Over the course of my life, I imagined myself in many places and situations. However, I never imagined myself being surrounded by a group of ten norn who were offering their prayers to the spirit of Wolf. After showing the grawl totem to Skarti, he no longer brushed off the notion that the most recent attacks were done by grawl. In fact, he was quite furious, and within minutes, several norn, both Wolfborn and random citizens longing for glory, had rallied to form a counter attack.
I didn’t really want to go with them, but Skarti kept saying that it would be good if I, who had brought back a piece of evidence, would go with them. To be honest, I dreaded fighting in a group. Just thinking about it filled me with anxiety; what if I fail again? How many lives would be lost this time? When I reluctantly agreed, Kára agreed as well. I thought she’d volunteer, but she was very held back. Skarti seemed happy to see her join, but there was an awkward tension that I didn’t understand.
I turned around to see her staring at me.
“Were you deep in thought again?” she asked with one eyebrow raised.
“Yea, I guess I was.”
She just shook her head, a nervous smile on her lips.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“I am. I just feel a bit… out of place.”
Arching an eyebrow, I voiced my curiosity without speaking a word. I wanted to leave the choice up to her, whether she wanted to talk about it or not. After a second or two, she sighed deeply, diverting her eyes and staring into the distance.
“A long time ago,” she said, stolid, “I was a member of the Wolfborn. But, I stopped. All we really did was break up bar fights and guard caravans every now and then. Besides,” she added with faked nonchalance, “my brother was wandering around alone.”
“Do you miss it?”
“What?” she asked puzzled.
“Do you miss what you left behind?”
“No,” she mused. “I don’t think I do.”
“So, you don’t miss those who you fought with either?”
She smiled while looking at me.
“We norn, we fight for our honor and glory. Yes, at times we accept the help from others, and at times we honor Wolf and unite to bring down a greater foe. But in the end, we are all individuals who seek to build on our own legend. Quite unlike the charr warbands, I reckon.”
The long trek back was uneventful to say the least. Annoying was another, more applicable word. I didn’t mind traveling all that much, but now that I had to travel with an entire group of norn, it was painful. Even though I kept to myself in the rear of the group the whole time, together with Kára, they still managed to bombard me with questions every time they saw a chance to do so. Sure, I could understand it to some extend; it’s rare for a lone charr to march to battle alongside norn. I tried to convey in many ways that they should keep their questions to themselves, but they kept doing it regardless. When we finally arrived at the cave that supposedly held the grawl, I was relieved.
The grawl village was, like most grawl settlements, underground in the caverns that ran through this mountain. Huddled in one of the entrances, with promises of a complex network of tunnels potentially filled with creatures intent on our death, we were all dragging our paws.
“I think,” a broad-shouldered norn said as softly as a norn could, “we should rush in and attack. Catch them by surprise!”
My sigh appeared to be much louder than I thought, for I was suddenly met with nine pairs of eyes.
Clearing my throat, I said, “And kill us all? Go ahead, I’ll wait here.”
“Why?” the norn huffed. “What’s wrong with the idea?”
The fact that this cartload of meat failed to realize the stupidity of his own plan, struck me full in the snout like a rag soaked in cold whiskey.
After a deep breath, I said as pithy as I could, “We are facing an underground complex of unknown dimensions. It might be a single cavern, or a thousand of them, connected by a plethora of tunnels. In the same way, there might be a dozen of grawl, or an entire horde! We do not know where they are, how many there are, how well they are armed, how well they are led… Technically, we know nothing. You can’t just get up and go in! Sure, I too want to taste blood, but not my own blood!”
“You charr,” another norn muttered. “Always over-thinking things.”
“Well excuse me,” I sneered. “If I recall correctly, your ancestors fled from their homelands, whereas mine took back our land.”
The remark had stung them deeply and still lingered in the air. Some of the norn seemed sad or even ashamed, yet others appeared to be angry or frustrated. I may have quenched their initial urge to barge in, but the willingness to discuss a proper plan of approach had gone with it. As I saw no other way, I stood up and walked deeper into the cave.
“What are you doing?” one of the norn hissed.
“I was a scout,” I replied. “So, I’m going to scout as far ahead as I can.”
Although I was used to scouting across the Ascalonian hills and flatlands, there were frequent missions against the Flame legion as well. Just like the grawl and other vermin, they set up their bases in caves. Most races see the charr as large, lumbering and savage beasts, which is far from the truth. But, we like them to think that way, as underestimation of a foe is the first step towards their defeat.
