Tonga and his friends sprinted as fast as they could through the maze of barricades. A morehl attack had come late in the evening, about two bells into their shift.
“How did they get through our watch-posts undetected?” Mowgathon cried as they hurried. “The signal fires are still lit.” He pointed to the horizon.
The vagha had a network of towers erected that could either signal danger—or more importantly, would warn of trouble should their lights go out. Tonga, Fhurg, and Mowgathon worked one such tower—one on the edge of the city—as a watcher. They’d abandoned their position and hurried towards the sounds of gunfire once they heard it on the other side of the far-side palisade walls that hemmed in Valis, the city beneath the hill.
Flintlock reports and bursts of light signaled where they were needed most.
“The army can’t be that large if they snuck past the watchers!” Fhurg quickened his pace, eager to help repel the invaders and spill lava elf blood in his brother’s memory.
They’d no sooner cleared the last storehouse on the besieged side of the stockades when they collided with the retreating forces who manned that section of wall.
“We’re over run,” one of them cried, trying to turn back the eager reinforcements.
The commander grabbed Fhurg by his arm and pointed across the way to the coops where they kept their messenger birds. “You’ve got to send a message to Iluchus. Call for help!” Fhurg wasn’t the fastest dwarf, he was merely the closest when the order needed to be given. “We’ll need the humans’ help if we’re to survive this one.”
Sprinting forward towards the posts of the main gates in the hillside, the commander shouted his orders. “Fall back—retreat and defend the main hall!” He locked eyes momentarily with the three dwarves and nodded. Then he raced further into the center of Valis.
Mowgathon turned to look at the breach in the palisade, still unsure that it could be so bad. “We were winning this war yesterday, weren’t we?” he muttered.
Red skinned morehl advanced through the busted barrier, stepping over the bodies of fallen vagha and pouring into the main cloister. They advanced and pumped cursed bullets into dwarves whose armor and shields did nothing to stop them. As the lava elves unloaded one set of missiles, the next wave of fusiliers stepped around them to do likewise while the previous troops reloaded.
Mowgathon realized his friends had already run after the messenger birds. He turned and sprinted towards them as they hastily scrawled pleas for assistance onto scraps of parchment.
The cages broke open as they grabbed for a bird each; the doves fluttered in a frenzied, living cloud as thick as a smoke plume—and just as visible to the invaders. The two each had a fowl in hand and feverishly tied their message scrolls to them when a morehl contingent found them.
“Run!” Mowgathon howled. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as the spellcrafter watched his enemies level their flintlocks at his friends. Reacting purely on instinct he drew power from the source deep within him—he harnessed his arcane connection to the gods. His connection to Eldurim, the earth god, was especially strong, but he could only summon enough power to aide one of them.
Blue smoke and concussive shock waves erupted from the enemy. Their cursed bullets tore Fhurg to pieces. He collapsed into a gurgling red mess.
Tonga screamed as his bird exploded into gore within his hands even as his skin hardened to stone from Mowgathon’s spell. Bullets glanced off his reinforced exterior, leaving only tiny nicks and scratches as Tonga scrambled away from the flood of invaders.
“Come on! Fhurg is gone,” Tonga screamed at Mowgathon as he shook the shocked dwarf back to attention and sprinted for the main halls. He glanced back to watch his dead friend’s body relax and release the carrier. The lone dove sprang into the air and fluttered into the distance.
The morehl ignored it, instead pursuing the routed vagha.
“Mowgathon! Mowgathon?” Tonga stopped fully and turned to locate his friend whose footsteps faltered.
The caster locked eyes with Tonga. “Run,” he insisted with a fading voice. Blood leaked from a hole in Mowgathon’s chest where a bullet had pierced and exited his body. Mowgathon pitched headlong and collapsed into the dirt.
Tonga’s stony skin reverted back to normal. He blinked back tears and dashed for safety as fast he could, ducking beneath the elvish gunfire.
Dwarves huddled within the cavern of the greater cloister at Valis. Horrible scraping noises reverberated through the air and caught the women and children’s breaths in their throats. The cracking and clawing sounds sounded eerily similar to marrow being scraped from bone.
Ringing the edged of the community, the pulverized warrior class stood guard in case the morehl broke through. They could do nothing until either a new plan was formulated or help came to rescue them.
Members of the faithful offered prayers to the vagha’s patron gods. They prayed for intercession, miraculous victory, or for Iluchus to receive a summons for help. Without Tonga’s party reporting in, none were sure a message had even been sent.
“Don’t worry,” and older vagha comforted a child and squeezed his shoulders. “No enemy has ever passed those gates. What’s your name?”
The child looked up at her. His eyes traced the age lines in her face. “Freir.” He said. “You are old.”
She smiled. Freir’s matter-of-factness was a welcome alternative to the booming, grinding sounds of the predators trying to penetrate their defenses. “I should be,” she chuckled. “I was one of the first dwarves.”
Freir’s eyes widened.
“I still remember coming here when this place was new… it was not so long ago, I think. Who knows how long a ripe old age truly is for the vagha?”
A loud crack echoed through the cavern.
“What was it like… in the beginning?”
She smiled at Freir. “I still remember the gods. Eldurim and Firiel walked the face of Esfah in those days. They made us and they care for us, you know. Shortly after they came those two formed dwarf-kind…”
The doors suddenly collapsed inward and invaders poured into the gap, interrupting the old woman. Crying out as they fell, the front line of lava elves collapsed under a flurry of readied crossbow quarrels.
