Sshkkryyahr angled her head aside as Shedakor and the rest of the morehl army turned to address the bearded intruder who stumbled into the area where they’d mustered their army. She began heading in the opposite direction as a cluster of lava elves gave chase to the startled vagha.
“Where are you going?” Shedakor demanded.
The drider rose up slightly taller on her legs and turned her head to stare down at him. Her spiny appendages still bore the remnant gore of their defeated enemies.
Shedakor grimaced, keenly aware that he’d overstepped the chain of command. He may have controlled the forces of the Obsidian Grotto, the Emperor’s army, but Shedakor did not control her. Swallowing hard, he stepped back and tightened his lips. He repeated his question in a gentler tone, still wondering where she meant to go. “We have them cowed behind these massive doors. As soon as we break them down, we will take Valis. The war will be over.”
Even now the troops scrambled to construct a pair of battering rams.
“I have my own mission.” Sshkkryyahr stared into the distance. “Firiel’s temple is that way.” She began walking.
“Mission?” He followed her a pace behind.
“Given to me by the god with the ineffable name… Death. I go to desecrate the dwarven fire temple. I must blot out the names of Death’s bastard siblings to prove myself worthy of invoking his name.” Sshkkryyahr nodded to the gates which sheltered their prey. “If the war is truly won after you breach these doors, why waste effort chasing one wayward soldier down? Send a handful of scouts, but break it down and be done with it. I will return once the temple lies in ruins.”
“Then take this.” He angled towards a cart in the rear of their forces and placed two large crocks of gunpowder in her arms. Putting a long fuse into her hands he said, “Light it and leave. This should speed up the process.”
She grinned deviously and then skittered away.
Shedakor watched her go. It would not take her long, and they’d surely feel the explosion when she accomplished her mission.
Tonga hustled through the crowd with Freir panting and trailing after him. He found Ruthak near the front of the army; the trepidation on the warlord’s face worried Tonga more than the blood seeping from the wounds that their leader had already taken.
After looking around futilely for the commander who had given Fhurg his orders, Tonga reported to the first dwarf of rank he could locate and explained his need to speak with Ruthak.
Freir stared up in awe at the leader once he and Tonga finally received an audience.
“The message was sent,” Tonga said. “At least one dove made it out to our human allies.”
Ruthak nodded but seemed disinterested. A fidgety adviser who stood nearby held a scroll that looked like some kind of infrastructure map.
“A cry for help… sent to the human calvary.” Tonga pressed the good news, hoping for a different response. “Any minute now we can expect Iluchus and her chariots to render aid.”
The warlord twisted his mouth. “It has been a long night. Valis will not survive to the morning.” Ruthak, surrounded by his decimated army, looked over the sea of people huddled in the great hall. “We must abandon our land if we hope to survive. We can exit through the drains and flee west. Our brothers in Gundakhor will surely take us in.”
Tonga furrowed his brows. “I helped craft the barrier gates after the trogs invaded through those tunnels six years ago. It would take two days to evacuate everyone through that route.”
The stern dwarf set his jaw and glared at the warlord talking about retreat plans. “My friends died so we could send a bird to Iluchus requesting help—she will arrive before the citizens of Valis can escape.” He stared at Ruthak bewildered that their leader hadn’t understood basic tactics.
Ruthak stood tall. His glare withered the younger dwarf and Tonga finally understood. The army was leaving; Valis was staying… the army was abandoning its citizens.
“If we wait any longer, we’ll all be dead,” Ruthak stared at Tonga coldly. “Better that those of us who can fight our way out do that. We must leave the rest to the inevitable. The vagha army can live for vengeance later.”
His adviser muttered in a voice barely more than a whisper, “We won’t have time to retrieve anything from the vaults. Besides, it’s too dangerous to the army if the beast has an episode should we bring it with.”
Ruthak’s attention had returned to the logistics of a retreat.
Tonga took a step backwards, realizing the scroll the adviser carried was a map of the dwarven plumbing tunnels. “No. You can’t do this. Valis—these people—need protecting.”
“Aye,” the warlord sighed. “And that’s what the gods are for.”
The cavern suddenly rumbled with a low growl and jarred with tectonic shifts that rained dust and debris from overhead. Both dwarves held their breath amid the unmistakable signs of a cave-in somewhere outside the gates and near Firiel’s temple.
Tonga finally dared breathe again. He looked across the troop of soldiers and realized those with families in Valis had quietly gathered them to their sides.
“Footman, either fall in with the army and prepare to march or stay behind and die with the rest,” Ruthak ordered.
Taking another step back, Tonga bumped into Freir. The soldier set his face and glared daggers at Ruthak. He’d clearly resolved to stay.
