Urgency had been overcome by fatigue. I was bleary eyed and ached all over as I looked on the battlefield. The river of blood that had slicked the ground and made it's way down the slope, pooling neatly at the bottom of the muddy bowl.
I slashed at the rope that bound the heads from the giant's waist then pulled it clear. I tied the makeshift belt into a loop and slung the grisly arrangement over my shoulder. I felt ill as the smell of rot clung to me. Seeing the sunken faces of my friends did not bring the satisfaction of vengeance that I thought it would. They were all still lost to me.
I looked down on the giant's twisted face, striking first at the horns of the giant, breaking them free from its skull, then struck at neck until his head rolled free. I pushed the head to the edge of the slope and kicked it free, watching it bounce merrily down the hill until it came to a rest near the foot of the tree.
"You plan on hauling that out?" Sig said with a grimace.
"I'm not sure. It seemed appropriate that he lost his head, too. I'll make sure it never sees this body again." I said with a growl then spat on the massive corpse.
I collected the horns and put them in my rucksack. I nodded to the giantess that lay close by.
"Are you going to take those horns?" I said to Tagaern. "It was your kill."
He grimaced and looked at me with some trepidation.
"Trophies? A soldier doesn't take trophies."
"I'm not feeling much like a soldier lately." I growled, feeling my grip on humanity slipping as I grew more weary.
I struck the horns off of the giantess and turned away. I felt a distant shudder through the blade as I struck the blows. I pushed Silah's subtle reaction aside. I felt numb as I moved to the beheaded giant and wiped Silah clean on the scraps of cloth that composed the large makeshift armor. I willed her to stand with us and then turned my back and began the descent.
"I'll be at the tree." I said over my shoulder without looking, "Silah, you should stay with them. Maybe let them know about this visitor rushing to meet us."
I trudged down the hill, parallel to the river of blood. I could feel the edge of my bond with Silah as I moved toward the base of the tree. I realized that the red mud that surrounded this place may have been stained by battles long past. Now my blood mixed in with the others. It was eerie to realize that something of me would forever remain here in The Veil.
I sat at the foot of the tree as the others hurriedly gathered anything of value and began the descent. I was able to breathe quietly, hearing only my own thoughts and feeling only what little I allowed myself to feel.
The starlit skies and sitting beneath the Ether Tree wasn't nearly as pleasant as I wanted. The smell of death was a constant reminder of what I had lost. It tugged me away from everything that I had found beautiful. A pervasive loneliness began to take root in me as I mulled silently at the foot of the tree.
"Why didn't you say that thing was still coming?" Floki said hastily as the others moved to the tree.
"Did I say he'd stopped?" I gave him a dispassionate look as I said it, he was favoring a shoulder where a still fresh wound that had saturated the surrounding cloth and armor with blood.
Close behind Floki was the ragged blonde haired ranger. He looked at me briefly then broke eye contact just as quickly. I grimaced at this new visitor. It was clear they knew each other. They looked remarkably similar...
No. It couldn't be. I thought quietly to myself, but I then immediately knew who this man was.
Questions began to run through my mind. The most prominent was how exactly did Floki's father end up here?
Tagaern looked battleworn. I hadn't noticed before, but now I realized that he had donned Duncan's armor. There was blood soaked at the joints where his armor did not protect. Clear bite marks had burrowed through, denting armor and punching holes in his flesh.
It appeared that Sig and Bromm had avoided injury, thankfully. Even Danin had somehow remained untouched as he moved to save me then turned to stand against the giant alone.
Silah followed up behind the others. Her expression was miserable. A conflicted anger marred her brow as she stood in front of me, rocking to the right on her hips and crossing her arms. I looked up at her with a challenge then got to my feet in silence. I grabbed the giant's head by the hair, tossed it over my shoulder, then turned toward the tree.
Bromm had motioned for everyone to stay then entered the tree, after a brief moment he returned.
"The power keg blew but the tree isn't damaged." He said as he waved everyone through.
Mere moments passed as we moved through to the Ether Tree to our plane. We were home again, part of me never expected to return while another part of me wished desperately that I hadn't.
Floki and Bromm had advanced first, cautiously looking around the room. Sounds of battle raged in the caves beyond. I squinted through a headache while straining to hear the sounds of battle echoing in the distance.
"Perhaps the princesses' army has made the push after all." Bromm said.
A smile crossed my lips and I reached instinctively for Silah to share the moment, then let my hand drop. I immediately felt out of sorts feeling anger and despair. My smile slipped away just as quickly as it came.
