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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty - A Battle By Night)

Author: 
Colin Frayn
Old Vault Category: 
fanfiction
Old Vault ID: 
93

The battle cries of the dwarfs could be heard for many miles around as they poured out into the plains beyond the caves. Carek and Athena led their unit out of the great doors and into the dim moonlight. Over on the other side of the plains stood rank upon rank of skeletons and zombie warriors, marching steadily forwards, with the form of giant skeletons and giant zombies at the rear. The army was large, but Grom had expected worse. Looking around, he couldn't see the foul sorcerer anywhere. Had he deserted his forces to fight for him? It could have been a trap, but any sizeable reinforcements would have been spotted by the dwarven scouts. Grom knew that the moment to attack had arrived, and led the charge.

Tarok left the dwarfs and doubled back to scale the mountain behind. The opposing army was still half a mile away, but closing more rapidly now. He scrambled up over a short scree slope, affording a wide panoramic view of the whole battlefield. Beneath him, the two great armies closed together, the dwarfs now charging forward towards the skeletons in the distance. Without wasting any more time, he began to chant the words to one of Carlon's spells, raising his hands to the skies. He hadn't tested this one yet, but he knew that he wouldn't get another chance.

The clouds swirled above the undead horde, and then there was a flash and a great column of fire burst from the skies. Several of the undead perished under the conflagration and one of the smaller units scattered for a moment, before the fearless troops regrouped. He certainly hadn't hoped it would go that well. Tarok was pleased, and sent a few bolts of lightning into the massed horde of skeletons to soften them up ready for the dwarven foot soldiers. These foul warriors had no fear of death or pain. They were merely puppets of Rakrath's magic - the ultimate soldiers. Never questioning, never afraid and always ready to fight to the death.

Tarok looked around. Rakrath had to be somewhere nearby, but so far, he was keeping himself well hidden. Tarok had just advertised his presence rather blatantly and he was now an obvious target. If the necromancer objected to Tarok's meddling then his life expectation had just dropped quite seriously. The undead creatures were all marching so accurately, with immaculate organisation, Tarok could barely believe that the necromancer had managed to fill them with such intelligence that they could work out all these faultless battle strategies by themselves. Rakrath was definitely nearby, but yet was refusing to show himself.

The first dwarven crossbowmen were coming within range of the zombie soldiers, and loosed a volley of quarrels high into the air above their axe-wielding brethren. Several of the creatures fell to the shining projectiles, their fragile life essence once more drawn away into the muddy earth. The skeleton archers reached firing range and shot a barrage of longbow arrows towards the dwarven crossbowmen, striking the dwarfs accurately but causing few injuries. Back in the goblin wars, these casualties often numbered one man in three, with the vast hordes of goblins sending a rain of arrows into the skies. Grom could remember the days the skies used to hum with clouds of burning arrows, sailing between the great forces as they clashed. Fortunately, these great battles had long since gone, though many dwarven memories still bore the scars.

The foot soldiers were closing in, and the two units of long-bearded elite warriors lead the charge with a unit of the finest hammer-wielding troops. These were the toughest of all dwarfs - both old and well experienced. They carried mighty rune-encrusted war hammers, and were practically fearless in combat. Led by these great warriors, the dwarfs charged down the first unit of skeletons without losing any men to the archers. The arrows continued to soar overhead instead, picking out yet more of the dwarf crossbowmen. Tarok noticed this from his vantage point, and began to think. Perhaps Rakrath's magical powers were not quite as good as he had thought.

Carek charged at the first unit with Athena and their unit of long-beards. They ploughed straight into the skeleton ranks, scattering the beasts to the side as their mighty war axes flailed in the bright moonlight. They lost one of their sixteen men, a brave old dwarf who fell to the skeletons' swords. Enraged by his death, they began to strew the bones of the foul creatures around the battlefield like confetti, slicing this way and that with their hammers and axes, and filling the air with their war cries, and the sound of the crunching of bones.

The elite troops were having a tougher battle with the zombies, but managed to push them back, cutting them down gradually with the loss of only a few warriors. By now, the main body of the army was in the fight, and had charged down the largest unit of skeletons, yelling blood-curdling battle cries as they hurled themselves into the fray.