This cave system was full of nooks and crannies, drops and shadows, so I had no problem sneaking my way through. As to be expected from the grawl, they weren’t very organized. Supplies and weapons were strewn here and there, and fires weren’t lit in strategic positions, only adding to my choice of paths. However, the sheer amount of weaponry and armor concerned me. More so, because some of the weapons appeared to be of a quality far exceeding what grawl should be able to make. Everything hinted at them preparing for war, or being prepared for war.
After traversing the place for a while, I came to a tunnel that wouldn’t allow me to go further, as it ended in a cavern that was very well lit, and more importantly, filled with grawl. From where I was, I could only guess that it ran no deeper than this. Luckly, the system as a whole wasn’t as big as I feared and most caves and tunnels were small and narrow, allowing a small group of warriors to bottle-neck the grawl throng.
I sneaked back towards the entrance of the tunnel, where I found supplied scattered across the floor carelessly. After rummaging through them for a few seconds, I sneaked back towards the tunnel and set up a simple trap, that would at least slow down the grawl that were bound to flood from the cavern beyond.
“Oot! These shrooms taste bad!”
“Yes, Gana. But better food soon!”
Giving a dumb smile was the last thing Gana did, just before an arrow pierced his body slightly above his heart. Although the shot wasn’t fatal, the explosion that erupted from the arrowhead was, ripping his torso apart.
“You call that a shot?” a charr voice thundered through the caves.
The other grawl fought through the shock of seeing his friend explode in front of him. He forced himself up. Holding his axe high, he drew in breath for a furious battle cry, but before he even could, he fell to the ground with an arrow planted firmly between his eyes.
“Now that,” I said while nudging Kára, “is how you shoot an arrow!”
“Bah!” she exclaimed pouting, “Your bow is stronger!”
“Yea,” I chuckled, “blame it on the weapon.”
She glared, angry with me, but I could see in her eyes that she was impressed with the shot. Meanwhile, the others of our little group had stormed ahead, weapons in hand, shouting all the way. If the grawl were unaware of our presence before, it wasn’t the case anymore. Kára and I also made our way forward, but we were much more controlled, shooting as we went. I let loose several arrows, some of which pierced hearts, others got embedded in skulls.
I was caught by surprise when a grawl battle cry sounded behind me. I spun around and drew back hard on my bow. The grawl was a few feet away from me when I released the arrow, hitting the creature full in the chest with such force, that he was flung back to where he came from.
“A bit excessive, don’t you think?” Kára said behind me.
“I will not let a norn talk to me about excessive violence, Kára.”
Her roaring laughter was a sound that I had missed for far too long.
The ten of us ploughed our way through the grawl in a bloody procession deeper into the grawl base. Within half an hour, we arrived in the cave preceding the grand cavern that I had found.
“Hold it!” I roared just before two norn headed into the tunnel. “Fall back!”
Although confused, the norn obeyed and fell in with the rest of us. Within moment we had cleared out the enemies in this cave. Dead grawl lay everywhere, some in once piece, but most of them not. I signaled to Kára, and together, we stood in front of the tunnel entrance. With my directions, the other nine formed a crescent around the opening.
“Come get us, you foul beasts!” I shouted into the tunnel. “Come and avenge your fallen. Come and avenge your pathetic gods!”
For a handful of heartbeats, nothing happened. Then, a single grawl stepped forth and stopped halfway. He held a crooked staff and wore a large cap of feathers. His robe-like rags were decorated with feathers as well.
“A shaman,” Kára said. “Why did you attacks us?”
The shaman didn’t reply, but looked beyond us at the broken bodies of his kin.
“Our god says we take you land,” he seethed. “Now god says kill you!” he finished, shaking his staff into the air.
At once, a flood of grawl came rushing into the tunnel behind him. Both Kára and I were shooting as we backed up to fall in with the others. Several grawl fell before they even came close. But the gap was closing, so we hung our bows on our backs, and grabbed our weapons. I held the crude axe loosely in my paw, but Kára seemed ready for anything. She had an open stance and she held an axe in both hands, eagerly spinning the axe in her right one. Voices were rising, yelling, screaming. Weapons were readied, a wall of steel awaiting a wave of flesh.
A large flash of light! A thundering sound! A sudden wail of agonized voices, screaming out in pain. Flames burst out and licked at grawl fur, setting them ablaze. The entrance of the tunnel was bathed in fire that seemed to have erupted from nowhere.
“Suck on that!” I roared, shaking my paw at them.
