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  1. #181
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    Chapter 135

    “Bloody hell!” Kosk cursed. There was a faint shuffle as their eyes adjusted to the unexpected darkness, but no enemies appeared, no traps launched fresh death at them. Bredan brought his sword up in a ready position, but he was careful not to move; without darkvision, he was as dangerous to his friends as to any unseen threat.

    “It’s okay,” Glori said. She lifted her bow, and as she set an arrow the magical filament that had replaced its string began to glow. “There’s nothing here.”

    Quellan re-invoked light, this time settling the magic upon his shield. The spell worked normally, revealing that the fountain had ceased its arcane deluge and the wall behind it was once again blank and featureless.

    “What just happened?” Kosk asked.

    “You broke it somehow,” Glori said.

    “That’s ridiculous,” the dwarf said, but he examined the end of his staff with a critical eye. The black scarring from the fight with the fire elemental had gone, the wood restored to its normal texture, but there was no other indicator of whether it had been imbued with magical potency like their other items.

    “Was that exit there before?” Xeeta asked.

    They all turned to see a narrow opening to the right of the original entrance. The companions shared a look. They hadn’t been looking that way when they’d come in, but it seemed unlikely that they would have all missed something so obvious. But none of them were confident enough in that to speak their opinion out loud.

    “Well, it’s the only way left, so unless you want to go crawling around in that crevice, let’s check it out,” Kosk said.

    Glori turned to Bredan. “Is there anything else you need to do here?”

    He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I have to be honest, I don’t understand any of this.”

    “Well, something did happen,” Quellan said. He ran his fingertips over the sigil now emblazoned on his shield. The light appeared to be shining out of the pages of the book. “We may not know what it means until later.”

    “If ever,” Xeeta pointed out.

    Kosk had made his way over to the second exit. “Are we leaving or not?” he asked.

    “From now on, the phrase ‘patient as a monk’ will have a new meaning for me,” Glori said.

    The exit was narrow at first, so narrow that both Quellan and Bredan had to slip sideways through the entry. Fortunately, it was high enough that both men could negotiate it without scraping their heads on the stone. After about ten sliding steps it widened enough that they could all manage without difficulty, but shortly thereafter they came to a new challenge: a steep, twisting shaft that ascended back toward the surface. The shaft wasn’t quite vertical, and its irregular sides offered plenty of foot and handholds, but they still ascended slowly and carefully. Not surprisingly Kosk reached the top well ahead of the rest of them, but he waited with poorly-disguised impatience before continuing ahead.

    The shaft ended at a broad stone shelf just wide enough for all of them to fit. There was a narrow opening at the back, a tight triangle between two overlapping slabs of stone. The space beyond seemed to be a cave or other natural feature, lacking any of the telltales of human construction that they’d encountered elsewhere in the complex.

    Kosk went to check the opening while Quellan helped Xeeta up to the ledge. The tiefling had again brought up the rear, and she paused for one last look down the treacherous ascent before moving to join the others.

    “Fresh air,” the dwarf reported, before ducking to crawl though the opening into the cave. Glori followed easily enough, but Quellan had to push Bredan’s feet before he could slide through. Once he was clear the half-orc examined the gap dubiously.

    “Maybe you should go first,” he said to Xeeta.

    “If you get stuck, you might need me to push,” the tiefling replied.

    Quellan took off his pack and shield and pushed them through first. Then he scrunched himself as low to the ground as he could get before he started through. Bredan grabbed his hands and pulled, while Xeeta added her own strength from behind. For a moment it looked like the cleric might get wedged in, but then his hips scraped through and it was just a question of being dragged the last few feet before he was clear.

    After that effort, Xeeta’s passage through the opening was almost anticlimactic. The cave was large enough to fit them all comfortably, though there were places where the ceiling dipped low enough that the taller men would have to exercise care. The cave extended beyond the radius of Quellan’s light and curved slightly to the right so they couldn’t quite make out what lay ahead. Kosk started that way to take a look as Xeeta stood and started brushing off her coat and leggings.

    “Well now, that wasn’t so…”

    She was cut off as a rumble started directly behind them. Before any of them could react the stone slabs that stood poised over the entrance to the shaft shifted and suddenly collapsed. A plume of dust shot out as the opening was sealed, much of it spraying onto the tiefling. Xeeta reached out with her rod and tapped the stone that would have crushed her utterly if she’d still been in the gap when it had collapsed.

