Al-Qarin: Into the Desert (1-22-23)

Just caught up with the last couple of episodes, and all I can say is "Holy **** Batman!" :eek:

Not a good outcome all round - no library, no captured dwerro. :( Still at least all the characters are alive this time. :D

The reincarnation of Shayla was incredibly cool, btw. :)

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Not a good outcome all round - no library, no captured dwerro. :( Still at least all the characters are alive this time. :D

Survival = victory in Galeman's campaigns, and we lived to fight another day. As Gorak pointed out, we were pretty lucky to be so close to 7th when Shayla got killed, although she lost almost a full level and a half after the reincarnation (not to mention fireball and a pile of hps from turning into an elf - she was pretty frail after this), dropping down to halfway through 5th. Still, we had a few rough sessions here - you can always count on Galeman not to pull any punches ;). It was a bit frustrating losing the Dwerro like that - and not only losing him, but actually contributing to the downfall of Caer Morag in the process. I don't really remember why we thought it was a good idea to move him to the tower, but it was probably along the lines of how I portrayed it. It was a bummer at the time, though, in retrospect, I'm not sure how well we would have done if we didn't move the Dwerro, and that succubus had got the drop on the rest of us.

I remember Gorak agonizing over whether or not to try and kill the Dwerro when he ran into the devil, but he didn't really have much of a choice. He was set up to help defend the town, and didn't really have much other than call lightning to fall back on. I was chatting with him after I posted this last update, and it's really quite amusing how often we screwed up, ran away, or just plain failed at what we were trying to accomplish :D
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“So how much further is it?” Shayla asked, leaning back in her saddle and taking a long pull from her water skin.

“Ah, yes, well, I'm not exactly sure,” Khalid replied, studying the creased and faded map of the East that Arbaq had provided them so many months ago.

“Bah,” Azarek growled, “this road 'ere only goes ta one place. How hard can it be ta figure it out?”

“Ah, yes, all of these villages look the same,” Khalid complained helplessly. “Ah, I have no idea which one this is. Yes, quite.”

He felt he had a point. So far, every village and hamlet they encountered was depressingly similar: devoid of inhabitants and more often then not, burned to the ground by Dwerro raiders. After the fall of Caer Morag, they had spent a long, tense night debating their next course of action. In the end, frustrated by their failure to prevent the Dwerro from claiming the city, they had decided to follow the road to the east to a city known only as the 'The Hub' and warn them of the inevitable approach of the Dwerro army. They made good time on the back of Khalid's summoned mounts, gambling that the bulk of the Dwerro forces would be involved in the siege. Thus far, the road had been entirely empty of travelers, much less Dwerro, to Khalid's relief. Shayla and Azarek however, seemed almost disappointed and Khalid suspected that they were both secretly hoping to encounter a patrol, to exact a little revenge.

“It can't be much farther.” Shayla added, corking her water skin and looping the strap over her saddlehorn.

“Indeed,” Khalid replied. “A day, perhaps two at the most.”

The sound of flapping wings heralded Gorak's return. In eagle form, he swooped low overhead and then shimmered back into his own body. “This ain't no picnic,” he growled. “If you keep stopping every half mile the only thing we're gonna find at the Hub are Dwerro.”

Khalid dismissed the jibe without comment. They'd all been a little short tempered since the fall of the Caer Morag. By his reckoning they had to be at least two days march ahead of the army, which in all likelihood was tied up with dealing with the populace and probably hadn't even moved yet. They were confident enough to ride out on the road during the day, with Gorak constantly scouting and searching for signs of pursuit. “Ah, well, the mounts will hold for a few more hours, and it's not quite dark yet,” Khalid said, tossing the reins of the summoned horse to Gorak.

A few hours later, they turned and headed south towards the forest, before dismounting. Wearied from the long day spent on the road, Khalid stretched and then stumbled through the words to a spell, conjuring up the magical portal. He was as tired mentally as he was physically, having spent most of his time in the saddle reviewing the final formula to a new spell. Sure now that it was ready to be tested, the thought was enough to the spring back into his step. It had been some time since he'd added new weapons to his arsenal but now, with his increased skill, several new options became available. The culmination of several months of work was about bear fruit. He began to mumble through a few of the phrases, measuring his rhythm and inflection. Dropping his pack, he moved away from the portal, drawing out his battered leather tome from his robes.

“Oiy,” Azarek called out. “Where ya ofta?”

“Ah, yes, I have a new spell I plan to enact.”

Swinging his saddlebags off his shoulder, Azarek rasped, “This I gotta see.” He sounded genuinely interested, much to Khalid's surprise.

Shayla released the rope, “Me too. Hey Gorak,” she called up into the portal.

Gorak's head emerged into view through the open portal. “No way” he growled. “I still remember what happened the last time.” He vanished again. “I'll leave the rope out, just in case...”

“Very well,” Khalid agreed absently, stopping at edge of a small rise looking back over the meadow towards the road. Against the backdrop of trees, they'd be hard to spot by anyone passing on the road. The light was beginning to fade, but it was sufficient for his purposes.

“So whut's this gonna do?” Azarek asked curiously.

“Ah, yes, well, my search continues for new allies,” Khalid replied cryptically. “I fear that my usual servants have been, compromised, yes, compromised.”

“Angels then?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, no, not exactly.” Khalid replied. “It seems, ah, well, somehow improper, to order an divine being to hack something into tiny, yes, tiny pieces. I seek to cast my net a bit wider, shall we say.” Furrowing his brow, he finished the conversation by launching into the start of the ritual.

Several hundred feet away, a pinprick of hazy purple flame flashed into view. It quickly expanded outwards in a perfect ring, leaving behind a black, endless void instead of scorched earth. For a few seconds, nothing happened as Khalid struggled to hold open the portal with magic while imposing his will upon the creature on the other side. Slowly, the flawless black sphere began to ripple, then a thin, tiny tentacle emerged. Almost tentatively, the milky, translucent appendage reached out, uncurling in the air.

“Ugh,” Shayla muttered, as a half dozen more tentacles exploded from the portal, flailing about wildly. The base of each was easily the thickness of Gorak's leg. Beneath the surface, cloudy purplish lumps of muscle bunched and flexed. One, near the edge of the expanding flame coiled around a thick ash tree. “That's repulsive. Hey Gorak, you should check this out,” she called out over her shoulder. “Khalid just summoned the biggest, angriest squid you've ever seen.”

“No thanks.”

“Uh, Khalid,” Azarek rasped, carefully watching the expanding boundary of the spell. “How big is that thing gonna get.”

“Ah, do not worry,” Khalid said grandly as he completed the last of the phrases. “It is completely under my control, yes quite. Release the tree.” he commanded with a wave. The tentacle continued to flow around the tree, bending it down almost in two.

He tried again directing the full force of his will at the beast. Release the tree!. With a groaning crack, the tree shattered at the roots, flinging clots of dirt into the air.

Shayla took a step backwards, away from the increasing reach of the creature. “Keep that thing away from me. If it gets any closer, it's gonna smell like burnt calamari around here. She turned and vanished into the portal.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid replied, hastily tying off the weaves. “That should do it.” The last part was muttered under his breath. He exhaled heavily and the portal seemed to stabilize, almost forty feet from edge to edge. Pouring out from the void were dozens of the tentacles, desperately clawing at the empty sky.

“So whut in tha hell is it? Azarek rasped.

“Ah, I'm not exactly sure, but it doesn't appear to be able to fit through the portal.” He sighed with disappointment. “I can only assume, this is but a part of some vastly larger creature. Not exactly, what I was hoping for, yes, quite. Although I suppose I could find some use for it.”

“That right there,” Azarek pointed at the mass of squirming appendages, “hasta be one of the most disgustin' things I've seen, an' tha's saying sumptin, coming from me. If you let it out near anybody, it's gonna do terrible, awful things to 'em.” He let loose a sharp barking laugh. “I love it.”

* * * * * * * * * *​

Forty miles later, Khalid got his first glimpse of the Hub. He black mood only darkened as he surveyed the shantytown that surrounded the city proper. Unlike Caer Morag, with its stone walls and fortified tower, the Hub seemed little more than a rambling jumble of houses and tents, laid out in no particular order. Beyond the refugee encampment, a timber palisade interspersed with stone towers split the town in two, encircling the more permanent and prosperous looking dwellings. They guided their horses through the milling press of people, towards the western gate of the city. The tension and fear of the populace was all too noticeable, though they lacked the hopeless desperation that had pervaded Caer Morag. For the moment. Approaching the wall, Khalid could see the signs of hasty improvement, which failed to inspire much confidence in him. If Caer Morag had been unable to turn away the Dwerro tide, these people had little chance. The only encouraging sign was a significantly larger number of regular infantry, dressed in a mix of leather and chain, sporting green and black tabards that mirrored the flags hanging limply from the stone towers.

Near the gate, they pace slowed to almost a crawl. Despite being open, it seemed as though the guards were turning most people away, preventing them from entering the inner city. Sweating under the warm spring sun, they waited anxiously, growing more and more impatient, until finally they reached the front of the crowd.

A middle-aged guard stepped in front of them as they approached. Barrel chested, his cheeks were flushed from the heat and sweat dripped from under his steel helm, running down into a thick grey mustache. “We ain't letting nobody into the city,” he announced before they had a chance to speak. “There's no room for any more refugees. Yer gonna have to find someplace to camp out there.” He gestured at the tent city behind them with the tip of his pike.

“Do we look like refugees to you?” Gorak growled, his patience exhausted from the long wait.

The guard's gaze scanned their worn, dust covered clothing, lingering on Gorak's thick dreadlocks and Khalid's mangy, tattered beard, he replied. “Well you sure as shyte don't look like the sultan of Gem-Sharad. Now move along, there might be some folk behind you that actually belong in the city.”

“We want to speak to somebody in charge,” Gorak growled.

“I'm in charge here!” The guard replied angrily, his face turning a deeper shade of red.

“Somebody more important than you,” Gorak retorted.

Khalid, trying to head off an unpleasant situation, injected before the guard could respond. He leaned down out of his saddle. “Ah, we have just come from Caer Morag. Unless you would prefer, yes, prefer that we inform all of these people here that the city has fallen, perhaps there is some place a little more private we could go to speak to your superiors?”

The sergeant's face turned deathly pale. Realizing the chaos that would engulf the crowd if the news that Caer Morag had fallen spread among them, he glanced around hastily to see if any one had overheard. “Why didn't you say so? Stay right here,” he ordered, then spun on his heel, heading for the walls. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” he called out, heading to a small group of soldiers conferring together on the other side of the gate. A youngish looking man glanced up at the guard's approach. The sergeant whispered hastily into his ear, and the young man nodded, then waved away the line of guards to allow them to enter the town. Leading them to a small building attached to the base of the wall, the young man ushered them inside. “Wait here a moment,” he said as he closed the door.

