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


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Indeed. And if they're running into foes with access to Horrid Wilting, this may be about to take a turn for the horrific. Yikes.

I remember thinking something along the same lines...

* * * * * * * * * *​
“Ah, whatever magic did this, is beyond, yes, beyond my measure.” Khalid said. “Nothing in my schooling has hinted at a spell such as this.” He glanced at Gorak.

“Pretty clear what it did,” Gorak grunted. “Sucked the water right out of the air. I can make the stuff, but none of the wisemen I ever met could pull this off.” Reaching down, he fished a small silver necklace out from under the armor of one of the bodies and, with a jerk, snapped the chain. Holding it up to the light, he studied it carefully, absently rubbing his chin.

“Ah, what's that.” Khalid asked.

“Not sure exactly,” Gorak grunted. “Seems familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. They've each got one.” He gestured at the other bodies in the clearing.

Azarek peered through the shuttered window of the cabin, before gingerly prying open the door. “There's more of 'em in here, same as the others.” Khalid joined him, peering over his shoulder into the gloom of the cabin. A peculiar dusty smell, like aged parchment, wafted out from the tiny room. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the roof where the wooden slats had splintered and buckled. Near the damaged corner of the room were three more bodies, one slumped over the broken wreckage of a table, the other two lying on the floor, on bedrolls.

“Let me see,” Gorak rumbled, jostling Khalid aside and walking into the room. The planks under his feet crumbled as he moved and the building creaked ominously. He knelt down beside the bodies and looked them over.

“So whadda ya think?” Azarek rasped. “Seems a wee bit too much carnage for a robbery.”

“I'd say somebody was trying to make a point,” Gorak rumbled.

“How so?” Shayla asked.

“If I had ta wager,” Gorak replied, “I'd guess that these two groups had nothing to do with each other.”

“Ah, what led you to that conclusion?”

“The four outside were all wearing these,” he held up the chain. “These three ain't. What's more, those four outside are woodsmen. They're wearing camouflaged leathers and carrying hunting knives and short bows. These two here, look like mercs to me. Chain shirts, broadswords and shields. Probably escorting that one,” he pointed at the body near the table, “out of the war zone.” He leaned back on his haunches. “And this obviously wasn't about the loot. They've still got their weapons and kit, what's left of it.” He stood up and walked out of the cabin. “Nope, this weren't no hold up. Whoever did this didn't want no witnesses and brought out the heavy artillery to get 'er done.”

“Ah, yes, well, then perhaps we should be on our way then,” Khalid said, glancing over his shoulder nervously.

“Not yet. I'm gonna go hunt around a bit, see if there's anything else we might help us avoid getting jumped by whoever did this.” Gorak began to walk toward the edge of the clearing. “Stay put and don't mess up anymore tracks then you already have.”

Rounding up the mounts, Khalid waited anxiously for Gorak. Half an hour later he appeared from the brush behind the hut.

“Ah, find anything?” Khalid asked.

“Not really,” Gorak admitted. “I'd say this whole thing went down a day or two ago. The woodsmen met up here, they all came in from different directions. The three inside the hut came up the road. Whoever did this came outta the bush to the west.”

“Ah, are you sure?”

Gorak gave Khalid a withering stare. “I know the difference between moccasins and iron shod boots.”

“So where'd they go?” Azarek asked.

“Dunno.” Gorak grunted, clearly annoyed. “They did a pretty good job covering up. I'm guessing they stuck to the road a while where they won't leave any tracks, then turned into the woods. They're skilled enough that I'd having the scour every inch of the tree line or risk riding right past. That is if they didn't head south and I already missed it.”

“Then we're done here,” Shayla remarked, grabbing her saddle horn and throwing a leg over the back of her. “And the sooner we're away from this place, the better.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed.

The sense of dread Khalid had finally managed to shake returned with a heretofore unknown zeal. He saw the shadow of an enemy behind every tree and the rustle of branches in the wind sent him reaching for his spell components. Finally, when he though he could stand it no longer, the forest parted in front of them, stretching out into a broad meadow. The road continued on, leading them past rows of tilled earth to the small hamlet that had been marked on their map. In a distant field, a lone figure stood up to watch their passage. As they rode past, Khalid offered the man a hesitant wave but he didn't return the greeting. With a frown, Khalid nudged his mount onward.

Smoke from hearth fires curled lazily into the clear blue sky from the roofs of low wood houses. Here and there, between the buildings, they could see villagers going about their business. The road seemed to pass through the center of the town and since there were no walls or gates, they walked into the village unchallenged. Ahead, a young child darted out of a side street, chasing after a wooden ball. Surprised, the girl stopped running and stared at them. A middle aged woman hurried out after her, clucking her tongue disapprovingly until she noticed the strangers. Before they could even offer a greeting, the woman had scooped up the child and vanished into a building, closing the door behind her with a bang.

“Ah, well, yes, not the friendliest bunch, are they?” Khalid commented. “What should we do?”

“Can't really blame 'em. If there's an inn or a store in this place, you gotta figure it's on the main road,” Gorak replied with a shrug. “Keep an eye out for a sign.”

They continued on for a while, passing a few old men sitting on worn wooden chairs under the shade of a porch. As they approached, the men stopped talking and watched them pass in silence. This time, Khalid didn't even offer a greeting. After they passed, one of the men spat on the road behind them.

“I gots to say,” Azarek rasped, “travelling with you lot really takes the pressure off.”

“I don't think we're exactly winning them over.” Shayla muttered, a hard edge in her voice. The attitudes of the villagers were clearing irritating her.

“Yeah, well, fer a change it ain't me they're all bunched up over,” Azarek replied with a laugh.

“What do you mean?” Shayla asked. “They done everything but throw rotten fruit on you.”

“He's right,” Gorak growled, glancing over his shoulder at the young men that had stepped out of a house behind them, and were trailing along, acting casual but looking anything but. “It's me they got a problem with.”

“How do you know?” Shayla asked, scowling at the two men following them.

Before Gorak could answer, a door ahead flew open and two young boys tumbled out, tangled up in a furious wrestling match. Arms and legs flailing, they rolled on the ground, both struggling to gain an advantage until the larger boy flipped smaller one over and pinned him down, almost at Gorak's feet. He raised his fist to give the helpless boy a good whallup when he looked up and saw Gorak staring down at him and froze. The boy on the ground seized the momentary lull to push him over and jumped to his feet. He was about to capitalize on his good fortune when he too realized they had an audience.

“Orc!” he shrieked and took off running up the street, followed only a step behind by the other boy.

“Bet we get us a proper welcome now,” Azarek rasped, pulling his shield off his back and resting his hand on the haft of his war hammer.

“Easy,” Gorak grumbled. “Let's not give 'em any excuse.”

Minutes later, they were intercepted by three stern looking, heavily armed, men. With a sinking feeling, Khalid realized that there was little chance of it being a pleasant conversation. The men were all dressed in a similar fashion to the four bodies outside the hut in the forest. Their leather armor was well worn but expertly maintained and all three had a bow on their back. The one in front looked to be in his late fifties, judging from the lines on his face and grey in his hair, with a physique that would have been the envy of a man half his age. The man on his right looked to be about the same age, with a full grey beard and heavy brow, while the woodsman on the left was a fair bit younger.

“What do you want?” the older man demanded.

“Ah, a chance to obtain fresh supplies and perhaps a warm bed,” Khalid replied.

“We don't have anything to spare,” the man said. Looking past Khalid, at Gorak, he added. “You're not welcome here.”

“Ah, yes, of course, well then we will be on our way,” Khalid said. “But have spent many weeks travelling through the Southlands. We have news that may be of interest to you.”

The older man looked as though he was going to refuse, when the younger man put his hand on his arm and spoke. “We haven't had any word from the south in almost a month. We should at least hear what they have to say.”

Glaring at each one of them in turn, the old woodsman finally relented. “Fine. But they're your responsibility, Geoff. And I want them gone tomorrow, before the sun peaks.” With a jerk of his head, he indicated the other man should follow him as he left, leaving them standing in the middle of the street with Geoff.

Suddenly aware that about a dozen villagers were now staring at them, from windows and doorways, Khalid broke the uncomfortable silence. “Ah, yes, well, while we have nothing to hide, the tidings we bear are grim, and are perhaps best discussed in private.”

