Chapter 39: Battle In The Tunnels
Some of our projectiles hit home, but none of them fatally. The dwarves manage to escape around a corner, leaving them safe from our attacks… For now, at least.
“How much would you be willing to bet that they’re waiting just around the corner?” I say quietly.
“A surprise attack, with the added bonus of us having a reduced ability to fire back? They’d be stupid not to.” Boaz replies, before cupping one large hand to his ear to listen. “And if my ears don’t be failing me, I can’t hear them running anymore. I’d be willing to bet a dozen good beers. Takers?”
Nobody says anything.
“Well, I suppose we’d better be careful going around that corner.” I grunt as I pull the string of my crossbow back into position.
After I finish reloading - Xiltroth had already reloaded his by the time I was done, and Heather just needs to have an arrow at hand - I focus, and the spike barrier advances slowly, us following right behind it.
As Boaz and Jakin turn the corner, shields raised, they are immediately assaulted by dwarves leaping over the spikes. The twins are strong, but not strong enough to block the full force of armoured dwarves jumping at their shields, not without being pushed back.
Their boots scrape along the floor, pushed back by the considerable momentum. The other dwarves attempt to capitalise on the moment by stabbing their weapons towards the twins around their shields. Boaz and Jakin slam their shields towards each other, deflecting two of the halberds into each other, causing them to become entangled.
Boaz takes the opportunity while he has a clear view of the dwarf in front of him to spike his pick at the man. The dwarf manages to get his arm in between the handle of the pick and his body, partially blocking it, but Boaz swings it with enough strength that it still manages to pierce through the man’s armour and into his shoulder below, albeit shallowly.
Jakin, on the other hand, has a second halberd stabbing towards him, which he is forced to awkwardly push aside with his pick. With both of Jakin’s hands to either side, the dwarf in front of him drops his halberd - useless in such close quarters - and opts instead to draw a long dagger from a sheathe at his side, going quickly for a stab. Seeing this, Jakin, who has somehow still kept stable footing throughout all of this, shifts forward and kicks the man in the stomach.
At this point, I’ve just rounded enough of the corner to have a good angle. With so many people in such close proximity, it’s difficult to get an accurate shot at someone’s head or chest, but I have just enough of a shot at the dwarf to the right of Jakin, one of the ones with their halberds entangled, to quickly aim and release a bolt at the man’s right leg. It hits, punching clean through his armour and into the flesh behind it, lodging there. The man instantly develops a limp.
As the twins bring their shields back towards the front, Xiltroth manages to snap a shot into the left shoulder of the dwarf to the front and left of Boaz who has his halberd entangled with the other dwarf. The bolt severely hinders the movement of the dwarf’s arm, and further complicates the situation of their halberds.
Using her height, Heather has a clear line of sight to the dwarf to the left of Jakin, and she begins firing her bow. The first scrapes past the man’s helm, causing him to flinch away. Recovering, he looks up towards Heather in anger… Allowing her second arrow to slot perfectly through the eye slit of his helm.
Jakin, now fully recovered from his brief flurry of activity and back in a firm stance, gives the man a firm push in the right direction, causing him to fall backwards onto the dwarf Jakin had kicked down, stopping him from getting up and slamming him back down to the ground.
Boaz swings his pick towards the dwarf in front of him, deliberately targeting the man’s already weakened side. By this point, all the enemy dwarves have already dropped their halberds and are wielding long daggers. However, these don’t have sufficient reach or weight to allow the dwarf to effectively block or parry the relatively heavier pick, especially when his feet are partially trapped in between my spikes, making it difficult for him to manoeuvre. The dwarf takes another, even deeper wound, this time to the side of his chest.
I, having reloaded my crossbow by now, aim carefully at the dwarf to Boaz’s left and release. It strikes the left side of the man’s chest, and I hear a cracking sound in addition to the sound of the bolt punching through armour.
Must’ve hit a rib.
The dwarf reduces his movements drastically, clearly trying to avoid worsening the wounds. Just as Jakin swings sharply at the man in front of him, the dwarf to the left of Boaz’s inaction allows Xiltroth to get a steady aim - another of the dwarves fall.
To the front and left of Jakin, the dwarf on the ground laboriously shoves the body of his dead comrade off of himself, only for an arrow to skitter past his head. He rolls furiously to the side, almost against the wall of the tunnel, as another arrow shatters on the ground where he lay moments ago. Lifting himself to his feet, he steps quickly away from the wall, another arrow passing narrowly by his shoulder.