    * * *

    Author’s Note: looking at the glowing rune wall gave each of the characters the benefits of a long rest, along with one additional benefit that will be revealed shortly. The items dipped into the arcane font gained the properties of a +1 weapon/shield. Xeeta’s rod gained the power of a +1 Wand of the War Mage, with the extra bonus of an instant attunement.

    Next week: KUROK v. HEROES
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  2. #182
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lazybones View Post
    The items dipped into the arcane font gained the properties of a +1 weapon/shield
    Kosk too? :-D

    I wonder how Kurok's going to get in through all those sealed passages (and maybe the skull)

  3. #183
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    Quote Originally Posted by carborundum View Post
    Kosk too? :-D
    I'm going to leave that ambiguous for the present.

    I wonder how Kurok's going to get in through all those sealed passages (and maybe the skull)
    No need, since their exit made quite a bit of noise...

    * * * * *

    Chapter 136

    “That… that was close,” Glori said.

    “I don’t think it was an accident,” Quellan said. He looked at Bredan, who clutched the hilt of his sword but didn’t say anything.

    “I think there’s a way out this way,” Kosk said.

    The cave went on for a quite a distance, but as they followed the dwarf they could smell the change in the air. Finally, they saw a faint glow ahead, which then resolved into a low opening beyond which daylight could be seen.

    “Would have been a lot easier if we’d found this way first,” Glori said. “No guards.”

    “I’m not entirely certain we could have gone this way, even if we had found the cave,” Xeeta said.

    “Let’s just get out of here,” Bredan said.

    They had to climb over an uneven slope of rocks to reach the exit, but none of them had any difficulty. The exit was narrow enough that they all had to stoop to clear it, crawling under an overhanging slab of stone to finally reach the open air outside. Bredan and Quellan all but dragged Xeeta clear, giving the overhang a wary look, but this time there was no conveniently-timed collapse to block the way behind them.

    They were in a small box canyon, surrounded on all sides by sheer fifty-foot cliffs. The sky above was a stark blue, though the sun had already shifted in the sky so it was no longer visible. A gap in the cliffs appeared to offer a way out, and after checking to make sure that they were all ready Kosk led them in that direction.

    The crevice twisted back and forth a few times, and occasionally narrowed enough to force them to walk single-file, but after the close confines of the underground complex none of them offered any complaints. Finally they could see an end ahead, and they emerged to find themselves on the edge of a field of shattered stones. The forest was visible directly ahead of them, maybe a few hundred paces away. The rocky ground around them was mostly clear, with weeds and a few particularly hardscrabble bushes sprouting in the gaps between the stones. A few larger boulders were scattered about, and a granite mound much smaller than the one that had contained the shrine rose up about a hundred feet ahead to their right, its angled surface maybe eight feet high at its tallest point, not enough of a vantage to be interesting.

    “We’re back in the valley,” Glori said.

    “Can’t be that far from where we went in,” Quellan said. “We didn’t cover that much ground.”

    “It’ll be dark in a few hours,” Kosk said. “We should find someplace secure to camp.”

    None of them looked back; while the canyon was certainly easily defensible, none of them wanted to linger in this place any longer than they already had.

    “Let’s see if we can find that stream again,” Glori suggested. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a wash.”

    “Agreed,” Bredan said, but they’d barely started forward when a hint of movement to their right drew their attention.

    A man came into view as he stepped up to the edge of the stone mound. Or not a man, they saw as he reached up and drew back the cowl of his cloak to reveal dark red skin and vaguely familiar features.

    “Goblin!” Bredan hissed, though this creature was easily his size if not a little bigger, though not as physically imposing as the bugbear they’d fought before.

    “Hobgoblin,” Kosk clarified. “They’re worse.”

    “What do you want?” Quellan asked. The hobgoblin wasn’t carrying any obvious weapons, though one might have been concealed under the drape of his cloak. That cloak seemed to twist and shift in color as he moved, blending in with the dark stone of the mound.

    “Um… I think we might have found our spellcaster, guys,” Glori warned.

    “He’s going to find my fist in a moment,” Kosk growled.

    Quellan repeated his question, this time in the goblin tongue, but still the creature did not react, he just watched them silently.

    “Why isn’t he attacking?” Bredan asked. He’d drawn his sword, but with the advantage of height and a large span of rough terrain between them it was clear that the hobgoblin had chosen his ground carefully.

    “I want to know how he found us,” Glori asked. “I find it difficult to believe that a hobgoblin just randomly happened to be here.” She had an arrow fitted to her bowstring, the string glimmering slightly in the bright daylight, but did not immediately attack. Like the others, she was waiting to see what surprises their foe might have in store.

