After capturing one of the Dweorg, the Reavers had 'persuaded' the muscled, bearded creature into guiding them through Pandemonium. With an unknown deadline haunting them, the Reavers had committed themselves immiediately to torture. Suffering from a smashed kneecap, some careful knife thrusts, and a lost eye, the semi-conscious Dweorg eagerly agreed to the task after Bane materialized his fiery whip. The little man had seen what that weapon had done to his kin and the Trolls.
What's one more sin weighed against 12,000 years of them? Bane thought brutishly as the maiming began.
Now the Dweorg had to be carried in Ruin's arms. The Gientun scowled in distaste of the task, but did as he was bid. The Reavers discovered an apparatus within Pandemonium they had never discovered before. The Dweorg proudly proclaimed it the 'Quicklift', saying it would bring them into the Lords' chambers faster than even Grim could fly.
Staring at the metal structure with its huge lengths of chains, numerous gears and pulleys, the Feahe muttered, "At least I can do more than go up and down."
"And this is safe?" Bane queried doubtfully. The Dweorg gave a vague shrug. Though his wounds had been wrapped with strips from Bane's coat, the little man would still need medical attention.
But it wouldn't come from any of the Battlesworn.
Jabbing a finger in the man's ugly, wrinkled face, Bane warned in a voice of quiet contempt, "You better not steer us wrong cretan, or you'll suffer a worse fate than your friends. We've had 12,000 years of practice."
Swallowing heavily, the Dweorg was nodding rapidly, then shaking his head vigorously. "No! No trap!" he sang in a high-pitched squeal.
"Shut up." And the Dweorg did. Turning to examine the Quicklift again, Bane grimaced. "How do we-" He flapped his hand at it ambiguously. "You know, move it."
"This seems stupid to me," Airs announced. She reached out and gripped the Dweorg's ear, twisting it. "How come we've never found it before? Seems too easy."
Between yowls of pain, the little man sang, "B-Because it's-it's new!" The Elfer released her hold with a snort of disgust. The Dweorg faced his captors' darkened faces imploringly. "Only a Dweorg can operate it."
Arching an eyebrow, Bane noted, "Luckily we have one."
From a nod from his leader, Ruin simply dropped the Dweorg at the base of the Quicklift. Groaning, the little man rolled onto his side. Using the walls of the Quicklift for support, he pulled himself up, panting heavily. There were five tiny depressions in the face of the round structure. It had been built large enough to carry four Trolls if they squeezed.
When the Dweorg pressed his fingers into the depressions, a flare of green light washed from his palm over the surface of the Quicklift. The cavern shook as an invisible seam in the metal structure parted. The Reavers traipsed into the Quicklift. Ruin picked up the Dweorg by the scruff of the neck as he passed. The diminutive man seemed to have resigned himself to his captivity.
"Now what?" Bane snapped. The scowl on his face felt tight and half-formed. The petrification had spread down his neck and over his chest. The Dweorg pressed his hand into a duplicate depression, and the doors slammed closed again. There was a heavy moment of expectation and then the entire structure shuddered. With a jolt that sent the Reavers stumbling, it began to rapidly ascend. Shade sat on the floor, gripping a handrail for support. His face had turned a sickly color. The ride up made their heads spin one way, and their bodies another.
Within moments though the Quicklift came to a sudden halt that sent the group sprawling again. Shade sat rubbing his head where he had banged it against the metal wall. The Reavers looked expectantly at the Dweorg, who sighed and opened the doors as he had the first time.
Bane poked his head out cautiously, investigating his surroundings. They had arrived through the floor of a cavern built to house an army. There was a line of holes along the floor for other Quicklifts, but thre as no sign of any of the other apparatuses. Turning to the Dweorg, Bane asked, "Where is everyone?"
Clearly distressed over betraying his kin, the Dweorg muttered in a low hum, "Most were dispatched to find the Omnistone."
Always before when the Battlesworn had entered the fortress Pandemonium, there had been hordes of yowling enemies to deter them. Shade threw out his hand and a knife appeared against the captive's throat. The Dweorg swallowed several times, causing the blade to draw a sliver of blood. "I-I don't know why! M-My job is to fight, and t-to forge weapons and armor!"