Now without the advantage of numbers, a defensive position or even a cohesive formation, the two dwarves still in front of Jakin and Boaz find themselves at the end of their ropes. They can’t even retreat: the only thing stopping them from being shot is their proximity to the twins. As soon as they are at a bit of a distance, we’ll be able to shoot without fear of hitting an ally.
The one in front of Jakin quickly takes a piercing blow to his side, and finally, his chest. After he falls to his knees, grasping painfully at his chest in a hopeless attempt to staunch the bleeding, Jakin puts him out of his misery with a swift blow to the head.
The dwarf in front of Boaz quickly follows suit, leaving only the dwarf desperately attempting to dodge Heather’s arrows. He is having surprising success, moving erratic and fast enough that he manages to dodge her arrows, pass beyond the spike wall in front of Jakin and Boaz before we have time to take aim, and run off into the tunnel.
Circumventing the quartet of corpses, we finally complete our turn into the entrance of that tunnel. I see the dwarf fleeing down the tunnel, and further past him, maybe twenty meters down the tunnel, another group of dwarves coming out of a smaller passage to the right, looking like their armour was put on in a hurry.
Silently reloading my crossbow, I count them as they come out. Six. With the addition of that one dwarf that managed to flee past us, that makes seven. To make matters more complicated, the last dwarf that came out isn’t wearing plate armour, but light leather armour reinforced in key places with metal plates.
I know for a fact that they have spare suits of plate armour - we didn’t strip the bodies last time we were here. This means that he’s wearing that for another reason, and by the lack of any form of protection on his hands, I’d wager that it’s because he’s a magus.
A glimpse of a leather-bound tome holstered at his side only cements that thought in my mind.
“They have a magus.” Xiltroth notes, taking aim at the fleeing dwarf. Narrowing his eyes, he releases the bolt a moment later, which manages to find its way into the dwarf’s back. The dwarf stumbles briefly, but makes it back to his companions regardless.
“Any guesses as to what his element might be?” I ask, not taking my eyes off of the man in question.
“Probably earth.” Jakin replies uncertainly. “Maybe fire.”
That wouldn’t be good. We don’t have any effective way of defending against fire. I might, might, be able to block off the tunnel with an earthen barrier, but it would take a significant chunk of my mana every time.
“Target the magus.” I say, already taking aim.
As if they could hear our quiet exchange, the dwarves group up in front of the magus, creating a wall of armoured bodies in front of him that prevents anything but the most supremely lucky or skilled shots from passing through.
We fire anyway. While killing the magus would be best, we still need to take out the rest of them as well.
Unfortunately, I overcompensate for the distance with my first shot as I am more accustomed to aiming at more close quarters from the previous combat, and my bolt goes sailing over their heads.
Xiltroth and Heather don’t make the same mistake, and their projectiles find their marks firmly in the bodies of the enemy dwarves, although there are no fatalities as a result of the volley.
Taking advantage of our reload time, the dwarves step to either side, revealing the magus behind him. He has his grimoire open in one hand with the other resting on the page. I see a brief glow as the formation activates before a small object forms and speeds towards us.
Jakin grunts, barely managing to move quickly enough to the side to get his shield in between me and the earthen missile. The sound of the collision echoes throughout the cave, and I can see Jakin’s shield bulging inwards slightly where it was hit.
“We have to stagger our shots.” I say, with some alarm. “Give him as little opportunity to cast as possible.”
That thing was no joke. It was as deadly as a crossbow bolt, perhaps deadlier on an unarmoured target.
Now wary of the magus, we start to alternate our shots. It does decrease the amount of time between each impact, but it does likewise reduce the damage each volley does - and we’ve never practiced this before. We fall out of time all too often, potentially allowing the magus another attack.
It doesn’t take long for them to realise this and grasp one of those opportunities. Heather fired her arrow late, I fired my bolt early and Xiltroth is still reloading, giving them a several second-long window before either Xiltroth or Heather can be ready to fire again.
Like magic, the opposing dwarves split apart, and the magus is revealed between them.
Jakin and Boaz immediately position themselves to defend me, but I know immediately something is off. The magus is facing me, but he isn’t looking at me. He’s looking more to my left, and a bit up.