    “He was following us,” Xeeta said. “I knew I sensed something before, when we were entering the shrine.”

    “He couldn’t follow us in, so he waited for us to come out,” Quellan said. “He probably heard the collapse in the cave and followed the noise here.”

    “Say the word, and I can take him out,” Xeeta said. Her hands were clutched tight around the shaft of her rod, and the infused rune sigils had started to glow. But if the hobgoblin was worried, he gave no indication of it. He just continued to watch them, waiting for them to make the first move.

    “Well, I’m not just going to stand here and wait for him to spring his trap,” Kosk growled. He started forward, but had gotten barely two steps when the hobgoblin lifted an arm from under his shifting cloak.

    A creature strode up to join him atop the shelf of bare rock. It looked like a wolf at first glance, but the distance separating them was not enough for it to masquerade as a mundane beast. Its pelt was dark, almost black, with eyes that glowed like banked coals within the recessed hollows of its skull. An armored goblin rode upon its back, carrying a large axe. As he came into view the goblin raised that weapon, and his worg mount let out a sharp bark that had the air of a command.

    That command did not go unanswered. More of the worgs and their riders appeared, stepping out from behind boulders or emerging from behind the cover of the mound. Not all of them had riders, and some bore obvious wounds that had not quite healed, but that didn’t change the hard reality that they faced nearly two dozen foes, adding the worgs, the goblins, and their silent leader.

    “This is not good,” Glori said.

    “We can fall back into the canyon,” Quellan said. He pitched his voice just high enough to make sure that Kosk heard. The dwarf had stopped a few paces ahead of the rest of them, and while they could not see his face it was clear from his stance that he was ready if not eager to fight regardless of the odds against them. “We can hold them off there, keep them from swarming us.”

    “Yield the power of the shrine to me, and I will permit you to leave this place with your lives,” the hobgoblin said suddenly.

    “Well, that confirms your theory, Xeeta,” Glori said.

    Quellan opened his mouth to respond, but Bredan beat him to it. “That power is not for you,” he said.

    For a moment, the two sides just faced each other across the open space, the only thing moving the weeds that bent and twisted in the soft breeze.

    Then the hobgoblin smiled.

    Bredan felt a cold chill that seemed to penetrate him to his core. He heard something, a soft whisper that tickled at his perceptions, uttering words that he was thankful he could not quite decipher.

    Then he heard a scream, a scream he knew all too well.

    He spun to see that a black globe had materialized directly behind him, a field of utter darkness that blocked the route back into the canyon. It was close enough that he could have reached out and touched it without taking a step. Instinct told him that it would be very bad if he did that.

    He looked over and saw that Quellan and Kosk were also outside of that sphere, but both Glori and Xeeta, who’d been a few steps behind them, had been caught inside. He’d heard Glori’s scream as if she was still right next to him, but he couldn’t even make out a vague outline of her form within the darkness.

    Before he could do anything, the goblin leader shouted a command, and the worgs charged forward as one, their howls echoing off the cliffs behind them.
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  4. #184
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    Edit, edit, edit...
    (Annoying - if you hit reply in tapatalk it quotes the entire post, and you can't seem to change that in the settings.

    Anyway...)

    He wants the power? Does he mean the raw magic that's now been spread out over some weapons and a shield? Can be suck it back out somehow, then?

    And obviously if I'd known they were outside I'd know how Kurok could find them. Classic Friday teaser

  5. #185
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    The exact nature of the power that both Bredan and Kurok have been seeking is one of the things that I've kept vague but have notes for developing if the story got that far. My original plan was to stop at the end of Book 6 (which is coming up fast), but I may keep on going if folks are still interested in the story. I don't have anything but outlines at the moment for books 7+ but I do know how the story ends.

    * * *

    Chapter 137

    Bredan could hear the start of the enemy charge, but he couldn’t leave Glori trapped in the dark bubble. He started toward it, before he could enter the black radiance Quellan grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back.

    “You can’t help her by going in there,” the cleric said. “Glori! Xeeta! Follow the sound of my voice!”

    Bredan could hear the howls of the wolves and the shouts of their riders drawing closer, but didn’t turn around until Glori staggered clear of the black sphere. She looked ill, with a rime of frost clinging to her hair and eyebrows, but she quickly realized the danger they were in. “Look out!” she warned.

    Bredan finally turned to see the ring of worg riders quickly closing in on them. The rough terrain was slowing them a bit, but not much; the nimble beasts, smarter and faster than mundane wolves, were springing over the irregular rockscape almost as though it was a featureless meadow. Some of the goblins had bows and were firing as they came; Bredan realized this when an arrow shot past his face so close that he could feel the breeze of its passage.

