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

Good stuff! Hard to believe this thread is almost nine years old!

Seriously. Looking back at some old comments I made, I peg this part somewhere around the summer of 2005.

We actually played a session not too long ago which was awesome...playing that is, not the session itself. That was disasterous. Of course, in Galeman's game, if there isn't plenty of disaster and tragedy, we don't really feel like we've accomplished anything.
 

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Struggling to regain his senses through a fog of pain, Khalid's first thought was that he'd been attacked by Vestalt's minions. Trying to scramble away from the pointed horns with that filled his vision, he flopped about like a landed fish, until slowly his vision cleared, and Azarek's face coalesced in front of him. Blinking in confusion, he asked, “Ah, what happened?”

“You asked me to keep an eye out for anything funny,” Azarek rasped. “You went stone still for about half an hour, then started mumbling and drooling all over yerself. So I woke you up.”

“By bashing me with your shield?” Khalid moaned, rubbing his jaw.

“Hah,” Azarek barked. “That weren't nothing. Shaking ya didn't work, so I gave ya a little nudge is all.”

Annoyed as he was, Khalid couldn't really find fault with him. Brushing away Azarek's outstretched hand, he stood up and closed his eyes, trying to re-establish the connection. Ilsadora? Geoff? But this time there was no response, save for a faint whiff of pine that could have been no more than a memory. With a sigh, Khalid and went to find Gorak and Shayla. Holed up within the privacy of the magical shelter, they discussed it late into the evening. Khalid repeated the details several times, and, painful as it was for her, Shayla recounted her experience, at least as much as she could recall, in the hopes they could find some common thread. In the end, it came down to a single question.

“Are you sure?” Gorak growled, for the tenth time.

Khalid sighed. “Ah, it seemed as real as this does now. I could feel the warmth, yes, warmth of the sun upon my face and smell the pine upon the breeze. And I do not doubt the power of the being. Yes quite.”

“But was it Ilsadora?” Shayla pressed.

“Ah, I can only guess. Our...exchange...was cut short.”

“When you got clobbered,” Gorak grunted, scowling at Azarek.

Azarek shrugged off the comment. “He asked for it. Don't blame me jus cuz I enjoyed it a little.”

Ignoring that, Shayla asked, “Do we tell Erik?”

“Ah, I see no reason not to. Let them do what they will with the information, yes, quite. There can be no denying the presence of a higher power within the vault, and his sacrifice has already renewed their faith. The most obvious explanation is likely the correct one in this situation,” Khalid replied. “It's the implications, yes, implications, that concern me.”

“A'right,” Gorak grunted, cutting the conversation short. “Then I think we're just about done here. Probably best we head out in the morning.” No one disagreed, and they retired for the night.

Having done little but study the last few days, being awoken on Gorak's schedule was more than a little grating. Slowly Khalid collected his things and exited the portal, joining the others in the small house that had been given over for their use. The main square was a flurry of activity, with Erik at its centre. Dozens of people, rangers and villagers alike, crowded around him while he calmly organized everything from the provisioning of the town to the daily patrols. When he caught sight of them at the edge of the crowd, he extracted himself from the townsfolk and joined them. Seeing that they were carrying all of their gear, he said, “You're welcome to stay as long as you like, but I'm guessing folks like you have more important places to be.”

“Home,” Gorak grunted. “And we got a mountain range and half a desert to go yet. Best we get started.”

“I understand. Just know that nothing we can do will ever repay what you have given us.”

“Ah, there's something else you should know,” Khalid interrupted. He quickly covered the details of his experience. “I do not pretend, yes, pretend to know what it means but we thought you should know. Yes, quite.”

To his surprise, Erik reached out and clasped his arm. “I can't begin to thank you enough, for everything you've done, especially how we, how I, treated you before. I won't ignore the lesson in humility, Ilsadora has seen fit to teach me.”

Gorak grunted. “You had your reasons and we had ours. Worked out well enough for both of us I figure.” His scowl deepened. “But you know, Orcs maybe the least of yer problems. The Dwerro ain't gonna be busy down south for ever.”

Erik nodded. “We'll send out scouts. We'll have some warning at least.”

“Warning won't be enough to save you from the Dwerro army,” Shayla replied.

“No,” Erik agreed. “It won't. But if they come this far north, they'll find nothing but a few crumbling old buildings in a clearing in the trees. Once we drive the Orcs out and control the forest, there won't be an army in the world big enough to flush us out.”

“That's a hard life fer village folk,” Azarek rasped. “You sure yer ready fer it?”

“Those Orcs chipped a little bark off, but it’ll only grow back thicker. We've deep roots in this forest. With the goddess watching over us, we will come to thrive beneath the leaves.” The tone in his voice edged upon zeal.

“Ah, she may not yet be able to intervene in mortal realm again,” Khalid cautioned. “She said nothing...”

Erik smiled. “Maybe. But her courage is our courage in these dark times. Perhaps witnessing our small triumph will lend her some small amount of hope, in return for the faith she has given us.”
Khalid couldn't help but notice while objects of worship for Ilsadora were there to see before, now every building sported dedication to the Goddess. True faith might be enough shelter from the privations to come, he thought to himself. They parted ways with Erik shortly thereafter, and after checking in on Geoff one final time, they rode out of town. Once again, like Knolton, Khalid found himself the centre of far more attention than he felt he deserved, as townsfolk came out to bid them safe journey.

* * * * * * * * *​

Two days into the journey, and Khalid was already missing the casual indolence of the last days in the village. Recent events had done little to quell his disquiet with the trees, and the prospect of running into fleeing Orcs was all too real. Being mounted and on the road, they gambled that they'd be able to overrun or escape any of the scattered bands foolish enough to cause trouble. But it was more than just physical discomfort that soured his mood. Once clear of the village, Gorak had pulled out the twisted staff, and carried it at his side. Khalid had long since learned to trust his instincts, especially the paranoid ones. The presence of the staff made him decidedly uncomfortable and not only because of its association with the basement. He caught Shayla's eye and motioned at the staff with a nod of his head. She leaned back in her saddle and shrugged, but Khalid caught her watching Gorak more and more often as they left the trees behind, and rode out onto the plain.

A few days later, Khalid's suspicions grew to the point where he could not help but voice them. Gorak, he began, with a glance over to Shayla. We need to discuss the staff.

“What about it?” Gorak grumbled.

We need to give it proper study, it could be unpredictable or dangerous.

“Relax,” Gorak grunted. “It's just a weapon.”

I should think it’s more than just a weapon. In any event we should discern exactly what it is capable of.

“I think I got a pretty good handle on it,” Gorak grumbled. “It ain't nothing to worry about.”

The last thing Khalid did when somebody told him to stop worrying, was stop worrying. “Ah, Gorak,” he said. “If you know something...yes quite.”

“Well it obviously does that thing that sucks all the water outta the air.” Gorak growled.

“Are you certain? Is, yes, is that all it does?” Khalid pressed. “How can you be sure?”

Realizing that he couldn't continue to be evasive, Gorak relented. “It told me.”

“Told you?” Shayla asked, in that deadly calm voice that usually meant somebody was about to get seriously hurt.

“Yeah,” Gorak rumbled. “It told me. It's a weapon alrigh'. Damned powerful and conscious of it.

Khalid switched again, directing his thoughts only to the three of them. Gorak, such things do not...think...the way we do. They are often times infused with singular purpose that they will carry out to the exclusion of all else. The most powerful can overwhelm a man's mind.

“It tried that. Din't work. It knows who’s boss.”

What does it want? You perhaps received some glimpse of its purpose?

“Well,” Gorak grumbled, starting to look a little defensive. “Maybe something. I got the feeling that it don't like cities and civilized folk much. That’s why it got on so well with them Orcs.”

“Great. It's capable of widespread carnage, and it hates cities.” Shayla muttered. “What if it went off in Gem-Sharad? How many people would it kill?”

“It can't do that,” Gorak growled. “It can't activate isself. It needs somebody to use it. And besides, that ain't nothing new. You can't tell me there weren't nothing that dangerous floating around Gem-Sharad before?

