The first impact only bowed the ancient wood, though the blow was thunderous. The second strike was emphatic and the wooden barrier collapsed, and allowed light into the cave beyond for the first time in centuries. An orc in ornate armor stood in the resultant dust cloud, framed in the jagged, splintered edges of the boards he’d sundered. He hefted a tremendous maul, and peered into the dark.
Nothing rushed forward to meet him and the echoes of his labor slowly faded and left only silence, save for the too-loud sound of water dripping on stone. The leak could have been ten feet ahead, or a mile underground. The ears could not tell.
Or at least, orc ears could not. Rauk considered testing one of the elves, but thought better of it at the last second. “We go in,” he said instead. “It must be the way.”
“How can you know?” Wolf asked. His voice was neutral but the imperious disdain was, as with all elves, naturally implied. “It could be a spent mineshaft, disconnected from the tunnels we seek.”
“No,” Rauk said as he began removing his packs and supplies, always with one eye on the cave entrance. “Those boards were reinforced and hidden with vines. It was old elf work, meant for hiding something. There’s no reason to hide a mine with nothing left in it, and no reason to abandon it if ore remains. No markings on the walls, no elf signs. This is a way into the mountain.”
Wolf grunted. “I have less experience defiling my ancestors’ sacred spaces,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to defer to your judgment.”
“As always,” Rauk agreed, turning to the rest of the party. They were already slipping packs off their shoulders, armoring themselves, and preparing weapons.
“The spaces are narrow, and it doesn’t look like they’ve been carved out,” Rauk told Thargald.
Thar nodded, but continued stringing his bow all the same. “There’s a good shot into the cave though,” he said. “I will watch the entrance, in case they try to run.”
Ulla called Rauk’s name, and he half-turned from Thar without ending their conversation. She pulled a large, leather-and-fur pack off of her back one-handed and gave him a questioning look – are you ready? When he nodded, she tossed the pack to him overhand. He grunted as he caught it. “You are getting heavy,” he told his infant daughter, but she did not stir from her sleep.
Orcs are not given names until they earn one by surviving infancy, but Rauk already knew what his daughter’s name would be. Skogari, in honor of both the Khan and a fallen friend. He had slipped once and called her by her secret name out loud, and Ulla heard. To his relief, she had approved, though they both worried that the Khan would not be pleased to share her name with another. And a dead skraeling, to boot.A worry for another day.
Rauk handed the bundle to Thar, who met Rauk’s eyes and nodded once before delicately shouldering the pack. Sometimes Rauk thought that the girl was more precious to Thar than she was even to her own parents.
“I don’t know how deep the caves go,” Rauk said.
Thar shrugged, looking at the assembled packs and supplies. He did the math in an instant. “Enough here that I can wait a week and a half, maybe two. Between what is left after that and what I can carry, I can make it back to the Moon Bears within a month if you don’t come back.”
Thar eyed the elves, who did their preparations some ways away. Still, he lowered his voice in fear of their superior hearing, “If you don’t come back, make sure they don’t either.”
Rauk nodded, and pressed his helmet on. “If they come back and I do not, shoot the tall one first.”
Rauk hadn’t been wrong. The cave passage narrowed and twisted, closing in on the party almost unbearably before it would widen again. His armor scraped and sparked on stone as he shoved himself through a narrow gap now, a small part of him always worried he would become hopelessly lodged in place. He was no stranger to armor, but those chosen to champion the Khan directly wore special pieces: heavier, denser, more fearsome. In battle he felt untouchable, but otherwise he feared he’d never be free of the armor’s weighty embrace. Here the discomfort was compounded upon, the weight of the earth itself added.
He had a special distaste for caves and underground spaces. He hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but he suspected Ulla knew. He felt her glancing at him, her concern concealed but obvious to him. He kept his eyes forward though, watchful for spider-sign or the tell-tale, ethereal glow of a ghost. He had hard-won experience the others lacked.
The passage widened enough for the party to spread out with weapons at the ready, each exploring a dark corner.
“Light?” Wolf whispered.
