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The Fate of the Dwarves, Page 2

Markus Heitz

  Goda sighed. “Today’s not one of your best orbits, Ireheart.”

  He stopped, placed his crow’s beak on the ground and took her hands in his. “Forgive me, wife. But seeing the shield collapse like that, and then seeing how long it took to repair itself, it’s really got me worried. I can easily be unfair when I’m troubled.” He gave a faint smile to ask for forgiveness. She smiled in her turn.

  They marched to the tower and went down in the lift, which worked with a system of counterweights and winches.

  One hundred heavily armed ubariu warriors were waiting for them at the fortress gates.

  Ireheart scanned their faces. Even after all those cycles they were still foreign to him. It had never felt right to forge friendships with a people who looked for all the world like orcs. Only bigger.

  Their eyes shone bright red like little suns. In contrast to Tion’s creatures, the ubariu kept themselves very clean and their character was different too, because they had turned their back on evil and on random cruelty to others—at least that was what the undergroundlings claimed. The undergroundlings were the dwarves of the Outer Lands…

  And even if there had never been cause for doubt, Ireheart’s nature would never allow him to lay aside his scruples and accept them as equals, as friends. For himself, in contrast to how his wife and children felt, they would never be more than military allies.

  Goda gave him a little push and he pulled himself together. He knew his reservations were unjustified, but he couldn’t help it. Vraccas had hammered a hatred of orcs and all of Tion’s creatures into the Girdlegard dwarves. The ubariu had the misfortune to look like evil—and yet there was no way round it: They had to work together to guard the Black Abyss.

  Ireheart gave the gatekeeper a signal.

  Shouts were heard, strong arms moved chains and pulley ropes to set the heavy cogs in motion to open the main door. With a screech of iron the massive gate, eleven paces by seven, rose up to make a gap through which the column of soldiers could march out toward the artifact.

  “We’ll check the edges of the shield today,” Ireheart told Pfalgur, the ubari standing next to him. “I wouldn’t put it past these beasts to have dug an escape tunnel. You go one way, we’ll take the other. I’ll start at the artifact. You get along.”

  “Understood, general,” the ubari’s deep voice responded, passing on the orders.

  They traversed the basin that held the Black Abyss. The sides were smooth and black as colored glass, and steep paths led off to the right and left, ending at the protective sphere.

  Ireheart turned right toward the artifact; the ubari led his troops in the other direction.

  While Goda used her telescope to inspect in minute detail both the diamond and the structure, which was enclosed in the same kind of energy dome as the abyss itself, Ireheart went over to the corpse of the abyss creature. On this side of the barrier lay the ugly thin legs that didn’t look capable of ever having walked properly in those heavy boots. On the other side Ireheart could vaguely make out its upper body, pierced with arrows. Greenish blood had formed puddles and little rivulets.

  “Stupid freak,” he said under his breath, kicking the creature’s left leg. “Your moment of freedom only brought you death.” Ireheart looked up and stared into the chasm. “Did you come on your own when you saw the shield was failing?” he asked quietly, as if the creature could hear him.

  “Boïndil!” he heard Goda call, her voice excited.

  Something wrong with the diamond? He was just about to turn round to speak to her when he thought he noticed a movement in the darkness.

  Ireheart stopped and stared fixedly.

  The strength of the magic barrier was making his mustache hairs stand on end. Or was it that feeling of unease?

  “Boïndil, come on!” his wife called, attempting to get his attention again. “I’ve got something to…”

  Ireheart raised his right hand to show he had heard her but that he needed quiet. His brown eyes searched the twilight for vague figures.

  Once more he noticed a slight scurrying movement—something going from one rock to the next. There it came again. And yet another!

  There was no doubt in his mind that more monsters were creeping up. Had they sensed the poor state of the barrier? Did they have the advantage here with their animal instincts?

  “I want…” he called over his shoulder. Surprise cut off his words. Wasn’t that a dwarf helmet?