Unquestionably. But the institutions that held those forces in check have been swept away. And new powers rush to fill the void. Thus far, we have managed to claw and scratch our way to near the front of the pack, through a combination of ill luck, suffering and a measure of bravado that is rarely substantiated by our actions. I certainly see the allure. But in the wrong hands...we bested it once, sacrificing half a town to do it. In that was in the hands of one ignorant, albeit charismatic, forest Orc.

“It's gonna take more than a shrivelled up stick…” he paused and glared at Khalid, “or a shiny egg to order me around. Ain't I proved that already?

We can't afford to underestimate it. It will be relentless. Its very identity is tied to its purpose. It will wait until you're wounded, or confused, to strike again. Perhaps it will remain docile for a time, until you come to depend on it, and when you need it this most, it will demand your surrender. If you refuse, it matters not, for the next to retrieve it may not be that strong.

“One of these times, we're gonna run into something that don't poison or burn too well,” Gorak replied, “and this thing'll help. If I can control it, we're a force to be reckoned with. The shyte that's dogging us, maybe for once, we got the edge.”

Perhaps. But given our recent success, it's equally likely that we'll end up putting a powerful artifact into the hands of Vestalt, who will no doubt find a way to employ it. It's my opinion that it's too dangerous to use, and too dangerous to carry with us. It's best destroyed, but given our present situation, I think we have to settle for concealing it.

Azarek rolled his eyes. “Ya don’t throw a sword away just cuz one end’s a little pointy. If you ain’t gonna risk getting cut, you ain’t never gonna win the fight.”

“I’m with Khalid on this one,” Shayla said, cutting him off. “It’s too dangerous. We’re not going to let it do what it wants, and worse, we took it away from somebody that would have. It’s going to turn on us. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gorak absently tossed the staff to the ground. “I think yer wrong,” Gorak growled. “But I can’t have you doubting me all the time, or we’ll end up dead fer sure. We’re in this now. Only way we live to see another day, is if we trust each other.”

Khalid half expected to be smote by some unseen power, but the staff just lay there. Gorak shrugged. “I just figured maybe I shouldn’t be holding it, if I was gonna say that.”

“Who’s going to pick it up?” Shayla asked. “We can’t just leave it there.”

“Relax,” Gorak rumbled, riding over to one of the stunted pines that still dotted the increasingly bleak landscape. Muttering a few words, he plunged his hand through the bark. The tree sagged a little as he pulled out a smooth pine box. Gorak grunted at Azarek, who slid off his horse and helped him manoeuver the awkward branch into the box. Repeating the incantation, Gorak ran his hand along the side and sealed the staff within. “That’s the best I can do for now. We find us a good sized chunk of rock, and I’ll bury it.”

Khalid, lacking a better suggestion, nodded, and they resumed their journey. Just before noon the following day, Gorak returned from scouting ahead. Shifting back into his natural form, he growled, “I think I found some place that’ll work.” He led them away from the thin rutted path they were following through the gently rolling terrain to a thin stream. As they followed its banks it gradually widened until it merged with another and became almost a proper river. A few miles further on, the gentle murmur of the water grew louder as it tumbled down a waterfall to a murky pool below. They picked their way down the rocky incline to the base of the falls. Unstrapping the box from the back of his horse, Gorak placed his hand on the rock and uttered the words to a spell. At his touch, the rock rippled and flowed away, forming a small opening, just large enough to accommodate the staff. Sliding it into place, he repeated the words and dragged his hand across the stone, leaving no trace of his work.

Breathing a sigh of relief that the staff hadn’t managed to strike them dead, a flicker of motion caught his eye as he was about to speak. Swooping down from overhead was a giant owl, larger even then the eagle they had faced many months ago in the desert. Gorak, absorbed with the task at hand, was similarly caught unaware as the bird settled at the rocks on the top of the falls.

In a manner all too familiar, the bird began to writhe and shift, wings melting into arms, talons drawing back into booted feet. The steel grey feathers became a long coil of grey hair. Only her eyes remained the same. The cold, calculating menace of a predator. The woman, never taking her eyes from them, tilted back her head in a decidedly wolflike manner and sampled the air.

“You stink of blight,” she declared, her lips curling slightly. “Who are you?” she demanded. “And what are you doing here?”
 

KerlanRayne

Explorer
it's alive! IT'S ALIVE!

Still here. Is this game still running or are you just writing it up after the fact? What levels are they at this point in the story, and what levels are they right now, or whenever it ended?
 

it's alive! IT'S ALIVE!

Still here. Is this game still running or are you just writing it up after the fact? What levels are they at this point in the story, and what levels are they right now, or whenever it ended?

Heh, I'm amazed that anybody read this thing in the first place, much less is still following it after all this time. The game hasn't ended, but it's pretty much dormant at this point. We all live in different cities now, and while there was some brief hope Galeman would move back to this side of the country at least, for now it doesn't look like we'll be playing again regularly anytime soon. When I first started writing this up, it was mostly for the character points. Now I'm just trying to get it down so we don't forget everything that happened on the rare occasions that we do get together. I have high hopes, that if nothing else, we'll all be gathering around the table in the retirement home to wrap it up...That being said, I've probably covered about 2/3rd of the story so far.

After the Orc attack in the forest, Khalid and Gorak just hit 8th level (I know because I bust out some new spells in the next fight), Shayla is level 7 and Azarek is 6 I think (I never should have made him a Tiefling, I think he's actually only a 5th level Fighter here)...heh I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I know exactly what level my wizard was in 2005. That says...something...about me, probably nothing good...

Last game we played, I think we hit 11th, or just a bit shy.
 

CHAPTER 8: A MOUNTAIN CALLED MARTOK

Khalid, still weary from the battle in the village and fretting over the fate of the staff, was in a rare mood. “Ah, our business here is none of your concern,” he snapped. “And you’re no bed of roses from the downwind side either I suspect. Yes, quite.” He glanced at Gorak for support, but his expression was inscrutable. Shayla was watching him as well, her eyes flickering between him and the woman standing above them. Azarek rested a hand on his sword, but the woman remained still, neither moving to attack or relenting, she studied each of them in turn before fixing her gaze on Gorak. Receiving no signs of encouragement, Khalid lost some of his fleeting bravado. “Ah, and who are you, to accost us on our journey?” Again, there was no response. Khalid, never one to look for a fight, was beginning to find the silence almost unbearable. Just when he thought he wouldn’t be able to take it anymore, there was a subtle shift in Gorak’s posture.

“Name’s Gorak. That’s Khalid and Shayla,” he growled. “We ain’t gonna trouble you none. We’re just passing through.”

“I am Olyna,” the woman replied, her tone cool, but no longer threatening. “Leave you shall, but first, I would know what you have brought into my realm.”

Khalid chewed on his lip. What do we do? he asked the others, silently.

Gorak shrugged, “You didn’t want it with us, and we gotta be moving on.”

Tired and frustrated, Khalid relented. Very well.

“It’s a staff,” Gorak grunted. “Orc weapon.”

“Why bring it here?”

“It’s evil, and powerful. We won’t use it, and it don’t like that. Where we’re going, it’s just gonna be a lodestone around our neck, until somebody takes it away from us. It’s best buried and forgotten.”

“And you decided to bring it here,” Olyna replied.

“Here is the middle of nowhere,” Shayla pointed out. “Seemed as good a place as any.”

Olyna appeared to consider that. After an almost uncomfortably long look at Gorak, she spoke. “It may well be. I will agree to let you leave it here.”

Khalid, somewhat concerned by the sudden change of heart, asked, “Ah, yes, but how do we know that you won’t try to use it. Yes, quite.”

“I have no desire to be either slave or master. I have encountered that thing before and I am not ignorant to its purpose. It defiles all around it. It will stay buried here until the stone crumbles into dust.”

Khalid considered himself a pretty good judge of character, but he nevertheless turned to Gorak for reassurance. His casual shrug provided little. With a sigh, Khalid stuffed his concerns down deep. Like it or not, they had bigger problems, and the weapon was a distraction they could ill afford. As they turned away, the druid shifted her form and took flight. She followed them for a brief distance, before climbing high out of view.

