And here we are again. Back together to share another tale of adventure and excitement. But most importantly, to learn the truth of the most iconic hero of a generation.
As always, I must start by telling you that I am not the hero of this tale. That honorific belongs to Goron Bloodblade, my best friend. I must warn you now, should you ever meet him, never tell Bloodblade about these stories. I don’t warn you for my sake, but for your own. His infamous temper may get the better of him if you point out what really happened instead of what the bards tell of.
The tale I tell you now is one I hesitate to recount. Not because of how it depicts Bloodblade, but rather because it’s difficult to dredge up memories of the horrors we encountered.
Despite the best effort of bards and minstrels alike, they have all failed to capture the horror of what we encountered within the Caverns of Mornac. As I write this, the memories return to haunt even my waking mind. My hope, apart from explaining the true horror of what we endured to you, is that perhaps by sharing this, I will find some kind of peace.
But that’s enough about my issues. You’re not here to listen to my own problems. You want to hear about the mighty Goron Bloodblade; the giant man who has muscles everywhere but between his ears.
As always, this adventure started with Goron throwing himself at something without thought. We had been staying at an inn in the city of Stormhein and a local coot had been telling tales of the caverns and the riches contained within - just waiting for someone brave enough to claim them, he had said. And of course, Goron couldn’t resist the challenge and definitely didn’t think to ask what the catch was.
And the catch… well, we will get to that soon enough.
‘Come on, Ned,’ Goron called from the top of the hill. ‘We’re not far now.’
‘You said that yesterday,’ I muttered to myself, pulling my cloak tighter around myself as I trudged behind him.
At least that hill was grassy and green. Most we had been clambering over for days were strewn with rocks and boulders. To top off my misery, the days had been grey with a cold wind howling over the hills, only broken by the hours of rain that soaked us through completely before the wind blew it away again.
The man-mountain was still waiting at the top of the hill for me as I made it to the top, looking out over the rolling hills that stretched as far as I could see. Many would call the view breathtaking, but I just groaned as I thought about my aching thighs and calf muscles, lamenting the prospect of more hill-climbing torture, wishing that for once, I had been able to talk Goron out of a stupid adventure.
‘That looks like the entrance to the caverns,’ he said, pointing to a hill in the distance, even his booming voice being swept away on the wind.
‘Or it’s just another hill with a pile of rocks,’ I said acidly. I tried to see exactly where he was pointing but Goron has never been described as a “details” man or highly specific and accurate.
‘No, it looks just like it was described,’ he answered with a grin.
I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Described to you by a drunk that even the other drunks in the tavern laughed at?’
‘He knew the details of the story and that looks exactly right,’ he nodded towards the hill again.
‘Whatever,’ I muttered. It wasn’t the first time I had followed him on some stupid quest based on very little actual information. I’m still not exactly sure why I still do to be honest. I have enough money now to not have to risk my life following around that giant lump, but for some reason I can never say no to him.
Ignoring, or maybe not even noticing, my surly mood, Goron set off down the hill, his long strides increasing the distance between us rapidly. As I did my best not to slide the entire way down the rock-strewn hill, I will admit that I considered tripping Goron just to see him tumble. I didn't of course. I wouldn't do that to my friend. But still, right then, I was very tempted.
Two more hours of miserable trudging saw us reach the hill that Goron had pointed out. The throbbing ache in my feet was now a constant, the chafing that the wet clothes had created over the last couple of days felt like the worst kind of torture, the skin rubbing raw between my thighs and under my armpits. The chaffing was now why I dreaded the rain, rather than the cold misery that had been my main complaint at the start of the journey. By now though, at least the rain had abated, and I was starting to feel a little better, or at the least not as miserable anyway. That was until I saw the tiny crevice Goron was currently shoving his head into.
Something is going to bite his head off one day, I thought to myself absently. I definitely didn’t hope that would happen this time, just to get me out of the adventure. That wouldn’t be a good thought to have about your best friend.
'I think this is it,' he said, pulling his long black hair back into its customary warrior’s tail as he turned to face me.
Letting go of my cloak, the wind instantly catching it and pulling it open, I stepped up to join my friend and peered into the crevice. 'Doesn't exactly look like a cavern,' I pointed out. I'll admit now that I fully understand that tiny crevices can lead to extensive cave networks, but at the time I was hoping Goron didn't. I'm not ashamed to say that I was afraid to go into the darkness, and even less ashamed to admit it now that I know what was waiting for us under the earth.
Pulling the battle axe off his back, Goron unclipped his cloak and pulled it off. 'Only one way to find out,' he said, grin splitting his face as he checked the straps on his leather chest guard.
Another sigh escaped me as I pulled the pack off my back. As I look back on our adventures, I can’t help but notice how often I sighed whenever Goron spoke. I also can't help but realise that I was always the one carrying the supplies despite being half the size of our hero. But hey, as long as he did most of the killing, I guess it was a fair trade, although some of those packs were damn heavy. I'm pretty sure that's why I get stabbing pains in my knees now whenever it gets cold.
It took me several minutes to get the torch lit, the howling wind proving a worthy adversary, but soon enough we were ready to enter the dark, me with torch in hand and sword on my hip, Goron with his battle axe in hand.
'That thing probably won't be much use in a cramped cave,' I pointed out as we took our first hesitant steps into the entrance.
'Battle axes are always useful,' he growled, taking the lead as darkness started to enclose around us.
