The gallant Sunset did not complain as he wound his way above the mountains with two riders sitting astride his strong back. Innovindil guided the pegasus from the front perch, with Drizzt sitting right behind her, his arms tight around her waist.
For Drizzt, flying was among the most amazing and wonderful experiences he had ever known. His traveling cloak and long white hair alike flew out behind him, waving in the wind, and he had to squint against the rush of air to keep his tears from flying. Though he was astride a mount and moving not of his own volition, the drow felt a profound sense of freedom, as if escaping the bounds of earth was somewhat akin to escaping the bounds of mortality itself.
Early on in the flight, he had tried to speak with Innovindil, but the wind was too loud around them, so that they had to shout to be heard at all.
And so Drizzt just rested back and enjoyed the ride, the rush of air and the predawn chill.
They were traveling south, far behind the mass of King Obould's army. Their destination weighed heavily upon Drizzt, though he had found some respite from his fears, at least, in the wondrous pleasures offered by the journey on the winged horse. They knew not what they might find as they approached Mithral Hall. Would Obould have the dwarves sealed away, with no chance for Drizzt and Innovindil to sneak through to communicate with Bruenor's kin? Would the dwarves be holding strong against the invaders, leaving Drizzt and Innovindil a field of torn orc corpses to cross? With so many possibilities spread wide before them, Drizzt had managed to settle back from them all, to simply enjoy the sensation of flight.
Ahead and to the right of the pair and their mount lay the soft darkness of predawn, but to the left, the east, the sky showed the pale blue of morning, above the pink rim created by the approach of the rising sun. Drizzt watched in awe as the red-glowing sun crested the horizon, the first streaks of dawn reaching out from the east.
"Beautiful," he muttered, though he knew that Innovindil could not hear him.
From that high vantage point, Drizzt followed the brightening line of morning as it spread east to west. He turned far ahead of it to catch one last glimpse of the departing night.
And there was daylight, so suddenly, everywhere at once! No, not daylight, Drizzt realized, but an orange glow, an orange flame leaping high into the sky, a fire so great that it brightened the landscape before him instantaneously. Into the air the fire leaped, so far up that the two pegasus-riding elves had to crane their necks and look up to see its apex.
Sunset pawed at the empty air and whinnied, and Innovindil, equally stunned and confused, eased the reigns and bade the mount to descend.
"What in all the world?" the female cried.
Drizzt started to similarly cry out, but then the hot Shockwave of the explosion reached out to them, buffeting them with its winds, nearly dislodging both of them. The wind carried dust and small debris far from the fireball, and all three, elf, drow, and pegasus, squinted against the sting.
Down, down they went, Sunset frantic to get to the ground. Innovindil held tight and helped guide him, but Drizzt took the moment to survey the region lit up by the fast-dissipating fireball, to note the swarm of crawling forms. In that brief instant, the drow saw the distant battlefield, recognized the slope leading to the lip of Keeper's Dale, and knew at once that the dwarves were fiercely fighting.
"What in all the world?" a desperate Innovindil asked again as they touched down on solid ground. "Have they wakened a dragon, then?"
Drizzt had no answers for her, for never in all his life had he witnessed such a blast. His immediate thoughts conjured an image of one Harkle Harpell, a most eccentric and dangerous wizard, and Harkle's family of equally crazy mages. Had the Harpells come to Mithral Hall's aid once again, bearing new and uncontrollable magic?
But none of it made any sense to Drizzt, and he had nothing to answer Innovindil's wide-eyed and desperate stare.
"What have they done?" the elf asked.
Drizzt stammered and shook his head, then just offered, "Let us go and see."
* * *
The orc ranks flattened like tall grass before a gale. Those fortunate enough to escape the punch of flying debris went down hard anyway, blown from their feet by a Shockwave the likes of which they had never imagined possible.
Urlgen, too, went flying down to the stone, but the proud and strong orc did not cry out in fear, nor did he cower. He climbed right back to his feet against the flush of heat and the last waves of the blast and surveyed the battlefield.
There he saw a squirming mass of stunned orcs and dwarves. The tall orc shook his head in disbelief and confusion. He glanced over at the blasted ridge, to see one giant rushing around to and fro, waving its arms, the whole of it immolated by bright flames.
As life itself seemed to return to the battlefield and to the orcs around Urlgen, he heard terrified cries and shrieks, and only then did he understand the true danger of that horrific blast. He had lost some orcs, to be sure, and his giant flank was no more, but the real danger presented itself far above the orc commander's position, as the dwarves regrouped quickly and began a devastating charge against his confused and scattering forces.
Urlgen shook his head and thought, It isn't supposed to go this way!
The shouts to retreat and run away echoed all around him, and for an instant, Urlgen almost conceded to them, almost ordered his warriors to run away.