"Let him be," Grim said quietly. The Gnomte gave her an apprehensive look, but nodded and backed away.
The Reavers passed into the cavern, prompting directions from the Dweorg by occassional pinpricks from Shade's knives. When they entered into hallways covered with foreign pelts and tapestries of exotic places, Bane thought to ask, "What do you know about these Troll-witches?"
Pure fear alighted in the Dweorg's eyes. His body trembled more intensely than when he had been tortured. The little man could only stutter and squeak, and he seemed close to having a mental breakdown. Airs gripped his ear again, digging her nails into the cartilage. Yello blood oozed between her fingers like puss. "Speak little man!"
"I-I don't know them," the Dweorg sobbed in pain and grief. "Th-The Lords brought them. Th-The eldest w-witch was the one th-that told them t-to send out the armies!" Bane and Airs' gazes met over the top of the captive's head.
"The older one, can she see the future or is it all horseshit?" Bane asked, trying to soften his words. They still came out as venomous as a snake's spit.
The Dweorg nodded slowly. "Yes," he said in a hush. "She said I was to bring you to her."
The throne room that the Dweorg led the Reavers to was as magnificant as it was disturbing. Giant hooks hung from the walls in rows, waiting to hook in the meat of the Dreadlords' captives. Lighted braziers billowed putrid black smoke, the flames a lustless red. The glossy black walls were stained with old blood, the floor covered in red carpets. Tables, cabinets, and shelves of tools and sickly trophies lined every inch of the hall. Two rows of fluted columns led straight to the raised platform where sat a throne of comprised of yellow bones.
The huge brass double doors swung open with a heavy sigh. Ruin dropped the Dweorg on the floor, ignoring the captive's groans of pain.
Bane studied the vast hall before rounding on the Dweorg, cracking the whip's lash and opening a cut on the little man's cheek. "Why did you bring us here?"
"Th-This is wh-where she said to bring you," the captive said. Sudden defiant pride washed away the fear in him. A crack of the whip across the throat silenced the Dweorg forever.
The doors behind the Reavers slammed shut. Even as they whirled around, a voice from the other end of the hall spoke. "I confess, I thought you would be here sooner." The strong voice resonated in the torture room. It rang through the group's heads, dominating their thoughts and rioting their fear.
Seated casually upon the bone chair was a Dreadlord. Clasped head to toe in spiky black steel that wavered and changed shape in the light, the man was managed to be as regal as he was intimidating. Taller than Humans but shorter than Gientun, the Dreadlords' true appearance was a mystery. Never had the Battlesworn gazed upon their faces or peered into their eyes. The horned helms they wore were engraved with their false expressions, each different from the next. No two Dreadlords wore the exact same armor.
There was a familiarity to this Dreadlord; three of the Reavers had fought and been killed by him during their last Awakening. Airs had dubbed him Deadpan for the stoic impression on his helm.
Pushing himself to his feet, a red cape flowing from his shoulders, the Dreadlord descended the steps as he spoke. "I must say, you Reavers are a disappointment to me. When last I came to Mevrule, it was with the excitement of battling the infamous defenders of this world." He paused between the first pair of columns. Upon closer inspection, Shade noted with a shudder that the heads protruding from the pillars' surface were grisly trophies, smelted to their surface.
"And then I came here," Deadpan continued. "And two of you had already gotten yourselves kill." He indicated Bane and Airs with a flourish of his arm. Then astonishingly bowed to Ruin. "I was pleased though to witness the truth of the ferocity and fearlessness of the Gietun." A pleased rumbling reverbrated from Ruin's throat.
"So you thought you would try your hand against all of us," Bane surmised. With a one-sided grin, he asked, "Isn't that a little cocky of you?"
"Some might say so," Deadpan replied in a slow drawl, as if considering this for the first time.
"Dead men not talk," Ruin chimed, brandishing his hammer.
On a mental cue, the Reavers separated as they attacked. Launching his hook into the ceiling, Shade swung forward, flinging a pair of knives at the Dreadlord. Deadpan raised his arms instinctively, though the blades pinged harmlessly off his armor. Bane ran in an arc at one side of the hall, Grim matching his speed on the other. Nodding to each other, they attacked in a pincer movement.