My suspicions are confirmed a moment later, the magus starting to turn to his right as he infuses mana into the formation again. He was targeting Heather.
I move, letting my crossbow drop as I push off with my right foot to take a step to my left. As the formation activates, I leap in front of Heather, lifting my arms to protect my head and chest.
A moment later, I feel the impact. It forces my right arm against my chest, and then I feel something shift in my arm, in a place where I’m fairly sure things shouldn’t be shifting.
As my feet touch the ground and my mind starts to register what exactly had just happened, my arm blossoms with pain. It’s broken.
But that doesn’t matter. It’s one thing to target me. I can take the hits. But Heather? One heavy hit, one errant crossbow bolt - she’s a goner. It’s a strategically sound decision, but damn, does it piss me off.
“Aaron, yeh alright?” Jakin barks without turning around. “I thought I heard something break.”
“Just my arm.” I reply, wincing. I think my bracer is digging into my arm right where the break is, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. “Don’t worry about it.”
Think your earth magic is hot shit, do you? Newsflash: It’s not.
Lifting my unbroken arm, I lift the spike barrier from the ground and fuse the spikes into one. Then I compress them down to a size a bit larger than an arrow. I add some spin to it, because adding a little spin never hurt anyone… right? Then, burning up nearly half the stony projectile as propulsion, I send it rocketing forwards.
In a little more than the blink of an eye, it crosses the gap between our two groups and punches straight through the chest of one of the dwarves there and out the other side, bereft of most of its former momentum.
Struck by a sudden idea, I break the remains of the projectile up into a cloud of dust, which I direct to float around the heads of the dwarves. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“How are we on ammunition?” I ask quietly, readying a second projectile, using a bit less mana than the first. It was clearly overkill. “I can only do another one or two of these before running out of mana.”
An arrow sails over my head and into the armour of one of the dwarves. “I only have two left.” Heather replies from behind me.
“I’m fine.” Xiltroth says, firing a shot of his own. “Nearly a dozen left.”
I fire off a second, more conservative earthen missile. It has nearly the same effect but doesn’t come out the other side of the dwarf it hits - which isn’t necessary anyway. Grunting in pain as I accidentally move my broken arm, I check my own stock of bolts. Dozen and a half. Well, the bigger problem for me is that one of the bow limbs has a crack in it.
Taking a deep breath, both to calm myself down and steel myself against the pain, I take stock of the situation.
Five enemies remaining in fighting condition, four of which are peppered with arrows and bolts. One in good condition, probably capable of delivering more attacks. All blinded.
On our side, two on defence in good condition, perhaps a little fatigued. One ranged almost out of ammunition. One with excess ammunition. One ranged/caster with a broken ranged weapon and a considerable portion of mana exhausted. Injured, unable to engage in melee combat.
Not bad odds, for this fight, at least. But if there were more of them after this… It could become a problem. We’ve taken out seven of a possible eighteen so far, with another five here. That leaves six unaccounted for. In the state we’re in, I’m not sure we could take another six.
We might have to retreat after this battle.
But that is for after this battle. For now, I just stand, trying to keep my arm still and not doing much - or at least appearing to. In reality, I’m keeping the dust cloud from dissipating, and I have a much smaller earthen missile ready and hidden behind my left arm.
If that magus shows so much as a hair of his head, I’m nailing him with it.
But, surprisingly enough, he doesn’t show his face. Instead, they charge us, raising their halberds as they run.
“I’ll take the one on the right.” Xiltroth says, quickly setting his crossbow down and drawing his mithril knife.
The twins nod and position themselves to block the other three dwarves, raising their shields at an angle as the halberds come chopping down.
Xiltroth is fairly strong, but blocking a halberd with a knife? Impossible. Probably why he doesn’t try, and just slips around the side of the dwarf instead.
The dwarf cuts at empty air and falls forward a moment later as Xiltroth knocks his leg out from under him. After that, Xiltroth jams his knife into a small gap in the dwarf’s armour near his neck. The dwarf quickly stills.
Now, I’m not a particularly tall man, being just above average height, but I’m still considerably taller than the dwarves in front of me. This means I can see over them to the magus behind them. I immediately cast my bolt, but the man turns and runs as soon as he notices my gaze, fleeing back into the room they came from. I direct my bolt into the room and, seeing as it had already lost a significant portion of its speed and it would be practically impossible to hit anything, I dust it.
