The loud banging coming from outside his hostel room’s door woke Roger with a start. He lurched into a sitting position, and banged his face on the top of the stone notch that dwarves called a bed. Rolling out, Roger noticed that Hil was lying on the ground, clutching his joints and groaning from sleeping folded in half.
“I did warn you,” Roger said.Hil glared at him. “Go see what’s going on out there, would you?”
Roger slipped his shoes on, and pulled his tunic sleepily over his head before walking over to the squat little door. He opened it a crack, poked his head out, looked left and right, and then came back into the room, closing the door behind him.
“It looks like Ari has flipped over a table on top of that blond guy that keeps chasing her,” Roger said nonchalantly.
Hil creaked into a standing position. “We had better go help, don’t you think?” he asked.
“I suppose so. To be honest, I’m kind of tired of dealing with that guy,” Roger said, “Maybe we should just let Ari chase him off with the business end of her stick.”
“I agree, but you can’t be too careful.” Hil ducked–deeply–out the small door, and Roger, sighing, followed after him.
The common room was a mess. Food and drink were spilled on the stone floor, the liquids running into the edges of the old rugs that were scattered about. Bire was pinned against the wall by the stone dwarven table that Ari had somehow managed to slide across the floor at him.
“How on Earth do you do crap like that,” he asked indignantly, “You always pull this freak strength out of nowhere.”
“In this situation, it’s perfectly proportional to how much I don’t like you,” Ari growled, her knuckles turning white as she clenched her staff with both hands.
“Wait, stop! Don’t bash my brains in,” he pleaded.
“You have ten seconds to convince me not to.”
“First of all, I wasn’t looking for you this time. Well, I mean, I was, but not specifically right now. I am still technically supposed to take you back to your father, but we have bigger problems.”
“There’s a horde of goblins rampaging through the tunnels! I just popped in here to hide.”
Ari growled and stepped forward, her staff raised, but the old dwarven inn keeper put his hand on her arm, his beard waggling softly.
“He. Speech. What?” the old dwarf asked. Everyone looked at him with confusion. Ringing his hands, the old dwarf cast about, looking for help. He scanned the room, searching for someone who could understand him. He saw Hil standing behind Roger, and excitedly rushed up to him. The two of them conversed momentarily, and the innkeeper’s face took on a look of surprise. He waddled back over to his seat, and, stretching over it, grabbed his poleaxe down from the wall where it had hung. He started shouting and gesticulating excitedly.
“He says we need to leave,” Hil said to everybody’s expectant gaze, “That this hostel can’t hold up to a goblin raid, and that we should make our way to the shrine.”
“Rei’s shrine?” Hannah asked.
“The very same.”
“Ugh,” Ari grunted, lowering her staff, “I thought we took a shortcut so we could get there first.”
“I think we still can get there first,” Hil said, “But it’s possible that Shurre-Na decided to send her goblins toward both shrines at the same time.”
“It doesn’t matter, for now,” Ari replied, “let’s just get out of here.”
“I like that idea,” Bire said, having pushed the table back far enough to be able to sidle out. He waved his hand, and several of his compatriots gathered up around him. “I guess we’re working together for now.”
“Fine,” Ari growled.
Roger and his party, the old dwarven proprietor, Bire and his thugs, as well as a smattering of dwarves who had also been staying at the hostel carefully slipped out into the tunnel. Echoes of goblin voices could be heard reverberating in the distance, and an ominous orange glow was coming from one of the tunnels.
The little old dwarf, leaning on his poleaxe like a walking stick, gibbered something in dwarvish and waved his hand for them to follow. He led them on, down a different tunnel, away from the approaching goblins, his short old legs creaking as he went. Several of the people carried candles, lighting the way.
Roger found himself in the middle of the pack, with Hannah walking briskly to one side. Ari was ahead of him, following closely behind the old dwarf, and Hil was behind. All around, moving as a small clump, came Bire’s crew, as well as the other dwarves from the hostel. The humans looked at the low earthen ceiling and walls with dissatisfaction, fidgeting nervously. The dwarves moved with purpose, their faces grim, and their hands on their knives.
The road went steadily upward, occasionally becoming so steep that steps had been carved into the tunnel in order to assist the climb. They passed between artificially dug tunnels and natural caves, these dripping water from hidden stalactites down into unseen pools.