    Kosk hadn’t retreated, and now stood about five paces ahead of the group, waiting in a ready stance to receive the charge. Bredan could see that a number of worgs from each side were converging on his position, but he could not move to help him without leaving Glori completely exposed.

    “Stay behind me!” he urged, while moving toward a spot that he hoped would take some of the pressure off the dwarf’s flank.

    But he’d barely started forward when he heard a sound that caused his guts to clench. It came from Glori’s lyre, but it was unlike any melody he’d ever heard from the instrument, all discordant and grating on his senses. It only lasted a few moments, but when it finally ceased he felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

    He quickly realized that he had not been the intended audience for those odd notes. Several of the charging worg riders approaching from the right side of the granite mound abruptly stopped, recoiling as if they’d suddenly found a gaping chasm in front of them. A few of the goblins reacted even more strongly, flinging themselves from their mounts’ backs and retreating back the way they had come. The fear spell did not catch all of the creatures in its effect, but it disrupted the charge, forcing those who were behind the initial wedge to circle around their panicked companions.

    Bredan glanced back at Glori to see that she looked almost as surprised as he was at what she had wrought.

    But the bard’s magic had done nothing to stop the other wave of worgs charging from the left, and Bredan was only able to watch as they reached Kosk. But what he witnessed next almost caused him to forget about the danger they were in.

    One of the riders launched an arrow at Kosk, the missile darting over the heads of the slavering worgs directly at the dwarf’s head. He flinched back, and for a moment Bredan thought he’d been hit, but when he straightened again the smith was amazed to see that the monk was holding the arrow in his hand. Apparently, he’d plucked it out of the air, an almost impossible feat.

    But the worgs would not be defeated so easily, as several of them hurled themselves at this foe that stood alone against them. Kosk snapped his staff into one in mid-leap, deflecting it enough that its jaws closed only on empty air. The creature landed awkwardly, stunned by the blow. The goblin on its back swung his curved sword at the monk, but Kosk was already well clear and the stroke found only empty air.

    But the dwarf’s luck ran out as the second worg shot past; twisting its head around it lashed out and seized hold of his ragged tunic, using its momentum to lift the dwarf from his feet and dash him to the ground. A third descended on the fallen monk, clearly intent on tearing him to pieces before he could get up. For a moment, Bredan lost sight of Kosk under the pile of swarming bodies.

    But then the worg standing over the dwarf suddenly toppled over, landing hard in the rocks. Its rider managed to land on his feet, but as the goblin started to turn toward Kosk the dwarf’s staff shot out and clipped him in the throat, dropping him as effectively as he had his mount.

    “Behind you!” Bredan shouted, as the worg that had flung him down just a heartbeat before quickly spun and launched itself at the monk again. The goblin, hanging on to the thick fur on the worg’s neck with one hand, had a curved sword raised in the other. But before either could strike, Kosk shifted and with a blur drove a fist—no, Bredan saw, it was just an open palm—squarely into the center of the worg’s chest. The monster and its rider had all the leverage in that situation, yet somehow it was they who were driven backwards, the worg stumbling as it fought for footing on the awkward surface.

    All of that had taken barely a few seconds, but before Bredan could come to Kosk’s aid the worgs that had escaped Glori’s spell came hurtling into him. He got his sword up in time to deflect the first attacker’s rush. The worg shifted to the side but could not escape a blow that tore a foot-long slash in its side. Another sought to use the distraction to bring its enemy down before he could recover, but instead of trying to bring the heavy sword around again Bredan released one hand from the grip and summoned a shield that blocked both its snapping jaws and the awkward swing from the goblin on its back.

    A massive explosion erupted over the battlefield, and Bredan flinched before he realized that it hadn’t been focused on him, but rather on the mound of rock where the warlock and the goblin leader had first appeared. But he didn’t get a chance to see what that unexpected event portended, for the worgs recovered and came at him again, quickly moving to flank him between them. Bredan managed to avoid the first, but even as he started to turn to face the second he felt a hard impact slam into him from behind. Something clipped his head, the blow thankfully deflected by the iron rim of his cap but still causing stars to explode in his vision. But that was mild compared to the pain that exploded in his side as the worg’s jaws snapped into him, lifting him from his feet before slamming him hard into the rocks with hundreds of pounds of slavering beast on top of him.
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  6. #186
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    Not again, Bredan! That boy really needs a good strong helmet...

