It’s been a bit since I posted a new chapter on here, but I have been finishing up classes for the semester and, with that out of the way, I can resume regularly scheduled programming. There are only four chapters to post after this one—fairly long chapters, at that—but I hope to have the whole damnable thing posted by the end of this week….
BECAUSE I will start posting my Christmas stories next week. I am excited about this because, with my life in pure upheaval, I didn’t write any last year. So far, I have one complete and began work on another this evening which I hope to finish over the next couple of days. These things are much easier when I don’t have papers on management to work on. And, I am considering a special bonus Christmas post after all the Christmas stories are up.
Anyway, here’s the latest episode of Marcus & Heather’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure. Enjoy and pardon me for anything that sucks.
Reaching the closest sewer grate had proven easier than Marcus had feared. They found an entrance to the tunnels a few dozen yards from the entrance to the dungeons, but in the opposite direction as the king’s home. The iron slab had been damnably heavy, requiring both Marcus and Wilkey to strain to pry it from its hole.
Just as things seemed to be going extraordinarily well, Marcus saw their first complication. The first and only time he had visited the dwarven sewer system, the dank water flowing inside moved along like a forest stream, mildly burbling along its course to elsewhere. This time, however, he heard the torrent of water before he saw it, a deep river flowing under the dwarven city.
Taking a chance, Marcus fashioned a torch from some discarded fabric he found nearby and lit it, generating the flame in his hand once again. He handed the makeshift torch to Wilkey.
“I’ll lower you down,” he said.
“What? Are you crazy?”
“This was your idea and unless you think you can hold me up by my ankles, I’m going to lower you down so you can take a look around,” Marcus returned.
Wilkey gave up the argument, but when he lowered himself on his stomach to the edge of the hole, his face lit up. “Wait,” he said just as Marcus was about to grab his legs, “there’s a ladder.”
Indeed there was a ladder, dark iron bars set against the slightly darker rock. Marcus put a foot down to test their sturdiness and, satisfied, climbed down the half dozen remaining rungs until only open space and rushing water lay before him. The smell of the water so close to where the river ran into the city was not as bad as he had expected, but the cold, dank air still made him shiver as he braced himself.
Holding his breath, he stepped back from the ladder and allowed himself to drop. The icy water that rushed up to swallow him feel like one of the people, idiots he called them, that celebrated winter by jumping into a frozen river. As his head sank below the surface, he thought he could see his breath being forced from his body in a white cloud of vapor.
The flow of the river was not particularly fierce, but when he surfaced, he still found himself in several yards from the ladder. He could see dim flickering light radiating down from the torch, then he saw a dark form drop into the water as Wilkey followed him. A moment of fear seized him, stronger than the grip of the chill water surrounding his body, as he tried to remember if he had ever seen the halfling swim. His fears were soon alleviated, though, as the dark outline of Wilkey’s head poked out above the surface of the water.
Marcus stood to his maximum height and found the water reached to just below his shoulders. He knew that meant the halfling would be just too short to stand upright without drowning and hoped Wilkey would be able to swim long enough for them to reach Heather. For now, he saw the halfling bobbing up and down calmly enough, flowing toward him in the current which pushed Marcus like a strong wind.
“I think,” Wilkey started, pausing as his mouth submerged again, “that we just need to follow this tunnel straight ahead to get there. We just have to know when we’ve gone far enough.”
That proved easier said than done. As they allowed themselves to be helped by the current of the river, they found themselves in darkness as thick as that within Marcus’s cell in the dungeons. He often generated the flame in his hand, but he sometimes needed that hand to steady himself, giving up his concentration and their light to avoid losing his balance.
Along their way, they found a few ladders leading up to the city. Marcus raised Wilkey up to these, allowing the halfing a break from his swimming and giving them a look above to get their bearings. Wilkey would raise the metal as best he could to give himself a tiny peak at the buildings in the direction they were traveling. As long as he could still see the peak of the granite spire, he knew they still had not reached their destination.
They moved on through the water toward, they hoped, Heather. Marcus guessed that they would adjust to the temperature of the water, but as they drew closer, the river around them seemed to grow colder. The chill seeped into their bones and muscles, making them stiff and harder to manipulate in their efforts to remain upright. Wilkey began to tire in the extreme cold, his teeth chattering between rasping breaths. Marcus offered to carry him on his back and Wilkey gratefully accepted.
The water continued to grow colder and Marcus began to feel objects in the water around him. Solid somethings bumped his legs and torso, leaving even colder water in their wake. Holding Wilkey, he could not further investigate as they moved on in the total blackness of the sewer tunnel. Marcus pictured icy rivers he had seen on television and guessed that if the temperature dropped much further, they could simply slide across the surface like penguins fleeing a killer whale.
