"Derue! Harold!" Gytha called but heard no reply.
The old ranger called out as well, "Harold!" then grabbed the rope and began climbing up.
"Wait, wait!" Talberth yelled to him.
Harald had barely reached the ceiling when a small bag flashed by his head. Talberth ran over and picked it up. The ranger didn't stop but instead climbed as quick as he could, up the rope.
"What is it?" asked Ivo.
"A note from our thief, 'Scout's run off. Help!', " Talberth read.
"Quick and to the point," said Telenstil. "There is little else we can do."
"I can climb at least," Gytha said. She did not hesitate but followed the ranger up the shaft.
"Gytha no!" Talberth cried.
"Have Harald pull us up when he gets to the top. We will get the packs," Telenstil called.
Gytha paused and yelled back, "I will," then turned her attention to the rope.
"Where is that priest?" Ivo asked looking around the room. Henri was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Derue skidded on the bloody stairs. Edouard had been here, had fought on these steps, but now was gone. The scout hopped down from stair to stair and ran into a huge room. A babble of voices struck him an almost physical blow. He'd been hearing it all along but had not given it a thought as he jumped down the stairs.
Rows of orcs filled the room with bugbears beating them into line. There were scores of the skinny, filthy, beasts and at least a dozen of the tall hairy monsters. The bugbears had a brick-red fur and an unsavory insectoid cast to their features. They faced the entrance to the stairs and a surprised silence spread over the room as they caught sight of Derue rushing in.
"Oh damn," Derue swore. From far off he heard the screaming of a human voice in pain. "Edouard!" These monsters had his brother, " Edouard!" he screamed. His hand went to the hilt of his sword and he heard the call of another voice, "Ardare," he spoke with calm, with joy, and drew the blade from its sheath. "Ardare! Ardare! Burn them! Burn Them!" A bright flame burst forth and played along the blade, the metal glowed white and the air shimmered in waves around it. Derue was filled with the warm glow, it made him smile then laugh aloud. He charged the orcs and bugbears, two quick slashes sent one of the tall guards back into the ranks of orcs, its hair singed black and wide, bleeding cuts across its arms and chest. It stumbled and fell, the orcs, an unruly bunch, their more passive brethren already taken up the stairs to fight the blaze above, looked down at the stunned and wounded guard.
The bugbears were a sadistic breed, they delighted in the torture of the hapless orcs, but seeing the tables turned, the bugbear lying at their feet, the gathered orcs snapped, and with teeth and skinny fists and clawlike fingers, a dozen orcs set upon their tormentor. The rebellion spread and as Derue fought another bugbear guard the room turned into a frenzied melee. Orcs fell beneath the swords and spears of the bugbear guards, but they bore them down and picked up the weapons of the ones they killed.
Derue cut a bugbears hand from its arm, and an orc jumped on the sword that fell, still clutched in the severed grasp. Three others threw themselves upon the wounded guard; another sank its teeth into the bugbear's leg. As the babble of voices became a bestial unending roar, a door in the northern wall was flung open and two huge and hairy men ran out. Derue had never seen their like before. Behind them came a giant but with a twisted back and a huge hump rising above his misshapen head.
The giant was armored in a vast shirt of chain and held a monstrous axe with a blade big enough to split a castle's gate or chop down an old thick-boled tree with a single stroke.
The orcs were mad with blood and the bugbears that had guarded them were dead. They turned upon the giant and the hairy men, some with weapons in their hands, the first that they had held in months or for a hearty few, in years. One giant beast, an ape as it was called, roared and beat at its chest, the other, its mate, looked toward their giant keeper, waiting for his command.
"What's this!" the hunchbacked giant yelled. "Kill them my pets! Kill them all!"
Both apes launched themselves into the crowd of orcs, the male, slightly bigger than his mate, grabbed a pair of orcs, one in each hand and smashed their heads together. The skulls exploded in a bloody mess and the ape let the bodies fall to the floor, still shaking headless on the ground, dead but dancing out their last moments on the oerth. The other ape sank her teeth into the face of a hapless orc; she bit through bone and flesh, clear to the grey-green brain. Unarmed orcs threw themselves upon the pair. An orc armed with a bastard sword got in two hacks that left bleeding cuts along the male ape's back, but a sweeping blow broke its arm and then the ape turned and grabbed the orc with both hands. It lifted the screaming body high above its head and threw it twenty feet into a wall. A spear went flying and struck the male in its gut while its arms were raised. It plucked out the hurtful thing and as it did five orc jumped upon its back and sides.