“Of course. There's nothing you'd call an a proper inn here in town, at least not anymore, but I can find a place for you. I'm afraid you're going to have to endure my company for the evening. The situation here is...tense, these days, as I'm sure you can appreciate.” Khalid, speaking Eastern, made the introductions as they walked. “You'll have to forgive Erik,” Geoff said as he directed them into a one room cabin just a little past the centre of town. “Responsibility weighs heavy on him. It's been a difficult time.”

“You don't know the half of it,” Gorak grunted when Khalid translated. Pulling Sousee out of her basket, he laid her down on the floor.

“Tell me.” Geoff replied in passable Western.

“Caer Morag has fallen. 'Bout three weeks ago. The Hub was still holding, when we rode through, but they hadn't faced anything 'cept the forward skirmishers. The land bridge to the eastern kingdom is blocked, with Dwerro dug into the hills on the coast. That's about the farthest north we seen 'em so far. There's a village east a few days that hasn't seen any sign of Dwerro. And the way stop south on the road was hit, but can't say exactly whut done it.”

Geoff's expression, already grim, hardened even more. “What do you mean hit?”

Khalid replied before Gorak had a chance, trying to come up with a way to soften what he knew would be difficult news, and mostly failing. “Ah, yes, well, when we passed by, there were several bodies outside, and a few more inside. The four outside, ah, well, yes, I suspect they were from your village. They were dressed like woodsmen. Those inside appeared to be fleeing, yes, fleeing the war. Whatever did it was powerful, yes, powerful, and fast. I don't believe they had the opportunity to fight back before the magic overwhelmed them.”

“What kind of magic?”

“Ah, nothing any of us has encountered before. It was as though all of the water was pulled from the air. All of the plants in the area were dead, and the building heavily damaged.”

“I need to talk to Erik, right now. Don't go wandering about until I get back.”

“That an order?” Gorak grunted.

“Call it a suggestion made in everybody's best interests. The last thing we need right now is an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

“Fine,” Gorak grunted. “But don't take all day.”

They didn't bother to unpack their gear after Geoff left, sensing that their stay in the village was likely to be short. Although not overly concerned for their safety, Khalid was discouraged by their reception in the village. The months of constant trekking through dangerous territory was beginning to weight heavily on him, made worse by the knowledge that many more weeks of arduous travel lay ahead. They passed the time quietly lost in their own musings, until Geoff returned bearing the same troubled expression.

“So,” Gorak grunted. “You wanna tell us whut's going on 'round here?”

Pulling back an empty chair from the table, Geoff sat down heavily, rubbing his brow with a thick, calloused hand. “Much of what you've told us, we had already deduced for ourselves. The Dwerro advance was rapid and precise. Word of the fall of Drak'nor had barely reached us before the South road was cut off. Some refugees made it through, but not many. From them, we learnt of the siege of Caer Morag. To those that made it, we offered what aid we could but ours is not a large village. The forest provides for us, but it is not without its perils and we are not its only residents. Several tribes of Orcs call the woods home. For the most part, they have kept to themselves, past encounters having shown them the folly of harassing us.”

He sighed and took a pull from his water skin before continuing. “After the patrols from the South stopped, they became more bold. We did what we could to discourage them, but they began to push further into our hunting grounds, even going so far as to attack refugees upon the road.”

“Well,” Gorak rumbled. “We ain't got nothing to do with that.”

“Trust me, I know the difference between the forest and desert tribes,” Geoff replied. “But others are not so forgiving, especially in light of recent events. From what our scouts have been able to determine, a new leader moves among the Orcs, rallying them to his cause. Enmity between the forest clans has always given us an advantage but this new warlord...” he trailed off. Shaking his head, as though to deny the unpleasant reality, he continued. “Not only has he welded the forest orcs together under his rule, now tribes from the plains are filtering in. One of my men even caught sight of the markings of one of the hill tribes. Those lot haven't united under a single ruler in a hundred years.” He paused, shifting his gaze to stare out the open window. “Folks around here are cut from tough stock but without Caer Morag to support us, we're going to be hard pressed.” Geoff pushed his chair out and stood up. “I wish we could offer you more, but there's little enough to spare these days. Now, if you'll forgive me, I need to organize a search party.”

“For who?” Shayla asked.

“We sent out seven trackers to keep tabs on the orcs last week. Two return and you found four of them dead at the way stop. There's still one unaccounted for, and he's overdue.”

Gorak, an uncharacteristically pensive look on his face, spoke. “It might be that I can help you out wit that, witout you having to risk any more of your men.”

“Forgive me for being blunt, but what do you want in return.”

“Look, take it or leave it pal, makes no difference to me. I just thought maybe you're a little short on friends these days and could use a hand.”

“You've got that right,” Geoff said, having the good graces to look chagrined. “These days, it seems like the whole world is out to get us. If you want to help, they're gonna strike out tomorrow.”

“Works for me. Meet me tomorrow morning, just before daybreak. Bring me something that belonged to that fella, and point me in the direction of some fresh water. Pool'd be best.”

Geoff nodded and stood up. “Tomorrow then. I'm going to have to ask you to stay here for the night. Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm going to have to post somebody outside the door.”

“You're putting us under guard?” Shayla asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.

“It's as much for your safety as it is ours. If you need anything, just ask him, his name is Hekter.”

After he left, Khalid turned to Gorak. “Ah, what did you have in mind?”

“I told you before, everything is connected. If this lads boots touch earth, or even if'n he's buried under it, I kin find him. Won't take too long, and we can be on our way.”

They passed a quiet evening under the watchful eye of one of the rangers. He responded to their few requests politely, if somewhat impassively. They weren't provided any food, which wasn't unexpected given the circumstances, but they were given clean water and bedding for the four simple wooden cots in the room. Khalid, more then a little curious about what Gorak had planned, forced himself out of bed early. Gorak had just finished his morning commune when Geoff knocked on the door.

“So if you still want to help, now's the time. The scouting party is going to set out in the next hour or so.”

“We're ready,” Gorak rumbled. “You got something that belonged to this fella?” When Geoff nodded, Gorak continued. “Good, then lead me to some fresh water and we'll see if we can't spare your boys a stroll.”

Geoff led them through the early morning gloom, across the fields and into the woods. Pockets of mist, sheltered from the weak sunlight beneath the trees, swirled and eddied around them. After about an hour, they were able to pick out the sound of a gurgling stream ahead. As they approached the banks, Geoff stopped and looked in both directions. Nodding to himself, he pointed. “There's a bend in the creek, up this way a bit.” Following him a few hundred yards further, they reached a small pool, where the bend in the stream created a swirling back flow.

“Ayup.” Gorak grunted. “This'll do.” He settled to his knees. “Alright. Give me something of his. Wouldn't hurt if you described him to me.”

Reaching into his pack, Geoff pulled out a wadded ball of cloth. “Hope this will work,” he said, handing Gorak a set of smallclothes.

“Well, it don't get much more personal than that.” Azarek laughed.

“He's out on a walk. His place was pretty empty.” Geoff explained, with a hint of a frown, as though the sound of his own voice rattled a bit. Turning to Gorak, he said. “He's about my height, brown hair, brown eyes, hair past his shoulders. Scar on his right cheek. He'll be dressed like me, sporting two short blades and a long bow, green fletching on the arrows.” He added a few more details, while Gorak finished his preparations.

“Alright,” Gorak said finally. “Gather round, cuz if this works, it ain't gonna last long.” He began to chant in his deep voice, his right hand clenched into a fist and holding the clothing in his left. At the culmination of this spell, he brought his hand down and broke the surface of the water. As he pulled his hand out, the water behind began to freeze, spreading out into disc about four feet wide. Slowly, images began to coalesce on the frozen surface. A youngish looking man, dressed as Geoff had described appeared in the center, leaned back against the base of a tree at the foot of a small hill.

“He's alive,” Geoff said, breathing a long sigh of relief.

“Ah, he's not alone.” Khalid said, catching a flicker of movement at near the edge of the ice. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked, furrowing his brow.

