(part 1 of 2)
Ra’s Glory was beginning to set when Shadarach led them further down river to a recess in the cliff face. Here the rock face was black and more jagged. A large brown boulder that had obviously been dragged from somewhere else was wedged in a crack at the end of the recess.
“It ish guh dit we guh back under duh muntun,” Kazrack said. He ran his fingers through his beard to comb out the drool that saturated it whenever he spoke.
“Do you trust this guy, Ratchis?” Dorn asked. He wiped the sweat from his brow and slipped his helmet over his curly brown hair.
“I think he is living a simple life and what he says is what he means,” Ratchis reasoned. “I think that if he meant us harm, he would say so and act that way.”
“Uh juss wun uh know ooh ease dwarves ‘at polluted the land were,” Kazrack said.
“They were probably just miners,” Ratchis said. “Dwarves like any other dwarves.”
“Uh think et is dwarves that betrayed uh ways of ur people,” Kazrack frowned. “Iss man seem tuh uh taken uh luckening tuh you. Would yuh mund delving intuh who these dwarves were?”
“I think you interpretation is strange,” Ratchis replied.
“Kazrack, it is not like dwarves are known for their concern for the wood and the wild,” Martin the Green said, butting in.
Again, Kazrack frowned.
Shadarach grunted cupped his large calloused hands around his mouth and bellowed. A few minutes later, the largest of the bears arrived, sniffing at the Fearless Manticore Killers as he came past them. Dorn stepped away nervously. The woodsman pulled a leather harness from a sack he carried and gently put it on the bear. It was attached to some ropes with metal claws tied to the ends and in that way the great boulder was pulled out of the crack.
He took the harness off the bear, and whacked it on the rump and it took off.
“If you have a spell that increases your strength, use it now,” Shadarach said to Ratchis. “I will need your aid to re-seal it. It must be kept seal so that orcs do not emerge.”
“There are orcs…in the tunnel?” Martin gulped.
“I will lead you to the spawning grounds. There are few there, and you may be lucky and not meet any, except perhaps some of their women,” Shadarach addressed all his comments to Ratchis as always. “The women of your
folk are queens when compared to the black orcs that spawn here.”
There was a long silence.
“And there will be orc children there?” Beorth asked, as they moved through the crack one by one into the dark tunnel beyond.
“This lids tuh un intesting question,” Kazrack said. “If you have the chance tuh uradicate uh people, would you? They ur vile, yes, but cun we kill children?”
Ratchis looked at Kazrack but said nothing.
“The black orc spawn will be as thick as insects down there,” Shadarach said. “Their early years they do nothing but crawl in the filth of their people and fight for the meager scraps and even kill and eat each other so that only the strong survive. It is said that even as infants, some gain such a taste for their mother’s teat that they will tear the flesh from her and devour it.”
“That makes uh deshishun eashier,” Kazrack said.
The tunnel beyond the crack in the cliff face quickly narrowed. The others waited as Shadarach and Ratchis used the harness to drag the boulder back in place. The surrounding stone protested, and dust filled the crevasse making all but Kazrack and Shadarach cough.
In a moment they were in an oppressive darkness. The sound of dripping water echoed in the distance above them.
Beorth and Dorn lit torches. Shadarach led the way with Ratchis right behind him. The others were staggered out, though Ratchis warned several times for everyone to remain close. The half-ogre led them through the narrow tunnel past a maze of fissures and cracks. In places the ceiling was so long, the half-ogre had to get on his knees to pass, while at others the crack extended way above them out of the reach of the light of the torches. The walls were cold and wet, and the uneven ground was slick in many place weaving left and right, but moving consistently up, though many of the passages they passed seemed to go down into bottomless abysses.
“I hate these kinds of places,” Flora complained.
“Don’t worry, honey I’ll keep you safe,” Gunthar whispered.
They came to a wide tunnel that seemed to have been carved from the black stone as opposed to created by water and shifting rock like all the other they had passed or gone through. Shadarach signaled for them to wait and then hurried into it and up to the right, disappearing for several minutes. He returned and gestured for them to hurry and make no sound.
Forty feet up this worked tunnel they cut to the left again down another narrow crack. Ratchis waited at the opening and made sure every one made it past, and then squeezed his way back up to the front to catch up with the guide.