Marcus’s whole body, particularly his legs, had grown numb, making balance in the water a tricky feat. Still, he trudged on, aware that they had limited time to reach Heather and, hopefully, Lorelei before the Necromancer arrived. Then, he collided with something in the water, not like the light impacts he had been feeling and guessing for ice, but something heavy and much more substantial.
He stopped walking, lowered Wilkey back into the water, and raised his hand, palm up, producing the flame again. A dome of light showed him the surface of the water and now he could see objects floating in it. Bending down, his face near the surface, he peered down into the murky water and saw . . .
“Oh, God!” Marcus breathed.
Floating in the water, bobbing up and down like corks, were dead bodies. Just in the small light he could produce, Marcus saw nearly a half dozen dead dwarves, their thick hair and beards floating in a soggy mass near the surface. The empty faces were in various degrees of decomposition, though all possessed empty eye sockets. Marcus expected to see those black voids fill with red light, but they remained dark, reflecting only the orange glow of Marcus’s flame in their watery cavities.
Each corpse floated perfectly upright, immune to the current Marcus still felt pushing him along the tunnel. Tentatively, Marcus stretched his foot below one to see if the body was chained to the sewer floor and found nothing. He doubted his numb feet would have felt anything had he struck a chain or some other binding, but he certainly would have seen the dwarf move if he had disturbed its restraints. Realizing the corpses were being held by magical means, he felt a chill of fear that surpassed even the icy water surrounding him.
“What’s going on here?” Wilkey asked through chattering teeth.
“It’s the Necromancer,” Marcus whispered. “He’s already been here—may still be here. This is his vanguard, the forces he’ll use to conquer the dwarves when he has me.”
Marcus could feel the halfling treading water behind him and knew that the halfling’s strength would only hold him for a short time before the current dragged him away.
“What do we do? Go back?” Wilkey asked.
“We can’t. We have to go on—through them. If we go back we’ll never reach Heather in time. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. Even if we just go back to the last ladder we passed, we’ll have to fight our way through the dwarves to reach her and I’m not prepared to do that. I don’t even have a weapon.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” the halfling said. His black hair disappeared below the surface of the water and remained submerged for so long that Marcus was about to dive under to search for him. When he did surface, he held a familiar pack in his trembling hands. The wet leather surface was darker than Marcus was used to seeing, but he knew it immediately as his, the one he had recovered in the pub in Yellow Banks, it’s sides glittering all the more from the tiny droplets of water that beaded upon them.
“Reach inside,” Wilkey said.
Marcus did and his hand closed on a cold, metallic surface—the hilt of a sword. He grasped and pulled, drawing the sword out of the small pouch like some magician’s trick and held it in his hand opposite from the fire. The blade still felt heavy and awkward in his grip, but he was suddenly thankful to have at least some defense should they have to fight their way out of the dwarven city.
“Where?” Marcus said, too shocked to say anything more.
“That’s why I had to track you down using their king,” the halfling answered. “I knew we would need the stuff in here sooner or later, so I followed the dwarf carrying them and saw where he stashed it. I think he planned on selling them, but I took them as soon as he left and set off to find you.”
“Okay, you’re forgiven for falling asleep,” Marcus said, then seeing Wilkey start to protest, he raised his hand. “No, I don’t want to hear any more about it. Let me just say thank you and let’s move on to more pressing matters.”
Marcus turned again with the current driving them along the tunnel and faced the dead dwarves, floating ahead of him like hellish buoys. Slowly, trying not to disturb them any more than possible, he slid between the corpses with Wilkey clinging to his back like his wet robes.
The water around the bodies felt several degrees cooler than the water in other parts of the tunnel and Marcus felt some measure of surprise that his initial thought of ice in it had not been on the mark. His lower body, past numb, began to sting painfully beginning at the bottom of his feet and he knew they needed to get out of the water and get warm soon or risk dying of hypothermia.
As he waded, his glowing hand held out before him like a torch, he saw the bodies floating around him grow more concentrated. He was forced to push them aside just to pass between them, their skin and clothes cold and clammy to the touch. The dead dwarves bumped against each other like bowling pins, then resumed their original position as soon as Marcus and Wilkey moved beyond them.
“There must be hundreds of them down here,” Wilkey gasped, horrified awe plainly evident in his tremulous voice. “Where did they all come from?”
“My guess is that a lot of dwarves have disappeared over the last few years. The Necromancer’s probably been abducting them, alive or dead, and storing them down here where the cold water would help preserve them until they were needed. What I don’t understand is why the dwarves haven’t been down here and seen them, or at least seen how much water is flowing through their sewers as opposed to what normally passes through here.”
“I can answer that one,” Wilkey said, readjusting his grip around Marcus’s shoulders. “When I was here before, I heard several dwarves talking about the sewers, how they were haunted and no one would dare enter them unless they did not want to come out again. I thought it was just superstition, but now I don’t think they knew how right they were.”