“What was all that about,” Azarek rasped.

“Khalid ain’t the only one that can get his point across with his mouth shut,” Gorak grunted. “I trust her enough. Let’s leave it at that.”

A hundred miles later, Martok was a gray smudge on the horizon, and before long, came to dominate the skyline ahead. The sense of vague unease he’d felt upon first seeing the mountain returned, honed to a jagged point like the mountain ahead. “Ah, are we still committed to this plan? Our reception, yes, reception at the village was less than welcoming last time. Yes, quite. Perhaps we would be better to turn south and skirt the mountain all together.”

“That means we took a long, long walk with nothing to show for it,” Shayla pointed out. “Well, not exactly nothing,” she added, with a toss of her jet black hair. The sarcasm was more than a hint.

“We got information,” Gorak growled. “That’s more than we had before. That devil took the Dwerro for a reason and heading back West, we’re gonna walk right back into that shyte storm. I’d like to see if maybe we could at least find an umbrella.”

Khalid had been trying to put that thought out of his mind, with only marginal success. He couldn’t argue with either of them, but he didn’t have to like it. Shifting in his saddle, he settled into a good worry, as the miles rolled by under the hooves of their summoned mounts. Without having to care for the horses, they rode hard as always, eating in the saddle and stopping only to sleep. A few days later, Gorak returned from one of his patrols, and shifted in front of them. “Welcoming party is out in full force,” he grunted.

“Don’t suppose they looked happy to see us?” Azarek rasped.

“Hard ta tell.” Gorak grumbled. “Khalid, magick me up a horse. No sense looking like we got something to hide.”

They eased up on their pace, turning slightly to meet the villagers head on. For once, Azarek mostly behaved himself and left his weapons sheathed. Before long they saw the warriors from the village, standing in a semi-circle as before. They reigned in a respectful distance away, and Khalid spoke, “Ah, we have no quarrel, yes, quarrel with you.”

He was only half as surprised when the old woman stepped from behind two men. “So, you’re back.”

“Ah, and you speak the Western tongue,” Khalid replied, his eyes narrowing.

“The time fer playing games is long past, don’t you agree?”

“You were expecting us,” Shayla said, more a statement then question.

The old woman laughed, a wheezy, rasping sound. “Oh, I just knew you were gonna find your way back here. I been keeping an eye out on you folk.” She tapped the center of her forehead, with a sly grin at Khalid. “More and more, when people ask powerful questions, it is your name that comes back the answer. A wise person might suggest you take better care to conceal your activities. Or at least your involvement.”

Shayla rolled her eyes. “Next one we meet, we’ll ask for her opinion.” The emphasis grated on Khalid.

“Hah,” the old woman barked, with a smirk. “That fire in your belly might have been enough to stave off your enemies until now, but folks out there are starting to take notice.”

“Don’t we know it,” Gorak grunted.

“We know you were at the fall of Caer Morag and more. And the winds bring whispers of a great slaughter in the forest to the south,” she continued, her eyes narrowing. “In fact, it would seem you’ve left a trail of bodies in your path since you walked down from the mountains.” Her smile was gone now, as she looked at each of them in turn, taking their measure.

“More than a few before that too,” Shayla muttered, her tone bordering on ominous.

“No doubt,” the old woman replied, her expression unreadable. Then she spun on her heel and began heading toward the mountain and at brisk jog. Khalid looked at Gorak and Shayla, his hopes rising that they could finally head back to the questionable safety of Gem-Sharad. A moment later, the old woman dashed them. “Well, come on then,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ve got a lot to discuss and I’m in no mood to do it out here.”

The warriors spread out around them, not so close as to threaten, but there was no questioning the direction they were riding in. Khalid didn’t get the sense they were in immediate danger but the old woman did nothing to alleviate his concern, proving as reticent as she was spry and running ahead of them in silence. Hours of silence later, they arrived at the village. Near the center of town, the old woman finally spoke. “Well you ain’t gonna fit inside on top of them horses.” With a jerk of her head, she motioned for them to follow as she parted the deer hides hanging over the door, and led them into the large yurt.

Several of the warriors remained near the door, but none of them followed her in. Khalid blinked as he entered the gloomy interior, pausing for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust. A small amount of light filtered in through the open hole in the center, above the fire pit. The inside was surprisingly similar to the nomadic tents he’d had occasion to visit with Gorak while perusing for exotic herbs in the outskirts of Gem-Sharad. Tapestries hung from the walls, and thick rugs covered the hard packed earth. A small wooden bookcase was packed with scrolls and papyrus, along with other artifacts whose purpose was not readily apparent. The old woman motioned to a young girl kneeling near the door, and she quickly left the tent, returning with cool water and a platter of hard, foul smelling cheese. Figuring they wouldn’t bother feeding him if they meant to kill him, Khalid relaxed slightly and took a slab of cheese. The overpowering aroma made his eyes water, but where free food was concerned, he rarely let taste interfere. The settled down on their knees near the middle, while the old woman settled into a low chair along the wall.

“So you’re a lot friendlier this go round,” Gorak growled with his usual tact. “What changed?”

“A great deal,” the old woman replied, leaning forward in her chair. “We appreciate what you’ve done for us. That harvest you raised when you left will last us two seasons at least, and we may yet get another planting in. And Caer Morag has fallen. But you knew that. You were there.”

Khalid saw no reason to deny it. “Ah, a most tragic situation. The city sacked, the tower destroyed, yes, destroyed.”

That seemed to surprise the woman. “Nargammon destroyed the tower? I’d never had guessed he’d have the power do it. That tower has stood for centuries. The Dwerro will not be pleased. What else do you know of the South.”

Khalid, using his talent, kept up a ready stream of dialogue with Shayla and Gorak as he carefully crafted their story, touching only the larger picture without delving too deeply into their activities. It was clear the old woman had some knowledge of their travels, but even Khalid’s relative skill at judging people left him unsure of how much the old woman really knew. “And, of course, as you have heard, there was a battle in the southern forest, yes, quite. There was a great gathering of Orc clans from the mountains and the hills around, but the villagers laid waste to their horde. We were unfortunately, yes, unfortunately caught in the middle. The Dwerro will soon secure Caer Morag, and then press, yes, press north. The rangers will make their lives miserable, yes, miserable, but there is nothing truly standing between them and Martok now.”

“We caught one,” Shayla added. “A son of Martok. And let me tell you, if the rest of them are like him, they’re gonna be showing up here real soon.”

“Perhaps. But there are few of them remaining,” the old woman replied dismissively. “Why did you return here?”

"We didn’t find what we were looking for,” Gorak grumbled. “So we still need to get into that mountain, and I think maybe you know something that’d help us.”

“I know a lot that would help you,” the old woman, said with a cackle that set the hairs on the back of Khalid’s neck up. “But everything has a cost.”

“Well maybe your information is for sale, but I’ll give you this one for free,” Shayla said. Khalid knew what was coming, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. “No sooner than we grabbed that dark skinned Dwerro, a devil snatched him up.”

The old woman ceased chuckling. “What did you say?” she demanded. All traces of mirth were gone from her voice.

“Ah, it was a succubus,” Khalid replied. “A fell creature who’s only desire is to tempt,yes, tempt men to their doom. It is likely that it was acting under anothers orders.” It was as much of the truth as he was willing to admit.

“To what end?” the woman asked, the concern evident on her face.

“Dunno,” Gorak grunted. “But maybe if we can get into that mountain, we can figure it out.”

The woman considered that for a moment. “Leave me,” she said. “I must speak with the elders. Lodging will be prepared for you.”

Summarily dismissed, they followed one of the guards to another yurt, similar in appearance if somewhat less comfortably appointed. The warrior remained just outside, making it clear they weren't permitted to wander. With little else to do to pass the time, Khalid as he always did, turned to his studies. New formula lay just within his grasp, and time to work on them had been short in the past few days. Azarek, bored by inactivity, stretched out on one of the thick rugs. Titling his helmet over his eyes, he was soon fast asleep, rumbling snores soon drowning out the sound of Khalid's quill scratching across the parchment. Gorak and Shayla sat in idle conversation, with Emma curled up on her lap.