Almost, but then he considered the bigger picture and the gains his father would even then be making down in the southwest. Urlgen had planned to soften the dwarves for a bit longer, to use the giants and his original force to shape the battlefield without the possibility of the dwarves escaping. Then he would send in the reinforcements his father had given to him and overwhelm the dwarves.
That had all changed in the instant of that terrible explosion.
With a roar that echoed above the din of scrambling orcs, Urlgen demanded and commanded attention. He ran along parallel to the battlefield, intercepting retreating orcs and turning them around - by sheer will and threat forcing them back into the fight.
And all the while, he shouted out to those reserves he had to that point kept hidden from the dwarves' view, turning loose the whole of his force in one great and sweeping charge.
"Kill them all!" the tall orc commanded.
As the swarm gradually swung around to reengage the charging dwarves, Urlgen lifted his fists, spiked gauntlets high, and for the first time, rushed into battle. It was all-or-nothing for him, he knew. He would win there, decisively, or all would be lost. He would forevermore be crushed under the mantle of his glorious father - if his glorious father even spared his life.
* * *
Banak Brawnanvil sucked in his breath when he saw the orc horde pivot and swing around. His boys had fared far better than the orcs in Nanfoodle's blast, and all the lower slopes were littered with orc dead. But his boys were still outnumbered - and outnumbered many times over as a second group charged in from behind the original orc ranks.
Banak growled. Given the effectiveness of the explosion, he had wanted to break out and join the definitive battle that would push the orcs back from Mithral Hall.
"Hit them hard and retreat to hold the line!" Banak called to his nearby commanders.
As he watched the full charge of orcs from below, though, it seemed apparent that there was a different tone to their charge, a different intent and intensity. The veteran dwarf began to understand almost immediately that his enemies did not mean to hit and run again. The old dwarf chewed his lip, considered the strength of his enemies, and considered his options.
"Come on, then," he muttered under his breath.
He set his feet firmly under him, determined to hold strong. That determination shifted none-too-subtly a moment later, though, from sheer dwarf grit to almost desperate need, when scouts out to the west shouted back along the tine that there was fighting in the southwest, along the western edge of Keeper's Dale.
Banak found a vantage point and peered into the growing light in the southwest. As he noted the scope of the battle and the size of the opposing orc force, he nearly fell over.
"By Moradin, ye hold them," the old dwarf whispered, barely able to get the words out.
He looked back to the north, where the momentum of the wake of Nanf oodle s blast had played out, where the press of orcs was flowing up at him, driving the dwarves back toward their defensive positions. Then he glanced back to the southwest and the growing sounds of battle.
He surmised at once the orc plan.
He saw at once the danger.
With a determined grunt, the warlord forced himself to look back to the devastation of the western ridge. The orc plan had been a good one, well coordinated to not only win the ground, but to slaughter the dwarves to a warrior as well. Nan-foodie's explosion alone had bought him some breathing room, some time - perhaps enough to escape.
"Moradin be with ye, little one," Banak said, aiming the words at the distant gnome, who was too far away to hear.
The battle sounds to the southwest increased suddenly, dramatically, and Banak glanced back to see that a horde of giants had joined in with his enemies.
"Moradin be with us all," the dwarf mouthed.
* * *
The main dwarven line broke and retreated, as ordered, running flat out for their defensive positions atop the slope. Arrows and hammers came out over them in support, slowing the orcs that nipped at their heels every step.
Many of the dwarves were not fast returning, though. More than a few were dead, laid low by orc spears, or by the flying debris of Nanfoodle's momentous blast. Many more, well over a hundred others, lay splayed across the stones, covered in blood.
Not from wounds, though, but from torn waterskins. Thibbledorf Pwent and his Gutbusters, which included more than a few very recent recruits, had used the cover of the explosion to splash themselves with blood and fall "dead" to the ground. Some, like Pwent himself, accentuating the wounds by strategically placing broken weapons against them. Now they lay there, perfectly still as hordes of orcs ran past them, sometimes stepping all over them.
Pwent opened one eye and did well to hide his smile.
He leaped up and punched a spiked gauntlet right through the face of the nearest, surprised orc. He yelled out at the top of his lungs, and up came his Gutbusters as one, right in the middle of the confused enemy.
"Buy 'em time!" the toughened leader cried out, and the Gutbusters did just that, launching into a frenzy, slugging and slashing with abandon, tackling orcs and convulsing atop them, their ridged armor plates gashing their enemies to pulp.
Thibbledorf Pwent stood at their center, directing the battle through example more than words. For there was no overreaching plan. The last thing Pwent wanted was to create an atmosphere of coordination and predictability.
Simple and beautiful mayhem. The call of the Gutbusters, the joy of the Gutbusters.
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