“Soon you will see the true measure of your people’s evil, Ratchis,” Shadarach whispered to him. “Lest the all your time among the men you serve has made you forget where you come from.”
“I do not serve men,” Ratchis replied coldly.
“Heh. You are poisoned by words,” Shadarach said. “You lead them from place to place and fight to protect their towns and books and walls, convinced by their many meanings and fancy words, even as they seek to stab at the bosom of nature. You can believe in the oaths of civilization, but civilization can do naught but devour… Poisoned by words, weakened… You are less yourself all the time. I have seen it before.”
Ratchis did not reply.
And on and on they went. The torches went out and were not re-lit, instead they bumbled through the darkness, hand in the shoulder of the person before them. Light would be too dangerous, Shadarach warned. At one point, they made they way up a narrow curved stair carved in a style that Kazrack recognized as uniquely dwarven, ‘the stair cut’ was one of the first cuts learned by an apprentice stone-cutter like himself, and was common to both dwarven mines and citadels. (1)
They had been marching nearly five hour without a break when they first heard the echo of harsh voices. There was momentary panic, and weapons were drawn.
“Not yet,” Shadarach said. “They are distant and do not hear us. But soon…”
Another hour had passed, when the narrow curving passage they travel down single file emptied into another broad hall that ran nearly perpendicular to the way they were traveling. Shadarach stepped out and moved across the hall and up a bit to the right. Ratchis followed, and Kazrack was close behind.
Suddenly, from down this thirty foot wide hall came snarling voices. Ratchis could just barely make out complaints about being left out of the surface hunts through the thick black orc accent. (2)
“Orc voices!” Ratchis hissed to Kazrack. “Pass it down. Make sure Gunthar keeps his voice to a whisper.”
“Nun-wurriers! Muv mack shash! Uh ill ‘old uh pussuge,” Kazrack said to Martin who was just emerging into the wide tunnel. The watch-mage turned around and herded Dorn and Bones back down the passage.
“If ya see something point it out,” Gunthar stumbled past the three of them to get through the opening and drew his swords. Beorth who had a hand on his shoulder followed.
“Hey! Stop pushing! I want to kill some orcs,” Bones complained, drawing his own short sword.
“Bones, be quiet!” Flora chastised, as she reached out to grab on to them and move away from the tunnel as well.
In the darkness there was the twang of bows, as Ratchis let loose with an arrow and Kazrack fired his crossbow at the surprised orcs that came around the bend.
Kazrack’s bolt buried itself deep in an orc’s neck and it fell, while Ratchis turned away to cast a spell, making his arrow go askew.
“Nephthys! Grant me light!” Ratchis called to his goddess and planted a hand on Beorth’s helmet; a bright light then emanated from it, revealing their horrid foes.
Before them were seven orcs unlike any in the group had eve seen before. They had ashen pock-marked and scarred skin, blackened at the neck and joints with large translucent eyes. They had the protruding jaw of high orcs, and broad shoulders, but were even more misshapen and walked with an uneven gait, as their bodies were lean. Their ears were pointed like elves, but look as if they had been violently chewed on since birth, and the hair on their heads was greasy black and then. The black orcs wore corroded scale mail of gray and black metal, and carried beaten bronze shields.
They shrieked and drew javelins from quivers on their back, but another fell from another arrow from Ratchis’ bow.
Without a sound, Sadarach move towards the orcs, and two fell for the bait, and then fell on the ground, their skulls cleaved open by his the great axe her wielded in one hand, never getting close enough to strike their own blows.
One of the orcs that had been at the rear of their group let his javelin fly and it bounced painfully off the half-orc’s hide armor. Another threw at Kazrack, but missed completely.
A third orc turned to flee, but another arrow from Ratchis drove it to the rough tunnel floor.
In less than a moment, Sadarach had killed the last two.
“Dammit! I never got to kill even one,” Gunthar swore. “I hope it isn’t gonna be like this the whole time.”
Sadarach stripped the bodies, while Ratchis looked to retrieve what arrow he could. Gunthar took some javelins.
“What should we do about the bodies?” Ratchis asked. “Other orcs might discover them and will be alerted to our presence.”
“It will be a long time before any more come here, and even then dead orcs are not rare among their own kind,” Shadarach explained.
