Aaron’s Notes: I wrote this short story on my trip to Glacier National Park last year. It was intended to be 7 Episodes, with 1 Episode released via web and mobile every few months. I’m going to release Episode 1 on the blog a section at a time. I’d love to get your feedback as it goes along!
Here’s part 4 of Shattered. Oh, and this is at least PG-13.
The torch flickered, casting ominous shadows on the cavern walls. The slow drip of mineral-rich water could just be heard over the tramping feet of the two dwarves. They were deep beneath the earth, searching one of the myriad tunnels that twisted and turned between the dwarven capital under the Atlas Mountains and Deogar, the furthest dwarven outpost deep under the Fonus Range.
Both dwarves were lightly armed, at least in comparison to a fully equipped battle dwarf. They wore leather jerkins that could slow an arrow, but would not do much to stop a determined blade. Neither wore a helmet. Most dwarves kept their hair too long to fit under any sort of headgear, unless there was a war to wage. The ensemble was completed with leather pants and shoes. For dwarves these two were dressed quite peculiarly. A dwarf rarely felt comfortable without a full suit of mithril armor. But these dwarves had need of speed and silence.
“Do you think something could have happened to them, uncle?” asked Deebl Lo’Atlassian. “They were supposed to be in Atlassian weeks ago, and we’ve been looking for a few days”.
The elder dwarf stopped and turned briskly towards Deebl. He was neither tall nor short for a dwarf. But then, they were a race not known for much physical diversity. All dwarves had knobby noses, pale eyes, a strong jaw, big teeth, and black hair. Their limbs were short but powerful, and ended in club-like hands and feet.
Sandin Furyaxe had a beard that was longer than he was. He wore it in three braids, which was the mark of a warrior. The braids were looped back upon themselves, twisted, and then tied into one. The large emerald woven into his beard was the mark of a Hero of the People. His face, arms, and chest were covered in scars. On his back there was nary a scratch.
“Deebl, your incessant blathering is not making this go any faster. I feel like I have answered this before, so I will keep it short.” Deebl was believed to be Furyaxe’s sister’s son and had hardly stopped badgering him over the last three days.
“There once was a time that no less than fifty battle dwarves would accompany a courier when he made the three week trip from Deogar to Atlassian through the Deep. Even then, not all would make it through since there were so many goblins and trolls and who knows what else. But since the Battle of Utand, we have seen neither hide nor hair of any unnatural beast. That is not to say a cave bear has not feasted on them or they have not been crushed in a collapse. Since just two or three make the trip these days, anything could have happened. We have ten other search parties out looking. Someone will find them soon. Now shut your trap and let’s keep moving.” Furyaxe turned and started walking without looking to see if Deebl was following.
They travelled deeper under the earth for three more days with not much to distinguish one day from the last. The torchlight shone around them for twenty feet in all directions. Beyond the light lay only darkness and a lurking fear of the unknown. They searched the main path between the two dwarven cities while the other search parties followed the countless side passages.
As they left a small corridor and stepped into a larger chamber, it was the smell that told them the search was over. The stench of rotting flesh was keen. Deebl put his hands on his knees and vomited. Furyaxe was more accustomed to the odor, having been the cause of it many times in the past. He strode into the room, assessing the situation. Although he could not see them, he sensed three ways into the room. The way that he and Deebl used, a way to his left from which he could sense warm air flowing in, and cooler air through an opening straight ahead. The way to the left led deeper into the broiling core of the earth. Straight ahead was the way they would have continued. Furyaxe brought the torch to the center of the room. Large rats scurried away from the light, startled from their feast of flesh.
“Is it them, Uncle? Is it the messenger we were searching for?”
Furyaxe did not respond. He bent closer to continue his examination.
“It must have been a cave bear, right? But….but…but wouldn’t the bear have eaten them?” By the way Furyaxe was studying the scene; Deebl was starting to think there was more to this than a cave bear.
“Deebl. I need you to stand still and listen to what I have to say. Do not get alarmed. There are four heavily armored dwarves here with weapons drawn. It appears they died fighting back to back. Yet there are no other bodies. I do not know of anything that can destroy four war dwarves and not have paid a steep price in blood. As impossible as it seems, I think they were killed by goblins. Goblins carry out and eat their dead, and a large enough force could have done the trick.”
“But, Uncle, hasn’t evil been…” Deebl trailed off as a piercing war cry echoed up the deep passage.
The cry mounted as more goblins picked up the scent of fresh dwarf. Deebl may have only heard about goblins from school, but Furyaxe had felled more goblins than any living dwarf, and likely any dead dwarf.
“Deebl. Grab a helmet and a shield from the dead. You have time if you hurry. Then draw your sword and cover my back. If you stay out of my way, I will get you home to earn your name.” Furyaxe planted his feet and faced the tunnel the goblins were rushing up from the deeper in the earth. He figured he could take out ten of the nasty little creatures before they broke into the room and it became a free for all.
