Storm quickly ran an appraising eye over the interior of the fort.
A heavily barred gate on the opposite wall gave into a central courtyard. Alongside the gate was a long barn. The parapet disappeared there, letting the guards walk on top of it instead. Another long building lay against the wall to his left, taking up the entire length. Smoke issued from six chimneys atop it. On the opposite side of the courtyard was a smaller building, probably for supplies, or maybe the outhouses. The two walls that overlooked the waterfall and the other ravine were empty of buildings. Instead, stairs led up to the parapets with cleared spaces around the bottom of the stairs, no doubt for catapults or other such weapons. Piles of boulders were stacked for easy use, probably for the giants. In the center of the courtyard was a well.
Men in armor were pouring out of the building to his left, rushing about in wild confusion. From inside the barn, he could hear the terrified whinnies of horses, rearing and bucking, kicking their stalls. Huge, rumbling voices issued forth from the barn as well. Torches were being lit everywhere, throwing the scene into sharp relief. Storm cursed as he saw that the parapet ran all the way around the inside of the walls, crossing between the buildings as well. Soldiers were already scrambling up the stairs to peer over the front wall at the enemy they supposed was out there.
Durin rushed past him, dropping over the edge of the parapet. He hit the ground, rolled, and was on his feet, making a beeline toward the barn. A soldier coming out of the barracks, for so it had to be, saw him and opened his mouth to cry warning but an arrow suddenly growing out of his throat silenced him. He pitched forward into the snow as Durin barreled past him without so much as a sideways glance.
Storm smiled savagely as he realized all the soldiers had their backs to them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ralt crouching next to Lorelei, dagger in his hand to defend her. Satisfied she was protected, he threw himself off the parapet. He hit the ground running, naked blades gleaming in his hands. Arrows flew past him as Lorelei picked off the enemies in the back of the crowd. Their dying protests went unheard in the tumult.
Ralt watched wide-eyed as Durin charged into the barn, followed a moment later by Storm ripping into the soldiers from behind. Men were dropping like flies but those in the front and on the opposite wall still had no idea what was happening. Movement in the door of the barracks caught his attention and he turned to see a man in robes staggering blindly out, an intricately carved staff in his hand. The man was clutching his head, shrilling in pain. The enemy wizard! All the wards going off at once must have caused a backlash in his mind, Ralt realized.
He dashed for the stairs, not trusting the shorter route taken by Durin and Storm. If he could get to him before he recovered he’d be able to take out a dangerous opponent with relative ease. In his haste he slipped on the icy stairs, tumbling down them. He landed hard on his back, stunned.
Lorelei cursed under her breath as she saw Ralt go down. Blast it! What did he think he was doing, she wondered? She kept firing though, as elated as Storm to realize they were attacking the enemy, literally, from behind. It couldn’t last though. In a moment they’d realize what was happening and turn to the attack. She gritted her teeth, sending arrow after arrow winging through the night to strike unerringly at her targets. She followed Storm’s movements, aiming at the soldiers on either side of him, leaving him free to carve his way deeper into the enemy ranks. The ground at his feet was littered with bodies, the snow turning red with blood.
Ralt stumbled to his feet, shaking off the effects of his fall. He spotted his dagger lying in the snow and grabbed it quickly. The enemy wizard had seen Storm and was aiming his staff at him! Ralt sprinted through the snow, praying he got there before the wizard was able to unleash whatever power the staff had.
He barely made it.
He hurled himself through the air, slashing wildly with his dagger. The other wizard saw him at the last moment and tried to turn. The movement threw his aim off. A streak of light erupted from the tip of the staff and exploded against the gate in a huge fireball. Enemy soldiers milling around in front of it were caught in the roaring blast. Ralt crashed into him with a bone-shaking impact and they went down in a wild tangle of limbs.
Storm blinked from the sudden, unexpected blast, his eyes watering from its proximity. Screams of pain erupted as soldiers slapped frantically at the flames covering them, while others dropped to the ground, little more than charred corpses. He hadn’t thought the enemy wizard would dare to use such a powerful spell inside the fort. He spun, looking for him, and spotted Ralt rolling in the snow slashing desperately at him with his dagger.
