Explorer's League, Part 3
His Juggernaut, its creaking and scorched joints at risk of seizing, had been loaded on the Warsmith’s cart, in hope of preserving its function for its next and possibly last battle. His own legs would carry him forward.
His cousins Quig and Bolgrum had both fallen in battle. Quig’s body at least could be recovered and was on the same cart. The League had no choice but to abandon Bolgrum and the Ironguard where they fell and this did not sit well with Gimri at all. Looking at the state of the Explorer’s League though, he knew there had been no other option.
As it was, they had been harried by the dark forces of the Abyss and their elvish and nightmare-inducing allies since the lines broke. They marched on without rest to pillar of magic that Quig had told them would be their only escape. Along the way, despite the endurance of Dwarfs, some collapsed from their wounds or the overwhelming heat and smoke and had to be carried by others or loaded on the carts. Others fell during the various skirmishes with fiendish creatures of all kinds. With each hour, their band grew smaller.
Some of the artillery still kept pace but many dwarfs had discarded their heavier armor to move faster. He saw the pillar up ahead now, the abyssal volcano now behind and to their right. He hoped they would make it to their destination and that Quig had been right about what awaited them… a way home. Until then, all they could do was fight and survive.
Shaking his head, he marched up to resume his place near the head of the column again when up ahead he saw some of his scouts returning, but in greater numbers than anticipated. He ordered the column to take up a defensive square, not knowing what this might portend. As they came closer, he realized that among them were Dwarfs he did not recognize. These looked just as scorched as his own, but more energetic and confident. His own scouts hurried towards him and made hasty introductions.
This was a group of “Free” Dwarfs they had come upon near the pillar of magic who had also been scouting in the Halpi Mountains when a blast of magic had washed over the landscape, replacing their familiar mountains with this hellish place. Their leader, Broukdour Trollbuster, strode up to Gimri and offered a nod and a handshake, which Gimri accepted, grateful for any allies in their present predicament. He suspected these might be some of the Rangers he’d heard had stayed behind, fighting under the vigilante Herneas, but quickly decided not to question serendipity.
The Rangers had found a good path to the pillar and were camped nearby, reporting that the magical energies seemed to discourage most of the hostile denizens of the abyss from venturing too close. Gimri hoped this was true. He gave Broukdour a short summary of their misadventures to date, leaving out most of the details about pillaging an abandoned “Free” Dwarf hold and agreed on an alliance until they should all find their way home.
No sooner had this happened and Gimri hoped their day might be improving when a messenger ran up from the rear of the column, claiming that a flaming host was seen in the distance, catching up with their column. Moreover, Quig’s apprentice had reported that Quig’s corpse had begun to give off warmth and was actually hot to the touch, though he still appeared dead. Gimri decided that there was nothing good to come of either of those and shouted for all to move at the double, following the Rangers to the heart of the pillar of magic as quickly as their feet could carry them.
The abyssal horde behind them had continued to gain ground, even as they drew closer to the pillar. It was difficult to be sure whether they would reach it before they had to turn and fight. Moreover, the news from the Warsmith’s cart continued to grow stranger. Quig’s body now glowed with an inner fire, marking the wood around it with an extreme heat and leaving none able to stay in the cart with him. Gimri debated what to do, but this kind of magic was beyond his understanding and he could not bring himself to leave his cousin’s corpse to the approaching abyssals.
He urged the Explorers’ League on with every oath and threat he could muster, but he sensed that the approaching abyssal were the greater motivation. The blinding light from the pillar grew ahead of them until they could hardly look forward without closing their eyes.
Just as he thought they would need to turn and fight, the pillar was there, just a few steps ahead, the Rangers spread out in covered positions around it, ready to defend the area. He stopped in his tracks. For all that Quig had told him this was the way home, now that it was before him, he could not imagine stepping into that, letting the overwhelming magic consume him in the hope that some salvation lay beyond. His dwarfs saw his hesitation as the rest of the column moved in and gathered at the pillar. None would take the first step through.
At that moment, the Warsmith’s cart rumbled forward, now at the end of the column, the back of it smoking and glowing with a bright light of its own. The other dwarfs had given it a wide berth and were muttering oaths of protection. Quig’s apprentice still kept the oxen moving, but clearly was himself concerned, glancing over his shoulder regularly. Gimri strode towards it, determined to finally decide what to do with Quig’s body. He fell back on the ground and the apprentice nearly fell off the cart, when a sudden burst of flame shot into the sky. A dwarf-sized shape of burning fire now hovered perhaps ten feet above the cart and it spoke to them all in a booming, roaring voice…
“Hear me, Explorers, for I am your leader Quig and I have crossed the boundary of the planes to sit by Fulgria’s side. Do not tarry! Your destiny and your hope lie through the pillar. There the fiends that follow will meet their end. The road ahead to home is long, but one you can travel. If you will follow, I will guide. Come, I will open the door to the Celestial Realms, where Fulgria herself will aid our cause!”
Gimri sat, slack-jawed, for a moment. A quick glance told him that his fellows were also in some measure of shock. Then considering all that he had seen, he gathered himself and approached the fiery apparition. He could see that sure enough, Quig’s body was no longer in the back of the cart. All that remained there was scorched wood and some ashes.
Gimri thought for a moment longer and looked closely at this flaming apparition. As he squinted, he thought that indeed he could see Quig within. After a brief and silent prayer to Fulgria, he felt a new sense of confidence, even inspiration and with that the decision was made.