Orcs rushed into the room, bloodied and fleeing, not expecting a flanking force. Floki and Bromm laid them both low with fast reactions and consecutive shots. While the ringing from the black powder musket subsided, a series of pikes shuffled through the caves that were opposite of the caves we had entered from. Surprise lined their faces as they formed up.
Sig stepped forward and held his head high as they moved in. Orders were barked from a authoritative voice that pushed its way to the front. The entire line had wounds from the battle. Even the Commander held himself with some pain as he moved into the cave. We hadn't been the only ones who had let precious blood for this cause.
"Hold position men." The Commander's words rolled through the cave.
The Commander pulled his helmet off showing a refined older man with nearly white hair mixed with red highlights. His beard was expertly cut, showing a courtly exterior. He favored a leg, whether it was recent or not, I couldn't tell. Regardless, whatever he felt didn't lend to his bemused expression.
He looked up at us, sizing us up with seasoned eyes while we stood on the rise around the tree.
"I am Commander Ordan Maul. I lead the princesses' own Storm Pike." His courtly voice echoed in the cavern. "I can't say I expected to see anyone here. Alive or dead. Have the forces been dispatched?"
"We came directly here. We fought against only those that were in our way." Bromm said, summing up the situation succinctly.
"Cut to the heart of it, eh? You had an objective, then. What was it and why didn't I know about it?" He said it with a half-smile, yet aggravation lined his voice.
A look of apprehension crossed his face then turned to his officers. "Corporal Radek, see that the tunnels are clear and post a guard at the exits. I want this place secured."
A man dressed like a knight snapped to attention and the divisions were immediately called to order and fanned out through the network of cave entrances.
Commander Maul moved closer to the rest of us while his forces scattered at his command.
"I don't like hearing about things like this well after the fact. Who put you up to this?" He grumbled, keeping his voice just above the din of the clatter of armored soldiers.
"Kols, sir." Bromm said quickly and frankly, which seemed to put the man off balance.
"With the help of Qinnah and her Seven Shield Maidens." Tagaern added with gusto.
His face pinched with annoyance as he looked between Bromm and now Tagaern. He turned to Sig who was still standing at the forefront.
"And you? Who are you?" He almost added more to it, but held to his decorum.
"Sig Richter. We operate under Richter Holdings." He said with a smile that showed only a fraction of his sheer pleasure.
"You are a mercenary group then? Who hired you?" His voice was gruff with the demand.
Bromm looked exasperated.
"Stop. Please." He put a hand up, and the color of the Commander's face began to turn a deep red.
"We were charged to come here by Kols." Bromm leveled a piercing gaze at the man, "He gave us what we needed to seal the breach in The Veil in order to keep the giants at bay. We did our duty. We are not allied with any forces in Dowry and have no ulterior motives. We are here only to fulfill this oath."
I could see the muscles in his jaw rippling as he looked on Bromm again, weighing him silently. He lifted a hand and snapped his fingers multiple times very quickly. Corporal Radek was at his side in moments.
"Get Sobek." The Commander muttered.
He looked back to us, expanding his roving gaze to Danin, Tagaern, Floki, Floki's father, then to Silah and I. I could see his eyes stick on things that could reveal who we were. He seemed to recognize Danin's holy symbol and Duncan's breastplate that Tagaern wore, focusing particularly on the etched symbol of the Grasslion's. He saw Floki and his father, and the symbols of Yollari that they wore. He seemed genuinely bewildered by the spotless Silah.
He looked on me with an expressionless gaze. I was a bloodied mess, draped with a series of rotting heads while also carrying the giant's head by the hair over my back. His expression made me feel the need to explain all of it, but I immediately thought better of it and keeping my head high and mouth shut.
Silah was near. I wondered if she'd have anything to weigh in on this. I decided against engaging her to avoid facing even more of her cryptic silence.
"How did you get here?" The Commander said, looking between Bromm and Sig, seeming to grow tired of waiting in silence.
Sig pointed to the cave behind us where we had approached what felt like moments ago.
"We plan to go back that way. There were some things that we had left behind that we'd like to gather before we leave."
A scholarly looking man bustled into the room, anxious eyes on the Commander. He then looked up, freezing as he saw the Ether Tree standing tall before him.
"Oh my." He whispered, nearly breathless.
He then looked between us and the Commander.
"Did… you go through?"
"No questions, Sobek. I need answers." Ordan's frustration was palpable as looked to us and jabbed an impatient finger toward the thin aged man who had now joined us. "Tell him what you told me."
"Kols charged us to seal the breach. So we did." Bromm said with some annoyance.
"Last word was that Kols had fallen?" The scholarly gentleman looked up, his eyes pinched with suspicion.