Dwarven axe and hammer clashed against sword and shield. The dwarfs charged in, their battle rage carrying them straight through the first rank of soldiers, scattering their foes limb from limb. Several dwarfs fell, but the brave warriors were not deterred, launching offensive after offensive against the amassed horde. Carek saw that the dwarfs were making progress and charged confidently at the skeletons in front of him, cutting down another to add to his tally of three. Athena had bettered this with a total of seven as another carefully aimed sword blow shattered one of the creatures to a thousand fragments. Even Doragon, fighting towards the back, had slain one of the beasts with his sword, and was now tending to the wounded around him.

Carek finished off another one of the skeletons, and then stepped back to fight the first of the giant zombies who were beginning to make their way through the undead ranks. This was a fearsome creature standing over eight feet tall, and wielding a huge, spiked wooden club. It was wrapped in rotting bandages, and what could be seen of its skin was foul and wrinkled by the decay of time. Moreover, the stench of this beast was almost too much to bear at close quarters. This creature had been formed out of the bodies of several others, all magically joined together by a master of foul sorcery.

Carek managed to duck the first blow, and the second, then thrust his spear at the beast, and again. It still stood, and managed to strike Carek on the arm, throwing him painfully backwards. Carek scrambled to his feet, and bravely fought on, now helped by one of the dwarven axe men. He thrust with his spear, striking flesh and wounding the beast once more. One of the dwarfs charged in, followed by another. The zombie fell down to the floor with a thud, its red eyes dimming as its controlling life force seeped slowly out into the ground. A dwarven axe neatly severed the creature's head, and the fight was won.

Athena came to join in, launching into battle against a second of the creatures. She skilfully parried its attacks with her shield, staggering backwards under the force of the blow. Two dwarfs joined in, bravely swinging their axes towards the powerful beast. One got too close and was soon caught by a strong club strike, which he was unable to deflect. The dwarf fell to the ground, lifeless. Athena charged forward, and the second dwarf stepped back slightly, not wanting to meet a similar fate. Athena sliced violently with her sword, cleaving the beast's hand from its forearm, and eventually driving it to the floor with a powerful series of sword strikes. Finally, she killed it with a valiant thrust through the stomach.

Grom was having a great deal more success. He had already lead two assaults against the giant creatures, and slain quite a number of skeletons to add to his tally. With him at their head, the dwarf army was practically fearless, with the surrounding soldiers tirelessly attacking an endless force of skeleton warriors.

As he surveyed the scene of carnage, Grom noticed that the main unit of dwarf foot soldiers was becoming overpowered by a swarm of zombies and four of the giant skeletons. He yelled to them, but his voice was lost amidst the chaos of the battle. Tarok saw this from his vantage point on the mountain. He couldn't risk a spell from that range in case he injured the dwarfs. He knew that he could use his view of the battlefield to the dwarfs' advantage though.

Tarok managed to pick out his friend Carek amongst the melee. He focused on the half-elf and began to channel his energies in Carek's direction. Carek stopped fighting and turned to face the mountain as a deep voice rang out clearly in his mind -Tarok had captured the half-elf's attention. As if he were right next to him, Carek could hear the magician's voice in his head, telling him to assist the dwarf soldiers over on the left flank. Tarok noticed the figure creeping up on his friend just in time and called out, "Carek, watch out!" Carek spun round, and thrust his spear into the zombie's abdomen. Tarok decided to let his friend get back to the battle. Carek rushed over towards where the wizard had suggested, taking a few of the elite axe men with him. This was just the strategic advantage they needed.

The dwarfs saw the reinforcements coming, and fell back slightly. Carek rushed in and felled one of the giant beasts, diving out of the way of the blows from another. Five of the dwarfs surrounded one of the giant skeletons, and hacked at it from all sides. Confused, the creature swiped wildly, impaling one poor dwarf on its sword before falling to their persistent attacks. The dwarfs were now beginning to push back the undead army, and fresh attacks drove right to the heart of the evil force. Carek led the dwarf warriors once more into the skeleton horde, slicing wildly as he charged forwards. To his left, Grom was leading a spearhead assault into the remains of the zombie forces, accompanied by a deafening array of dwarven battle cries and the clash of metal upon metal.

