I know my absence is inexcusable but, uh, here's my excuse. I'm suffering through a pretty heavy World of Warcraft addiction and with Galeman gone, I'm running the local campaign in these parts. To make matters worse, while upgrading my computer to better crush the Alliance, I managed to erase the first part of this update, along with everything else I've written over the past 10 years or so (ironically enough, it happened while I was trying to back it up...go figure) which was kind of demoralizing.
Anyhow, if there's anybody left here, I present for your viewing enjoyment, the end of Chapter 3: The Mines of Malakai.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Ah, yes, Gorak, are you sure we're going the...” Khalid bit off the last part of the question as Gorak growled deep in his throat.
“The answer is the same as the last time you asked, Khalid,” Gorak snarled. “Same as the half dozen times before that too. I don't, but he does.” He gestured at the shadowy outline of the dwerro marching stoically ahead of them, at the very edge of their lantern light.
It seemed as though the weeks beneath the earth were finally beginning to take their toll on Gorak. He seemed as anxious as Khalid to be free of the mines and while he had no concern that the dwerro would lead them astray, he was lost and it bothered him more than a little. Khalid's incessant questions hadn't improved his mood any, and it was a testament to their friendship that Khalid still had all of his teeth.
Gorak stopped suddenly, and Shayla bumped into him with a startled little gasp. Since the battle two days ago, she hadn't said more than a few words to either of them. She was never more than a foot behind Gorak however, and when he preformed his devotions or scouted ahead, she unconsciously moved closer to Khalid. Understanding her closeness for what it was but unsure of what to do, Khalid had remained quiet and hoped that she would be able to come to terms with her injury on her own.
Blinking into the darkness, Khalid realized that Zarum, their dwerro companion, had sagged against the wall, breathing heavily. “Ah, what's the matter?” he asked.
“We are close,” Zarum replied, between breaths. “But I am afraid I have not quite recovered from my prolonged captivity.”
Khalid thought he'd recovered unbelievably well from the goblin's mistreatment. He ate steadily while they marched and now walked upright, unaided, with barely a trace of a limp. The dark smudges beneath his eyes had vanished, and his lips were no longer cracked and bleeding. Gorak spared him the indignity of having to ask, and announced, “Time for a break. How far away you figure we're now?”
Zarum sat down on rock and absently stroked his beard. “Two hours, maybe a bit more.”
Gorak grunted. “No point in spending another night in here then. What time you reckon it is?”
“An hour before midnight.”
Khalid's heart leapt when he realized how close they were. Smiling broadly, he turned to Shayla and saw that she was staring intently at Zarum. It wasn't the first time Khalid had caught her studying the dwerro, but he was surprised at the anger that smoldered in her emerald eyes. Her lips were pressed into two thin white lines and it was clear she hadn't heard anything that had been said. As Khalid leaned forward to ask her what was wrong, Shayla spoke for the first time in over a day.
“Why?” A single word laced with bitter accusation.
The effect on the dwerro was instantaneous. He sat bolt upright and stared directly at Shayla. Unable to bear her relentless gaze, he looked down at the cold stone floor. There was no doubt in Khalid's mind that Zarum knew exactly what she was asking. When he finally looked up again, there was a great sadness in his eyes.
Zarum looked as though he wanted to speak, and several times opened his mouth, then clamped it shut again. As the silence dragged on, Khalid fumbled anxiously with his spellbook wishing that he was anywhere but here. Gorak made no pretense of his curiosity, as he glanced from Shayla to Zarum, his customary scowl deepening as the minutes passed.
Finally, Zarum broke the awful silence. “I hoped,” he began, and then cleared his throat as his voice wavered. “I had hoped that my eyes were deceived. I hoped too that if they were not, you would be ignorant of your heritage and I would be spared this moment. I find myself living every dwerro's greatest fear: to be called to account for our greatest shame. And yet,” he looked up and Khalid was surprised to see his eyes were edged with tears, “my heart soars to know that despite all, you have endured. All was not...all is not lost.”
“I owe you my life and more. I will answer your question and tell you a story that has not been heard in these lands in over four hundred years.” Zarum took a deep steadying breath, and then began to speak in earnest.