“Surely he can hear him.” Shayla muttered under her breath, as the Orc crept through the brush, sword in hand. The woodsman, oblivious to the danger, remained seated with his weapons sheathed. Khalid held his breath, awaiting the inevitable bloodshed.

The ranger suddenly realized he wasn't alone. He stood up and spun around, hands on the hilt of his swords. The Orc raised his blade, a wicked snarl on his lips. They stood there for an instant, then the ranger through back his head and laughed, offering out his hand to the Orc. The Orc, mirroring his grin clasped him by the forearm.

“Ilsadora save us,” Geoff exclaimed. “He's doomed us all.”
 






“We have to go after him,” Geoff pleaded, turning to Khalid.

“Pay attention,” Gorak growled. “I can't keep this up forever.” The ice at the edges of the disc began thin and splinter, drifting away downstream.

“I know that place.” Geoff said. “Looks like they're on the south side of the hill.” He continued to study the scene carefully, committing it to memory. A few seconds later, the image cracked in two, and the pieces floated away, melting into the water.

Gorak tossed the clothing aside and stood up. He lifted up his gaze from the pool, and stared at Geoff, the scowl on his face darkening. “You've got maybe five hunnert people in that village, maybe two hunnert able bodied defenders at most. Whut could he really tell 'em other than that?” Before Geoff had a chance to respond, Gorak continued. “Whut's really going on here?”

“He's a traitor to his kith and kin. He needs to be dealt with,” Geoff retorted, flushing slightly in indignation, but not, Khalid noted, answering the question posed by Gorak. “It's going to take almost an hour to get back to the village, then another hour just to get right back here. The hill is this way,” he pointed almost directly away from the village, “another four hours or so. I need your help, if I'm going to have a chance.”

“That's a pretty serious request.” Gorak grunted.

“From what I've seen, you four are pretty serious people. I wouldn't ask unless I thought you could handle it.”

“Ah, give us a minute.” Khalid asked. Geoff nodded and walked away.

“You wanna do it, don't you?” Shayla asked Gorak, a hint of accusation in her tone.

“Ah, they are in a difficult situation,” Khalid replied, trying to gauge Gorak's intentions.

“I gotta say,” Gorak grumbled. “I am feeling a bit sympathetic to their cause.”

“Any excuse to spend time marching through the bush.” Shayla muttered.

“That might be part of it,” Gorak agreed. “And I don't got much use fer traitors. I'd like to meet the man that would throw his family, everybody he knows, to the wolves. Khalid, whadda ya think?”

“Ah, yes, well, most of the arguments I made the last time we were in this situation are still relevant. There are too few safe places remaining in the east and these people need our help.” That wasn't all, and Khalid was honest enough with himself to admit it. Their failure at Caer Morag still gnawed at him, enough to spur him into action he wouldn't have otherwise considered.

Azarek remained silent, but the look of disgust on his face made it clear what his choice was.

“At this pace, we're never going to get home,” Shayla complained.

“We ain't in that big a hurry,” Gorak rumbled. “And besides, I get the feeling there's something else going on here.”
“Ah, I sensed it as well,” Khalid offered. “What do you suspect?”

“I ain't quite got it figured yet,” Gorak grumbled. “But whatever it is, these are good people in a hard spot. Can't say I'd think much of myself of we just left 'em twisting.”

“Do I get my say in any of this?” Azarek rasped.

“Not really.” Gorak replied. Ignoring the black look he received in return, Gorak turned to Shayla. “It's on you darling, what do you say?”

“Fine.” Shayla said, throwing up her hands in air, in exasperation. “I'm not happy about it, but then again I'm not gonna feel any better staring at Khalid's hound dog expression all the way to Gem-Sharad. If we're going to do this thing, let's get it done.”

“Alright,” Gorak said, in a louder tone so Geoff could hear. “We're with you. Lead the way and let us know when we're getting close.”

They made surprisingly good time through the heavy brush, guided by Geoff's intimate knowledge of the forest. Picking up well hidden game trails and low running creeks, they moved almost unhindered through the trees. Although he couldn't see the sun, Khalid judged it about midday when Geoff called a halt. “You wanted to know when we're close? Well, the hill is about a half mile southeast of us.”

“Good enough,” Gorak grunted. “Stay put.” He raised his arms and shifted form, flying up above the trees. Geoff watched him fly away, a pensive expression on his face.

A few minutes later, Gorak landed in front of them and reverted back to his natural form. The wicked grin on his face told Khalid everything he needed to know. “They're still there,” Gorak growled. “Camped up on top of that hill, and they didn't spot me. The party got a little bit bigger, but it ain't nothing we can't handle.”

“What are we facing?” Shayla asked.

“Four ogres and that Orc, plus your man there. Shouldn't be a problem to nip in, bury the goons and truss up your friend.”

Geoff looked grateful, if a bit hesitant. “Are you certain? I have no choice but to ask for your help, but the stakes have increased significantly.”

“Oh I wouldn't worry about that,” Shayla replied, with only a hint of sarcasm. “I'm betting Gorak's already worked out the plan.”

With a wink at her, Gorak settled down onto his haunches and sketched out the terrain in the dirt with a short stick. After a few minutes of discussion, they had a rudimentary plan worked out and everybody knew their roles. Khalid took the opportunity to fortify his defences, before granting himself and Shayla the ability to fly while Gorak rumbled out the words to one of his favourite spells, causing the wispy clouds overhead to gather and rumble ominously. Thus prepared, they followed into step behind Geoff and headed toward the hill.

From Gorak's vision they knew the hill, while not that tall, was fairly large, a little less than fifty feet from the bottom to the top at a difficult but not impassable incline. Both the top and the area around the base were covered by only sparse vegetation, undoubtedly the reason it had been chosen for the meeting, since it eliminated any chance of surprising their foes. Khalid had finished running through his memorized incantations for only the fifth time, when Geoff held up his hand to stop and put his finger to his lips. Khalid could see gaps in the trees ahead and took a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves.

Gorak looked at each of them in turn, and when they all signalled their assent, he sprinted the last ten feet into the clearing. Holding his hands out at his sides, he began to chant in a huge voice, slowly raise his open palms to the sky. Following a step behind, Khalid could only grin at that shouts of confusion. In front of them, in a huge area, the scrawny grass and shrubs dotting the ground, trebled in size, becoming lush and green. His words still hanging in the air, Gorak lunged forward, vanishing into the thick foliage at a dead run.

The ogres weren't so fortunate. Shouts of confusion rose up as Khalid willed himself into the air. Struggling against the impeding plants, they moved forward slowly, their muscled bodies snagging on the tough briers that surrounded them. Seizing upon the opportunity, Khalid tore open a rift, drenching two of them in noxious rust coloured fog. Grinning to himself as the sounds of violent retches replaced bellows of anger, he glided forward while looking back over his shoulder.

One of the ogres fought clear of the brush onto a patch of bare stone that bisected the hill. Picking up speed, he charged forward, a wicked axe held high overhead. Shayla, rising out of the trees, fixed him with an intense stare and mumbled out words of power. Twin jets of flame erupted from her fingers, scorching terrible wounds across the ogre's torso. The burst of fire was trailed only slightly by a green fletched arrow, shot from Geoff's bow. A second, in the air before the first buried itself in the ogres chest mere inches away. Azarek, war hammer in hand, moved to intercept the beast before he could reach Geoff. The ogre, grievously wounded and now more falling down the hill than running, swung awkwardly at Azarek. Twisting to meet the blow, Azarek skillfully turned it aside rather than try to absorb the force of the blow, sending a shower of sparks cascading to the ground. Caught off guard by the lack of resistance and carried forward by his momentum, the ogre stumbled past. Pivoting on his lead foot, Azarek swept around behind him, his hand almost at the end of the shaft of his hammer. Swinging in a huge arc, the hammer struck the ogre at the base of his skull with a sickening crack. Collapsing, the ogre slid along the ground a half dozen feet before coming to rest, twitching on the ground.

Gorak raced unhindered through the thick undergrowth, calling out the words to a spell in his huge voice. Gesturing over his shoulder, where the sole ogre left unscathed, the Orc and the ranger were trying to flee, the grass and shrubs, already grown thick and lush, became animate, writhing and grasping at everything within the span of his magic. Ensnared, the three struggled in vain against the crippling effects.