Rauk nodded once. Whatever lived down there was even more accustomed to the dark than they, and would have heard Rauk shattering the barrier. Wolf raised his staff overhead, and the end began to emit an ever-brightening glow. Rauk’s vision shifted from ill-defined grays to the sharper colors and details afforded by light.
“This was not a mine,” Serara murmured. “Ore here, but no tool marks near it.”
“And none of the old signs marking passages or dead ends,” Wolf agreed. “No paint, no wall-scratches. Just the blocked entrance to show it was visited at all.”
“Not visited by elves,” Varamen said, “but not empty.”
The hunter stopped Rauk from passing, and nodded down at the orc’s armored feet. He crouched down and examined the dirt, nodding slightly. Tracks, going out toward the entrance they found, and back again. “They’re fresh?”
Varamen nodded. “Within the month. The earth is fine and the air still reaches down here.”
“What made them?”
The elf shook his head. “Nothing I’ve met. Big, and clawed. Smaller than bear, bigger than dog. Sometimes it walks on four, sometimes two.” He shouldered his short bow and drew a hand crossbow instead, loading it with a stunted quarrel. Better for the tight confines of the cave.
“Do you smell that?” Ulla said, coming in closer.
Rauk turned his head in the direction she was facing and took in a breath. “Wet fur and blood,” he said at last.
Ulla nodded. “And burnt meat.”
“A camp,” Wolf offered.
Ulla shook her head. “Burnt,” she said emphatically. “And there was a lot of it. The soot is on the walls.”
The orcs considered each possible passageway with their noses, and agreed upon one. Ulla unslung her shield and started down before Rauk, but he pulled her back with a growl. She growled back, but let him pass nonetheless. The elves, now accustomed to these shows, almost refrained from rolling their eyes at one another. Almost.
Rauk strode into the passageway first with purpose, his eyes gleaming red in the cavernous gloom. Next came Serara with her short swords drawn, then Wolf with his staff, then Varamen. Ulla brought up the rear, her body turned sideways in anticipation of an ambush.
The passage was a long one, but rather than narrow it grew more expansive as it went. By the time it terminated in a small cave, perhaps one hundred feet across, the party had spread to its sides in a rough semicircle, their weapons at the ready.
The sound of claws scraped stone in the dark, and guttural mutterings echoed from places unseen. The elves, with their sharp eyes, caught glimpses of motion across side passages and in shadowed nooks, but they remained steady. Still, when the attack came it was so sudden as to be incongruous. There was a moment of tension no different than the one before it, and then in the next the party was set upon by hulking shadows with flashing eyes and bared teeth.
The first one leapt clear across a space of twenty feet from some hidden place, its limbs spread wide to fall upon Serara the moment she stepped a pace out of position from Rauk. The attacker let out a terrified yelp when it was intercepted in midair, Rauk’s armored shoulder meeting its midsection with an impact so brutal that bones in its back snapped.
Serara was the smallest, and so made the best bait.
She fell upon the fallen beast almost the moment it bounced off Rauk’s shoulder, stabbing and slashing, and the orc turned to face the next attacker with his hammer at the ready.
They came out of the shadows, leaping and snarling, some circling while others dived in snapping. Varamen hadn’t been much off his prediction: they were rangy things with long fur, at an unholy crossroads between bear, wolf, and man. Their movements were preternaturally fast, but they were pack animals through-and-through, and so there was nothing unfamiliar about their tactics.
One beset Ulla just as she raised her shield, and it bit down on the upper portion. She swung her axe underhanded, and beat the backside of her weapon to the bottom of the shield. Thus, the upper part was forced up into the beast’s mouth with such force that its jaw was immediately broken. The pain and shock hardly registered in its eyes before she dropped her shield and brought her axe down to split the thing’s skull.
Serara was in a frenzy, slashing and stabbing. Another beast tried to leap on her, but Wolf summoned up a cry and a spitting mass of flame, which he directed over his companion’s shoulder and into her attacker’s face. It screamed as it ignited, and yet almost had the flames put out before Serara was on its back with a chilling shriek, her blades suddenly wet with its steaming blood.