  “This confounded distortion!” he yelled, taking a step forward. Standing dangerously close to the sphere, such that he could hear the humming sound it made, its pitch varying, he called out in a mix of hope and expectation. “Tungdil?” He nearly laid his hand on the energy screen; then gulped in distress. His throat had never felt so constricted before. “Vraccas, don’t let my eyes be deceiving me,” he prayed.

  Then a huge pale claw, as broad as three castle gates, appeared out of the shadows, and gave a thundering blow to the sphere, producing a dull echo. The ground shook.

  Ireheart jumped back with a curse, hitting out with his weapon as a reflex. The steel head of the crow’s beak crashed against the barrier, but ineffectually. “The kordrion is back!” he bellowed, noting with grim satisfaction that the alarm trumpets on the battlements immediately sounded a warning to the soldiers to man the catapults. All those drills he made them do were paying off.

  The pale claw curled, its long talons scraping along the inner side of the shield, creating bright yellow sparks. Then the kordrion retreated and a wall of white fire rolled in, slapping up against the barrier like a wave and washing all around.

  Ireheart retreated, dazzled, stumbling backwards to the artifact. “It won’t hold for long,” he shouted to Goda. “The beasts know it and they’re gathering.”

  “The diamond!” she called back. “It’s crumbling!”

  “What? Not now, in Vraccas’s name!” At last he could see again: Behind the force wall stood a range of monsters brandishing weapons! “Oh, you fiendish…”

  Most were like that creature that had been cut in half; but there were others, significantly broader in the beam, much stronger and terrifying in appearance. No nightmare could have come up with better.

  “By Vraccas,” Ireheart breathed, bereft that his friend, Tungdil, had not come, after all. He issued brisk orders to the ubariu, telling them to spread out in front of the artifact to protect Goda. The warriors formed a wall of bodies, iron and shields, their lances pointing forward like so many defensive tentacles. Ireheart turned to Goda and saw that she was touching the shimmering sphere. “What’s happening?” he called.

  She was deathly pale. “A piece… of the diamond has come away,” she stammered. “I can’t hold it…”

  There was a loud crack, like the noise of ice breaking. They all stared at the jewel. It had suddenly gone a darker color and there was a distinct fissure on its surface. The barrier fizzed and flickered. Layer upon layer was flaking off the edges of the diamond and falling to the ground. It was nearing the end.

  “Get back!” commanded Ireheart. “Get back to the fort! We stand no chance here.” He took Goda’s hand and ran with her. In recent cycles he had grown to know the difference between courage and the insanity that used to overtake him in battle. His sons, too, had needed to learn the same lesson. The madness wasn’t something he was proud of handing on to them.

  The ubariu warriors kept pace with them, even though they could easily have covered the distance much more swiftly than the dwarves. Goda found it well-nigh impossible to tear herself away from the artifact, but was dragged along by her colleagues.

  With a brilliant flash and an ear-splitting detonation the diamond burst apart, the force of the explosion bringing the whole structure down. Parts of the vertical iron circles broke off and flew through the air to bury themselves in the ground several paces off. The ends were glowing. There must have been incredible heat involved.

  At the same time—the barrier at the Black Abyss fell!

; The maga could clearly see the army of beasts—there was no immovable power to hold them back now. The wind carried an unbelievable stink over to her, a mixture of excrement, stale blood and sour milk. Grayish white clouds of dust and bone meal flurried up like mist in front of the somber rock face. Figures appeared out of the fog.

  Behind the army the pale dragon-like head of the kordrion reared up out of the chasm, horns and spikes erect. The four gray upper eyes were assessing the walls of the fortress as if to judge what weaponry might be used against it and its followers. The two lower blue eyes beneath the long bony muzzle were fixed on the ubariu and the fleeing dwarves.

  “Vraccas!” exclaimed Goda, who was gathering her magic powers ready for defense. She had spotted a helmet among the first row of smaller monsters—a helmet as worn by children of the Smith.

  Then a dwarf stepped forward, head to foot in dark armor made of tionium; glimmering inlay patterns glowed in turn. The creatures all drew back in respect.

  In his right hand he held a weapon that was a legend in Girdlegard and the Outer Lands alike, black as the blackest shadow and longer than a human arm. On one side the blade was thicker and had long thin teeth like a comb, and on the other side it thinned out like a sword.