    ********

    As long as you're happy writing I'll be happy reading
    If it's getting to be like work then I'd love to read your summary of the rest of the story. For now, it's back to waiting, I guess...

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    Chapter 138

    When Xeeta finally staggered clear of the maelstrom of dark energy, she found a battle going on all around her.

    When the hobgoblin’s spell had first hit, she’d felt a moment of panic. She’d been raised to be a creature of night, using its cover to complete her missions in the back alleys and dank sewers of Li Syval. Normal darkness held no terror for her, but against this unnatural shroud her enhanced vision was useless. It didn’t help that there was something in there with her; sinister whispers assaulted her ears, and she could feel vile tendrils probing at her legs and arms. On top of that it was cold, the chill penetrating to her core and stealing away the very life from her body.

    Quellan’s call finally snapped her out of her fugue, freeing her of the paralysis of fear and urging her forward. She tried not to think of what might be waiting for her in the darkness, stumbling over the uneven ground as she focused on the voices of her companions.

    It felt like she’d traveled far more than fifteen feet before the darkness and cold vanished and she found herself again in the comparatively blinding brilliance of the day. She mostly felt relief, even if the scene that greeted her was one of chaos and danger. The worgs were attacking, their goblin riders launching arrows or waving swords from atop their backs. But Xeeta’s attention was drawn to the cloaked figure atop the stone mound. She could sense the potency in him, and knew him to be the greater threat.

    Her hand tightened on the familiar roughness of her arcane focus as she called upon the power of her magic. It came at her summons, but as the raw energy coursed through her she could feel it surging, building beyond the scorching rays she’d intended to cast.

    No! she thought. Not now!

    She knew it was no use; the Demon would not be turned aside once it woke. Those raw surges were sometimes harmless, sometimes devastating, but always they did what they wanted, rather than what she wanted.

    Still, she tried. And as the unfamiliar magic pulsed through her, she found to her amazement that she could control it, drawing the wild energies into a single point that blossomed into a brilliant glowing sphere in her grasp.

    Stunned, she barely managed to launch the fireball before it exploded in her hand.

    The blast enveloped the mound. For a moment the fight was interrupted as the combatants on both sides were distracted by the impressive explosion. She thought she’d spotted the hobgoblin warlock dodging back behind the mound an instant before the spell hit, but that was fine; at least she’d taken him out of the fight for the moment. The goblin leader and his animal proved less agile, though both survived the blast and likewise withdrew from view.

    But the respite her dramatic spell attack had gained proved brief, and as the fighting resumed she could see that her companions were in rough straits. Kosk was surrounded by foes, though it looked like he was putting up a hell of a fight. Worgs and their riders were snapping and slashing at him, and while he was somehow avoiding most of those attacks it seemed like only one final outcome was possible. Quellan was trying to get to him, but a worg without a rider was holding him at bay, its jaws snapping violently as it tried to get past his shield. Bredan and Glori were also engaged, and for a moment it looked like the warrior was in trouble before the bard summoned a thunderwave that blasted one of his attackers off of him. Bredan lurched to his feet, summoning his sword back to his grasp just in time to meet the attack of a second worg and its rider.

    Xeeta stepped forward into the fray. She wasn’t sure what had just enhanced her magical abilities, but she was certainly going to put them to use.

    But before she could prepare a second spell, she saw a flash and felt a sharp jolt of pain in her side. Grimacing, she sought out the likely source and spotted the hobgoblin warlock, standing in the shadow of the stone mound a hundred feet away. The creature extended his hand and launched a second eldritch blast, but this time she saw it coming and ducked out of the path of the beam. Before she could manage a response, the warlock darted back into cover and out of her line of sight.

    “So, you wish to challenge me, hobgoblin?” she said. Her power thrummed in her, and with the Demon apparently content to remain quiescent, she marched forward to confront their adversary.

    But she quickly realized that her friends needed her more at that moment. Kosk was still on his feet, but now that she was closer she could now see several bloody gashes that his foes had managed to inflict. Two worgs and a goblin continued to harry him. And Quellan was also in trouble; even as the warlock sniped at her the worg facing him got a grip on the cleric’s shield and pulled him to the ground. A second worg that had a goblin archer on its back seemed to have been waiting for just that moment, for as the half-orc fell it lunged in to attack him from behind. Both Bredan and Glori were fully engaged and in no position to help them.

    So be it, she thought, lifting her hands as she summoned her magic.