Marcus looked around at the dead dwarves—men, women, even a few children—forming their gruesome obstacle course all around him. “I have a feeling that they’re all about to find out. There are enough corpses here to take over the whole city. If Chonis thinks the Necromancer will keep his word about protecting them, he needs to take a look down here.”
They walked through the sea of dead dwarves until they reached another ladder that rose up toward the surface. Wilkey climbed atop Marcus’s shoulders, reached up, and grabbed the lowest rung, lifting himself up with some effort due to the weakness of his frozen muscles. As Marcus watched, the halfling climbed into the darkness above him and disappeared from view. He heard the slight scraping of metal against stone as the cover was lifted for Wilkey to look around, then he heard the halfling calling softly to him.
Marcus could not ever remember being so glad to arrive somewhere in his life. Storing the sword back in the magical pack, he reached up, allowing the flame in his hand to expire, and grabbed the rung. It was wet where Wilkey’s feet had stood upon it and his soaked body felt like it had doubled its normal weight. Still, he managed to pull himself up out of the water and started to climb. He felt the icy water dripping off his body in a steady stream and as the cold air closed in to replace the water, he felt colder than he had in the water. The chill seemed to radiate from the bodies bobbing below him and followed him up the tunnel like smoke.
He climbed for only a few seconds before his hand reached up to the next rung and touched Wilkey’s foot. The halfling jumped, in spite of himself, and gave a stifled shout.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “With all of them down there . . .”
“Yeah, I understand.”
Marcus heard the sound of Wilkey raising the metal grate again and this time could see a thin sliver of light cut down into the darkness.
“What do you see?” he asked.
The halfling turned his head from side to side. “I don’t see any dwarves. Don’t hear any either. I think we should make a run for it. The meeting hall is just a short run ahead of us and there’s a lot of shadows once we get to it. There’s only a few seconds where we could be seen if we’re careful.”
Knowing my luck, Marcus thought, that will be enough to get us killed.
Wilkey took one more glance around at the outside and pushed the metal cover enough to allow them to exit. The scraping sound it made was low, but sent a shiver down Marcus’s spine as though someone were raking their fingernails over a chalkboard.
“Well, if anyone is out there, they definitely heard that,” he said as Wilkey climbed up and out of the sewer tunnel.
Marcus followed quickly and found the halfling already sprinting several yards ahead of him. Wilkey’s small feet left watery tracks where they met the stone street, but Marcus knew they would dry quickly, more quickly probably than his own larger footprints. He did not want to waste time thinking about the trail they were leaving, though, and set off in a run himself, following the halfling as he fled toward the shadows of the meeting hall.
When they reached what they considered to be a relatively safe point, they both turned and looked at the ground they had covered. No one was visible and no shouts were raised as to why a human and a halfling were emerging from the sewers of the dwarven city. The metal grate stood open—Marcus had forgotten to slide it shut—but that was a detail they would have to risk the dwarves discovering. They had no time to go back and move the heavy plate back into place, nor did they wish to risk being seen in the attempt. Marcus even allowed himself to hope that someone, finding the portal opened, would investigate below and discover the Necromancer’s reserves, awaiting the call to run amok in the city.
“This way,” Wilkey said from a few yards behind him. “I know a way in that hopefully won’t be guarded.”
“That’s comforting,” Marcus said.
They moved along the side of the building, keeping to the shadows in the alley between the meeting hall and its neighbor. The thin corridor was filled with foul smelling trash and debris of various types. In the darkness, Marcus feared he might trip over something and break an ankle or suffer some similar injury, but would not produce his fire and risk being spotted. He had the sword, for which he was thankful, but he sincerely hoped he would not have to use it.
They came to the door Wilkey spoke of, an unmarked slab of oak atop two wobbly stone steps. The halfling tried the door, found it locked, then opened it with a carefully chosen pick he had selected in the darkness. The tumblers clicked and the door swung opened on well-oiled hinges. Beyond the open portal, Marcus saw a sparsely lit hallway running several yards before ending at another door. Several other doors lined the hall on either side, but all were closed. No one, dwarf or otherwise, occupied the corridor, but they could hear voices coming from some nebulous point in the building, several voices that all seemed to be in conversation at the same time.
“I think they’re entering the great hall. They’re gathering for something and everyone’s coming in, that’s why we didn’t see anybody outside,” Wilkey said.
Suddenly, another sound came from behind them, distant but distinct. Shouts of alarm rose in the distance from the direction they had come. The noise was very faint, but Marcus knew what it meant—his absence had been discovered in the dungeons.
“Come on,” he said, bypassing the halfling and entering the hallway. “They’ll be looking for us, or me at least, and I think I know what everyone is coming here for—to witness my death.”