A few minutes later, he returned followed by another soldier that, given the resemblance, Khalid had to assume was his brother. Both had light, sandy blood hair, cut military short and pale blue eyes. They could have been twins, although Khalid suspected that the one who had greeted them was slightly older. They wore the same insignia of rank, a red armband emblazoned with two gold chevrons.

Gesturing at them to take a seat around the small wooden table in the center of the room, the older of the two spoke. “I'm Jared, and this is my brother Jakob.” After Khalid made the introductions, he continued. “So do you mind telling us what you said to get Gustav so upset.”

“Ah, yes, well, we have information that your senior officers will find most, yes, most interesting,” Khalid replied.

“Oh I'm sure the Captain will be along shortly. The good sergeant has gone to find him. In the meantime, why don't you start with us?”

With a glance at Gorak, who shrugged, Khalid forged ahead. “Caer Morag has fallen.”

The brother's jovial expressions turned grim and they exchanged a long look. “Maybe you should go see what's keeping Gustav,” Jared suggested, straightening in his chair. Jakob stood up and left the room, while Jared turned his attention back to them. “Go on.”

“Five days ago. The Dwerro have a new type of siege engine they call a bombard. When they brought it to the field, they breeched the walls of Caer Morag in mere hours.”

Jared exhaled slowly. “Hours?” He shook his head, almost in denial. “We'd almost begun to hope that maybe they'd manage to hold out until we figured out a way to lift the siege.”

“Ah, yes, well as far as we can tell,” Khalid continued, “the army has not yet decamped. You still have time to evacuate the civilians. Yes quite.”

“Evacuate them where?” Jared replied, frustration evident in his tone. “The Hub is the last of the free city states. The towns and villages nearby have been destroyed or abandoned.” He looked at them shrewdly for a moment. “But you might not know that, seeing as how you're not from around here. What are two Westerners, a desert Orc and...” he paused, looking at Azarek carefully, “...whatever you are, doing wandering around in the middle of a war?”

“Ah, yes, well,” Khalid stuttered, trying to think quickly. “Ah, just passing through.” he concluded lamely, unable to come up anything better and not really wishing to get into their personal motivations.

“Of course,” Jared replied with a mocking smirk.

“Look,” Gorak growled, “we just thought you might like a little warning is all. What you choose to do wit it, that's your business.”

Jared rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, weariness making him look older than he was. “No, I understand and I do appreciate what you've done. But if Caer Morag can't hold, we don't have much of a chance.”

Khalid had pulled out the map and was studying it carefully. “Ah, this map indicates there are more settlements further east. Across this land bridge. Surely they will not turn you away? Yes, quite.”

“They will spare us no aid,” Jared said, bitterness lacing his words. “Not that they could if they wanted too, now.” Reaching out his hand, Jared took the map and laid it out on the table. “The road's blocked. It's raining.”

“Raining?” Gorak scoffed.

“Yeah, raining. Right here.” He pointed to a dull green area south of the road. “And it has been, for six months straight.”

“Ah, is that a swamp?” Khalid asked, squinting at the map.

“Yep, except now it covers most of this area here,” he traced a circle some fifty miles wide, stretching almost from the northern coast of the land bridge to the south. “The road is all but gone. This village here,” he touched a small unnamed dot along the road, “had mostly been abandoned by the time we made it through. It's probably under water by now. There's nothing but mud and pools of stagnant water, and more reeds and swamp shrub then should reasonably grow in that amount of time.”

“Dwerro?” Khalid asked.

Jared nodded. “They have to be involved somehow. We suspect that there are several hundred of them hiding out in the foothills here.” He pointed at a shading of mountains, two or three days north east of the city. “My brother and I made that run a few months back. As far as we know, we're the last to make it through, either way. The road is littered with traps and obstacles, not to mention Dwerro raiders. There's no way to get these people through.”

“So there is nothing that can be done?” Khalid asked, sympathizing with the young man.

“We'll fight.” Jared shrugged. “What else can we do? If we had more horses, maybe we'd be able to deal with them. Horses are faster than those pigs they ride, so our light cavalry fares pretty well but we don't have any heavy horse to speak of, and our infantry doesn't measure up. Hell, there isn't a man alive in the army that's seen a real war.” He sighed. “But that isn't your problem. Thank you for your warning. I'm going to ask you to remain here, as I'm sure the Captain would like to hear the account, first hand.”

They didn't have to wait long until Jared returned, with the Gustav and the Captain in tow. Waving the sergeant away, the Captain ordered the two young lieutenants to act as scribes, and proceeded grill them about the siege. Given their unique involvement, Gorak in particular was able to provide a highly detailed disposition of the Dwerro forces, although he was rather circumspect as to how he came by it.

Several hours later, the Captain released them. As they turned to leave, Jared fell into step beside them. “You have the run of the town of course, to resupply if you need to,” he offered. “Although prices are like to be dear. Food is being controlled by the council now, so it's hard to come by, but for the right price, you should have no trouble finding what you need. I can perhaps, show you a few places.”

“Chaperon?” Gorak grunted, tactful as always.

“Ah, well, I just though perhaps I could be of some service,” Jared offered with a grin. “That's the official line, anyhow,” he continued with a smirk. “Listen, if it's not me, it'll be somebody else that's not nearly as useful. They just want to make sure you don't go stirring up panic until things have gotten organized.”

“Ah, yes, fair enough,” Khalid replied, not seeing any choice in the matter. “We shall collect what we need and be on our way quickly then.”

Jared turned out to be telling the truth about the useful part, quickly introducing them to several merchants able to provide them with supplies. Having had little opportunity or need to spend any of the wealth Arbaq had supplied them with in Gem-Sharad, they quickly spent sums of money Khalid would have once considered fortunes. Seeing no real need to stay in the city, given their alternative, they headed for the city gate.

“The east gate?” Jared commented, as they walked. “After what I told you, you're still going to head east?” he said, his voice twinged with a mixture of admiration and disbelief.

“What's it to you, where we go?” Gorak growled.

Stopping in front of the barred gate, Jared waved at one of the guards to unlatch a small sally port. “Nothing at all. But damn me if you aren't the oddest bunch I've seen come through these parts lately.” He grinned at them. “What are you people doing here?” he asked once more.

“Ah, passing through,” Khalid replied with a wink, stepping through the gate. They made their way to the outskirts of the refugee camp before sunset, taking shelter out of sight from any curious onlookers.

They struck out the next morning, leaving before the sun was more than put a pale smudge on the horizon. Their hurried pace chewed up the miles quickly and the city was soon far behind. After the first day, they encountered no more people on the road.

The second day, proved far more eventful. Gorak was off scouting ahead when the road in front them exploded in a shower of dirt and debris. Reigning in hard, the summoned mounts reared and pawed at the air, as two enormous stone statues emerged from the ground, facing one another across the ten foot wide expanse of road. Vaguely humanoid, they were so crudely cast as to be almost unrecognizable. Unfinished stone plates covered their body, and thick, stumpy fingers curled into fists at their sides. They towered over the road, and Khalid guessed them to be about fifteen feet high.

Dropping down out of the clouds, Gorak swooped in low and shifted form. “Where'd those things come from?” he growled.

“Outta tha ground,” Azarek rasped, urging his skittish mount forward another step. The statues pivoted on their base, expressionless faces now staring blankly at them.

“Azarek” Shayla muttered darkly under her breath, an unneeded warning in her tone.

Studying the statues carefully, Khalid suddenly clued into where he'd seen their kind before. Gorak had summoned a creature almost exactly the same, albeit smaller, in Malakai's caves. The two statues were earth spirits, bounded to a rocky form on the material plane. But this was a different type of magic, to hold them here as guards indefinitely. Khalid studied them carefully, noticing that both had a shiny metal collar wrapped around their necks.

“Ah, they seem to be bound here, against their will, I should think, yes quite.” Khalid said, as Azarek backed away. “By those collars around their necks, I suspect. I should think they will be easy, yes, easy enough to get rid of,” he continued, muttering a few words and briefly suppressing the magical bonds.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Gorak growled, but before he could grab hold of Khalid, the spell left his fingers. The elemental on the left bulged at the neck, shattering the collar and sending fragments of mental flying through the air, then vanished into the ground as quickly as it had appeared.

“Khalid,” Gorak growled dangerously.

“Ah, yes, well I thought perhaps, yes, as they say, the enemy of my enemy,” Khalid stuttered, glancing around nervously. He was practically thrown out of his saddle as the ground behind him erupted. Swelling to twice its previous size, the elemental towered over them. It brought its massive fists crashing down, shattering the paving stones of the road and roared in a voice that sounding like moving mountains. “RETURN ME!”
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“SEND ME BACK!” the elemental roared, once more bringing its fists crashing down upon the road.

Khalid doubled over in his saddle as a wave of rage washed over him. “Ah, we can't!” Khalid gagged, struggling to form coherent thoughts through the static of anger that was not his own. Azarek wheeled his mount around, interposing himself between the creature and Khalid.

“Khalid!” Gorak growled. “What's it saying?”

Answers fell into place. Only he could understand the creature, but he had never studied the terran tongue to communicate with earth spirits. He brought his will to bear, clearing his mind of any thoughts but his own. We can not do that. None of us have that ability and attacking us will not change that. Forming the image of a Dwerro in his mind, he forced it upon the elemental. They are responsible. Only they can return you. He wasn't entirely certain about the last part, but confronted with several tonnes of highly agitated and impressively mobile rock, he was prepared to stretch the truth a little.

“WHERE?” the being demanded.

“Somebody do something!” Azarek hissed, fingering the hilt of his sword and clearly not relishing the idea of attacking a block of angry stone.

“Ah, do nothing until I tell you.” Khalid admonished. To the west, several days. The thought had barely formed in Khalid's mind when the elemental vanished into the earth. Khalid glanced around nervously, half expecting the angry spirit to emerge from the ground beneath him.

“What the hell did you do?” Gorak growled. “You jus sat there staring at 'em while it was grinding and grumbling, and then it went away. An I might buy a harem girl trembling in fear at the sight of yer pretty face, but that big heap of rocks din't look like the type to jus toddle off because of one skinny wizard.”

Khalid, having grown more practised in the use of his newly discovered talent, explained. “Ah, my time with Ruwayd gave me some rather specific insights into his rather unusual method of communication. Yes, quite. It seems that not only have I become able to broadcast my own thoughts, I am becoming adept at deciphering the thoughts of others, at least to the extent of discerning the meaning of their words.”*

Gorak exhaled slowly. “Next time,” he growled at Khalid, “maybe a little more warning is in order.”

“Ah, yes, well, as I suspected, they have no cause to be angry with us,” Khalid replied with a bravado that was belied by the tremor in his voice.

“So what do we do about that one?” He pointed at the other elemental, still standing motionless beside the road.

“Ah, yes, well, I hate to see any creature enslaved by the Dwerro. I propose we free it as well. Yes, quite.”