With a burst of acrid, blue smoke the enemy returned fire as they closed the gap. Towering above the other intruders, a drider stormed through the gate. Her jagged legs stamped down upon any dwarf who challenged her; they sliced and pierced the brave warriors as if each one were swords.
Freir gasped at the noise of the combat. The cave seemed to hold every scream within its confines, keeping it close enough that the audience, especially the helpless ones, heard and felt every terrifying nuance.
Across the way, the young dwarf caught sight of their leader, the might warlord Ruthak. He fought even wounded as the others rallied around him.
Ruthak’s face fell when he locked eyes on the monster that cut a line for him. Vagha bodies hung upon her spiny legs as if they’d been stuck upon meat hooks and she wielded a long pike from the morehl half of her body, lancing the dwarves scurrying below her where they could not reach her.
The warlord gulped and ordered the retreat as mob after mob of his men fell to elven zealots. A horn blew and the chaotic herd of dwarves surged towards the Great Hall: the next inner chamber of Valis. The citizens had protocols already establish in case of an emergency.
Freir looked around frantically for the old woman. As he followed the crowd, his panicked eyes located her. She laid dead near the enemy lines—they’d already breached so deeply that she’d fallen to a morehl rapier.
He bit his lip and followed the crowd. Freir hoped the woman was right about Eldurim and Firel caring for them… the citizens of Valis could use some divine protection about now.
Tonga scrambled through a chamber that smelled like fire, lard, and ground wheat. Under any other circumstances he would have happily strayed in the bakery. He ducked his head and kept a low profile while scrambling from furnace to furnace on his way to the next section of kitchens beyond. Tonga had hoped to catch up with the army and report that the message had been sent to Iluchus, but he’d needed to find an alternate route since they’d barricaded the main passages before he could get to them.
He’d never been in this part of Valis before. Before joining the army he’d been a metalcrafter and never had reason to see the kitchens. A sense of wonder fell over him as he pushed open a set of doors and saw the expansive galley. Rows of tables stretched to the far side; utensils and cooking tools hung or laid neatly at workstations.
“This must be where they prepare the great feasts.” His inner artisan appreciated the orderly nature of it all. “If we get out of this alive, I’m going to learn to bake a loaf of bread,” he mused to himself.
A nearby door swung open and Tonga instinctively slid to his rump. His breath burned in his chest as two morehl scouts entered the huge room. They worked through the nearby kitchenettes with a blade in one hand and a flintlock clutched in the other.
They drew near where Tonga crouched and the dwarf tightened his grip on his axe as he tensed his muscles. There were only two of them—but the dwarf would have been anxious with only one.
As the lava elves searched the adjacent row, they stood just opposite of the cook station Tonga hid behind. The dwarf crept around to the other side of the station as they stepped into the aisle where they could’ve spotted him. Their steely gazes surveyed the area and then they turned to continue past.
Tonga breathed a sigh of relief and then kicked a stray ladle that had been abandoned on the floor. Not so neat and orderly after all! He cursed beneath his breath and the enemies whirled towards his position.
Snatching a knife from the cutting block as he stood, Tonga pushed aside a hanging rack and instinctively threw it at the further enemy. It lodged in the elf’s neck and the wound spat hot, red blood while leaking something like steam.
The second morehl discharged his gun at point blank range. A pan hanging from the utensil rack swung perfectly to catch the bullet as it returned to its original spot like a pendulum. Luckily it hadn’t been one of those magic bullets which proved capable of cutting through vaghan shield and armor alike.
Both the shooter and Tonga stared in momentary disbelief. Tonga reacted first; he heaved his ax and sunk it deep into the scout’s chest.
He scrambled for the exit before anyone could respond to the noise from the skirmish. The doors flung open as he burst out and into the promenade that encircled the Great Hall.
Tonga skid to a stop as soon as he passed the doors. A thousand lava elves camped around the blocked gates to the Great Hall turned to stare at him.
“Nope!” he flung himself back the way he’d come before any of their marksmen could gun him down.
Crashing back through the kitchen, Tonga searched for another way to find the army when he spotted a scullion door: a smaller passageway that led to the Great Hall for food service workers. He raced towards it and found it locked, but he could hear noises on the other side.
Tonga banged on the door and screamed, “Let me in—hurry, before the lava elves get me!”
Voices argued on the other side, insisting the door remain closed.
He pounded and howled again. “By Firiel, I swear if you don’t open the door they will find and kill me!”
“It could be the morehl trap,” a vaghan voice urged on the other side said. “They worship Firiel too.”
“I’d swear on my mothers floral bonnet if it helped—but if I swear by Eldurim, you’d just say all morehl are liars…”
More arguing. Tonga was certain this door would remain locked and that he’d be dead any moment.
Another scullion door peeked open a little further down the way and a child’s eyes looked out from it. Tonga rushed forward and slid through even as new lava elf scouts entered the galley in search of him.
Slamming the door shut, Tonga glowered at the dwarves a little further down who had left him to die. He slid a brace against the door to keep it blocked and then squeezed the child.
“Thank you. I’d be dead right now if not for you. My name is Tonga. I have to find Warlord Ruthak.”
“I know where he is,” the boy piped up. “And my name is Freir.”