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


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Look_a_Unicorn said:
Mistakes? I see no mistakes!

Some time ago, EternalN challenged our faithful readers to find a mistake made by the party.

If you read back to the part where we were being tracked by the gnoll through the desert, you'll notice that Gorak used a spell -endure elements- to protect his comrads from the heat. By doing this, we were able to continue to travel through the hottest part of day without stopping. While it didn't stop the enemy from catching us, it did succeed in running one of his dogs dead (which is why we fought 2 dogs instead of three).

So where's the mistake? Had I just cast "pass without trace", we would have easily escaped.
EternalN was nice enough in the SH to make it look like Gorak was trying "test" a rival trackers skill... Ho hum, and it won't be the last mistake Gorak makes...darn tree-hugging druid ;)
 

SunTzu89

First Post
Bring this Back!

Ok, I read this SH back when it was being posted... i found it to be a WONDERFUL SH and would love to know... what happened to it? If it could be brought back, i would love to keep reading it. To anyone else, i would definitely say read this SH. It is wonderfully written and I am sure you would enjoy this. I am just giving it a long, well deserved BUMP.
 

The sound of a slamming door jerked Khalid from his morbid reverie. An exquisite crystal goblet, half filled with brandy, tumbled from his hand as he leapt to his feet. Only the thick carpet saved it from shattering into a thousand pieces as hit the floor with a dull thump. Glancing guiltily at Arbaq as the amber liquid poured out on the priceless rug, Khalid saw only concern on Arbaq's normally impassive face. Heavy footsteps echoed down the hall and before Khalid could reach the door, it flew open and Gorak entered, followed closely by Shayla. At the sight of Khalid, relief flooded into their eyes but before they could speak, Khalid cried, “Where have you been? I extracted the location of your father from Hazal!”

Gorak's lip curled as he looked at the intricate Dwerro waterclock resting on Arbaq's desk. Nearly two hours had passed since their assault. “Did you kill him?” he growled.

“Ah, I couldn't,” Khalid stuttered, “there were too many people about. I surely, yes, surely would have been apprehended.” It was as much of the truth as Khalid was willing to admit.

Shayla's shoulders slumped in defeat, “Then he's warned the Tower. We're too late.”

“Where did you go?” Khalid demanded.

“Back to Gormo's inn. We figured it was a bust, and we were gonna try an' grab him but he never showed,” Gorak snarled. “Why didn't...” he bit off the last part of the question. Khalid had stayed well clear of Gormo, and had never been to the inn. Shaking his head, Gorak growled, “Maybe he didn't have time...” he trailed off, then cursed. “We gotta try.”*

Whirling around, Gorak strode out of Arbaq's study. Khalid and Shayla practically had to run to keep up with him as he headed to the stables. Kicking the stable boy awake, Gorak grabbed a saddle and threw it over his horse. In minutes they were riding hard through the darkened streets of Gem-Sharad. Crouched low over the necks of their mounts, they urged them to the limits of their endurance as they navigated the twisting streets of the city at breakneck speed. A few blocks away from the address Hazal had provided, they pulled up and led their horses into an alley. Hitching them to a door handle, Gorak waved Khalid and Shayla back as he muttered a spell while cautiously approaching the building. Placing his hands lightly on the wall, he crept up the side of the warehouse with unnatural grace. He paused briefly outside a second story window, prying it open and then vanishing into the darkness.

The seconds passed slowly as Khalid and Shayla waited in anxious silence. After a few minutes, Gorak came around the corner of the building. One look at Gorak's clenched jaw, told Khalid everything he need to know. Thick cords stood out on Gorak's neck, as he ground his teeth in impotent fury. Magol wasn't there. They mounted their horses and rode back to Arbaq's in silence. Tossing the reins to the bleary eyed stable boy, Gorak vanished around the side of Arbaq's mansion. Shayla, practically stumbling with exhaustion, made her way to her room.

Tired as he was, Khalid knew sleep would be a long time in coming. Shrugging off the various tools of his trade, he sat down at his desk, thinking perhaps a few hours of study would settle his uneasy mind. After a few minutes, he closed the book he was reading with a frustrated snap. Even the familiar touch of his worn and battered spellbook wasn't enough to calm Khalid's chaotic thoughts. Without really knowing why, Khalid clambered out the window into the garden, and went in search of Gorak.

Inadvertently trampling a delicate bush of pale lavender flowers, Khalid paused for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Picking his way through the neat, orderly rows of plants, he headed to a small semi circle of palm trees at the center of the garden. As he approached, he saw Gorak sitting motionless at the base of one of the trees, his eyes closed. Stopping at the edge of the circle, Khalid hesitated, trying to decide if Gorak was awake or asleep, and if he should disturb him.