Amidst the confusion of the battle, none of the dwarfs noticed a thick shadow falling across the mountains behind, blocking out the pale moonlight. Tarok did, but only too late. He could only look on in horror as a host of winged beasts swept down towards the battlefield from behind. Tarok quickly tried to pick out Carek once more, but his friend was lost amidst a chaotic turmoil of hand-to-hand fighting. Tarok jumped down in the cover behind a large boulder as the creatures began to dive closer and closer to his perilous lookout post. They were the foul, animated corpses of long dead winged creatures, eagles, griffons, even dragons and the like. Riding astride them were skeleton warriors, shrouded from the light of the moon by dark hoods and tattered grey cloaks. All carried scythes, glistening with a pale magical radiance.

Carek turned round as his keen ears heard the flapping of wings approaching in the distance, but it was already too late. He tried to signal to the dwarfs, but few turned around from their current opponents to face the oncoming attack from the rear. Rakrath's trap had worked - the dwarfs were caught between the ground forces in front, and the deadly aerial assault swooping down from behind.

Carek guessed there to be at least one hundred of the creatures, diving towards the battle with piercing, ethereal shrieks. The dwarfs still outnumbered them, but they were powerless against an attack from the air. The crossbowmen were the only real help, but they had suffered many casualties from the zombie archers, and some had already run out of bolts firing at the ground-based enemy. Carek realised, now too late, that this was why the undead archers had continued to fire at the dwarf crossbowmen even when they were being charged by the dwarven foot soldiers. Against the aerial horde, there remained about thirty crossbow archers, Carek with his bow, and Athena with hers. In effect, they were outnumbered, and by at least three to one. Tarok stepped up from his hiding place, the winged beasts having passed overhead. He summoned a bolt of energy, and sent it amongst the beasts, detonating in a blinding flash that destroyed one of the creatures, and turned just about every dwarven head on the battlefield. The dwarfs finally noticed the approaching attack and fell back into small groups, still fighting off determined assaults from the skeletons and zombies on their flanks.

Carek fired shot after shot from his bow into the sky, managing to slay just one of the beasts before they reached the army. The skeletons and zombies had been mostly destroyed, whilst only a few of the tougher giant zombies and skeletons remained, so the dwarf archers concentrated their fire on the swarm of black figures above. The dwarf bolts were largely ineffective against the insubstantial skeleton riders, but occasionally struck one of the creatures in the skull, severing them from their life force. Another half-dozen or so plummeted from the skies, with their helpless riders falling to their second deaths, shattering on the floor. Athena drew her sword and charged towards the new threat, rallying support from a selection of nearby soldiers. The winged beasts were soon upon the army of dwarfs, and began slicing into the defenceless ground units. The skeleton riders used their advantage point in the skies to strike at the helpless dwarf soldiers with their long scythes and spears.

The dwarfs quickly fell back into smaller groups to work out a suitable tactic to take down their aerial foes, whilst simultaneously defending against the remainder of the skeleton horde on the ground. Grom lead one last offensive against the ground forces, scattering the larger units into as many fragments as possible. These smaller groups were then picked off one at a time by the dwarf foot soldiers charging behind.

Although the dwarf warriors managed to slay a number of the foul winged beasts, their own casualties were bad. The stronger units destroyed several of the evil creatures, but with losses that forced them to fall back and defend instead of attacking. Grom killed one with his mighty axe, and Carek killed another with his spear. Athena killed a further creature with her sword, slicing through the body of the winged beast and shattering it to pieces, casting the rider to the ground where a crowd of dwarven axe men finished the job. She ran towards the next foe, fending off the attacks from above with her newly acquired shield. As the dwarfs were beginning to grow weary, still their tireless foe attacked. There were dozens of them, swooping relentlessly down, and the dwarf losses were many. Tarok cast another bolt of energy at the creatures, shattering one of the beasts into dust and ashes, but failing to deter the remainder.

