Twice Forsaken - Part Six: Rise - Chapter 7 - Lironah (2024)

Chapter Text

"What I want," Overlord Krom'gar said, pounding the map table with his fist, "is answers. Where did they come from, what were they after, and are they likely to come back?"

Idrona wasn't the only one whose eyes wandered to the gunmetal-gray dragon whelpling someone had spitted on a spear and planted beside the table. Neither the champions nor any of the legionnaires in the war room had ever seen one like it until half an hour ago, when a swarm of the things descended on the fortress.

"They're not black dragons, sir," offered Rentook, who was in charge of Krom'gar's newly-formed Enforcers regiment. There'd been other changes in the day and a half since Shortcoil and the others vanished from Thandor Fortress—such as transferring Rentook and Krom'gar's other favorites from Windshear Hold—but the creation of that unit was the biggest. The fellows prowled around like they owned the place, eavesdropping on conversations and butting in every time someone showed the slightest disloyalty to their new overlord. Idrona had been offered a position among them, but declined, citing her eagerness to finish learning what Covas had to teach her. From what she'd seen, the Enforcers did more "enforcing" than training. "These ones breathe sand, not lava."

"Is that so?" Krom'gar's stare made Rentook hunch his shoulders. "Anyone else have something that isn't blatantly obvious?"

"...I have the casualty report, sir," said Legionnaire Sindanis. "If you'd like to hear it."

Krom'gar frowned at the room's other occupants, clearly hoping someone else would have something, but there were no takers. "What are you waiting for, then?"

Sindanis cleared his throat, then delivered the report in somber tones. There were two grunts dead, with three more and a sergeant wounded badly enough that they would be out for the next day or three even with healing. Other than that, there were nearly a hundred minor injuries, most of them burns or scratches. To show for it, they had two dozen or so dragon corpses, including the whelplings and some drakonids, lying about the fortress. Perhaps the armorsmiths could make something from their hides.

"I believe I have an explanation, my Overlord," said Champion Shuak. A messenger had arrived while Sindanis spoke, and she held his report in her hand. "According to the artillery team, two people disguised as members of our own fortress absconded with one of the bolt throwers near the end of the battle. The one disguised as Senior Legionnaire Bombgutz is believed to be a mage, and teleported the machine to parts unknown." Across the table from Shuak, the goblin who'd been impersonated stiffened in indignation. "The other, disguised as a sergeant who died at the Charred Vale, spoke with the voice of Grilen Shortcoil."

Idrona wasn't the only one who grunted in surprise. Krom'gar had been searching for Shortcoil and the others almost as desperately as he was for Champion Jiari and her newlywed husband, and found even fewer traces. Unfortunately, Idrona was the only one who'd once been a part of the vanished squad, which meant most of the eyes in the room rested on her a moment later.

"They didn't tell me anything," she said, repeating what she'd told Krom'gar the morning after their disappearance. "They let that turtle of Skyhoof's loose as an excuse to skulk around a bit the night before they vanished, but I never saw what they were really up to."

"They must still be close," said Champion Gar'losh. "If we focus the search near the fortress—"

"A waste of time," Shuak said dismissively. "If they are with a mage, they could be based out of Stranglethorn for all we know. Our time would be better spent finding out whether they stole anything else while they were here."

The pair exchanged overly cool glances. Idrona didn't remember them being hostile before, but these days it seemed almost everyone was at each other's throats. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Krom'gar had promoted no one but orcs upon his ascension to overlord most of a week ago.

"Sir," said Champion Covas. "If someone is teleporting in and out of the fortress, might they also have slipped into the dungeon yesterday?"

That earned a hard look from Krom'gar. Though few were privy to the conversation, Covas and the overlord had a quietly heated argument over the death by suicide of his prized prisoner the evening before last. It turned out that all it took to kill a half-mad human was to slip them a sharpened scrap of metal—not that Idrona would admit to knowing any details concerning the matter.

