The first two hours into the ascent of the mountains' core was one of nervous silence. The five Reavers proceeded cautiously, acutely of aware themselves and each other in a profound, new way. The tears had left red tracks on Shade's face as they dried, but there was so much despair in the Gnomte's eyes that Bane thought he might simply sit down and that would be it.
Bane crept through the narrow tunnels at the head of the party with Airs at his elbow, swords brandished before her. She was now clearly favoring her left leg. Behind the pair fluttered Grim, who would occassionally fly ahead to scout the area. Ruin trudge along as quietly as a Gientun could (though it still sounded enormously loud in the caverns), with a despondent Shade lagging behind. Now and again the Gnomte would simply stop, and have to be coaxed into walking again.
Gradually the tunnels began to branch off, leading deeper into the mountains or down below the earth where Mevrule's Waystone rested in the center of an underground lake. Bane remembered the first time and only time he had stood before the stone with its collection of both sharp and smooth sides that eerily resembled faces of all different expressions. It was reminiscent of the Omnistone's core, where ancient beings had embedded their effigies and spirits into the rock. The Waystone had emitted a warm, orange-red glow that made the very air hum with the familiar sensation of a lover.
Somewhere above the Dreadlords have one too, Bane grimaced. That why Pandemonium came to Mevrule every thousand years. The two Waystones awoke and resonated with one another like twins reaching out for comfort. Then on the third day, the Waystones and the Reavers went to sleep again.
"We could destroy it," Airs had ventured once, in a time when she had still been a timorous Reaver uncertain of her duty.
"We wouldn't get near it," Grim had countered. "There's no telling what destroying their Waystone would even do. It might strand them in Mevrule, it might send them back. The entire fortress could simply collapse."
Bane had faced them to each of them in turn. "We don't touch it," and the others had nodded in agreement. The only reason the Battlesworn even knew the Waystone existed was because they had gleaned the information with knives from a Dweorg seven thousand years back.
Now the five were reconsidering that promise. The return of their memories weighed them down as heavily as their petrifying skin. After almost two days of relentless battle and traveling, exhaustion rested behind their eyes as thickly as guilt.
"It's here," Grim voiced from behind. Bane came to an abrupt halt, staring at the surface of a rock wall he hadn't noticed because he'd been too lost in thought. Stumbling backwards, he squinted at the ledge more than fifty feet above his head. One side of his face resisted the scrunching of skin where it had begun to turn to stone around his right eye. "Get Shade," Grim commanded Ruin coldly.
The Gientun turned to Shade, who had come to a halt a ways back. "Little man," Ruin said in what may have been his intrepretation of a soothing voice. "Bring chain."
Shade raised his eyes and stared at the giant, uncomprehending. Seeing Airs losing patience, Bane strode over to the Gnomte, ignoring the way his feet fumbled. Clasping the Gnomte on the shoulder, Bane turned boy-man to look at him. "Shade, we need your grappling hook. We have to climb the plateaus up into Pandemonium. Just like every other time, remember?"
The younger Reaver stood staring at Bane for a moment. His shoulders slumped under the grief in his distant eyes. In a quiet voice, Shade said, "Yes Bane. I remember."
Shuffling forward, Shade half-heartedly raised his right arm and the cylinder appeared strapped to it in a flash of light. Bane thought that it was a less bright than it had once been. With a pull of the lever, a foot-thick hook shot upwards. It began to arc, the chain wrapped around Shade's waist miraculously growing as the hook flew higher. Once it was secure, Shade unraveled the thick chain from around his waist and handed it to Ruin.
Without waiting for the others, the Gnomte began his ascent with the ease of a thief. Grim nodded to the others before flying upwards. She kept level with Shade, coaxing him forward with gentle words. Airs went next with some difficulty, then Bane. Ruin was last, with the other four Reavers taking a tight hold of the chain to support his ascent.
From there they repeated the process again and again until all any of them thought about was reaching the next plateau. Suddenly their ascent came into an end, when they climbed into the entrance of a tunnel. The sound of muted voices drawn them from their personal reveries.
After a little while of walking, the Reavers saw the flickering glow of several lights at the end of the passage. They proceeded slowly so as to make little noise. Ruin had to follow on hands and knees.
When he came to the exit, Bane gestured the others to silence. Crouched in the shadows, the Battlesworn looked down upon a cavern garrisoned by the very backbone of the Dreadlords' army. Stout men taller than Gnomte but shorter than Elfer, mulled about the great hall. The fiery glows that guided the Reavers here came from several forges as large as ponds. The bare-chested men had long, thick beards stained and matted with grime and coal dust, their brown skin was wrinkled, their faces bunched around bulbous noses. The sound of hammers and activity created a melody for the murmured singing of the smiths.
"Dweorg," Shade breathed, some of his excitement returning. "The Gnomte have always thought we might be closely related, and now looking at them, I can see it!" Bane gave the jittery Gnomte a skeptical look, but held his tongue. He preferred Shade's delusion to his misery.
"How many are there? Can we take them all?" Airs asked.
