Al-Qarin: Into the Desert (11-12-23)

pogre

Legend
I have very little patience for authors who do not post story hour updates at least weekly! Frankly, this is getting ridiculous and these "real life" excuses are tedious as well.

oh wait... I'm talking about me :eek: :heh:

Good luck on work and stuff ;)
 

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Never under estimate the power of a good bump.

Well, that cliffhanger almost became a bottomless pit. I'll spare you my excuses and by way of apology, offer up my longest post to date. So if there's anybody left out there, I hope you enjoy reading this part as much as we enjoyed playing it.

PS: It's a bit gruesome in places. I don't think it's that bad, but just thought I'd put up the warning.

* * * * * * * * * *​

"How did he find us?" Shayla asked, a hint of panic creeping into her voice.

"Don't matter," Gorak growled. "He did. Now we've gotta figure out how we're gonna get out of here."

"Maybe we can bargain our way out," Shayla suggested.

"Not likely," Gorak grunted. "We've done too much damage and he's already sent us running once. He'll want blood for sure. Khalid, whadda ya think?"

"Ah, I think, yes, I think I need to prepare," Khalid replied as he pulled out his spell book. His thoughts, whirling with panic and indecision, settled at the familiar touch of the worn leather cover. The worries and fear faded away as he pored over the familiar words and formulas. When he finally closed the book, he felt somewhat reassured, despite the danger they were about to face.

Gorak, seeing Khalid look up, stopped his restless pacing and growled, "How much time we got left in here?"

Khalid concentrated, picking up the lingering weaves of the spell. "Ah, half an hour, maybe less."

"We'd better do this," Gorak rumbled. "At least we'll be able to retreat for a little while, if we need to regroup."

"Ah, are you ready?" Khalid asked.

"If I had a chance to meditate, I'd probably have switched things up a bit. But I don't imagine Malakai's gonna hold off for an hour while I beg the spirits of sand and stone for the power to kick his arse, so I'll make do. Besides, I'm always ready for a fight." He grinned and cuffed Khalid on the shoulder

Khalid wished he had Gorak's bravado as he drew out a scroll and cast a protective spell upon himself. Shayla did likewise, girding her body in bands of glowing magical armor.

"Alright, here's the plan," Gorak growled as he fished Sousee out of her wicker basket, and draped her around his neck. "They're gonna be waiting for us out in that hallway. Works out well, cuz it's a pretty good bottleneck. They'll only be able to get at us one at a time." He paused for a second to cast a spell. As he finished, his skin lost its obsidian sheen and small ridges and cracks began to form on his face as his skin slowly took on the texture of rough bark. "I'm gonna get this party started," he continued, "by summoning a little help. Khalid, you're crowd control. Shayla, you dump everything you have on Malakai when he shows up."

"Ah, yes, and what will you be doing?" Khalid asked, although he already had a fair idea.

Gorak grinned and patted the cudgel at his waist. "Tenderizing any goblin that gets in my way. I wouldn't get too close, or you'll probably get some on ya." Then he checked the straps on his shield, giving them one final tug for good measure. Rumbling off the divine words of a summoning spell, he finished with a hooking gesture as the air in front of him shimmered. A small stumpy ball of rock, with thick legs and short, stubby arms appeared. It regarded Gorak silently with its glittering, gemlike eyes as he nudged the rope out and opened the portal.

Gorak dropped down through the gate, followed closely by the small elemental. Shayla went next, landing gracefully on the ground beside him. As Khalid emerged, Gorak gestured and the small elemental began to slide towards the hall, sinking into the ground as it moved. Shield raised cautiously, Gorak edged towards the doorway and peered around the corner. Then with a roar that rattled Khalid's already frayed nerves, he charged out into the hallway. Shayla, with a curse, followed him, straight into a hail of arrows that sent her diving for cover. Khalid, panicked now to almost incoherence, crept towards the door and glanced down the hallway, his eyes widening in fear at the force arrayed before them. Jammed into the hallway were dozens of armed goblins, howling for blood. Fifteen feet from the doorway was the source of Gorak's reckless charge: the goblins had wheeled the enormous ballista in from the main hallway, and had it lined up to skewer them.

For once, however, luck was with them. Gorak's elemental had emerged from the earth directly beneath the goblin operating the ballista, sending it sprawling backwards into its companions, and was now inexorably bludgeoning it to death with its stony fists. Gorak, recognizing the danger, had charged forward and crashed into the ballista with his full weight, rocking it backwards and twisting it so it pointed harmlessly towards the wall. He was now hunkered down behind the wooden frame with his back against it, bracing his shield against the wall to give himself some cover against the rain of goblin bolts that continued to whiz past. Sousee slithered down across his legs, and then began to rise up, swaying slightly from side to side as she waited for the goblins to approach. Khalid, stepping back into the chamber, began to intone a complex summoning ritual, his wavering voice strengthening behind the words of power. From the corner of his eye, he saw Shayla shriek out a string of arcane words as she stood up and flung a handful of glittering discs into the goblin horde, felling two goblins, and grievously injuring a third.

"Get down!" Gorak roared, seizing Shayla by the belt and dragging her to the ground as another volley of bolts sailed through the air. He then lashed out with his club, and smashed the fingers of a goblin that had managed to squeeze past the elemental and was clambering over the ballista.