“Well met again, Cousin! Whatever cruel fates brought us here, whatever great magics act on us all, if Quig you be and if Fulgria wills it, then follow we will. Lead on!”
Across a field of green, lit by a celestial light and split by shining spires and walls, the host of dwarves faced their pursuers. A host of fiends from the abyss itself rushed towards them. Hideous ghouls, tortured souls and flaming and flying demons were present in numbers, but Gimri had also seen two enormous demons which Quig had briefly named as “Arch-fiends” before floating off towards the left flank. Gimri could now see that he had gathered a host of elementals of fire about himself and shook his head again to make sure this was neither dream or nightmare.
He welcomed Quig’s “return”, but knew not what to make of it. Were they now truly in Fulgria’s realm that such things were possible?
He expected that the left would face the worst of it. The ghouls and gargoyles across from him on the right should be easily dealt with and they would then hold the spires and the walls connecting them against the enemy’s right before it could sweep them all away. The Ironclad and Shielbreakers in the center should be able to hold the line and he’d positioned two of his cannons to support them, should the “Arch-fiends” present themselves.
Quig had told him it was their task to stop the Abyssals from entering this realm. They should press forward and hold the center, while denying the fiends a chance to break through. Gimri’s hope had been somewhat restored, but he had some doubts whether the exhausted Explorers could face such evil and win.
In a moment, his doubts grew as two hordes of previously unseen and monstrously large fiends crested the hill across from him. Any thought of focusing on the ghouls and gargoyles fled as he quickly ordered the mastiffs forward to slow the enemy while the cannons, organ gun and rifles all focused on this greater threat. He saw the dwarves of the center march forward towards the wall and heard the crack of rifle shots on the far left where he had positioned the sharpshooters.
As the abyssal advanced farther from the magical rift, he saw that the very nature of this place disagreed with them. Burns as if from acid or fire appeared on those closest to his force and he saw the chaoitic magic of the rift and the energy of the empyrean in turmoil across the center of the battlefield. His own dwarves dared not cross closer to the rift now for fear of what the magic would do to them.
Cannons boomed, rifles barked and the mastiffs bit as the large abyssals across from Gimri fell, one by one. Yet the need to focus on them had cost time that now left the ghouls and gargoyles much closer. The Ironclad were beset by ghouls in the center and he saw one of the Arch-fiends heading toward the Shieldbreakers, taking cannon shots as it strode from a wooded area, leaving blasted and burning trees in its wake.
He saw the other Archfiend heading straight for Quig, along with many of the other demons and bound spirits. The sharpshooters on the left were no longer visible beneath a swarm of gargoyles, though he occasionally still heard shots from the melee.
The ghouls broke through the first wave of mastiffs ahead of Gimri and he charged in with the second wave, intend on preventing them reaching the artillery and Ironwatch. His axe and hand cannon made short work of them, but he turned just in time to see more gargoyles flying overhead towards the cannon behind him, while those cannons in the center turned to shoot at the gargoyles that had slain the sharpshooters, now heading back towards the center.
A few burst of flame still rose from the left, but he could not see if it was Quig or the fiends he fought that made them The Ironclad seemed to be holding steady, but the Shieldbreakers were fighting against demonic fire as well as mostly insubstantial bound spirits who they could hardly damage with their heavy hammers. The Rangers who had joined up with them were now focused on the Gargoyles, shooting their light crossbows in defense of the central cannons.
Another fiend of some kind moved toward Gimri, spitting fire, but no match still for Gimri and the remaining mastiffs. Yet it kept him from helping against the gargoyles that had flown by, who now overwhelmed the cannon on the Dwarf right flank. He looked back to the left for a moment and saw that the it was lost. He could not see Quig, but he did see one of the enormous Arch-fiends where the cannons had been, while the Rangers were now fighting the spirits that must have torn through the Shielbreakers. Aha, but the other Arch-fiend was gone!
The Ironclad seemed to be pushing on, fighting the last of the ghouls, but he saw more demons of fire heading towards them out of the woods that had previously revealed the Arch-fiends.
He shouted for the Ironwatch Rifles and Organ Gun to help the Rangers in the center, while he focused on clearing the Gargoyles from this flank. As it turned out, they came back to him, driving away the remaining mastiffs, but he felt himself guided to fight better than he ever had before and he lay about with his axe until he smote the Gargoyles to dust as well, finally turning back to see how the center fared.
The Rangers and Ironclad fought on, though very few Rangers remained. He saw the bound and tortured souls flying among them and marveled at the bravery of these “Free Dwarfs” as they fought to the last. The Arch-fiend was now into the Ironwatch Rifles, but Gimri saw that the energies of the Empyrean were taking their toll. If they could but hold on a bit longer, this abyssal incursion would not last.
The last of the Rangers fell, but the Ironclad and Rifles held, just as the energies of the Empyrean swept the last of the Abyssals away. Gimri took stock, not many of the Explorers remained, but they had held the rift, against the odds. He heard murmurings from his company and turned to see what was causing a stir, only to see some of those that had been gravely, almost surely mortally wounded rising to their feet again, their wounds healing with startling rapidity.
He and the remaining Dwarves searched the battlefield, but of Quig they found no sign. He had vanished as quickly as he had reappeared…