"The runner went this way," Bromm said, taking position in front of the tunnel. "We'd be hard pressed to catch up with him now."
"There will most definitely be an ambush where ever this ends up." Floki said, nodding, moving up next to Bromm.
Sig stood from his crouched position and tossed the backpack over his shoulder, Danin and Tagaern were close behind. We pressed our way into the dark tunnels.
The orc runner who had gone this direction had not seen what damage was done to the brothers that he'd left behind. Would they expect us to be far weaker than we are? As Floki had said, they would be more prepared for us, there was no doubt. While Danin and these healing tinctures had kept us fresh up to now, I knew it wouldn't take much to be laid low by a skilled enemy. However, I was feeling optimistic, even so far as to say that we were being guided by the gods.
Perhaps that was a little too optimistic. I thought with a grin.
Gods aside, those who I expected to help us seemed very distant from here. Danin's Derrum Ebbar and Floki's Yollari seemed much more about utility than grand acts that would push back these forces. Tagaern had mentioned Qinnah which was a common god for those out of Materune, but I knew little of the lore beyond what Tagaern's profound poetry had alluded to. And, Kols—who's banner had fallen—had shown that his involvement was, in all actuality, our involvement.
If the stories we'd been hearing were true, this affected all of the gods. Even Acionna's own festival of Làn-Mara was mere days away and would now be forever associated with this blight that nearly took hold near Dowry. Would she stand for that?
To show up a goddess by saving her day of recognition. Now that was playing with fire. My grin widened.
The darkness deepened in the tunnels. Both Danin and Sig lit up arrow fletchings and stones to push back against the deepening gloom. This stretch seemed more intimidating than the previous tunnel. I had passed the point of feeling overwhelmed, though. Every thought was a mockery that corresponded to the direness of our situation. Maybe this was the optimism I had been feeling? A form of hopelessness?
It was a strange to realize that the entirety of the Princesses army was just beyond this valley of sinkholes. They were perched, defending, perhaps even readying to push with a counter strike. Yet, they were completely unaware that we were here, fighting the good fight. That was where the full attention of the opposing force was focused. We had come at a blind angle to an entrance on the fringes. Only now did they know we were here and that could mean it was too late for them to do anything more about it.
Besides throwing everything they've got at us? The thought changed the grin to a grim smile .
And neither force had any idea that we had the key to closing the gap in the Bulwark's protections. We weren't exactly clear on that, ourselves, besides a few cryptic words from a possessed dwarf. Yet, here we were striking ahead in the name of vengeance and the protection of life as we know it.
Fortune favors the bold. I thought with a soft chuckle which prompted a worried look from Floki.
"Indeed." Silah said silkily.
Are you back with us? I thought with a flutter of anger, getting a sense of being used.
Her words had been vague and sparse. Yet, her power had grown immense. I could feel the energy surging through the blade into me, but it wasn't an empowering sensation. It was an invasive entwining of our wills; her's pressing up against mine. I could feel her weighing each thought, stretching the power she must have gained from the death dealing. I had felt this before, but not to this extent. Fear tickled in the depths of my mind as she pawed around, inspecting her new lair. I grimaced at the experience, but still clung tightly to the blade.
"I never left." She said with what sounded like a sigh, "You are overthinking this."
I grit my teeth against her words. I remembered Sig's concern on the beach the first night after I bonded with her. I shook my head at the thought and focused on the task ahead, duty or vengeance, either would be very satisfying right now. It'd get my head out of this frustrating unknown. My heart beat faster with the thought.
"Be calm, my beast." Silah's voice snaked through my head, "Our great adventure stands before us."
I felt a pit form in my stomach with her words. If this hadn't been such a critical moment, I would have sheathed her and turned to the newly stowed orcish falchion.
The tunnels began to lighten noticeably. Green growth covered the walls and luminescent mushrooms dotted clusters of moss and vegetation. They were thriving even with the very little light there was to sustain it.
"There's another force at work here." Sig said quietly as he looked on the vegetation. "I assume we're getting close to the Ether Tree."