“What if it's crazier then the first one?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, I should think we can manage one of these creatures, if it is indeed hostile beyond reason.” He glanced at Gorak, who nodded.

“Easy for you to say,” Shayla muttered. “You both can fly.”

“Don't worry darlin',” Azarek rasped, “I'll pertect ya.”

“I feel safer already,” Shayla replied dryly, rolling her eyes. “Well, whatever then. If you're gonna do it, get on with it.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid said, launching into the ritual that would suppress the magic of the collar. Like the first, as soon as the spell took effect, the elemental reached up and seized the band, tearing it free and casting the twisted scrap of metal away. It turned slowly and seemed to study them each in turn with its glittering, coal-black eyes.

“Thank you for freeing me from that enslavement,” the elemental rumbled. “Can you return me my native realm?”

No. We have no knowledge of the magic that brought you here. It was merely within my power to disrupt the shackles that held you.

The elemental emitted a low grinding noise that Khalid took for the equivalent of a sigh. “Where is the other that was bound here?”

“So what's this one want?” Gorak grunted, looking from the elemental to Khalid, who waved him silent.

Unfortunately, we set him free first. He was not quite so self possessed as you. He left, heading west, seeking out the architects of your imprisonment.

“The length of time we have been imprisoned here weighs heavily on us both.” The creature curled its hand into a huge fist and Khalid could see a stream of grit and stone drifting down to the ground. “The earth of this place is too weak. Maintaining our physical presence requires constant effort. In time, our strength will fail and we will crumble into dust.”

I wish there was more that we could do aid you. The sympathy that accompanied the thought was genuine.

“You have done enough. We will find our own way back.” The elemental began to sink into the ground as it flowed toward them. “I must find the other now.”

“Where'd it go?” Azarek rasped, looking around at the ground.

“Ah, it's leaving. It's going to follow the other. If they don't find a way back soon, they will, undoubtedly die. Yes, quite.”

“How depressing,” Shayla muttered. “At least they'll get a chance to get their revenge on a few Dwerro, if nothing else.”

“Yah,” Gorak grunted. “If they both don't go nuts and carve a swath through the Hub first.”

Khalid frowned, staring back toward the west. He hadn't really thought of that. With a sigh, he turned his mount around and rejoined the others on the road. They put a few more miles behind them before breaking for the evening. The next few days brought no new surprises and except for the occasional break to eat, they rode on uninterrupted.

It was well past noon on the third day when Gorak returned from scouting. Changing form in front of them, he dropped the last few feet to the ground and landed on his feet. Shayla took one look at him and remarked, “So do you actually picture yourself scowling like that while you're shifting, or is that just your natural expression?”

“Funny.” Gorak grunted. “You won't be laughing in a few days when you're soaking wet. Our friend Jakob wasn't kidding. From up there, I know what he was talking about. That rain cloud stretches for miles, farther than I can see.”

Mid morning on the following day brought a bruise coloured smudge to the horizon, eerily reminiscent of the black cloud that precipitated their adventure, what felt like a lifetime before. Its presence cast a pall over their already strained mood. Conversation, which had been sparse, almost completely ceased and Khalid, Shayla and Azarek rode in silence while they awaited Gorak's return. Unsurprisingly, he alone among them seemed unfazed by the perpetual storm clouds that darkened the sky ahead.

Shayla in particular seemed troubled by what lay ahead. Khalid had been surreptitiously watching her since the events in the forest. In the days immediately after, she had worn the magical earring almost constantly, using it to mimic a form similar to her old appearance. Recently she'd practically abandoned it, choosing instead to appear in her new form. The tight fitting black leathers she'd acquired in the Hub served to make her pale skin stand out all the more, and she rarely bothered to even pull back her long, straight, black hair. Occasionally, Khalid caught glimpses of the old Shayla in her banter with Gorak, but she almost never smiled. It was clear that while Gorak's magic had removed all traces of physical wounds, there were others of a deeper sort that still plagued her.

Offering her his hand, Khalid helped her into the magical dimension he created that night, and then pulled in the rope, sealing the entrance. Breathing a sigh of relief, as he often did when he was once again protected by the security of his magic, Khalid began to unpack his bedroll. Drawing out a hard baked biscuit from the supplies they'd acquired in town, he sat down with his spellbook, absently nibbling on the bread. He barely had time to review his recent notes when Shayla spoke.

“So I think it's time we discussed exactly what we're doing here.”

“I thought we was gonna go check out this rain cloud,” Gorak rumbled, looking up from his pack.

“What exactly is that going to accomplish?” she asked.

“Ah, well, the people of the Hub...” Khalid began.

“Can save themselves,” Shayla interrupted. “We're not going to win this war alone, and nobody else seems to give a damn enough to try. You heard Jakob. This road is littered with traps. Eventually we're going to run into one we can't handle.”

Khalid frowned. “Ah, well, when you put it that way. The Dwerro are undoubtedly watching the road.”

“I still think we should check out this swamp,” Gorak rumbled.

“Of course you do,” Shayla replied, somewhat causticly. “It's the most miserable, unpleasant, dangerous place nearby. But we could spend months wandering around in there without finding any clue as to what's causing it. And while that might be your idea of a good time, it sure isn't mine.”

“So we just run away?” Gorak growled.

“Run away?” Shayla retorted. “From an unwinnable war against an implacable foe? If that's what you want to call it, then sure. But in case you forgot, we made a deal with Arbaq. And while we never promised him we'd succeed, if we're just going to give up on that, he at least deserves to hear it from us.”

“Ah, she has a point, Gorak,” Khalid said. “It pains me to see what the Dwerro have done, but to throw ourselves heedlessly against their might, well, perhaps our current course of action merits a sober second thought. Yes, quite.”

“Even after what we went through at Caer Morag?”

“At least there, we had a reason for what we were doing,” Shayla replied. “This is just aimless wandering. And you can bet that the Dwerro have a measure of our skill now.” She looked rather pointedly at Khalid. “Zarum owed you a favour for saving his life, but the rest of them won't be that friendly. Given what he told us, you have to believe that they're searching for you.”

Khalid's frown deepened as he considered her words. “Ah, yes, well, I do now,” he muttered.

“Fine,” Gorak grunted. “Let's sleep on it. If you both feel the same way in the morning, I won't argue.”

The exchange soured Khalid's mood to the point where even the prospect of a few hours study wasn't enough to hold his concentration. Abandoning his work, he pulled his bedroll up around his shoulders, and drifted into a fitful, uneasy sleep. Beset by nightmares of grasping Dwerro pulling his spellbook from his cold dead hands, he awoke more tired then he had been the night before, but with his mind made up.

Gorak took one look at his expression and then glanced at Shayla. Without even asking, he knew what their answer would be. “So now where?” he growled.

“Home,” was all Shayla replied.

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed.

“Just to let Arbaq know we failed?” Gorak growled. “That's a helluva long way just to say we're sorry.”

“Ah, perhaps would should return to Martok on the way back. I suspect, yes, suspect that Vestalt had more on his mind then just ruining our day when he kidnapped the Dwerro we, ah, well, kidnapped.”

“Well, if he does, hopefully it will take him time to get organized on this side of the mountain. Either way, we still got that curse to think our way through. But it's something at least,” Gorak relented grudgingly. “North then?”

“It would seem the logical choice. Yes, quite.” Pulling out their map, he spread it out on the hazy floor of the pocket dimension. “Ah, I see no reason to return to the Hub. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that advance elements of the Dwerro army have already reached the city. I would suggest that we leave the road immediately. Save for these few scattered hamlets along the coast to the northeast, and some villages along the rivers and lakes, the northern plains seem relatively uninhabited. We should be able to avoid any unwanted attention with ease. Yes, quite.”

The decision made, they abandoned their shelter and climbed onto Khalid's summoned mounts. Turning off the road, they skirted the edge of the foothills to the north that Jakob had warned them about. While not as easy as the road, the grasslands were smooth and relatively flat, and their steady pace ate up the miles.

A few days after they'd left the road, Khalid awoke from a sound slumber, in the middle of the night. Glancing around the tiny extra-dimensional space, he tried to find the source of his disturbance. With some concern, he realized that the opening to the portal had been unsealed, and the rope had been lowered. Gorak and Azarek were in their bedrolls, asleep, but Shayla's blankets were piled in a rumpled ball. Moving quietly, so as not to wake the others, Khalid gathered up his robes, and climbed out of the shelter to investigate. Shivering in the cool night air, he pulled his robes over his head while his eyes adjusted to the dim light of a full moon. Overhead, a canopy of stars glittered around the enormous orb of the moon. Shayla was standing a few dozen feet from the entrance, with her back to him and seemed unaware of his presence. Hands balled into fists at her sides, she muttered a few words under her breath, then stood motionless. Khalid, unsure of what was going on, approached her cautiously. A few seconds later, her shoulders slumped and her head tilted down, her long black hair falling in front of her face.

“Ah, Shayla?” he asked. Jerking around at the sound of his voice, she quickly rubbed her sleeve across her eyes. “Ah, sorry, yes, quite. I did not mean to startle you. Is everything all right?”

“No,” she replied. Seconds passed, and then her words came tumbling out, frustration marring the melodic sound of her voice. “Nothing is all right. I can't seem to sleep much anymore and when I do, it's just nightmares of that place. Ever since I came back, everything is wrong. I feel weak and tired, and angry. I can't concentrate and I can't feel the flow of magic like I used to.” She closed her eyes and began to chant. Khalid could see her struggling, could sense the weaves gathering around her. Her eyes flew open and she pointed a long slender finger out over the plains. Expecting a burst of flame, Khalid shielded his eyes from the light, only to hear a faint hissing sound like a rustling breeze. Squinting into the darkness, he could see that the grass in front of her was curled and dead, still sizzling slightly from the noxious jet of vapour that streamed from her hands.

“Two weeks ago, there would have been a smoking crater out there the size of Arbaq's study,” she said bitterly. “Now that's the limit of my control. Magic I mastered months ago. And even that is tainted and different.”

Unsure of what to say, Khalid moved up beside her, and place a hand on her shoulder, in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. “Ah, yes, well, I'm sure that with practise you will regain your skill. The ordeal has been taxing, in ways I can not begin to comprehend.”

She sighed. “I suppose your right,” she replied, but Khalid could sense the doubt in her voice. “Just do me a favour, and don't tell Gorak what I said. I don't want him to think I'm not grateful for getting me out of that place.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.” He pulled his robes tight around his shoulders against the chill. “It's late, you should return to the portal and try to rest. Morning will arrive far too soon.”

Shayla shook her head. “I think I'm going to stay out here a bit longer.” Seeing Khalid about to object, she raised a hand to stop him. “Don't worry Khalid, I'll be fine. For all my complaining, I'm not completely defenceless.”

“Very well.” He left her to her brooding, and returned to his bed. Despite her assurances, he stayed awake until she returned, rolling over and pretending to be asleep, knowing that his concern would only make her feel worse.