Khalid, his voice rising with the culmination of the spell, reached out and beckoned a creature from the lower hells. For a second, the arcane compulsion felt weak and tenuous. Feeling the magic begin to slip away, Khalid focused his will and dragged the howling devil out of the abyss and into the hallway. With a snarl, the tiny, misshapen monstrosity, the same breed they had battled in Shalazar, surged forward behind the faltering elemental and tore into the goblins. The elemental fought on, implacably advancing on the goblins, despite the overwhelming press of enemies. A goblin spear smashed in one of its faceted eyes and as it turned to attack, another goblin leaped forward and buried his axe deep in the elemental's torso. With a shuddering groan and the sound of grinding rock, the elemental slowly crumbled into dust as more goblins surged in to fill the gap.

Shayla screamed then, directing Khalid's attention to the corpulent figure of Malakai, who had emerged from a room at the end of the hall. His red skin shining in the flickering torchlight, the foul goblin raised his hand and pointed directly at Gorak.

"What's going on?" Gorak growled as he twisted around to get a better look. Then, his eyes glazed over and he slumped to the ground. The goblins, feeling Gorak's resistance falter, began to twist the ballista back into firing position. Sousee, seeing a goblin hand get a little too close, lashed out and sunk her fangs into the goblins arm. The goblin shrieked and collapsed, convulsing on the ground as the snake's venom coursed through his blood. With a snarl and a shake of his head, Gorak fought off Malakai's insidious magic and regained his senses. Seizing the ballista, he wrenched it free of the goblins grasp and twisted it completely around. The caves echoed with the sound of the thick cable releasing, as Gorak hauled back on the trigger. Goblins dove frantically out of the way as the yard long shaft shot down the hallway. Although Gorak hadn't really aimed, the tight confines and press of bodies in the tunnels spelt doom for a hapless goblin near the back. Realizing too late what was happening, the unfortunate goblin barely had time to raise his feeble wooden shield before the bolt slammed into him, sending his broken body sailing through the air to land in a crumpled heap at Malakai's feet. With a stream of invectives, Malakai kicked at the lifeless corpse, sending it crashing into the wall as he extolled his horde to renew their attack.

Shayla quickly took advantage of the confusion to cast another spell, this time sending lancets of force streaking down the hall to sink into Malakai's fat stomach. To her dismay, he barely seemed to acknowledge the bleeding wounds as he ordered more goblin warriors into the fight.

Khalid, considering his next move, watched with mounting concern as goblins swarmed over the tiny devil. But the lemure, possessed an infernal resilience, ignored the feeble goblin weapons and gutted one with a savage flurry of talons. As the wounded goblin staggered away down the side passage, the lemure, in its mindless rage pursued. From the shrieks and cries of pain that followed, Khalid could only assume the tiny devil was reveling in its task.*

Realizing that without the lemure to shield them, the goblins would quickly overrun the ballista and overwhelm Gorak, Khalid crawled out into the hallway on his hands and knees. Reaching into his spell component pouch, he began to cast one of his favorite spells. As he raised his arm to flick a handful of sand in the goblins direction, he almost lost his concentration as a bolt tore a neat hole in the sleeve of his robes. Dropping flat to the floor, Khalid finished his spell. Although he could not see past Gorak and Shayla, Malakai's frustrated cursing told him that his spell had been at least partially successful. For a moment, the din of battle subsided, as half dozen goblins in the front ranks tumbled to the ground in unnatural slumber. The respite was brief however, as more goblins surged forward to take the place of the fallen, and Gorak had to squirm away from thrusting spears as the goblins attempted to drive him away from the make shift barricade.

"Somebody tell me what's going on!" Gorak roared as he dug in his heels and attempted to stop the goblins from driving the ballista backwards down the hall, pinning them against the thick oaken door at the end of the tunnel.

"Malakai's gone," Shayla yelled above the noise of battle, "and there's more goblins coming!"

"Of course there are," Gorak snarled as he launched into a spell. One of the goblins levered his spear under Sousee, and shoved her back down the hallway, away from the ballista. The unfortunate goblin's timing couldn't have been worse, as he squeezed around the ballista just as Gorak's spell finished. The goblin began to frantically scramble backwards as Gorak's hand burst into flame. Reaching out, Gorak grabbed the shrieking goblin by the face with his flaming hand and shoved him backward over the ballista, where he was promptly trampled.

"Malakai's back!" Shayla cried as she immediately began to cast. Knowing what was coming, Khalid grinned slightly as he pushed himself up on his elbows to peer down the hallway. He could feel the heat pouring off Shayla, as she drew upon her most powerful magicks. With a final word, she pointed straight at Malakai and a white-hot gout of flame shot from her hand, streaking towards the corpulent goblin.

The grin vanished from Khalid's face, as the spell passed harmlessly through the spot Malakai had occupied a second ago. Shayla shrieked in frustration as her spell scorched the back wall of the tunnel.

"He's gone!" Shayla screamed. "He just vanished."

Then, a split second later, the fat goblin blinked back into view, grinning evilly as he spit out a few arcane words. The goblins surrounding him gave a bone chilling cheer, and then redoubled their attacks with unbelievable ferocity. A berserking warrior, with a grace belied by his corpulent girth, lunged over the top of the ballista and landed on the other side. His scream of triumph was cut short by one of Gorak's searing missiles that blasted a hole clear through the goblin's back. The raging goblin stared down stupidly at the smoking hole in his chest, then toppled over dead.