Wilkey did not replied, but fell silently into step behind Marcus. They moved carefully down the corridor, wary of the doors around them. They did not know if any dwarves were in this part of the meeting hall building, but they did not want to rouse them if they were. Unfortunately, their luck failed them in that regard as a dark-haired dwarf emerged from a door near the end of the hall just as they reached it.
For a moment, there was only a comic moment where both parties—the dwarf and the two who were not dwarves—stared at each other in surprise. The dwarf’s wide, black eyes grew wider as he took in the human wielding the ornate sword and the halfling at his side. Deciding that the two intruders should not be there, the dwarf’s shock seemed to wash away and he opened his mouth to call for help.
Marcus reacted quickly, driving the sword forward in his hand and clubbing the dwarf in the head with the hilt. The dwarf, able only to utter a brief exclamation of pain, crumpled into a heap at Marcus’s feet.
Marcus grabbed the dwarf under the arms, after Wilkey checked the room he had just exited, dragged him inside. The dwarf’s boots made a harsh scraping noise against the stone floor and Marcus felt his teeth gritting at the sound. He felt sure they would be heard by someone else in the hall and would have to fight their way to Heather, or at least attempt to at the best of their meager abilities.
“You want to tie him up and gag him?” Wilkey asked, a thin note of anticipation in his voice. As was common with many small people when given the opportunity to physically best someone larger, the halfling looked forward to the idea of binding the elf.
“No,” Marcus answered, “no time. We have to get upstairs if we can find the stairs without being seen.”
“No problem,” Wilkey said. The halfling checked outside the door and saw, miraculously, no one coming to investigate the disturbance they had just made. He stepped outside and scurried up the hall the remaining few yards. Reaching the end, Marcus saw the corridor also turned left or right besides continuing straight on through the door. Beyond that door, Marcus could hear the voices louder still and knew that it must lead directly to the floor of the meeting hall. From the cacophony of voices, he thought that hundreds, if not thousands, of dwarves must be piling inside to witness the death of the fugitives sought by the Necromancer.
Wilkey did not pass through the door. Instead, he turned left and moved along another door-lined hall until he reached an open archway through which stairs could be seen leading up.
“How far up will we have to go?” Marcus asked the halfling.
“It’s a long climb,” Wilkey answered, taking the first flight of steps two at a time with his short legs. “Probably guarded, too.”
Marcus followed. The stairs seemed to wind around the inside of the wall of the spire they had seen from the entrance to the dungeons, bordered on the inside by another stout wall. Above them at intervals along the inside wall were torches casting their dancing light on the steps as they grew more and more numerous. Soon, Marcus found himself gasping for breath and heard Wilkey doing the same.
Below, they could still hear the voices of the dwarves waiting in the grand meeting hall below them. Marcus guessed that the wall of the spire rose directly above them and that if they were to somehow pass through the wall to their right, they would fall into empty space until they landed in the center of the hall.
To Marcus, it seemed as though he had been climbing for hours when they began to hear more deep dwarven voices, this time from above them. The voices, two of them Marcus thought, talked low and casually, engaging in the sort of conversation two people might have in a hospital waiting room or on an elevator. Holding out his hand, he silently warned Wilkey to stay back.
The halfling, who had fallen a few yards behind Marcus during the climb, stopped and leaned against the inside wall. He closed his eyes and Marcus could see his small chest rising and falling quickly trying to refill his abused lungs.
Marcus himself waited a while before advancing any further. His own lungs burned and his breath struggled to keep up with his demand for air, but his legs troubled him worse. His knees wanted to buckle and the muscles, crying for oxygen, wobbled dangerously as he fought to stand upright.
Above him, Marcus could still hear the voices, library low as they drifted down the stairs to where he and Wilkey quietly gulped air. He thought the guards, for he knew that they were guards, could certainly hear his pounding heart, but if they did, they gave no indication. The voices of the gathering dwarves now far below, did not reach up this high into the tower although Marcus still felt that their time was very limited, even without the alarm being yet raised below.
Marcus, still not fully recovered from the long climb, turned to Wilkey. Holding the sword out slightly in his hands, he indicated to the halfling that he meant to advance upon the guards and Wilkey nodded, though he gave no sign that he meant to follow his friend into the fray.
Gripping the sword tightly, hoping he would find it easier to wield now that he had in the tunnels outside the city, Marcus moved slowly until he could just see the arm of one of the dwarves. He kept moving forward, picking up speed with each step he climbed, until the dwarves spotted him. Beyond the two dwarves, heavily armored and each carrying a stout war hammer, stood another solid wooden door. Marcus sincerely hoped that Heather lay just beyond, because he doubted he would have time to do a thorough search before the dwarves searching for him realized he might be here.