Shayla, turning her attention to one of the retching ogres unleashed another blast of flame, causing him, to howl in agony amid gut wrenching gasps. Seeing no immediate threats, Khalid conserved his energy, waiting for a situation to develop that required his intervention.

The words to his last casting barely off his lips, Gorak began anew, this time summoning a ball of elemental fire, directly at the feet of the Orc. A blinding stroke of lighting followed almost immediately, felling the screaming Orc, who burst into flames as he collapsed upon the glowing orb. Geoff and Azarek, kept at distance without clear targets, held their weapons at the ready, awaiting instructions from those with better vantage.

Her face an expressionless mask, Shayla continued to focus her considerable power on the two ogres suffering from the effects of Khalid's toxic mist. Relentless, she battered away at them, alternating jets of flame with orbs of force, finally driving them to the ground.

Khalid, circling the battlefield, was forced to dodge aside as a fist sized rock sailed past his head. He watched as the orb of flame burned its way through the weeds to brush up against the ogre, who was still twitching from a bolt of lightening arcing down from the heavens. Seeing the ranger struggling closer to the boundary of Gorak's magic, and feeling as though he should be helping, tossed out a tiny spark that burst in a cloud of golden dust that clung to the ranger and ogre. With more than a small amount of disappointment, he realized that his spell has been only half effective, blinding the grievously wounded ogre. The ranger, contorting his body, twisted from of the branches that held him. Momentarily free, he lunged forward, his feet barely touching ground as he sought to escape. Frowning, Khalid warned the others. The ranger is fleeing. He's broken free of Gorak's snares and heads south.

“Whut to you expect me to do about it?” Azarek yelled. Weighed down by his cumbersome armour and forced to circle the worst of the magic, there was little hope he could catch the woodsman.

“Nevermind,” Gorak growled. “I got him. Finish off them ogres.” Raising his arms above his head, the brought them down sharply, feathered wings propelling him into the air.

Shayla, not needing the added instruction, continued her deadly assault while Gorak flew off into the trees. As the last ogre fell, a bolt of lightening split the sky. The rumbling thunder still lingered in the air as a second bolt flashed down. Khalid, not overly concerned for Gorak's safety in the present circumstance, drifted down toward Geoff an Azarek. Seconds later, Shayla joined them.

The waited silently for a few minutes. Khalid was about to suggest flying off to find Gorak when he appeared out of the trees behind them, hand resting on the shoulder of the ranger. With a shove, he sent the ranger sprawling forward, falling at Geoff's feet.

“It's harder to motivate him proper if'n he's already half dead,” Azarek rasped, eyeing the blistering burn that covered the ranger's left side. The dagger in his hand leaving no doubt as to his meaning.

Gorak shrugged. “He needed some convincing that the first one missed on purpose.”

“What did you tell them?” Geoff demanded, the rage in his voice barely concealed. Gavin simply looked away, a look of grim resignation on his face.

“Want me to ask him?” Azarek asked, curling his metal clad hand into a fist.

Before Geoff could answer, Shayla let out a low whistle, and stood up from where she had been rummaging through the ranger's belongings. “Well, whatever he told them, they sure paid him well for the information.” She held out a hefty sack of gold and gems, taken from Gavin's pack.

Geoff rubbed his hands over his face as though to scrub himself clean of the unpleasant situation. Indecision etched clearly on his features, it was clear to Khalid that he was weighing the safety of his village against his sense of morality. In the end, the needs of the village won out and he turned his back on Gavin, and nodded to Azarek.

Azarek walked over the the man, and drove the toe of his iron shod boot into his solar plexus. “Last chance before I start cutting off bits that won't grow back.” As he knelt down, drawing a dagger from his belt, Gavin's will broke.

“Everything,” he gasped, still struggling for breath. “I told them everything.”

“You betrayed your oath?” Geoff's face paled. “How could you?” Gavin didn't reply, but Khalid could clearly see the shame lurking behind his defiant gaze.

Gorak, his glance shifting from Geoff to Gavin, growled. “What do you know about this Orc? The one that's got 'em all riled up. You meet him in person?”

Gavin, clearly relieved to break away from Geoff's disbelieving stare, said, “Only once. It's not hard to see why they rally to him, he is an imposing figure and uncommonly persuasive for a full blood.” He looked back at Geoff. “And he has power. He could be the one.”

Geoff closed his eyes and turned titled his head back. Taking a deep breath he asked, “Are you sure?”

“I think so. I never got too close to him, but from what I saw he could fit the legends.”

“Maybe he's lying,” Azarek rasped. “Gimme a few minutes alone with him to ask him proper.” Khalid was a pretty good judge of character, and didn't sense any falsehood in the man's manner or words. He suspected Azarek was just disappointed.

“Why would I lie?” Gavin asked. “They don't owe me anything now that our business is done. They'd just as soon kill me as look at me. The best I can hope for now is that your hired thugs just rob me of my gold.”

“You got that right,” Shayla replied, a hard edge in her voice.

But Khalid could see that Geoff was torn. Executing a man you had known all your life was not a simple thing, and the emotion that filled his gaze was not anger, but pity.

“Maybe we should talk things over,” Gorak growled. “Gag him.”

Azarek complied, and they drew away a little, out of earshot. “I don't think I can do it.” Geoff admitted, before anybody spoke.”

“Yer kiddin'?” Azarek spat. “This sorry sack jus sold you out to some filthy Orcs...”. He glanced at Gorak, “No offence.” Gorak just glared at him. “Damnit,” he cursed, leaning back against tree. “I never get to have no fun.”

“I fought beside him. I owe him my life, as do a dozen others in the village,” Geoff replied. “He was a good man once, I'd like to believe he could be that man again.”

“Yeah, well, might I just add that, speaking from experience, our loose ends tend to bite us in the ass,” Shayla said. “This guy is just one more headache that we can cure right now.” She turned to Geoff. “You wanted us in this? Well, we're in it now.”

“Well,” Azarek rasped, pushing himself up. “That's two votes fer and one aginst, by my reckoning. Khalid?”

“Ah, yes, well, perhaps, yes, perhaps Geoff is right,” Khalid replied.

Azarek scowled at him, and then turned to Gorak. “A'right, Orc, break the tie and lets get on wit it.”

Gorak rubbed his jaw and regarded Geoff silently for a few minutes. “I ain't so sure.” Azarek snorted in disgust, clearly surprised. “I'm not so sure I want the blood of a worshipper of Ilsadora on my hands. Maybe we've helped out enough here, without getting our hands into some really unpleasant business.” He pulled a tiny silver chain out of a pocket in his vest, the one he had taken from one of the bodies at the way stop, and tossed it to Geoff. “I'm betting that under his armor there, I'm gonna find one of those.”

“Ah, Ilsadora?” Khalid asked, puzzled. It wasn't a name he was familiar with.

“Yeah. Ilsadora, Mother of the Green. Took me a while to puzzle it out. Known as Shedaska, the Jade Princess, in the West. Not so popular there, what with the desert and all, but some of the jungle tribes pay her tribute. As far as gods go, she ain't a bad one, if you're inta that sort of thing. And I figure these lads are into it, in a big way. The woodsmen at least, and probably the whole village too.”

Geoff nodded. “We never sought to conceal that fact,” he replied, somewhat belligerently, his eyes locked on Gorak.

“But you ain't exactly singing her praises from the rooftops, these days, eh?”

Geoff lowered his gaze. “We aren't immune to whatever has happened to all of the other faithful. Our prayers are met with silence.”

“Maybe she just got bored wit you lot, and buggered off,” Azarek rasped.

“A possibility all have considered, in our hearts if not aloud. But it's just as likely that the problem lies with each of us. Perhaps they are still speaking and we can no longer hear. Either way, we don't believe it was by choice.”

“You're still not telling us the whole story,” Gorak growled.

“You're right,” Geoff admitted. “And when I tell you, you'll understand both the reason why and the depth of our desperation. Our village was built to hide something ancient, something dangerous. Orc priests and mystics have sought what we have kept hidden away for centuries. And now that we need her the most, when we are discovered, Ilsadora can not aid us, nor we her.”

“So what is it?” Shayla asked, straight to the point.

“An idol that is said to bear a tiny sliver of the essence of Rasha'gaur.”