The light creeping through the tent flap slowly dimmed as the minutes turned into hours. With no summons from their host, they bedded down in the yurt for the evening. Khalid felt somewhat exposed sleeping outside the confines of his magick but was conscious of offending the tribes folk by disappearing. Setting a watch was also discussed, but ultimately they felt safe enough to rely on Emma and Sousee to alert them of trouble, and opted to take the opportunity for a decent night's rest. Khalid couldn't deny the comfort of the thick rugs and pillows, and nervous as he was, fell fast asleep almost as soon as he lay down.

Gorak shook him awake, and for a few moments, Khalid wasn't sure if he'd slept for minutes or hours, as the sky was still dark outside. Making himself somewhat more presentable with a cantrip, he followed Shayla outside, where a faint smudge of gray on the Eastern horizon confirmed he had slept through the night, and dawn was approaching. Muttering under his breath about the uncivilized hour, he followed the tribesman back towards the old woman's hut. When they arrived, their guide pulled back the flap, and waved them inside. This time, she wasn't alone, flanked on either side by several of the other elders, and a younger man Khalid assumed was the leader of the warriors. The old woman motioned for them to sit. In what Khalid took to be an encouraging sign, an attendant offered them each a cup of sweet smelling tea, before backing out of the yurt.

The old woman stared intently at them for a moment, before speaking. “We have decided to help you,” she said finally. It was not the answer Khalid expected, and a flash of panic rolled through him at the prospect of once again clamoring into the bowels of the earth. He pushed the thoughts deep down inside to deal with later, and tried to focus on the old woman. “It's clear now, that you are no mere treasure hunters wandering blindly to your doom. Fools instead, perhaps, but an abyssal presence on the loose, our goals align for the moment.

Gorak grunted at being called a fool, but waved for the old woman to continue, when she stopped and stared at him.

“We have a way to shield you from Martok's gaze, when you cross the boundary into his domain. Once you ventured inside, you're on your own.”

“Ah, yes, quite interesting,” Khalid interjected. “How does it work?”

“Long have we lived in the shadow of Martok,” she replied. “In days past, the ritual was taught by the spirits of our ancestors that keep us safe.”

“And you're sure this works?” Shayla asked pointed.

The old woman smiled wryly. “You're asking for a degree of certainty I can't give you, my dear. It hasn't been attempted in centuries. Our stories say it does.”

“Why not go yourself an' check it out,” Gorak grunted.

“Our presence this close to Martok is like a thorn in his paw. It has festered over the years and we can feel his anger, even in slumber, growing. The risk of disturbing him would be higher, if our own people were to try to breech the seal.”

“And this way, maybe it doesn't come straight back to you, if this ritual is nothing more than smoke in the pan.” Shayla muttered.

The old woman smiled her gap tooth'd grin. “So astute, for such a pretty young thing.” She seemed amused by Shayla's derision. “Nevertheless, this is all the aid we are able to provide. It will take some days to prepare the ritual. We will lead you to the base of Martok, and point you in the direction of an entrance we believe was less used. Assuming you still wish to go?”

Gorak, without waiting for the others, grunted ascent. “We spent half a year stomping around dodging Dwerro and almost getting killed. Time we did what we came here to do.”

“Very well,” the old woman continued. “But there is something we require to complete the ritual.”

“Here it comes,” muttered Shayla.

The old woman graciously ignored Shayla's comment and continued. “The tooth of a dragonkin.”

Khalid snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes, well fortunately, we happen to have...” he started, then trailed off as Gorak scowled at him.

“I didn't take any of it's damn teeth, before we got chased off,” Gorak growled. “Just the scales.”

“Yes, quite,” Khalid said somewhat dejectedly. “Well, ah, at least we know where we can possible get some.”

“Uh, are you forgetting about that very large, very angry, talking dog that chased us off?” Shayla pointed out. “Even if the corpse is still there, I doubt he's gonna let us pick over the carcass again.”

Khalid sighed, “Ah, well, yes, but what choice do we have?”

The old woman raised her hand to silence them. “We know of another,” she said. “But it will not be easy.”

“Never is,” Gorak grunted.

“There is a tribe of ogres in the foothills, that venerate one of the least of the dragonkin. While a true dragon's tooth would be better, it should suffice for our purpose. They will not sit by idly however. They consider the beast a totemic spirit of their tribe.”

“Ogres we've dealt with. Describe this dragon thing.” As he listed to the village hunters, Gorak nodded in understanding. “Wyvern,” he grunted. “Stupid and feral. Not to dangerous if we can avoid the poison. Probably hangs around the ogres for scraps of meat.” He slapped his thigh, “Just his teeth? Might not be much more than that left after we're through with him.”

“Just the teeth,” the old woman replied.

“Alright then,” he grunted. “We'll be back in a few days.”

After a journey of several days toward the mountains, the found the ogre village nestled among the hills. Gorak shifted form, and scouted it quickly from the air, coming up with a rough plan of attack. Stout timber walls encircled a collection of a dozen wood beamed structures, housing a little over a dozen ogres. Although there was a watchtower, it seemed mostly neglected and they suspected that the ogres relied on the wyvern to warn them of danger. A small cave further up in the hills was likely the wyvern's den. The plan decided, Gorak once again ranged ahead, scouting to see if the wyvern was out of its nest. Finding nothing, he circled back, and they set they plan in motion.

The ogres were caught completely unaware as Shayla, Azarek and Khalid descended invisibly from the clouds. The fight, if it could even be called that, was short, and brutal. Shayla began by incinerating a group in the center of the village. As their dying screams drew others out, Khalid went to work incapacitating them with toxic mist, followed by summoning a mass of tentacles as they creatures tried to flee for shelter.

Gorak landed on the wall, but before he could shift and cast a spell, he was forced to dodge aside as a boulder crashed into the wall at this feet. Azarek, shield held in both hands, swooped down in front of Shayla and deflected a huge rock that would have crushed her had it landed.

Between the confusion sown by Khalid's magick, and the relentless destruction wrought by Shayla, the ogres were quickly overwhelmed. As they had hoped, the sounds of battle drew the wyvern from it's nest. With a shriek from it's serpentine maw, it took to the air, racing toward the village, the sun glinting off its bluish white scales. But Khalid was prepared for this, and before it could close the distance on them, the air around it began to shimmer and thicken. The creature struggled mightily but it was all it could do to stay aloft as it's muscles seemed to work against it, twitching and jerking as it hovered in the air. It was an easy target for Gorak and Shayla, unable to even flee as the mental impediment Khalid placed upon its mind rendered practically immobile.

They flew over the smoking ruin of the village and landed beside the body of the wyvern. With a few pokes from his staff, Gorak satisfied himself that the creature was dead, and started to work on removing its teeth, along with a few choice scales.

Tired, but unscathed, they set off back toward the village, where they handed over the teeth to the old woman.

“Very well,” the old woman continued. “we will begin the preparations. I suggest you do the same.”

With their limited resources left from months on the road, there was little for the group to do but wait, once they had restocked their rations from the villages stores. Gorak inquired about watching the ritual, but was politely, but firmly refused, and chose not to push the matter. At dawn, two days following, they were summoned again to the old woman's presence.

“It is done.” She motioned with her hand, and one of the other elders brought forth three clay jugs, slightly larger than their waterskins. “At the precise moment the sun dips below the horizon tomorrow evening, you must bath yourself in this, and then step through the portal.”

“Ah, precisely?” Khalid inquired.

“We must continue the ritual here, and try to pull Martok's slumbering consciousness to us, and away from you. The timing is important,” she replied. “Argan will lead you to the base of the mountain. Two days should be more than enough time for you to reach the gate. If you don't,” she shrugged, “the choice is yours if you wish to continue. It may work, it may not.”

“There's a lot of mights and maybes in this plan,” Shayla muttered.

“Just like always,” Gorak grunted as he took a jug.