Carek looked on as the dwarfs were pushed further and further back. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Doragon with five of the long-beards attacking two of the flying beasts. Carek was already too caught up with the fighting to go over and help. Tarok was desperately trying to find another spell to help the dwarfs, but could think of nothing that would work effectively at such a long range. He was powerless.

Athena noticed that Doragon's group seemed to be winning their fight, but she decided to leave her unit and go to help them nonetheless. Deflecting the blows of several vicious aerial attacks with her shield, she stumbled bravely in the halfling's direction. As she looked forward, she noticed that Doragon's group had just managed to kill the second of their foes, and Doragon turned round to see where he could help next. He noticed a young dwarf on the floor, bleeding badly from a sword wound. Doragon hurriedly bandaged the warrior's wounds with a strip from his tunic, slowing the flow of blood. The young dwarf thanked Doragon, who smiled back, "Not at all, my friend."

Athena looked on as Doragon began to stand up and an ominous black shadow fell upon him from above. Athena yelled as the beast dived silently downwards, a blood-stained scythe raised ready to strike. Too late, Doragon turned as the sharp blade struck home, piercing his chest. Athena screamed and ran forward, slicing at her aerial foes with her sword. Doragon collapsed to the ground, his vision slowly darkening. He lay there motionless.

"Doragon! Doragon!" The dwarfs around had fallen back and charged down the dark rider, and were now slicing it to pieces on the muddy ground. Athena ran up to where her friend's body lay broken on the floor. She turned him over onto his back. He was bleeding badly. Doragon opened his eyes for a few seconds to see who was holding him, and smiled. Athena's friendly face was a comforting sight, especially amidst the violence all around. He managed to speak a few words, his voice betraying his fears. "Athena, go and help the others - you can't help me." Athena looked down at him pitifully, her heart heavy with guilt. "I can't leave you Doragon, you're hurt! I've got to help you!"

She could see the young halfling suffering from the pain. The wound was deep, and she knew that there was little hope. Amidst the tears, she tried to smile and give a brave face, but Doragon knew her too well.

"You can't do anything for me, Athena. I'm dying." He pointed over to one side, his face contorted with agony, "Tend to the young dwarf over there. I am beyond help."

Doragon choked painfully, his voice becoming fainter as his energy slowly slipped away. "I've had many good adventures with you. You have all been great friends to me." He grimaced as the pain began to build. "This is how my story must end. I'm sorry, Athena. Help the others, for I am lost."

Before he could utter that last solemn word, his eyes shut once more, and his arms relaxed. Athena held tighter, aching for one last breath, but there was none. She released her grip and Doragon's body slumped down onto the cold earth. Athena knelt down, laying her head against the halfling's blood-stained chest, and wept. All around, dwarf soldiers chased to and fro, wielding their axes with fury and anger, ploughing into the skeleton ranks. Athena knelt there, staring into her dear friend's lifeless eyes, tenderly holding his hand and trying to bring him back. But he was gone.

Carek looked over his shoulder, saw Athena kneeling on the ground and realised what had happened. He left his group, and ran over to where Doragon lay. The poor halfling's corpse was lying lifeless on the ground; Athena knelt beside him, her hands unable to let go.

Carek felt the blood pumping once more through his veins. A great anger was swelling inside him, and he could sense the fury building. This rage had swallowed him before, but only once. He stood up, grasping his spear with both fists and yelling towards the skeleton warriors. Without pause for thought, he turned and charged towards the beasts, his eyes full of fury, adrenalin pumping fast. The winged creatures were pushing the dwarfs back still further, causing yet more losses. Carek ran, stumbling over corpses and hacking wildly at the attackers above.

Suddenly there was a flash in the sky, and a giant explosion, which rocked the battlefield like a giant drum, knocking the warriors to the floor. Carek stumbled, and then looked back again. Several of the creatures were smashing into the ground, their tattered clothes ablaze with magical fire. The smouldering corpses of a half-dozen or so more lay scattered around the battlefield. Carek looked over to the mountain, where Tarok had been joined by another shadowy figure. It was Carlon.