    Another fireball would have incinerated her allies as well as their enemies, but this time the scorching rays worked exactly as she expected. As she channeled the power through her rod she could feel an unexpected intensity, and the magical beams seemed almost eager as they leapt out at her foes. A burning stream scorched the worg that had pulled Quellan down, and a second brushed the backside of the one carrying the archer, distracting it from its attack. She almost casually hurled the third ray at the cluster of creatures savaging Kosk, and was rewarded with a quite rewarding yelp of pain from that direction.

    The worg she’d hit in the rear spun away from the half-orc and launched itself at her, its rider holding on for dear life. Under normal circumstances it would have easily reached her before she could manage another spell, but at the moment her magic was flowing through her like a raging river, and it seemed almost trivial to summon a fire bolt that she threw into the worg’s face. Once again the flames seemed hotter and stronger than she was used to, and the creature let out a terrible howl as they flashed into its open jaws, scorching it from the inside. The worg collapsed just a few paces short of reaching her. The goblin archer managed to scramble clear. He looked up at her for a moment, their eyes meeting briefly before it turned and quickly darted off.

    Xeeta didn’t get a chance to savor her victory as a scream drew her attention back across the battlefield.

    This time it was Bredan who was having trouble. The young warrior had clearly dished out some serious damage, as a worg was lying dead at his feet and the others around him bore obvious wounds. But he was also hurt. Xeeta could see that he was clearly favoring his left side, and trickles of blood covered the left side his face.

    Glori was trying to help him, but three worgs had formed a circle around Bredan, keeping her at bay. She had her sword out, and blood glistened on its length, but she couldn’t get past the worgs without leaving herself open to an attack from those deadly jaws.

    Xeeta saw that the goblin leader and his beast had joined the group menacing her friend. Both bore the marks of her fireball, but from the look of it they still had plenty of fight left in them. Bredan held his sword in a ready stance, waiting for his foes to attack. Xeeta could tell that they were moving into a position where they could overwhelm Bredan from all sides simultaneously. He had to see that too, but there didn’t seem to be anything he could do to stop them.

    Reflex had Xeeta reaching out to her magic once more. Once again she let instinct guide her as she channeled that power into a spell she’d never used before. Once again the Demon stirred in response, but she ignored its presence as she directed a flood of power into Bredan.

    As if that were some trigger, the goblin leader barked a command and the worgs surged forward.

    Bredan met the first worg with a powerful slash of his sword that tore deep into its shoulder and drove it at least momentarily to the ground. But the other two came in quickly, and it looked as though a repeat of Bredan’s first exchange with the worgs would immediately follow. The goblin leader’s beast, a huge creature that looked even more ferocious for the scorch marks that streaked its ugly hide, darted in and snapped its jaws at the warrior’s injured side.

    It didn’t seem possible that the attack could possibly miss, but Bredan suddenly shifted and in a blur his arms came around and he drove the hilt of his sword hard into the side of the worg’s head just behind its jaws. The impact knocked it roughly aside. The goblin on its back swung his axe at Bredan’s head, but again the warrior reacted with preternatural quickness, ducking so that the weapon sliced through the air a finger’s breadth above him.

    The last worg slammed into him from behind, and for a moment it looked like the warrior would finally go down. But even at the worg’s jaws snapped on his cloak, trying to find purchase, he lifted his arms and drove his sword under his left arm and behind him. The edge of the blade tore through the worg’s side, and it let out a pained yelp as it leaped back. It quickly fell back into a crouch in anticipation of another attack, but before it could jump Glori stabbed it in the flank with her sword. Now seriously hurt, the worg stumbled clear of the fray.

    The goblin leader lifted his axe again, but Bredan’s enhanced reflexes were making it look as though his foes were moving in slow-motion. His sword, trailing blood from the worg he’d just stabbed, was a blur as it sliced through the air at the goblin’s head. But Usk Bloodrider was a canny veteran, and he saw death coming. He yanked hard on his reins, and his mount instantly sprang backwards. But his escape left the last rider in the path of the human warrior’s sword, and as Bredan finished his swing it knocked that unlucky creature from his saddle and slammed him to the ground.

    Xeeta blinked as she watched the effects of her spell; the entire bloody exchange had taken just a few seconds. Bredan and Glori seemed to now have things well in hand, and she started to turn back toward Kosk and Quellan. But even as she began to gather her magic she caught sight of the goblin leader out of the corner of her eye. The wounded creature and its mount had fallen back a good ten paces, out of the fight for now, but as she watched his head came up and his gaze fixed on the top of the stone mound.