  “Bloodthirster,” breathed Goda and stopped in her tracks. Ireheart was brought to a halt. He turned—and froze. Words failed him.

  The dwarf in the night-colored armor raised his left hand to lift his visor. A familiar face with a golden eye patch could be seen, but the features were hard and marked with bitterness. His cold, cruel smile promised death. Then he held his weapon aloft and looked to the right and to the left. The creatures responded with shouts.

  “Vraccas defend us: He has returned!” whispered Goda in horror. “Returned as the Commander of Evil!”

  At that moment discordant trumpets blared out from the abyss, echoing off the bare rock. The kordrion opened its muzzle to utter a furious roar.


  The Outer Lands,

  The Black Abyss,

  Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

  Ireheart stared at his friend, so sorely missed and so eagerly awaited, and now there he was at the head of an army of fiendish demons. With his black armor on his back, Bloodthirster in his hand and an icy expression on his face, Tungdil seemed to have found his ideal setting. He belonged.

  “But it can’t be,” Ireheart exclaimed, unable to take it in. “That’s not him! May Vraccas be my witness. That isn’t my Tungdil Goldhand!” He looked at Goda helplessly. “It’s not him,” he repeated, as if he were trying to convince himself. “It’s a hallucination—a specter sent to scare us.” As his despair turned to fury he raised his crow’s beak, powerful rage getting the better of him again like in the old days. He was not about to resist the urge. “I’m going to smash it to pieces!”

  This time it was Goda’s turn to calm him. “No, Boïndil!” She faced him courageously, taking his face in her hands and staring into the brown eyes that flashed with madness and hot temper. “Hear my words, husband! This is not the time. We must get back to the fortress. Out here we’re…”

  Her speech was swallowed by the crashing of the catapults. Stones, arrows and spears were hurtling from fortress platforms and battlements; they flew over the heads of ubariu and dwarves, darkening the winter sunlight and casting shadows on the handful of defenders by the gate, before finding their mark in the ravine.

  Metallic clashes rang out as iron spears rained on shields or penetrated helmets and armor; then came the victims’ screams and the thud of missiles landing among the serried ranks of beasts. This was the very essence of battle, overlaid as it was with the intense smell of blood.

  Goda knew this was only the beginning. Worse was to come. Soon the defending garrison would be adding their screams to the cacophony of death.

  “Come with me,” she begged Ireheart, pressing a kiss on his brow as missiles flew overhead. Smoking firebrands were launched, hissing into the air to burst against the steep walls of the Black Abyss and drench the monsters and the raging kordrion with burning liquid.

  Believing Boïndil’s spasm of fury had subsided, Goda slackened her grip, but he pushed her aside and raced over to the enemy lines with a bloodcurdling yell and the crow’s beak raised high.

  For the dwarf-woman this was all too fast—she tumbled to the ground. “No!” she shouted in her fright, trying in vain to hold him back. She turned. “Yagur, after him! Keep him safe!” she commanded. Without a moment’s hesitation, the ubariu leader charged after the general to give backup; no easy task given the enemy’s superior numbers.

  Goda got to her feet and gathered her magic power so that she could help her husband from a distance.

  Ireheart wasn’t thinking anymore.

  He was seeing his world through a blood-red mask and the only spot in the whole scene that he could clearly distinguish was the hideous phantom impersonating his best friend, Tungdil. He was not going to allow this vile infamy to persist. You must not be Tungdil! Not on their side!

  The ringing in his ears masked the noise of battle. He was so overcome with the need to destroy the phantom and then to hurl himself on the opposing forces that he could no longer think clearly. It was too much for a warrior like himself, whose hot blood surged through his veins like molten rock through underground tunnels. And he did not even want to control himself.

  Some of the spears and arrows landed near him, falling short of their intended targets. The soldiers at Evildam were sticking to the letter of their commander’s instructions, even if he himself was acting contrary to his own orders. He was seeking to engage the enemy on open ground instead of running for the fortress to repel the approaching army of beasts from the safety of the stronghold’s mighty walls.