Shayla clambered forward, over Khalid's cowering form, until she was almost even with Gorak, trying to bring Malakai back within the range of her devastating magick. Watching him carefully, Shayla chose her moment and screamed out the words of power as she leapt to her feet. Once more, a jet of white flame streaked from her fingertips and again the fat goblin vanished an instant before the spell would have consumed him.

"I can't hurt him," Shayla practically sobbed as she dropped flat to the ground. "Gorak, what do I do?" she begged, tears streaming down her face. "What do I do?"

"Fight damn you," Gorak roared, "We're not finished yet. Khalid, you son of a whore, do something!"

Khalid, who had sought to maximize the effects of his next spell by biding his time, heeded Gorak's call to action. As he finished the incantation, a tiny spark drifted from the tip of his finger and exploded with the brightness of a dozen suns above the heads of the attacking goblins. The screams of rage turned to howls of terror as the glittering dust that rained down robbed them off their sight. Dazed and blinded, the goblins in the front ranks stumbled over their sleeping companions as they tried to flee back down the tunnel. The press of those behind trapped them against the ballista, and for a brief moment, utter confusion reigned.

Gorak took advantage of the lull to leap to his feet and cast one of his last burning spheres down the hallway at Malakai, but his magic, like Shayla's, was ineffectual as the fat goblin vanished once again.

Khalid, recognizing an opportunity to turn the tide of the battle, screamed out. "Shayla, get back! Get away from the ballista!"

Shayla, a look of utter hopelessness on her face, mumbled out the words to a spell as she retreated down the hallway. Three spinning blades arced away from her hands. The first two missiles passed harmlessly through air as Malakai's magic whisked him away. But the third blade, slightly trailing the other two sheered deeply into Malakai's muscular shoulder as he popped back into view. The transformation was instantaneous. Shayla's eyes widened in surprise, and Khalid could see her fiery spirit burn away the despair that had consumed her when she realized that she was not helpless, that she could indeed wound this fearsome beast.

Seizing the last shreds of his tattered courage, Khalid stepped forward into the spot vacated by Shayla and extended his hands over the ballista. Arcane words rippled from his tongue as he cast his most damaging spell. Although it had served him well in the past, Khalid was completely unprepared for the carnage that followed. The whirling maelstrom of scorching cinders fanned out in front of him and the tunnel instantly filled with choking smoke and the over powering reek of burning flesh. The goblins in the front rank, both those that were blinded, and those still slumbering on the floor were instantly immolated, the flesh seared from their bones. For a second, there was only the crackle of flames, then the screams of the dying ripped through the cavern. Gasping for air and half blinded by the smoke, Khalid sagged against the cavern wall as Gorak pushed past him and leapt over the ballista, his cudgel in hand and a war cry on his lips.**

The remaining goblins, their ranks decimated by Khalid's magic and facing an enemy that had repelled their most brutal attacks, wavered at the sight of this fearsome warrior, his eyes wild with bloodlust and his face split by a terrible grin, emerging from the smoke and haze. They might have broken then, had not Malakai winked back into existence. At the sight of their cruel overlord, the last of the goblin warriors readied their weapons and formed up in ranks around him, resignation and fear clearly etched upon their twisted features.

Khalid steeled himself for the final battle, and as the clinging smoke eddied and whirled around them, he gazed straight into the eyes of his adversary. In them he saw fathomless hate and in that moment, Khalid saw his death. Then incredibly, the rage vanished and was replaced by something Khalid had never expected to see on the twisted features of the enormous goblin. Fear.

Shayla stepped forward out of the swirling smoke and uttered the final word of her spell. Having guessed the timing of Malakai's spell perfectly, she had begun to cast the instant he had disappeared. Never before had Khalid felt such power. His skin began to redden and blister even before she finished the spell. The flame that streaked out from her hand was blinding, and as it flew past Gorak, several of his matted dreadlocks curled from the heat and fell to the floor. The gout of flame struck Malakai in the left side of his chest. His skin melted away as the ray of fire burned clear through the thick muscles of his neck. His face blackened instantly beneath the onslaught and his left eye boiled in its socket. With a shriek of unspeakable pain, Malakai staggered backwards, crashing into the wall of the cave. Clutching at his wounded face, Malakai slumped down, his tortured scream fading into a wheezing gasp. Hope, bright and quick, surged through Khalid as their foe succumbed.***

It was quenched in an instant as the goblin Malakai exerted impossible, inhuman willpower. Slowly, he rose to his feet, and removed his hands from his ruined face. Shreds of smoking flesh peeled away with his hands, and dripped onto the floor. The sight of his terrible visage paralyzed Khalid. The smoking socket of his vacant left eye was horrid reflection of the smoldering rage in his right. The bones of his cheek had been laid bare, and through a cavernous hole, Khalid could see the goblin's thick tongue. With a supreme effort, Malakai attempted to speak. The words were thick and heavy, barely more than a gurgling sigh. Turning his head slightly, Malakai vomited out a gobbet of flesh and blood. Regarding the three adventures with his one good eye, Khalid could feel the hate rolling off the creature in almost physical waves. Again the goblin opened his mouth. This time the word was clear and strong. It was a word of power, laced with magic and the very sound of it sent icy knives through Khalid's very soul. As it reverberated through the tunnels, the air beside Malakai seemed to rend and tear as through snared by some invisible talon. As the last echoes of his spell faded from the tunnels, Malakai stepped into the rift and vanished.