With the deadly quickness of a master, the Dreadlord sidestepped Bane's whip while also twisting into Grim's reach. Before the Feahe could pull back, her assailant had slammed a spiked shoulder into her. Watching Grim's bleeding form launched across the chamber, Shade landed unsteadily beside Bane with a cry of surprise. Bane had already reverted the whip's arc and the lash coiled around the Dreadlord's leg.
Bane's satisfaction died instantly when the Dreadlord dragged the sharp claws of his gauntlet over the leather, severing it if cutting paper. Observing the fight, Ruin stumped forward brazenly. He had fought and killed more Dreadlords than any of the others, and knew that surprising them was near impossible. Airs limped along, ducking between the columns. She had yet to summon her blades, knowing the flare of light would give her away. Since both Bane and her had been dead already when the others had first fought Deadpan, then he would be unfamiliar with their skills.
That was, if the Troll-witch hadn't forewarned him.
Before Grim had even slumped to the floor, the Dreadlord was moving again. He leapt backwards, landing atop the throne's chair with the heavy clank of metal. For a few moments he stood, watching the Reavers approach. Then crouching, he swept his arm back and drew something long from amongst the assortment of bones.
Ruin growled as the Dreadlord produced a whip made of spine bones cleverly linked together. With a flick of his wrist, Deadpan cracked it at Shade's feet, forcing the Gnomte backwards. Each vertebrae was serrated with sharp edges that would tear away long strips of flesh. Running his hand over the length of it, there was a smile in the Dreadlord's voice. "I take one bone from every enemy I defeat. While your bodies will crumble away when I kill you, once the Omnistone is taken, I will Awaken and take the bones from your breathing bodies."
"You talk too much," Bane sneered. His whip repaired itself in a flash of light.
While the Dreadlord boasted, Ruin had moved to the pillar closest to the throne. The air itself vibrated when his hammer struck it. Grisly trophies scattered in all directions as the column broke apart, and the stone fell towards the dais. Chunks beat against the Dreadlord's oily armor as he somersaulted off the throne. Landing at a safe distance, he watched with growing fury as grisly representation of power collapsed beneath the weight of the avalanche.
This time when the Dreadlord attacked, he went for Ruin first. The Gientun's massive body was too slow to avoid the searing blow of the bone whip. He fell to his knees as skin and muscle was torn from his neck and down his stomach. The hammer disappeared before it even struck the floor. Reveling in the giant's dying, Deadpan didn't notice Bane rushing up behind him till the Reaver was almost upon him.
Preparing to dodge aside from Bane's whip was the Dreadlord's fatal mistake. Since he had never fought the Human before, he didn't know that the mystical whip could turn straight and sharp in an instant; becoming instead a thin, ten-foot long sword. The runes empowered the blade. In the midst of its arc, the whip transformed and descended in a blur moving steel. The sword slice cleanly through the Dreadlord's armor, hacking off the man's left arm. It fell to the floor in a spatter of too-red blood, still grasping the bone whip. Airs chose this moment to round the nearest column. With a triumphant cry, she drove both her swords into the Dreadlord's exposed flesh, and straight into the man's heart.
Everything came to a halt as the Dreadlord's heart gave one final squeeze; just as it had the moment Pandemonium had returned to Mevrule. Victory gleamed in the eyes of the Reavers as death finally came for their dreaded enemy. From the spaces between the plates of the Dreadlord's armor light spurted forth in startling rays. The beams grew and rotated around the chamber, washing everything in stark whiteness.
As softly as a sigh, the light collapsed upon itself, and the Dreadlord was gone. Airs fell to her knees, giggling hysterically. Shade stumbled over to Grim, bowing his head over her still body. Lying on his side, Ruin was coughing blood on to the floor.
"Such a fool," whispered a craggly voice.
Heads pivoted towards the dais, where the third crone stood amidst piles of shattered metal and splintered bones. Like her sisters, she had splotchy gray skin and a thin figure. Her shoulders were so rounded that she was almost bent double at the waist. The she-Troll's folded, leathery skin was stretched so tight over her body that the bone shone translucently underneath. Unlike her sisters, both of this crone's eye sockets were empty. Instead, the large yellow eye sat in the center of her forehead.