The ululating goblin war cry crescendoed as they neared the opening. Furyaxe cracked his neck and limbered his powerful right arm. He reached back and drew his axe. Deebl, through the narrowed perspective of his helmeted vision, saw the axe come free of the sheath. A blue light shone from it, harsher and brighter than the torch Furyaxe kept in his left hand. He had seen the axe before, and heard its exploits sung in taverns, but when he had seen it, it was rather plain and unremarkable. But now, in their hour of need, it shone with a blue brilliance. Its razor sharp edge glinted in its own light. The weighted ball opposite the blade looked murderously heavy. And then the axe sang.
The axe sensed its master’s need. Light to fight by it gave. Waves of rage and strength it poured into the dwarf. It heard the cry of the goblins and quivered with anticipation. It had been so long since it drank the blood of its nemesis. There was nothing the axe liked better than to drink deeply of goblin blood. The axe sang a song of blood and death in the goblin’s guttural tongue.
The song broke the goblin’s cry and caused the charge to falter. They had not forgotten the legends of the weapon they called Afiada Morte. The leading two goblins tried to stem the tide and retreat so great was their fear. Instead, they stumbled as those in the rear pushed them on. They died first. Furyaxe cocked his arm and let the axe fly. It flew unerringly into a goblin skull, splitting it in two. Furyaxe reached back to throw again, and the axe heeded his call. It vanished from the goblin’s head and appeared in Furyaxe’s hand in time to be hurled forward at the next small, wiry, vicious creature. Six times in six seconds it hurtled through the cave to send another goblin back to the abyss.
A few goblins broke into the cavern. Furyaxe charged the first, bringing his axe down from right to left. The axe tore through the goblin, spraying gore in every direction. Sparks erupted from the impact as the axe nearly buried into the granite floor of the cavern. Furyaxe wrenched it free and whistled the axe in a low, sweeping arc. Two goblins did not jump fast enough and found themselves a foot shorter before they bled out and died. Furyaxe heard the twang of a bow and brought the axe back to center in time to bat the arrow aside. He spotted his attacker and flicked a quick backhanded toss, willing the axe into a tight circle. It lopped off three heads on its circuitous route back to his hand.
An enterprising goblin had sprinted away from the door into the dark recess of the cavern. It worked its way along the edge of the light and waited for the right time to attack. As Furyaxe engaged four goblins at once, parrying attacks before dealing in cold steel, the goblin launched itself towards the dwarf’s back. Deebl saw the attack out of the corner of his eye and shook himself from the hypnotic skill of the elder dwarf in time to lance out with an awkward thrust. He caught the goblin behind its knee, drawing blood and sending it sprawling towards Furyaxe. The goblin’s sword spent itself impotently on Furyaxe’s jerkin as he obliterated the fourth goblin. He pivoted and sliced the nasty beast’s skull like an overripe watermelon.
Furyaxe whirled back, but there was nothing more to fight. He could hear the remnants of the goblin force scurrying away to find some dark hole to hide in. Of the previous moments’ desperate din, only silence and heavy breathing remained.
“You still alive, Deebl?”
“I uh, I uh, I uh,” Deebl stared unbelievingly at the carnage around him, his brain numbed by the bloodshed.
“Great job with the sword there. That nasty might have ruined my new leather jerkin. Thanks for the help.”
Deebl was still in shock. Furyaxe grabbed the message container from his dead kinsman and turned to leave.
“Deebl, let’s move before they have a chance to breed or however they find more of the slimy bastards. We have got to round up the rest of the teams and report back.” Deebl still didn’t move. He was stunned to immobility, but his addled brain was starting to function. He managed to count goblin heads. There were about twenty-five.
“He, hea, heads…” he managed to stammer.
“Good thinking kid.” Furyaxe picked one up by its greasy hair and tossed it at Deebl. It bounced off his chest and he stared at it with horrified eyes.
“Don’t just look at it. Pack that thing away. It is evidence that the goblins roam the deep passages again. Now get moving before some big cave troll decides it is not extinct either!”
With that, Furyaxe was off towards home. Deebl, not wanting to be left in the dark with all that death, picked up the still-dripping head and hustled to catch up.
It was a grievous seven day journey home. Furyaxe lit the signal flares to recall the search teams at each side passage they had taken. Only two parties came back whole not having encountered a goblin raid. Three parties had fought their way out and were mostly unharmed. Three parties had just a sole survivor. Those three heroes had finished off the goblins and managed to pull out their fallen comrades. The final two search parties did not respond.
Furyaxe led some of the healthy dwarves into the passages to recover the grisly remains of the parties that did not return. The dwarves carried the bodies back with them. Furyaxe knew he needed to alert the city, and then find a way to determine how this evil had come to roost once again in their domain.