The elves drove the soldiers back as they picked up fallen spears and used them to a bloody end. The soldiers were forced back up the length of the tunnel as Nalfein headed the charge, cutting through panicked men. Rizzen followed the last elves, unwilling to be caught in the midst of the melee, stepping over gutted and slashed bodies of elves and soldiers alike. Most of the soldiers were stripped of their armor, their wounds showing through ripped clothing for the elves had not lost the opportunity to scavenge the chainmail and don it.
The desert air swept down the mineshaft as a stray wind blew it, cool in the face of a coming dusk. Rizzen could sense the weight of his quiver lightening as he emptied it with worrying speed into the soldiers. Armed and now armored, the former slaves made a formidable force cheered on by the black elf lusting for blood.
Several of the soldiers turned and fled, screaming, "Collapse the exit!"
The sight of his brother almost struck a nerve of terror with Rizzen. The brief glimpse he caught of Nalfein yielded him swinging a dripping blade, his hair stained red and rivers of blood running down his face as severed veins gushed liquid around him. He appeared not to care how he slew the soldiers as long as they died screaming. Many of them lost an arm or leg to Nalfein's vicious cuts and fell to the angry elves behind him.
Bodies marked the wake of the elves and Rizzen picked his way through them, the dirt of the floor becoming slick as blood mixed with the earth. He grimaced as he looked back at the frozen faces of cut down elves and heard the dying moans of several soldiers. He picked a fallen knife out of the debris and used it to end their misery, the sound of metal sinking through flesh making him wince with each cut.
The elves neared the mine exit but Nalfein's sudden scream of warning sent everyone to the floor. A sizzling lightning bolt sailed overhead, spraying rocks into the air behind them. Nalfein scrambled to his feet and grabbed Rizzen's arm, dragging him straight toward the exit.
"What are you doing?" Rizzen demanded, jerking back. "We should be turning back and making for the second exit."
"Nalfey has the same problem on his end," Nalfein said grimly. "If we wish to win, we cannot stop pushing. Now, Rizzen, three mages are standing outside this tunnel trying to seal us in. It is your job to stop them."
"I suppose you think I can shoot around corners?" Rizzen hissed, pressing himself against the wall as another beam of blue light screamed through the thick dust in the air.
"Like inferno I do! Now snap to it!"
"Oh, for the sake of Tyr," Rizzen muttered, sliding along the wall until he could peek out into the desert. He slipped an arrow onto the string of his longbow and flattened himself to the rock again as a mage unleashed a lightning bolt in his direction. It smashed into the wall against Rizzen's shoulder.
Rizzen whipped around the corner, raised his longbow and let the arrow fly. He scrambled for cover as soon as the arrow left the string. "Is he dead?"
Nalfein peered out of the tunnel and cocked his head to one side. "One mage down, two to go."
"Since I am working to slay the mages, I wonder how Nalfey is doing?" Rizzen said bitterly.
"Nalfey has a spear, several dozen trusty followers, and is not entrusted with babysitting!"
"Babysitting!" Rizzen snapped. "I am not asking you to look after me!"
"In which case you would be dead," Nalfein replied, folding his arms across his chest.
"I am beginning to wonder why I am shooting at the mages when I see a much more appealing target right here," Rizzen said through gritted teeth.
Nalfein snatched a spear as chunks of rock fell in front of his face and dirt slid over the top of the wooden frame making the tunnel's mouth. "You cannot even be given a job to do without ruining it."
Rizzen knew Nalfein's strong arm would fling the spear to a devastating effect and send one of the mages reeling to the ground with it in his chest within seconds. The slight rumble of rolling rocks sounded above him and dust sifted through the fine boards overhead. The elves looked up, worried whispers drowned by the crackle of lightning.
Rizzen felt his hands clench into fists as he thought of Nalfein teasing him about his inability to kill three mages on his own. He would never live it down.
It must not happen.
Faint blue light danced from the lightning bolts as Rizzen nocked two arrows side-by-side on the string of his longbow and raised it. He slipped past Nalfein as his brother hefted the spear.
"Rot in inferno!" Nalfein yelled, thrusting himself into view as he hurled the spear. The mages turned their attention to him, their flat palms radiating blue heat as the lightning bolt formed.
Rizzen snatched the distraction to stride to Nalfein's side. He raised his longbow; aware a hand tingling with magic now turned to him, and took careful aim. He felt the air grow heavy as the lightning bolt prepared to strike out and gulped down a calming breath.
Rizzen let the arrows fly. They flew side-by-side for about two feet before beginning to drift apart. By the time they struck their targets, one met the heart of one mage and the other sliced into the second. The men wheezed out a last breath and collapsed to the sand.
"Yes!" Rizzen exclaimed, pumping a fist in the air as the elves streamed past him.
It took until the tunnel was empty for Rizzen to realize what had happened.
Nalfein had missed. He had missed? Nalfein had missed!
"You missed," Rizzen said, turning to his brother with a smirk spreading across his face.
"Hahfishak!" Nalfein snapped, and dragged Rizzen into the open as a rock crashed to the sand from the tunnel roof.
Most of the soldiers were gone, having fled back toward the castle. Glad he saved some arrows, Rizzen picked off a dozen of the armored targets.