Meanwhile, the twins have engaged the remaining three dwarves, who have dropped their halberds and are wielding long daggers with very little effect against the heavily armoured and shielded twins.
Still, it was better for them than trying to swing around a weapon around a meter and a half long in close quarters, in a tunnel.
Regardless, the twins make short work of the enemy dwarves with the help of Xiltroth, who had circled behind them.
With that done, the only one left is the enemy magus. From their actions, it’s likely that the magus is out of mana, or at least low. If so, this will be easy. Either way, we proceed with caution.
As Jakin proceeds through the entrance, his shield blocking nearly the entire width of it, I hear a light impact on his shield. “What was that supposed to do?” Jakin asks, almost amused.
“Please don’t kill me!” Another voice says from inside the room. “I don’t have any mana, I can’t do anything!”
“Yeh’re holding a knife behind yer back.” Jakin states, unamused. “So I don’t believe yeh fer a second. Plus, you broke my friend’s arm and attacked a perfectly innocent village.” He strides into the room. After a very brief tussle, he emerges unscathed.
“How’s the arm?” He asks me. “Any bleeding?”
I focus on my broken arm. Not a very pleasant experience, as I had been attempting to ignore the pain, and this brought it rushing back with renewed intensity. “Painful as you might expect. Can’t feel any blood or anything, though. And my bracer is keeping the arm straight, so that’s an added bonus.”
“Well that’s something, I suppose.” Jakin nods. “We should head back and get it looked at by the gnomes.”
I hesitate for a moment. There could still be more of them here… On the other hand, I do like my other hand. It’s probably best to get this looked at sooner rather than later. “Alright. Let’s go.” I agree finally. “There’s not many left. We can deal with them next time.”
We retrace our steps to the exit, and head back down to town.
By the time we reach town and knock on the doctor’s door, it’s practically midnight. He opens the door, eyes surrounded by dark rings. He glances at us tiredly. “No visitations right now.” He starts to shut the door.
“My arm’s broken.” I say hurriedly.
The door opens again. “You’re kidding me.” He sighs, rubbing his forehead. “Get that armour off before you come in, you’ll take up enough space as it is.”
With Jakin’s assistance, I quickly take off my armour - everything except my bracer. Every time I try to budge it, pain shoots up my arm. That done, I follow the diminutive doctor inside.
There are a few less people around than earlier, but the building is still almost full to capacity. He manages to shuffle a few people around and get me a table to lie down on. I barely fit on it, with my legs below the knee hanging down from the edge of the table. My feet aren’t far from touching the floor, actually.
“Sal, the scratchfern.” He calls back through the open doorway.
“We’re out!” A voice replies.
“Griddlegrass?” He questions.
“Out!” The reply comes again.
He turns back to me. “Well, the good news is that you won’t have to chew griddlegrass. The bad news, we’re out of pain relievers.”
“Burned through the whole supply, huh? Great.” I sigh. This will not be fun.
“Quite.” He agrees. “Now, we’ll have to get this off.” He turns my arm, bringing a candle to the table so he can get a clearer look.
“Ah, yes. That would be from whatever caused the break, I suppose?” He says, referring to the dent in my bracer. “Looks like I’m going to have to cut it off, I’m afraid.”
“Sal, a saw!” He calls through the door again.
Before long, a gnommish woman comes through the doorway and hands the doctor a saw.
“Thank you, Sal.” He says gratefully to the woman, and carefully places the saw along the side of my bracer. “Try not to move your arm while I do this.”
I nod. Not a problem. Moving it causes significant pain, so I’m already keeping it as still as I can.
Slowly and deliberately, he begins to draw the saw along the side of my bracer, stopping every so often to blow away the dust and get a better view.
My bracer gets sawn through without incident, and he begins on the other side, such that it would be split in two and simply lifted off my arm.
Having done so, he softly slips off the leather glove beneath it and finally takes a look at my bare arm. “Well, first impressions are good. No external bleeding, heavy bruising - but that’s to be expected - and the bone hasn’t pierced through the surface of your arm. Could you try moving your fingers for me?”
Bracing myself, I try to wiggle my fingers. The movement does inadvertently cause me to wince, but I am able to move my fingers nonetheless.
The doctor nods. “Good. Now, I’m going to feel around your arm to try and get a better idea of the nature of the break. Given that… well, you aren’t on painkillers, this will be quite painful. Please try not to move.”
Oh, that sounds just lovely.