Varamen was his sister’s opposite, his face impassive and his motions utterly calculated. He fired his hand crossbow with a twist of his wrist, and his quarrel sank into a charging beast’s eye. Its momentum yet carried it forward as it clutched at its bestial face, and Varamen rolled across its back and used his knife to open its throat all at once. He looked almost bored as he landed lightly on his feet again, reloading his crossbow without looking at it.
Rauk’s maul had become an unnatural thing since his adventures beneath Two Rivers, a deadly and eerie thing. It glowed as he swung it, leaving soul-chilling trails of light in its path of destruction, tracing arcs where he swept a beast off of its legs before crushing its ribs. The armor made him slow, but their teeth and claws could not find him within it, and he was too strong to be dragged down off of his feet. They leapt on him in pairs, desperately biting and clawing, but one by one he caught them, threw them to the ground, and hammered their bones to mush.
Soon only one remained, and Rauk had to drag Serara kicking and screaming off of it. Its blood already rolled off of her in rivulets, and when Rauk pointed at the fallen monster he spoke with urgency. “Heal it,” he said. “We need one alive.”
Ulla and Wolf hurried forward while Rauk held Serara’s arms to her sides and her feet up off the ground, and there he suspended her for a full minute until her spitting, kicking, and snarling stopped. Even then, he held her aloft for a half-minute longer until her head drooped forward, and only when he was absolutely sure did he gently hand her over to Varamen’s waiting arms. He cradled her like a child, and chuckled wryly as he wiped blood from her tattooed face.
“If only we’d had you around when she was small,” he told Rauk.
“If you had, you would have tried to kill me.”
The elf grinned. “True enough.”
Varamen and Rauk entered the next caravan cautiously, but lowered their weapons almost immediately upon entering. The tension never did fade, however.
The space was larger than the cavern in which they’d been attacked, and sunlight filtered in from somewhere above in thin shafts. Varamen covered his nose, and could not guess how Rauk kept himself from gagging.
The floor was littered with mangled bodies in various states of destruction, all badly burnt. The walls were black with soot, and the ground crunched where they set their boots down. Rauk nudged one of the blackened corpses with the butt of his maul, and it crumbled into so much black dust.
“Too late again,” Varamen whispered. He did not fear being heard, but to speak aloud in a charnel house felt wrong.
Rauk looked to the elf, and he nodded pointedly across the chamber. There, someone had built a wooden platform in times long-past, and filled it with sand from some ludicrously distant shore. The orc recognized its like. He’d seen plenty of others, by now. It was a nest.
He crossed the chamber carefully, avoiding corpses where he could and brushing the crumbling remains aside where he couldn’t. When he arrived at the nest he first saw only sand, but after a moment of careful digging he found the first one.
It was a heavy shard, fist-sized, golden in color with black markings. He dug a little more and found a much larger shard, taking great care with its jagged edges as he hoisted it up and rested it on the wooden edge of the nest. Now he could make out the black marks a little better.
“Familiar,” Varamen said thoughtfully. “Almost like…”
“Cogs,” Rauk agreed. “Clockwork.”
Varamen tilted his head and nodded his agreement. The marks looked like crudely painted gears, cogs, and clockwork.
By the time the pair returned to the others, the preparations were complete.
Ulla butted her forehead to Rauk’s chest as he came to her, and he rested his chin briefly against the top of her head. He met Serara’s eyes, and she nodded her thanks to him.
“Are you prepared, Serara?” Wolf said. “I can only hold this creature for so long.”
The elder elf was standing off to the side with his staff held forward, his brow furrowed in concentration. Before him, the recently healed beast lay breathing but paralyzed, staring balefully up at its magical captor.“I think so,” Serara answered, and she crossed the space and knelt down beside the beast-man. It shifted its hatred to her face, but its gaze took on a bit of fear when she reached for it.
With the creature’s head in her hands, Serara peered into its eyes and began to sway. The others stepped in nearer, save Wolf, who did not move from his rigidly-held position. After a long moment, Serara began to mutter to herself, louder and louder, until she began softly announcing all that she saw.
And what she saw was what it had seen.