The old woman sighed, “I know the risk you take here and I wish you good fortune. Events are rushing forward to a conclusion that none of us can foresee. Martok is part of that. Upon your return, we will discuss what you have found and hopefully all become a little wiser.”

With nothing left to say, they packed their gear on Khalid's summoned horses, and followed their guides out of the village. The ride around the lake would have been almost idyllic, if it not for the looming presence of the great mountain hanging overhead. Eventually their guides led them down to the shore, where several bound reed canoes lay hidden in the brush.

“We should camp here tonight. You can cross over before dawn,” Argan said. In the fading light, he pointed out the start of the path. “It's treacherous to climb at night, but shouldn't take you more than a day to reach the hidden entrance. And it is not the eyes of the living you need to avoid, so day or night, it makes no difference when you climb.”

They set up a meager camp, with no fire, and spent a fitful night at the mountain's base. In the morning, the loaded up the canoe with their gear. Gorak walked away into the bush a few steps and then, to Khalid's surprise, returned without Sousee. Seeing his arched eyebrow, Gorak replied to the unspoken question. “I don't think she's gonna be much help in a cave, and I don't want her stuck in some musty old tomb if something happens to us. I set her free.”

“We'll keep a watch for a few days,” Argan said, by way of farewell. “In case you need us when you exit.” Gorak clasped his wrist in acknowledgment, and they pushed off onto the lake, as the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon. Behind Gorak and Azarek's powerful strokes with the paddles, they crossed the lake in short order, hiding their canoe as best they could among the sparse vegetation at the base of the mountain.

Gorak picked out the start of the path, which, from far away looked nothing more than a natural crevice, but, much to Khalid's relief, hid a cunning carved staircase into the rock. Even so, without handholds, parts of the climb were unnerving and dangerous. Sweating under the weight of his gear, and the relentless sun, Khalid paused to mop the sweat off his face. “Ah, how much further?” he asked, somewhat plaintively.

“Hard ta say,” Gorak grumbled, shielding his eyes with his, and leaning back dangerous to look up the mountain. But we ain't there yet, and we're losing the light. No time to rest now.”

They pushed on, as quickly as was safe. Finally, as the sun was no more than a thumbnail of color on the western horizon, they came to a small sheltered alcove, with a landing barely big enough for the three of them. Gorak spent several tortured moments searching for the hidden clasp, as the light slowly faded, before giving a satisfied grunt. “There it is.” Shifting what looked to be a natural stone in the wall slightly, a mechanical click sounded from behind the door, and the rock face swung inward. Gorak peered at the horizon for a moment and held up his hand, as Khalid and Shayla dug the flasks out of their packs. Holding it above their head, they waited for Gorak's signal. When his arm dropped, they upended the contents over their heads.

For a brief moment, Khalid felt refreshed as the cool liquid washed over him. In a second however, it all evaporated, leaving only a slightly oily sheen on his face and hands.

“Now or never,” Shayla muttered.

Khalid, struck by the possibility of losing that which he held most dear, hesitated for only a second as Gorak, followed by Shayla stepped through the doorway. With a deep breath, he forced himself forward then closed his eyes and he crossed the threshold and waited. A slight shudder passed through him, that could have been nothing more than his own nerves. Listening briefly in the darkness, to see if they entrance had been detected, Gorak eventually motioned at Shayla, he enacted a quick cantrip and lit their way. Khalid did the same, and breathed a sigh of relief as his magick still worked. Following Gorak, with Shayla in the middle and Azarek taking up the rear, they made their way down through a roughly carved passage, barely widen enough for Gorak's shoulders. After a few minutes of walking, they came to a broad landing, overlooking a large shaft in the mountain.

The landing and shaft walls were perfectly smooth and polished, much different from the walls of the tunnel. The shaft extended up and down as far as their light permitted them to see. Resting at the end of the landing was a huge iron cauldron, suspended by thick chains that vanished into the darkness above. While Khalid and Shayla took up watch, Gorak and Azarek examined the mechanism in the cauldron.

“This lever,” Azarek rasped. “Release.”

Gorak nodded. “Brakes here, on the winch. I think I see how this works.”

With little other alternative, they piled their gear carefully into the cauldron. Chains attached to the lip kept it from tipping over and dropping their too their deaths, but getting in was unsettling nevertheless, as the cauldron shifted and swayed. There was enough room for the four of them, but little more. Gorak nodded at Azarek, who pulled the release. “Down first,” Gorak grunted. “Dwerro like living under the rock,” he added, by way of explanation. Lacking a better reason, Khalid agreed.

The Dwerro engineering seemed unaffected by centuries of neglect, and the descent was smooth, with only a slightly rattling of the chain, that was far too loud for Khalid's comfort. Still, after almost half an hour, they'd seen little signs of movement or any hint they'd been discovered.

“Maybe we should pick up the...” Gorak grumbled, when Azarek roared. “Get down!”

The three of the dropped to the bottom of the cauldron as Azarek raised his shield just in time to take the brunt of a huge blow from above. Holding his shield in two hands, he struggled to keep it above them, as whatever was attacking them continued to rain down blows. Through Azarek's frantic defense, Khalid could just barely making a figure clinging to the chains overhead. It was emaciated and twisted, and seemed to be covered more with ridges of bone then skin. It's narrow face lacked a mouth, but it's blood red eyes burned in the darkness. It was gripping the chains with trippled jointed feet, head pointed down toward them, as its enormous arms, tipped with razor sharp scythe's instead of hands, slashed at Azarek's shield. A whip like tail swirled behind it, with a barbed tip that lashed down between the slashes, trying to slip past their defenses. Ducking low again, as the creature lashed out, Khalid barely avoided losing his head, and the things wicked appendage sheared through the soft iron rim of the cauldron.

“Oh that's enough of that,” Shayla cursed. And extended her hand past Azarek's shield as she chanted. The creature above was engulfed in roaring flames as a ball of fire exploded directly only him. To Khalid's immediate dismay, the thing seemed totally unhurt, as it scrambled back up the chains, that were now glowing red with heat.

“Ah, Shayla,” Khalid yelled. “Fire cannot harm it, it's some sort of devil.”

“Well we need to do something,” Azarek roared. “I can't hold it here forever.” Gorak had strapped on his ironwood shield, and crouched above them beside Azarek, trying to provide more cover. Khalid wracked his brain, trying to thing of a way to use any of his spells to drive the creature back, but his repertoire was uniquely unsuited for this position they were in.

“No fire eh?” Shayla muttered. “Keep it busy for a minute, when it comes back.” She closed her eyes and began to chant softly.

“What else am I gonna do,” Azarek rasped, drawing his sword as the creature reermged from the darkness. Stabbing upward with his large blade was little more effective than Shayla's magick, but the creature seemed to enjoy toying with him, slashing back with its blades.

Khalid could feel Shayla drawing in her power, as she muttered under her breath for much longer this time. Finally, after several agonizing seconds, her eyes flicked open, burning with rage. “Give me a shot!” she screamed, raising her hands above her head. Gorak and Azarek pulled their shields apart for a brief moment, giving her a clear line of sight to the creature.

This time, the explosion was soundless. The devil was enveloped a huge greenish cloud, that sizzled and crackled as it settled on the red hot metal. The creature above threw its head back in a silent scream, as its skin smoked and bony armor became pitted and cracked from the caustic mist. Gorak and Azarek overlapped their shields again, turning aside the creatures final slash before it scurried back up the chain into the darkness.

“Did I get it?” Shayla asked.

“Ya sure did,” Azarek rasped, “Sent it running.”

The held their position for a few more moments, listening in the darkness. The creature didn't reappear and Gorak and Azarek stood up, still holding their shields above the cauldron. “Ah, do you think it's gone,” Khalid asked somewhat pointlessly.

A slight tremor shook the cauldron. “It's still up there somewhere,” Gorak growled peering around the edge of his shield. “I can almost make it out.”

“Ah, what's it doing?” Khalid asked. A question that was answered an instant later, as the cauldron tilted dangerously to one side, sending them sprawling and almost dumping Azarek over the edge. A length of chain, one of the four stabilizing the lift, hurtled past them into the darkness.