We had to shuffle sideways to fit through the gap in the stones, hunching awkwardly as I held the torch out before me. Goron was just a black smudge before me. With how much I was struggling to squeeze between the rocks and how little I could see, I could only imagine the frustration Goron must have felt, his massive frame likely feeling like it was going to get lodged between the rocks at any moment. Being a massive slab of muscle may be an advantage in most fights, but in a claustrophobic cave that makes it feel like the very stone is moving closer towards you with every step, I was thankful for my small frame. And despite my size, as I shimmied between the rocks, I was certain the boulders were pushing in on me, purposely trying to squeeze the air from my lungs. The panic that claustrophobia like this causes actually instils you with an energy that pushes you forward, the overwhelming need to move and escape the crushing press overriding common sense. I now understand how people get stuck in caves. The need to escape will force a man to try to push through a hole that is far too small for him until he gets jammed, taking shallower and shallower breaths in an attempt to make himself smaller to make it through, until eventually they suffocate because their lungs can’t expand. If my explanation can help you imagine this, you will understand the energy I had which was coupled with barely controlled panic. One thing kept the panic in check for me though, and that was the fact that Goron was in front of me. As much as the rocks seemed to press in on me, the logical part of my brain retained enough control for me to know that if Goron’s massive body could fit, then my diminutive frame definitely could.
After what felt like hours, but in reality, was less than two minutes of awkward shuffling and scraping, the crevice opened into a wider tunnel.
'Looks like a mining shaft,' I commented. Raising the torch higher, I saw a number of support beams disappearing into the dark before us as the tunnel sloped down away from us. The torchlight flickered as my arm waved. If you hold a torch for long enough, your arm would grow tired and waver too. It had nothing to do with my pounding heart or the surging adrenaline coursing through me.
'Told you it was the right place,' Goron said with a self-satisfied smile.
'Just because there's a tunnel, doesn't mean it leads to the Caverns of Mornac,' I rebutted. 'Or that there's treasure there even if it does.'
'The stories say there is.'
I was going to point out that the stories also said he single handedly killed half the horde of the Warlord Brutus Amarok, but he started into the dark tunnel before I could. The tunnel floor was hard packed, clearly once seeing a lot of foot traffic before being cut off by the rocks we had been forced to squeeze between. Several of the support beams holding up the ceiling had rotted through and collapsed, part of the ceiling collapsing into the tunnel as a result. I almost wished we would run into a cave-in that would halt our progress down into the bowels of the earth, but aside from scrabbling through some soft scree, we journeyed unhindered for hours. It was a boring walk, nothing but stone around us, but at least we were out of the wind and rain. My chaffing still rubbed painfully, my now dry clothes feeling far coarser than they had at the start of the journey as a result. The air was strangely stale though. I had heard tales before about miners who had run out of air while digging for their fortune but had never truly comprehended how that could happen. Traveling through that tunnel showed me it was entirely possible and terrified me more than any beast at that moment. My mind seemed to be stuck in a paranoid loop of trying to decide whether the air was getting worse or not when I almost crashed into Goron's back.
The tunnel opened without warning into a large cavern, the path ending abruptly with only darkness beyond. My torch impotently tried to dispel the blackness around us, light reaching only a pitiful distance but enough to show massive stalactites reaching down from the vaulting ceiling hundreds of feet above us. Inching very slowly to the end of the path, I held the torch over the ledge and looked down but the light from the torch was not strong enough to penetrate all the way to the bottom.
'Long way down,' I muttered, a shiver running up my spine as I stepped back. My lower stomach clenched and I struggled to hold my water. Pissing yourself in fear only makes sense after it has happened to you, and I wasn’t far from understanding it.
'This is definitely the place,' Goron said. 'Do you believe me now.'
'There's a path down here,' I said, refusing to answer him directly and instead waving the torch to our right.
The path was a narrow trail sloping steeply down against the cavern wall, barely wide enough for two people to walk abreast. There was no rail on the inside of the trail, just a sharp drop into the darkness below. Goron started confidently down, slowly slightly as his boots started to slide on the loose rocks, causing him to reach out to the wall with his free hand, battle axe waving wildly as he caught his balance. How he hasn't killed himself simply by rushing into things without taking even a slight pause to look where he is going is beyond me.
I kept my left hand on the cold rocks, torch held out in front of me as we made our way down, leg muscles fully tensed to stop myself from sliding like Goron had. My calf muscles cramped but I dared not relax as the ground moved under my boots with every step, the loss of full vigilance likely resulting in a short slide followed by a long drop into the dark. The sound of running water echoed through the cavern as we descended, but it was impossible to tell whether the water was close to us or just echoing through a tunnel to reach us. The pack on my back felt like a lodestone, pulling me towards the edge of the path, like it something was dragging it into the darkness, wanting to pull me over with it to plummet to my death. Heights have never bothered me overly much, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know there is a drop but can't actually see it. I guess it’s the fear of the unknown philosophers always prattle about.
I had expected the path to take us to the bottom of the cavern as it started to level off. Instead, the path ended without notice, dropping off into the black once again. A rope bridge was anchored into the stone wall at the end of the path, a sharp right turn out onto the rickety and decaying structure the only way forward.
'Looks like we go right,' Goron said, waving his axe at the bridge.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. 'Hopefully it holds,' I croaked.
'Don't worry so much, Ned.' Goron slapped me on the shoulder with enough force to almost buckle my knees. I'm still hoping that one day he will realise how much it hurts when he does things like that.
Goron put a foot on the bridge’s first wooden rung and leaned his weight forward onto it. As soon as he did, the wooden plank snapped, the sound bouncing off the chamber walls, followed by Bloodblade's scramble to pull himself back onto the path.
'What was that about worrying too much,' I commented snidely. Don't judge me too much people. I waited until he was safely back on firm ground before making the jibe, and a person's humour definitely darkens when surrounded by the oppressive pitch black that comes with being underground.