“For centuries untold, our peoples lived in peace. We dwerro favored the hills and mountains and the deep places within the earth. Your people made their home beneath the boughs of the great forests, reveling beneath the ancient oaks and glades. While we did not understand your ways, we respected them as your people respected ours. And then the humans arrived. They came from the north, following the herds and found a green expanse of untouched land. They made their homes in the valleys and along the rivers, and we welcomed them, your people and mine. Soon they learned to till the earth, and dam the rivers. They grew prosperous and strong, trading freely with the dwerro and the elves. We showed them how to uncover the strength of the earth, and forge it into steel. The elves showed them how to look beyond this world into others, and in doing so, taught them magic and hastened their own doom.”
“We watched as the human nation grew ever larger; at first proud that we had helped them achieve such greatness, and then with trepidation as the began to encroach upon our land. But never did we see the threat growing within their midst. No, I will correct myself. We did not allow ourselves to see the threat. It seemed of little concern to us at the time, for the humans find our lands inhospitable and barren. But it was not so with elven lands. The forests were valuable to the humans, and they coveted the timber for their homes and ships. Human towns began to appear along the boundaries of the elven lands and the sound of falling axes shattered the stillness of the ancient woods. And still we thought nothing of it, believing it a matter best settled by the elves and humans themselves.”
“We have no record of the first battle, only the humans account. Their diplomats flooded into our cities, bearing chests of gold that gilded threats of steel. For the first time in many years, we looked beyond our borders and saw might of the human empire. We saw her countless legions encased in glittering steel, leading the machines of war. We saw her battle magi, speaking the words of magic as though they were born to it. We saw her priests and champions extolling war and glory with every breath.”
“In that moment, our thanes failed us. They traded our pride for human riches and counted themselves better for the deal. We took their bribes and when the elven envoys came calling, pleading for our aid, we turned them away.”
“The war was brief and savage. Vastly out numbered and lacking the humans talent for battle, the elves were driven back. Not without cost however. The elven spellweavers wreaked terrible magic upon the human soldiers and whole legions vanished beneath the cool darkness of the trees. But in the end, their cities fell and the forests burned, until all that was left was the ancient capital of the elves.”
“We realized too late, what the humans had really purchased with their gold. Even before the elven capital had fallen, they began to turn their greedy eyes to the riches of the dwerro. Standing side by side with the elves, we could have perhaps prevailed. For the first time, the entire dwerro nation was imperiled and we took the only course that was left to us. Those settlements that we could not defend were destroyed and our people recalled to the great halls beneath the mountains. We turned our back upon this land and sealed the stone gates behind us.”
“We vowed then, to never forget the treachery of humans, and the shame we had brought upon ourselves.”
Khalid turned to looked at the others and saw his astonishment mirrored on Gorak's face. Little of the dwerro's story seemed a surprise to Shayla, but some of the anger had fled her. As Gorak questioned Zarum, Khalid's mind raced as he tried to understand the implications. Four hundred years to prepare. Four hundred years to nurse a profound hatred. He pitied those people living in the Eastern lands for the dwerro were motivated by sense of righteous revenge and would stop at nothing to punish them for the sins of their fathers. And where would the dwerro turn when the humans of the East had been crushed, he wondered. Would their bloodlust be sated, or would they turn their eyes West?
“We should get moving,” Gorak rumbled. “Or we're never gonna get outta here.”
They quickly gathered their belongings and set off down the tunnel, following Zarum. Desperate to be free of this place, they set a hurried pace, stumbling and tripping at times over the loose shale on the cavern floor. There was no change in the grey monotony of the surroundings to indicate they were any closer to their goal. Khalid began to despair, fearful they would never escape when a breath of fresh air played gently over his cheek. “Did you, yes, feel that?” he cried, pushing forward in his haste, “We're almost there!”
“Hold on,” Gorak growled as he snagged Khalid by the collar of his robe. “There's gonna be guards out there.
“I will deal with the guards,” Zarum said and seeing the concern on their faces, continued. “You have my word that you will be treated well, and free to leave whenever you wish.”
As Zarum stepped forward into the fissure, an angry challenge rose from the pass below. A stunned silence greeted Zarum's commanding response. After a few seconds of whispered consultation, one of the guards below replied in what Khalid judged to be a very deferential manner. A few moments later they heard the sound of hoof beats heading back towards the rampart.