They didn't speak of it again, and true to his word, Khalid said nothing to Gorak about their discussion. The unending sea of grass before them bore little signs of civilization. In places, stands of trees dotted the landscape, untouched by any axe, and teeming with wildlife. Able to outpace them easily in his animal forms, Gorak spent time hunting and foraging. More out of boredom then any real need to supplement their stores Khalid suspected, but he certainly wasn't going to complain about a little variety.

Khalid spent much of his time in the saddle, poring over his spellbook, putting the finishing touches on one of his newest endeavours. Having discovered a way to greatly fortify his magical invisibility at the expense of its duration, he was reviewing his notes to ensure he hadn't overlooked anything when Gorak returned from scouting. Reverting to his natural form, he joined them on foot, and they dismounted to stretch their legs a bit, after half a day on horseback. Gorak took the lead, ranging out ahead a dozen yards or so. Holding his reins in one hand, and his spellbook in the other, Khalid absently followed Shayla and Azarek, mouthing the words to the spell over and over.

A strange whistling sound caused him to glance up from his book. In front of him, Shayla had stopped, and oddly, a swath of the waist high grass around her was sifting to the ground. Before his mind could make sense of the scene, she turned around slowly.

“Khalid,” she managed weakly, a bloody bubble bursting on her lips before she sagged forward, reins dropping from her hand while the other clutched at the foot long ebony spine buried deep in her chest. Before he could so much as move, a hideous shriek split the air and chaos descended on them.

* * * * * * * * *​
* Heh, I'm pretty sure at this point in the game there was a fairly in depth discussion of just what telepathy allows you to do. The description of telepathy is a bit vague - if I remember correctly, it just says that it allows you to "communicate" with any creature that has a language. In the end, Galeman decided to allow Khalid to understand all languages as a result.

EternalNewbie said:
“Khalid,” she managed weakly, a bloody bubble bursting on her lips before she sagged forward, reins dropping from her hand while the other clutched at the foot long ebony spine buried deep in her chest. Before he could so much as move, a hideous shriek split the air and chaos descended on them.


Nice cliffhanger.

I was wondering if the party had a clear goal in mind setting off after that rainstorm ... I guess not really.

Anyway, looking forward to more, whichever direction they go ... :)

We had a bit of an identity crisis here - for a while, we actually thought we were heroes, aiding people in distress for purely altruistic reasons. But as you see, we got over it pretty quickly and got back to serving our own self interests.

Heh, actually, I suspect there might have been a long break between games at that point, and when we sat down to play again, we reorganized our priorities, turning away from the war to focus on the Arbaq situation. For the most part, Galeman's perfectly happy to let players ignore the story arc and wander around causing mayhem, making up adventures on the fly. At this point however, we were pretty deep into it, so we figured we'd make his life a little easier, and play along... :D

In retrospect...maybe we should have gone to the swamp ;)

We had a bit of an identity crisis here - for a while, we actually thought we were heroes, aiding people in distress for purely altruistic reasons. But as you see, we got over it pretty quickly and got back to serving our own self interests.

Glad to hear it - wouldn't want you going all mushy on us. :D

In retrospect...maybe we should have gone to the swamp ;)

Well OBVIOUSLY ... that was always going to be the case ... unless you actually had gone to the swamp. ;)

I think we were dragging our feet. We set out originally to go into Martok, but we hit a serious snag: the curse - "to enter Martok you must give up what you value the most!". I'm not sure how that comes across in the Story Hour, but no-one wanted to do that so our next option was to go to Caer Morag and find a solution in the library and when that failed we were out of luck. I think our aimless wandering came from the fact that none of us wanted to face Martok. So our characters were putting off the inevitable. By the time we hit the edge of the storm, we decided to re-focus. This happens one other time later on in the story hour where we know what we have to do but, for some reason, put it off...

If you're wondering what the characters value the most, I think it's pretty fair to say it's their power - although for Gorak, it was a toss-up between that and his snake ;)

- Shayla's power is rooted in her force of personality and it defines her: from the beginning when her father gave her her inheritance then kicked her out because she was "different". I think she's trying to prove herself (but that's just my opinion);
- Gorak is trying to be omiscient/immortal/"one with the universe" - escape his mortal bonds;
- and Khalid...well I shouldn't speak for Khalid, but I think it's's all about the chicks!
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Khalid recognized the beast from his studies at the White Tower, although he could scarcely believe his eyes. Huge webbed wings, like those of a bat, propelled the feline body through the air with uncanny speed. The black mane that surrounded the feral, lion like head was mangy and tattered. A long, sinuous tail, studded with needle sharp quills of varying sizes arched high over the creatures back, as it wheeled in the air, turning for another pass. Oddly, a swirling cloud of ravens trailed in its wake, descending out of the clouds in large numbers.

With Shayla mortally wounded, Khalid saw little possibility of victory. Given the ease with which the creature had felled her, trying to drive it away without her considerable power would be next to impossible. His options for dealing with a flying opponent were severely limited and while Azarek had his bow, it would take incredible skill and accuracy to pierce the creature's thick hide as it raced past. Even if Gorak could manage to occupy it, there was little chance they could protect Shayla from another pass, out here on the open plain.

Azarek! Grab Shayla. Gorak, we've got to get away from this thing. Without Shayla we cannot hope to defeat it. Uncoiling the length of rope wrapped around his waist, he tossed it to the ground while he hastily went through the complex formula that opened their sanctuary. Azarek, sweeping the shield off his back, held it high over his head and ran to Shayla's crumpled form. Seizing her by the front of her tunic, he picked her up with one hand and threw her over his shoulder. Staggering back to Khalid, he flexed his legs and hurled her upwards through the magical portal.

The creature roared in anger when it saw its prey escaping into thin air. It swooped low toward Gorak, who was turning to rejoin the others. The long segmented tail whipped down, sending a cloud of spikes buzzing through the air. Barely able to raise his shield in time, Gorak grunted and staggered, falling to his knees. The largest of the spines were driven deep into his darkwood shield, but several more landed true, sinking into the thick muscles of his legs and abdomen.

Khalid grabbed hold of the rope as Azarek's boot disappeared above him. He stopped, looking back over his shoulder at Gorak, who was still several dozen yards away.

Seeing him hesitate, Gorak roared, “Go damn you! Don't wait for me!”

The creature banked hard above them, gaining altitude and position for another pass. Khalid's heart hammered in his chest and he saw the resignation in Gorak's face. Both of them knew there was no way he would make it to the portal before the creature attacked again. Dropping to the ground, he turtled under his shield. “Go!” he roared again, as the beast closed on him. Seizing the rope with his other hand, Khalid reluctantly heeded the command and climbed up.

Inside, Azarek was futilely trying to stem the flow of blood from Shayla's wounds. “She's still alive,” he rasped, pressing a tattered strip of cloth around the wound in her stomach. “Barely. But if Gorak don't get in 'ere right quick, he's gonna need to fetch her outta the underworld agin.” Khalid breathed a sigh of relief, fumbling around at his waist for a healing potion. Before he could administer it, Gorak's head appeared through the gateway.

“Little help?” he growled, clutching at the edge of the portal. Azarek leaned over and seized his arm, dragging him through the entrance, then pulled the rope up behind. Oozing blood from countless wounds, he dragged himself over to Shayla. “Sit her up,” he directed Azarek.

“Ah, can't you just heal her?” Khalid said anxiously.
“Ain't no magic of mine gonna fix her with that spike lodged in her guts.” He looked at Azarek. “We can't pull it out, the barbs will rip her apart. We're gonna have to time this real good. It ain't digging into anything too vital, so you're gonna have to drive it right through her at the same time I mend her up.”

Placing one arm around her shoulders, Azarek propped Shayla up and grabbed the spine in her abdomen with his other hand. “Khalid,” he rasped. “Yer gonna have to steady her. I'ma gonna need both hands fer this.” Moving to his side, Khalid helped hold her upright. Azarek took a deep breath, then, with a look at Gorak, nodded his head.

Gorak closed his eyes and gathered his focus. Sweat dropped down his face as he began to chant, his deep voice rumbling in his chest. Opening his eyes, he held his hand above the wound. “Now,” he barked.

Shayla's eyes flew open and she gasped in pain as Azarek drove the spike into her stomach, seizing it on the other side and pulling it clear through. Gorak plunged his hand into the wound, and completed the spell. Drawing it out, covered in blood and bile, he left behind a smooth patch of unbroken skin.

With a shuddering groan, Shayla leaned heavily into Khalid. “Why,” she muttered weakly, “does that always happen to me?”

Khalid held her close for a moment, until she stopped shaking. Turning to Gorak, he asked, “Ah, how did you escape the beast?”

“Bitch must have run outta ammo,” he grunted. “Gave me one more good dusting, but couldn't finished the job before I got in here.” He pulled his waterskin off his belt and held it out to Azarek. “Ya mind?” As Azarek unscrewed the top, Khalid realized that Gorak hadn't yet let go of his shield. Taking a long pull, he tossed the empty flask to Khalid. “My turn now,” he growled. Holding up his shield arm, Khalid could see half a dozen spikes buried in the wood. The largest, in the middle, had passed clear through, piercing the thick muscles of his forearm and protruding from the other side. Examining him closely, Khalid realized that Gorak was covered in wounds. Dozens of spikes, ranging from several inches to almost a foot long covered the length of his body, buried deep in his legs and shoulder.

“Drive 'er through or yank 'er out?” Azarek asked.

“Yank it out,” Gorak growled. “You'd have to pound on that bastard for an hour to get it through the darkwood and its thicker at the base then the tip. Gonna have to clip the barbs off first, and then cut the straps of my shield.

“Better bite down on sumthin'” Azarek growled, taking off his helm and setting it on the floor. “This is gonna hurt.”

“Don't I know it,” Gorak growled. “Jus get on wit it.” Leaning over, Gorak rested the barbed tip on the top of Azarek's helm.

Azarek pulled out the magical dagger from its sheath, he cut the leather straps that held the shield in place on Gorak's arm, then placed the edge against the spine. Raising the Dwerro hammer over his head, he brought it down on the edge of the knife without so much as a warning. Gorak grunted in pain as the tip snapped off.

“That wasn't so bad,” he growled with a shaky grin. “Now for the fun part.” He rolled over on his stomach and stretched out his arm. “Make the first pull a good one, cause I sure don't wanna do this twice.

Azarek stood up, placing one foot on Gorak's hand and the other on his shoulder. Bending over, he grabbed he shield with both and pulled, yanking it free. Gorak sat up, clamping his other hand over the wound. “Now take that knife and cut the one outta my shoulder, and maybe that big one in my leg too.”

Never squeamish, Azarek obliged him. By the time he was finished, Gorak's skin had turned ashen grey, and his breathing was uneven. Blood streamed over his skin, collecting in pools around him. “That oughta do 'er,” he grumbled. Muttering a few words under his breath, he directed his healing magic inward. The small spines clattered to the ground as his injuries mended. Looking at Khalid, he asked, “So jus what in the nine hells was that thing?”