  Ireheart found himself less than ten paces away from the enemy. They hadn’t stirred from their positions and were waiting at the exit to the ravine.

  Enemy reinforcements clambered out over the bodies of fallen comrades, putting out fires with sand and bone dust. As soon as one creature fell, another ghastly monster took its place. The chasm apparently held an endless number of them. It was a nest of horrors.

  As far as Ireheart could see, they were keeping their distance from the false Tungdil figure, as if he were surrounded by an invisible dome of respect and awe. “Whatever you are, I’m going to wipe you out!” he yelled, and with an earsplitting cry of fury he swung the crow’s beak high over his head.

  The two blue eyes on the underside of the kordrion’s muzzle focused on Ireheart for a moment and then turned on the black-armored form of Tungdil, who swiveled away from the fighting-mad Ireheart to face the gigantic monster, the runes on his armor glowing.

  The kordrion screamed, and it sounded… afraid?

  Before Boïndil could reach him, Tungdil had leaped forward onto one of the monsters’ corpses; he jumped onto another close by and used a thick spear jutting out of the body as a springboard to reach a position on top of a huge boulder. From there his path took him to the next boulder and the next until he had passed along to the head of the army as if on stepping stones in a stream. Now he was close to the kordrion’s throat. The cowering beast recoiled, hissing sharply.

  Unable to hold back the blow he’d been waiting to deliver, Ireheart released it against one of the monsters racing toward him. This one seemed like a cross between an oversize reptile and a very fat orc, with the arms of a gnome stuck on to its sides. But it was still wielding a sword and shield with aplomb.

  The flat head of the crow’s beak shattered both shield and thin arm holding it, then smashed right into the ribcage; the beast fell dead in the dust.

  Ireheart held off his next adversaries by whirling his weapon round in circles, liberally dealing out injury and death among them. All the time he ensured that the supposed Tungdil remained in sight. He was steadfastly refusing to assume that it might yet be his battle companion from the past but his confidence was starting to fade. What in the name of Vraccas is he up to?r />
  Suddenly Yagur and the other ubariu were at his side fighting evil’s misbegotten monsters, which in spite of their superior numbers seemed to be holding back, awaiting the order to storm the fortress en masse. Only a few of the creatures were venturing to attack and they paid with their lives. Some arrows, meanwhile, glanced off the huge shields the ubariu carried while others were halted in mid-air, falling ineffectually to the ground. Goda’s magic.

  “We’ll have to go back, General,” Yagur insisted, as he sliced his opponent down the middle with a wild sword thrust; Yagur jabbed through the falling body to reach the next oncomer. The second ubariu patrol joined them, strengthening their numbers.

  Ireheart looked up at the black-clad dwarf wielding Bloodthirster in both hands to attack the kordrion. The strangely shaped blade cut through the creature’s putrid grayish skin to release a river of blood.

  The kordrion emitted a roar that shook Ireheart to the core and almost paralyzed him. The thunder of the creature’s mighty voice all but caused the work of battle to cease and the walls of the ravine shook under its reverberations.

  Everything was still…

  … apart from the dwarf in the dark tionium armor!

  He clanged the visor on his helmet, not caring about the blood streaming over his head.

  It is him after all! He was just waiting for the right moment to show us who he is! At the sight of the dwarf’s face Ireheart could no longer doubt this was his best friend returning at last to his side. He had missed him so badly. He wanted nothing more than to believe that this was Tungdil. The heroic and selfless conduct displayed in the assault on the kordrion was typical of the dwarf who had triumphed in the past in so many battles for Girdlegard. And there was probably a very good explanation to account for Tungdil’s completely different set of armor—armor that reminded Ireheart of Djern. Time for all that later. Now for the fight!

  But when, next moment, Tungdil was bathed in the kordrion’s white fire and swallowed up by bright flames, Boïndil gave up the hero for lost. He knew exactly what those flames would do, even though his experience of them had been over two hundred and fifty cycles previously. Even if the tionium withstood the fire, the heat inside the armor would roast the wearer alive. He remembered finding the body of his twin brother…