Good man, he thought triumphantly. He turned back towards the now burning gate and barely managed to parry a thrust from one of the soldiers. He’d been discovered! He fought back savagely as the man shouted the alarm to his fellows.
Belker cursed, shoving his men away from the burning gate. What was going on? Was Derleth so overcome with pain that he was firing on them? “Someone go see whats wrong with Derleth!” he bellowed, looking around him. He spotted a tall man in furs fighting with one of his men in the back ranks. His eyes widened. “They’re behind us!” he roared. “They’re inside the fort! Behind us, you idiots! Behind us!”
His words were drowned out just then by a huge, earth-shaking impact from inside the barn. Timbers shattered noisily and the whole front wall of the fort shook violently. Men on the parapet screamed and dropped their weapons, clutching at anything they could find. The iron hinges on one of the burning gates snapped with an angry screech of metal. The gate crashed halfway to the ground, flames swirling up around it.
Ralt couldn’t hear the wizard’s scream over the noise around him, but he clearly saw his eyes as the dagger punctured his heart. His eyes widened in shock and pain then clouded over. The light went out of them and he went limp. Ralt rolled off the dead man then sat staring at him in stunned horror for a moment, the dead eyes accusing him. He tasted bile in his mouth. He’d seen his share of dead people in his life, even before coming on this trip, but it was the first time he’d ever killed anyone. His stomach revolted and he threw up.
Lorelei felt instant sympathy for Ralt as she watched him vomiting in the snow. It had to be hard for someone who wasn’t reared in combat to take a life, she thought. She was glad he’d done it though. The wizard could have been the end of them if he was willing to use such powerful spells to get them. She turned away to resume firing her dwindling supply of arrows at the soldiers around Storm when movement in the barn caught her eye.
Durin flew through the door as if launched by a catapult. He rolled in the snow and was on his feet in an instant, apparently none the worse for the wear. He charged at two giants emerging from the barn, ducking and rolling as he launched his axe in glittering arcs at their legs. They roared in angry pain, slamming their clubs into the ground in futile attempts to smash him flat. The thunderous impacts shook the whole fort.
The noise of Durin’s battle with the giants finally awoke Belker’s men to the realization something was terribly wrong. They turned to find their enemy already in their midst.
Storm fell back as the soldiers charged him. If he let them surround him he was dead. His swords flashed, singing their deadly song as he gave ground a step at a time, angling for the wall to protect his back. An enemy to the side of him fell backward with an arrow growing out of his chest. Storm instantly turned his attention to others in front of him, confident Lorelei was covering his flank.
Ralt was still clutching his stomach when a noise from inside the barracks jerked his head up. Looking through the open door he could see soldiers hastily donning their armor. There had to be at least ten of them, maybe more. His heart rose to his throat and he scrambled on hands and knees to retrieve the dead wizard’s staff. In the light spilling out the door, he ran his eyes over the many carvings on it, desperately searching for the command word that would let him control its powers. Most staffs like this usually had the word inscribed somewhere on their length, but some didn’t. He prayed this was one that did.
Durin laughed as his axe came down hard on one of the giant’s feet, cutting it nearly in half. He shouted an obscenity at the answering bellow of pain, taunting them to catch him and kill him if they could. A giant club slammed into the ground where he was standing but he was already away, striking at an exposed shin. Dwarves and giants had an ancient hatred for each other that was legendary. The evil brutes deserved to be hacked to death by dwarven steel!
Storm finally felt his back pressing against the wall of the fortress. The front wall was directly to his right. If he could move a little bit more over that direction he’d be covered on two sides. He lunged forward at the men on his left. They backed up expecting him to attack but it was a feint to give him room. He aborted his lunge as soon as he’d begun it and wheeled to send both his swords plunging into the belly of the soldier on his right. The man screamed in mortal agony. Storm sidestepped over his body, getting his back into the corner of the two walls. He grinned savagely, his blood lust fully aroused now. “Come on, you hell-spawn!” he shouted at them. “Come and get it!”
They surged forward.