It was in one of these natural caves that, in their rush, the group nearly trampled over a crooked old dwarf. At least, Roger thought it was a dwarf. When it turned to jump out of the way from their passing, he saw that it had no eyes. The creature scuttled out of their way on all four limbs, its body bent over and cringing. It scurried away until it found a crevice to hide in, and remained there, shivering in its tattered clothes, as they passed.
“What on earth was that?” Roger asked. Ari glanced back with a look and a shrug. She had no idea.
“It’s a troglodyte,” Hil explained as they continued their brisk march, “Creatures that were once dwarves, the exiled ones. They are the ones who were banished from our mountain halls, long ago. We thought that they would simply disappear, or perhaps make their way to the surface. They did not. They survived, and you can see the results of their long residence in the dark.”
Hil sighed. “They… Sadden me. They are like dwarves, but with everything that brings joy to a dwarf stripped away. They are pitiful creatures, reminders of our follies.”
Hil’s expression stopped Roger from asking more questions for the time being.
Suddenly, Roger became aware that the tunnel had been growing steadily brighter, and behind them the sound of goblin voices became pronouncedly louder.
“They're gaining on us,” Hannah said, worry straining her voice. She glanced at Roger and remembered something. She fished around in her dilapidated bag and retrieved his kettle hat. Its steel peaked dome glistened in the dim light. He took it without comment and strapped it to his head. Hannah nodded approvingly.
“We should be nearly there,” Hil said, “I believe we just need to climb the moat, and we’ll reach the fortress.”
“Fortress?” Roger asked.
“Rei’s shrine is housed within an underground fortress, a final refuge for the dwarves of this mountain, and the training grounds for her priests.”
“Luckily, this will be an easier place to defend. We should be able to prevent them from destroying the shrine.”
“Excuse me,” Bire interrupted, “But how could they destroy the shrine. They’re just goblins. That’s impossible.”
“They’ve already destroyed both the shrines to Oir and Une,” Ari said, “They’re guided by a powerful sorceress from the west. We killed her dragon, but that may have just pissed her off more than anything.”
“What…? So many of the things you just said were nonsense.”
“And yet completely real,” Ari said firmly, “We must reach Rei’s shrine and warn them of the attack before it is too late.”
Bire looked rather stupefied as he processed the new information.
“So, we only have the one god now,” he concluded at length, “That’s not good. Without the gods, how will we maintain the border? How will we maintain trade? Will we starve in the winter?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Ari said.
Bire nodded vigorously. “I agree, we need to hurry.” He strode out in front, holding his candle in his left hand. As he passed a side tunnel a goblin lept from it, its mop of dangling hair flying wildly, knife menacingly outstretched. Bire reached for the hilt of his sword, but he was too slow, the goblin was moving too quickly.
The old hostel proprietor’s poleaxe hooked the goblin in the throat, pulling the creature to the side. The goblin fell limply past Bire. Its knife clattered uselessly to the floor, falling from senseless fingers. More goblins flowed out of the side tunnel, threatening to cut off the road they were following.
Bire managed to pull his sword from his scabbard in time to deflect a blow, and counter with his own. His comrades rushed to his side, forming a wall to keep the goblins blocked into the mouth of the tunnel they were coming out of.
“Hurry!” he shouted, “We’ll hold them so you can pass.” He turned to his crew, “You lot, it’s time for us to be big damn heroes.”
That earned him nervous chuckles and small whoops of excitement from the others.
Ari pursed her lips and nodded. The old dwarf continued to lead as the rest skirted around the edge of the melee. Roger glanced at the fighting as he passed just in time to see a man fall with a wound to his neck. He quickly averted his eyes and picked up his pace. Once the whole group had passed, Bire ordered a retreat, and his squad began to move back up the tunnel. They were forced to fight as they went, and Roger watched them edging their way backward, their swords swinging grimly in the candlelight.
They soon reached a large open cavern, its walls distant, but not so far that they couldn’t be seen. The road they were following led them out onto an arched stone span, about six feet across with small walls on either side. It reached from one side of the cavern to a portal on the other side. Roger leaned out over the side and looked down, seeing only dizzying blackness.
“Look up,” Hil said.
Roger could make out some kind of light source, far, far above him. Between him and the light were many more bridges, just like the one he was currently standing on. They criss crossed each other like spider’s webs.
“This is the moat,” Hil said, “The fortress is at the top. We’ll need to climb up and cross each of these bridges to reach it.”