Zarum nodded to himself and stepped away from the opening. “I have made arrangements to get us down, but it will take some time. I suggest you make yourselves comfortable.
A nervous silence settled over the group as they waited for the dwarves. Despite Zarum's assurances, Khalid feared their reception would be distinctly unpleasant. After all, they had killed two dwarves on the way in and only brought one out. They were one short as far as he was concerned. He continued to fidget restlessly until a warning glance from Gorak forced him to calm down, at least outwardly. After almost an hour of waiting, a dwarven voice called out from below and Zarum answered in kind.
“We may leave now.” Zarum said as he stepped out through the fissure.
“You next Khalid, then Shayla,” Gorak grunted.
Khalid's jaw dropped in astonishment as he followed Zarum. He had expected the dwarves would secure ropes for their descent or perhaps some sort of ladder. Instead, an enormous siege tower had been dragged from the barricade with the help of six enormous boars, each easily three times the size of the stout riding boars. As Khalid made his way down through the tower, hard eyed dwarven guards watched his passage. At the base of the tower, a veritable village of tents had been erected. Zarum waited, surrounded by a dozen dwarves, all speaking at once. He waved the dwarves to silence as Gorak joined them on the ground. “As I promised, you will be well tended while you remain here. Tents have been prepared, as has food and water for bathing,” he indicated a large opulent tent behind him. “I must confer with my countrymen now, but I will join you as soon as I am able.”
Never one to argue with a free meal, Khalid practically ran over to the tent Zarum had pointed to. Seizing a joint of mutton and tankard of ale, he sought out the baths and immediately began to scrub weeks of accumulated grime from his body between mouthfuls. Using an exquisite dwarven razor, Khalid shaved away a month of stubble from his head and face, leaving a pencil thin line down the edge of his jaw. Looking in a burnished silver mirror, he was moderately pleased with the result. Picking up the tattered robes that were his only clothing, he cast a few cantrips on them, then sighed mournfully as he realized even magick wouldn't return them to their former glory. Shrugging into them, he slung his rucksack over one shoulder and headed back to main portion of the tent to do some serious eating.
Gorak had forgone the bath altogether and absently tossed the carcass of a roast chicken aside as Khalid entered. Crunching on a bone, he kicked out a chair for Khalid as he approached. It was some time later before Shayla entered, looking as though she had just spent an evening at the Sultan's palace rather than three weeks in a goblin mine. She was wearing an skimpy outfit that Khalid had never seen before and he suspected that no small portion of their magical backpack was devoted to her wardrobe. Smiling at both of them, she sat down and joined in the feast as eagerly if not as noisily as Gorak and Khalid. They ate in silence, and were soon joined by Zarum. He too had bathed and trimmed his beard. He was wearing a white silk robe embroidered with gold thread. Thick gold chains hung about his neck, presumably a symbol of his office. He sent the trailing courtier away with a flick of his hand, and joined them at the table.
“You are finding everything to your liking?” he asked.
Khalid, his mouth full of spiced tubers could only grunt in agreement. Shayla was studiously examining her plate, not looking at Zarum. The anger seemed to have dulled somewhat, but it was clear that she wasn't comfortable around the dwerro.
“Excellent,” Zarum continued. “I will not trouble you long this evening, as I am sure you will wish to rest before returning to Gem-Sharad in the morning.” The last was said as more of a question, and Zarum did not seem surprised with Gorak nodded.
“As I expected. I wish then to make a proposal now, and let you consider it this night before you leave.” Although he seemed to be speaking to all of them, he was looking directly at Khalid. “You have all done me a great service, and while I will reward that in time, I wish to offer you a permanent position within the dwarven army.” Khalid almost choked on the sauted mushrooms he was shoveling into his mouth. He had certainly not expected that.