“Ah, I've read about creatures such as that. It's called a manticore. It is the bastard offspring of cursed magic. Parts of various beasts fused, yes, fused together by a crazed magi. Supposedly, a pair of them maganed to escape, and breed, evidently. However, they have not been seen in centuries. I had thought them only legends.” He offered them a wry grin. “Ah, but then again, I probably would have said the same about dragons, a year ago. Yes, quite.” Falling silent for a moment, he replayed the encounter in his mind. “What did you make of the crows that trailed the monster?”

“Dunno,” Gorak grunted. “Seemed a bit off, eh? Crows is smart though. Maybe they're just opportunists. Too small to be a meal and lots of carrion left over. Anyhow, it ain't them we gotta be worried about. That thing won't get the drop on us twice.”

The took the day to recovered from the ambush. In the morning, Gorak cautiously dropped out of the portal and had a look around. Signalling the all clear after a few minutes of scouting, the others joined him and they resumed their trek.

Mid afternoon found them atop a small ridge, looking down over a shallow lake basin. A small cluster of houses surrounded the bank, spanning the single river that cut the valley.

“So we going in there, or what?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, well, we've been on the road for some time now. A hot meal and a decent place to sleep would be a welcome, yes, welcome change.” Khalid offered.

“Sure,” Gorak grunted. “There can't be Dwerro this far north already.”

Decided, they rode toward the tiny hamlet. As they neared, a sense of unease began to weigh upon Khalid, although he couldn't place it's source. Finally, he figured out what was bothering him. “Ah, it might be only early afternoon, but wouldn't you expect at least a few of the chimneys to be smoking? Surely, yes, surely someone in town should have a fire lit.”

“Yeah,” Gorak growled in agreement. “I ain't seen anybody moving around down there since we came over that hill. Better get ready.”

Azarek settled his helm and strapped on his shield. Unsheathing his sword, he nudged his horse into the lead. Nearing the town, Khalid noticed that the fields had been tilled but not planted, although it was well into summer. Weeds and grasses had taken root among the rows and the wildflowers hummed with the sounds of bees, but there little sign of any habitation. Turning, they moved onto the dirt track that passed as the main street of the town and headed toward the harbour. A lone crow watched them from the eave of a squat log house, cocking its head to the side as they passed. With a shrill cry, it took to wing, and vanished into the clouds overhead.

“Ah, that's ominous,” Khalid commented.

“There,” Gorak barked, pointing at one of the houses. “I just saw that shutter move. Maybe there's still somebody around here after all. Hang back a bit, I'm gonna go check it out.”

Staying close enough to help if need be, they watched him approach the small house. Abandoning all pretence of stealth, he hammered on the door. “Open up. I know yer in there,” he growled.

There was a faint sound of movement from within, then a querulous voice replied, “Go away! There's nothing here for likes of you but death. Leave now while you're still able!”

Gorak looked back over his shoulder and shrugged, at a loss for a course of action. Receiving nothing in the way of a helpful suggestion from the others, he pounded on the door again. “We're ain't going nowhere until you tell us what's going on. Now open up this door before I kick it down.”

The voice inside didn't respond to his challenge. Gorak dismounted and was preparing to carry through on his threat when the door on a house a few feet away opened with a bang. A wizened old man stuck his head out and called, “He ain't gonna open that door. None of 'em are.”

Khalid studied the old man for a second before responding. Tufts of white hair surrounded his bald crown, and his peasant garb was stained and dirty, hanging off his slight frame. His rheumy eyes were narrowed in a permanent squint, staring out from hollow cheeks. “Ah, then perhaps you can tell us what's going on here, why your fields lie fallow and the people hide in fear. Is it the Dwerro?”

“Dwerro? No, there ain't no Dwerro around here,” The old man replied. He was about to continue, when a shrill voice rang out from inside.

“What are you doing, you old fool! Send them on their way before you bring down doom on all of us!”

“Quiet woman!” he barked. “What doom could we suffer that's worse than this? Come winter, we're all gonna starve anyhow. And you heard the big fella. If we don't let him in, he's just gonna open the door with his foot, and I reckon a sore leg ain't gonna improve his mood none.” He waved them over. “You best get outta the street. It ain't safe.”

The followed the old man into his tiny house. The furnishings were sparse but the interior was tidy. A simple table and set of chairs adorned the room, which appeared to serve as both the kitchen and main living area. As they entered, the single door leading off the room slammed shut.

“Don't mind her,” the old man instructed. “She's always mad at me for some reason or another. Might as well be a good one.”

Cutting through the pleasantries with his usual tact, Gorak asked, “So you wanna tell us what's going on around here?”

“This town is cursed,” the old man replied simply.

Snapping his fingers, Khalid interrupted. “Ah, the monster yes? The flying beast? It is what keeps you trapped within your homes?”

“So you've seen it then?” The old man seemed surprised. “And you got away?”

“Obviously,” Shayla muttered.

“Well, don't that beat all. Usually when that thing shows up, somebody dies.”

“Ah, yes, that thing is called a manticore. It's an aberration, born of fell magics.” Khalid instructed, speaking slowly so as not to confuse the old man.

“Might as well call it death,” the old man replied, with a resigned shrug. “That's what it is. To this town anyhow. But it ain't no more then we deserve.”

“Maybe you'd better start from the beginning,” Gorak growled.

“I'm trying, but you all keep interrupting,” the old man grumbled. “It started showing up a few months back, after Edgar and Beowin and their boy were driven outta town.”

“I think I know where this is going,” Shayla muttered.

“Well, ain't you a clever one then. The boy always was a bit off, if you know what I mean, but not so much as to get everybody all stirred up. Had a bit of a reputation for being nearby when there was strange goings on. But his folks was well liked, so nobody really paid it too much mind.”

“Until?” Gorak grunted.

“Until all the pigs turned up dead and the cows milk went sour,” the old man replied. “After that, people weren't so forgivin'.”

“Always with the sour milk,” Shayla muttered bitterly. “That could have just been a coincidence.” Khalid glanced at her, somewhat surprised by the anger in her voice. “I couldn't sour milk if my life depended on it,” she muttered under her breath, scowling.

The old man nodded. “Maybe so, but when people's livelihoods is on the line, well, they don't think none to clearly. They drove the boy and his folks out of town. Now, Edgar and Beowin, they were begging and pleading with folks they'd known their whole life, not to do it but the boy, he just got real quiet like. With the whole village standing their at the edge of town, murder in their eyes, he just turnt around, calm like it were just another day on the farm, and levels a look cold enough to freeze water in high summer. In a voice like thunder, he tells them all their gonna regret what they done, and see their lives ruined the same way. Folks didn't pay no mind to him and just went back to their daily business. But the boy, well, he sure showed them.”
“And where were you during all this?” Shayla asked.

“Listen little girl,” the old man replied, bristling at the implication. “I ain't got but a few more years to make my peace with the gods, but I ain't in no rush ta get on with it. The boy din't kill none of my livestock, but if I'd put up a hollar, those pitchforks woulda been jabbin inta my behind just as quick.”

“So what are you gonna do now?” Gorak asked.

“Wither up and die, I suspect,” the old man replied in a hopeless tone. “The granary's bare and every time we try to go out and plant, a huge flock of ravens shows up and drives everybody out of the fields. People are too frightened to leave their houses.”

“Sounds like it's high time to pack it in and leave,” Gorak suggested.

“ Some folks tried to make a run fer it a while back, but that manteeker or whatever you call it dropped their bodies right there in the town square, to show us all how far that'd get us.” The old man sighed. “No sir. I think we're all done fer.”

“Ah, there are perhaps a few things we need to discuss,” Khalid said, motioning at Shayla for their magical pack. Digging out a cloth wrapped bundle of rations, he handed to the old man. “If you would perhaps adjourn to the other room, so that we make speak privately. Yes, quite.”

“Young fella, right now I'd just about sell you my house for that food. Take all the time you need.” The old man scooped up the package and left the room, closing the door behind.

“Ah, yes, well, are we going to involve ourselves in this?” Khalid asked.

“I don't see why we should,” Shayla snapped. “These people brought this mess on themselves, and I'd rather not have a repeat of yesterday. Once was enough.”

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “But nevertheless, we may have cause to return to the east in the future. With the Dwerro firmly in control of the south, we might come to rely on these remote villages. And it is in place such as this that rebellion might form.”

“Hah,” Shayla scoffed. “These peasants aren't exactly the guerrilla warrior types.”

“Yes, but still,” Khalid responded, looking at Gorak, “the value of supplies and sanctuary cannot be overestimated. What are your thoughts on the matter?”

“Seems like its got a lot of possibility of getting messy,” Gorak growled. “But I'm not sure we've got a choice. We can make a run for it. I can maybe get us clear before that thing finds us but if the weather holds, it's gonna be hard to avoid being spotted. If we risk it and get caught, we're gonna be easy pickings out on the plains. We already ducked it once but I'm guessing he ain't the sort to just let that go. Maybe its best if we pick the spot to settle it.”

“We are agreed then?” Khalid asked, looking back to Shayla.

“Fine,” she relented. “But my power isn't what it used to be. We're gonna have to pull it in damn close.”

“And the ravens will have to be addressed,” Khalid added.

“Right,” Gorak grunted. “I'm gonna go take a look around town, see what kinda options we got. You three stay put.” He raised his voice. “Old man.” The door opened and the old man stuck his head into the room. “Where's this granary?”

“Up the street, near the center of town.”

“Alright. We're gonna see if we can't fix your little problem here.” He pulled open the door, shifted form and flew out into the street.

The old man watched him go with a look of surprise on his face. “Watch out for them birds, it's how he keeps tabs on us,” he called out after him. Turning to the others, he said, “If he hadn't just done that, I'd have laughed out loud. But maybe you can at that. My thanks.”

“Don't thank us yet,” Shayla replied. While they waited for Gorak to return, they prepared themselves for the coming battle, knowing that the beast could descend upon them without warning.

Half an hour later, Gorak returned. “This might just work out,” he growled. “The granary should give us cover. It's solid, with lots of room for the three of us and the door is big enough for it to squeeze through.”

“That's not good,” Shayla commented with a frown.

“Ah, yes, on the contrary,” Khalid said, recognizing Gorak's intentions. “We might be able to goad him into your range if he thinks he can finish us off.”

“Whut about them birds?” Azarek asked.

“Ah, yes, if I take up a position near the front I should be able to deal with the vast majority of them,” Khalid replied.

“I got a few things that might help but if there's magic controlling them, we'll have to get rid of them the hard way.” Gorak added.

“So how we gonna get it down here? Azarek rasped. Gorak just looked at him, with an evil grin.

“Glad I asked,” Azarek muttered. He glanced at Khalid, who was looking at him hopefully. “Fine,” he growled. “I'll be the bait. When?”