    She followed that stare in time to see the hobgoblin warlord reappear. He seemed to appear out of thin air as rose up and his cloak, colored to match the surrounding stone, fell open. It revealed something in his hand, something that Xeeta immediately recognized. She knew it because she’d just summoned a similar globe of fire just a few moments before.

    She instantly realized that letting her focus shift from the warlock, even for just a few seconds, had been a mistake. Her companions, battered and wounded, were all within the blast radius of a fireball. The surviving goblins and their worgs were as well, but it looked as though the hobgoblin was not particularly concerned about their fate.

    She desperately called upon her magic, but knew it was already too late.
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  8. #188
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    Chapter 139

    When the enemy’s fireball had exploded above him, Kurok realized that he had underestimated these foes. The flames enveloped the top of the mound where he’d been standing just a moment before, but the luck of the Veiled One was with him and he managed to avoid the worst of the blast.

    He crept around to the edge of the cover provided by the stone formation to see his forces engaged in a violent melee with the five champions of the human king. From what he saw, Vederos had sold them short in his descriptions. Most were holding their own despite being swarmed by Usk’s worgriders, but Kurok’s attention was drawn to the one who had hurled the fireball at him.

    For a moment he was surprised to see that she was almost certainly one of the Blooded. But the obvious kinship they shared did not stay his hand long. His first eldritch blast caught her a glancing blow in her side, but she ducked under the second. Kurok quickly darted back into cover before she could respond.

    Perhaps it had been a mistake to summon the Hunger of Hadar behind the foe, instead of in their midst. His plan had been to cut off their escape and let Usk’s forces destroy them. But it now seemed clear that he would have to take a more direct hand in things.

    He drew up his cloak and let its magic conceal him. Then, moving slowly and carefully, he crept back up the side of the mound. He slowly lifted his head until he could see the battle once more.

    What he saw was not encouraging. Their enemies had all suffered wounds, but more of Usk’s creatures were down than still up and fighting. A portion of their force had fled, no doubt affected by the magical fear conjured by the half-elven woman. They might be back, but it did not look like it would be in time to affect the outcome.

    He took on the distribution of the remaining forces. He could channel the full power of the Veiled One only once more this day. He had no illusions about the outcome of a spell duel with the Blooded on the other side. He sensed that her gift was innate, rather than granted as his was, and based on what he’d already seen that meant that she was almost certainly more powerful than he.

    But he still had one card left to play.

    He opened his mind to the power of the Veiled One. The bargain he had struck was honored, and magic flowed into him.

    Slowly, he rose. None of the enemy noticed him, but as his cloak fell away he saw Usk Bloodrider, clinging to his blooded mount, look up and meet his gaze. The betrayal in the goblin’s eyes turned into a bright hatred.

    The enemy mage saw him when he let his cloak fall open, but it was too late for her to stop him. Kurok lifted his hands and prepared to release his fireball.

    Pain exploded through him. He staggered forward, and only barely kept himself from toppling over the edge of the mound. He tried to keep hold of his spell but the magic was already dissipating, his conjured flames dissolving into nothing as the animating power behind the spell faded. The pain continued to radiate from a point in his back. He coughed and felt the iron tang of blood in his throat.

    He turned around and saw a figure in the distance, at the very edge of the forest. His eyes widened in amazement as he recognized the distinctive features of yet another of the Blooded. The figure was already fitting another arrow to the longbow with which he’d obviously just shot Kurok. The hobgoblin could see others just emerging from the woods behind him, a small force of dwarves and humans who shouted as they spotted him. A few had missile weapons of their own that they quickly raised. They’d have to be insanely lucky to score a hit at that range, but Kurok had already seen the way his luck had turned.

    Yanking his cloak around him again, ignoring the sharp jolt of pain the action reawakened in his back, Kurok leapt down from the mound. He hit the ground running, pulling the concealing elven fabric tighter around his body as he fled. He could hear Usk shouting commands behind him and hoped that the goblin was more focused on extracting the survivors of his force than on securing his revenge against the hobgoblin.

    Kurok didn’t stop running until he reached the cover of the trees, and then paused only long enough to verify that there was no immediate pursuit. He could see worgs deeper in the woods, moving away, but made no effort to call out to them or otherwise reveal his presence. The arrow in his back was an agony, but there was no way to get to it right now. One of Usk’s acolytes had been left behind to guard their camp, but he doubted that he’d get to him before the surviving worg riders did. Somehow he doubted that he’d get a warm welcome at that moment.

