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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 42

Ralt and Missy hurried through mines searching for Durin to warn him about their suspicions. When they finally found him, he was in a room full of injured dwarves, slumped in a straight-backed chair, his head against a rock wall, snoring heavily. Fenris Fang lay on the floor next to him where it had fallen from his hand as he slept. Munur was standing guard to ensure no one disturbed him.

Ralt paused. “How long has he been sleeping?”

“Not long. He’s been up mosta da night helping with da injured.”

Ralt told Missy, “It won’t be long before Thrgin comes looking for him for their dual. Go get him some breakfast.” She nodded and slipped out. He turned to Munur with a sigh. “I’m sorry, but I have to wake him before they start their dual. There’s evil magic afoot and he needs to know about it.”

Munur’s face drooped. “I knew sumptin was wrong wit Thrgin.”

“I just hope it’s something that can be fixed.” He didn’t have to outline the results if it couldn’t.

“Aye.” Munur shook Durin gently. “Sire, ye need to wake up.”

Durin jerked upright, staggering to his feet. He swayed heavily for a moment before gaining his balance. He blinked, looking around. His eyes were still bloodshot and his clothes and armor hadn’t been cleaned since the battle. Dirt and blood were everywhere on him. “Wot needs doin’?” he rasped.

“Emrys needs ta talk ta ya, Sire.” Munur inclined his head at Ralt.

Durin took in Ralt’s grim expression. “Ye look like a storm crow bearin’ bad news,” he grumbled.

“Because I am bearing bad news,” he agreed.

Durin sighed. “Alright.” Fenris Fang jumped off the floor into his hand and he slid it into its holster. “Dis way.” He stumped over to an alcove filled with discarded bandages. “Talk.”

Ralt quickly repeated what he’d told Missy. “A magic item or potion is the most likely scenario but it would mean Thrgin is guilty of treason. With any of the others, there might be a counter-spell but if there isn’t, you’ll have to kill an innocent man.”

Durin’s face sagged. “Der’s been enough killin’ already. We don’t need no more.”

Ralt spread his hands helplessly.

Durin nodded. “Aye, aye.” He cocked his head up at him. “Ye don’t know how many times I’ve wished I’d listened to ye before we went ta fight da giants. Well, I’m listening now but ye ain’t bringin’ me anything I ken use.”

Missy returned with Durin’s breakfast, sparing Ralt from having to answer.

Durin ate hurriedly then went to wash up before his dual with Thrgin. Ragrak had ordered his men to clear an open area in the middle of their encampment on the valley floor. Dwarves were already spilling out of the mines to watch, many of them claiming high spots on the sides of the valley where they could have a clear view. Even many of the injured were hobbling out to watch, leaning on their fellows for support. Grunrim, the chief of the Gorest, had to be carried out in a stretcher but he insisted, declaring loudly that if the king was going to be challenged to a dual there had to be ranking dwarves present to bear witness and ensure it was a fair fight.

Munur brought word that Thrgin was already in the valley, pacing back and forth like an eager groom on his wedding night. Durin thanked him then caught Ralt’s eye. “Well, lad, no matter ‘ow it turns out, ye’ve been a good friend to me, none better.” They clasped hands then Durin spun on his heel and marched out of the mines. Ralt followed closely, Missy on his arm. The rest of the Shamir fell in behind them. Only the most seriously wounded were left behind.

The assembled dwarves in the valley stirred when the king made his appearance and started down the stairs. There wasn’t any roar of acclamation though or murmur of disapproval. Thrgin’s strange accusations had angered many but also managed to plant seeds of doubt and no one was sure what to think. In response, they merely watched silently.

Thrgin was under no such restraint. As soon as Durin set foot in the cleared area where they would be fighting, he let out a roar of anger. “Finally the coward appears! Come and fight me, false king! It’s time for you to die!”

Ralt studied him as they approached, his Sight fully active. He wore only normal armor and carried a war hammer, neither of which had any magic on them, nor did he carry any magical items either outwardly or in his pockets. If he had, their magic would have revealed them to his Sight. The strange weave of magic on Thrgin himself remained in place though. The closer he looked at it, the more he thought there was something behind it, as if the outer weave was intended to conceal something else. It was also remarkably strong. He compressed his lips. An illusion? If so, it was unlike any illusion spell he’d ever encountered.

Durin held up a restraining hand to Ralt as he stepped into the cleared arena. He threw off his cloak and thrust Fenris Fang into the sky with a roar of challenge. Every dwarf in the valley reacted to the sight of the mighty Wolf Axe. To their dwarven eyes, it shown as bright as it did to Ralt’s Sight. The only dwarf who didn’t react, even slightly, was Thrgin.

Ralt’s eyes narrowed.

Missy tugged on his sleeve, whispering in his ear that Thrgin hadn’t even twitched when Durin held up Fenris Fang. He nodded wordlessly, thankful for her verification of his own observation. It meant he wasn’t imaging things. For some reason, Thrgin appeared indifferent to the mighty artifact Durin carried.

Durin slammed the flat of the axe on the ground. “I’m ready for ye, snake tongue!” He spun the axe in his hands like a toy. “Apologize or meet yer doom!”

Thrgin bellowed laughter like a giant. “Never! Come on, false king.” He thrust out his chest. “Take your best shot!”

Alarms went off in Ralt’s head. Thrgin was challenging Durin to strike first with a known artifact? Impossible! He leapt forward, thrusting Shadow Flame in front of Durin, blocking his way. “Durin! No!”

“Get out of the way, wizard,” Thrgin sneered angrily.

