The second crone was easily recognizable as the smallest and oldest of the Trolls gathered in the cavern. Three Dweorg had come before them and stood nervously by their hesitant allies. The little men were stumbling over their words in their strange bass, singsong voices. The squad of Trolls didn't even seem to notice the Dweorg's presence, for the smiths only came as high as their knee. And that was with the Trolls seated on the floor around a bubbling cauldron that would fit three Ruins comfortably, with room for Shade.
The tunnel had led to a four-way intersection, the tracks leading off to the west. Freshly spilt green blood from a wounded Dweorg had led the Reavers here. There were three Trolls (besides the witch) in total, all fully grown males. The crone sat on a ledge elevated above a Troll-sized tunnel, in the back of the enormous cavern. Pallets comprised of entire tree trunks bound together rested against one wall, enormous crates of tools and belongings opposite them.
"We need to attack before they know we're here," Airs hissed in Bane's ear.
It was hardly a surprise when the crone's voice echoed down from her platform. "We already do, my dear." Now the three Trolls raised their ugly, scaly faces. They peered about them, confused by who the hag was addressing. Trolls were infamously dimwitted, possessed poor eyesight, and sunlight burned their flesh. The Dreadlords brought them to perform hard labor and to defend their fortress.
The second crone leaned over the platform's edge to grin down at the Reavers hungrily. She was much like her sister, but taller and plumper, with a few strands of fraying white hair. The same looking eye was in her right socket instead of the left. "Oh do come in!" she cackled. This witch's voice was raspier than her sister's, and there was no pretension of friendliness. Instead she was maliciously exultant to see them. Her hands clasped the edge of the cliff to steady her trembling frame.
Ruin strode confidently forward. Unable to think of a better option, Bane crept in behind him. His whip rested in his left hand, uncoiled and ready. Shade stayed close to the Gientun's side, trembling in fear at the sight of the Trolls, who were said to favor the taste of Gnomte. Airs and Grim brought up the rear, both somber.
By the green light of their cookfire the Trolls as last spotted the group. From slack mouths packed with crooked, pointed teeth came angry gutteral noises. The broad creatures waved fists the size of Ruin at the Reavers. The Dweorg fled from beneath their stamping feet. One was struck by a Troll's flailing arm, throwing the little man against a wall. The unfortunate creature fell in a crumpled heap to the floor.
"Are you the sister that sees the future?" Bane demanded of the crone. He kept his gaze fixated on the Trolls though. He suspected the only reason they hadn't yet attacked was because the witch hadn't deemed them a threat.
The hag ran bony fingers over her single eye, intoning dramatically, "I am the sister that sees all as it is." When the Reavers didn't comment, she hissed and slammed a fist against the flat of her stone outcropping. "The present you fools! You Mervulians are such dolts that you wouldn't recognize the truth if I smacked you with it!" Her yellow pupil widened as it focused on Grim. "Though you dear may be an exception." For the first time Bane saw unrestrained hatred come over Grim's face, mutating it into something as twisted as the Dreadlords' sacrificial practices. The Feahe rarely let anger touch them except in defense of their children.
"You are not the one we want," Grim announced dismissively. As she turned to leave, the crone released a ear-piercing screech.
"Do not turn your back on me!" The she-Troll beat fists against her platform in a tantrum that would shock a Gnomte child. "Always, always they ignore me!" Riled by the crone's displeasure, the three Trolls rose to their feet. The massive creatures towered like mountains above the small group, their malformed heads nearly brushing the thirty foot ceiling.
Before the Trolls could organize themselves, the Reavers began their assault. Shade ducked back into the narrow tunnel while the others rushed forward, preparing his grappling hook. Grim swept into the air, avoiding the swinging of meaty arms. Bane wrapped his whip around the same Troll's huge ankle. Though the man didn't have the strength to trip him, the runes on the lash flared to life and the sickening smell of burning flesh filled the air. The foremost Troll bellowed in pain and rage. The other two were fumbling forward, the ground convulsing beneath the Reavers.
Ruin trudged forward, swinging his hammer with a mighty blow into the kneecap of the second Troll. Shade's grappling hook spun through the air, its bladed head puncturing the thick skin of the first Troll's shoulder. The Troll's arm immiediately dropped, having become almost completely immobile.
With frustrating impatience, Airs had retreated into the tunnel with Shade. Her thin bladed swords were designed for close combat, and she didn't possess the strength or mobility to effectively attack the Trolls. Instead, all she could do was enviously watch as her companions dispatched the colossal monsters. The Elfer's sharp eyes tracked Bane's movements. In her mind her love's determination and ferocity sent vibrating thrills through her body.