Gorak's eyes narrowed. Glaring at Geoff, he snarled, “That's just a myth. Something for the crazies to trot out to incite other crazies into doing something stupid.”

“I wish it were,” Geoff replied.

Khalid stroked his beard, a worried frown on his face. He didn't recognize the name but he was taken aback by the vehemence in Gorak's tone. But that wasn't what concerned Khalid the most; it was the other note in his voice bothered him. Something he hadn't heard in a long time.

Fear.
 
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“Who's Rasha'guar?” Shayla asked.

“The Orc-Father. The patron of the entire race,” Geoff replied. Turning to Gorak he added, “You see now why we were reluctant to allow you into our village. Even telling you this much is in violation of my oath and may condemn me to the same fate as Gavin. But after what I witnessed today, I think maybe you're the only chance we've got of coming through this.”

“Lucky for you, I'm the one Orc that ain't got no use fer gods.” Gorak growled, regaining control of his emotions. Barely.

“Ah, what power does the idol hold?” Khalid asked.

“Our holy writings tell of a ritual which will raise an avatar upon the earth. An embodiment of the god himself.”

“Ah, I knew I didn't want the answer to that question,” Khalid muttered.

“Why all this messing around with a piece of rock. Why not just show up down here and cause some havoc?” Shayla asked.

Khalid, sifting through his knowledge of planar beings, hit upon several possible conclusions, finally abandoning all but the most likely. “Contained within mortal flesh, he would be vulnerable. The ability of the other deities to interfere, indirectly through their followers, would present a grave risk. I suspect its possible that whatever power Rasha'guar imbued in a mortal artifact could be completely destroyed upon this plane.”

“But without the other gods to keep him in check...” Shayla trailed off, looking at Geoff.

“He'll grow in power until nothing on this earth can stand against him,” Geoff replied. “I still cannot fathom why he would do it. Rasha'guar values power above all else. To willingly sacrifice some of his divine essence, to diminish himself upon the heavenly plane to store his power upon the mortal realm is almost unfathomable. Perhaps he alone of all the gods had the wisdom to foresee this day.”

“Or maybe he jus figured it was a matter of time before the rest of them gods blasted him into divine dust and wanted a second chance tucked away someplace safe.” Gorak rumbled.

“Ah, it doesn't really matter does it. The possibility alone is worth ensuring this thing does not, yes, not fall into their hands.” Khalid declared. Azarek glared at him.

“Do I have to remind you what happened the last time we tried to be heroes?” Shayla retorted. She pointed at her jet black hair. “I got a permanent makeover.”

“I'm with Khalid on this one darling,” Gorak growled. “Ain't nothing good gonna come of them Orcs getting their hands on that statue.”

“You sure about that?” Azarek rasped. “Can't see it being a problem for you.”

Gorak shrugged. “Oh I'd do better than you lot, a'right. But I'm only half-orc and that's gonna put me at the bottom of the heap. Can't say I care much for the thought.”

“We can't allow this to come to pass,” Khalid pleaded with Shayla.

She turned away, flicking her long black hair over her shoulder. “I know that,” she admitted. “But this is gonna get messy. Mark my words.”

“Always seems too, with you lot,” Azarek rasped. Can't say it's good fer the lifespan, but it'll keep you sharp, a'right. But haven't made the important decision yet.” He pointed back in the direction of the ranger. “What to do wit that fool. Let's hear your vote.”

Gorak glanced at Khalid. “You want him alive. Then you deal with him.” He turned to Azarek. “And what makes you think your vote counts? You follow or you leave.”

They returned to the bound ranger. Pulling the gag from Gavin's mouth, Gorak knelt down beside him. “How much time do we have?” he growled.

“It's a matter of hours now, I'd guess,” Gavin replied, trying to edge away from Gorak.

“Ah, we can perhaps make a few more miles yet today, but I must admit, I am quite, yes, quite exhausted,” Khalid pointed out, pragmatically. “I will make little difference until we have had time to rest and I do not relish the prospect of trying to out manoeuvre Orcs in the dark.”

“Yer right. I'll warn the village. You do what you can. Khalid, worst case, can you get everybody into the village like you got us into Caer Morag?” Gorak asked.

“Tomorrow, yes, although that will require a great, yes great deal of my strength in advance of any battle.”

“I know that,” Gorak growled. “Jez be prepared.” He closed his eyes, concentrating.


Before he could shift, Geoff spoke. “Wait. Erik's not going to believe you. Tell him 'The sun never sets upon the Green'. He'll know then that I trusted you.” Nodding, Gorak shimmered in the form of a hawk and flew away through the trees.

“Yes, quite. We are in agreement then, yes?” Khalid addressed Geoff. “I will of course, defer to you in this judgement, but I do not care for the thought of executing this man.” Geoff, with a long glance at Gavin, nodded, then turned his back and walked away.

“I still can't believe we're just going to cut that piece of shyte loose.” Shayla muttered, shaking her head.

“Ah, yes, I just said that I didn't want him killed. I never said I was going to let him go unpunished,” Khalid replied. Gesturing at Azarek he added, “Relieve him of his weapons and cut him free.” Grumbling under his breath, Azarek grudgingly complied. The ranger rolled away from Azarek and crab crawled back against a tree, watching them warily. He clearly didn't believe that they were going to release him.

“Geoff has asked that we spare your life and I am inclined to agree with him,” Khalid said. “He still has faith that you can redeem yourself.” Folding his arms into the sleeves of his robes, Khalid leaned forward and spoke down to him. “Ah, I, on the other hand, am not a religious man. You are being given what too few people get. A second chance. And I intend to ensure that you use it. Remember that we found you, in your own lands, with ease and can do so again. There is no mountain high enough, nor cave deep enough, to hide you from us, so I suggest that you consider this a parole, not a pardon. Leave this place and spend your life atoning for your betrayal. Fail to do so, and I will see that you suffer the judgement you deserve.” Khalid stared straight into the mans eyes, holding his gaze.

We will be watching you

Gavin jerked upright, glancing around nervously as thoughts that were not his own echoed in his mind. Satisfied, Khalid turned his back as the man scrambled off into the bush, vanishing between the trees.

“Clever,” Shayla admitted, watching him run off. “But do you really think you accomplished anything?”

Khalid shrugged. “Ah, consider it a social experiment. I do fully intend to check up on him, at some point. Perhaps fear will lead him to do good, until it once again becomes its own reward. If not...” Khalid shrugged, “it would seem to me that we may yet have use for desperate men like him, yes?”

Azarek chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. “Jez when I think I can't stand you no more, you go ahead and surprise me. The look on his face was almost worth not stringing him up for the buzzards. Almost.”

“Ah, yes quite,” Khalid muttered. “Perhaps it is time we were on our way,” he suggested in a louder tone, glancing up at the fading light filtering through the trees.

They wasted no time falling into line behind Geoff, but it was less than an hour later when he called an abrupt halt. Motioning them close, he pointed out Orc tracks heading at an angle toward the village. More and more, their place slowed as the shadows lengthened. Soon, they found more tracks heading in the same direction, not even trying to conceal their passage. One group looked to be about two dozen strong, although they didn't spare the time to count. Taking care to make as little noise as possible, Geoff crept forward, only ten feet ahead of Khalid.

A half dozen steps further, he knelt to the ground and waved them back. They dropped low and pushed into a small thicket, waiting for the Orcs to pass. Voices, no more than a dozen yards away, split through the gloom. Khalid practically held his breath, trying to remain as quiet as possible. Geoff curled up around the base of a tree, pulling his mottled green-brown cloak up around him. A sharp laugh reached them, followed by an unintelligible stream of Orcish as the voices receded. With a sigh of relief, Geoff removed his hand from the hilt of his longsword, and crept back to the rest of them. “I think there is a serious encampment nearby. A staging point, or at least a large war band. Those two were sentries. There's still plenty of forest between us and the village, so I'm confident I can get us around them. But I'm not confident I can do it in the dark with you three.”

“Agreed,” Khalid replied. Waiting a few more minutes, he cast a spell, the arcane words distressingly loud in the still forest. Clambering up the rope, they entered the bland grey sanctuary of Khalid's pocket dimension. For the first time all day, they were able to relax as Azarek sealed the gate behind them. Sitting down to a bland, cheerless meal, Khalid couldn't help but wonder how Gorak was faring.
 