Utter silence descended on the tunnels. Khalid stared at the spot Malakai had just vanished from, half fearful the goblin would return and destroy them all, and half hoping he would reappear so they could end it, once and for all. A sharp report, like a peal of thunder, split the silence and shook Khalid free of his dreadful fascination. Gorak, unshaken as always, had casually cracked the skull of one of the goblins in front of him with his cudgel, spraying the warriors behind with brains and gore. Abandoned by their commander, and facing foes beyond their measure, the remaining goblins turned and fled shrieking down the tunnel.

Pausing for only a moment, the three took stock of their condition. Remarkably, Khalid and Shayla had emerged unscathed, although both were physically and mentally exhausted. Glancing at Gorak, Khalid realized with a start that the he had a bolt sticking out of his thigh. He hadn't even realized that Gorak had been wounded. Neither had the half-orc evidently. He was scanning the passages warily, looking for the next threat. "Ah, Gorak," Khalid stuttered, almost afraid to draw the half-orc's attention to the wound, "perhaps, yes, perhaps you should, ah, remove that?"

Gorak looked at Khalid, then glanced down at his leg and grunted in surprise. His leather breeches were red with blood, although the bleeding seemed to have slowed. "Got no healing spells left," Gorak grumbled as he snapped the shaft in two with his thumb. He grimaced slightly as he bound the protruding wood carefully with a strip of cloth torn from his cloak. "If I yank it out now, I'll probably bleed to death." He gave a sharp intake of breath as he tied the knot on his makeshift bandage. "I'll be fine. How 'r you two doing?"

"Ah, unhurt, it would seem. Yes, quite."

"I'm okay," Shayla added. "But I'm almost outta juice."

Khalid nodded in agreement. All that remained in his repertoire were some of his most minor defensive spells, and a few cantrips. Only two scrolls remained on his belt, and he had been carefully guarding those against an emergency.

"So," Shayla continued, "now what do we do?"

"Back into the mines," Gorak growled. "Rest and regroup." He frowned then, a look of concern darkening his features. "But I dunno how we're gonna beat that bastard if he can just vanish any time he gets hurt."

"Ah, I'm not sure he can," Khalid replied, his mind turning over the idea. Gorak grunted and motioned for him to continue.

"Ah, yes, well, if he could do that at will, he could have easily appeared behind, yes, behind us during the fight and attacked Shayla. Yes, quite. I think perhaps, yes, perhaps his powers are limited and that he may have exhausted them. Ah, yes, I think we should pursue him, and finish it now while he is weakened and, ah, near death. Yes, quite." Khalid was almost as shocked as Gorak and Shayla at the words coming out of his mouth.

Gorak considered it for a second, and then grinned. "I like it. Let's kill the bastard and get out of these cursed mines. Shayla?"

Shayla looked doubtful. She ran her hand through her tangled auburn curls, now stained black with soot, and frowned. "I'm drained. I haven't got much left, but if it's what you think is best, let's go."

A decision reached, they set out further into the goblin complex, down the tunnel they were in. Khalid immediately began to second-guess himself as the tunnel branched off into several chambers. Gorak led the way, motioning for the others to stay back as he peered into the first of the rooms. Khalid could see him tense up but not receiving any indication that a battle was forthcoming, Khalid peered around him into the room. Cowering in the far corners of the room were filthy goblin women and tiny squalling whelps. Seeing no sign of immediate danger, Khalid started to move further down the tunnel, when he realized that Gorak wasn't following. Turning, he saw Gorak still standing in the entrance to the goblin warren, he's lips drawn back in a feral snarl, his cudgel clutched tightly in a hand that trembled with barely contained bloodlust.

Khalid had no love for goblins, but he had an absolute hatred for these caverns and had no desire to spend any more time in them than he absolutely had to. "Ah, Gorak," he hissed. "We have more pressing matters at hand. Yes, quite."

Gorak shook his head like a dog coming out of water, and grunted as he pushed past Khalid to take the lead once more. They passed several more rooms, each filled with goblin spawn. As they pushed deeper into the stronghold, they could hear the sounds of frantic activity echoing through the tunnels. Ahead, the tunnel turned sharply to the left and as they followed it around the bend, a powerful stench of offal washed over them.

"Goblin jakes," Shayla gagged. "I don't think I can imagine anything worse." She drew a silken scarf from her pack and wound it tightly around her nose and mouth.

Khalid would have agreed, if the image of Malakai's ruined face not been fresh in his mind. He buried his nose in the crook of his arm and pushed forward, following Gorak deeper into the hideous stench. Almost immediately his eyes began to water and he struggled for breath. Gorak, as always, seemed unaffected by any physical hardship and turned around another corner, into a large room filled with rotting garbage and excrement.

Stopping, Gorak peered ahead into the darkness. "I think I see a tunnel back there. What he did mighta been nothing but a fancy trick to distract us as he fled down an escape..."