Carek jumped to his feet once more, and charged at the nearest group of dwarfs who were fighting off another of the aerial creatures. They were restricted by their size, but Carek was not. He leapt up towards one, who saw the half-elf coming, and knelt at his command. Carek jumped over the kneeling dwarf, off his shoulders, and on to the aerial beast, off balancing its rider and taking his place on the saddle as the fallen skeleton was quickly finished off by his comrades down below.

Carek took the reins of the foul creature, and flew off in the direction of the nearest foe, to the jubilant cheering of the dwarfs left on the ground. Fortunately, the winged beast had just been programmed to follow any master. Carek soon learnt how to control this revolting mount, his anger urging him onwards. He reached a nearby skeleton, and thrust his spear through the creature's skull, knocking it off its mount, which the dwarfs below were quick to kill. Carek flew on, and over to where the last of the giant skeletons and zombies were being attacked by a ferocious, brave unit of battle-hammerers. He flew through, guiding his mount to smash directly into one of the creatures, shattering it to pieces and collapsing to the floor. Carek dived off the saddle just in time as his winged beast ploughed into the ground with an almighty crash, its animating magic broken with a bright flash.

Some of the archers had drawn throwing axes and were engaging the creatures in combat, hurling their heavy weapons towards the winged beasts' heads. Several more were slain by the dwarfs' valiant attacks, adding to the pile of bones on the battlefield. Slowly, the tide of the battle was turning, and Rakrath had presumably sensed it. The winged beasts all began to rise up from their foes, circling back up into the sky.

A great roar came up from the dwarven army as the last of the undead began to fall back, driven into disarray by Grom's enraged battle group. Clearly, Rakrath had ordered his forces to retreat and rebuild. The creatures headed off back through the mountain passageways from whence they came, chased by one last handful of dwarven axe men, eager to add to their bloody tally.

The winged creatures flew upwards with a mighty screeching, and were soon gone over the rocky mountains and into the darkness beyond, follower by another ball of fire from the magicians amidst the boulders.

The mighty battle was over, but at what cost? Grom surveyed the scene, the bodies of his fallen comrades lying lifelessly before him. Stepping over the burning remains of the foul undead, Carek made his way towards Grom and told him of the news about Doragon. The great dwarf warrior offered his sincere condolences to Carek, and ordered two of his bodyguard to go and carry Doragon's body to the cavern straight away. Slowly the great army, now sadly weakened, made its way back to the underground town, carrying their dead with them as they left. The great iron doors had been closed for the battle, but were swung open once more, ushering the victorious army once more into the shelter of the caverns beyond while Grom assessed the full scale of the dwarf losses. With a rushing of water, the doors closed behind, and with a great resounding clash, they shut for good on the field of death

Grom's unfortunate task was to count the fallen dwarf warriors and have their next of kin informed. The list was painfully long;

Dwarfs of the imperial army, first division 37 of 100

Dwarfs of the imperial army, second division 27 of 100

Dwarfs of the imperial army, third division 39 of 100

Dwarfs of the imperial army, fourth division 45 of 100

Dwarfs of the first elite company of Fyarn 19 of 60

Dwarfs of the second elite company of Fyron 17 of 60

Dwarfs of the imperial hammerer company of Randor 11 of 40

Doragon of the party of Tarok Gallantin

The losses were great. Grom had hoped for a far easier victory, but Rakrath's trap had caught them all by surprise. Moreover, he feared that Rakrath might attack again before the dwarfs could regain their strength. Another attack of that magnitude would have meant certain defeat for the dwarven army and many feared the worst. Athena and Tarok were trying to work out the funeral arrangements for Doragon, but Carek was too worked up to bother about such things. He was practising with his spear, preparing for Rakrath's next attack.

Grom had other ideas. He summoned all his generals together once more, and told them of his plan. The great dwarf king spoke in a most solemn voice, beginning with the news of the dead. "My fellow warriors, we have won this battle, but at great cost. Our army lies badly scarred; many dwarfs still lie dead on the fields outside. Rakrath has lived to fight another day. We cannot permit this to happen again."