Ralt spun around, putting his back to him. “Durin,” he whispered frantically, “he’s letting you strike first with an artifact? Think about it! No one would let you do that unless it’s a trap. Don’t do it! You said you’d wished you listened to me before. Listen to me now! I’m telling you, it’s a trap!” He lowered Shadow Flame and retreated, keeping his eyes locked on Durin’s.

The king glanced back and forth from Ralt to Thrgin. The anger faded from his face, replaced by a look of thoughtful consideration. Before he could make up his mind, there was a disturbance in crowd. A late arrival from the mines was pushing his way forward with a heavy burden on his shoulders. A buzz of conversation, punctuated by gasps of disbelief rose around him as he advanced.

Durin turned with a puzzled look.

“No more excuses!” Thrgin shouted, furious at the interruption.

“Ah, hold yer horses, snake tongue,” Durin said absently.

Grior stumbled out of the crowd carrying a body on his shoulders. “Sire! Don’t fight him! It’s not Thrgin. This is!” He dumped the body, nude except for undergarments, unceremoniously on the ground. It rolled over, face up.

It was Thrgin.

A roar of confusion broke out on all sides as everyone tried to talk at once.

Ralt pulled Missy close to shout in her ear, “Protect the king!” Suiting actions to words, he leapt in front of Durin, interposing himself between Durin and the thing that looked like Thrgin.

Missy grabbed Durin and began pulling him back. “Yer majesty, we hav’ta git ye out of here.” He pulled out of her grasp and shoved her away.

The uproar got louder at the Thrgin-thing bellowed with unnatural strength, “Lies! All lies! Fight me, false king, fight me!”

Durin tried to push Ralt aside. “I’ll not let impostors go free! He deserves death fer wot he’s done!”

The eyes of the Thrgin-thing lit up with glee. “Yes! Come on, false king. Try your best with your pitiful toy!”

Ralt pushed back against Durin. “Durin! No! He wants you strike first!”

The dwarf snarled, trying to get around him. “Why would he want that? Get out of me way!”

“Let me show you.” Desperately he slammed the butt of Shadow Flame on the ground. There was mighty roar of thunder and the ground shook violently. Dwarves on the side of the valley around them lost their footing and fell, rolling downhill. They crashed into others, knocking them down as well. The noise died away, replaced by moans and groans of pain. Only the Thrgin-thing was unfazed.

Ralt knew the magic on the impostor was too strong for him to dispel but if he channeled all his power at one time through Shadow Flame, he might be able to do it. With both hands he raised the staff overhead, suddenly glowing again the way it had on the anvil where it was forged, and unleashed his spell through it.

A pulse, visible to the naked eye, blasted out from him in every direction, a wave of power that washed away every illusion and lie. When it struck the thing that looked like Thrgin, it was like watching an ocean wave roll over a sandcastle. It melted and was gone faster than he could draw a breath.

In its place was Ashima.

Everyone gasped in fear. Durin, who along with Ralt, had already seen Ashima once before, dropped into a battle crouch. Weapons appeared everywhere as the dwarves prepared themselves for a fight to the death, a fight they knew they were destined to lose.

“NO!” Ralt shouted, jumping into the center of the arena. “Don’t attack him! He can’t harm you unless you’re his follower or you attack him first!” Storm’s story about Adrammelech hadn’t mentioned the second part but Aram had called to complete the tale. Remembering Ashima and Adrammelech’s behavior in Zered seemed to bear it out.

Ashima’s roar of rage was deafening. “Fall down and worship me or be destroyed!”

“Don’t do it!” Ralt countered, shouting as loud as he could. His voice sounded pitifully weak in contrast to Ashima’s earsplitting volume. “If you worship him, you become his and he can kill you or control you!” He looked around desperately. The dwarves were frozen in indecision. They were terrified of facing a god but the longer he stood there defying him, unharmed and untouched, the more they might believe him. He tried to tell them but Ashima’s raging fury was continuous and unchecked. There was no way they could hear him over it.

Durin realized the position Ralt was in. Maybe the gathered dwarves couldn’t hear him, but they could still see. He stalked out to join Ralt, then deliberately and clearly spit at the bellowing monster. He turned to the dwarves and raised Fenris Fang overhead in triumph. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see their reaction plainly enough.

Amazement was written all over their faces as Ashima continued to bellow and threaten and rage while Ralt and Durin stood mere cubits away, completely untouched. They were shaking their heads in disbelief but they also couldn’t deny the evidence of their own eyes.

Missy was so terrified her knees had turned to water and she could barely keep her feet. Watching her husband stand toe-to-toe with a god shocked her to the core of her being. When Durin walked out to join him, her heart seized in fear, but the longer he stood there unharmed, the more reason asserted itself. Was it possible Ralt was right? She took a deep breath, then, clenching her fists so tight her nails were digging into her palms, she forced her feet to move, first one, then the other. Slowly, one step at a time, she made herself walk out join them, like a rabbit facing down a wolf. Her mouth felt dry as a desert so she made a rude gesture at Ashima in lieu of spitting. She turned her back on him, hyperventilating as she waited fearfully for the killing blow.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Her eyes widened in shock as she realized Ralt was right.

Then Grior was walking stiffly out to join them. He shook his fist at Ashima and turned his back on him with the rest of them. Others were moving forward too, Ragrak and Munur among them. One by one they made crude gestures of disdain toward Ashima and turned their backs on him. More were heading toward them.

Suddenly, with a final bellow of unearthly rage, Ashima vanished in a rainbow flash of color.

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