Grim was examining the cavern rather than the Dweorg. "The carts they're rolling in are from three separate entrances. I'm guessing they're using Trolls to harvest the ore."
"They're mining the mountains?" Airs queried.
"And their own ship probably. Some of the metal in those carts I've seen in the walls of Pandemonium."
"Not matter," Ruin growled impatiently behind them. "Kill all. Move now!"
"Ruin, no! Wait!" Even as Bane was reaching out to stop him, the Gientun was unceremoniously throwing his comrades aside and leaping from the tunnel.
The Dweorg must have felt Ruin's powerful presence, for the little men looked up as one as the Reaver descended on them. The floor caved beneath the Gientun's feet, throwing up debris and stone shards. In an instant the hammer had appeared between his hands, and Ruin was rushing the nearest group of Dweorg. The ferocity of the giant-man's charge and battle cry scattered them in all directions.
Barely hesitating, the other four Reavers were leaping, flying, and somersaulting after their comrade. With a succession of white flashes their weapons were already in motion. Burning red runes appeared on the thong of Bane's whip as he snapped it around the head of a fleeing Dweorg. Landing, he gave a two-handed jerk on the whip. With a sickening squelch the laborer's head popped right off his shoulders; the wound cauterized by the leather's burning touch. Shade landed two knives in another Dweorg's back as he descended before the little man could turn and fight. Grim had flown down, pulling up sharply so that she was head level with the Dweorg. Passing a line of retreating figures, she used her scythe's blade to slice through four bodies as she sped past. Airs came last, landing badly on her stiff leg. Falling to her knees, the Elfer dropped her swords and they disappeared. Some of the Dweorg had rallied together with black-headed smith hammers in hand. Together four of them encircled the fallen woman.
Sensing Airs' danger, Shade pivoted and swung the chain around his waist in an arc above his head. Dropping to one knee, he then swung in in a downward arc, tripping the four Dweorg. Sounds of breaking ankles accompanied their cries of surprise.
Despite the Reavers' advantage of surprise and superior weapons, once the Dweorg rallied together, they put up a tough fight. Their bodies though were slowed by short legs and heavy muscles. When the last of the little men were slain or fled, the five Reavers took stock of their situation. Ruin had received numerous bruises, but his thick Gientun hide had protected his bones. Shade's childish face was covered in lacerations and his left arm hung heavily at his side. Airs had recieving no injuries, but her the fossilization of her leg had begun to spread to her torso. Bane himself might have had a broken wrist, but it was his right one, and so it concerned him little.
It was Grim that had suffered the worse. While she had dipped down from the air, pursuing a pair of cursing Dweorg, a third had appeared from the edges of her peripheral vision. The Feahe had managed to avoid a deathblow, but the hammer had still struck her face. She now knelt in a circle of bodies, pressing her hands to over he eye. The Feahe were too stoic a people to shout or fuss, even in anguish, but her body shuddered with silent sobs.
"Let me see," Bane beckoned, trying to pry the woman's hands from her face. When at last she lowered her arms, there was a collective intake of breath.
Tears slowly fell from only her right eye. The socket around the other had crumbled under the hammer blow. The skin hung in flaps, exposing muscle and splintered bone. The eye itself had burst upon impact. Blood instead of tears wept from the ruined socket. It was such a heartbreaking thing to see a Feahe's beautiful, ageless face deformed.
Each of the Reavers had received grievous wounds before, and they accepted them knowing that when next they Awakened, they would be whole again. Or at least mostly whole. It seemed though that rejuvenating power of the Omnistone was limited. Bane still bore several scars across his body from past wounds, including one over his left eye. Three Awakenings ago Shade had woken still missing two toes.
"It will heal," Airs told the other woman confidently. There was a pause where the word hopefully should have been uttered. Instead, Grim merely nodded and gazed at the corpses around her. She spat on a severed head's face.
"How many escaped, anybody know?" Bane asked, looking to the others. It was painful to look at Grim's face, and nobody acknowledged the Feahe's feelings of despair.
Airs shook her head. "A few. They were prepared. Some made directly for the tunnels while others covered their retreat. We've been expected."
"They couldn't know for sure we would come through this entrance," Shade declared wtih conviction. Then, as he thought about it again, he asked less certainly, "Could they?"
"Old woman," Ruin grunted moodily.
Bane scratched his chin in thought. He barely felt his fingers at all. "She said she was 'gifted' with the sight of the past."
"Trolls liars," Ruin boomed without doubt.
"She granted back our memories," Grim reminded testily. "She didn't lie about that part."
"She said she was the youngest of her sisters, remember?" Airs voiced. "Could the others see the future instead of the past?" A shudder ran through each of their minds at this thought. If this was true, then the Reavers didn't stand a chance against the Dreadlords. They would know where and when the Battlesworn attacked. They would know their weaknesses and injuries, and just how exhausted they all were.
"Well, there's nothing we can do about it," Bane said, pushing himself to his feet. "Except to go forward or to go back."
One by one the Reavers fell into position and proceeded down one of the tunnels; a little more despondent, fatigued, and uncertain than before they had entered.