Finally, Gorak's eyes flashed open and he growled, “Fer the love of the lost gods Khalid, either sit your arse down or go away, just don't stand there wheezing.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered, thankful that the darkness hid his embarrassment. “I, ah, couldn't sleep,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily as he looked around for a comfortable spot. Settling at the base of a tree beside Gorak, he gathered his robes around him to ward off the night's chill. He couldn't help but marvel at Gorak's ability to ignore the demands of his surroundings, clad as he was in only a loincloth in the rapidly cooling desert air. As the silence became oppressive, Khalid finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Ah, yes, what, yes what do we do next?”

“Whadda ya think we should do next Khalid?” Gorak growled, with a bitterness that was unsurprising.

In the pale light of the half moon, Khalid could see Gorak staring intently at him. Finding no reassurance in that cold, black stare, he replied cautiously, “Ah, yes, well, you see, I'm not exactly sure. Yes, quite.”

“Well then,” Gorak snarled, “I'll tell you what we're gonna do. We're gonna get the hell outta Gem-Sharad.

Surprised, Khalid was unable to find his voice for a moment. Gorak was the last person he expected to suggest flight. “Ah, yes, that is certainly an option, yes, quite. But what about Magol?”

“How exactly are we going to find him now, Khalid?” Gorak raged, frustration twisting his rugged features. “Those two bastard will sure as hell stay clear of us now. Gormo is impossible to find, when he don't wanna be found and you can be damn sure Halaal's gonna put some real guards around him this time, even if we knew where to look.”

“Ah, yes, but...” Khalid began.

“And besides,” Gorak continued, ignoring the interruption, “Do you really think you're ready to face Halaal, now that he knows we're back in town and ready for us?” He glared furiously at Khalid.

“Ah, no, not quite.” Khalid answered truthfully, when he was certain Gorak had finished his rant. “Even without his spellbooks, he has accumulated a lifetime of artifacts and scrolls. I would not present much, yes much of a challenge.

“Indeed,” Gorak sneered sarcastically. “So tomorrow we go to Arbaq and tell him we need to get outta here. He don't have no use for us sitting around, so you can bet he's got something lined up.”

“But Gorak,” Khalid said hesitantly, “Your father...” Having spent most of his life alone, Khalid couldn't imagine not trying again.

“You know the most important thing my old man ever taught me?” Gorak snarled as he jumped to his feet. “Look to your own arse first. And he made damn sure I'll never forget it.” Twisting so Khalid could see the thick lattice of scars that covered his back. “First thing tomorrow we talk to Arbaq,” he said dismissively, ending the conversation as he walked out of the garden.

Sighing heavily, Khalid stood up and dusted off his robes. Having spent a great deal of time with Gorak in the last few weeks, he'd seen the scars before, but had always assumed that they had been earned in the desert against some ferocious beast. Still, Khalid wanted nothing more than to be out of Gem-Sharad. He was definitely not prepared to confront Halaal, and if he had his way, never would. Thinking about the frustration and rage that were consuming Gorak, he almost felt guilty abandoning Magol. Almost.

* * * * * * * * * * *​

When they spoke to him the next morning, Arbaq already had something in mind, although he had not quite finalized the details. Three days had passed since their conversation in the garden, and Khalid hadn't exchanged more than a handful of words with Gorak since. Khalid was just responding to Arbaq's summons on the morning of the third day, when he met Shayla at an intersection of hallways, looking somewhat perplexed as she considered the paths before her.

“Khalid.” she said brightly, a smile playing across her beautiful features “Where are we supposed to meet Arbaq?”

“Ah, yes, this way I believe,” Khalid replied as he gestured towards the corridor on the right. Arbaq had requested they join him not in the study as usual, but in another room in the wing that housed his private chambers.

As they navigated the maze of hallways, Khalid chatted aimlessly with Shayla. “I think this is it,” he said as he opened the door. The reason Arbaq had summoned them to this room was immediately apparent. Maps of every sort hung from the walls. Covering the floor of the room was an enormous mosaic map of, as far as Khalid could tell, the entire known world crafted in exquisite detail. Arbaq stood at the far end of the room, dressed in his customary black, conversing quietly with a towering figure covered head to foot in soft grey robes. The thick folds of the stranger's cowl hung low, concealing his features. As he gestured at the map beneath their feet, the sleeve of his robe pulled back, and Khalid was surprised to see a wrapping of tight bandages completely covering his hand and forearm. Something about the stranger's posture and demeanor instantly made Khalid uncomfortable.

“Ah, welcome my friends,” Arbaq greeted them. “I expect Gorak will be joining us shortly.” No sooner had he said the words, that Gorak walked through the door, absently slamming it behind him.

