Part Three: Madman
They came to an old wooden shack, apparently sitting alone in the middle of nowhere. Ram-skull stepped up and muttered something in Orc-language to an invisible listener inside the shack. The door creaked open, and the trio was pushed inside. They descended a flight of stairs, and Drake found himself inside a long stone corridor, apparently made entirely of obsidian. He inhaled sharply.
‘Massive underground tunnel network’, said ram-skull simply, as if it was something he had had to explain far too often before.
They walked along the hall until they came to a large, plain mahogany door. Grolt tried to open it, but ended up crushing it into the room beyond. ‘Whoops’, he mumbled, and ducked inside. The rest followed.
They found themselves in a similar hallway, this time made of a dark green stone, with clay pillars lining one side. More Orcs stepped wordlessly out of the shadows, joining the party. A young, scrawny blond boy was pushed into line beside Drake. He looked terrified, but also relieved to find friendly faces, even if they were prisoners as well. ‘Jereah Ployd’, he whispered. ‘Donfoal. Nice meeting you.’ There was a tinge of resigned sarcasm in his tone. Drake gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Donfoal was the second of the four villages, and the closest to Torresten; Drake had only ever been there once, for the steed market. His father had wanted to buy horses for the patrol.
Jereah looked up at Selebriar, and his worried expression changed to one of awe. ‘That’s…that’s an Elf, right? I heard that their singing can do magic’, he added. He was silenced by the same grubby Orc with the pointy stick. Selebriar himself looked grim; he apparently hadn’t expected the Orcs to be part of much more than an ordinary hunting party.
When they came to the next door, Grolt didn’t even bother with the handle. He simply walked right through the wall, leaving a Grolt-shaped hole in the masonry.
When they emerged into the large, circular room beyond, Drake had to shield his eyes from the sudden light. It was a sickly yellow, and seemed to be coming from within the walls. Various strange corridors branched off into unknown parts of the structure, and the domed ceiling was layered with forests of stalactites.
There was a man standing in the middle of the room. He appeared young, but his eyes told a different tale. It seemed likely to be a tale with lots of screaming in. He was tall and thin, and clad in a black tunic. His angular head, crowned with dark, wispy hair, might have been handsome; but his eyes, which were little black dots in glassy grey spheres, made him look very much insane. This effect was helped by the mad, cheerful smile that seemed to have been plastered onto his face.
‘Why hello. How very nice to meet you all.’ Drake could feel his skin start to itch as the man’s strange eyes swept over the company. ‘I see we even have an Elf. They’re awfully hard to control, though, and are usually nothing but trouble. Lock him away on floor six.’ Selebriar was forced down one of the dark corridors by several Orcs. The young man’s attention swivelled back towards the boys. ‘I am Certrain. I would make you call me Lord Certrain, or possibly even “Emperor Certrain, Dark Lord of All”, if I were fond of such invented titles. But I am not, and so Certrain I shall remain. And now you’re going to fight for my amusement! Isn’t that selfish?’
He said “selfish” as though he was saying “fun”, savouring each syllable. ‘Now, let’s see…’ Drake felt a prickling sensation behind his eyes as Certrain stared at him. He momentarily felt that he had walked over his own grave, then it passed as Certrain examined Krish, then Jereah. ‘Let me see, now. Drakendrar. Dragon-slayer. Yes, you were born to slay dragons. Krishten…It will be the vampires for you, I believe. Jereah…’ He suddenly seemed confused, and faltered, but rallied quickly: ‘You are rather useless, aren’t you, Jereah? Well, I suppose I could send you after a small dragon.’
He smiled at the boys. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t really explain, did I? You see, it works like this: I kidnap promising-looking young warriors, such as yourselves, and send you to kill some monster or other. If you succeed, then hurrah, and I send you off to fight again. If you die – and you probably will die – then it’s really very funny and I get a good laugh.’
Drake recovered his wits, which had been overwhelmed by fear and awe for several minutes. ‘And what if we refuse?’ he demanded bravely and, frankly, foolishly. It was what the heroes always said in the tales he had heard of; and, in retrospect, nothing ever good happened when they said it.
Certrain grinned at him. ‘So glad you asked. If you refuse, I can make things rather nasty for you. Like this’, he added; and there was a flash of metal. Jereah blinked, then folded up and collapsed. Soon enough, the body was lying in its own swiftly-expanding scarlet puddle.
Drake stared, swallowed, and turned angrily to Certrain. ‘You didn’t have to do that’, he hissed though clenched teeth. ‘No, I didn’t’, said Certrain happily.