The first dwarf Marcus spotted, the one on his left, stopped speaking to the other in mid-sentence and pointed with a stubby finger. He stood in mute shock as Marcus closed in on him and the human took advantage of the opportunity. Driving forward with the sword, he gave the guard a hard slap across the face with the flat of the blade. The dwarf reeled against the wall, his armor clanging against the stone like an iron pot, before falling to the floor.
The second dwarf’s reaction came just as slowly as the first, but he had the added advantage of not being the first to be attacked. Pulling back his war hammer, he swung it in a diagonal arc, hoping to bat Marcus back down the stairs.
Marcus turned from the first dwarf just in time to see the hammer begin its deadly path. He flung himself against the floor, the edge of the steps biting painfully into his ribs and hips. The hammer just missed his head and he felt the wind from it part his hair in its wake.
The dwarf recovered quickly and brought the hammer in a backhand swing, forcing Marcus to roll painfully along the jagged steps to avoid the blow. The head of the weapon cracked against the steps just inches from him, sending up a shower of granite shards.
Marcus scrambled to his feet and saw the dwarf advancing, remaining a few steps above his opponent to have the advantage of high ground, an edge not often enjoyed by dwarves in open melee combat. He ducked another quick backhand blow, knowing he was outmatched in the matter of weapons, decided to try something more desperate.
As the dwarf prepared to launch another attack, Marcus rushed forward, flinging his sword aside as his shoulder drove into the dwarf’s abdomen. He could hear the wind being forced from the dwarf’s lungs and the attack that had been meant to propel him down the stairs pulled up short and only gave him a irritating, yet painful, smack in the shoulder blade.
Marcus grabbed the dwarf’s belt and, ignoring the flash of pain in his back, pulled upward with all his strength. At first, Marcus thought he would not have the muscle to lift the stout warrior off the ground, but all at once the heavy booted feet left the stone step and rose into the air. Feeling the momentum going his way, Marcus raised the dwarf up over his shoulder and, with a final push above his head, flipped him over his head. The dwarf cried in alarm, then fell silent as his face smashed against the stone step a few feet down the stairs. The heavy armor banged loudly as the dwarf rolled down the spiral stairway and out of sight.
Panting heavily, Marcus sat down upon the step and fought again to regain his breath.
Wilkey, who had stayed back through the encounter, staggered forward now and stood beside Marcus. He put out his small hand and patted his friend on the shoulder.
“Nice work,” the halfling said. “You might have a future as a warrior, after all.”
“Yeah, no thanks to your help,” Marcus retorted.
The halfling, who now inhaled and exhaled with normal regularity, studied the door behind Marcus. “You want me to pick it?” he asked.
“No,” Marcus answered, pulling himself slowly to his feet. “He’ll have a key.”
Marcus pointed at the dwarf lying unconscious against the wall. Wilkey walked over to him and searched briefly around his belt before withdrawing his hand with a jingling ring. He gave a cursory search of the half dozen keys before selecting the one he thought would fit the door. He slid the key into the hole, turned it, and heard the satisfying click of the lock opening.
Marcus picked up his dropped sword and pushed the door open, not knowing if more dwarves lay beyond waiting to ambush them should they get past the guards outside. None were. The room was long and oval in shape with a large mahogany table and chairs, reminding Marcus sharply of the board room at the SportsWorld home office. Several large windows lined the walls allowing a view of the grand meeting hall below. Now, Marcus could hear the voices again, an excited pitch coming from below that Marcus associated with major sporting events. He wondered if word had reached the crowd yet of his escape from the dungeons or if Chonis had tried to keep the information as quiet as possible in hopes of recapturing him before it became an issue—before the Necromancer came to claim him.
The room looked empty at first glance, but as Marcus stepped in he saw movement at the far end. A figure had been standing in the shadows between two of the windows and now moved out into the light. Holding his sword out before him, Marcus stared down the large conference table and faced this new threat with growing anxiety. That feeling ebbed though as he recognized the thin outline and chocolate eyes that he had hoped to find here.
“Heather!” he breathed.
Rushing forward, he took her into his arms and squeezed her. She squeezed him back and this time there was no hesitation in her affection. She clutched at him as though her very life depended on her ability to hold him close. He could feel her convulse as she began to sob into his chest and he held her out with his arms, looking into her spewing eyes.
“No time for that,” he told her. “We have to get out of here.”
Taking Heather’s hand, Marcus turned to lead her back to the staircase when he saw Wilkey slam it shut. Marcus pulled up short, causing Heather to run into him about halfway back to the door.
Wilkey sprinted around toward them, panic reflected clearly in his eyes.
“They’re here! They’ve found us!” he called as he moved past Marcus and Heather looking for another escape route.