“I understand,” Zarum continued, “that what I tell one of you will most certainly be shared with the others so I will not dissemble. When I was captured by the beast Malakai, I was attempting to discharge a duty handed to my by the Thane himself. He instructed me to seek out all traces of ancient knowledge that might return magick to the dwarven lorekeepers. I know you have discovered the secret Khalid.” Seeing Khalid's knuckles tighten on his rucksack, Zarum hastily continued. “I assure you, I would never take it from you by force after what you have done for me and it is in my power to see that no dwerro here will either.” He turned then to Shayla and Gorak. “While it is indeed Khalid's services that I seek, I have seen firsthand your abilities and have no doubt that I can find tasks suited to your abilities as well. Should you accept, we will discuss compensation for your efforts. I am sure you would like to discuss the matter with each other, before deciding.” Zarum rose before they had recovered their wits enough to speak, bowed low and left the tent.
“So,” Gorak grunted. “Whadda think of that?” he jerked his thumb in the direction Zarum had left.
“Ah, most unexpected, yes, quite unexpected.”
They debated the issue until the urge to sleep overwhelmed them. Shayla wasn't as opposed to the idea as Khalid thought she would be. When asked directly, she had only shrugged and said that things weren't as clear as Arbaq had told her and in any event, it was over four hundred years ago. Still, she felt that her loyalties for the moment, lied with Arbaq. Gorak was curious to see what they would offer, which left the decision mainly in Khalid's trembling hands. Knowing what he was returning to in Gem-Sharad, and what was happening in Shalazar, being protected by the entire dwarven army didn't seem like a bad idea. Still, he had the nagging suspicion that dwarven bloodlust wouldn't be sated in the East and he didn't particularly want to be known as a traitor to his own race. In the end, they decided to reject Zarum's offer as cordially as possible, in case the situation changed.
Khalid slept late and woke up feeling better than he had in weeks. Gorak and Shayla were just finishing their morning meal, and it was with no small amount of regret that Khalid stuffed a few choice morsels into his mouth and then hurried off to gather his things. When they exited the tent, Zarum was waiting for them, flanked by an impressive looking honor guard. He smiled when he saw them and wasted no time in getting to last nights discussion.
“So, you have an answer to my proposal?”
“Ah, yes, while I'm sure it is quite generous, for the moment, we are beholden to another master, yes quite. Perhaps at some point in the future...” Khalid trailed off expectantly.
Zarum nodded as though he expected the answer before they gave it. “I understand. Should you change your minds, return to this rampart and speak the name of Zarum Goldhammer. I will leave instructions for the guards to contact me immediately.” He waved a guard forward, who then knelt and opened a small chest Khalid's feet. “As I promised, your reward for rescuing me.”
Khalid knelt down and drew out a finely tailored robes, richly embroidered and surprisingly heavy. Turning it inside out, he gasped as a glint of metal caught his eye. “Ah, mithral,” he said in a reverent tone.
“Yes, the robe is reinforced with mithral links, as is yours Shayla.”
“Truly a princely gift,” she murmured as she pulled another robe from the chest.
Zarum saw Gorak frown slightly and smiled. “I know you well enough Gorak, to know such things will do you no good.” Another guard walked forward and handed Zarum a shield, which he passed to Gorak. “I think you will find this more suitable. It has been in my family for ages, a gift from a time long since past.” His eyes grew distant for a moment, then he continued. “It is as hard as steel, and mighty indeed is the blade that can sunder a Darkwood shield.”
Gorak grunted his thanks and strapped the shield to his arm, testing its weight. With a grin, he banged his cudgel on the front and bowed slightly before Zarum. “Well, we've got business to attend to in another part of the world, and you've got that war going on that I'm sure you wanna get back to. So, thanks for the loot.” Gorak said with his usual tact. “Khalid, summon us up a ride.”
“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid stammered with a reproachful look at Gorak. “It has been interesting, and I have no doubt, yes, no doubt that our paths will cross again.” That said, Khalid summoned three mounts to the muttered comments of the dwarven onlookers. They mounted wordlessly and with a final wave to Zarum, rode out of the mountain pass.
The ride across the desert was a blur of dunes and portals, as they raced across the sand on Khalid's tireless mounts and spent the nights sheltered in his protective magick. The week and a half journey seemed to fly by in a matter of moments and it was with great relief that Khalid dismissed his mount in front of Arbaq's mansion in Gem-Sharad. A servant greeted them at the door, bowing low to the ground. “Arbaq has requested you be brought to him immediately. If you would kindly follow me.”