“How many levels are there?” Hannah asked.
“I don’t know, maybe twenty or so?”
“This is what I get for skipping leg day,” she said with a sigh.
They dashed across the bridge, and Roger’s footfalls echoed off from the bridge up through the shaft. On the other side, they entered the arched doorway as goblins came pouring onto the bridge behind them, still resisted by the band of thugs. Fewer of Bire’s crew remained now, and Roger saw another fall as he ducked into the tunnel. Spears and darts whistled through the air, clattering against the rocks before falling into the pit below.
Inside, they were faced with a narrow stairway that spiraled steeply upward. They climbed, single file, as quickly as they could. At the top they exited to another bridge that arched back across the moat. Roger felt the now familiar feeling of his lungs beginning to burn and his legs aching as he ran across.
Hil pulled up to a stop as he went, and leaned over the side of the bridge, looking down at where they had just come from. Goblins swarmed below, and when they saw him they cast their missiles in his direction. He stepped back from the edge until the hail of weapons stopped and he looked out again. Roger took a chance and peeked as well.
Down below, Bire and the last of his companions stood just inside the entrance to the stairway. They were all heavily wounded and covered in blood, both their own and that of their enemies. They took cover in the stairwell, cutting down any goblins that tried to approach. A pile of corpses was beginning to build up there as the goblins climbed over their fallen comrades to get up the stairs.
Hil gripped his bow tightly in his hand, and started to unwind his bowstring from the pouch where he kept it, but Ari placed a hand firmly on his arm.
“It won’t do any good. There are too many,” she said, her voice steely. Hil grimaced and nodded before turning back to where Roger and Hannah were waiting at the bottom of the next flight of stairs.
Roger had a sudden, horrible realization. In that moment, he and Hil were both equally powerless. In all the other scraps they had come through, Hil had always been able to do something to change the course of events, while Roger had not. Here they were the same. Both equally incapable of changing the fate of the people guarding the stairwell. He shuddered at the thought of the goblins rushing up the stairs and catching him.
The companions quickly caught up with the slower hostel guests and old proprietor at the entrance to the next set of stairs leading up. Glancing down, the goblins were still being held at the bottom bridge, but there was no way of knowing for how much longer. Roger followed behind the dwarves, Hannah and Ari behind him, with Hil bringing up the rear.They were able to continue like this for several more floors.
Roger’s breath became more and more ragged with each climb of the steep stairs. The dwarves looked red cheeked and puffy, but even the little white haired one didn’t seem to be in as much pain as Roger felt. Games never communicated how exhausting it is to run uphill.
Roger let out a long loud exhale, focusing his mind on the sound and feeling of air leaving him. He pulled himself up straighter. He didn’t hurt less, but somehow it was less important.
Hannah gave him a disheveled smile between labored breaths, and Hil’s large nostrils flared, sweat plastering his dark mane to his face. Ari managed to look flawless somehow, not a hair particularly sweaty or out of place. Roger concluded she wasn’t human, but was, in fact, a statue.
Something loud clattered below. The goblins had managed to break through Bire’s crew and started making their way up the stairs. They were still several floors below, but they had gotten close enough that a few were starting to try their luck with various missiles.
Hil walked over to the edge of the bridge and strung his bow. Roger followed after to stand next to him. From that position he could clearly see the next stairwell that the goblins were going to enter, several floors below. He nocked an arrow and drew it up to his eye, sighting down the shaft. As the goblins drew near to the passage he released. The arrow sped downward, straight to its destination, impaling a goblin on arrival.
“Go ahead,” Hil barked as he put another arrow to his bowstring, “I’ll come up behind. Maybe I can slow them down a little.”
Roger nodded and trotted up the next set of stairs. Exiting to the next level, he looked down to see Hil release one last arrow and it hissed away. Hil then turned, bow in hand, and retreated up the stairs.
Roger stood at the bottom of the next stairwell as everyone else went ahead, waiting for Hil. The large half-dwarf caught up to him, and gave him a nod. “I’ll shoot some more from here, I think.”
“Right,” Roger said before hurrying up the stairs. They continued in this way for several more levels. Hil’s bow continued its whistling song of arrows flying menacingly into the depths. The goblins tried to return fire, but as yet, they were too far below for their weapons to be able to reach. Each floor up, however, their shots came closer to landing home. The goblins were climbing faster.