With Grim's scythe buried in its neck, the first Troll stumbled backwards against the chamber wall. The Dweorg scattered again, heading for the humungous tunnel at the other end of the cavern. Bane had to release his grip on his whip as the falling Troll's weight yanked him forward. By this time Ruin had capsized the boiling cauldron and its murky, brown contents into the path of the third Troll. The behemoth appeared more disgruntled with the fact his supper was ruined, than the fact the steaming hot stew had washed over its scabbed feet.
Shade had let his grappling hook wink out when the first Troll slammed onto the floor of the cavern. In a graceful transition, Grim had turned from one opponent to the next, the scythe reappearing in her hands. Adrenaline pumped fresh blood over her face. She buried the point of her weapon in the second Troll's right eye. The creature shook its head, trying to shake off the Feahe. Ruin approached with his hammer, but the Troll's stomping feet were too dangerous to approach. The third Troll had begun herding the Reavers back towards the narrow tunnel while the crone edged it on with screeches of "Kill them all! Kill the soulless bastards!"
Bane had fallen back alongside Shade and Airs to catch his breath. The Elfer gripped his chin and made him look at her. More than half the Human's face had become stiff, flaky stone. A fallen rock had opened a jagged cut on his back. Waving her off, the Bane growled, "I'm fine. Stay back."
Before Airs could stop him, Bane rolled forward between the legs of the second Troll. Coming up behind it, the man sprung forward. His hands caught on the tough folds of the Troll's back. With strong arms, Bane struggled his way onto the creature's massive shoulders. The Troll was a giant mass of wrinkles and ridges, providing ideal handholds, but the monster was still flailing around fruitlessly. Bane had just climbed onto the Troll's shoulders when Grim and her weapon were thrown to the cavern floor. Summoning his whip again, Bane gripped the lash's tail with his injured hand. Ignoring the dreadful burning in his palm and the pain in his wrist, the Reaver swept the loop up over the Troll's head. Pulling the whip tight against the Troll's neck, Bane fought to stay on as the behemoth began to choke. The runes flared brightly, burning deep lacerations into the Troll's throat.
Meanwhile, Shade, Grim, and Ruin had converged on the last Troll. With his companions dead and dying, the third Troll was retreating. The Gnomte's grappling hook punched into the Troll's sagging mouth, shattering teeth in a burst of black blood and tissue. Grim had driven her scythe through the Troll's foot, trapping it, and Ruin's hammer made short work of its knees. The creature fell backwards with a roar filled more with pain than rage.
The second Troll had succumbed to its wounds and fallen face forward with Bane still on his shoulders. The Human Reaver leapt from its back just before it hit the floor. A great cloud of dust and rocks fell from above, half burying the Troll. With the third lying helpless on its back, the others quickly dispatched it.
Injured and battle-weary, the five Reavers looked up at the platform above the Troll tunnel. None of them were surprised to discover the crone had gone. Airs limped quickly over to Bane and began fluttering around him, searching for wounds. Too tired to shake her off, Bane accepted her ministrations with subdued impatience.
"I can't use my left arm," Shade whispered into the silence.
Motherly instincts roused, Grim swiftly walked over to the Gnomte. "Let me see." When Shade raised his shirt, Grim tactfully suppressed her initial alarm. The calcification had spread almost all the way across Gnomte's chest and disappeared below his breeches. Edges of gray had appeared beneath her own leotard.
Ruin's transformation appeared to be the slowest, possibly because he had been the last to Awaken. There were many factors that effected the rate of their reversion; injuries, trauma, and mental stability. The shock of their restored memories had escalated the process. While their bodies began reverting to stone by the end of the first day, the last two hours of the third was normally when it became a hindrance.
"Half day," Ruin rumbled, but there was confusion in his voice as he studied his Gnomte companion. Even the simpleminded Gientun recognized the acceleration of his companions' reversion.
"We may not have that much time after all," Grim whispered. The Reavers each considered the implications of this revelation.
If the Battlesworn Returned early, the Dreadlords would have a few unhindered hours to find the Omnistone almost entirely undetered. The severity of Mevrule's unreadiness had followed the Reavers into the depths of Pandemonium. And still they had a long ways to go. They were only in the bottom third of the fortress, where the baser races lived. The chambers above would become more luxurious, their opponents more fierce. They might stumble upon a Dreadlord before they even reached the Nova Core, the Harbringers' apartments.
"Then we'll just have to be quick about finding the third witch," Bane announced. The others nodded but didn't glance at each other. The same treacherous thought played in all their heads.
If the third witch saw the future, what would she have to tell them?