The servant led them through the labyrinth of Arbaq's home to his private study. He knocked quietly on the door, and entered at Arbaq's invitation. Looking up from the parchment he was studying, Arbaq smiled and rose to his feet. “My friends, I had almost begun to despair.” He waved at the servant waiting by the door, “Quickly, bring food and wine. Knock and leave it outside the door. Clear all of my appointments this afternoon and make sure I am not disturbed.” As the servant left, Arbaq seemed to realize for the first time, that someone was missing. “Where is Jalaal?”
Before Khalid could think of a way to break the news, Gorak spoke up. “Dead. A big bastard of a goblin shortened him by a head. Give this to his family if he's got one.” He drew Jalaal's scimitar from his belt and tossed it on the desk. “But that's the middle of the story,” Gorak rumbled. “I'm guessing you wanna here it from the start.”
A flicker of emotion crossed Arbaq's face at the mention of Jalaal's death, but it was gone so quickly that Khalid couldn't tell if it was sorrow or annoyance. “First, tell me that you have found what I was searching for?”
“We've got it,” Shayla said as she drew out the shining black bar of adamantine.
There was no mistaking the emotion on Arbaq's faced at the sight of the ingot. “Excellent! You have once again proven that my trust in you was not misplaced. Now, tell me the story from the start, and leave out no detail.”
The telling of the tale lasted well into the night. Servants left food and wine outside the door and at one point their were forced to break so that lamps could be placed around the room. Khalid and Gorak told the story as best they could, with no attempt to color the events of the last month. At the retelling of Jalaal's death, Shayla lowered her head so that her long auburn hair covered her face. Khalid could tell she was crying softly, and he himself was unable to continue the story, allowing Gorak to speak instead. They found that Arbaq had an uncanny knack for asking leading questions, forcing them to remember details they had forgotten. Shayla, somewhat uncharacteristically did not talk much, although she added several important details in response to Arbaq's direct queries.
Arbaq didn't seem nearly as upset as Khalid feared he would be when they described the final confrontation with Malakai. He shrugged off the addition of another powerful enemy with a casual wave of his hand. “You have done far more than I could have asked of you, and have succeeded in the task I set before you. I can not blame you for your methods.” He was intrigued by the dwerro's offer as well, and asked them point blank what their intentions were.
“We turned 'em down,” Gorak grunted. “I'm still your man.”
“As am I, yes quite.”
“Me too, well no, I'm your woman,” Shayla replied and then blushed slightly. “That's not exactly what I meant.”
Arbaq smiled and nodded. “I am pleased beyond measure to hear that. Now I have kept you here far too long, satisfying my curiosity. Return to your rooms now, you will find them exactly as you left them. Take your leisure for a while, and enjoy the run of my estate. What is mine is yours. Saving of course, my private chambers. I will undoubtedly have need of you soon, but until then, rest and relax.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Khalid stood behind one of Arbaq's harem girls, a dark eyed beauty named Emira and plunged his hands into her jet black hair. “Ah, my dear, I have missed you, yes quite,” he breathed as he kissed her softly down the nape of her neck. “You can not, yes, not imagine the horrors I have faced and how I have longed for your gentle, yes, gentle embrace.”
She melted into his arms and tilted her head back. “Oh Gorak,” she whispered.
Never a proud man, Khalid barely missed a beat as he began to unlace her flimsy silk halter. “Ah, Gorak is the large black one my dear, smells like camel. My name is Khalid.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent her halter drifting to the ground and then spun her around to face him. He kissed her passionately and then drew back, staring deeply into her luminous eyes, “My dear, your beauty steals my breath away.”
“Oh Gorak,” Emira replied in a decidedly unfeminine voice.
“Ah, now wait just a minute...”
Khalid sat bolt upright in his bed and stared around his darkened room as sleep fled from him. “How odd,” he muttered to himself. “Ah, well, at least I'm not dreaming of Malakai anym...”
“GORAK! GORAK, DAMN YOU! COME OUT AND FACE ME!”
Heart hammering in his chest, Khalid leapt out of his bed as the roar echoed through the empty hallways of Arbaq's mansion. With a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, he grabbed his belt and spellbook and rushed towards his door. “Now what,” he whispered to himself.