Nevertheless, the punishment of the guards on duty at the time had become a sticking point between the two. Covas thought Krom'gar was being too harsh, especially since those guards were among the overlord's most loyal followers. Idrona was more than half certain that if not for Krom'gar's fear that he would lose credibility by reprimanding an orc he'd promoted mere hours earlier, it would be Covas hanging by his wrists from that wagon on the promontory right now. It seemed there were always one or two people decorating it lately, for as little as a few hours or as long as half the day. People had begun reporting each other for even the smallest infractions, hoping not to be the next one singled out.

An urgent knock at the door announced another messenger, this one far more travel-worn and in riding leathers. Idrona suspected she knew where he'd come from even before the overlord read through his report.

Krom'gar's expression seemed to darken at every line. "Aid? To the Alliance? Has Kalibir lost his mind?!"

"He only promised to make the request, sir," the weary-looking messenger said. "We've scoured the terrain pretty thoroughly. The trail leads straight into Nijel's Point and doesn't come out again, but their commander refuses to allow our troops to search the outpost unless we aid them against the Burning Blade."

That was distressing news on all fronts. Soon after Shortcoil vanished, a messenger rushed in to announce they'd shot down Champion Jiari in Desolace, and needed more soldiers to search for her on the ground. Idrona was among many who vied unsuccessfully for a position among those reinforcements, which were being led by Senior Legionnaire Kalibir for reasons Idrona wasn't privy to. This was the first she'd heard of the mission since they left, and she'd considered the silence to be a good sign.

Worse than the possibility that Jiari was trapped—at least in most people's estimation—were the numbers reported for the Burning Blade forces assaulting the Alliance outpost. If those decided to come through the pass from Desolace, it might take every soldier in Stonetalon to stop them. There'd been plenty of grim speculation in the officers' mess about what the future might bring, but no one had dared suggest to Krom'gar that they join the battle before the cultists marched this way. For the Alliance to do it first ... well, that couldn't possibly end well.

"They refuse, do they?" the overlord said. "Let's see how they like fighting a war on two fronts. Bring me the map."

In a trice the map of northern Desolace was spread out on the table, though it showed the outpost in question only as a name beside a dot, with no details. The scout had to sketch the layout with charcoal on a fresh sheet of parchment.

"There's only the one entrance, my Overlord. The soldiers who chased us off went in an hour before the Burning Blade arrived, and no one came back out again. Even a rogue would have had a hard time slipping past after the siege began."

There was something about the sketch that Idrona couldn't put her finger on—a feeling of familiarity to both the outpost and the overwhelming force assailing it. Had she seen this map before?

"Who cares about entrances?" Champion Shuak said. "My Overlord, give me four of our stealthiest solders and I will finish off their leadership before morning."

"That's the absolute worst plan I've ever heard," said Champion Gar'losh before Krom'gar could give his opinion on the matter. "Why risk our soldiers at all when we can let the Burning Blade do our work for us? I say let them whittle each other down, and then crush the victor beneath our boots."

Shuak scoffed. "It will be a week at most before that trifling speck of an outpost is wiped from the face of Azeroth. If our goal is truly to crush the Burning Blade, better to strike their flanks now, while they are distracted. Let the Alliance think we are aiding them if they wish; they will learn better soon enough."

"We can't commit that kind of force until we know whether those dragons will attack again. Maybe a strike team is the way to go, but point them at the greater threat, not the lesser."

"And let Jiari slip away in the confusion?" Champion Shuak stared at him as if wondering whether he'd taken leave of his senses. "That plan can only work if we already have soldiers in place at Nijel's Point. The overlord would never be so foolish as to—"

"That's enough!" Krom'gar snapped. "You're supposed to be champions, not bickering children."

Champion Shuak closed her mouth with a snap, and she and Gar'losh reverted to glaring at each other.

"Shuak," said Krom'gar when he was satisfied that they weren't going to start up again, "while a surgical strike has its merits, you will not leave this fortress until you find a way to stop this mage from coming and going as they please."

She stiffened in surprise. "My Overlord, that is a complicated spell, requiring a great deal of time, and resources we do not—"

"Are you saying you can't do it?" Krom'gar narrowed his eyes at her. "Or that you won't?"