This last remark met with a chorus of approval.

"We have only one option left, and it is a most difficult decision. We must gather our finest warriors and assault Rakrath's stronghold now before he has a chance to regroup."

Carek stood up from his seat, "Count me in. My spear has not seen enough battle yet."

Athena and Tarok also voiced their approval. Tarok had been unable to help as Doragon was slain, and desperately wanted an opportunity to use his magic to its full potential. Athena felt the same. Her sword was now warm, yet she felt strangely unfulfilled. The dwarfs were their allies; they could not be left to fight alone. The elders voted unanimously to support the plan.

Grom seemed pleased. "Excellent! I will make the necessary arrangements straight away."

The assault was planned for the following night. Grom gathered together ten of the best dwarf warriors from the battle hammer company, Fyarn and Fyron the elite axe warrior champions, and Randor the second in command of the army. With Tarok, Athena and Carek, that made sixteen, and quite a formidable force. They gathered in the great hall, introduced themselves and began to plan for the battle ahead.

Tarok decided to spend the rest of the day down in Carlon's laboratory learning new spells and working out potions to help with the quest ahead. Athena had other plans. Grom had heard news from the forge that the three shields were ready for rune inscription, and she wanted personally to witness the ceremony. Finally, the purpose of the group's visit was to be fulfilled. Carek returned to see to the preparation of Doragon's body, which was carried solemnly back to the halfling's chamber where his belongings still stood, neatly arranged on the stone floor.

Doragon's lifeless body lay still atop his bed, his bloody armour long since removed. Carek knelt down beside the bed, holding his friend's hand in his own. It was cold; the poor halfling's life had truly left him. Doragon, of all people, didn't deserve to die in this way. At least he had died in battle as a hero, but that was never what he wanted. Doragon only wished a simple life, and a simple end, living out the last of his days in seclusion. He had a dream of sipping fine spirits by the side of a roaring fire, telling tales of his impetuous youth to anyone who wished to hear. Carek remembered all the stories the halfling used to tell. There would be no more now.

Doragon had come from the most peaceful and quiet of places, but had been transported into a world of great danger. Carek reached over towards the halfling's bag, pulling out the leather-bound diary. It was Doragon's most treasured possession. It detailed his every thought, his every deed, his every fear and trepidation. His every joy. It would have made a fine book. Carek carefully placed it back with the other belongings, bowed in respect and quietly left the room, carefully wiping a tear from his eye. He could hardly believe that the halfling was gone. No more tales of travels far and wide. No more joking and laughing by a warm log fire. His loss would prove most difficult to accept for all of them, but for now Carek knew that he would have to concentrate on the assault first, and grieve later. Time was of the essence.

Athena followed Grom through the tunnels for a few minutes until they eventually arrived at the rune forge. This was one of the most important rooms in the entire dwarven city, and formed one of the few serious links that the dwarfs retained with the magical arts. The forge was a large circular room, perfectly constructed with twelve torches evenly spaced around the walls. In the centre of the room was a raised stage with a star motif engraved on the floor below, the four points lying exactly north, south, east and west. In the centre of the star stood a dwarven rune smith dressed in black, red and white robes, his long white beard tied ceremoniously round his waist. The three shields were placed on an altar in front, already having been magically prepared by Carlon in a private ceremony beforehand.

The rune smith seemed to be holding a quill of some sort, which he dipped into a pot of glowing ink on the altar. The perimeter torches were extinguished and another was lit, suspended directly over the table from the ceiling.

Athena watched on as the rune smith chanted a series of arcane phrases and brought the quill towards the face of the first shield. Slowly, he drew the quill from one side to another, forming a complicated dwarven rune with the glowing ink. Athena was impressed. Grom turned to her, smiling. The dwarven rune smiths were their most closely guarded secret. Few humans had ever witnessed this ceremony before, but Athena's bravery had secured her a privileged view.

The service continued for half an hour, then the perimeter torches were re-lit. The rune smith disappeared out of another door, and Grom walked up to the shields. He picked up all three and carried them over to Athena. They were magnificent. The runes glowed with inner magic and Athena could immediately tell which one was hers. It was engraved with three runes, whereas the other two were engraved with two. Grom explained.