The hunchbacked giant stepped into the fray. He swung his axe and chopped an orc in half from skull to groin, the blade sparked against the stone. Up went the axe again to his shoulder and then swept down. It skimmed off the top of one orc's skull, greygreen brains sloshed out; then split a second orc from shoulder to waist across its chest. That swing brought the blade down low almost scraping the floor on its descending arc before rising up to the giant's other shoulder.
As the hunchback prepared to strike again Derue screamed out a challenge and rushed in. A group of orcs ran at the giant as well, mad with fury and immune to fear. Derue's blazing sword smacked against the giant's chest and snapped a line of steel rings on the monstrous shirt.
The burning tip of the sword set the hunchback's greasy beard aflame. Its backhand stroke went wild; the flat of the blade stove in an orc's head just the same and sent the body flailing across the ground. The flames danced about hunchback's face and burned off the thick fringe of hair around its bald pate as well. The axe fell to the ground while the giant used both hands to try and smother its burning beard. Derue cut deep gashes across both the giant's arms then stabbed it deeply in the gut.
The giant gulped, one vast hand flashed out and grabbed the blade as Derue drew it free, the blade cut to the bone and as Derue yanked it to the side cut off the giant's thumb.
The orcs had not stood idle while the fight went on. Those who fought the pair of apes matched fury with fury, but paid a fearful toll in life and blood and broken bones. The apes fell at last and lay dead amidst a pile of orcs slain by their naked hands and ragged claws.
As the battle raged a handful of bugbears, no more than a dozen, came roaring into the room with two ogres pushing them on from behind. All the while Derue slashed away at the hunched giant and five orcs attacked its legs. One died beneath the giant's feet, an accidental death; the giant completely unaware it had stepped on the skinny beast.
The bites and scratches from the unarmed orcs were ignored while it beat out its burning hair, but when Derue stuck it deep with the white-hot blade the pain was overwhelming. The giant gasped for breath, its eyes bulged and slowly it fell to its knees. An orc ran up its back and sank its teeth into the burnt and blistered neck, Derue used two hands and cracked the hunchback's skull, but the bone was thick and the blade wedged tight, the hilt resting on its nose. He had to place his foot against the giant's face and waggle the blade back and forth to get it free.
Across the room the bugbears had cut a swath through the orcs, fresh, uninjured, armed and armored, they killed a dozen with as many strokes. The ogres seeing the bugbears carnage laughed and brushed their lackeys aside. The orcs drew back and as the ogres stepped forward, Derue stepped from the crowded midst of orcs, his sword still burning in his hand.
"Not another one," an ogre with a scorched face called out.
"Edouard!" Derue screamed. "Where is my brother!" he charged them and laid open the wounded ogre's stomach with his first stroke. Long ropey intestines burst forth like the coils of a red-purple snake or monstrous worms. The ogre screamed and tried to hold itself together with its hands while the orcs began to hoot and cheer.
The second ogre growled and swung a massive fist that passed harmlessly just a hairsbreadth above Derue's head. Derue lashed back and cut open the ogre's arm from shoulder to elbow and then the orcs charged. The wounded ogre was pulled apart, the bugbears turned and ran. Surrounded by orcs the last ogre broke one of the pig-faced monster's back with its wounded arm then had seven blades cut it from back and sides.
Derue found himself surrounded by the victorious orcish mob, both ogres dead, their bodies hacked apart and strewn across the floor.
* * *
"Henri! Henri!" Ivo called. He weaved his way past piles of rotting muck and carefully watched where he placed his feet. The floor was slick with filth and studded with half-gnawed fragments of bone. The old gnome easily spotted the tall opening in the wall, it was narrow for a hill giant to use, they would need to enter shoulder first and scrape belly and back against the frame. To Ivo the gap was as great as a castle gate, rising high above his head, he could swing both arms out and never come near to either side. "Henri!" he called again, a little exasperated with the priest.
The room was filled with chests and trunks, a rough cloth sack had split and poured out a tide of coins, all green with age and welded one to another with verdigris. Atop a wooden crate sat the Pholtite priest, his eyeless mask of gold downturned, a pile of coins he held in cupped hands. Ivo did not say a word, he caught the last hushed phrases that Henri intoned and threw his arm before his eyes. There came a flash, the old gnome's arm became translucent red, only the dark mass of bone inside saved his sight from the blinding flare.