At once, my allies understood what had happened, but the grawl had no such insight. We rushed over the charred bodies, just how I liked them, and plowed through the flames. Only when I reached the confused and terrified beasts on the other side did I notice that I was at the head of the charge. I didn’t care, for I had tasted blood and I wanted more. I swung the axe in a wild arc, beheading the nearest grawl. Using the momentum of that swing, I rolled forward past several other grawl to find myself in front of the shaman. Flowing from the roll, arcing it over my head, I brought my axe down on the shaman in one powerful strike, vertically splitting the head of the shaman in two. With one great push, I flung the now lifeless body to the side.
Behind me, the shouts of norn voices boomed, yelps of pain blasted through the tunnel, sounds of grawl choking in their own blood could be heard, and the clash of steel on steel rang. But for me, all those sounds faded into one, a heavy veil of noise, drowned out by the sound of my own heartbeat.
The grawl fell quickly before our fury, and within moments they stopped flooding into the tunnel, and started running out of the tunnel, into the cavern. We pressed on, cutting down any stinker that failed to run fast enough. When we burst out of the tunnel and into the cavern, we were met with a score of grawl, all armed and ready. Yes, they were armored, and yes, they were waiting, but a tangible fear lay behind their eyes.
Now the real fun begins, I thought.
But, just when we were ready to make a charge, the cavern shook on its foundations. Stalactites crumbled and fell as the shaking receded. From a tiny cave that lay obstructed when inside the tunnel, came forth a creature whose evil could be felt. It looked like a norn, but larger and corrupted to the extreme. Its eyes were aglow with an otherworldly blue. Its teeth had turned to shards of ice and his skin resembled a frozen lake.
“Icebrood,” Kára whispered.
As it entered, the grawl made way for their god, and it forced all who were in the cavern into silence. Each labored step it took shook the ground beneath our paws. It stopped at a fair distance, and eyed us maliciously. One of my companions thought this was the opening he needed, and in a fit of lust for glory, he stormed at the creature and bore his sword down on it. The metal hit its skin with a loud ‘clang’ but it did nothing more than scratch it. The icebrood’s arm swooped down and launched the norn into the air, flinging him into a wall.
I sheathed my axe and pulled out my bow once again. The arrow flew straight and true, but ricocheted of off the creature’s head. A small explosion hit its left thigh as Kára’s arrow hit the mark, but it was to no avail. The icebrood slammed its fist into the ground, the ripple effect knocking us off our feet. As soon as we got up, the grawl launched an attack as well.
“We can’t even hurt it!” Kára fumed as another one of her arrows bounced off harmlessly.
Grawl blood was spilled all around me, and norn blood flowed too, now that the grawl had their god on their side. I kept shooting, and so did Kára, but even if the arrows didn’t bounce off, all they did was leave a small dent. It was with that realization that a memory resurfaced from my mind. I suddenly recalled talking to a retired engineer about The Siege of Ebonhawke. Although I paid little heed to it then, his words rang true now.
“When bringing down a wall,” he had said, “one big blast won’t work. But several smaller blasts in quick succession, now that’s a different story!”
“Kára!” I shouted. “On my signal, shoot an explosive arrow at his chest!”
She was protesting, for sure, but it was drowned out by the icebrood’s bestial roar. I grabbed all the arrows I had left in my quiver, and stuck them between my jaws. I pulled the bow back lightly and let an arrow fly. As my paw released the string, I brought it up to snatch another arrow from my jaw and repeated the process. Arrow after arrow rained down on the beast, and one dent after another formed. Soon, thin cracks running from dent to dent could be seen.
As the last arrow flew from my bow, I shouted, “Fire!”
The explosion of Kára’s arrow blasted away a sheet of the creature’s outer skin, but even beneath that it appeared to be hard. In a final act of desperation, I threw my axe at it. The axe spun lazily through the air, until it crashed into the icebrood and the weapon broke into pieces. As the flying chunks bounced off in every direction, one piece managed to pierce the creature, striking it in its heart. After a terrifying screech, the monster collapsed onto the ground.
Suddenly faced with the loss of their god, the grawl went frantic. Most of them ran around, clueless, but a few only became more furious. Without a weapon and out of arrows, I rushed over to see if the brave but foolish norn who rushed at the icebrood earlier on was alright. Once I knelt beside him, I saw that there was no hope. The initial blow had crushed his spine, but he was given a swift end by a protruding rock that had skewered him. I was given no time to deal with his passing, as a grawl ran at me from behind, screaming all the way. In a reflex, I snatched the norn’s great sword from the ground and swung it around. The blade cleaved the assailant’s upper body clean off in an explosion of marrow and blood.
“If you were norn,” I heard Kára gasp behind me. “I would marry you!”
End of Part 6