The cauldron shook again, and a shower of sparks fell on them from above.

Shayla turned to Khalid with a look of fear in her eyes, and cursed exactly the same thing he was thinking.

“Oh ****.”
 
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“It's cutting the chains!” Gorak roared, somewhat unnecessarily. Feathers began to sprout from his arms as he lifted them above his head. Hopping up onto the edge of the swinging cauldron, he stepped off the edge, body twisting and morphing into the form of a giant eagle. With a powerful stroke of his wings, he vanished from sight into the darkness beneath.

“Ah, go!” Khalid shouted at Shayla, “Quickly!”

Shayla pulled the black feathered cloak tightly around herself and seemed to melt inwards as it swirled around her. A moment later, he was staring into the cold black eyes of a raven. Like Gorak, she hopped onto the edge of the cauldron and flew off.

Muttering arcane formula beneath his breath, Khalid completed his spell. The weave of magic surrounded him, and he willed himself upwards, hovering an inch above the floor. Azarek, shield still raised, looked at him hopefully, but his customary scowl began to deepen at the horror in Khalid's eyes.

“Ah, yes, well, I'm sorry,” Khalid stammered.

“Oh you've got to be shyting me!” Azarek roared.

“We were ah, going into a cave, yes quite! Underground, yes! I didn't think, yes, think, there'd be much need to fly.”

Before he could reach out and grab Khalid, Gorak reappeared out of the darkness and shifted back into his normal form. “There's a ledge,” he growled, “about fifty feet down on that side.” Seeing that Azarek wasn't floating, he looked at Khalid, who shrugged helplessly. Azarek looked across the width of the tube to the far wall, which was at least twenty feet away. Gorak clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, you might make it,” he grunted before shifting back and flying off, this time heading off above them.

Azarek stumbled hard against the edge of cauldron, as a second severed chain dropped past. Khalid, prudently removed himself from his reach. Cursing, Azarek dropped his shield and pack, and unbuckled his sword. There was no time to ditch the heavy plate he was wearing, as he struggled in the swaying bowl, dragging himself up on the lip using one of the two remaining chains. “You better hope I don't make it,” he cursed at Khalid. Timing his leap with the arc of the swinging cauldron, he hurled himself off the edge. Khalid plunged down behind and even through the gloom he could tell Azarek wasn't going to make it. Flinching as a flash of gold and white streaked past he watched in amazement as Gorak, timing his dive perfectly, banked hard into Azarek at the last second and propelled him the last few feet toward the wall. Just clipping the edge of the walkway, Azarek landed with a horrendous crash and explosion of sparks as he tumbled and rolled, finally sliding to a stop some dozen feet beyond the entry arch. Flaring his wings, Gorak landed just behind him and shimmered back into his own form. Shayla settled to the ground behind them, the raven's feathers splitting open to reveal her pale white skin as she grew and morphed into her elvish form.

Khalid was about to join then, when he noticed a strange symbol carved into the underside of the keystone of the entryway. Hesitating for a moment, he finally decided that if it posed a threat to them it would have reacted when Azarek passed beneath. The brief pause almost cost him dearly and the cauldron, severed from its moorings by the devil, whistled past him close enough to ruffle his robs. He quickly floated into the room, joining Gorak at Azarek's side, who was lying on the ground groaning.

“Get up you big baby,” Gorak growled. “You didn't even break nothing.”

Azarek struggled to get his feet, his scratched and dented armour squealing in protest. “Don't even say it,” he growled at Khalid, who was about to speak. Gorak muttered a few words and placed his hand on Azarek's shoulder. With a sharp intake of breath, he stood a little straighter and stopped grimacing in pain. He continued to stare daggers at Khalid, who, desperate to shift the focus, quickly cast a cantrip and held a glowing coin aloft to get his bearings. He looked around in some surprise, as even the magical light couldn't pierce the darkness to the edge of the room they were in. Behind, the soaring walls curved above them into a vaulted ceiling almost at the edge of his vision. Supporting the roof in front of them, two rows of huge pillars of carved stone, stark and unadorned, stretched away into the black. Unlike the flawlessly carved buttresses and ceiling, the floor was strangely uneven, in places smooth as glass and others rippled and broken, like frozen waves.

“Do you think that thing will follow us,” Shayla asked.

“Din't look like it could fly,” Gorak grunted, “and it cut them chains pretty far above us. Unless it's tougher than it looks, I don't think it'd survive the fall.”

“Ah, a moment before we proceed,” Khalid interjected. “There's something odd back here. Yes, quite.” He walked back to the entrance cautiously, watching for any sign of the devil. “This symbol here. Ah, I do not no much about the Dwerro, but this doesn't look like one of their runes. Muttering a few arcane words he dragged his fingers across his eyes and stared intently at the marking. “It's magick,” he said as he tried to decipher the swirling weave of colours his enhanced sight revealed.

“What's it do?” Gorak grunted.

“Ah, normally magical sigils such as this are protective wards, yes, quite. But it didn't activate anything when Azarek breached the threshold. I'm not entirely sure. It's powerful though. Yes, quite.”

“Well, if'n it was gonna do something, it probably woulda done it by now,” Gorak rumbled. “No point standing around here.”

Shayla, mimicking Khalid's light spell, flicked a glowing pebble down the path ahead, illuminating more pillars. When Khalid looked at her in surprise, she shrugged. “What? It's not like anything that's still alive in here doesn't know we're coming now, thanks to sneaky over here,” gesturing at Azarek. Not wanting the conversation to wander back in that direction, Khalid simply nodded and began cautiously moving forward, watching his footing on the uneven floor. Gorak and Azarek moved up to join him, when Azarek, still shaken from the fall, stumbled over something sticking out of the ground.

“What tha hell,” he growled, kicking at the obstacle with his foot. “Bring that light close.”

Khalid used his hand to focus the light on the floor, catching a glint of metal with the beam. Azarek bent, and tugged at something. The floor cracked apart surprisingly easily, and he lifted up a badly damaged axe, it's blade pitted and dull, the haft scorched. “What in the lower hells happened here?” he rasped. The source of his question was immediately obvious; pulled free with the axe was a mailed hand, the bones broken at the wrist. Nudging aside some rubble with the toe of his boot, it was apparent the rest of the axe's owner were buried below.

As Khalid swung the beam of light around, there were more flashes of light along the floor ahead. “Some type of spell, perhaps,” Khalid offered, “that encased them in the earth.” he looked at Gorak, who shrugged.

“Maybe,” he grunted. “But we ain't gonna figure it out standing here.” The moved another dozen feet before Azarek called a halt again.

“Hol up,” he rasped, bending down to pull at the hilt of a sword sticking out of the ground. When it didn't come free immediately, he braced his feet on both sides and pulled with all his strength, once again cracking the floor. Pulling free a huge two handed sword, he inspected what he could see the blade, then banged it hard on the ground to shake free the last of crusted rock, setting Khalid's teeth on edge as the noise echoed through the huge all. “This'll do fer now, till I find something better.” He glared at Khalid. “But don't think fer a second you don't owe me for all my shyte lying at the bottom of that tube.”

Khalid stopped in mid apology, as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He glanced at Shayla, and saw the same expression on her face, as she looked around nervously. “Something is coming!” was all he managed to stammer out, before a loud crackling sound rent the air behind them, followed by the acrid smell of sulphur. Whirling around, he caught a fading blue glow emanating from the rune in the archway and of more immediate concern, four large devils. For once, Khalid recalled his studies in the White Tower and recognized their nature. “Ah, beware the beards!,” he shouted, as he moved to put some distance between himself and the creatures. Covered with thick scaly plates and wielding long, wickedly hooked glaives, bearded devils were the shock troops of the underworld armies. Their eponymous beards weren't made of hair, but rather a mat of thin rope like appendages ending in vicious grasping proboscis that squirmed and twitched, seeking the blood of their prey. They began to fan out, as Gorak and Azarek, reacting like the veterans they were, moved quickly to intercept before they could reach Khalid or Shayla. Having learned her lesson from their first encounter in the mountain, Shayla withdrew as far as she could, before drawing in her power. Struggling against her natural inclination to incinerate the creatures, sweat dripped down her face as pulled and warped the weave of magic around her, the effort taking long than normal. Judging the distance between the creatures to be suitable, Khalid saw an opportunity to cast one of his most potent spells. An instant later a field of translucent tentacles exploded from the ground beneath three of the devils, seizing hold them and rendering them immobile.