Nalfein swung his sword and assumed a swagger. "Zvith be rahned if we left the mineshaft clean. Too long has it held the sweat and blood of the innocent!"
"We cannot stay here," Rizzen said. "The soldiers will return with the full army."
Nalfein turned as three dozen soldiers fled from the mineshaft to his left, screaming. Nalfey and his men emerged behind them, Nalfey washed with as much blood and gore as his twin. Waving, the black elf jogged to his brother.
"Rizzen is right," Nalfein said. "We cannot stay here and the soldiers will return in numbers increased tenfold soon. Let us purge the rest of the mines in the time we have and add to our numbers."
"It will not take much to convince the slaves in the other mines to join us," Rizzen said. "Not when we have slain so many soldiers. I need more arrows."
This time Nalfein passed no jeering remarks. "Sahg, yes, and we will see to it your quiver is filled before long. For now, scrounge as many as you can off the dead and let us move. I am too bloody alive to stop now!"
Nalfein pointed to the gaping hole leading into the mountainside at his left and said, "Nalfey, you take the mine there; we will deal with the one to the right."
Nalfein sprinted to grab a cart returning on the rails and wrestled it from the slave's grasp. "The mine we left is a tomb for the cruel and unworthy. Join us in freeing your mates?"
The elf cast a look around at the soldiers lying in the sand, Rizzen's arrows sticking up from their backs, and stepped to join the elves behind Nalfein, taking the spear thrust into his hands. Nalfein pushed the cart down the rail plunging into the mine to the right of the one he and his band had exited moments before.
The men on duty at the mineshaft's entrance let out a yell of warning as Nalfein barreled toward them, followed by the charge of former slaves. They moved to block the tunnel but Nalfein let the cart fly, and it rammed through them, wheels cutting through bone.
Nalfein sprinted over the blood splashed on the rails and followed the cart into the mineshaft, calling to the slaves. Rizzen followed at the rear, having picked all the arrows he could from corpses.
"We must be careful of the exits," Rizzen panted, "Or more mages may try to collapse the tunnel on us again."
"You stay and shoot them down from range," Nalfein ordered.
Rizzen turned and headed back up the mineshaft. Nalfein's jubilant cries brought slaves swarming from the various tunnels. The several dozen overseers fell in a brutal massacre for control.
Kimmeriel leaned against the cool wall behind him, alone in his tower room, locked behind a barred door. His head drooped and his belly rumbled.
Kimmeriel heard the key grind in the lock. He rose to his feet as the door creaked inward. "Father. You are early today."
Conipion stepped into the room. "You are a failure, Kimmeriel. I gave you so much and you turned away—stabbed me in the back. You stole the Firestone from me, traitor child, yet I wear it now."
The boy stepped from behind the door, his eyes down and his hands clenched at his sides. Dressed in a black robe with a high collar, he reminded Kimmeriel of himself in his childhood. Dark circles under his face spoke of the boy's suffering and misery as he strove to please a cruel, never-pleased master.
A wave of sadness struck Kimmeriel though he hid it well from his father. Here stood yet another child to be tortured, twisted, screamed at—abused.
"This, Rogue," Conipion said, flinging out a hand to indicate Kimmeriel, "Is who you will not become.
Rogue looked up to meet Kimmeriel's eyes in silence. Conipion turned on him with a snarl, his hand lashing out to smack the boy's face, "I expect a reply, you brat!"
Kimmeriel wanted to turn away but knew he could not; it would give Conipion too much leverage. He knew the drill; he had stood in Rogue's place countless times.
The force of the blow knocked Rogue to the floor. As he scrambled to pick himself up, biting back tears, he stammered, "I-I will not become like him. I do not want to be a failure. I want to be like you!"
"You lie!" Conipion snarled.
"No! No!" Rogue pleaded. His voice turned to a howl of pain and he clutched his head, staggering to his knees as Conipion rammed a succession of mindbolts into his mind.
Kimmeriel let out an inward sigh. He had taught himself young to tell lies and twist his thoughts to make them look like the truth; he had discovered young how to deceive his father.
But Rogue had much to learn. And so he must suffer.
Conipion slammed the door and Kimmeriel sank to the floor. His father's voice rose over the turn of the key in the lock and, as Kimmeriel's mind reached out past the walls of his prison, he saw Conipion dragging Rogue down the hall by the arm.
"It is time I fetched the whip, you wretched boy!" Conipion snapped. "Are my lessons wasted on you? Do you learn nothing? Have I not put my life into teaching you to control everything: anger, pain, frustration, happiness?"
"I am sorry," Rogue sniffled.
"Tears!" Conipion barked. "You do not deserve the whip. You deserve something much worst!"
"No," Rogue whimpered, earning another slap.
Sickness in the bottom of his stomach jerked Kimmeriel back to his mind. He closed his eyes, forcing peace over his jumbled thoughts. He knew how to deceive his father. But it took effort on his part to disguise his thoughts and hide them under lies. He only hoped Rizzen lived.
In the cool desert air, jogging at the twins' side as the slaves followed the black elves to find safe camping grounds, Rizzen drew to a halt, searching in the spirit void for Kimmeriel as though he felt his soulbrother's pain.
And as much as it hurt, Kimmeriel gave a tired sigh and pushed Rizzen away.