“Tomorrow, if he don't come for us sooner,” Gorak rumbled.

They spent a tense evening within the dubious shelter of the old man's home, taking advantage of his hospitality though he had little to offer them. Early in the morning, shortly after Gorak had finished communing, they made their way quickly to the center of town. Throwing up the latch, Gorak swung the two heavy wooden doors open and walked inside. Khalid and Shayla followed him into the two story brick building. Taking up a position by the door, Khalid kept a close eye on Azarek while Shayla moved further back. At Gorak's signal, Azarek slipped of his shield and flipped it around, holding up the hammered steel back. Turning it slightly, he caught the rays of the early morning sun, causing it to flash into the sky.

The temperature inside the granary rose with the sun, and Khalid began to sweat heavily. Despite the heat, a shiver ran through him when Azarek finally put his shield back on and drew his sword. “Get ready,” he growled. “Here it comes.”


Congrats to EN and his wife (who plays Shayla) on their new baby. Also to Galeman, our DM, who's getting married this weekend (on my b-day, no less!).

Congrats indeed...wait, no...Forget all this real life stuff! Ignore this bump at your own peril!:devil:

Seriously, I'm awed you came back to continue writing this great SH. I know when it started I only had two kids, now I have four - I have increased my workload and resposibilities - so, I totally understand the real life stuff. I have not roleplayed much at all this year. I certainly have not had an active SH for over five years.

EN the first 6 months with a baby can be tough, but hang in there man it gets a lot better.

Good luck Galeman. It's the best/worst life move you have ever made. Fellow married men know exactly what I mean. 15 blissful years for me (in case the better half reads this ;) ).

Azarek sprinted through the door, turning sharply to his right and pressing his back up against the wall. “Ravens,” he rasped, lifting his shield up to cover his face.

Khalid, standing across from him on the other side of the main doors, readied his spell. A thought nagged at him, something about grain dust, but he quickly pushed it aside. As the first few ravens flew past, he unleashed his magic. A torrent of white hot embers swirled through the door, incinerating dozens of the birds. Shayla cursed and ducked aside as tiny smoking corpses tumbled across the granary, crashing into the back wall. The air inside filled with smoke and the screeches of the dying ravens.

Impressive though it might have looked, the spell did little to diminish the maelstrom of talons and feathers that engulfed them. For every bird felled, ten more took its place, flying through the door to claw and peck at their exposed skin. “Khalid!” Shayla shrieked, trying to protect her face, “do something!”

Edging away from the main door, Khalid tried to maintain his focus. Concentrating through the pain, he brought his magic to bear again, this time angling the flames straight up at the mass of birds whirling above. The smoke became so thick he could barely see the others through the haze. Gagging on the smell of charred carrion, he stumbled backwards toward the small side door.

Gorak spat out the words to a spell, setting both his hands alight with flame. Waving them in front of his face to keep the ravens at bay, he roared over the din. “Azarek!” Gorak roared, “what's that big bitch doing?”

Azarek, faring better than the others thanks to his armor, stepped out in front of the door, the edge of his shield held level with his eyes. An odd ringing filled the air as several birds ricocheted of his metal clad body to fall stunned upon the floor. “Jus sitting there!” he yelled back. “No wait!” He cursed. “It ain't taking the bait. It jus took off.”

The stench and smoke and pain became too much for Khalid. He had expected his spells to have more effect and consequently had only prepared two castings. Groping for the handle of the door, he flung it open, and staggered out into the sunlight. Gorak and Shayla, realizing the situation was turning against them, fled toward the main entrance.

Khalid sidled along the outside of the granary, trying his best to remain unnoticed. Unsure of where the manticore was, he decided to put as much distance between himself and where he knew it had last been. Ravens fluttered around him, swooping and diving as they tried to find a way into the building. From inside, he could hear Gorak shouting in anger and pain. Feeling worse than useless, Khalid continued on. Turning the corner, he realized that he'd made a terrible mistake. The manticore was directly ahead of him. He cringed and was about to run but the beast didn't shower him with spines. It seemed not to have noticed him, and continued on its course, flying away from the village, out over the barren fields that surrounded the town. Having little magic available to deal with an airborne threat, he considered the wisdom of interrupting the creature's flight. He allowed the creature to fly a little further away before resolving to make one last attempt. If the creature was a conjuration, or ensorcelled in some manner, he could yet cause its master some grief. Muttering the words to a spell as quickly and quietly as he could, Khalid unleashed his spell. When the final syllable left his mouth, he stood there slack jawed, blinking in surprise.

Khalid's magic unravelled the spell surrounding the beast. The manticore shimmered and warped back into the form of a young man, who promptly emitted a blood curdling shriek and plummeted several hundred feet to ground. Khalid averted his eyes at the last second, although he knew instantly that the sound of the impact would forevermore haunt his thoughts every time he took to air.*

“Well,” Shayla remarked, emerging from around the side of the granary, with Gorak and Azarek in tow. “I bet he wasn't expecting that.”

“Probably wouldn't have bounced so high if'n he was,” Gorak grunted in agreement. “Nice work, Khalid.” Behind them, the remaining ravens scattered into the sky, the magic binding them ended with the death of their master.

With what Khalid felt was an over abundance of morbid curiosity, Gorak, Shayla and Azarek went to inspect the remains of their fallen foe. Khalid reluctantly tagged along, trailing well behind. A single glimpse told him everything he needed to know. The sorcerer, the boy Garon presumably, had not survived the fall after Khalid had dispelled his shifted form. His broken body lay twisted upon the earth, his threadbare peasant garb, covered with blood. Although he knew the boy had left him little choice, he still felt no elation at their victory. With a sigh, he turned to head back to town, when Azarek brought him up short.

“Whadda ya make of that,” he rasped, nudging the body over with the toe of his boot. Spattered with gore was a long black cloak, made from what appeared to be feathers.

Shayla muttered a few words under her breath and stared intently at the garment. “It's radiating magic,” she said. Bending down, she removed the clasp, then picked it up gingerly between her thumb and forefinger, trying to avoid getting blood on her hands. “No sense leaving it for those yokels in town,” she added. “Gorak, you wanna help me out here?” Khalid glanced over, somewhat unsettled by her tone, but her face was an expressionless mask.

Gorak grumbled out the words to a spell, dousing the cloak a deluge of water. It came instantly clean, the blood running off it in rivulets and pooling at Shayla's feet. In the mid-morning sun, the black feathers shone with an oily sheen. Shaking the water from it, Shayla folded it up and placed it within their magical haversack. A small frown crossed her face as she threw the rucksack over her shoulder. “There's something else...” she trailed off, eyes narrowing in concentration. She moved a few dozen paces away from the body, scanning the ground. Some thirty feet away, she knelt down and picked up a polished black staff, from where it lay hidden in the long grass.

Finding nothing else of interest, and having no desire to gloat over their vanquished enemy, they returned to town. As they approached, doors began to open and people flooded out into the street. Word of the battle spread quickly, and soon the entire village surrounded them. Tears of gratitude dampened more than one cheek, and they were bombarded with thanks from all directions. Somewhat embarrassed and ill at ease in the crowd, Khalid sought to stay close to Gorak and Shayla. Soon, one voice rose above the din.

“The whole village thanks you for what you've done. We don't have much, but what we have, is yours.” The crowd quieted down a little, and a middle aged man with the build of a smith stepped forward. The man's blond hair was fading to grey, but his powerful frame showed little signs of age. Khalid judged him to be some sort of unofficial leader of the town, based on the way the others looked to him.

“I doubt you got anything we need, but thanks anyhow,” Gorak rumbled. “Now, are there any places around here he might hole up? He may have left a few surprises behind, and since we're not going no place today, we might as well take a look.”

The speaker glanced around the gathered crowd. From behind him, a tentative voice spoke up. “The last two times he flew over the town, he came from over the lake. There are some low cliffs over that, that have some crevices and fissure's running through 'em. Might be that there's a place there he coulda found.”

“Right,” Gorak grunted. “In that case, there is something you can do. Somebody lend us a boat.”

A dozen offers were shouted out. Gorak pointed at the man closest to him. “Fine, we'll take yours. That should do 'er.”

“Ah, yes, well there is something else I require,” Khalid added. When they turned and looked at him, he blurted, “Jewellery, yes quite.” Ignoring Gorak's strange look, he continued quickly. “Heirlooms, broaches, rings, earrings, necklaces and the like. I will, yes, will not take much.”

“It's the least we can do,” the blond man replied. “We'll take up a collection. But there ain't no rich folk here, I'm afraid you're gonna be mighty disappointed.”

“Ah, yes, well, no matter.” Khalid replied, indicating that they should head down to the waterfront.

Khalid's spirits sank when they reached the lakeside and he realized the proffered conveyance was little more than a row boat, with an ominously well used bucket resting in the bottom. The owner was about to climb in when Gorak stopped him with a hand on his arm. “We can manage from here,” he rumbled. “Wouldn't want you wandering into anything that went boom.”

Despite his misgivings, the little boat proved seaworthy and with Gorak at the oars, it practically leaped through the water. After a few minutes, the village began to recede into the distance. Some time later, the far side of the lake became more than just a distant smudge on the horizon. Soon, cliffs loomed large overhead, and Gorak changed their course slightly, angling for a rocky beach at their base. Azarek jumped over the side as the boat entered shallow waters, dragging it on to the beach while the others gathered their things.

Shielding his eyes from the sun, Gorak scanned the rock face. “Stay put,” he grunted. “I'll go take a look around.” Shifting form, he flew into the air, racing along the cliffs. He returned mere minutes later, landing in front of them and changing back. “Found it. Ain't too far away. Easy enough to get to.”

After a short walk down the rocky beach, they arrived at the cave. With a frown, Khalid realized that he and Gorak had very different definitions of easy. Still, with the help of a rope hauled up by Gorak, they made it up the twenty feet to the narrow crack in the stone. Muttering a few words under her breath, Shayla used her magic to illuminate the area. What looked from the outside to be nothing more than a small fissure in the rock opened up into a substantial cave. Azarek started to step forward but was stopped by Gorak's hand on his arm. “Might wanna let Khalid check it out first,” he growled.

Khalid uttered a few arcane words and dragged his fingers across his eyes. Peering into the room, he looked for any trace of magical weaves or other unnatural energies, but found nothing. “Ah, it would appear there there are no magical, yes, magical traps or wards securing the area,” he said. Shayla, duplicating the spell, confirmed his assessment with a sigh.

Gorak grunted. “Good. But that don't mean there ain't no traps of a more straight forward sort lying around. Best be careful.”

There was little to see within the tight confines of the cave. Centuries of runoff filtering through the limestone had worn smooth the walls and ceiling. The floor, not surprisingly, was crusted with bird droppings. Already unsettled from the long boat ride, it was all Khalid could do to keep the smell from overwhelming him. Scattered about on the floor of the cave were the boys personal effects. Tattered blankets and pilfered tools were strewn amid a jumble of bones, both fish and animal. Gorak walked over and kicked through a pile of debris that may have been a sleeping pallet, but found nothing of interest.