Gorak's words were cut short as a large pile of offal in the far corner of the room burst into motion. He ducked as a huge tentacle swept past his head, smacking against the wall beside him and leaving a thick trail of slime behind. Gorak darted out of the room even as Shayla stepped forward and began to cast a spell. Whatever creature was buried within the pile of garbage was faster than she expected as another tentacle snaked out and wrapped around her, spoiling her spell. With a grace born of terror, Shayla spun in the same direction the tentacle and slipped from its grasp before it could tighten and draw her into the fanged maw of the hideous thing lurking in the corner. With a thick warbling cry of annoyance the creature lashed out again.

Khalid was certain that Shayla, still off balance from the thing's first grab at her, would be smashed against the wall. Incredibly, even as she was still spinning away, she leaned far over planting a hand on the ground and somersaulted over the sweeping tentacle, landing beside Khalid and Gorak, just out of reach.

Wasting no time, Khalid darted back down the tunnel, with Gorak and Shayla in close pursuit. The creature made no move to leave its filthy nest however, and did not pursue them. Shayla stopped, and leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. Looking down, her eyes widened in horror at the thick slime that coated her. She made a motion to wipe it off, but that only served to smear it and coat her hand in the foul smelling ichor.

Gorak snarled. "Serves you right!" he exploded. "What in the nine hells were you doing? Did that look like Malakai?" He glared at her and she shook her head wordlessly. Gorak looked like he was ready to start yelling again, then slowly mastered himself. "We only fight Malakai," he said in a slightly calmer tone.

At this point, Khalid could no longer control himself; he turned and vomited on his shoes. Gasping weakly, he staggered back down the tunnel, away from the horrid stench until he could breath again. Gorak and Shayla followed close behind, almost as eager as he to get clear of the smell.

When they reached the bend in the tunnel, they stopped again, and Gorak growled in frustration, "So now what?"

Khalid wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Ah, we are left with only one option. We cannot defeat, yes, defeat the creature and hope to battle Malakai with, ah, any chance of victory, yes, quite. If Malakai has, ah, escaped down that tunnel, we cannot pursue him and he has escaped, yes, escaped. Therefore the only option that remains is to search the main passage. Yes, quite."

Gorak and Shayla nodded in agreement and they headed down the adjoining passage back to the main tunnel. In the distance they could hear a goblin frantically hammering on a gong, signaling an alarm to the entire complex. As they moved beyond the side passage to the dwerro's cell, Khalid wished he could stop and free the pitiful dwerro from his terrible fate. But time weighed heavily upon them and the best he could do was utter a silent promise to return if he was able. Ahead, the tunnel branched off into several rooms. Pushing aside a screen of beads and glancing into the first room, Khalid could only assume it was the room of one of Malakai's chief lieutenants, perhaps the large armored goblin that had slain Jalaal, adorned as it was with blades and weapons of every sort. The next room was almost entirely bare, save for a small sleeping pallet and an altar, festooned with skulls and fetishes. It was obviously too cramped for Malakai, and Khalid was certain that it belonged to the robed goblin that had sprung the trap on them at the entrance to the goblin stronghold. The third room failed to turn up any sign of Malakai either, although the strange locks and mechanical devices that lay scattered about tugged at Khalid’s curiosity.

Snarling in frustration, Gorak led them deeper into the complex. The temperature rose with each step they took, and soon the light of their lantern was strengthened by a ruddy glow reflecting from the walls. As the shadows flickered and danced, Khalid caught a glimpse of metal in the darkness ahead. Gorak’s keen eyes caught it as well, and he motioned them back as he crept forward to investigate. He returned after a few moments, his normally grim expression darkening into a scowl. Shayla muttered a vile curse under her breath as they inched forward and saw the source of Gorak’s anger. A huge portcullis barred the tunnel in front of them. Beyond lay the heart of the goblin mining operation. The cart path curved around a ledge in the room, before descending down a dozen feet to an enormous blast furnace that was belching noxious fumes into a natural chimney in the rock. Goblins raced around the chamber frantically piling adamantine ore into mining carts as the chamber reverberated with the sound of the alarm gong.

"They're getting away with all the adamantine!" Shayla cried. Khalid, startled, glanced into the room to see if their presence had been detected. Fortunately, the roaring flames and the ringing gong had drown out the sound and the goblins were far too concerned with loading the carts to look up.

"We've gotta stop 'em," Gorak growled. "There's only six of them down there. We'll worry about getting through this gate later."

Drained of spells, both Khalid and Shayla drew their crossbows. It had been months since Khalid had even handled the weapon, and he wasn't surprised to find it just as awkward and difficult as he remembered. Finally managing to nock the bow and load a bolt, he crawled forward on his stomach beside Shayla, right up to the portcullis. Bracing his crossbow on a rock, he aimed carefully at one of a pair of goblins pushing a laden cart out of the furnace room. He heard Gorak's bow creak as he drew back on the heavy string, and when the half-orc grunted, all three fired. Khalid's bolt sailed true and skewed a goblin, who toppled from the ramp leading out of the cavern. The goblin beside him however, put forth a herculean effort and drove the cart to the top of the ramp and out of the room. The goblins dove for cover behind carts and mounds of slag as they quickly realized what was happening. Gorak's arrow flew wide, but Shayla's bolt nicked a goblin as he scrambled for cover, grievously wounding him.

