“It’s done!” the dwarven king bellowed as he backed away from the great slabs of rune-etched stone. The piercing light of the runes’ magic waned, plunging the alcove back into torchlight and hiding the tears that streaked the king’s craggy old face. The triumph and despair in the ancient dwarf’s voice were lost amid the din of the battle raging behind them, but the sovereign and his personal guard all felt the gravity of what they had just done. Without another word, they turned and moved out of the deep alcove and back into the clash of steel, wood, stone and sinew.
King DoZikell wiped blood from a gash just below the lip of his helm as he strode into the central corridor of Zellohar Keep, trying not to dwell on the doom he had brought down upon his ancestral home. This was his final chance to make things right, to quell the evil that had boiled up beneath everything he held dear. He formed his troop around him and waved them back toward the Great Hall and safety, shouting a few last instructions to the stalwart troops holding the line across the wide corridor.
“Hold this position as long as—” His words ended in a gasp, for as he spoke, a towering rock troll swept its black, smoldering blade in a wide arc, felling two of the defenders. The front line collapsed, three more dwarven soldiers falling under the rush.
In the span of a heartbeat the king’s troop was engulfed in a raging melee. Those in the main line fell frantically back or were cut down by the onslaught. With their backs against the wall of the corridor, they struggled to keep their position. The king fought with his great battle-axe in one hand and a small leather pouch in the other clutched to his armored breast. Of the two items, he held the pouch much more dearly.
“FALL BACK!” he raged over the din, ducking under the wild swing of the troll. Black blood sprayed over the blade of his axe as it slashed through the beast’s knee. He scrambled out of its reach as it fell, and yelled again, trying to rally his troops.
“Regroup at the hall! We need reinforcements!”
The king and his comrades fell back, unable to make a stand or reestablish their shattered skirmish line. Every time they tried, they found the passage too wide to block. At each attempt they were forced to break formation and retreat, and each attempt cost lives. Finally a hoarse battle cry reached the king’s ear. He joined the cry and rallied his remaining troops as a flight of thirty crossbow bolts whizzed over their heads into the enemy. As the reserves joined his forces, the enemy finally melted back under the blows from hammer and axe.
“King’s Guard, attend me!” he called to gather his group, then stared in shock at how few had survived. The group had started out with twenty of his best warriors, including his sixth son; they now numbered seven. His son was not among them.
The king whirled, cursing as he strode up the passage, followed by his equally grim attendants. The battle still raged not a hundred steps down the corridor, but the clanging steel, war cries and screams of pain diminished as they neared a pair of massive bronze doors. Through the doors loomed the cavernous chamber that was the main feasting hall; it now served as a base of operations. The doors boomed closed as the ragged party approached an enormous table in the room’s center where a larger and less battle-worn troop waited. The king slammed his axe down, spattering congealing blood onto the parchments and maps that littered the tabletop.
“The others?” ventured one of the old dwarves at the table, a look of disbelief on his face.
“Dead,” the king said grimly, “but not without sendin’ a host o’ those scum ta the very fires o’ their damned demon-gods’ dens!” His eyes glazed over for a moment in rage, but cleared as he continued. “They’ll be time enough ta mourn later if we’re successful; there won’t be anyone left ta mourn, if we’re not.”
The small leather pouch he clutched so dearly, and three others like it from the hands of his remaining troops, fell onto the table next to his axe. He looked around at his warriors and continued.
“The only thing o’ any importance now is that these be taken as far away and made as safe as possible before the scum figure out what’s happened, or, gods forbid, the beast returns.” The king looked into the eyes of the four youngest warriors at the table. They stood with jaws clenched, hands gripping hilt or haft, certain of their duty but loathe to leave the keep at such a dire hour.
“Each o’ ye will take one o’ these and depart through a separate exit. Now be careful! The forest is probably full o’ the scum by now. Stay low and keep ta the routes as planned, and ye shouldn’t run inta more than ye can handle. Go now! If all four o’ ye’re not killed or captured, the war is won.”
Each of them took a parcel and departed with a small group of warriors. Once they had gone, the king let a deep sigh escape his dry, chapped lips; a huge weight had just been lifted from his shoulders. Turning with renewed vigor to his generals, he once again attended the battle at hand.
“I want additional squads deployed on the flanks ta ensure that the passages the messengers’ll take are not overrun,” the king commanded, hefting his axe. He strode across the Great Hall to rejoin the battle then stopped as yells of alarm rose from the central corridor.
A great crash was followed by a deafening roar. The warning yells in the outer hall dissolved into screams as the great bronze doors began to glow a dull red, then sag on their heavy hinges. King DoZikell raised his axe and lunged forward into the yawning jaws of that which he had most feared.
The beast had returned.