“Excellent. Now that we are all here,” Arbaq continued, “let us get started. As you have requested,” he looked pointedly at Gorak, “I have a task that will take you out of Gem-Sharad...” Khalid's spirits rose immediately and he leaned forward intently, “...and into the Eastern kingdom.” Khalid sighed and slumped back against the wall, trying to ignore the queasy feeling that settled into the pit of his stomach. “My informant,” Arbaq waved a hand at the robed figure, “has obtained some interesting information that I need you to verify.”

“Um, Arbaq, isn't the East full of Dwerro right now?” Shayla interrupted.

“Indeed.”

“We aren't Dwerro,” Shayla pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily.

“A fact that has not escaped me, my dear,” Arbaq replied dryly. “Indulge me a moment, and I will explain. There is a mountain, far to the northeast, that stands alone in the plains. It is said to be the ruins of an ancient Dwerro citadel that is considered sacrosanct by them. They will not venture into it, and there is little within a hundred miles that would interest the Dwerro military. It is highly unlikely that their scouts, much less any part of their actual army will be anywhere in the vicinity.”

“I need you to travel to this peak, gain entry and search the ruins for any information on the forging of adamantine.”

“Easy enough,” Gorak grunted sarcastically, the corner of his mouth twisting into a smirk. “But tell me how,” he continued, echoing Khalid's thoughts, “are we going to get across the mountains?”

“There are three routes,” Arbaq replied. “The central path, and the easiest to get to, is of course barred by the Dwerro.”

“Ah, perhaps yes, perhaps no,” Khalid said. “We have certain ways, yes, ways around that. It would however, likely require promises I am not prepared to keep and place us in the middle of the Dwerro army, most of which doesn't owe us any favors. Still, it may be an option. Yes, quite.”

“Indeed,” Arbaq agreed. “The second path is weeks to the south, through the jungle and around the tip of the mountain range.

“That's gonna put us on the wrong side of the Dwerro army,” Gorak pointed out. “We're gonna be traveling for months through poorly mapped and heavily occupied territory.”

“That's if we even make it through the jungle, Khalid said glumly, staring at the vast expanse of green tile beneath his feet.

“The jungle don't bother me, but the Dwerro, they're gonna be hell and a half to get by. What's the next choice?”

“Giant path.”

“Ah, yes, so called because it is large, and well marked?” Khalid asked hopefully.

“Well, that, and the tribe of mountain giants that call it home,” Arbaq replied.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid sighed despondently. “I suppose its the jungle and the Dwerro then,” he said morosely.

“There is another way,” the cloaked figure rasped as he stepped forward into the center of the map.

At the sound of his thick, hoarse voice, a nagging sense of familiarity gripped Khalid. Glancing nervously at Arbaq, he forced himself to take a deep, slow breath and focus on the conversation. After all, he reasoned, Arbaq trusted this informant, and that was good enough.

“...fraught with danger,” the cloaked figure continued, a thought which evidently amused him as he uttered a shorting barking laugh. “It is known only to the locals, and me of course.” Again, the man let out a short, hiccuping laugh that made Khalid question his sanity. “There are many places to go astray along the path, but I know the route. It begins here.” The informant stooped down and dragged a gnarled twisted fingernail across the mountains, far to the north.

“What's that town there?” Gorak stabbed a thick finger at the map, near where the stranger had indicated.

“Daggerfall,” Arbaq replied.

“Sounds pleasant,” Shayla said. “When do we leave?”

“As soon as possible.”

The meeting concluded, Khalid sighed and headed to his room to pack.

* * * * * * * * * * *​

Three days of hard riding was enough to make Khalid long for Gem-Sharad and Halaal's vengeance, which had to be quicker than the slow, agonizing pounding that jarred his bones and hammered his muscles into quivering jelly. They had headed northeast, and hit the foothills of the mountains on the afternoon of the third day. Along the thin band of hills that framed the mountains, the land was somewhat more forgiving. Mountain runoff fed innumerable small streams that trickled down out of the hills, providing enough water to sustain the coarse golden grass that extended out in patches and clumps to the edge of the desert.. Opening his eyes, Khalid blinked in the bright sunlight, and stretched slowly. Seeing Gorak and Shayla staring at him worriedly, he sat up quickly, trying to make sense of his surroundings. “Ah, yes, what is it?” he asked. “Did I miss breakfast?”

“You almost were breakfast,” Gorak snorted as he pointed at the carcasses of two badly burned leopards nearby. “They knocked you offa your horse and had your skinny shanks halfway into the hills before we dusted them.”**

“Are you okay?” Shayla asked, the concern evident in her tone.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid replied as he stood up, thankful he had remained unconscious until after Gorak had finished mending his wounds. “No permanent, yes, permanent damage it would seem, except to my pride.” He examined the tattered remains of his clothing with a critical eye. “And, ah, to my robes it seems. I should have brought more.” he said mournfully.

