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This time, Darri and Faldur happened to be very near the front line of the squad that was about to start the attack on the Fifth Level. In front of them there were only the highest ranked officer, the one in charge for the whole upper battleground, and several more Guard members.
The squad was still in their place; they waited the return of the two scouts sent into the tunnel towards the Fifth Level. When they arrived, they started their report and Darri was near enough to hear the whole conversation.
"We didn't enter the hall itself because that way we'd reveal our presence," said one of them. "But we succeeded in getting very close. We couldn't see the whole hall, but what we did see, was empty. Not a single orc."
The silence after the scout's words lengthened. The officer frowned, obviously thinking about what he had just found out.
"There is something suspicious about that," the officer said pensively in the end, and Darri agreed with him. Until now, the dwarves progressed well because they were more numerous, they were better equipped and better trained. But in spite of all those advantages on their side, they paid a high price for their successes. There were a lot of casualties, and even more wounded. The orcs desperately defended every inch of the terrain, and the possibility that they had simply given over the next hall was strange, at the very least.
"We'll go slowly and twice as cautious as usually. Something is wrong here," said the officer. The information was transferred to the whole unit, so that everyone knew they should be extra careful; then they finally set off.
The tunnel was just like the one between the Seventh and the Sixth Level: about twelve feet wide and about ten high. As they slowly went on, Darri judged that the length was similar too; they had passed about three hundred feet when they came near to the end. And the closer they were, the slower they walked.
Darri peered into the opening in front of them, looking above the heads of the others. There was a little light coming from the hall, which suggested that there were two or three torches in it just as was the case in all other halls till now.
The tunnel constrained his view so he could see only a smaller part of the hall, but it really seemed it was completely empty. That fact was also confirmed by the silence in it. Darri remembered one more time that every cave they had conquered so far was in the beginning full of the orcs waiting for them, and each time they had to fight very hard to push them back. This situation, right now, was very unusual. Very. The tension grew, and he held his sword hilt more tightly.
Each next step was shorter and slower. The shields of those in the first row were now raised, in case arrows came from the distance from the opposite tunnel. When they at last reached the entrance into the hall, the officer carefully peered inside. Then he took a step forward, and Darri saw he was looking on all sides. Then the officer stopped, and remained watching something on his right.
Several more dwarves entered the hall, all very close to each other and with shields up, and then the officer gave the sign not to go further. It was the moment when Darri came to the entrance and managed to look inside. Then he saw what it was that the others were staring at: in the corner of the hall, which was about forty feet wide, was a cauldron, and the fire was lit below it.
One thing he knew for sure: the probability that the orcs were cooking their dinner right here and right now was exceptionally low.
The light was meagre there were only two little torches, one on each longer side of the hall. The officer looked up, and Darri did the same. And although up there it was even darker, it was possible to discern another cauldron hanging from the ceiling. He stared for a few moments, trying to understand, and then the explanation formed in his mind.
Hot molten grease down, and water up. Very, very, very bad combination.
He had once witnessed an accident involving those two and it didn't look good at all. And on that occasion, there was a lot less grease and a lot less water than in these two cauldrons.
"Retreat!" shouted the officer, obviously having come to the same conclusion. "There must be a mechanism that we'll activate if we go too far into the hall. We have to figure out the way to extinguish the fire from afar. If we don't make it, we'll wait till it burns out and the grease cools. We have no other choice. Go back! Quickly!" he repeated.
But in spite of the urgency in his voice and the very last word, the execution of his order started slowly. It was not that they didn't want to obey, but it wasn't simple to move the whole column backwards at once. It filled the whole tunnel, and everyone in it was close to one another and that was why the retreat didn't start with the desired pace. Darri managed to make one small step backwards, then one more, and he found himself in the tunnel again, having pulled Faldur a little backwards too. But they didn't manage to move more than that. They were tightly packed and they had to stop. And three or four Guardsmen, as well as the commander, were still in the hall or at the very entrance.
The darkness of the opposite tunnel hid several figures who were watching what was going on. Most of them frowned.
"They ain't going further!"
"They ain't gonna activate trap!"
"They coming back!"
"We won't fry them!"
But one of them grinned viciously.
"We will. Oh we will, at least some o'them."
The hands of that last one had already started to pull the spare rope prepared for the situation just like this if the dwarves became too suspicious and didn't walk far enough into the hall.
The rope overturned the cauldron with water and it fell on the hot grease and fire below, creating a huge shining ball of flame. It was as brilliant as if the sun suddenly shone in the hall and Darri was blinded. Everything shook, and the dwarf in front of him staggered and fell backwards, on him. Not being able to hold his balance Darri fell too, pulling Faldur with him. Two more dwarves fell on them and squashed them badly but it actually saved them, shielding them from the worst.