Shayla moved toward the back of the shelter, sweeping the light in front of her as she moved. At the rear of the refuge, she stopped, focusing the light at her feet. Khalid looked up from the pile of garbage he was gingerly picking through and frowned. “Ah, Shayla? Did you find something?”

“There's a book here,” she said.

“A book?” Khalid asked, his previous unease quickly forgotten. He stood up quickly and joined her.

“Some kind of diary I think,” she continued.

“Ah, of course,” Khalid added, trying to hide his disappointment. When he reached her side however, it was clear that it was not the discovery of the small, tattered sheaf of bound parchment that held her attention. On the floor in front of her lay two poorly preserved corpses. Little more than bones remained, but unlike the rest of the cave, it was clear that these had been carefully arranged, facing each other with their hands intertwined.

“The boy's mother and father,” Shayla said, her tone flat.

“Ah, yes, so it would seem,” Khalid agreed, eyeing Shayla out of the corner of his eye. “Ah, Gorak, I think there's little here of interest, perhaps, yes perhaps it is time to depart.”

“Ayup,” Gorak grunted, sweeping the ground with his foot one final time. “Nothing here but garbage. Let's go.”

Rowing into the wind, the return trip took twice as long. Gorak and Azarek took turns at the oars, holding a steady pace through the swelling waves. It was near dark when they reached the dock, cold, wet and tired. Khalid was grateful for the helpful villagers who directed them to a small house set aside for their use. Within minutes, they were settling into their accommodations while Gorak stoked a fire to ward away the damp chill of the lake. Not wishing to impose upon the hard pressed townsfolk, Khalid pulled some dried rations from the magical haversack and passed them around. Absently chewing on a strip of dried jerky, he sat down. Wearied by the day's events, his eyes were half closed when a knock on the door disturbed him. Seeing a decided lack of motion from his friends, Khalid stood up and walked over to the door, grumbling under his breath. Opening it, he found the tall blond man that had spoken for the village earlier, standing outside.

“Sorry ta bother you, but I've gathered up the things you wanted.” He handed Khalid a small leather pouch. “Everyone gave what they had. Ain't much, like I said, but around here, if you can't eat it or wear it, well, it just ain't much use.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid muttered, feeling somewhat guilty. “If you please, wait here just a moment. He stepped back into the room, and upended the pouch on the table.

“Is there anything else you folks need? I wish we could throw you a proper feast, but the only grain we got left has got to go in the ground.”

“Yes, well, of course we understand the last few months have been trying on you, and no thanks are required. Yes, quite.” Khalid replied, sifting through the small pile of gold and silver jewelry.

“The boats will be on the lake tomorrow, at first light. If you stay a few days, I bet we could do something up half decent.”

“Ah, yes, well, I'm afraid we will be resuming our journey in the morning, so I regret that won't be possible.” He extracted a ring from beneath a tangled spool of gold chain. “Aha!” Khalid exclaimed. Holding it up the light, he examined the stone. An iridescent sheen glittered over the jet black pearl. “Ah, I had not dared to hope I would find what I sought.” Turning to the elder, he asked, “Do you know who this belongs to?”

“Marie, I think.”

“Ah, yes, excellent.” He pulled out a dagger from its sheath on his belt, using the tip to gently pry loose the stone. “This is all I require, yes, quite. You may return the rest to their owners and give this to Marie.” He pulled a glittering red ruby, easily twice the value of the stone he had taken, from the hoard Arbaq had provided them, and handed it to the villager.

The villager looked at him strangely as he tucked the pouch into his shirt. “I'll see that she gets it. If there ain't nothing else, I'll just get out of your way.”

Bidding him goodnight, Khalid retired to his bedroll. Tired as he was, his unsettled thoughts chased away all hope of sleep. Turning over, his gaze fell upon Shayla, sitting cross legged with her back against the wall of the small hut. Through the faint light cast by the dieing coals, he could tell she was awake. In her hands, she held a small book. Feeling his eyes upon her, she glanced up, her dark eyes shining. Unsure of what to say, Khalid finally rolled over, and tried to get some sleep.

They left the small village early in the morning, with little fanfare. More than a few of the locals were awake, busy resuming their daily routines so long interrupted. All waved and offered them a greeting but they didn't stop to exchange pleasantries. Riding out in the plains on summoned horses, within a few hours, the lake and the tiny village were long behind them.

Stopping briefly for lunch, Gorak pulled out their worn map and studied it carefully. “We've got a choice to make. If we keep heading north west, we're gonna hit this big forest here, right in the middle, and while that don't bother me none to much, I'm guessing it's gonna make riding next to impossible.”

“Ah, yes, well, I can't say I'm much in favour of crossing the country on foot.”

“Din't think you'd be. So we got two options then. Turn north and circle around the forest that way. That's gonna take some time and it'll put us pretty far north. Further then we want to be, I think. We're gonna be skirting the tundra up there and that might not be too much fun.”

“Whut's the other choice?” Azarek rasped.

“Due west, right now.” He traced out a line on the map with his finger. “Wit a little luck, we just miss the south part of the forest, and hit this road here, the one leading north outta Caer Morag. It'll get us through the forest quick, and we can turn north west again here, and run straight out to the mountains. I bet we'll be able to see the peaks once we clear the bush.”

“We'll probably run into Dwerro on the road,” Shayla added, not sounding particularly displeased by the prospect.

“Maybe,” Gorak agreed. “But we're a few hundred miles north of Caer Morag and there ain't a lot out here, except this town here in the forest. That's a lot of ground to cover, for them short little bastards, and I can't think they'll be up here in force.”

Changing course, they turned west and headed into the setting sun. That night and the following day proved uneventful. They were truly beyond the reach of civilization now, with nothing but windswept plains stretching around them in all directions. Travelling in their usual fashion, they pushed Khalid's summoned mounts mercilessly to the limits of their endurance, while Gorak circled high overhead, scanning the horizon for threats. Finally, Khalid called a halt amid the quickly fading rays of setting sun. Stifling a yawn with the back of his hand, he slid off his mount gingerly and moved to prepare their shelter, when Gorak landed in front of them. His customary scowl was a shade deeper then usual, a fact that Khalid had, over time, learnt to recognize. “Ah, what is it?” he asked wearily.

Scratching absently at his jaw, Gorak grunted. “Maybe nothing. I spotted a line of torches, headed this way. I'm guessing a few dozen men, maybe more.”

“Ah, Dwerro?” Khalid asked, a worried furrow forming on his brow.

“Don't think Dwerro need torches,” Gorak grumbled with a smirk.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid muttered. “Who else would be this far north?”

“Dunno, but I aim to find out. Don't lock the door. And,” he continued quickly when he saw Khalid about to speak, “don't say it.”

Be careful

Gorak barked out a short laugh. “Ain't I always?” He dropped to all fours, his body blurring into the form a large grey wolf. He turned, and bounded out into the darkness.

With a sigh, Khalid tossed the length of rope he kept wrapped around his waist on the ground, and opened their shelter with a gesture. Climbing inside without waiting for Azarek or Shayla, he tossed his pack aside and sat down to wait for Gorak's return.

* * * * * * * * * *​
* Heh, I totally wasn't expecting this (neither was Galeman I don't think...;)). It never even occured to me that it might be a polymorphed caster, probably because in another 3.0 campaign, my wizard had his troll suit unzipped while surrounded by monks, and I knew how dangerous it could be.


First Post
Hey, an update! Awesome.

Did you ever find out more about why the sorcerer was attacking the village? Revenge for murdered parents, I'm guessing? Also, what was up with the swarms of birds? Or do I need to just go back and re-read the last update?

Hey, an update! Awesome.

Did you ever find out more about why the sorcerer was attacking the village? Revenge for murdered parents, I'm guessing? Also, what was up with the swarms of birds? Or do I need to just go back and re-read the last update?

Well without giving too much away, I think it was pretty much just for revenge. I can say that if Galeman had a plot line associated with this little side quest, it ended when Khalid turfed the sorcerer. None of us were overly thrilled about how this turned out, as I think it was pretty clear that there was a way to resolve it without killing anybody.

Still, if you're going to go around picking should probably make sure you're going to win. Or at least not fail at running away...

On the floor in front of her lay two poorly preserved corpses. Little more than bones remained, but unlike the rest of the cave, it was clear that these had been carefully arranged, facing each other with their hands intertwined.

“The boy's mother and father,” Shayla said, her tone flat.

“Ah, yes, so it would seem,” Khalid agreed, eyeing Shayla out of the corner of his eye. “Ah, Gorak, I think there's little here of interest, perhaps, yes perhaps it is time to depart.”

“Ayup,” Gorak grunted, sweeping the ground with his foot one final time. “Nothing here but garbage. Let's go.”

I think this really accents the tragedy. Nicely written EN.

Khalid jerked awake. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but after the events of the last two days he was physically and mentally exhausted. Forcing the confusion from his mind, he glanced around for the sound of the noise that roused him when Gorak's head appeared through the entrance. Gripping the edge of the portal, he hauled himself up and pulled in the rope.

Azarek, leaning back against the boundary of the dimension, pushed his helm up from over his eyes with his finger. “So who wuz they?” he rasped.

“Nomads,” Gorak grunted. “From the far north, judging by their dress.”

“They gonna be a problem?” Azarek asked.

“Not fer us. Looks like they're setting up for some sort of ritual. There's maybe thirty of 'em. They had guards posted, so I didn't risk getting close. Whatever they're doing, they're serious about it.” Azarek grunted and, not seeing the need for further discussion, pulled up his bedroll and promptly went to sleep.

They broke camp late after Gorak had thoroughly scouted the area. Khalid was more than a little relieved when he returned to report that the nomads had moved on. Out of idle curiosity, they ventured past the site of the abandoned camp, which wasn't hard to find. A large patch of grass, about fifteen feet across had been burned away. Embers were still glowing amid the piles of ash and charred wood. The purpose of the fire became immediately apparent as Azarek sifted through the debris with the toe of his boot, uncovering a bit of charred bone.

“Funeral pyre,” he rasped.

“Wonder why they came this far south?” Gorak rumbled.

“Ah, yes, well, I doubt we'll ever know,” Khalid replied. Out of habit, Shayla muttered a few words under her breath and dragged her fingers across her eyes.

“Whut ave we 'ere,” Azarek rasped, bending down and brushing aside some of the ash. “Well now, whoever he wuz, I don't figure he's gonna get much use out of this no more.”

“Wait a minute,” Shayla cautioned, just as Azarek pulled free a long hand and a half sword from the remnants of the pyre.

“Gah!” Azarek cursed, flinging the blade aside. “Bloody hell, that just ain't right.” His normal pallor seemed a shade lighter.