Clenching the haft of his axe, Goron cleared his throat and threw me a sheepish glance. 'It was just one bad plank,' he said, the normal bravado somewhat absent from his tone. I know I comment a lot on Bloodblade charging headlong into things without thinking, but he does occasionally have moments of common sense, normally right after nearly dying. He reached out his foot again, this time over the gap the first plank had made and onto the second, slowly pressing his weight down while holding onto the rope railing. Once he was sure it would hold, he pulled himself forward, his whole weight now on the bridge. 'See,' he said triumphantly. 'Just one bad plank.'
I shook my head as he started across the rope bridge, one plank at a time. Taking a deep breath, I tried to banish thoughts of the black abyss below us as I joined him. Several more planks broke during our crossing, but for the most part, Goron proved correct and the bridge held. The bridge spanned a shorter gap than it appeared at first glance, and we found ourselves back on a solid path, the far end of the bridge anchored into the stone on either side of the opening to another tunnel. I couldn't help but think it looked like the maw of a giant beast opening to swallow us as I thrust the torch into the opening.
Without a word, Goron strode into the darkness, forcing me to follow. The tunnel was near identical to the previous one, although the support beams were in better condition meaning there were no cave-ins this time, and instead of sloping down, this one seemed to stay constantly level – something my aching calf and thigh muscles were thankful for.
'I wonder how far we've travelled?' I mused. Even though I barely whispered, the noise echoed, bouncing off the stone walls.
'Looks like there's light up ahead,' Goron said, his booming voice making me jump. I've said it before, but even when he is trying to be quiet, Bloodblade is loud and larger than life.
Goron hefted his axe, holding it in front of him with both hands, ready for a fight. I switched the torch to my left hand and drew my broadsword from its scabbard. Fighting has never been my forte, but there's something about the feel of cold steel in your hand that helps bolster your courage, even if you only started with a tiny bit of it.
By this point, even the fearless Bloodblade was moving forward carefully. Our boots crunched the broken stone beneath our feet, making every step a nerve racking experiences as we advanced towards what was likely an enemy. Despite this, the end of the tunnel approached far more rapidly than I was comfortable with. I did my best to stay behind Goron, using his broad shoulders to shield as much light from the torch as possible, but there was no way someone would miss our light if they happened to look at the tunnel mouth we were exiting.
Stopping at the mouth of the tunnel, Goron stuck his head out, glancing around what looked to be another cavern. 'Looks like a camp,' he whispered over his shoulder to me.
'Who's?' I tried peering over his shoulder. The light was definitely coming from a small campfire, at least four tents pitched around it and a number of barrels and crates. From my vantage behind Goron, I couldn't see anyone, but if they had seen or heard us coming, it would have been very easy to disappear into the darkness around the camp.
'Let's go ask,' Goron said, his grin appearing maniacal in the torch light.
I really hate it when he says things like that, just by the way. It normally means we are about to get into a lot of trouble which we will barely survive.
Leaving me standing alone in the mouth of the tunnel, Goron broke into a sprint, heading straight for the camp. No matter how well I think I know Bloodblade, when he does things like this, I am still shocked, and I'm sure I looked ridiculous standing there with my mouth open as he silently charged through the dark gap between my torch and the campfire's light.
So, at this point, you have probably figured out what part of the ballad we are in. Yep, that's right, the part where Bloodblade single handedly dispatches a whole band of pirates who were trying to plunder whatever graves they could find in the caverns. Well, I hate to disappoint, but that's just not how it happened. Instead, he blundered into the middle of a fight he didn't understand, like normal, and needed me to get him out of it.
Just before Goron made it into the ring of light from the fire, something caught his feet and before he had time to shout in surprise, he was sailing forward through the air face first. I cringed, and to be completely honest, my butt puckered, as I watched and listened to Goron hit the stone floor of the cavern, his momentum sending him grinding harshly across the rocks. As my big friend stopped his sliding, my body finally decided to act again and I sprinted across the same gap towards him, although I kept a closer eye on where I was running. The whole way across the dark gap, torch making a continual whooshing sound as I ran, I kept a lookout for whoever may have attacked Goron. Looking back, I don't know how I didn’t burst out laughing when I saw the latrine bucket that Goron had tripped on and sent bouncing across the camp, spreading foul smelling liquid everywhere. I guess it was the fear at the time. But still, it was hilarious, even if I didn't laugh at the time.
'For fucks sake,' Goron growled. I slowed as Goron started to lever himself up off the ground with one hand, reaching out to grab his axe again with his other. He swore and grumbled something about being covered in piss, but I wasn't listening to him. My attention had been drawn to another sound. Or rather, a cacophony of chaotic shouts and banging that was growing consistently louder as the sounds echoed into the cavern we were standing in. The light from torches moving towards us slowly lit up the mouth of another tunnel opposite the one we had exited. As both the light and sound grew closer, it became apparent that there was one hell of a fight occuring in the tunnel that was about to spill out right next to the camp.
'We need to get out of here,' I said, grabbing Goron's massive bicep and trying to pull him away. I may as well have tried to move the stone wall of the cavern for all the effect my tugging had on him.
'Fuck that,' he replied, yanking his arm away from me and almost pulling me over. 'They might be able to tell us where the treasure is.'
'Goron,' I pleaded in vain.
My memory of what happened next is a bit of a blur, but based on what I do remember and what I was told after the fact by Bloodblade, I will try to recreate the events. The first combatants came bursting from the tunnel like an arrow from a bow, bodies tumbling over each other as they were pushed by those still in the tunnel trying to get out. It was hard to make out specific individuals in the jumbled tangle, but the delineation between the two groups fighting each other could not have been clearer. Those who had fallen out of the tunnel first were mostly human, clad in hard leather armour and wielding a variety of swords, axes and maces, all of which were currently moving with furious vigor as they attempted to hold off their foe. And their foe…
Have you ever met an albino? Someone with no pigments to their skin or hair. Well, if you have, then you at least have a starting idea of the creatures looked like. They were completely white and hairless, with gaunt limbs but a distended stomach. Whatever they were, they had the ability to move on both two or four limbs, limbs which ended in razor sharp claws which were able to hook into the stone itself and allowing them to move along the walls and ceiling. If they once had eyes, they had lost all indication of them, the only features on their faces being large bat-like ears and a broad mouth filled with razor teeth. Words do little justice to the horror I felt at seeing the beasts for the first time, and even now, they haunt my dreams. I still wake up, the sound of their piercing screeches cutting straight to my heart. Shocked into stillness, I stood as a statue while man and creature hacked each other in front of me with an animalistic fury that had no finesse, only a primal desire for life.