Marcus realized then that the plan of holding Heather here had been a sound one, despite his earlier thoughts of how easy it had been to get to her. In this room, several hundred feet above the floor of the grand meeting hall and the hundreds or thousands of dwarves that gathered there, there were no other exits that the staircase which now was swarming with guards. Marcus could hear the thuds of their heavy boots as they ascended the stairs at an almost leisurely pace, knowing their prey was trapped.
Cursing himself for not being better prepared, Marcus scanned the room for anything that might be useful. He saw nothing—the room appeared empty save for the table and chairs. No other doors branched off from it. The ceiling and floor seemed to have been carved directly from the rock, solid and without door or shaft. The only other option, he saw, were the windows that led to a long fall and a quick death.
A loud boomed shook the room as someone pounded on the door to the room. The dwarves had arrived.
“Marcus, come out an’ we swear we’ll not kill ya.”
Marcus recognized the voice as that of Chonis. The king must be panicked, he thought, to be taking up this mission himself. He knew the king would be true to his word. He had told Marcus that he himself had no intention of killing them. That privilege would fall to the Necromancer, due to arrive at any time.
When Marcus did not answer, another hard blow fell on the door and Marcus could hear the wood beginning to splinter. Heather grasped at him, terrified. Looking around desperately, he began to form a plan, one he knew had little chance of success and would likely result in a very messy death. Still, Marcus felt that a messy death would be preferable to an interminable undeath serving the Necromancer.
Pulling free of Heather’s arms, he walked around the perimeter of the room. Ignoring the pounding at the door, he examined the windows that surrounded them, looking out below at the rowdy rows of dwarves awaiting the execution of the humans and, possibly, the elf. Marcus paused briefly to think of Lorelei. He wondered where she was being kept and almost began to weep at the knowledge that he would not have the opportunity to search for her. Their only hope was to get away from the dwarves, with or without his childhood friend.
He continued to look out the windows. Standing side by side, Wilkey and Heather stared at him with concern, as though the stress had finally cracked his good sense and he was just sightseeing while he waited for the inevitable.
Perhaps I have cracked, he thought, although they’re really going to think I’ve lost it when I tell them my plan.
The door to the room gave another loud crack, but still held. Marcus could see the flickering of the torches outside in the stairwell, but for the first time in his life he thanked the dwarves for building such sturdy things.
“Both of you, come here,” he told Heather and Wilkey, who complied with only a questioning look revealing their doubts. They joined Marcus at the end of the room away from the door.
Marcus studied the ornate chair at the head of the table, the well-oiled wood looking old and valuable. He grabbed it and picked it up, straining to raise its bulk from floor as he had done with the dwarf outside the room. Setting it on top of the table, he turned to Heather and Wilkey.
“I’m going to throw this through the window,” he said. “Then, we’re going to follow it.”
Simultaneous cries of “What?” and “Are you crazy?” erupted from his companions, but they were partially drowned out by another loud rapport from the door. A large chunk of wood fell in and now he could see the heads of the dwarves trying to break in, their faces full of rage and excitement.
When they continued to protest, Marcus cut off the woman and the halfling. “Look, it’s our only chance. When we start to drop, we all need to hold and hands and focus on the woods at the base of the mountain, where we made our camp after the inn. I think we can teleport there if we concentrate hard enough.”
“And if we don’t concentrate hard enough?” Heather asked as another blow shook the door and sent another large piece of wood into the room..
Marcus stared at her. “Then remember that I love you.”
Heather had no response to this. Instead, she nodded, resigning herself to Marcus’s judgment. Standing beside her, Wilkey had gone pale beneath his black hair and only blinked as Marcus looked at him to determine whether or not he would go along with the plan. Marcus accepted his lack of objection as acceptance.
The dwarves hammered against the door again and this time, the splintered wood gave way. Led by Chonis, a dozen armed warriors flooded into the room and began walking around the table on both sides toward their captives.
Marcus moved quickly, grabbing the heavy chair and flinging it with his entire body like a contestant in a hammer throw competition. The chair struck the window and shattered it, appearing to hover in mid air a moment before dropping from sight.
The dwarves, seeing but not quite believing what Marcus intended to do, slowed for a moment before rushing forward to keep their prey from escaping.
Taking Wilkey’s hand in his left and Heather’s in his right, Marcus led them forward and leaped from the broken window. Like the chair, there was a moment of weightlessness that reminded Marcus of every Wile E. Coyote cartoon he had ever seen. Then, they were falling, the ground rushing up to meet them, pushing the wind before it.
To the two thousand or so dwarves gathered in the great meeting hall, the suspense leading up to the execution of the invaders was reaching a fevered pitch. They knew any moment that the powerful wizard known to the surface world as the Necromancer would arrive and demand the possession of the prisoners they thought to be safely locked away in the dungeons. The prisoners would then be brought to the platform at the center of the meeting hall and publicly executed in a triumph of dwarven solidarity that would ally them with the Necromancer and ensure his conquests would not include their subterranean home.