"I've taken up his hammer." Bromm said solemnly, "Be assured that there is a renewed interest in Kols."
The Commander looked on the spindly gentleman, watching his reaction. The scholar seemed very pleased by the news.
"Is that clear to you, then, Sobek?"
"Yes." He bobbed his head to the Commander, "Quite fascinating, too. So you went through?"
"Yes, we did." Sig said simply, "I wouldn't go in there yet. Something had come hunting for us as we left. I am not sure how much longer he would be."
"No matter. Even if they're on the run, we need to flush every corner. I've been waiting to do this orc extermination for ages." Commander Maul continued on with a near imperceptible glance in my direction.
"There won't be any resistance coming through that tree from the giants." I hefted the head with the words, "But that does not mean it's safe in there."
The Commander met my eyes and nodded slowly. There was a considerably more emphatic nod coming from Sobek from behind.
"We need to protect this place so that we can do further research." Sobek said anxiously, "It's been said that this was out here, but even Yollari's ranger's had not found it until now."
Floki who produced the symbol of Yollari.
"We've found it now." He said, his face expressionless.
Ordan looked back at us with a narrowed gaze.
"Indeed you did." The Commander's voice was pointed, "Did Kols point the way?"
He clearly didn't lend much credibility to the gods acting among men.
"We followed the tracks from the first attack on Kellas House." Floki said quickly, getting the lend his own perspective, "We had it on good authority that they had recently come from the Ether Tree. The tracks led here."
"Fine, fine." Ordan seemed to be distracted as he looked at his forces spread around the tunnel. "The princess will want to speak with you, to reward you for what you have done, by whatever means you did it. Where do you hail from? Will you be returning to Dowry for the festival?"
"We have plans in Hlofreden." Danin spoke up, I could see a twinkle in his eye as he looked forward to what, or whom, awaited him.
The Commander looked incredulous, perhaps because of our choice of venue for the celebration.
"And, I heard the name Richter Holdings? Do you have a place of business?" Sobek stepped in, writing down the information on a parchment he had produced.
"Send word to The Sea Witch, we'll get it." Bromm said with a nod.
Ordan Maul incredulous expression deepened into a scowl as he shook his head. I slowly realized that this victory was meant to be his had been usurped by this mismatched rabble. His bloodied hands trembled visibly.
"Very good." Sobek said with a small gangly bow, "Be assured that a messenger will be sent after the festival."
"We still have work to do. You can still leave safely that way," Commander Maul pointed behind him, "It's up to you."
"We'll go back the way we came. We also have work to do. We're returning to Kellas House before we travel to Hlofreden." I said as I lifted the rope of heads gently.
The Commander's eyes narrowed as he looked at me then his eyes widened as he recognized Duncan's head with its sunken dark skin. He stepped back with the sudden recognition as if it were a blow.
"Oh. Yes." His look softened as he seemed to take a new accounting of who stood before him. "There had been no reports of survivors from Kellas House."
"There are survivors. Duncan's children, Amalia and her brothers, fled with one of the Kellas during the battle. They will take possession of Kellas House after we put things in order." I said tersely.
"Duncan, Hakaar, and I fought in the Ten Years War together." Tagaern said, leaning in and motioning to me and raising his shield in recognition. "We will give Duncan a proper burial."
Sobek was eagerly writing down what was being said, taking an account. It was becoming apparent that reliable information had been scarce since the skirmishes had started.
"You tend to yours, then. We'll send word when things settle." The Commander had taken a considerably lighter tone, while still feeling a bit shorted.
Sobek had already broken from the conversation and moved toward the tree. He had pulled another parchment and was making long strokes as he eyed the great underground tree in wonder.
Tagaern and I exchanged anxious looks as the group began to go their separate ways. Reports were starting to come back to Commander Maul from the soldiers that had fanned out through the tunnels. Bromm and the others had already turned away, moving toward the exit.
We still stood at attention locked in place by habit. Commander Maul looked at us oddly, suddenly reflecting our discomfort.
"Dismissed?" He said tentatively, "And safe travels."
It was an ingrained response. Both Tagaern and I turned away and started following the others.
Silah followed close.
"That's the first I've seen you stand attention like that before." She said with a strained smile.
I felt hollow. I gave her a pained smirk in response, trying to read what was going on behind those honey-brown eyes.
"You have to respect the office. You can learn to respect the man later." Tagaern said with a grudging tone as he glanced back at the commander. "He seems too self-serving for my liking."
I looked between the two of them, weighing what I could add.
"Dowry isn't all that honorable of a place. No doubt he's worried we were trying to undermine his position." I grumbled as we moved into through the tunnels back the way we had come.