“I need to do something with their corpses,” Beorth said. “What are their death rituals like?”
Shadarach just walked away to continue to lead and the paladin looked to his half-orc companion for direction.
“They have none,” Ratchis said. “They leave them to rot, or for scavengers to eat them. It is part of their beliefs.”
“Very well,” Beorth acquiesced. “But I will say a short prayer for their damned souls.”
Shadarach led them at unflagging pace for another two and a half hours. The tunnels were much wider and taller now, though those without darkvision had no way of knowing. Ratchis’ light
spell had long run out, and Beorth had slipped his helm in a sack anyway. Kazrack noticed several dug out areas where he was certain scaffolds had once been built for mining, and one side passage had track laid for carts. Occasionally, they even came across the broken and rotting handle of a tool, or some moldering sacks and strips of leather.
They were all on the verge of exhaustion when Shadarch brought them to a rounded plateau nine feet above the tunnel floor. It was sixty feet across and had three passages leading beyond it. They all clambered up there.
“We go through the middle one, but first we rest,” Shadarach’s voice rumbled in the darkness. “Someone watch.”
“Shouldn’t we cump dun ‘un uh chunnels?” Kazrack said.
Shadarach began to roll out a fur to sleep on and did not respond.
“I think we need a choice of ways to go in case more orcs come,” Ratchis reasoned.
“I will use a spell to cover us,” Martin said. He cast silent image and made the area look as if it had been covered by a cave-in.
They risked some light to make a camp, and soon despite the danger, all but the watch-mage were sleeping, as exhaustion took them over.
Anulem, the 7th of Ter – 565 H.E.
Hours later, Shadarach waked them before Martin had had a chance to get his two hours of sleep. It was a truncated rest, and no one had time to replenish spells, if they even could; it was impossible to tell if it were night or day out.
The half-ogre led them down the center passage. Here the halls were carved and buttressed, though they showed signs of wear from the flow of water and moving of the earth. The halls were broken up by long wide steps by which they slowly ascended, though they could still feel the oppression of the tons and tons of rock above them.
A few hours later they came to a wide hall that looked like it was once reached by a stair-lined shaft on its right, beyond it was an archway that had thick cracked stone double doors ripped from its hinges long ago.
“Beyond here is spawning,” Shadarach said to Ratchis, while the others listened on. “Here Shadarach leaves you. It will be too long for me to get back to my lands otherwise. Here is a map.”
He pulled out a ragged piece of yellow stained cloth marked with charcoal and blood and handed it to Ratchis. It was folded up into a wad, and was moist to the touch.
Ratchis handed it to Martin.
“It smells,” he said as he unfolded it and examined the markings. “Where are we on it?”
Martin lit a torch to examine the map (3). It was marked with crude runes similar to those used by goblins, which he had learned to decipher at the Academy of Wizardry, though these were somewhat different.
Shadarach pointed to a point on the map. “This is the column room, you will find it directly ahead. Always stay to the left when faced when the passage splits off, but avoid any small cracks that just go that way.”
“And what is this?” asked Martin pointing to a green spot near the top of the map.
“That is slime column insect horde,” his big finger moved down the map. “This is spider wall.”
“And that?” asked Beorth looking over Martin shoulder and pointing to a crude skull rune.
“Death,” replied Shadarach.
“What are these pale men?” Martin asked, interpreting a rune on the top right of the map.
“Avoid them,” was all Shadarach said. “Now I leave you to rejoin the bears. Geb be with you.” (4)
There was long series of half-hearted good-byes to the half-ogre, as he walked past them to go back the way they came.
“Ratchis, may your heart and mind walk free of the shackles of men once more,” Shadarach grumbled, and then he was gone.
Martin made a few notes on the map of his interpretations of the runes based on what Shadarach had said.
Less than an hour later, still stumbling in the dark and now led by Ratchis with Martin right behind him, (and Kazrack keeping everyone penned in from the rear) they all heard the sounds of lapping water ahead.
“That must be the ‘passable water’ marked on the map,” Martin whispered.
Ratchis went to scout ahead. He hurried up a short broad stair silently, and came to an archway that once held stone double doors, long ago shattered off their hinges. Beyond was a great gallery flooded with black brackish water. The water level reached up to the jutting stone support the archway opened on to, but the vaulted ceiling was another thirty feet up from there. He guess the water might be as much as thirty feet deep.