“I tried to warn you,” Shayla said. “That thing is magical.”

“I don't give a good gods damn what it is,” he growled. “But I sure as shyte know why they burned it with him.”

Khalid took the opportunity to study the weapon, being careful not to touch it. The blade was unremarkable, save that it seemed completely untouched by its recent immolation. Well over three feet long, it bore no signs of use, and looked razor sharp. The hilt however, was more then a little disturbing. It appeared to be carved from a single piece of bone, whether human or animal. Khalid couldn't tell. Etched into it were humanoid figures, bearing expressions of indescribable agony and suffering.

“It could be powerful,” Shayla continued.

“I don't care,” Azarek rasped. “That thing don't like me and I don't like it.” He paused to wipe his hand on his cloak. “ I ain't touching it again.”

Although more than a little curious, Khalid couldn't help but agree. “Ah, yes, it could be quite, yes, quite dangerous. And if Azarek has no interest in it, the weapon itself would do the rest of us little good.”

“I'm good with that,” Gorak grunted. “We don't need another distraction.”

Somewhat uncharacteristically, Shayla let the matter drop without another word and they resumed travelling. Several uneventful days passed, and the terrain gradually became a little less bleak as they headed southwest. Khalid took advantage of the relative calm to complete his analysis of several unusual items they had acquired upon their travels. Crushing the black pearl with the hilt of his knife, he began to chant, sprinkling the dust in the air. The powder began to sparkle and glow, drawn toward the magic emanating from the items in front of him. Slowly, the magical weaves were revealed in a detail that far surpassed that of a simple detection spell. He studied them closely, his mind working to unravel the mystery of their function. After several long hours, he leaned back against the boundary of the pocket dimension with a satisfied sigh.

Looking up to find the others staring at him curiously, he gestured at the equipment in front of him and began to explain. “Ah, yes, having recently acquired the final component of one of my more useful, yes, useful divinations, I have unlocked the secrets of several things we have taken from our vanquished foes.” He pointed at the dagger they had acquired from the gnoll assassin sent after them by Malakai, who had met his end in the snowy reaches of the mountain pass. “The dagger, although it appears to be metal, is something else entirely. Hilt and blade are a single, yes, single piece which I suspect was carved from the fang of some giant creature, perhaps a serpent or spider. The magic has made it harder, yes, harder than steel.”

“Not too shabby,” Azarek rasped.

“Ah, yes, indeed,” Khalid said. “But that is not all. The magic also has also preserves and rejuvenates a venom gland contained within the hilt. When the command word is spoken, the blade will inject a deadly toxin into your opponent.”

“The Dwerro war hammer,” he continued. “Is a particularly powerful item. Ah, although I have little knowledge of these things, I judge it to be of unparallelled craftsmanship.” He glanced at Azarek, who nodded. “The magic bears the burden of its weight for the wielder, making it feel extraordinarily light, while still delivering punishing blows. Ah, although I do not have a scale, I suspect it is at least twice as heavy as an ordinary hammer, but feels like it weighs half as much. And if that were not sufficient, when a command word is spoken, the hammer becomes infused with magic, delivering a concussion blast upon contact, sufficient to render most creatures senseless.”

“Nice,” Gorak grunted. “Yer damn lucky that little basterd din't clip you with it back at Caer Morag.”

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed.

“What about the stuff we took off that boy?” Shayla asked quietly.

“Ah, most unusual items, both of them.” Khalid replied. “Although I have no idea where he would have acquired them out here, I find it hard to believe he possessed the ability to craft them.” He lifted up the staff, balancing it easily in the palm of his hand. “The staff is the means by which the boy controlled the birds. A murder of ravens has been bound to it, allowing the wielder to summon them at will. In addition, it grants the bearer minor prescience in combat, flashes of insight which aid in parrying blows.”

“And of course,” he continued. “I have saved the best for last, yes quite. The cloak has only a single function. Once every twenty-four hours, for as long as an hour, it will transform its wearer into a raven and back again.”

“Useful,” Gorak grunted. “Now who gets what?”

“The hammer is of little use to any of us save Azarek,” Khalid replied, and seeing no objection from Shayla or Gorak, passed it over to him.

“I'll take that staff,” Gorak rumbled. “It ain't no cudgel, but it'll free up my hands for casting. Khalid passed it over to him.

“Ah, as both Gorak and I possess the means to fly, the Shayla should take the cloak. It's power will provide a potent means of defense and escape, yes quite.” He passed it over to her, and she pulled it around her shoulders, fastening the golden clasp at the neck. The jet black feathers seemed to make her pale complexion almost luminous in the dim light.

“The dagger is yours then,” Gorak grunted to Khalid.

Khalid shrugged. “Ah, since I place the odds of poisoning any foe I attempt to use it on roughly equal to the odds of poisoning myself with it, I think Azarek should take that as well. He slid the blade into its sheath and passed it over to him, hilt first.

Their ill gotten gains divided, they turned in for the night. Some hours later, a sound that haunted Khalid's nightmares shocked him awake. Half asleep, he fumbled around frantically, until his fingers closed on the worn leather cover of his spellbook, still tucked within the rucksack beneath his head. Gorak lay still beside him, and without having to look, Azarek's rumbling snore indicated he was still asleep. Rolling over he looked around for the source of the rustling paper that had disturbed his slumber. Sitting some distance away from them was Shayla, knees drawn up to her chest, holding a book in her hands. Fairly certain that it wasn't one of his, he squinted in the dim light, trying to make out what she was reading. Then it dawned on him. Shayla had kept the boy sorcerer's diary, although to what end, he wasn't sure. Sensing his scrutiny, Shayla glanced up and met his gaze, holding it for an instant before returning to her reading. Bothered without really knowing why, Khalid closed his eyes and tried to fall back to sleep but it was a long time in coming. When Gorak roused him with the toe of his boot, he felt as though he'd barely slept at all.

The following days passed in a blur of travel. They rode hard from dawn until dusk, climbing into Khalid's shelter long enough to sleep before setting out again. A smudge of green to the west gradually swelled until it filled the horizon, growing in size until individual trees were evident. Gorak's assessment proved unpleasantly true; unlike the pruned glades to the south, this was a proper forest, filled with ancient gnarled trees packed close together and thick, unyielding undergrowth that hampered their travel. Less then an hour after they passed the first stunted tree, they were forced south by the dense brush, to seek out the road running north from Caer Morag. That night, they set up their camp, as it were, on a small rise overlooking the road.

The next morning dawned clear and bright, and even though it was only early morning, Khalid could tell it was going to be unpleasantly warm. Mounting up, they rode down into the shallow valley, picking the road and heading north. Soon the sun was visible only as shafts of light filtering down through the branches above and they were enveloped in the cool gloom of the forest. All around them were the sounds of the forest. The inhabitants of the woods were seemingly unconcerned with their presence, but still Khalid couldn't help but feel something sinister lurked behind every bole and branch, watching and waiting.

Gorak, choosing a more suitable form, dropped to all fours and loped off into the trees, disappearing from sight. Although some attempt had been made to clear back the trees from the road in the not too distant past, the forest it seemed, was winning the battle, closing in around the road. Khalid sighed and huddled deeper into his robes.

“What is it?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, I do not care for this place,” Khalid muttered. “I prefer my trees pressed, bound and covered with ink. Yes, quite.”

“Well, I can't imagine the Dwerro like it any better than you do. I don't see them having too many skilled woodsman among their ranks, so I bet we don't have to worry about them in here.”

“Ah, yes, small comfort I should think.”

Despite Khalid's unease, they were not disturbed by any denizens of the forest during their first day on the road. Consulting the map over dinner, they estimated it would take at least three more days travel to reach village marked upon the map at the centre of the woods, and possibly two more days to put the forest behind them after that.

It was late on the second day on the road, when Gorak bounded from the trees and shifted from his lupine form.

“That can't be good,” Shayla muttered.

“Never is,” Azarek rasped.

“Better get yer game face on,” Gorak growled. “I spotted a coupla bodies on the road up ahead, near what I'm guessing is a bunkhouse for folks travelling through the woods.”

“Recent?” Shayla asked.

“I din't get close enough to tell,” Gorak replied.

Belting on his shield, Azarek unstrapped the Dwerro war hammer from his saddle and laid it across his knees. Nudging his horse forward, he took up the lead with Khalid and Shayla trailing behind. Gorak, drifting into the trees, paced them while staying out of sight.

Even though the brush had been cleared away from the road, the thick trees limited visibility to a few dozen feet ahead. Khalid fiddled nervously with the spell components at his waist, anticipating any manner of foe lurking in the cool shadows of the forest. He strained his ears for any sound of an ambush, but the sounds of the woods betrayed nothing unusual. After a few tense minutes, they rode into a large clearing around wooden building.

The trees here had been cut back fifty feet in all directions around the single room structure. Old stumps poked up through the long grass, and like the rest of the road, it seemed as though no one had been maintaining it recently. The log building seemed well constructed, with a stout door and shuttered windows, although the roof over one corner sagged ominously.

It was immediately apparent that some sort of struggle had taken place here. The grass around the side of the building was blackened, radiating out from a point near the corner closest to them. Four bodies lay on the ground in the centre of the circle. Inspecting them from a distance revealed little to Khalid, so badly damaged were the corpses. They were obviously humanoid, five or six feet tall, but that was all he could discern from the edge of the clearing.

Scanning the trees warily, Azarek hefted the war hammer and urged his mount forward with his knees. Khalid and Shayla edged apart a little, watching him from the tree line. Azarek continued down the road until he was in the centre of the glade and then stopped, waiting. After a few moments, Gorak stepped out of the trees across from them “Looks clear,” he growled.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Khalid rode up to join Azarek, who hung his shield on his saddlehorn and dismounted. Muttering a few arcane words, Khalid checked the area for arcane weaves, but found nothing out of the ordinary. He clambered off his horse and moved closer to the bodies.

Gorak walked over beside Azarek. “Pretty good ambush,” he rumbled.

“Ayuh,” Azarek grunted.

“Ah, how can you tell?” Khalid asked.

“Weapons are still sheathed,” Gorak growled. “It was over before they knew what hit 'em.”

“Fire?” Khalid asked, surveying the scene.

“I don't think so,” Shayla replied, kneeling down and pulling up a handful of sod. “This grass isn't burned, it's...” she paused, a frown creasing her features, “dried up is the best I can figure.”

Gorak grunted in agreement from where he was inspecting the fallen. “The bodies ain't burned neither. They're mummified. Like they been out in the desert for a month. The metal is fine, but their clothes are the same.”

“You think that's off,” Azarek rasped. “Lookit this.” He reached over and grabbed the corner of the sagging cabin. Without even trying, he tore free a fist sized chunk of wood from one of the beams. Closing his fist, it crumbled into dust at his touch.

With a growl, Gorak voiced the question that they were all thinking. “So whut in the nine hells happened here?”

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