"That just leaves you," said the barbarian, nodding his head at the mercenary captain. "You’ve been quick to question the rest of us. What is your story?"
"It’s the plainest story there is," said the captain with a grin and a jerk of his thumb in Sir Garath’s direction. "That one’s payin’ me to go in, so in I go. Me an’ me band, that is."
Artis snorted. "You’re going in for a wage? You might be the craziest one of us all."
"A hefty wage," said the captain. "An’ hopefully a little more besides."
"Captain Dursk is taking my share in whatever treasure we find, and that of my squire," said Sir Garath. "I have little interest in gold. I already have more than enough."
"You mentioned a band," said Myrio. "Who are they? How many?"
"Me, an’ seven others," said Dursk. "Seven o’ the toughest bastards south o’ the steppes. There used to be more of us, but as I said, we been fightin’ northmen."
"I don’t care how tough they are," said Myrio. "Can they be trusted?"
"Once I take a man’s gold, I do the job in front of me. I ain’t never broken a contract, an’ I never will."
"It’s true," said Sir Garath. "The captain’s reputation is impeccable, or I would never have hired him on."
"I’ll vouch for him," said Krago, his bare chest shaking with suppressed laughter. The captain raised his eyebrow quizzically. "I was with King Aelgar when he tried to bribe you over to our side. A chest of gold he sent, but our good captain returned it with a note attached. Do you remember what it said?"
"Aye, I remember."
"Stick your gold up your arse, it said. An eloquent man you’re not, but I give you points for honesty and loyalty. The king laughed about it for days."
"I’ll be loyal," said Captain Dursk. "If you count on nothin’ else, count on that."
Everything whirled around him, a clash of shattered images and sounds. Teeth on steel. A flashing sword, a spray of blood. Flecks of black ash floating in his eyes. Screaming, so much screaming.
No backward steps. I'm coming for you, father.
With the platform at his back, he stood his ground as the beast-men swarmed around him. There were so many of them, but their sharp rocks and bones were no match for his mail shirt, and their rags in turn gave no protection against his stout sword. They rushed forward, snarling and clawing, and he fought back with savage chops and thrusts until the ground around him was thick with corpses.
"Fool boy!" he heard Sir Garath shout from behind him. "Fall back before you're torn to pieces!"
He couldn't. He knew he should have retreated, knew that he should have been in a state of panic, but he wasn't. He felt calm, and determined, as though every beast-men he felled brought him one step closer to his father.
Then something thundered into his helm, and his head rang like a bell. He staggered back into the platform, saw a bloody stone fall to the floor. Rough hands seized him by the arms and throat, and through the sounds of snarling he could hear a dim voice shouting something.
He was scratched and torn, battered and shaken. His whole world became a blur of fangs and sharp nails, and flaring pain. Then a flash of steel passed before his eyes, and a spray of blood washed over him. The nails and teeth disappeared, replaced by shrieks of panic and the sounds of blades on flesh.
Jonn looked up, and saw Captain Dursk whirling his blade about him, chuckling grimly. The savage Kejakena was at his side, his rich cloak flowing about him, his mace breaking bone and skull. Sad-eyed, pale Eracos fought with his shoulders slumped, almost as though he expected defeat, yet he was no less deadly with his two-handed sword. Balric, the sour-faced knight in his battered breastplate, barrelled through with his shield held forth, and the three women followed in his wake. The Desert Scorpions were as silent in battle as at any other time, but with every thrust of their spears a beast-man died. And towering over them all, sweeping his sword like a massive scythe, was the giant Orguss, his single eye blazing like the heart of a volcano.
Jonn tried to rise, to heft his own sword and rejoin the fray, but his head felt strangely hollow, and a wave of nausea brought him back to his knees. The beast-men were in disarray, and those that lived were scrambling back towards the bore-holes in the walls, or out of the larger tunnels. Orguss stepped up beside Jonn and cleaved a fleeing beast-men from collarbone to crotch.
There was another beast-men within range, but the giant's sword was momentarily stuck. Jonn thought he caught a vicious smile from Orguss, before the big man swung his gauntleted fist. His blow cracked the beast-man's skull, but did not stop there, continuing until it struck Jonn in the temple.
Wordlessly he collapsed to the floor, his vision growing dim. All was darkness, except for one great eye, blazing red and angry. He slipped into oblivion, but even there he could see it, burning in his mind.