The big part of the hall was filled with tiny droplets of burning grease mixed with water vapour. It seemed as if the very air was burning. Fortunately for the dwarves, almost all of them were in the tunnel and not in the hall; the fire didn't enter the tunnel and the flames didn't strike them directly. But it was horrible in the tunnel, too: the air became hot and dry, unbearable for breathing. In the last moment, while he still could, Darri quickly took a deep breath as much as it was possible under the burden of another dwarf on him and held his breath.
His lungs screamed for more air. He was all beaded in sweat. His left leg, somewhat more exposed than the rest of his body, felt so hot that he thought it was burning. He held his breath as long as he could, and the minute turned into eternity. He started to shake, he felt pounding in his head, and everything started to turn black. He thought he would die here.
Finally he had to breathe out. He pulled his arm to his mouth and, with his sleeve serving as a filter, he took another breath. The air burned his throat and he coughed, but he somehow managed to breathe a little more. And he held his breath again.
Faldur... is he alive?, the thought flashed. He tried to turn his head to the side where his brother lay, but the weight of the dwarf on him prevented the attempt. He couldn't move.
And as the second minute of the agony passed, as his heart beat frantically and his lungs hurt him even more, the heat finally started to diminish. He realized that the air was not so hot anymore and that he could breathe. For several moments, he just greedily sucked the air into his lungs.
He wanted to get up and check on his brother, but was still unable to move. He was still shaking and hadn't regained control over his muscles.
"Quickly! Get up! We must help them!" The voice came from somewhere inside the tunnel, quite near him.
Darri clenched his teeth and pushed himself up against the ground, and this time he managed to lift himself a little bit. The other dwarf still lay over his back and seemed impossibly heavy. Then he moved his head to the side where Faldur had fallen; although it was quite dark he could discern brother's silhouette, as well as that he was moving. He saw that Faldur was trying to get up too and, relieved, concluded that it was a sign he was all right.
"Quickly!!! They need help!!!" This time the shout was louder and sounded more urgent, and in that moment Darri became aware of the painful cries nearby. And no matter how dazed and battered he was, he realized there were those who were much worse than he.
He somehow managed to get up on his feed and looked towards the hall. The sight was gruesome. About ten figures were completely in fire; some were on the ground, writhing, and some were still on their feet, screaming in pain.
"Quickly! We must douse them!!!" the same voice shouted again, and then everyone around roused from the shock. They moved and almost simultaneously threw themselves on those who were burning because they had nothing else at hand for extinguishing the fire, except for their own bodies. Darri threw himself on the nearest dwarf; the upper part of the dwarf's body was protected by his full-plate, but flames caught the whole length of his trousers. Darri lay on his legs. His chest burned him terribly when his chainmail heated; the tunic he wore underneath was absolutely no protection from the heat transferring from the hot steel to his skin. Several flames burned his hair and beard. He clenched his teeth trying not to move, knowing that the other guy felt much worse because his legs were exposed to the fire directly.
Darri's chest hurt and burned but his move achieved the goal. His body blocked the inflow of the air to the fire and it finally died out. But although his legs weren't burning any more, the poor dwarf still moaned in pain. Darri quickly rose and through the charred trousers saw red skin and blood.
"Carry them to the healers urgently! All of you in the tunnel who can hear me make way! Move to one side, leaving the other free!"
Darri cast a quick glance around him; several burned soldiers lay on the ground, and then he finally saw the dwarf in the uniform of the Guard who was giving those orders. He was pointing towards the tunnel.
"Carry them immediately! There is no time to go to bring the stretchers!" the Guardsman shouted, and then lifted his shield and axe and stepped into the hall. In that moment Darri became aware of heavy steps and battle cries coming from the opposite side. The orcs had already filled about a half of the hall and were approaching quickly.
The situation became very grave. As quickly as possible, as many dwarves as possible were supposed to come out of the tunnel and counter the orcs which was, considering the chaos in the tunnel, quite a difficult task.
And at the same time, also as quickly as possible, the wounded were supposed to be transported upwards in the opposite direction to that of the majority. An even more difficult task.
"You!" shouted the Guardsman and pointed his hand towards him, and Darri realized that he was addressing him. "You are the tallest and the sturdiest here. You stand at the front of those carrying the wounded and ensure that you make way for them! You," he then spoke to several others nearby, "take the wounded and carry them."
And then there was really no more time to add anything else, because in that moment the orcs arrived and began their attack.
"Follow me! Baruk Khazâd!!" the Guardsman shouted.
As Darri was moving upwards through the tunnel, the last thing he heard were the sounds of clashing swords and axes.
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