The time for the execution, though, had come and gone and now the dwarves began to feel anxious. They had no idea what the delay could be. They had seen neither the prisoners, led by their king, or the Necromancer, and so they waited impatiently for the arrival of either or both.
The din of voices, growing louder and louder with each passing moment of waiting, drowned out the sound of glass breaking from the room at the very top of the spire. Few even knew of the room’s existence high in the shadows of the tower’s peak and those who did knew it only as a room used by the king for important meetings that could not be held in the palace.
Several, however, observed the chair as it fell through the air and crashed on the stone floor below. The volume of the voices in the meeting hall dropped for a moment while confusion spread like a plague from those who saw the chair fall to those who did not. The dwarves stared in wonder at the chair and wondered where it came from and what it had to do with the execution of prisoners. Perhaps, some thought, this is some sort of symbolic beginning to the festivities.
Many dwarves were staring up in to the shadowy heights of the tower, trying to see where the chair had come from, when they saw another dark form begin to plummet toward the stone floor. As it fell, the form passed into the range of light from the many torches that lit the higher walls of the tower and the dwarves below realized that the two humans and the halfling, the prisoners to be executed, were hurtling to their deaths. A scream of triumph rose in the crowd. This was certainly not what they had expected, but a death was still a death and they cheered it madly.
The three figures appeared to gain speed as they drew closer to the ground. The dwarves could see that the human male was in the middle with the female and a halfling on either side. They had not heard of a halfling being executed as well, but considered this as an added bonus. The dwarves held any who invaded their home in the utmost contempt.
The dwarves began to sit up slowly. Each wanted an unobstructed view of the prisoners as they splatted onto the stone platform below. Each wanted to hear the cracking of bones as three enemies of the dwarves received what they deserved.
The prisoners fell, hand in hand, as the dwarves cheered. At first, none of the onlookers saw the blue glow that surrounded them, but as they continued down the aura surrounding them grew more and more intense until, at the moment of impact, it erupted into a flash of brilliant light. All the dwarves looked away, unable to bear the radiance even to see the prisoners meet their doom. None of them heard, either, the satisfying smashing of bones upon the stone platform.
Slowly, the eyes of the two thousand dwarves cleared and readjusted to the torchlight that normally filled the meeting hall. As their vision cleared, they looked at the platform to see the remains of the three recipients of their harsh justice and as they did, a loud murmur of awe and anger rose up from them.
The three prisoners had vanished, leaving no trace behind them.
Less than five minutes after the three prisoners had made their miraculous escape, King Chonis Kosphor stood in the center of the great meeting hall and tried to quell the fury of his raging subjects. He could barely hear his own voice above the shouts all around him and he knew that he might have to resort to far more dramatic measures to be heard and bring order to the hall.
To the side of the room, a large gong stood ready for just such an occasion. Chonis hoped he would not have to use it; it was dreadfully loud and always gave him a headache when he had been forced to employ it to be heard. On its polished brass surface, the image of a war hammer, its head surrounded by lines that represented rays of light, shone in relief and symbolized the power of the dwarven kingdom.
Looking at the gong, Chonis wondered what the escape of three prisoners in the midst of the entire dwarven population said about that power.
Lost in thought, the king was slow to notice the voices around him beginning to taper off. He looked up into the crowd and began to see many of the dwarves staring in his direction. A number of those who were looking at him turned and engaged others that were not, causing them to also turn their attention toward the dwarven king. Within a few minutes, the entire room was silent once again and all eyes were upon Chonis Kosphor.
Or at least he thought they were.
A dreadful cold radiated from behind him and Chonis, having felt that chill before, knew now what had caught the attention of his subjects. A lump settled in his throat and, despite his efforts, he could not swallow it down. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and began to trickle down his face in tiny rivulets of fear. Even the room around him seemed to grow darker, the torches burning lower until only a faint glow lit the room.
Chonis turned slowly and faced the entrance to the meeting hall. What he saw made him recoil in horror, made his knees give out completely and send him crashing to the stone floor. He tried to cover his eyes, but he could not remove his gaze from the spectacle before him. After a few moments of watching, he realized that he had stopped breathing, but had to force himself to resume the life-giving activity.
As he had expected, the Necromancer had entered the meeting hall, his black robes billowing in a breeze that no one else could feel. However, it was the sight of what accompanied the evil wizard that shocked and, much deeper, enraged the dwarf king. Dozens of dwarves, wet and decaying, shuffled into the meeting hall, their red eyes staring mutely at their former king. Chonis scanned the dead as they entered and began to surround him. Beyond the points of light that replaced their eyes, the king found that he recognized some of the corpses—former magistrates who had served him, servants from his palace, old friends—although he could tell that none of them remembered him. He guessed that the Necromancer had found some way to access every dwarven tomb from the last several years and enlist their occupants for his dark bidding, awaiting the time when he would call for them. Chonis at last realized the truth he would not allow himself to see before, the truth that Marcus had preached to him in the dungeons.