The she-Troll frowned sadly at the spot the Dreadlord had died, then shook her head. "He thought that by knowing he would die, he could change it." She raised her eyeless gaze and fixed the group with a knowing expression. "Instead he didn't realize that by trying to change it, the Dreadlord just ensured that it would happen instead."
Letting his whip disappear, the exhaustion of the last three days finally fell upon Bane's mind. When he spoke, it was with great difficulty. His face had almost entirely turned to stone, and there was stiffness in his legs now too. From the way his shoulders slumped, Shade could no longer lift his arms. "Does that mean we can't change the future either?"
The crone appraised the Reaver, tilting her head to the side. "You are always changing the future, young man. With every statement, every choice, even where you step sometimes."
Unable to muster the willpower to stand, Airs asked from her knees, "What is our future? Will we ever be rid of you? Will this war ever end?" The fossilization was creeping up her neck.
The witch fixed her one eye on the Elfer. As it widened and contracted, Bane thought, She's reading Meldina's future.
"I see no end to this war anytime soon," the she-Troll confessed with open lassitude. "Even as we speak, the Dreadlords' armies search, but your brethren have deterred them. I see no path they could now take that would lead to the destruction of the Omnistone before our time is up." Seeing the relief on the Reavers' faces, the witch nodded and her voice sharpened. "Yes Battlesworn, you have succeeded yet again in your task. For the thirteenth time. And in a couple hours, you will all become stone and crumble, and the Omnistone will send their breath to bear you back to your imprisonment. Then another thousand years from now, when my Lords and I return, we will begin this anew." Folding her hands into the wide sleeves of her robe, the crone raised her chin imperiously. "And though you may defeat us then, we will return. Again and again, for our world dies. We will grow more desperate, and as we do, we will become less forgiving. And one of these times you will fail Battlesworn. I promise you that."
Turning her hand, the crone gestured to the crumpled forms of Grim and Ruin. "And until then, this also will happen again and again. Tell me, do your people thank you? Is it you they truly believe in, or the Battlesworn? For 12,000 years Mevrule has laid the burden of their world's prolongation in your hands, on your shoulders. They will fail you. You've seen that it has already begun." She looked to Shade with this last statement, and the Gnomte bowed his head in remembrance of how his race had forgone their duties to the Reaveguard.
"What would you have us do? Give up?" Airs demanded haughtily. "Let you win so that you can slaughter us all?"
The crone stood with a thoughtful expression for several agonizing minutes. "No, not that. I would have you allow the responsibility fall where it belongs; upon Mevrule in its entirety."
"You mean break our oaths," Bane said breathlessly.
"Yes." The delivery of this simple word exposed the Reavers' resolve in a way that all that the three witches had said couldn't till that moment.
Bane looked at Shade where he knelt beside Grim's corpse. Already the Feahe's body had begun to dissolve into dust. Soon a foreign wind would sweep it away, through the tunnels of Pandemonium and back into Vorstheim's Epitaph. There the fine stone powder would reform into the likeness of Grim. Ruin's body was almost entirely gray now, his eyes black and lifeless. With desirous expressions, Shade and Airs matched gazes with Bane. The yearning was there in all their minds, but there was also trepidation and uncertainty.
He waited for the others to nod before asking the she-Troll, "How do we do it?" Once the question was voiced, there was a kind of relief that none of the Reavers had known in a long, long time.
And Bane found he was unashamed.
For twelve Awakenings he had been steadfast in his duty. Always he had risen, fought the Mindless and the Goblins, rescued the Feahe from the Skinchangers, toppled Trolls and slain the Dweorg smiths. And always at the end - when he lived long enough that is - faced and detered the Dreadlords. Enemies they may have all been, but they bled just as Mevrulians did.
"I will send you back. You will know what to do." The crone raised her arms to either side. As they slowly rose, the Reavers' minds darkened and their thoughts turned sluggish.
I am...dying, Bane thought before he passed out.