“They were men once,” she said, “but their line was cursed to lose their humanity once they passed the curse on to sons or daughters. Generation after generation, men and women having children and then becoming monsters, murdering everyone they knew saved their cursed infants. The monster would flee to find his or her ancestors, to join the pack. The child would remain, never knowing the curse they bore until they repeated their parent’s sins. On and on.”
Rauk glanced at Ulla, whose brow furrowed ever-so-slightly.
“They are animals, mostly,” Serara continued. “Immortal, hungry, simple. But they can think as men, in some ways. They have spirits, still, and holy men. Not long ago the holy men had visions of a great enemy to their kind. A great threat, looming, promising its coming in their dreams. The holy men told the alphas, told the packs. Everyone became angry, and the packs came together as never before. They were going to kill their enemy before it could be born.”
Serara’s face went slack, and her eyelids fluttered. “This one saw it, the enemy. They packs came together here, in this cave. Flooded into it in a tide of fur and teeth, raging. But when they entered, they found it had already been born. It was waiting for them. Its skin is black metal, its teeth squared and notched as if from a mechanical gear. It breathes steam, and burns from inside like a furnace or a smelter. Its tail is like a sword blade, its back lined with razors. It was born incomplete, one claw malformed, held to its chest. It didn’t breathe fire it breathed…light. Burning, searing light. It burned the packs away, crushed their bodies between its jaws…like…like limbs caught in the gears and chains of the lifts in Two Rivers. Unfeeling, never slowing, unrelenting. It hated them, wanted them all to die.”
Serara shuddered. “It thought it killed them all, but this one hid with some others. They watched it leave, fly away, maybe to find more of their kind to kill, maybe to join with its siblings. This one didn’t know. None of them knew. They stayed here to hide, thinking it would never come back to its birthplace.”
“How long ago?” Rauk whispered.
Serara tilted her head, wondering. “Weeks. No more.”
“How old was it? How big? Did it say anything?”
Serara shook her head slowly. “Never spoke. Big. Bigger than any of the beast men. Already born and strong before they came, but they never saw the egg. Never knew.”
“Are there any other monsters left here? Any that got away from us?”
Serara shook her head. “He is the last of his kind, for all he knows. No pack, alone. So afraid to live alone.”
And before any of them could stop her, she drew one of her blood-caked blades and drew it hard across the beast’s throat. Ulla surged forward to save it, but Rauk caught her by the shoulder and shook his head.
They watched Serara, but she watched the beast.
When the party emerged from the caves, Rauk thankfully had the foresight to step into sight first. Thar stood at the mouth of the cave with an arrow nocked and drawn, an infant orc peering curiously over his shoulder. He lowered the bow, and frowned openly when Wolf emerged from the cave after Rauk.
Once the entire party was revealed, they blocked the entrance to the cave with heavy stones and made camp. Only then, as the sun began to set, did Thar dare ask.
“We were too late, again,” Rauk told him. “Only by weeks this time, but it didn’t seem to matter. There was a nest, just like before. But there’s something else.”
The orc ranger grunted questioningly around the jerky he chewed.
“It…how to explain? It had a presence before it was born, an awareness. It called out to its enemies, made its own birth into a trap. It was born with a hatred already fully formed.”
Thar frowned, and his chewing slowed. He swallowed. “What does that mean?”
Rauk stared into the fire, and when he shook his head it was almost imperceptible.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like the more we learn, the less we know. Now more than ever.”
Thar glanced over at Ulla, who was fussing over the infant laid across her lap. “Perhaps it is time to return to Bloody Oaks,” he said thoughtfully. “To tell the Khan what little we do know. To warn her. Three of these creatures, Rauk these…dragons.”
“You remember the inscription,” Rauk said, shaking his head. “There will be more. We aren’t finished.”
“That isn’t my point,” Thar said after a moment, nodding to Ulla. “Rauk…we are always too late, always a step behind. What happens if we aren’t? What if the next dragon is waiting for us instead of beast men or cultists? What if it’s our charred corpses someone else is finding, weeks after.”
Rauk nodded solemnly, but said nothing.