We slowed our pace to keep quiet. We had been walking through these tunnels for a very long time before we had start seeing these changes. The entrance ahead opened into a green lit cavern. There was a warm, moist wind that came from there. It smelled like the Elven forests that I had become accustomed to briefly after the Ten Years War as the treaty was drawn and signed. The cavern ahead was deep with tapering walls that were slicked with moisture. The Ether Tree stood tall in the midst of it, reaching above the sinkhole's lip and lit by the sun above.
"I don't think this is a good idea." Floki said with a hoarse whisper as he looked into the quiet cavern.
We had stopped a ways back from the entrance to avoid being spotted from whatever lay beyond, but the tree remained clearly visible. I marveled at its beauty quietly.
Floki and Bromm moved forward to peer around, disappearing into the shadows against the walls as they did so.
"Tunnels along all of the walls. There's a blind spot toward the back and right that we'll need to get an angle on. I can't see what else is in there." Floki reported when he came back, "Who knows what lies deeper in those caves. Otherwise, it as silent as a crypt in there."
Bromm looked at Floki.
"Those long grasses on the approach to the tree should give us good cover. We need to see what is happening at the Bulwark." Bromm said, patting at a pocket on his dark long coat.
"We'll be back." Floki said to the rest of us.
I watched them approach the tunnel's exit and hunker down, sliding into the grass that covered the earthen floor, disappearing from sight.
Time passed slowly after Bromm and Floki disappeared. I could sense a tumult of emotion through the thin veneer of my connection with Silah. It was strange, how deeply she had sunk into me had given me more of a connection to her in kind. Perhaps she didn't realize how close we now were.
Is there something wrong? My thought returned nothing but silence.
I expected to hear the sounds of engagement come from the cave at any moment, but Bromm and Floki slunk back in the way they had left, tiptoeing quickly to where we stood.
"There is a handful of scouts on the right side of the cave waiting for anyone to poke their heads out. We didn't get a clear view into the caves, but I assume there are more of them." Bromm said.
Floki was shaking his head as Bromm spoke, looking overwhelmed.
"And the Bulwark?" Danin asked.
Previous to now, Danin was the only one who had seen the Bulwark, if I had followed their stories correctly. Now Floki and Bromm had also see into that great beyond.
"There's a steep, muddy hill climbing out of the pit that the tree lies in. It looks treacherous, but I could see spots for cover along the way that could work in our favor." Floki spoke, then took a deep breath, "There was a single, well armed, giant at the top of the embankment. He was on guard, but didn't look like he had been alerted. His gear reminded me of the same sort that Sig dealt with back at Kellas House."
Back when Duncan was alive. I thought, feeling my jaw clench involuntarily.
"I could see the banners that ring the Bulwark and I found the gap." Bromm added. "What lies beyond that we couldn't see, but we should be wary."
"We could avoid this." Sig pondered aloud waving a hand toward the cave, "We could move through the tree, travel to Sidhe Lara. Attempt the Bulwark from there without the threat of the orcs."
I watched as Tagaern gave Sig an aggravated sidelong look then turned to Danin who seemed to be taking all of this in stride.
It pained me to draw this out any longer than it needed to be, but I was willing to go along with what was said. However, with that thought I felt a heat from Silah as her will tightened against mine, yet no words were spoken. Her aggravated silence had done little for my confidence.
I fiddled with the horn around my neck that I had taken from Duncan's body. Sig had said that, when blown, this horn created an obscuring fog. Unfortunately, it made also made a deep echoing noise in the process. Perhaps the noise wouldn't matter if we could still hide in the mist? I looked at what was ahead of us and wondered if it would create an obscured path to the tree. I didn't feel comfortable stepping into a wide open cave, fully visible with a half dozen archers waiting with arrows nocked and ready.
Sig and Floki looked concerned, weighing their options. Bromm's fingers had found the coin in his pocket and traced absently around it putting a crease in the fabric. Tagaern looked determined, his teeth bared because of the delay. Danin hefted his axe, watching the others.
"We need to make a plan. Put your thoughts out on the table, but be quick about it." Bromm said tersely, "We don't have much time."
(Get to know Akeron.)