"I cannot, sir," Champion Shuak asserted, "without materials which I must travel at least as far as Thunder Bluff to procure."

The overlord mulled it over, then gave a dissatisfied nod. "With a increased escort—for your protection."

Shuak saluted troll-fashion, though she didn't look too happy about the escort. "Yes, my Overlord."

Krom'gar rounded on Gar'losh next. "Since you think you know so much more about tactics than the rest of us, you can draft up a strategic summary for each of the approaches suggested by yourself and Champion Shuak, and have them ready for me to review by tomorrow morning. If I find anything lacking, you will find an eventual promotion to general ... unlikely."

Gar'losh frowned at Shuak one last time, then bowed his head in deference. "As you command, Overlord."

"Dismissed."

*****

After an abbreviated lunch break, Idrona returned to the room she'd been training in when the dragons attacked, only to find it guarded by a pair of Enforcers. She recognized them; they were the pair Krom'gar had assigned as Champion Shuak's bodyguards.

"I'm supposed to be training with Champion Covas," Idrona said when the pair barred her way.

"It's his orders we're following, ma'am. Champions' ears only." The enforcer didn't look too happy about it himself; no doubt they had instructions to eavesdrop on Shuak's every conversation. That was the only reason Idrona could think of for Shuak to have an escort while Covas did not.

Idrona settled across the hall with her arms folded, and finally Shuak came out, looking flustered for half a moment before putting on a mask of serenity for her bodyguards. She noticed Idrona and paused, considering her with a shrewd look.

"Don't even think about it," Covas said from the doorway. "She doesn't have what it takes."

Idrona bristled; it was obvious he was talking about her. Whatever he meant by it, Champion Shuak frowned thoughtfully and moved on. Her bodyguards followed close on her heels.

"What was that about?" Idrona demanded once she'd shut the door behind her. She would never have used that tone with him in public, but she knew too many of his secrets, and he owed her.

Covas eyed the door as if wishing one of his other trainees would come through and give him an excuse not to answer, but no one appeared.

"She wants me to go to Nijel's Point and find Jiari before Kalibir does," he said reluctantly.

"Why?" The chances of eavesdroppers were slim, but it paid to be circ*mspect. "You don't really think the overlord will promote you twice in one week? Or does she have something against Kalibir being made champion?"

Covas pulled out his knife and a large whetstone and used the sound of sharpening it to cover his quiet response. "She knows I helped her once, and thinks I'll do it again. I disabused her."

"How does she know—"

"She covered our exit from the fortress. We didn't plan it; it just happened. I should have told you sooner."

It contradicted everything Idrona had just seen in the war room. Shuak seemed fervid in her desire to carry out Krom'gar's will; if anything, it was Gar'losh she would have pegged as the Jiari supporter between them.

"Yeah, you should have."

Covas narrowed his eyes, reminding Idrona that she was still a Legionnaire. "She might guess you were involved and try to pressure you; I'm giving you a little dirt to defend yourself with if she does. Do us both a favor and stay away from the hunt for Jiari and your old squad. They're not your concern anymore."

Idrona clenched her jaw to keep from saying some things she would probably regret. "Why did you help her? What promise did you make, and to whom?"

That was what he'd said when he came to her, ribs broken and face pale as a ghost, with Thandor's blood on his hands. He'd seemed half-ready to let her avenge the overlord's death, except for a promise he'd made someone. She helped him get Champion Jiari out of the fortress after that, but he'd never given her any of the details.

A grunt was all the answer she got this time as well, because the other trainees came back and cut the discussion short. It was too bad Covas hadn't picked up more than a few of the hand signs Idrona's squad used to communicate with "Crimsonspear". It would make private conversation so much easier.

Of course, if he had learned the signs, he might also have noticed the message Shuak flashed to her earlier, just before she walked away.

My room, after dark.

Twice Forsaken - Part Six: Rise - Chapter 7 - Lironah (2024)
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