In true fashion, Bloodblade was completely unfazed and charged straight towards the tunnel mouth where the fighting was thickest. The retreating force looked like they were about to break when Goron leaped at two of the white creatures, slicing down with his axe, cleaving one of the beasts in twain. Without pause, he let out his bellowing war cry, shouldering a pack of them aside and smashing through the chaotic front lines, causing mayhem and massacre with a speed and ferocity that is difficult to understand unless you have seen it. Although vicious, the beasts were only half the size of Goron, a fact that became apparent to them as their bodies started flying through the air. He tossed them aside in his desire to kill as many as possible, using their very bodies as weapons against them. Having taken the pressure off, the human force was able to rally and reform their lines, advancing behind Goron and pushing the albino monsters back into the tunnel. I'm not sure if it was the rallying of a disciplined force or simply the ferocity of Bloodblade, but the monsters started to retreat, moving with the synchronisation of pack animals. A heart-rending howl echoed out of the tunnel as they disappeared. It was something akin to what I imagine a wolf crossed with hawk would sound like if it possessed an intelligence and will to destroy every living thing on the planet.
And what was I doing during all of this? I was still standing where Goron had left me, holding my torch and trying to maintain mastery of my bladder, stomach muscles clenched tighter than my calves had been during the sliding descent down the previous paths.
I have told you I'm not the hero of this story. Why are you surprised?
Goron roared into the tunnel after the monsters, raising his battle axe above his head in victory. I watched as he turned, satisfied grin on his face, to come face-to-face with a forest of weapons now pointed at him.
'What the fuck?' I heard him growl.
'Another in the camp,' a voice called from the mob.
Four men sprinted towards me, weapons ready, their torchlight combining with my own. I threw down my sword as they approached, having no desire to fight four-to-one odds, something that would likely send Goron into a hopeless fray of his own. One of the men, clad in a leather breastplate which was barely visible under a thick black coating of monster blood, yanked the torch from my hand and threw it to the stones, roughly patting me down for any concealed weapons.
Yes, I let this happen passively, hoping Goron wouldn't start a fight. I lost track of what was happening to him as my rough search ended in being shoved painfully to my knees on the stone, eliciting what I will say was a groan - it definitely wasn’t a squeal.
'Who the fuck be you?' one of our captors said as Goron was pushed to the ground next to me.
The man who had spoken stood in front of us, stubby arms on his hips.
'You're a dwarf!' I gasped. The man - and I use this term in the male gender sense, not the race - would have only stood as high as my chest, but was broad and thick, corded muscle evident even under the leather armour. A bushy red beard hung down to his belt, but I thought his head was shaved bald under the leather cap he wore.
'That's not tellin me who ye are,' he said, clenching his thick sausage-like fingers and making them crack ominously.
'Go Fu -'
'We're just adventurers,' I cut Goron off quickly before he could escalate the situation. Diplomacy is not exactly his strong suit and right then, we were completely at their mercy.
'Just adventurers, aye?'
'Yes,' I confirmed. Thankfully, Goron had shut up.
'And why would ye be in this cavern?' the dwarf continued his questioning.
I let out a sigh, glancing at Goron before answering. 'We are looking for the treasure vault that's meant to be down here,' I admitted.
'Mmm,' he growled. There were still at least four other men, all human from what I could see, surrounding us, but at least ten others had wandered back into the camp. I heard some muffled groans which were likely from some painful treatments of their wounds. 'The fabled treasure of the Caverns of Mornac.'
'What were those things?' I had to ask. I'm still not sure whether I actually wanted to know, but couldn't stop myself from asking.
'Ye crawled into the bowels of hell with nary an idea of what be livin down ere?' The dwarf chuckled, but the mirth didn't appear to reach his face. I could see Goron frowning next to me, clearly trying to decide whether he was being laughed at or not, something that always ended in violence. 'Mornac be, once upon a time, a dwarf stronghold. Those beasties burrowed up from the deeps and overrun those that called Mornac home. If ye can find someone who knows what they be, then ye would be the first.'
'So,' Goron growled, looking up as his black hair framed his square face. 'You're here for the treasure as well?'
'We should all work together to get out of here,' I said, trying to stop the conversation from devolving. Goron doesn't like sharing, especially treasure.
The dwarf glared at us, eyes darting back and forth between us as we kneeled painfully on the stone ground, rocks seeming to dig their pointy ends directly into my kneecaps. 'Do ye know what kind of treasure be down here?' he asked eventually.
'The kind that makes us rich,' Goron scoffed, beating me to an answer.
'Hmm,' was the half-laughed reply from our captor, the breath of air making his beard sway. 'Let me tell ye. The only treasure that be in these here halls be ancient dwarven relics.'
'So?' Goron asked. His impatient attitude was thick in his voice. I knew I had to do something soon before Bloodblade lost his temper.
'So,' the dwarf answered like he was speaking to a child. Uh oh, I thought to myself, seeing Goron's face turn red at the answer. 'The only people who be interested in buying treasure such as this be my people. The relics be worthless to anyone else.'
I couldn't disguise my sigh. Once again, Goron had led me on a wild goose hunt, and this time we were seemingly trapped underground with countless animalistic monsters.