The Necromancer swept up the few steps to stand on the platform facing Chonis. The dwarven king could not see any detail of the face beneath the hood, only deep shadow that made him wonder if the person inside was even alive at all. He could feel the power that rested in that shadow, though, and taking one more glance around him at the dead dwarves that surrounded the platform where he and their master stood, he could see the effect of such power as well.
“I understand there is a problem with the prisoners,” the Necromancer said in a dry voice. The words formed more of a statement than a question and Chonis wondered how the wizard had come by that information so quickly. Considering, he decided that he was probably better off not knowing.
“They . . . they escaped,” Chonis said in barely a whisper, but his voice carried to every pair of ears in the meeting hall. No one else made a sound.
The Necromancer did not move, his hooded head still gaping at the dwarven monarch. “That is a very unfortunate piece of news, Chonis.”
His voice (Chonis assumed by the sound that the figure inside the black robes was male, though he could not be sure) was level, atonal. The dwarven king thought he detected a slight twinge in it that could have been amusement, or irritation. Either way, Chonis did not like it.
“Very unfortunate, indeed,” the Necromancer continued.
As the words trailed away in his brain, Chonis heard another sound that nearly stopped his heart. Although the sounds seemed to come from far away, he heard the doors to the meeting hall slam shut. He knew also that no amount of dwarven muscle would open those doors until the Necromancer wished them to open.
All around him, his subjects seemed to be thinking the same thing. Overcoming their horror at the Necromancer’s army of the dead, their dead, Chonis started to hear shouts of outrage. Somewhere far within himself, the dwarven king felt a flicker of pride hiding behind the all-consuming feeling of dread that had come over him. He knew beyond doubt that an unimaginable catastrophe was about to befall his people, but the sound of their anger, their will to stand up against such tremendous power, produced a warmth in him that not even the chill of death could extinguish.
At that moment, the catastrophe manifested itself and Chonis found not only the internal warmth of his pride, but also the external heat of fire. Despite the water dripping from their clothing, the dead dwarves all around him burst into flame. The crackling noise they made cut through the screams of horror in the audience like veins in a leaf.
Chonis tore his gaze away from the blackness inside the Necromancer’s hood, and looked around the meeting hall. Ringed in a circle of flame and smoke, he could barely see the terrified looks on the faces of all his subjects. The pillars of fire around him, no longer recognizable as dwarves, dead or alive, began to move outward away from the platform in the center of the hall and slowly into the crowd. Dwarves trampled one another, all sense of community and brotherhood lost in their flight toward the nearest exit. Those who reached the doors first found them sealed and were soon pressed painfully against them as more and more streamed in behind them.
The dwarven king watched as the fire raged out among his people, consuming all in its path. The screams of terror mingled with the screams of the dying and all rose in a symphony of death that chilled Chonis’s blood despite the roaring conflagration. After only a few minutes that seemed like a lifetime, the last of the shrieks died away and Chonis knew that he alone, of the entire dwarven nation, survived.
In the midst of the smoke and flame, Chonis Kosphor, last king of the dwarves, stood upon the stone platform in what he now knew to be the great tomb of his people. The air around him remained miraculously clear, giving him an unobstructed view of the evil force that had brought down ruination upon him. Impotent fury rose up from his middle. He wanted to fly forward and exact vengeance upon the Necromancer, to defend his people to the last even though there were none left to defend. Still, his limbs would not respond and, finally, his stout will gave in to hopelessness. Falling to his knees, Chonis looked up at the black-robed figure and waited to rejoin his subjects.
The Necromancer, his cloak flying in the flame-whipped wind, stood before the dwarven king. He spoke and his voice carried above the fire and the crumbling of the meeting hall around them as though it came from inside Chonis’s mind.
“Very unfortunate,” he repeated. Then, the dark figure disappeared, leaving the last dwarf alone with the ruins of his kingdom.
Chonis looked around him and realized that he only had moments to live. Large pieces of granite began to fall all around him. They formed large craters in the floor where they landed before disappearing within the smoke. Looking up, he could see far above him the small room where the human girl had been kept before her miraculous escape with Marcus.
Thinking of Marcus, the king realized how right the human had been. He had acted in what he thought was the best interest of his people and had slain them all. Marcus had seen that result, but Chonis himself refused to believe him. Now, as the room at the top of the tower fell and crushed him, his only hope was that Marcus could find some way to stop the Necromancer from ruling all.