    Pulling his cloak close around him, he slunk off to the northeast until the thickening forest swallowed him up.
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  9. #189
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    Just a few more posts left in book 6. The good news is that I've started on book 7 and will continue posting the story here as long as folks are still reading it.

    * * *


    Chapter 140

    Xeeta kept her attention on the hobgoblin caster as he fled, not intending to give him a chance to try something crafty as he had before. But he quickly dropped out of sight behind the cover of the mound, and by the time she’d circled around to the right to get a clear view, he’d vanished again. She suspected that there was magic behind his disappearance, and reluctantly turned back to her companions.

    The fight was quickly coming to an end. With the arrival of the unexpected reinforcements the goblin leader had called a retreat, although few of his troops were still able to obey. As she watched Bredan put the coup de grace to an injured worg that had been trying to creep off with a shattered hind leg. There were a few other worgs and goblins still moving on the battlefield, but none of them appeared to be an immediate threat. Some of those in the relief force were sniping at the fleeing worgs, but they couldn’t stop the creatures from vanishing into the woods to the east.

    All of them bore wounds, with Kosk and Bredan the worst off by far. Quellan had already gone to the dwarf’s aid, while Glori was quick to add her support to Bredan. None of the worgs or goblins had gotten close enough to hurt Xeeta, but she could still feel the lingering chill from that globe of dark energy that the hobgoblin had conjured. The thought almost had her looking for him again, but instead she turned her attention to their reinforcements as they emerged from the forest and headed their way.

    It wasn’t a large group, seven or eight that she could see, a mix of dwarves and humans clad in dark colors that blended with the forest background. Somehow, she was not entirely surprised to see Rodan at their head, his huge bow in his hand. He wore his natural appearance, as they’d taken the magical amulet that he used to conceal his true features. Xeeta carried it in her pocket. She felt a sudden surge of irrational fury at the sight of him, but forced herself to discipline her thoughts. Whether she liked it or not, he had kept them from being roasted by the warlock’s fireball, even if his arrival had been a bit too late to save them from the mauling they’d received.

    “What are you doing here?” she asked. If there was a bit more of an edge in her voice than she’d intended, that could perhaps be excused by the circumstances.

    “I didn’t escape, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Rodan said. Xeeta shook her head in negation, though the thought had occurred to her. “I came to help you. These who came with me… they all volunteered.”

    “You were almost too late,” she said, glancing back at the gory battlefield. The others were coming over to them, although Bredan was still limping and Quellan was hurrying after Kosk, trying to get him to stand still long enough to receive more magical healing.

    She almost regretted the comment when she looked back and truly saw the state of Rodan and his company. The tiefling ranger was clearly having some difficulty keeping upright, and those with him all looked utterly exhausted. “I’m sorry. It took some time to convince the Governor and the others on the council that I was sincere. We got here as quickly as we could.”

    “You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Bredan said as he joined them.

    “I’d say you did well enough without us,” Rodan said, scanning the mangled wreckage of the goblin force that littered the battlefield.

    “The fact that you came to help is appreciated,” Quellan said.

    “You interrupted that hobgoblin right as he was about to hit us with something nasty,” Xeeta said. Rodan looked at her in surprise, then nodded.

    Kosk had gone over to one of the dwarves, who seemed almost abashed as he fidgeted with his loaded crossbow. They spoke together in low tones, too quietly for Xeeta to hear what they were saying, but it seemed that they knew each other.

    “Did you find what you were looking for?” Rodan asked.

    Bredan shook his head. “I… I don’t know yet.”

    “Whatever it was, we weren’t the only ones looking for it,” Glori said.

    “Those goblins, and their leader,” Rodan said. “Are there any more of them? Is this an invasion?”

    “I think that they were here for what was hidden in this place,” Quellan said. “I think it’s safe now, but we had better make sure they leave.”

    Rodan nodded. “My men need a good night’s rest, and it looks like you do as well. But tomorrow we’ll make sure those bastards leave the Silverpeak, and never come back.”
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  10. #190
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lazybones View Post
    Just a few more posts left in book 6. The good news is that I've started on book 7 and will continue posting the story here as long as folks are still reading it.
    Thanks Lazybones! I've really been enjoying this story hour a lot.

    I often wonder how many readers have a basically unlimited appetite for this sort of thing. I know I do. I read an entry and I'm ready for more immediately. If there were 100 entries, I'd be ready for the 101st as soon as #100 was done. I've read several of the story hours on ENWorld multiple times, including the Doomed Bastards (SO much fun!). As long as you have story to tell, I'll be an eager reader.

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