Gorak moved in with his shield raised, drawing the attention of the unencumbered devil, and blocking a viscous slash from the creatures pole-arm. Azarek, seeing an opening, rushed forward to close the distance, but the devil reacted faster than he anticipated and spun around, dealing him a wicked blow. Without his shield, Azarek was forced to take the blow on his armour, illiciting a pained grunt and another deep rent in the steel. Undaunted, his momentum carried him through the strike to close with the devil, where he returned the favour with a powerful blow from his sword.

Behind them, the devils continued to struggle against Khalid's magic when Shayla's spell erupted on top of them, showering the area with a viscous mist of acid. Even their infernal resilience wasn't enough to disrupt Shayla's magic, and both howled in pain as the acid smoked and seared the flesh between their scales. But they could do little more than rage in impotent fury, as more and more tentacles grabbed hold and began to constrict.

Gorak, staying on the defensive, growled a few words and transformed his skin into hardened oak. The devil, sensing him to the greater threat, pressed the attack lashing out with his glaive and drawing blood. Azarek, hammered at the creatures back with blow after blow, the worse of which was turned aside by the thing's thick hide. Seeking to aid them, Khalid attempted a blinding spell, but the showering of golden dust that exploded above the creature failed to adhere and drifted to the floor. Shayla was likewise foiled by the creatures resilience, as her jets of acid slid harmless across the devil's chest.

Gorak, stepping back beyond the reach of the glaive, raised his hand and ripped open tear in the air above the devil, and brought down a pillar of white hot flame. Howling in pain the creature sank to its knees as Azarek stepped forward, twisting his body into the blow with all the strength he could muster, and hewed a huge wound in the creatures side. He continued to hack at the creature long after it stopped twitching on the ground.

The immediate threat contained, Shayla went to work on destroying the others. Despite her barrage of spells and the unbridled strength on the tentacles, the devils inherent toughness made the entire ordeal take far longer than it should have. By the end, Khalid was beginning to worry the tentacles would be forced to withdraw into the closing portal, when the final devil fell.

Breathing heavily, Azarek opened the clasps on his breastplate and tossed it aside. Ripping at the under-padding, Khalid could see a bloody gash across his ribs. “Mind doing something about this,” Azarek gasped at Gorak. With a shudder, Khalid watched the foul wound inch across his chest, almost as though it was seeking vengeance for its deliverer's death. Gorak, muttering a few words under his breath, grasped this wrist of his arm and sealed the wound, taking care to wipe away the black ichor that oozed out, and then tended to Azarek.

“Shouldn't those disappear?” Gorak asked, staring at the smoldering corpses of the devils.

“That, ah, that was no mere summoning,” Khalid replied. “Those things were gated in, yes, quite.”

“I guess we know what the rune does,” Shayla said.

“Indeed,” Khalid agreed, turning around and heading back toward the arch. The rune was still visible, much to Khalid's surprise, although much dimmer than it was before. “It's still here,” he called out.

“Can you disable it? This ain't gonna be much fun with those things popping up behind us.”

“Perhaps,” Khalid replied dubiously. “As I said, rune magic such as this is normally defensive, yes, defensive in nature, and expires upon use. In all my studies, I have ah, never, ah heard of rune carving such as this, yes, quite.” His sight still enhanced from earlier, he studied the rune carefully before enacting a formula that would let him unravel the weave of magic around it. As the spell completed, the rune dimmed momentarily before glowing faintly again. “Ah, I can't destroy it,” Khalid said dejectedly.

“My turn then,” Gorak growled. Standing just before the arch, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Muttering under his breath, he raised his hands up and opened his eyes, slashing them in a pattern overheard. The stone at the top of the arch around the keystone melted into clay and dripped to the floor. A moment later a three foot block of stone around the symbol dropped with a crash. “Azarek, gimme a hand,” he grunted. Working their hands under the stone, the walked it carefully to the edge of the walkway and threw it into the elevator shaft. Khalid flinched at each ensuing crash as the stone plummeted down. Eventually it was quiet again, but Khalid was uncertain if it had hit bottom, or just fallen out of earshot.

Although weary from the encounter, they decided to press on and try to find the boundary of the huge chamber they were in. The floor continued as it had near the entrance, although the further in they pushed, the found more evidence of a large number of warriors trapped beneath the porous rock. As they walked past more and more exposed pieces of armour, it became apparent that it was largely Dwerro that had been sealed in the rock.

Khalid judged they had come several hundred feet before being greeted with a towering battlement carved into the stone face of wall. Above a huge two story gate was a covered walkway with stone watchtowers jutting out, that would allow defenders to fire on assailants directly below. Khalid couldn't tell if the gate was made of wood or stone, as the same jet black rock underfoot streamed down in a frozen waterfall from ports above and beside the gate.

“Looks like we're going over,” Gorak growled. “Ain't no way to open that now.” Choosing an unobtrusive spot near the gate, they vanished into Khalid's extra-dimensional realm and sealed the gate. Safe at last, they cleaned up as best they could settling in to rest and recover. When they cautiously emerged at the end of Khalid's spell, there was no indication anyone else had passed near the area.

“Let me check it out first,” Gorak grumbled, muttering out the words to a spell. Effortlessly climbing the face of the wall under the power of his magic, he reached the crest and peered over cautiously. Seeing nothing, he clambered over, and a second later a knotted rope hit the ground. Carefully stowing their gear in the magical haversack, they climbed slowly up to join Gorak at the top. He motioned with his head toward one of the towers, and they moved along quickly and quietly. Placing his hand on the latch, Gorak seemed to surprised to find the door was unlocked. He opened it slowly and Azarek stepped through quickly, leading with the point of a glaive he'd scavenged from the devils, before motioning for the others to follow. Latching the door behind, they entered a barren room. Save for some benches carved into the wall, and an empty weapon rack, there was little of interest, except an open trapdoor above a set of carved stone steps that led down behind the wall. They descended down a level, and took time to explore a cramped hallway inside the wall. Most of the rooms were just as barren the one above, seemingly used as either barracks or storerooms at some time in the past. On one side of the gate however, was a room with a series of metal levers and steel valves amidst a maze of tubing and chains. Gorak scratched his chin, shining the magical light around room. “I think I'm starting to figure out what happened here,” he growled. “And why we didn't see anything except Dwerro corpses out there. They weren't caught in a spell. Those were Dwerro that somebody caught with their own damn trap. Musta got past them into the wall and activated their last stand machinery that dumped a whole helluva lot of lava all over this wall and that room, sealing the door. Wiped out a whole regiment of them.”

“Ah, yes,” Khalid added. “But who? Ah, and when?” The bodies they'd found were so badly damaged there was barely anything left except scraps of fused armour and weapons. Finding no answers in their current location, they continued searching until finding the way back down to what seemed to be the floor level. Entering a broad tunnel, several dozen feet across, they followed it for what Khalid judged was close to a mile before passing through another, smaller gate. On the other side, the room opened up into a massive cavern. Cut into the centre of the room was another shaft, more than a hundred feet across, with what looked to be with what looked to be enough chains for dozens of lifts at various points around the edge. Lining the walls of the circular chamber were what Khalid guessed were dwellings and shops, with innumerable doors and windows looking out into the central area. The whole area was dimly illuminated by glowing crystals embedded in the rock, which provided just enough light to allow them to move around unhindered. They cautiously approached the edge of the broad stone walkway that encircled the elevator. Above and below they could seem more levels seemingly laid out in a similar fashion to the one they were on. Khalid wasn't sure exactly what he expected to find under the mountain, but with some dismay he realized it was going to take an extraordinary amount of time to search the massive underground city.