'Then we'll sell them to dwarves when we get out of here,' Goron rebutted.
'My people will kill ye should ye show up at a stronghold with dwarven relics,' he said, beard swinging across his chest as he shook his head. Goron started visibly flexing his shoulders, straining at the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. Apparently, they didn’t see me as much of a threat as my hands were unbound. As always though, Goron was hardly subtle about it, and if I had noticed, then so had our captors. 'Don't be stupid now. Even if ye break ye bonds, me lads will cut ye down.'
I looked directly at Goron, shaking my head to try to dissuade whatever ridiculous plan was running through his tiny brain.
'Look,' the dwarf boomed, still eyeing Goron. 'Ye at least,' he pointed a sausage finger at Goron, 'be a solid fighter. How's bout we make a deal?'
'Deal?' I asked. 'What kind of deal?'
'Well, I've lost a lot of good lads down here. If ye lads agree to fight with me band here, and help find the relics we be after, we all might just see daylight again.'
'What's in it for us?' Goron asked. I have said it before, and I'll say it again, the man needs to learn when to shut up. We were being offered freedom and a chance to escape the hell he had put us in, and he was still thinking about the blasted treasure.
'Apart from ye being allowed to live?' he burst out with a booming laugh. 'I like ye stones, barbarian. Well, it may not be the riches ye expected, but I'll pay ye a decent mercenary fee if ye fight well.'
'Deal,' I agreed quickly before Goron could say anything else.
The dwarf grinned broadly, flashing yellow stained teeth at us as he waved his men to cut Goron loose. 'What be ye names?'
'I'm Ned. This is Goron Bloodblade.' I watched Goron flex his hands and roll his wrists, forearms and biceps flexing impressively as he got feeling back into his hands.
'Bloodblade, ey,' he said in surprise. 'I've heard tales of ye. Didn't realise we had a celebrity.' I wasn't sure if he was making fun of us, but thankfully Goron only heard a compliment if his smile was anything to go by. 'Ye can call me Axle.'
'Not a very dwarfy name,' Goron grunted, grabbing his axe off one of the men behind us.
'Ye wouldn't be able to pronounce me true name,' Axle explained. 'Axle be a nickname.'
'How did you get it?' I asked, sheathing my broadsword.
'Beat a man to death with the axle of a hand cart,' he answered in a deadpan voice.
I cleared my throat. Goron appeared unfazed by the story.
'Ready to go again, Boss,' a man with a bandage wrapped around his head said. I looked around the camp, noticing most of the men had some sort of bloody bandage on them, the dead body of one who didn't survive the ministrations lying next to one of the grimy tents.
'Right, we need to move quick before the beasties decide to come back,' Axle said. 'Skids, take the lead. Ye two,' he pointed and Goron and I, 'I want ye behind Skids.'
'Why do we have to take the risk of being up front?' Goron asked. That's right, Goron actually asked a reasonable question for once, one that I was thinking myself.
'Cos ye be the only two not injured. If ye knew where we be goin, I wouldn't even have Skids in front of ye.' The dwarf clearly didn't like being questioned. I grabbed Goron's arm before he could comment and dragged him off, following the lanky fighter that I assumed was Skids as he left the camp, stepping into the darkness beyond the campfire's light.
The men behind us carried torches, but left enough of a gap that I could barely see more than ten metres in front of us. Skids was right at the edge of the light, barely a smudge in the dark.
'This is bullshit,' Goron mumbled next to me.
'Got a better plan?' I asked.
We both fell silent as we followed Skids into the tunnel where the combat had occurred. I did my best to ignore the bodies, stepping carefully to avoid standing on them, regardless of whether they were human or monster. My heart was in my throat, my mind telling me that there could be a monster that was still alive right next to me. Goron, true to himself, simply trod on anything that was in his way, the squelching his weight caused doing little to assuage my discomfort. The tunnel was black as we stepped in, the torchlight not yet reaching beyond the precipice of the tunnel. I'm not going to lie, I sighed in relief when the torches caught up and showed a mining tunnel that was identical to the others we had already traveled, except for the bodies that were strewn across the floor at intervals, read and black blood combining on the ground and painting the stone walls.
I think the hardest thing to describe is the smell. It went beyond the mere smell of death, something I have unfortunately grown accustomed to through my career with Bloodblade. But the death smell was fresh. There was something else, some smell underlying the very air in the tunnel which seemed to grow thicker as we descended. If I ever smell something like that again, I will probably scream and start running, only stopping when my body gives out.
'Hell of a fight,' Goron muttered as we passed another group of bodies. I couldn't help but agree with him as I saw the vicious wounds on the men and beasts alike.
Time had long lost meaning for me since entering the darkness. You never notice how much you depend on the sun for something like keeping track of time. Despite being very high strung, jumping at every slight sound, I still almost walked into the back of Skids who had stopped at the end of the tunnel.
'What's wrong?' I asked, trying to control the quavering in my voice.
Skids just shook his head in reply, pointing his sword at something I couldn't see in the dark. Straining my eyes, I tried to make out whatever the silent man apparently could see. How he could see anything was beyond me. As the remainder of the group slowly caught up, the torchlight stretched into the cavern, but calling this new space a cavern was a gross understatement. The roof above us was hidden in the shadows, the light of the torches not being strong enough to reach it. Instead of the rough walls of a natural cave that we had been exposed to so far, this cavern’s walls were carved smooth, with what looked like carvings from a story on them, although they were smeared with a black viscous fluid so it was hard to tell. I didn't want to think about what that black stuff was. There were majestic columns carved with runes running in two rows through the rectangular room, disappearing into the gloom.
'Fuck me,' Goron growled in awe.