Updated the Map.

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Muscles surging, Gorak crested the tree tops and headed straight for the village. Quickly nearing the town, his eyes, sharpened by the transformation, picked out flickers of movement between the trees below. Grimly, he redoubled his efforts, racing through the sky. What would take more than half a day on foot took him less then an hour to cover in flight and soon the first houses at the edge of the village came into sight. He was more than a little relieved to see that the assault had not yet begun and the town below bustled with activity. He flew toward the centre of the village, circling above a long, low building, three times the size of the largest house. Leather clad rangers and villagers swarmed around it, erecting wooden battlements along the edges of the roof. A fifteen foot tall watch tower, newly built by the looks of it, sat in the centre with a ranger on the platform at the top scanning the tree line in all directions. Spotting Erik among the men on the roof, Gorak swooped in low and shifted back to his normal form, eliciting more than a few startled gasps.

Erik, watching him with an decidedly unfriendly expression, spoke up as the men looked around in confusion and reached for their swords. “Put your weapons away,” he barked. “This one's friendly. Or stupid. Either way, he's not much of a threat.”

“Not to you at least,” Gorak growled. “There's four ogres and an Orc buried in a shallow grave out there that'd disagree. Before you get your panties in a bunch, Geoff said to tell you, 'The sun never sets upon the Green'.”

Although the scowl didn't leave his face, Erik seemed to relax slightly. “Alright, he trusted you enough to make sure we wouldn't kill you outright. Now tell me, why isn't he here to vouch for you himself.”

“We found your boy Gavin. Seems like he didn't like the odds too much on this side of the wall, and cut hisself a deal with the Orcs.” He leaned in close to Erik. “He told them everything and you'd better believe I know what that means. You're gonna have a whole mess of Orcs in here any time now.”

Erik, anger simmering just below the surface of his impassive demeanour, replied, “We pulled in our scouts this afternoon. There's Orc sign all over the edge of the woods in large numbers. If Geoff broke his oath and told you,” he held up his hand as Gorak started to protest, “for whatever reason, then you know what's coming. You'd better clear out of here.”

“I don't think so,” Gorak rumbled. “We're gonna see this one through. And by the end of it, trust me, yer gonna need us. The other's will be here by morning.”

“Well, that'll help,” Erik replied, mastering his emotions. “If we live that long. Know anything about sieges?”

“More than you lot, I'd wager.” Gorak growled. “We're one for two. We're turned back a tribe of Orcs at Knolton but the Dwerro at Caer Morag, not so much. And both of them towns had ramparts. You might have considered a wall at some time in the last few hundred years, you know.”

“You can't wall out the Green,” Erik answered piously. Seeing Gorak's grimace, he relented. “But I'll give you that one. I'd feel a lot better if there were a half dozen feet of stone between us and the forest right about now.”

“Normally, all you'd have ta do is ask me nicely, but I don't think we've got the time.”

“Well, unless you could conjure me up another hundred blades to man it, it probably wouldn't matter much anyhow.” Erik sized him up with a sidelong glance. “I figured the tan fellow in the red dress for a wizard, but you don't look the sort. Earthbrother?”

“If that's what you want to call it, sure.” Gorak agreed.

“Still can't see how you figure you're better off on this side then the other.”

“I've delivered more than one of Rasha'guar's holy men to their final reward, Ranger. I don't think that's gonna endear me to him a whole lot. And I got those other fools to think of too.” He shrugged. Besides, only thing Orcs like killing more than humans is other Orcs.”

“And why might that be?”

“They put up a better fight,” Gorak replied with a grin. Turning serious again, he asked, “What have you got planned?”

“There's no way we can hold the perimeter. We're fortifying an area around this building, pulling down some houses and blocking up the roads. We'll give them just enough resistance in the outskirts to make them cautious, then pull back to inner defenses. If Gavin betrayed us, they won't stop until they reach this building or they're all dead. We'll give them a few soft spots to push through and funnel them here, bleeding them every step of the way.”

Gorak nodded. “Can't argue with that. What about the women and children?”

“Everybody able to wield a sword has got one. The rest are hidden away in safe rooms in houses near the centre of town.”

“Well, the rest of my crew are stuck on the other side of the lines until morning and there ain't nothing I can do about that, so I might as well pitch in.” With a nod to Erik, Gorak dropped off the roof and headed over to a group of men dismantling a house. Picking up one of the huge timbers from the wall of the building and setting it on his shoulder, he walked it over to where a group of men were sharpening stakes to create a wooden palisade. Tossing it to the ground in front of them, he headed back for another. He worked in silence beside the men of the village, sensing their unease with his presence. Gradually, they began to relax after it became clear he was easily doing the work of two men. When a young girl came around with a wine skin, one of the men nodded his head in Gorak's direction, and she hesitantly walked over to him, offering him a drink. Taking a long pull of what turned out to be a fairly powerful fermented fruit juice and handing it back to the girl, he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and got back to work.

He toiled tirelessly through the afternoon, barely pausing to catch his breath. He tossed a final armload of wood upon a heap of oil soaked branches, one of a dozen scattered around the centre of the town, placed both as a barrier and a counter to the unparallelled Orcish night vision. Stretching his arms over his head, he attempted to relieve his aching muscles as he walked back to the ranger's barracks, climbing up on the roof to rejoin Erik, who was quietly surveying the defenses from his vantage point. They watched in silence for a time, while the villagers continued their work.

Finally, Gorak spoke. “So I gotta ask. Why keep that thing here? Why not destroy it?”

“We never could figure out how. More than a few died trying,” Erik replied. “Even if we knew how, would you do it? Raise your hand against a god? It's one thing to kill a few of his followers. It's something else to destroy part of his being. How long could you withstand the terrible hatred of a savage and powerful God?”

Gorak, thinking back to the unpleasantness the dogged them since they left Shalazar, grumbled. “Long enough. But I kin see your point. Not that it matters much now.”

“Not at all,” Erik agreed.

Here and there among the houses, torches were lit and Gorak knew that many more had been placed in the event the Orcs attacked in the night. Eventually, they were engulfed in true darkness, the sun vanishing at the appearance of the twin moons, beneath a glittering canopy of stars. The village had begun to quiet, when a sound Gorak hadn't heard in at least a decade reached his ears. What started out as a low throbbing became a rumble that gained in strength, rolling over the town like a wave. Gorak's blood surged as his heritage overtook him, his hands clenching involuntarily into fists. He looked around at the faces of the men beside him, hardened soldiers, seeing the blood drain away. They may not have been born to it, but they knew the sound as well as he. Orcish war drums.

“Well Orc,” Erik said loudly, speaking over the rising din, “looks like you're gonna get your chance to prove which side you're really on.”

“Soon enough,” Gorak agreed, listening to the tempo. “They ain't in no rush yet. They'll let you stew on it for a bit while they work themselves into a frenzy. By now, they know you're cut off and there ain't no help coming.” He paused, staring out into the darkness. “It's gonna be a long night and one helluva an interesting morning.”
 


A particularly violent snore from Azarek startled Khalid awake. Seizing the cowl of his robe, he pulled it over his head in a vain attempt to recapture the fleeting remnants of sleep but all too quickly thoughts of the coming day boiled up in his mind and immediately rendered sleep impossible. Rolling over, he sought out the portal and seeing nothing but darkness, decided it was still several hours before daybreak. Stifling a prodigious yawn, he scrounged around in his pack for his spellbook. Pulling it out, he sat up and realized for the first time that Shayla, sitting cross-legged on the other side of the magical dimension, was staring at him.

“Ah, I hope I didn't disturb your sleep,” Khalid whispered hoarsely, knowing that waking the others would lead to the day's grim preparations, something he was too groggy to yet contemplate.

“I don't sleep anymore,” Shayla replied. “Not really. Not since I crossed over.” It was rare for Shayla to bring up what had happened on the road outside Caer Morag, and Khalid was never quite sure how to react. Not knowing what to say, he said nothing. She seemed only half aware of him and continued on without prompting. “ Now I just...sit. Very still. And I don't dream either. I think maybe I'm starting to forget what it was like altogether. Isn't that strange?”

