The goblin led us down into the crude cages where the wolves crouched, slavering and chewing on ragged bones of unfortunate provenance. As I passed, they sniffed greedily, but seemed to know better than to make a sound in the presence of the White Fox. Great fangs the length of my forearm dripped with twisting ropes of hideous saliva, and heavy wet breaths told me in no uncertain terms that I was a few inches of rusted metal away from being devoured, but the beasts were cowed. At last we came to a terrible, inky-black beast alone in an ornate dwarf-forged cage. I surmised this was a leader’s wolf.
It did not stir. The White Fox tapped his sabre on the bars, but if the beast heard him, it ignored him. The goblin rolled his eyes and grumbled, before banging his sword on the steel spike that protruded from his heavy wooden buckler.
Nothing happened, so he banged again. This time, a few of his burly minions came forward with a withered-looking orc, hands bound, feet in close chains, shuffling rapidly from foot to foot, mouth - as ever - nailed shut with a leather patch across it. One of the wolf’s eyes shot open, and I felt sure it had been awake throughout. This was part of some psychological game of tug-of-war between two dominant males; that one was a mount and one a rider seemed to matter little.
The orc struggled against its bonds, falling to the ground. Kicking it violently until it ceased to struggle, the two goblins bodily hefted it up, and the White Fox brought out a great black iron ring of keys, selecting a thin elaborate one and twisting it into the dwarven lock. It turned with a smooth click, and the wolf rose slowly, theatrically stretching and straightening up. Then - without warning it leapt through the grate and at the orc, knocking the two goblins flying in opposite directions, scrambling to get away as the beast began to rip at the fallen, struggling orc belly-first.
I am told orcs are sadists, cowards and bullies beyond compare. I am told they are barely-sentient brutes and to have no pity for that which holds none for me. I know of their crimes and of the foul nature that fuels them. But even I felt some discomfort as I heard the muffled screams coming from behind the scrap of leather nailed across his jaw. The wolf seemed to be eating through his intestines first, pulling great stretching tubes of gut out of the hole it had ripped in his abdomen and twisting them off a little at a time. This beast was well matched for the milieu with which it lived. Orcs were meant to die screaming battle-cries or run down in cowardly retreats, but there was something wrong about seeing one so withered and powerless, devoured not as simple prey - but as an object of torment. Equally, whatever foul spirits haunted that wolf, they were unnatural beyond my reckoning.
Neither Ashirk nor the White Fox seemed to take much notice, except to admonish the two porters for their negligent handling of the meal. The White Fox barked some orders at them and they fearfully turned to a great set of chains on the facing cave wall, taking them down from rusty iron hooks and preparing to cage the beast once more. The White Fox entered the now-vacant cage, and for whatever reason, we followed.
Shuffling bones, broken pieces of wood and hardened dung aside, the White Fox exposed yet another dark hole and rapidly disappeared down it. Ashirk followed, and as the sounds of the feeding wolf lowered to a disturbing pitch behind me, I thought better of hesitating.
This passageway was different. Where there was a scattering of luminescent fungi above, as we descended, more and more grew from every surface. Tiny red bubble-shaped beasts hopped past us snapping at one another and great crawling centipedes blindly tapped out paths on the mossy ceiling above. Dank wetness hung in the stodgy, rotten air. Every now and again a mushroom would twitch or convulse, shedding spores or changing luminescent shade.
My companions seemed to know where they were going, always choosing the rightmost paths whenever the tunnels forked. Soon my feet felt solid rock, and we emerged out into a dwarf-carved chamber of sparkling granite lit by a few clumps of weakly glowing mosses. In the centre stood an ornate, empty stone portal-frame, large enough for an ogre to squeeze through. If he ducked. And sucked his gut in.
The White Fox tutted to himself and headed back out into the dark, earthy passageway. He returned in a moment with a few wet clumps of earth, clearly taken from the walls. Slapping them down next to the glowing mosses, he fiddled with the arrangements for a few moments until seemingly satisfied, before turning to Ashirk.
“Well? No ceremony here, cutter. Pay your toll and be done.”
Ashirk paused for a moment. He stared down at the wiry goblin.
“You want anything from him?”
The White Fox snorted. Something was going on here, but I knew not what. The Assassin fixed a sullen, unblinking gaze for a moment, and I felt sure a fight was going to start. Instead, the goblin stuck out an empty, waiting palm.
The bone token appeared from the folds of Ashirk’s tunic and he held it up in the darkness for a moment. I saw it was carved ornately, with the likeness of a large-hatted, tusked dwarf.
The goblin seemed to have disregarded the assassin’s query out of some mixture of disdain and contempt. Snapping shut his waiting hand, he crossed to the rear of the chamber and presumably threw the coin into some small opening, because I heard it clatter through hidden metal and begin the turning of great cogs.
Two enormous nodes of coppery metal descended from frames I now saw dimly outlined in the dark ceiling. Bursting to life with arcane energies, they sent arcs of pink and blue lightning scorching into the stone carved spikes protruding from the frame of the portal. Once, twice, and then -
A great glowing green rift tore open from the top of the portal to the bottom.
Ashirk shook his head, gave the goblin one last glare, and trudged through it, disappearing into the shining hideous light. I felt little besides dread, but sure enough, I followed him within.