I couldn't have agreed more, but I finally saw what Skids had been pointing at. One of the white creatures clung to the right-hand pillar, three deep in the cavern, its claws holding it firm in the stone with its head closer to the ground than its body. Its head slowly turned. Watching its eyeless face, I realised it wasn't looking for us, but rather listening for us, and with that revelation, I knew there was no way it didn't know we were there.
'What we be after,' Axle whispered, having stopped just behind the three of us. 'Be at the end of this hall.'
'One of them is on the pillar,' I hissed back.
'That be the sentry. When we move forward, it will alert the rest. We move quick, rush to the end of the hall, grab the relic, and run back.'
'Let's do this,' Goron growled. Looking at my friend, I groaned internally as I saw the maniacal grin on his face once again.
My hand shook as I grasped the hilt of my sword, drawing it slowly to limit the hiss it made as it dragged against the scabbard. I didn't hear the hiss of other weapons, and a quick glance showed me that the others already had weapons in hand, something I probably should have done before now, but hey, I'm not a natural warrior like the others.
Axle stepped out in front of us, war hammer in one hand, axe in the other, and started trotting down the hall, his chosen path taking him straight between the artful columns. The rest of the group was only a step behind with Goron increasing his stride to ensure he was right next to the stocky dwarf, clearly wanting to be the first into battle. I found myself being left behind, the light of the torches moving away from me and threatening to leave me alone in the dark. Torn between the terror of what lay ahead and being left alone in the dark, my body decided that the darkness was more terrifying as I jerked into a run, legs pumping to catch up with the group, relief at being back in the light quickly eroding as I watched the wave of monsters hit Bloodblade and Axle.
By the way the creatures swarmed, I reckon they thought they were about to get an easy kill or meal - I don't actually know if they ate their kills, and have no intention of ever finding out - but it was more like watching a wave hit a boulder. The creatures broke to the sides as they hit the rocks that were Bloodblade and Axle. I saw several of their grotesque bodies go flying, the rest of the group surging to protect the flanks of the vanguard that was slicing through the enemy with reckless abandon.
A loud screech pierced my very being, drawing my attention to the left of the group. As the screech faded, the sound of combat reached me, breaking the shock that had practically rendered me deaf as the fight had commenced. I didn't have time to process the cacophony of sensory input that assaulted me. The creature that had broken my trance was loping forward on all four limbs, straight towards me as I stood behind the others whose attention was preoccupied with the mass of enemies before them. Time slowed as I watched the white monstrosity fly through the air, its leap sending it higher than Goron standing at full height, its accuracy unnerving considering its lack of sight. Somehow, I'm still not sure how, I managed to raise my sword and point the tip in the correct direction. Despite the gangly limbs, the creature weighed at least as much as a full-grown man, which now forced me painfully onto my back as I took the full brunt of its leap.
I don't know if I hit my head on the stone, or if my mind was just shutting down in an attempt to save my sanity, but I definitely lost some time. I'm not ashamed to say, I panicked when I once again had the presence of mind to notice the creature that now lay on top of me, my sword having skewered it clean through its distended stomach.
I've told you time and time again that I'm not the hero of this story. The hero doesn't wet themselves when they push the dead monster off them. Yes, I finally lost the battle, my abdomen muscles surrendering at last.
It took me several second to realise I wasn't passing out again as the light dimmed. My hearing once again returned to me, the sound of battle interposed with Goron's yelling and laughing mixed into it reaching me. Scurrying to my knees, I was frantic as I looked around and saw what remained of the group was now far away, still fighting creatures as they approached a tunnel at the opposite end of the cavern from which we entered. As they fought their way towards it, so too did the darkness around me increase (I find it fascinating that we say darkness increases when in fact, it is not darkness being added but rather the light being removed – but I digress). If I hadn't already lost my bladder, I definitely would have right then as my mind finally caught up to the predicament I was about to find myself in.
Adrenaline is an incredible thing. I don't think I have ever moved as fast as I did in that cavern, the columns becoming a grey blur as I sped past them. Even the wall of monsters in front of me, surging at Goron and Axle as they retreated into the tunnel, didn't slow me down, fear of the dark overriding all sense as I charged. I do still wonder if what I felt in that charge is how Goron feels all the time.
It may have seemed pathetic, and looking back it’s almost as embarrassing as pissing myself, but I let out my best impression of Goron's war cry, swinging my sword wildly as I barged between the albino monsters. Everything seemed to be moving faster than I could comprehend, chaos raining as I swung blindly, using my shoulder to barge anything I ran into as I tried to make it through to Goron and the others. I'm sure I only survived because the creatures had been solely focused on the threat in front of them, ignoring me even as I charged through their mass. Despite the complete lack of notice they gave me, the crush of monsters was still a strong force acting against me, my momentum eventually slacking and a barge knocking me to the hard stone floor once again. The sudden flash of courage - or perhaps insanity - evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, the near constant panic I had felt since leaving the sun behind reasserting itself with an intensity beyond description. The creatures swarmed over me. The weight pressing down on me fed my panic, broken only by intense pain as a claw sliced across my chest, cutting off my screams as air left my lungs in shock.
Being Goron's best friend is full of risk. I have come close to death more times than I care to recount, from bar fights to getting stuck in battles. But this time was the most terrifying. Thankfully though, he is also excellent at getting us out of life and death situations, normally by hitting things really hard in the face.
I screamed - Goron says it was a squeal - as something grabbed my hair. Images of being scalped shot through my mind. My back scraped painfully across the stones as I was dragged, the press of monsters above me disappearing, pressure shifting to my shoulders as I was hauled to my feet.
'The fuck you been?' Goron asked, giving me a push and sending me backwards as he turned to hack down the beasts as they surged at us.