“Ah, yes, I, supposed that would very well be an unusual experience.” Khalid studied her carefully. “But lack of sleep aside, how do you feel?” Before a battle, the old Shayla had practically hummed with energy. A concentration of power that infected her actions, her gestures and even her speech. Now, she seemed calm, almost serene. It was, in an unusual way, distressing.

“Don't worry Khalid. I'll be ready. I feel fine. I feel...strong.” She replied, absently scratching her familiar, Emma under the chin.

“Yes, quite,” Khalid replied somewhat hesitantly, eliciting a long stare from the cat, eerie in its similarity to her master's.

Before he could press the issue, Geoff awoke and stood up. Looking out the portal, he said, “We should get moving. It's going to be light soon.”

Khalid gathered up his things and kicked the heel of Azarek's boot, who awoke with a snort. Grumbling under his breath, Azarek began the tedious process of assembling his heavy plate armour. With Geoff's help, he was ready in a matter of minutes. Settling his helm over his horns, he slung his huge hand and a half sword over his shoulder, and belted the Dwerro war hammer around his waist. With a grunt at Khalid, he indicated his readiness.

Pushing the rope outside, Khalid opened the portal, then quickly stepped back, startled by the sound of drums that flooded into their quiet refuge.

“The Orcs are on the move,” Geoff said. “We have got to get to the village.”

Dropping out into the dim, predawn light, Khalid groaned inwardly. Outside the air was warm and damp, even in the early morning among the shade of the trees. It would not be a pleasant day. They took up the same positions as the night before with Geoff leading a dozen feet ahead and Azarek taking up the rear, every step dogged by the sound of drums.

* * * * * * * * * *​

“Erik,” a breathless villager called up from the street below.

Erik broke away from conferring with his lieutenants at the base of the tower on his rooftop command post and walked to the edge. “What is it, Stephen?”

“Arron said to tell you there are Orcs massing to the south. We can see them moving along the tree line.”

“All right. Richard. Markus. Darryl,” he singled out three villagers from a group of men standing guard near the door of the barracks. I want you to run out to the other forward positions and get me a report. Stephen, stay put until the others get back then run the news back out.” Glancing at Gorak, he said, “If your friends don't get here soon, the only way they're gonna help is by digging our graves .”

“Tell me about it,” Gorak growled. “They're caught behind the lines. I'm gonna go try and get them through. I'll be back before the fun starts.” Before Erik could stop him, he stepped off the edge of the roof and flew off to the south.

* * * * * * * * * *​

“I've been looking for you for hours,” Gorak growled, shifting back into his Orcish form and dropping to the ground in front of Khalid.

“Whut did you expect? The idea was to stay hidden from Orcs, remember?” Azarek pointed out with a smirk.

“The plan was to help the village,” Gorak growled. “Not wander around the woods for a day and a half.”

“Blame the ranger,” Azarek rasped. “He's such a good tracker he finds Orcs even when he ain't looking for 'em.”

“You're in fine form today,” Shayla remarked caustically.

“Imminent violence always puts me in a good mood,” Azarek replied with wink. “And this time I don't even hafta dangle my cod out in the breeze to get it,” he added with a barking laugh. “Anyhow, the Orcs is thick as flies on shyte in this wee little spot of forest, and so far, we ain't be able to sneak through.”

“Ah, and we are not yet close enough to the village,” Khalid added. “I would not risk, yes, risk the magick unravelling and depositing us in the middle of the Orcish horde.”

“I'll lead you through. Stick close. We're gonna move fast.” Raising his hands over his head, he chanted words of power. In the hazy clouds above, thunder rumbled. “And if we see the son of a bitch that's stirring up this rabble, I'll end this thing right now.”

“Ain't nothing but a whole lotta blood gonna end this now,” Azarek muttered but Gorak was already in the air.

The humidity was a physical thing now, clinging to their skin and clogging their lungs. Khalid had been in fair share of unpleasant situations, but the harrowing run through the woods ranked up there with the worst. All around them were the sounds of the Orcish horde, screaming and chanting to the rhythm of the drums. Gorak, in the form of an owl, flitted from tree to tree, occasionally disappearing from sight to scout ahead. Every so often he would swoop down in front of them, turning their course to avoid Orcs in their path. The constant thunder of drums eliminated the need for silence, so they concentrated on following Gorak with all possible haste. Dripping with sweat, Khalid kept pace easily. Azarek however, unaffected by the heat but burdened by his massive armour, struggled to keep up. Just when he thought he sound of the drums would drive him mad, Gorak flew back into sight, circling above their heads before rising up into the trees. Khalid took that to mean they were close to the village, and immediately began to invoke his magic. Finishing his first spell, he allowed the magick to flow inward and breathed a sigh of relief as his feet rose several inches off the ground. Turning to Azarek, a flicker of movement caught his eye through the trees. Hastily launching into another spell, garbled Orcish, much closer than before, echoed around them.

While Khalid was casting, Shayla closed her eyes and muttered a word of command. The jet black feathers of her cloak began squirm and writhe, flowing across her body. Bowing her head, she seemed to almost collapse in upon herself beneath the drape. Vanishing, in her place, a raven rested on the ground. Flexing her wings, she flew into the trees, following Gorak.

Arcane words rolling together into an unending stream, Khalid touched Azarek on the shoulder, and with a grin he shot upwards over their head. Without stopping for breath, Khalid spat out the words to a final spell, reaching down to touch Geoff on the head as he willed himself into the air. Needing no instruction, Geoff followed as Orcs poured into the small clearing below, howling in anger at their fleeing prey.

Above the tree tops, Khalid could barely make out the village clearing. Gorak and Shayla were already some distance ahead, with Azarek trailing them. Propelling himself forward with the full force of his magic, he sailed through the air, red robes flapping in the wind. Covering the miles quickly, through the occasional gap in the foliage below, he could see Orcs heading north, converging on the village. Minutes later, houses came into view and they passed over the tree line. To Khalid's dismay, beneath them the Orcish horde surged towards the village. Even at his current height, Khalid could pick out distinct tribes among mob. Some were almost naked, wearing little more than loincloths, their bodies and faces covered in warpaint. Others ran beneath a banner of a clenched fist rising from a black sun, their spears festooned with shrivelled human heads.

Distracted by the scene beneath his feet, Khalid recognized his peril only an instant before it was too late. Willing himself straight up into the air, a swarm of arrows fired from the town passed just below him to fall among the Orcs. A dozen or more tumbled to the ground, but their losses were barely a ripple in the tide that swelled from the trees. They quickly reached the first houses and he could see how desperate the situation was. Orcs were swarming through the streets and alleys and the outer defenders were already hard pressed. As they flew over a fierce battle raging in one of the side streets, it was clear the townsfolk wouldn't be able to hold and several were already turning to flee. Gorak banked hard and circled back. A bolt of lightning flashed down from the hazy sky, directly in the centre of the ravaging Orcs. The unfortunate recipient of the blast was completely obliterated while those around him reeled away dazed, buying a few precious seconds for the villagers to retreat.

From rooftops across the town, archers fired into the Orcish mob. When the Orcs swarmed forward, climbing up walls and gaining the rooftops, the archers retreated back across wooden planks, pulling them along behind to prevent attackers from using them. In close quarters, the short bow the villagers favoured was quick and deadly, but Khalid saw more than one group cut off and swarmed. Knowing he could do little to save them without weakening himself, Khalid gritted his teeth and flew on, saving his energy for when it would be most useful. Picking out the command post on top of the barracks, he headed straight for it. Passed the immediate threat of arrows, he allowed himself to descend, picking up speed in the process. Behind him, a another crack of thunder split the air, but Khalid didn't even bother to look. The square around the barracks swarmed with defenders. Villagers armed with spears and swords manned makeshift palisades blocking the roads leading in. In the centre a dozen archers with arrows in hand stood ready. Khalid could see Erik standing on the roof of the barracks, surrounded by several other rangers.