The goblins were seasoned and prepared for an attack. They wasted no time in grabbing crossbows and returning fire. Gorak was forced to drop to the ground and pinned there, preventing him from using his bow. Khalid and Shayla continued to fire at the goblins but they were careful and well concealed. Khalid's bolts either skipped off rock or flew wide of their mark. By the steady stream of curses coming from Shayla, he could only surmise she was faring as poorly. A bolt slammed into the iron bar in front of Khalid's face and struck sparks from the wall beside him. Startled, Khalid uttered a strangled yelp and fired his crossbow into the ceiling of the cave, nearly killing Gorak with the ricochet. The goblins continued to trade shots and forced them to stay low. More goblins came sprinting into the room and began to load up carts and ore again. Although they were dangerously exposed, Khalid couldn't get a good shot for fear of the goblin crossbows. Finally, with most of the ore and all but a few stray ingots loaded up, the goblins retreated out. As one of the crossbow wielding goblins stood to run from his hiding place, Shayla hit him in the base of the skull, killing him instantly. Fuelled by terror, the remaining goblins vanished down the far tunnel.

As soon as he was sure it was safe, Gorak stood up and grabbed the portcullis in both hands. Slowly the gate began to rise, then abruptly, it stopped and Gorak dropped it with a clang. "There's a catch. I can't open it," Gorak snarled. "And the bars are too thick to bend."

No one spoke as they turned back down the tunnel. All three knew the implications. Not only were they barred from the adamantine, now the only way out of the mines lay through an army of dwerro, or possibly past the hideous creature in the latrine. Shayla was the first to put voice to what they were all thinking. "Now what?"

"Ah, we go back. Yes, back, and wait for things to ah, settle down. We have chased off their leader, and slaughtered their warriors, yes, quite. They appear to, ah, yes, be in full flight. We will return, and in time we will, yes, get through the gate. Surely the goblins will miss some, yes, some adamantium in their haste. Enough for our purposes. Yes, quite."

Gorak, unable to come up with a better plan, reluctantly agreed. As they retreated down the main passageway, they stopped before the path to the dwerro's cell. "What about him," Gorak grunted.

Nobody spoke for a moment. They had all heard the rumors, in the wine shops and bazaars, of the war in the East. The dwerro army was reputed to be a fearsome thing, marching inexorably through the human lands, seizing towns and toppling castles. Those that resisted were put to the sword, and those that ran were harried and hunted. Still, to consign the dwerro to a slow and agonizing death was an impossible choice. Finally, Shayla broke the silence. "We can't leave him there."

No one objected as they moved down the tunnel to the cell. Peering into the gloom, they could not tell if the dwerro was even still alive at first, until the light flickered off his open eyes, silently watching them. Khalid studied the bars for a moment, and then nodded to himself. "Ah, Gorak, I'll need your rope. Shayla, see if you can find a ballista bolt nearby, we'll need something to act as a lever. Yes, quite. Ah, I think if we loop the rope around, yes, around the bars and use the shaft of the bolt as leverage you can bend..."

Gorak, in the meantime, had walked up to the bars. Gripping one in two hands, he braced his foot against the wall, and pushed off. The muscles in his legs and arms bulged under the strain. Khalid, cut off in mid sentence, stared slack jawed as the bar slowly bent under Gorak's enormous strength. Panting with the exertion, he continued to bend the bar until he judged the hole wide enough for the dwerro to slip through. Khalid shut his mouth with a snap. "Ah, or we could just do that," he concluded rather lamely.

The dwerro slowly pushed himself to his feet, and walked towards them. He held the dagger Khalid had given him in one hand and the water skin clutched protectively in the other. He stepped through the gap Gorak had created, and took a deep breath of the fetid air in the tunnel as though it were the freshest desert breeze. Even this close, Khalid could not determine the dwerro's age. He looked ancient, but Khalid suspected that had as much to do with his confinement as the passage of time. Indeed, the dwerro seemed to draw strength from his freedom, standing a little straighter and regarding them all with eyes that were quick and alert.

"I owe," he started, his voice a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat and continued. "I owe you all a great debt, though I may not survive to repay it." The words were laced with a thick accent, but otherwise the dwerro spoke the western tongue perfectly. The sound of his voice reminded Khalid of grating rock, though his tone was respectful.

"We couldn't leave you there," Shayla replied simply. Following Gorak's lead, they headed back down the main tunnel towards the mines. Shayla and Khalid steadied the dwerro between them, aiding his faltering steps.

"Others might have. You have slain the beast Malakai?"

"No," Gorak grunted. "We had him, but he used some sort of magick to get away."

The dwerro stopped. "I know where he hides." They turned and stared at him. "He has a secret lair. The entrance lies past the cell, between the two doors, in this passage. Count fifteen paces from the first door, then turn and face the opposite wall. At your left hand, four feet from the floor, you will see an oddly shaped stone imbedded in the wall. It is the catch that releases the concealed door."

"How do you know?" Gorak grumbled suspiciously.

"Better to ask why the sun rises in the East. I am dwerro. I know it is there."

Gorak grunted, satisfied that the dwerro was sincere. "Good. Let's go finish him."

Khalid laid a hand on his arm to prevent the half-orc from charging down the hall. "Ah, perhaps we should consider this first."