While the place was crumbling and worn in many areas, it was certainly the most worked and had once been an impressive room indeed.
There were the remains of several columns, both jutting out of the water, and reaching down from the ceiling, that looked like they might allow someone skilled at jumping to leap from each to make their way across, but even Ratchis’ darkvision could not illuminate the other side of the long gallery to see if this was the case. The walls on the right and left were lined with many narrow steps and balconies that led to much smaller galleries and alcoves that seemed to stretch across the room as well. Everything was decorated with interwoven dwarven runes and images of hammers, anvils and hearths, though much of it looked like it had been intentionally scratched out. There did not seem an easy way to get over to either wall however.
Ratchis went back and reported this to the others.
“Leaping from column to column seems to dangerous,” Ratchis said as they made their way to the flooded gallery. “Especially since we don’t even know if some of those columns will hold us, and some of the jumps would be too far the weaker in the group.”
“That means you, snotling,” Gunthar said.
“Watch yourself,” Bones growled.
At gallery Martin cast levitation
on Ratchis and raised him up so that he might pull himself across the ceiling and check the other side of the room. It took a while, but he finally returned.
“It looks all clear,” Ratchis reported. “Now one by one you will grab on to me, Martin will raise me up, I will pull us over to the right gallery wall and we’ll make our across to the other side.”
Ratchis cast light
on his belt of chain links holy symbol.
Kazrack was first. He clutched on to his half-orc companion for dear life, eying the black water nervously.
“Dwarf sure likes to hump the pig-f*cker,” Gunthar laughed.
“Uh shay when we gut tuh Nikar, Uh guv um uh a lashin’,” Kazrack murmured to Ratchis as the half-orc grunted pulling them both across the small stretch of ceiling to the gallery wall like an ape. It was only a small stretch of about twenty feet.
Flora and Bones were brought over next, as Kazrack moved slowly along the gallery, pausing to look down a narrow hall that ended in small metal door, before passing it.
Suddenly, there was the distant sound of drums.
“They must know we’re here,” Martin the Green gulped.
“That big log of ogre-sh*te musta let them know we’re here!” Gunthar cursed loudly.
“Shut up, fool!” Ratchis admonished.
“Hurry Ratchis, Martin, keep doing what you are doing,” Beorth said, grabbing on to Ratchis to go next.
Flora followed Kazrack cautiously, while Bones could not resist creeping down the narrow hall to listen at the metal door. In a flash of light from Ratchis’ approach to the gallery wall, he could see it was broken and hung slightly off the top hinge.
Beorth was about to walk past an alcove, when he heard the suddenly sound of movement from within. He swung out with the masterwork quarterstaff he had taken from one of the monks down in the Pit of Bones, but the orc leapt over the blow and out on to a small adjacent balcony to give those orcs behind him room to come out on to the wall as well. It screeched and spun, dealing a deep blow to the paladin’s shoulder, and he stumbled back a bit as blood poured down his armor.
Several more orcs appeared from the mini-galleries further along, and began to rain arrows down at the group. These were smaller and more hunched than those they had faced before, but with the same ashen complexion and broad misshapen shoulders. Their black stringy hair hung from beneath their metal caps, and they wore armor of cured black leather.
“We need light!” Bones cried coming back out of the hall.
“Augh!” Gunthar cried out, as an arrow bit him in the dark. He, Dorn and Martin were still on the stone platform by the doorway in total darkness, as Ratchis made his way back. All they could hear was the twang of bow strings, and the grunts and cries of battle. “Where’d that come from, ya bitches? Gimme some damn light!”
(1) The dwarven stair cut is ten to fifteen times longer than it is high, creating long gradual climbs, allowing for wheeled carts to be rolled down them, or pulled up them with less effort than typical stairs, but giving more control of descent than ramps.
(2) Orcish is actually a very difficult language to learn, and it varies greatly by locality. While it has a very narrow base vocabulary, it uses inflection, context and body language to convey a wide variety of meaning to groups of words that would sound the same to the untrained ear. It also makes deciphering the crude goblin runes sometimes used to write it incredibly difficult.
(3) Click here
to see the map (warning to those on dial-up: this is a big file)
(4) Geb is the God of Earth and Stone.