As Khalid touched down on the roof, a second behind Azarek, the ranger in the watchtower called out, “They're through Miller’s crossing!” Almost as one, the archers raised their bows and began to fire, arcing their arrows high into the air. Although they couldn't see their targets, they knew their village and they had the range. Moments later, Geoff landed and Shayla swooped in and reverted to her normal form beside them. Gorak continued to circle high overhead for a minute longer, calling down another blinding flash of lightning on some unsuspecting Orc. With a final screech, he tucked in his wings and dropped from the sky, pulling up and shifting an instant before he hit the roof. The screech turned into a stream of curses as he shifted form.

“Ya find the bastard leading this rabble?” Azarek rasped over the noise around them.

“No!” Gorak growled. “That son of a whore is hiding among the peons.”

“Erik! Erik!” A villager shouted, as he clambered over one of the barricades. The soldiers manning it reached over and pulled him across. Blood streamed down his face from a cut on his scalp and his hand was pressed tightly against a garish wound that had cut through the leather armour over his ribs. He staggered over to the barracks, barely able to stand. “They're breaking through in the west! The outer defences are gone and we're being driven back.”

Erik cursed. “Too fast.” He shook his head in disbelief. “They're pushing us back too fast. We need to hold them!” He turned to issue an order, when the ranger called down from the watch tower. “The South is overrun! They're through on all sides.” For a second, Erik said nothing, then he turned to Geoff. “You trust them with our most sacred charge?” Geoff simply nodded. “And they're that good?” he pressed.

Gorak, a sneer on his face was about to reply, when he caught sight of a pair of Orcs forcing their way into the square through a narrow alley. With a flick of his hand, a bolt of lightning streaked down an electrocuted the one in the lead, who dropped to the ground, twitching. Before the archers could react, another bolt flashed down and the second Orc simply exploded, spraying blood and gore over the stunned defenders.

“How much more proof you gonna need?” he growled, with a evil grin.

“They're our best hope, Erik,” Geoff added.

Erik, chewing on his lower lip, seemed momentarily torn with indecision. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and when he opened them, all the anger and frustration was gone, replaced with a calm resignation. “Get them below. Now!” he barked.

Nodding, Geoff stepped off the roof and floated the to the ground. “Follow me!” Gorak and Shayla dropped down into the street, while Azarek and Khalid, using the fading power of Khalid's spell, flew after him towards a nondescript house on the edge of the square. The sounds of combat surged down the street, a deafening riot of ringing steel and screams of rage and anger.

Erik gestured into the centre of the square and the rangers on the roof began dropping down into the street. The last to descend, Erik drew his longsword as he landed, advancing to the south.
“For your village!” he called out in a huge voice that carried across the square, above the noise. “For the Green!” he roared, pulling out a wicked hatchet with his other hand. The archers dropped their bows in the street, and began drawing swords. “FOR ILSADORA!” The rangers charged forward, directly at the huge surge of Orcs that crashed into southern defences of the plaza, like a force of nature.

Khalid had defended the ramparts of Knolton and stood on the walls of Caer Morag, but he had never been this close to a full on battle. In those few seconds while the ran across the square, Khalid witnessed heroism and savagery he could have barely conceived. Savage Orcs, inflamed with religious fervour attacked relentlessly. Villagers, defending hearth and home, battled back with desperation.

Reaching the building, Geoff hammered on the door with the butt of his sword. “It's Geoff! Open the door!” An instant later, a bolt drew back and the door opened. Stumbling inside, Khalid was surprised how small the interior of the building was. The walls were twice as thick as any of the other buildings, and the door was plated with iron. From the outside the house appeared to have shuttered windows, but within the walls were solid. In the centre of the room, a solid oak table had been overturned and two rangers, with arrows nocked to their bows, stood ready. The ranger that let them in slammed the door behind them and threw the bolt. The sounds of battle vanished, leaving them in a disconcerting silence broken only by the sound of their laboured breathing.

“Erik ordered us below,” Geoff said, moving around the table. The two rangers pulled it aside and reached down, pulling up the floorboards. Beneath the wood, two iron rings were set into a thick slab of stone, and it took both of them to lift it free. A narrow staircase descended into the darkness below. Shayla muttered a few words and lit the area, shining the light down. Geoff led the way, ducking his head to clear the floor, with Khalid tripping on his heels. Azarek, hooking the Dwerro warhammer on his belt, drew his sword and followed, platemail screeching along the narrow walls as he hunched down.

Gorak glanced up and was about to motion for Shayla to go next, when the thick beams along the wall began to creak and groan. In an instant, he knew what was coming. He seized hold of Shayla by the collar of her cloak and hurled her away from the wall, sending her sprawling to the ground. “Get back,” he roared, scrambling backwards, desperately hoping he was far enough away from the centre of the spell. The rangers, surprised by his actions, hesitated for just a moment before following his command. A moment too long for the man standing closest to the southern corner. He gasped and sank to the ground, tearing at his chest. His cheeks sank in, the skin splitting like dry bark as his eyes rolled back into his head. The roof began to sag dangerous while the floorboards shrivelled and cracked. A second later, the corner of the building crumbled into dust and sunlight flooded in.

Words on his lips before the wall even started to fall away, Gorak hurled a spell out the gap, hoping to buy time. Orcs voices, from all around the building shouted and cursed. “Get below!” he roared again. The rangers scrambled for the trap door, practically falling down the staircase in their haste.

Shayla was just getting to her feet, when an Orc stepped into view, slugging through what had become thick mud, almost knee deep. His face was a mass of scars,some fresh, that turned his brown skin, grey. Gold caps adorned his tusks and rich pelts covered shirt of polished steel chain. He was tall for an Orc, stooping slightly to peer into the house, but lanky and lean for his race. In his head hand, held low in front of him, was either a gnarled wooden branch or a mummified foot, twisted and blackened. On one knee, Shayla lunged forward and with a flick of her wrist cast a handful of glittering disks spinning through the air. The first sliced through the Orcs thigh, almost at the hip, the second took him in the arm as he raised it in defence. The third, but for a twitch of the ' neck would have severed the artery in the throat. With a hideous curse, the Orc dodged back behind the safety of the wall. Continuing her motion, she gained her feet in one smooth stride and dropped through the hole.

Gorak leapt forward, following her into the staircase. Twisting around, he had the presence of mind to grab the stone slab and pull it back into place. Flipping closed the iron hooks around the edge, he secured it tightly. Joining Shayla at the bottom, he headed down a narrow hallway, lit only by a single magical fire, burning without fuel in an small iron sconce.

“Stick to the left side,” Geoff called out from somewhere up ahead.

Another few steps and they came to a branch in the tunnel. Following Geoff's instructions, they squeezed past one of the rangers that had been guarding the room upstairs. When they passed, he knelt down and touched a small rock at the base of the wall. It twisted under his grasp, and an audible click echoed down the hall. Twenty steps further the tunnels rejoined and then opened up into a large square room, some forty feet on a side with ceilings almost half that. More of the magical flames burned along the walls, evenly spaced to illuminate the entire area. Scriptures and verse had been inscribed on the wall, interspersed with holy glyphs. Along the far wall, directly opposite the entrance was the source of all the strife above. The statue was almost six feet in length and at least four feet high, carved from a thick, translucent crystal. The bottom half was smooth and square but the top had been chiseled away, forming a crude semblance of a baby orc. It's mouth was open in a scream of pain or rage, tiny hands balled into fists. The carving didn't rest upon the surface, but seemed to be emerging from it. The whole thing was made more disturbing for its sheer size.

“Ah, the room is awash with magic,” Khalid said, dragging his fingers across his eyes and peering around. “But just the glyphs. Not the rock.” He moved to examine the carving more closely. Folding his hands within the sleeves of his robes, he leaned over and studied the statue, careful not to touch it with any part of his body.

“If you lot dragged me down here inta this death trap to die over a piece of stinkin' rock,” Azarek growled. “You'd better hope we wind up on different levels 'a hell.”

A drop of something wet and warm splashed on the back of Khalid's neck and rolled down his throat. Reflexively, he wiped at it with his hand. Pulling it away, he frowned and then glanced up at the ceiling, eyes widening. “Ah, your sacrifice will not be in vain, I think,” Khalid said. The others followed his gaze and looked up. Blood was beginning to ooze through the ceiling, running in rivulets to pool suspended above the statue. As they watched, a single drop congealed and fell.

Straight into the whelp's open mouth.
 
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