An arrow with it's fletching lit magically by Sig was the hovering light over Floki's shoulder. He still had his bow drawn, but Tenner scenting the wind coming from ahead seemed to be perfectly at ease with what was ahead of us. I was only half alert. Between the aches and pains, the the smell of death hanging around me, I was fully aware of the crunch of dirt from Silah who was only a few steps behind me.
I sighed heavily as I walked, feeling this weight between us. Whatever had changed in Silah had made her a complete unknown to me. It was something that she was speaking, but it still felt incredibly wrong. If she was still buried in there, I hoped I would find her again. I missed her terribly.
The path back to the surface was long and quiet. Accordingly to Floki, fresh tracks had coursed through the caverns as the younglings and females scattered under the weight of the army. Sig frowned slightly as some of the gear we had set aside had been taken, but we managed to scavenge another well crafted set of studded leather armor, the same I had donned just earlier.
We crested the sinkholes and could see the battlefield to the West and South. Pyres were already ablaze with blackened smoke dirtying the late afternoon air. Floki was soundlessly picking the path and a weariness settled into the group as we set into the overland march.
After cresting the road, we were already very near the turnoff to Kellas House. My head was down and I was willing my feet to keep moving, pushing through the exhaustion. I realized that I was extremely thirsty and my waterskin was empty. The well at Kellas House would be a welcome sight.
The weight of the giant's head bumped continually against my back reminding me that I could let it go at any time, yet I clung to it. I thought about putting it on a pike and letting the scavengers pick it clean. It was an archaic, unnecessary warning now that the threat had been dealt with, yet I could see the sense of it coming from my orcish blood.
Floki hadn't given any sort of alert since we had left the tree. The plains were quiet and empty as before. Right about now the guards would have been departing from Kellas House, heading toward both Hlofreden and Dowry, connecting the two cities with a flow of living traffic.
The thought brought emotions to the surface that I had held back successfully for days. I almost wanted to look at the withered face with it's eyes gouged out for the rope to be pulled through. I couldn't bear to see what had become of the strong Duncan that I had known for so very long. The tears that came fell silently to the dirt, mixing into the dust at my feet.
It was times like these that Silah was instantly there, holding me close, wrapping herself around me to give comfort in her way. I had pushed her away before, but now I wanted her to be with me. I wanted her to help me navigate the path ahead using her perpetually bright light to push back this engulfing uncertainty. I could hear her footsteps behind me and I listened to them, gaining some comfort in knowing she was close.
Kellas House looked as it had before. The winds had stalled and the stench had welled up within the walls under the blazing sun.
"I don't plan on leaving until we've cleared the remains and put our friends to rest." I said as we moved past the broken gate. "Tagaern, we should finish what we started with Duncan first. Then I'll work on setting up a pyre for those."
I gestured to the festering remains of the orcs and giants. Carrion birds were aloft high above the walls. There were other clear signs of scavengers pulling away what they could. The flies now ruled, rising in dense black clouds as we moved among the bodies. Maggots had already taken hold, merrily hollowing out the remains. The sight made me swallow hard, keeping down the bile that rose in my throat. I took the mining mask from my pack, hoping that it keep the ripening smell at bay.
I moved to the well and filled my waterskin, drinking as much as I could bear, then donned the mask. It only worked so well, but pressing a wet cloth into it seemed to help further filter the odor of decay.
Tagaern and I laid Duncan's head with him in his grave. I averted my eyes, covering it with sack cloth before laying it to rest. I had seen it already, but his smiling healthy face was still clear my mind and I didn't want to chance it being erased and replaced by this grisly comparison.
"As promised. Rest well, Duncan." I muttered quietly while I replaced the pile of rocks.
Tagaern stood for longer and I left him.
"Silah, this is going to be dirty work." I looked out at the mass of bodies.
"It's better than doing nothing." Her voice wavered as she spoke, her expression wooden.
I reached for her arm, but she stepped back, too my hand and held it tightly. She looked up into my eyes quietly. There was a tumult coming from her, a feeling the rumble of a charge of horses. It felt like the trembling of perpetual and unending heartache. I sighed as I willed her to take her greatsword form, but she resisted, waiting sullenly, looking into my eyes earnestly before she obliged and melted into my hand.
"We should talk." She whispered in the darkness.
I… I can't think right now. I must do something or I won't get through this. My thoughts jumbled together making my head hurt.
There was a momentary pressure as she pushed in close to me. Just as suddenly, it subsided as she withdrew her presence. Though, I realized that there was something remained—I could feel it while holding the blade—her hand still held mine.
(Get to know Akeron.)