Ruthak tilted his brow towards Tonga. “So be it. Axes up, everyone!” The warlord gave the order to move out. Within minutes the army departed leaving behind only Tonga and Freir.
Tonga turned and met the very worried eyes of the citizens of Valis. All that remained were the untrained, unskilled, and very young.
Like ominous thunder the battering ram boomed through the massive chamber. The vagha huddled in clusters within the Great Hall and all eyes turned to Tonga.
He worked his jaw utterly clueless for a few moments. The dwarf looked over his kinsmen and his heart sank. He knew deep down that they could not beat this army. They barely had a weapon between every five of them. With each new beat of the ram against the main barriers he could hear stones crack and splinter beneath the blunt force. Lava elves would be on them any moment.
Tonga shouted over the pallid, nervous crowd. “Children of Eldurim and Firiel. I am afraid that death is coming for us through those gates. We are abandoned by our protectors but not by our gods. Each of us has been imbued with power and talents from our makers. Eldurim has given us magic over the earth and Firiel over fire. Even without weapons we are powerful. Are you not the children of the gods?”
Heads nodded and beards wagged. Several howled their assents; none wanted to die without a fight.
“Draw on that inner connection, like the spellcrafters do. We may not be theurgists, but we are many. Together we wield the power of the gods. Dig into your hearts and pull out that divine spark—lend your magics to mine!”
More cheers. Tonga watched his countrymen. Some concentrated; some bowed in silence; others moved with swaying motions as they sought to locate that arcane spark.
“Together, Valis, we are mighty. Valis is not a place… it is a people. The enemy can take our lands. They can take our lives. But Valis can never fall. Now let us do what those cowards in the army would not do and fight. Fight until we see each other in the Eternal Lands! Lend me your magic, Valis!”
Tonga felt a surge of power—an overwhelming sensation that Mowgathon had once described to him. This seemed so much stronger than what the dead spellcaster had told him of—he felt as if he were about to burst from the inside.
Boom. Craaackk. The gates busted wide and morehl flooded into the Great Hall. What few crossbows remained in Valis fired into the whelming horde as it charged forward.
Tonga screamed as the power coursed through him like a conduit. He channeled it to the edges of his people, sheathing them in stony skin just as the enemies’ flintlocks opened fire.
Cursed bullets ricocheted off the men and women of Valis.
Dipping into the red fury of Firiel’s blessing, Tonga spewed a cloud of fire across the elven shooters. Fire elves were normally resistant to flame, but not to such a kiss from the fire god as Tonga commanded; they crumbled to cinder and ash.
The vagha cheered and leapt into the fray. Stony fists grabbed for their attackers and Tonga twisted his hands, controlling the stone above and below; he used the earth itself to smash the morehl into smoldering red paste.
Cackling as she leapt from stone pillar to pillar, an enormous beast crawled along the ceiling and drew the dwarves’ gaze upwards. The drider rushed into the fray from a vantage and dumped a swath of webbing upon the front lines of Valis.
Startled by the creature, Tonga’s concentration faltered, as did that of his countrymen. He felt his purchase on the spark fail and his control over the magics dissipated.
Morehl firearms raised as Valis’ protection crumbled like dust.
“No!” Tonga screamed. “Run!” He grabbed Freir’s hand and fled even as the hall filled with shrill reports and gun smoke. Cursed bullets tore Valis to pieces.
Tonga felt one rip through his shoulder and two others grazed him, only opening superficial wounds. He ran until he reached the edge of the Great Hall. Freir collapsed behind him forcing Tonga to pause and haul the child back to his feet.
Freir bled from his cheek but was otherwise unharmed. Perhaps two dozen others had followed and managed to reach the perimeter.
Behind them, the dark cluster of morehl and vagha were barely visible through the blue-grey haze. Ball shot whizzed past Tonga’s head as a sniper tried to target them. “Into the tunnels!” Tonga ordered. The remnant of Valis followed him even as the Obsidian Grotto army, led by Shedakor and Sshkkryyahr the drider, began their pursuit as if hunters chasing game for sport.
Tonga sprinted through the passageways until the smooth, hewn surfaces turned to the organic, rough surfaces of the lower levels. He rounded a bend and found the tunnel had been collapsed by Ruthak’s forces as they passed.
“Back! Go back the other way,” Tonga pushed the group. They took a different path, but the sounds of the lava elf pursuit swelled ominously behind them.
Tonga hurried down a path and tried to think of a plan, but could not. He didn’t know of any other exits that would let them slip past the invading army. In truth, he was merely stalling, and the others had begun to suspect as much as they rounded the endless bends under the hill.
“Where are we going?” Freir asked between ragged gasps of air.
Taking another turn that led further into the bowels of the earth Tonga hissed, “The vault. There are weapons there. We can’t win this fight—but we can kill as many of these durngam lava elves as possible before we go.”