Everything was working perfectly. Wind tossed Orrag's thin hair about his head, but he didn't notice. His hideous face was gripped in an evil, toothy grin. He and his small band of followers crouched in the trees watching as the gnolls finished their work.
The gnolls had arrived before Orrag and his men and cleared away all of the debris. The cave-like entrance, free of the fallen rock that had buried it for years, lay exposed for the first time in centuries. Convenient. Already his men had hidden the digging tools they'd brought in the underbrush.
Of course, now there were two hundred gnolls between the crypt entrance and Orrag. He turned and looked at his men. They numbered six-no match for that many gnolls. Two of them had some particular talents that might help.
"Gyrison, Arach, come here," he whispered.
Two figures, still crouching, sneaked to his side. They joined him as he watched the gnolls. The shorter, rounder of the two spoke up. "What is wrong?"
"Yes, what is wrong?" the taller one also asked.
Gyrison and Arach had taken some getting used to on Orrag's part, but they were useful. "Can you do something to help get these gnolls out of the way?"
"They're here to help free their roaster," Gyrison said. "Their sham en must have foreseen "Vheod's coming," Arach added.
"See how they assemble the stones of the ancient idol they once worshiped?" Gyrison pointed at some of the gnolls carrying green stones. "The idol of their-" Arach began "Fine," Orrag interrupted. "Whatever. That doesn't change the fact that if we try to go in there they'll tear us apart."
Arach and Gyrison stared at the gnolls quietly for a moment, never once looking at each other. Then, almost at the same time, they both began softly chanting and making rhythmic hand gestures.
Orrag could hear a rustle in the leaves. He looked around, startled, but saw nothing. The gnolls obviously heard it too. The creatures stopped what they were doing and looked into the forest around them.
A horn sounded nearby, then another, and another-each from a different direction. The sounds of soldiers rushing into battle filled the wood. The gnolls grabbed their weapons and shields. They quickly formed defensive lines as a few barked orders.
The sounds of hundreds of men became the sounds of thousands.
The gnolls howled in fear, and one by one they retreated into the woods. They scattered, wide-eyed, clearly fearing for their lives. As soon as the morale of a few had broken, the gnolls fled in droves, until all had left the clearing around the entrance.
"Excellent," Orrag said with a grin. "The ruse won't last long, but it should be enough." He licked his yellow, pointed teeth with an almost-black tongue, but kept smiling as though this were the happiest day of his foul life.
Gyrison and Arach ended their spell. The sounds of charging soldiers and blaring horns faded away.
"We must hurry," Arach said to Orrag.
"We must get inside," Gyrison added.
I’m here for the same reason you are, friends," Orrag said, not dropping his toothy smile for a moment. "You don't have to tell me."
The small group rose from their hiding places, still staring at the entrance. They'd traveled without stopping for the last few days to get here as quickly as possible, but now Orrag wanted to move slowly. He motioned for the rest to follow him, and they crossed the clearing to the cliff Orrag gazed into the dark opening.
"The brother and sister I told you about either didn't make it or have been slowed down," Orrag told them. "Unfortunately, since the gnolls will return soon, we can't wait for them." He turned toward the others. Looking each of them up and down, he finally said, "Unther, Panish, grab Wenmer and bring him here."
The man named Wenmer cried out in surprise. Two of the others grabbed him by the arms and dragged him forward. Orrag commanded the remaining man to light a torch, and he led them into the opening in the cliff.
The smooth-cut passage went straight back from the entrance, stopped, and turned to the left. When it stopped again, Orrag motioned for his men to bring Wenmer forward.
"Hold still, man," Orrag told the captive as he fought to get free. "The guardian must be appeased. I've been preparing for far too long to let anything distract me from my goal."
Orrag ran his hand over an amulet suspended around his neck then drew his knife. He looked for Arach and Gyrison, but they remained outside. No matter. He didn't need them anymore.
'Great and powerful Chare'en," Orrag began to invoke, "Lord of the Seven Vengeances and Master of the Hosts of Duna…" His voice became a mumbling chant in a language men were never meant to speak.
Wenmer cried out, but his screams were not heeded. The other men looked neither at Orrag nor at Wenmer, as if they had neither the strength nor the stomach to confront either. The two holding Wenmer kept him as still as they could.
"Orrag!" Wenmer shouted, "you promised if I would help you, you'd give me gold. You promised me power from this demon we would free! Don't hurt me! I’ll help you!"
Orrag didn't stop. "You betrayed me. You lied to me!" Orrag didn't stop.
Wenmer continued to cry out and struggle, but neither helped him.
Orrag's dark ceremony and Wenmer's pleas for mercy ended abruptly and simultaneously as Orrag's knife slashed the young man's throat. Blood spattered on the ground.
The men let Wenmer fall, and Orrag's grin returned. When he looked at his remaining lackeys, who all now stared at Wenmer's body, Orrag knew he'd better say something. "He was never a true follower." He shook his head, attempting to shape a look of regret.
"I knew that from the start," he continued in his lie, "but his death serves us, Chare'en's chosen. His loss is our gain."
The three men said nothing, alternately looking at their dead comrade or at their leader.
"Now come on!" Orrag couldn't spend all day coddling them. If they had to be sacrificed as well, he could still probably succeed without them.
The four of them followed the passage and eventually came to a small chamber. As they did, Orrag heard sounds from behind. He turned and saw Gyrison and Arach catching up with them. The strange pair had evidently collected the stones the gnolls had left behind and now carried them awkwardly, using the fronts of their brown robes as pouches. Without a word, they came into the room and dumped their burdens on the floor.
"What's all this?" Orrag asked.
"You knew that the stones were not without meaning," Gyrison said.
"Didn't you?" Arach asked.
As they spoke, the two got on their hands and knees and began arranging the stones on the floor in some sort of pattern.
Orrag stood watching for a few moments. The other men did the same. "Is this really important?" Orrag asked.
"Yes," they both answered in unison.
When they were finished, they stood and turned back to the half-orc priest and his followers.
"You can handle the rest," Arach told him.
"We have things to prepare for the master's arrival-in his real home," Gyrison said.
The two of them suddenly changed. The illusion of their appearance faded away, and they stretched their black, batlike wings behind them. Hideous, monstrous faces replaced their simple human features, and long, obsidian claws stretched out where soft hands once folded gently in front of them.
"Don't fail the master, human," one of them-Orrag could no longer tell them apart-said.
In a flash of fire and light the two demons departed, back, Orrag was sure, to the netherworld of the Abyss. He wasn't sorry to see them go. His men stood rigid, covered in sweat. The sight of those two should keep them in line, Orrag thought.
Everything was working perfectly.
Now all he needed was a little help from his ally, Vheod.