"Your shield is called the master shield, and is the most finely crafted of the three. It is engraved with three runes - the runes of stone, might and courage. It is a fine combination. The other two are both engraved with the runes of fire and protection. I think that the best way to discover their powers is to use them in combat."

Athena seemed impressed and took her shield, giving the other two to Grom for his bodyguard. She examined the writing, the magical ink now having etched a series of complicated characters on the surface of the shield, yet still glowing faintly with a diffuse radiance. She set off back towards the cavern, accompanied by Grom and a number of dwarven warriors.

Back in the great hall, the commotion had reduced slightly. A number of younger dwarfs were stepping through the bodies, trying to find out if their loved ones had made it back alive. There was still much weeping as the bodies were, one by one, being identified and carried back to their homes by a steady stream of grieving relatives. Still more bodies were being carried in from the battlefield; the unenviable task of those soldiers still fit enough to manage.

The group for the assault that night was assembled over in one corner. They were being briefed by Randor, a powerful looking, white-bearded dwarf clad in splendid ceremonious robes. Fyarn took over for a while, and suggested that the group set off along the east path towards the caves from the front. Their time was precious and they didn't want to waste time looking for another entrance in if the front door would suffice. The last thing Rakrath would expect now was a full frontal assault, so that was exactly what they were going to give him. Hopefully, they would catch him unawares.

Tarok was still in the laboratory helping Carlon. After the battle, Tarok had decided that he needed to work on a few more attacking spells, and to practise his evocation skills. Carlon consented, and gave Tarok a few new tricks for his repertoire, though still refused to accompany them in their quest.

"Rakrath knows me too well, my young friend. If you wish to retain any element of surprise then you should leave me here. Otherwise we will all surely perish." Tarok shook his head. "Surely you could sneak in undetected? Is he really that powerful."

"My friend," laughed the dwarf, "he is a great deal more powerful than that. Rakrath follows me often, speaking to me here in this very cavern from time to time."

"You have met the necromancer?" Tarok seemed surprised.

"On occasion."

"And yet he did not kill you there and then?"

"I don't think he considered me a challenge. He is a complicated character. Elusive, dangerous, frightening, wholly evil, but not cowardly. He would only fight me in a field of battle."

Tarok was confused. "So what can you tell me about him? What if I have to face him in combat?"

Carlon laughed, and then turned to the young wizard with a particularly stern expression. "Tarok, my son, if you have to face him in combat then I suggest you surrender. If you're lucky then you might end up as his slave. If you're unlucky then… well…" The wizard paused. "Then you're no worse off than if you fight." Tarok was beginning to distinctly dislike the sound of this mission. Doragon already lay dead, and he didn't particularly want to follow his unfortunate halfling friend. Did the future of the dwarf caves really rest on the soldiers of a handful of adventurers from Tarnadon? That was a heavy burden, indeed.

As night fell on the bloodstained battlefield outside, the group assembled for the final briefing by the rear exit to the caverns. Fyarn showed them the planned route through the treacherous mountain paths, and they surveyed it carefully. They were to take a circuitous route to avoid detection, and Carek offered to scout ahead, checking for any enemies that may have been lying in wait. One by one, the brave band of soldiers crept out of the small opening in the rock face, and confidently set off along the rock-strewn path. Carek was impressed with the dedication of the dwarfs, and was looking forward to facing more of the undead soldiers. Athena thought similarly, her blade itching for battle once again. Tarok was still nervous; he was neither a warrior nor a spy, and this whole plan unsettled him. Still, in the back of his mind, he could hear Carlon's wise words warning him against facing the necromancer alone. But what choice did he have?

Tarok had seen Rakrath's creations on the battlefield of the previous night, and was only now beginning to realise what kind of power was needed to create such an army, let alone control it. Tarok couldn't even dream of that kind of magic. He was a simple wizard with a meagre arsenal of petty conjurations, facing a man who literally possessed power over life and death. He gulped. There was no retreat now.

 

WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 20 - A Battle by Night © Colin Frayn

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