“Up or down?” Gorak grunted.

“Well, like Khalid once said, powerful folk like to look down on the peons,” Shayla offered. “I vote up.”

“Ah, it may be that for Dwerro, deep in the earth holds more prestige than being on high, yes, quite,” Khalid replied. “But I suspect we are closer, yes, closer to the top then the bottom here. We should work our way down.”

With no other suggestions forthcoming, Gorak and Azarek set to work figuring out the lift while Shayla and Khalid kept watch. Despite the age and neglect, the mechanisms were in perfect order and before long, they had summoned a caged platform from below. They were careful to move slowly but despite their best efforts and the exquisite engineering, the clack of the winch and rattling chains echoed in the cavernous room. Passing floor after floor of empty terraces, the sheer size was almost mind boggling, and Khalid couldn't begin to guess how many Dwerro had called this place home at its height. Unsettled by the eerie quiet and anxious from being on the elevator after the events of the previous day, Khalid sought some way to calm his mind. Looking up, he could now make out the detail of what, from below had seemed a simple domed roof. Carved and painted in stunning detail was an epic panorama of dark skinned Dwerro in various activities. In the centre was a huge Dwerro with ebony skin, seated atop what looked to be the mountain fortress and crowned with a ornate circlet of gleaming white metal set with rubies,. Coiled around his shoulders was the serpentine figure of a great red wyrm. Whether king or god, Khalid couldn't be sure. From the sides of mountain poured either blood or lava which flowed down the sides to encircled a host of smaller light and dark skinned Dwerro stretched prostrate at this feet. Around the centre image were representations of the Children of Martok in various activities: mining, forging and, more often the others, engaging in battle or enslaving other races. The scenes were interspersed with mystical creatures; Khalid could pick out dragons and griffons and a few others, although there were several species unknown to him. The true scale of the carving became apparent when they reached the highest level the lift would go. Staring up, it was impossible to see the entire scene without turning your head. No matter which we he turned, the huge Dwerro's glittering eyes seemed to follow him.

Azarek unlatched the gate and they moved quickly onto the terrace, having learned the danger of being trapped on the elevator. Shayla's guess seemed to have been correct, as the carved facades here were much more ornate, and the doors larger and set further apart. While the glowing crystals were still in evidence, at this level cunningly concealed shafts had been cut into the mountain, allowing redirected sunlight to filter down. Gathering their bearings, Gorak pointed across the cavern. “That looks like the best place to start, I figure,” he growled.

Khalid had to agree. On the opposite side was another huge two story double door, flanked on either side by massive statues of Dwerro holding aloft a balcony that jutted out above. There were no other doors anywhere close, and the entirety of the wall surrounding was covered in bas-relief like the ceiling above. They kept careful eye on the doors and tunnels they walked along the ring, but no threats presented themselves. Khalid was certain the door would be sealed and barred, leaving them to rely on Gorak's magic to force their way in but as they climbed the handful of steps to a broad landing before the door he wasn't sure he was relieved or concerned by that fact it was slightly ajar.

Azarek, twisting slightly to avoid the door, took the lead, followed by Gorak and Shayla, leaving Khalid to bring up the rear. They entered a long, broad, hallway lit by more of the crystals. At regular intervals were suits of Dwerro sized plate, and it wasn't until he'd passed by ten or so, that Khalid finally managed to convince himself they weren't going to spring to life and attack. For the moment, they ignored the side passages that branched off, deciding to follow the main path to its conclusion.

“Ah, what do you think this place is?” Khalid asked, feeling compelled to whisper. “A palace or a temple?”

“Palace,” Gorak grunted, as they stepped into large square room. Directly opposite was a carved basalt throne on a raised dais. Rotting chairs were strewn about, the first evidence of disorder they'd seen since entering the city, beyond the battle site. Aside from the clutter, the room was surprising austere. Crests were carved into the stone near the ceiling of the room, but there was no carvings or statues to break the monotony of the smooth stone walls, just a few closed doors closer to the dais. As they spread out to examine the room, Khalid made a beeline for the throne. A door, barely hanging on it hinges led to another room behind the dais and the remnants of tattered tapestries and military or clan emblems hung from hooks on the wall above. Khalid went to move a scrap of cloth so he could inspect the throne and as he picked it up, he realized it wasn't a tapestry but cloak. At one time in the distance past, it had must have been a regal garment of rich silk, edged with some kind of fur, but as he touched it, it disintegrated in his hands the wispy scraps floating the floor at this feet. His eyes widened at what lay beneath. Casting a quick spell, he rubbed his eyes and then grinned. “Ah, yes, I'm claiming this as a souvenir. Yes, quite.” At the sound of his chanting the others came over, just in time to see Khalid raise a huge golden crown, studded with rubies the size of robin eggs. He placed on his head and picked up the accompanying sceptre. “I think it suits me, yes quite,” he said as he turned and struck a heroic pose, one foot on the top step of the dais, sceptre held high and chin raised. The overlarge crown immediately slipped down over his ears and got stuck.

“Ack,” he exclaimed, trying to pry it off before it slid any further.

“Yup,” Gorak grunted as he watched Khalid struggle. “Suits you just fine.”

Shayla helped him pry it off at the expense of only a little skin around his temples. “Ah, yes, I should have figured Dwerro had large heads. I'm sure, yes, sure Arbaq knows a jeweller who can resize it.” Holding it up and examining it carefully. His spell had shown it was free of enchantment, but he was quite certain that few men in the East or West had held in their hands such treasure as this. It wasn't, he noted before slipping it into their magical haversack for safe keeping, the same crown depicted on the fresco outside, but he wasn't sure exactly what that implied.

They decided to start with one of the doors on the side which opened into a broad passage that ran parallel to the throne room. More doors led off the far side of the hallway in both directions at regular intervals. Getting down to the business of why they were here, they started opening the doors cautiously and searching the rooms beyond. They seemed to be largely administrative offices, filled with desks and bookshelves, in various states of disarray. Feeling relatively confident that rooms like this wouldn't be warded or trapped, they each picked a room to investigate.

It was Gorak that paid the price for their complacency. His startled shout caused Khalid to drop the mouldering ledger he had been inspecting and rush back into the hall. Azarek burst from the room beside and Shayla emerged from behind him, all of them running toward the sound. Gorak roared again, and this time there was no mistaking the pain in his voice.

Azarek was the first to reach the room and immediately stepped inside with Khalid right on his heels. It was a long rectangular room some twenty feet across from the door and maybe twice that in length. For a moment, Khalid struggled to make sense of the scene before him. Gorak, wounded and bleeding badly was swinging widely at...something. It seemed almost catlike to Khalid, but for some reason, he couldn't seem focus on it. It was almost the size of a small horse and had far too many legs to be any species of cat that Khalid have ever seen, even in the most exotic fights in the arena in Gem-Sharad. Worse still, two long, whip like appendages tipped with wicked, hooked claws coiled to strike at Gorak again.

Shayla elbowed him aside and with her hand on Azarek's armoured back, followed him into the room. “Khalid! Is it a devil?”

Khalid gambled. “No, ah, I don't think so!”

Shayla stepped out past Azarek's body just slightly and raked the room with searing jets of fire, but the creature was clearly affecting her as well. Two of the bolts went wide, setting alight the bookshelves and scattered papers strewn around the room. The third landed true, oddly, some few feet from where Khalid thought the creature stood.

Confined by the size of the room, Khalid found his options limited. At risk of inadvertently snaring Gorak, he didn't risk his most powerful spells. Instead, he chanted a few syllables and sent and explosion of golden dust filtering through the air at the same instant the beast struck again. The first tendril flowed around Gorak's attempt to brush it aside with his staff and smashed into his face, sending him spinning around and the second followed an instant, hurling him face first into the wall. As he reeled backward, the thing pounced on him, sinking its fangs deep into the thick muscle of his neck. Crumpling under the weight, Gorak collapsed underneath the beast as it tore at his neck and raked him with its claws, searching for the killing blow.
 

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