"What's to consider? Shayla, you got a coupla spells left right?"

"A few."

"He's hurt bad," Gorak continued. "If he don't surrender right away, I'll keep him busy long enough for Shayla to pound him into submission."

"Ah, at least allow me to set up our escape. The dwerro is in no shape to fight, and I would, ah, see him safely away before this begins. Yes, quite."

Gorak nodded, and Khalid and the dwerro entered the mines. Moving a little further down the tunnel, away from the ruined oaken doors, Khalid drew out his second last scroll and cast the final spell etched upon it. The thick parchment burned away to ash as the magical rune vanished, and the length of rope at his feet rose slowly into the air.

"There is a portal there," Khalid instructed the dwerro. "It will, ah, lead you to a place of safety. Yes quite. Do not draw up the rope, as that will seal the entrance and I swear, yes, swear that if you trap us out here, I will dismiss the spell with my dying breath, and ah, we will all die out here." The dwerro studied Khalid carefully for a moment, then nodded and slowly climbed the rope, vanishing into the pocket dimension.

Khalid rejoined Shayla and Gorak back in the main tunnel. Gorak unstrapped the shield from his back, and drew his cudgel. Khalid, his power depleted, nocked his crossbow and fitted it with a bolt as he followed Gorak to the hidden entrance. They counted off the paces and found the small stone exactly where the dwerro said they would. "We ready?" Gorak whispered. Shayla took up a position slightly behind Gorak, in order to get a clear line of sight. Khalid withdrew down the tunnel, and covered both of them with his crossbow. Gorak took a deep breath, nudged Sousee out of her basket and pressed the catch.

Everything went horribly wrong. The secret door swung open easily a few inches, then jammed. Instead of leaping into the room and catching Malakai unaware, Gorak had to slam into the door with his shoulder to force it open. The squeal of metal grinding on metal echoed through the halls and set Khalid's teeth on edge. Malakai, reclining on a mound of pillows surrounded by naked goblin women, grabbed his enormous sword and leapt to his feet charging straight at Gorak.#

Gorak raised his cudgel and swung, but clipped the edge of the doorway and missed. Sousee lashed out and sunk her fangs deep into Malakai's calf, but the fearsome goblin ignored her and leveled a terrible blow at Gorak. Only the close quarters and Gorak's awesome physique saved him from decapitation. Unable to get a clear swing, Malakai was forced to pull his blow and the blade sheared deep into the thick muscles of Gorak's neck. Reeling backwards, Gorak staggered out of the doorway and into the main hall. Shayla began to cast immediately, and flung a handful of spinning discs at Malakai, cutting him deeply.

As Malakai entered the main tunnel, Khalid raised his crossbow but couldn't get a clear shot for fear of hitting Gorak or Shayla. With mounting horror, he stared at Malakai. The dreadful burns on his face and neck were gone, replaced with twisted scar tissue and fresh skin. Somehow the goblin had overcome his wounds. Unable to face this creature without the aid of his magic, Khalid's will broke, and he cast his last spell. With unnatural speed he raced down the hallway towards the safety his extraplanar abode. As he fled he could hear footsteps behind him and then a hideous sound struck him to his very core. A sound he had heard before. A sound he had hoped to never heard again. He skidded to a halt and turned around as Shayla's tortured scream faded from the tunnels. Gorak, clutching at his wound almost crashed into him. Malakai was standing over Shayla's crumpled form, his bloodied sword held high. If there was any life still left in her, his next blow would surely end it.

For the first time in Khalid's twenty five years, fear for another replaced the fear for his own life. He couldn't bear to let Shayla's beautiful spirit be quenched by that hideous goblin, in this filthy hole beneath the earth. He drew the last scroll from his belt and stepped forward. "Hold your blade!"

The goblin's head jerked up and his blade stopped its descent. He stepped back and placed his foot over Shayla's light spell, shrouding the tunnel in darkness. Outlined by the ruddy glow of the smelting room, Khalid could barely make out the goblin's features. "Why should I?" Malakai snarled.

"We wish to offer you a trade," Khalid replied.

"Hah, what do you have that is worth this trophy?" Malakai sneered.

"This cloak," Gorak grunted. "It's magic. Makes you resistant to poison and magical effects."

"Hardly worth the price of this beauty, or the look on your faces when I cut off her head. But it looks like there's still a bit of life in her, so maybe I'll keep her here, brighten up my harem a bit."

Khalid made a curt gesture at Gorak, silencing him. "You will return the girl to us." Khalid informed him. There was no trace of hesitation in his voice; the words were clear and confident.

"Or you'll do what?"

"I'll cast this." Khalid slowly unrolled the vellum scroll.

"Nice try little man," Malakai laughed. "If that was any threat to me, you'd have used it a long time ago."

"Come now, my large pink friend," Khalid replied, his voice steady. "You understand magic. You understand the cost, and the risks. I had hoped to preserve this, but you have forced my hand."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Malakai growled.

Seconds ticked by, and a bead of cold sweat trickled down the back of Khalid's neck. "If the girl dies, I will have no choice."

Malakai glanced down, "She's not going to die." Another long silence followed. Finally Malakai snarled, "If you want her, come and get her." As Khalid stepped forward, Malakai spat, "Not you! The orc. Naked. And bring that cloak."