Another level up, Roger waited for Hil, watching. Hil loosed arrow after arrow, taking longer than Roger expected to come up. The goblins climbed closer, and Roger became concerned.
“Hey!” he called down, “What are you doing?”
Hil’s head snapped up to look at Roger. He started blankly until understanding slowly returned to his face. “Oh right,” Hil said flatly before dashing up the next set of stairs. He stopped to make another stand on this level.
“Nope,” Roger said, “You’re coming with me this time. You’ve done enough.”
“But they’re still gaining on us,” Hil objected, “I have to slow them down.”
“How many more levels are there to the top?” Roger asked.
“About five, I think.”
“That’s not too far, let’s just hurry our way up then.”
Hil looked reluctant, but nodded, grunting his agreement.
The two of them raced up the stairs. The others were a full level ahead of them, and Roger could see Ari and Hannah herding the dwarves before them. The head of a poleaxe bobbing up and down marked where the little old proprietor walked. A few levels below, the goblins came on as a churning mass.
On the next floor up, the arrows started to strike the stones above and beside them. The goblins had gotten close enough to bring their weapons to bear. There was nothing to do but continue onward.
Above them the network of criss-crossing bridges gave way and the fortress came into view. It sat at the top edge of the moat pit in the mouth of a large cavern. The entire opening was blocked by a crenelated wall whose austere surface was broken only by small arrow slits. Behind the wall, a large keep rose up, its many towers reaching all the way to the top of the cavern. The final bridge ran straight to a gatehouse, above which were two large towers–each with immense lamps that burned brightly.
“We’re almost there!” Roger shouted back at Hil.
An arrow whizzed overhead, striking the steps in the stairwell in front of Roger.
“Too late!” Hil growled, planting his foot and nocking an arrow as he pivoted back.
Behind them, goblins filled the landing. They cautiously eyed Hil, each of them unwilling to put themself forward to meet his arrows. The arrows came, regardless, as Hil worked to drop the goblins before they stepped out onto the bridge.
“Get to the fortress,” Hil said roughly to Roger.
Roger gulped. “Not without you,” he said and drew his dagger.
Hil glanced over at him before releasing another arrow. “Suit yourself. It’s been nice knowing you.”
The goblins rushed forward, the mass behind becoming a greater pressure than their fear of death. Roger gripped the hilt of his dagger tightly, knowing that it wouldn’t do much good against the weapons the goblins were carrying. Hil loosed another arrow, felling another goblin. Roger raised a hand to redirect the point of an incoming goblin spear.
A rough hand grabbed him from behind, pulling him back while thrusting him aside. The air was filled with the sound of rattling metal, as short dense forms rushed past Roger, pushing into the oncoming goblins. Goblin spears were deflected by domed shields, and a wall of pointed swords formed.
The dwarf who had grabbed Roger had a thick brown beard, grizzled with streaks of grey. His dark eyes were kind and stern as they inspected Roger.
“You look fine,” the dwarf said, clapping Roger on the arm with a heavy gauntleted hand, “Get up to the fortress.”
Roger nodded, looking around for Hil. The half-dwarf was still shooting his arrows into the line of goblins that surged against the dwarven shield wall. Their plated armor glistened in the light of the fortress’s lanterns, and the plates hissed as they articulated against each other. The dwarven swords rose and fell, hacking at goblin bodies. It was the most horrifically wonderful thing Roger had ever seen.
The dwarven line was steadily moving back, however. It appeared that this was merely a delaying action, and that there were not enough dwarves to hold the bridge against such a large number of goblins. Roger grabbed Hil by the arm and tugged the large man toward the stairs.
“Let’s go, Hil!”
Hil nodded and the two of them turned toward the stairs. The dwarves-at-arms parted for them, and then closed ranks again after they passed. They raced up the stairs and to the final bridge. It was now lined on either side with dwarven warriors casting stones and arrows down on the bridge below. Roger glanced down to see a goblin clambering onto the dwarven line, only to be struck by an arrow and cast down into the pit.
Hil looked like he wanted to join the dwarves shooting down. “Leave it to the professionals, Hil,” Roger said, “You’ve done enough for one day.”
“But…” Hil objected, furrowing his brow, “Fine.”
The gate was made of two large wooden doors that were only a bit higher than Hil’s head. They passed through the open side and entered the gatehouse. It was dim, but Roger could still make out the murder holes in the walls and ceiling. A few steps later they passed the second gate into the fort.