boss landed on him then Derue began to writhe. He twisted throwing the orc from his back, slammed both legs down across Boss's middle and kicked him with both feet like a mule, smashing the orc in the face. Blood spurted from a split lip and a broken nose and Boss was spun against a wall. Pulling his knees to his chest Derue slid his bound hands down his legs and over his feet. Still stretched out on the floor he leaned on his shoulder and swung his legs around sweeping Halfknife off his feet, but both Meatstealer and Brokenhand set on him before he could rise.
The orcs had weapons but they used their feet, not from any restraint, though they had been ordered many times to keep the scout alive. They lashed out, rough hoary feet thudding into ribs, a jagged toenail cut a deep gash over Derue's eye, Meatstealer heard a bone snap and a whoosh of air forced from the scout's throat. Derue blocked a second kick to his creaking ribs, ducked below Brokenhand's next blow and struck Meatstealer's knee as the orc drew back to kick again. The orc hopped back and Derue turned himself and kicked back at Brokenhand. Stars and sparks danced before his eyes, Halfknife had kicked Derue from behind smacking his head like a child would kick a ball.
Boss rose groggily from where he had rolled, Meatstealer rubbed at his knee then joined the others. Soon all four orcs had encircled Derue, their legs pumped back and forth as they pummeled him with their feet.
At the shaft entrance Talberth dropped to the floor. He wore an enchanted amulet around his neck that shined with a perpetual light. In the glow he had climbed down the wall, trusting his sight more than his sense of touch. "Hey!" he yelled at the orcs. "What is going on! Get away! Get Away!" Talberth took the wand from the forearm sheath he wore and fingered the runes that glowed silver in the dark.
The light from the amulet made them start, then step back from the body of the scout, the wand brought out a fear that had grown within them, first planted as the giants' slaves.
* * *
Ivo's breath was heavy in his chest. He was getting old, even for a gnome. He'd been old before the human mage Talberth had been born, old when the ranger had been only a boy. Gnomes did not have the sheer bulk and strength of a dwarf, but they all possessed a wiry endurance. He drew upon all the energy in his old frame and ran. There were shouts ahead and some screams of pain, a bellow of rage, it made Ivo lurch into a quicker pace, but he was much slower than the halfling and Little Rat. He came upon them just as the ranger fell headlong sprawling across the ground, all three were buried under the furry wave.
It was no weapon he held in his hand, no base component for a spell, just a common gnomish tool. He opened the metal ball and twisted it apart. A small lump of stone fell out, enchanted like the amulet which Talberth wore, it shone with light. A small sun erupted in the dark, a squeal of shock burst out, a thousand tiny voices screamed and the carpet of fur and tooth and claw went still.
* * *
"As I thought," Ivo said smugly. He nudged a curled circle of fur with his foot, it appeared to be dead. Immediately his thoughts went to his friends, "Harold! Harald!" he called out.
The ranger groaned and shook a covering of the little beasts from off of his back and legs, beside him Harold jumped to his feet and flung a pair of small bodies against the wall. The halfling kicked some aside and cursed the others where they lay. Blood streamed from dozens of tiny cuts and bites, painting the halfling red. The ranger was washed by the flow from his owns wounds, he'd saved his eyes but his hands and arms were a patchwork of torn and bitten flesh.
Harold appeared dazed, he looked with wild eyes first at Harald then at Ivo. His chest heaved with relief, he still lived; he'd thought for certain that he would not survive. "Where is the orc?"
* * *
There was a screech, a sharp sparking sound like the teeth of a saw striking a nail hidden in a plank of wood. The snake opened its mouth, its tongue sticking out, its head swaying back and forth, it wailed.
Ghibelline gritted his teeth against the sound, clamped his jaw shut and launched himself at the beast. His sword gleamed with a nimbus of gold, an edge of spiritual energy that coated the mere sharpened steel. A line of fire burst forth where his sword cut the sinewy body, his blow still swept through the snake's translucent flesh but this time there was resistance. The shining red lines of the scales snapped and some did not rejoin as they had before. The fanged mouth ceased its noise, its body shuddered briefly at the wound, and its head came whipping down.
Ghibelline dived aside, but the snake brushed his shoulder and rolled him over. He slipped when he tried to rise. His sword shot up and grazed the creature's chin, the mouth closed with a chomp then opened in a sharpfanged grin. A knife slashed it just below its eye; the blade shone blue and sent a fiery burst of red where it cut the snake deeply atop its mouth. The beast jumped back, the serpent twisted in the air and scurried back from the glowing blade. There was a pause, the snake held back, drops of molten red dripping from its wound, they struck the air and smoked, disappearing in a cloud before they touched the ground.
Ghibelline scurried to his feet and as he did he heard the mage cast a spell.
"Koova-Lazi!" Telenstil called out. He blurred and seemed to come apart, and then there were six Telenstil's facing the snake with glowing knives of blue. He charged the beast and all five images followed suit.
Fangs pierced the magic veil, as Ghibelline's sword had passed through the snake before the blessing of the Saint, so the serpent met with no resistance and in a blur the image disappeared. A knife licked out, Telenstil and his four surviving duplicates all struck at once, but only one was real. A long line of red was drawn along the scales, the snake's body twitched in pain. Ghibelline rushed to join the fray; he first chopped its tail, the nearest portion of the beast. The sword cut it like a sausage beneath the edge of a hungry man's knife, the tail burned with flame, the gaping wound glowed with light like the heart of a fire.
* * *
Gytha had not been idle while the others fought. She bent down on her knees and prayed. The iron staff felt cool against her face, she spoke softly, implored the Saint for strength, and more than strength. Evil flowed from the snake, it coursed through its veins instead of blood, filled the venom sacks behind its fangs with a wickedness incarnate. This was no mere oerthly beast, no creature formed of magic; it was a denizen of Hell. Some vile serpent summoned to this plane by dark ritual and sacrifice. "Power!" Gytha asked from the Saint. She stood and raised her head.
Telenstil took a fearsome blow, the sight made her gasp, but the hissing serpent fanged an empty shell. Another image of the mage blurred into a haze and disappeared. Ghibelline gave the snake a glancing wound, his sword did little but the nimbus of gold ate into the transparent flesh like acid and left an oozing, smoking trail across the serpent's scales. The snake caught his arm, its fangs passing through his flesh harmlessly but the venom scored him deep. The elf cried out, his sword fell from a numbed grip and he collapsed.
"No!" Gytha yelled. "Go back to Hell!" she screamed at the snake and swung the iron staff, once a giant's kitchen skewer, but now a blessed weapon of her patron Saint. The metal pulsed. It struck the snake dead on and crushed its skull like a bug beneath a heel.
There was an explosion of red, Telenstil flung an arm before his eyes, a fireball he thought, but there was no heat. The mage could see the bones clearly through an arm whose flesh was redly lit, then a flash of white that made him blink. There was a crack like old wood snapping beneath the sun, then a whoosh, a sudden gust of air tugged at him, he threw down his arm. A hole had opened in the world, a rent no bigger than a robin's egg. It sucked in the broken remnants of the snake, stretching it long and thin, pulling in a stream of air that stirred the leaves like a hurricane. Debris danced and twisted around this hole till even the severed bit of tail was gone and then it closed with a plop like the bursting of a bubble on a pool of mud.