Gorak looked at Khalid, who nodded. Stripping off his armor, Gorak hissed in pain as the stiff leather tore away his clotting wound. Fresh rivulets of blood streaked his ebony torso. Clenching the wound beneath his hand, he walked slowly down the tunnel. He stopped ten feet from Shayla's body and stared at Malakai. The goblin stood there, impassively. Finally he stepped back slightly and lowered his sword.

Gorak knelt down beside Shayla. "She's still alive," he called out to Khalid. Dropping his cloak on the ground, he began to gather her up in his arms.

"Wait," Malakai barked. Gorak's head snapped up and he glared at the goblin. His body trembled like a caged animal, and his lips drew back in a feral snarl as he prepared for Malakai's next move. "In that room is a small iron chest, filled with bars of adamantine. Pure and refined. It's what you came here for. I will give you one ingot, if you give me the name of the man that sent you here."

Gorak didn't move, didn't take his eyes off Malakai. Khalid considered the offer carefully. Arbaq had stressed the significance of obtaining this metal in no uncertain terms. He would not be pleased with them if they divulged his name, but considering that the presence of a devil had done nothing more than altered his traveling plans, Khalid felt assured he could handle one fat goblin, no matter how cunning. "Agreed."

"I'll give you two if you tell me where to find him."

"Gorak, go and retrieve a single bar of adamantine."

Gorak rose slowly from Shayla's side and vanished into Malakai's harem. Seconds passed with agonizing slowness. Khalid's arms began to ache with the strain of holding the scroll out in front of him. Finally Gorak returned. He held out the single bar of adamantine, to show he had not taken anything else. Malakai grunted, and Gorak knelt down beside Shayla and carefully gathered her up in his arms. As he stood up, Malakai raised his sword slightly. "The name."

"Arbaq ibn Asadel."

"That name is known to me," Malakai growled. "Go. Get out of my caves."

Khalid bowed slightly, "It has been a pleasure doing business with you."

"Until we meet again, wizard." The threat hung heavy in the air.

"Yes, quite."

* * * * * * * * * *​

They walked back into the darkness of the mines. As they passed Khalid's refuge, he called out to the dwerro, who carefully dropped down out of the open portal. With a wave of his hand, Khalid dismissed the spell. They moved as quickly as they could through the tunnels, seeking to put Malakai as far behind them as possible. Finally, when they judged it safe, they stopped and Gorak tended to Shayla's wounds.

"Ah, will she be alright?" Khalid asked with some trepidation as he stared down at Shayla's blood streaked face. Her skin was ashen grey, and her breathing was shallow and rapid.

"She's tough," Gorak grunted. He cast a minor orison to staunch some of the bleeding. "I've done what I can. It'll be close, but I think she'll live until tomorrow and then I can help her." Khalid breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Gorak looked up and met Khalid's gaze. He inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the wizard's part in the battle and in getting them all out safely, then returned to Shayla.

Although they were not far enough from Malakai for Khalid's liking, it was apparent that neither the dwerro nor Shayla could go any farther. Khalid moved a little ways apart from the others and almost collapsed in exhaustion. Alone, in the gloom, the enormity of the last few days crashed over him. He reached to turn up the lantern and was surprised to see that his hand was trembling violently. As he fumbled with the lantern, his shaking hands failed him and it dropped to the floor, snuffing out the flame. Sitting in the absolute darkness of the mines he wondered to himself, had he been forced to cast his spell, how much good a fully saddled riding horse really would have done him.##

* * * * * * * * * *​

Notes:
* Stupid lemure. It took off after a goblin down a side passage and I never saw it again.

** Heh, I killed 7 goblins with that burning hands (admittedly, a few were unconscious on the floor). One of my better moments.

*** It was so unbelievably frustrating trying to hit Malakai. But when Shayla finally did, she rolld almost max damage.

#This was brutal. We really needed Gorak to land this hit, considering Malakai had a wand of cure light wounds (or something) and was much less hurt than we expected. The worst part was, he missed, then rolled for Sousee, and she got a confirmed critical.

##This was one of Khalid's shining moments in the campaign and totally justified putting ranks in bluff. I beat Malakai on a bluff check by about 2 (23 to 21 if I remember right). In case it wasn't obvious from the post, the only spells on that scroll were Mount. If Gorak hadn't spoke up about his cloak he probably wouldn't have lost it. He considered this a defeat, but Khalid survived (I keep telling Galeman that since survival is my only goal, I should get full exp even when I run away - so far, no luck) and got a bar of adamantium. As far as I was concerned this was a victory.
 
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pogre

Legend
Thanks for the update! What a great surprise this weekend.

surrounded by naked goblin women, grabbed his enormous sword and leapt to his feet

You warned of a gruesome episode, but this vision was particularly disturbing...

Yes, my mind is always in the gutter ;)
 




Guillaume

Julie and I miss her
[Junkie Imitation]What ?! That's it ? Only that ! But... But.... I NEED MORE ! [/Junkie Imitation] :D

Good reading. Looking forward to the next instalment.
 

Black Bard

First Post
It`s really good to see you back, EN!!!
I`ve been missing our intrepid Khalid!!! ;)
I hope you`ll be able to update more often and congratulations!!!!
 

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