I didn't answer. I didn't have the chance to answer. One of the men, I noted there was only about five left now, shoved a torch into my hand and pushed me down the tunnel yelling, 'move!' My body responded automatically to the order, whether from an actual desire to do what I was told or just an instinctual need to move, I don't know. Gathering pace, it wasn't long before I was jogging through the tunnel, my whole body a morass of aching – from the chafing and aching muscles to kneeling on the stone and being thrown around by the beasts. Although I felt numb all over, I had the wits to keep checking over my shoulder, making sure I wasn't outpacing the others as they fought the rearguard action against the swarm. The echo of the fighting was so constant that the sudden absence of it surprised me and pulled me to a stop.
'Keep moving lad,' Axle said. He had one of his men draped over his shoulder, hobbling along on his short legs behind me. I could see Goron behind him so did what he ordered without protest.
It felt like another ten minutes, although in the dark it was impossible to tell, before Axle called us to a halt in the middle of an intersection of tunnels, three other paths disappearing into the dark. I looked around and took note that there was only four of us left; me, Goron, Axle, and the man he had been carrying, and the only torch was the one I held. As I noticed the absence of other lights, my own torch seemed to flicker, threatening to extinguish, almost in response to my grim thought before it flared back to life fully. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
'Fuck,' Axle growled, pulling my attention away from the torch. 'He's gone.' The dwarf's sausage fingers gently closed the eyes of the man he had been carrying, placing a sword in his dead grip.
'Time to get outta here,' Goron said, joining us fully in the torchlight. 'Got what we came for.' He spun a battle axe in his hands, eyeing it with what I can only describe as lust. It took me a moment to notice that it wasn't the axe he had entered the caverns with, but something far more intricate and deadly.
'That belongs to me,' Axle said, holding out a hand towards it. I could see what he meant. The haft was covered in dwarven runes, and the quality of the blade was far beyond anything a human smith could create which was obvious to anyone with eyes.
'I think it's best if I hold onto it for now,' Goron rebutted, pulling the axe away from Axle.
'Do you even know what you hold?' he asked with a raised eyebrow that seemed to twitch. 'That be the axe of Straun Silverhand, one of our greatest kings of old.'
I had no idea who he was talking about, and quite clearly, neither did Goron.
'You can have it when we're out of this shithole,' Goron countered in a low growl.
'It be not worth anything outside the dwarven realms.’
'I doubt that. This is the best craftsmanship I've ever seen.' Goron ran his thumb gently along the keen blade of one side of the axe. 'Besides, right now I need a weapon.' Holding the axe away, Goron shuffled past Axle and joined me, nudging my shoulder to get me moving down the middle tunnel with the torch.
'Ye be goin the wrong way,' the dwarf growled, raising a hand axe to point down the left tunnel. 'Ye can keep the axe for now, but ye will hand it over when we reach topside.'
Axle took the lead down the left tunnel, Goron glancing at me with a shrug before following. I shook my head and followed them both, keeping close to Goron's side, determined not to get separated again.
All the tunnels in the Caverns of Mornac appeared identical to me, although Axle apparently had no trouble telling them apart. I'm not sure if Mornac is unique in its androgyny when compared to other mines, and will never find out if I have a say in the matter. I won't describe our trudge other than to say it stretched on for far longer than any other parts of our underground journey had been. The overwhelming fear slowly faded to the normal sense of dread and I started to notice the black sticky blood that covered the three of us. Scratching some of the ooze on my shirt, it peeled away in a solid glob, a faint smell of Sulphur tinging the air as I did so. Based on the smell, I decided to leave the rest in place until I could burn the clothes and bath.
'Next time he asks,' I whispered to Goron at one point, 'I think you should give Axle the axe.' My heartbeat had returned, somewhat, back to normal, at least to the point where I could consider talking. All I wanted was to avoid any more battles right then. To say my nerves were frayed would be an understatement. A more accurate description would be that my nerves had been used as a chew toy by lions who had completely shredded them and they now hung from its mane.
Goron just huffed at me and we trudged on.
'A human mine intersected with the caverns up here several decades ago,' Axle stated after what felt like hours. 'Should give us a way out.'
The transition from the dwarven portion of the tunnel into the human mine was apparent only because of the debris littered along the tunnel where the humans had collapsed the wall of the dwarven tunnel. I still wonder, but have never bothered checking, whether dwarves taught humans how to mine back when we were a young race. The techniques we use look identical, although humans achieve it with far less finesse, hence my assumption that we are simply the apprentices to the older race.
'Is the mine still active?' I asked Axle as we started moving up the human tunnel.
'Nay lad,' he answered, breath puffing as the incline steadily grew. 'The mine dried up and the town supporting it died. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if our beasties be part of the cause.'
I nodded in understanding. We were both starting to puff audibly from the exertion, this tunnel being far more unforgiving than those in the Caverns of Mornac. As we ascended, I started to see mining equipment that had been abandoned. The sense of relief I felt when I saw the sunlight glowing at the end of the tunnel as we turned the last corner was almost greater than the pleasure of a good woman.
'Time to hand over the axe,' Axle said, stepping out in front of us to block the path. 'The sun's right there,' he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Goron stepped up next to me, eyeing the dwarf as he spun the battle axe around in his hand again. 'You promised payment for dwarven relics.'
I groaned audibly, seeing exactly where this conversation was going to go unless I found a way to head it off. All I wanted right then was to get the hell out of the caves and back into the sunshine, my aching, pain riddle body wanting nothing more than to collapse in exhaustion. How much money we made or what the axe was worth was meaningless to me right then, and I was ready to tell Goron exactly that.
'Ye think I have the money on me,' Axle said after letting loose a bark of laughter.
'You'll have your axe when we have our money.'
'Goron, let it go. I'm sure Axle will pay us when he can. Let's just get out of here.'
Bloodblade didn't react. He had been fighting all day so I doubted his anger and frustration was going to boil over, which almost always ended in a fight. Normally, I would have some hope in defusing a situation if he had vented recently. What I hadn't counted on was Goron's desire for the promised treasure and now only having an axe to show for the effort.
'Listen to ye friend,' Axle growled. His bushy brows were pulled tight over his eye, thick hands clenched tight on his hammer and axe.
Our giant hero and the stocky dwarf glared at each other. The tension was so thick I could have cut it with my belt knife, violence only a spark away from erupting. My mind raced. I knew I only had seconds to find a way to stave of the pending violence.
Goron tensed, about to spring forward.
Axle's feet shifted, setting his weight evenly.
I raised a hand to try and stop it.
In that moment, when everything seemed to be happening at once, the heartrending screech of the monsters echoed through the tunnel. We three survivors stared at each other in turn. The screech faded as we waited, all unwilling to move lest we call the monsters to us again, something I am sure even Goron wanted to avoid at this point in the adventure.
My hands were shaking uncontrollably, but I managed to turn and look down the tunnel behind Goron and I. Despite the threat of monsters, Goron didn't turn, apparently not trusting Axle enough to turn his back on the dwarf. I threw my torch onto the ground behind me, trying to let my eyes adjust so I could pierce the darkness. With sunlight coming through the tunnel, I no longer needed to cling to the torch like it was my only tether to sanity and the belief that the sun was real.
'Goron,' I said with quivering voice.
He still didn't move. I couldn't see Axle behind me, but I'm sure he was standing in the exact same position, just as untrusting of Goron as Goron was of him.
'Goron! Axle!' There was no doubt in my mind now that the creatures were swarming through the tunnel towards us, the sound of their deformed bodies skittering along the rocks becoming louder.
'Give me the axe,' Axle growled behind me.
Before Goron could respond, the creatures came swarming towards us, appearing from the dark like a swarm of locusts, most skittering along the ground but some running along the walls and ceiling, their deadly claws anchoring them to the stone.
'Run!' I screamed. And yes, my scream was high pitched, panic filled, and would have been utterly embarrassing if anyone had been there to hear it. But hey, I'm not the hero of this story, who cares if I squealed like a girl. I may not be the hero, but Bloodblade trusts me completely and didn't hesitate to react to my scream. He surged forward, straight at Axle, with me hot on his heels in what could only be described as a mad scramble towards the light of day. We had no idea whether the light would stop the creatures, who I assumed lived their entire lives in the pitch black of the caverns, but there is a primal part of all people that seek the comfort of daylight. Besides, fighting in the light of day is much easier.
Axle did not respond to my yell though. I will never know if it was my scream, the sight of Goron charging, or the swarm of creatures coming right for us that froze him on the spot, but he appeared to turn into a statue. His broad frame had been blocking the centre of the tunnel, blocking our way to freedom. Goron, true to his form, resorted to violence, jabbing with the butt of the axe, slamming the steel capped wood haft into the dwarf's forehead and sending him sprawling. I'm not sure if I felt guilty at the time, my whole being seeming to feel the overwhelming need to run for light with a giddy energy that is hard to describe, but in retrospect I feel it now.
I followed Goron, desperate to reach the light. Bursting through the mouth of the cave and into the dim sunlight, grey clouds muting its light, but doing nothing to mute the relief I felt, an involuntary laugh escaping from me. Goron halted suddenly, which was probably the only thing that stopped me running until I collapsed. He turned and faced the cave mouth, dwarven battle axe ready for a fight.
'What about Axle?' I asked, mind catching up with what had happened, with what Goron had done.
The dwarf's pain filled scream of horror echoing out of the cave mouth was my answer. Goron glanced at me but said nothing as I doubled over, what little I had in my stomach ejecting itself violently onto the ground, splattering over my boots.
Has anyone ever vomited without getting it on their shoes?
We rested for a few hours before starting the uneventful trek back to Stormhein, both of us silent for the entire trip, silent except for the nightmares that started almost instantaneously.
So, now you know the truth about Goron's heroic fight against the bandits in the Caverns of Mornac. Not exactly the daring tale of nobility and heroism that the songs make it out to be, is it? He didn't single handedly defeat a viscous group of marauders, but rather tried to help a desperate group and ultimately, left its leader to die so we could escape.
Don't get me wrong. I pass no judgement on my friend, partly because he is the reason I'm still alive. And I ask you all not to pass judgement. Despite knowing the tale, words cannot do justice to the horrors that we witnessed and fought in the deep. Until you experience that first hand, you are in no position to judge.
I guess at this point you also want to know what happened to the dwarven axe, right? Well, Axle had not been lying when he told us we wouldn't be able to sell it without him. Goron carried it for almost a year as we travelled, but no matter where we went, as soon as merchants saw it was of dwarven craft, they refused to deal with us. Some even called whatever passed for the city guards to remove us, but those are other tales that I won't tell here. I think the worse part was the few dwarf headhunters that managed to track us down, partly to get the axe and partly for revenge.
Suffice to say, after a year of trouble, Goron finally relented and agreed to get rid of the axe. He threw it off a cliff-face in the Qek-Yur mountain range. It’s probably still there, just as sharp as when we found it, waiting for another liberator to come along and feed it blood once more.
You're welcome to go look if you want. We haven't had any trouble with dwarves since then, so if you choose to find it, prepare yourself for a fight first.
And so, the legend of Goron Bloodblade grew. And, as always, the bards got many things wrong and completely left me out. I mean, who do they think was carrying the torch the whole time? Did Goron carry it while also swinging the massive two-handed battle axe? I hope, because you have read this far you are smarter than most and realise the truth of my version of the story.
Once again, our tale ends. I will return with more true tales of our adventures, but until then, remember, don't tell Goron about these.
Until next time.