That bit of unpleasantness behind them, they rode late into the evening, and started again far to early in the morning to suit Khalid. For the hundredth time, he cursed Gorak's penchant for early morning meditation as he stumbled into the saddle after a cold, bland meal of dried fruits and bread. The sun crept across the sky with agonizing slowness as Khalid dozed lightly in his saddle. Dreaming idly about enchanting his robes to be tear proof, he almost tumbled from his saddle as Gorak startled him awake.

“Huh. That's a funny looking tree. Wonder what it's doing way out here?” He rumbled as he jumped down off his horse. Casually picketing it to the ground, he began to walk towards the small, squat tree.

Always eager for a break, Khalid followed suit and dismounted gingerly. He clutched at his saddle horn as his legs wobbled underneath him. Gritting his teeth as the feeling slowly tingled back into his numb legs, he watched as Gorak, with Shayla trailing behind him, headed towards the odd little tree.

Although Khalid had no particular interest in herbology, he could see what had attracted Gorak's attention. While there was enough water to sustain the waves of golden grass that covered the hills, there wasn't another tree in sight. And the tree itself was peculiar. Only slightly taller than Khalid's six feet, it had an enormous trunk, almost five feet around. Clusters of tiny red fruit dotted the branches, and the dark, waxy green leaves rustled in the breeze. Khalid frowned slightly as the leaves rippled again. Where he was standing, the air was still, without the hint of a breeze. “Ah, Gorak,” he called out in warning, just as all hell broke loose.

The grass at Gorak and Shayla's feet began to whip about in a frenzy, wrapping tightly around their legs and anchoring them firmly to the ground. Fortunately for Khalid, the creature's reach stopped just short of where he was standing, and he remained free of the entangling plants. Ropey vines, as thick as a man's arm, uncoiled from the branches of the tree and shot out, reaching for Gorak, who recoiled and raised his club defensively. In unison, Shayla and Gorak began to chant, as Khalid carefully circled the perimeter of the plant's influence. As Shayla finished her spell, Khalid watched with mounting concern as the spinning discs of force she cast out ricocheted off the trunk with little effect. Gorak was rewarded with nothing more than a scorch mark as his hand burst into flame at the culmination of his spell, and he launched a glowing orb of flame at the tree.

“Khalid, you'd better get in this!” Gorak barked as the tree gave a shuddering lurch and moved forward several feet towards him. The huge vines curled around his waist and Gorak grunted as the air was forced from his lungs beneath the plant's crushing grasp.

Khalid, shaking his head in disbelief at the rampaging foliage, mentally ran through his prepared spells in dismay. The creatures ability to manipulate its surroundings was forcing Khalid out of range of his most powerful spells. Deciding to take a chance, he began to run through the complex intonations of a summoning spell. His eyes closed, he could hear Shayla shriek out the final words to another spell and then curse in frustration. By the vile epithet that Gorak delivered, Khalid was certain his situation was becoming desperate.

Suddenly Khalid was gripped with a fierce panic as his spell began to unravel. Repeating the final words and gestures once more, Khalid struggled to impose his will upon the reluctant target of his spell. Bending every ounce of his concentration on the task, he held the complex formula in his mind and forced open the gate, drawing forth one of the smallest devil kin, and dropping the squirming, bloated ball of teeth and flesh as close to the tree as possible. His gamble failed however, and the little creature was swallowed up in the sea of swirling grass before it could close the last ten feet on the plant.

Gorak was almost completely engulfed as the tree shuffled forward again. His struggles were growing more feeble with each passing second, as he frantically used his flaming hand to keep the vines from encircling his neck. Lacking the breath to speak, Khalid could see the grim resignation in his eyes as he slowly succumbed to the plant's brutal assault.

As she loosed another volley Shayla cried, “I can't reach it with anything more powerful!” The plant, however, obligingly took another shuddering step forward, pulling Gorak who was now completely buried beneath a writhing mass of vines, closer towards its trunk. The only part of Gorak still visible was his right hand, burning with the last flames of his spell. Then, the flames winked out, and even that tiny part was swallowed up.

“Come on!” Shayla shrieked as lump that was Gorak toppled over to the ground and began to slid towards the tree. “Come closer you bastard!” The tree, apparently not satisfied with just one meal, heeded her calls and again moved forward towards Shayla, two huge vines uncoiling from Gorak and reaching out hungrily for her. “NOW BURN, BITCH!” she screamed as she unleashed a jet of white hot flame directly at the base of the tree, boring a deep, smoking crater into the bark.

Khalid, frantic now to the point of foolish courage, grabbed a scroll from his belt and hitched up his robes. Taking a deep breath, he plunged into the area of the creatures influence, stepping quickly to avoid the grasping plants, until he reached the exact limit of his range. Feeling the animated grass at his feet begin to curl around his legs, gathered his thoughts and stared at the rune on the scroll in his hands. A duplicate of the spell Shayla had just cast, they had worked on the scroll together, but Khalid had never actually cast the spell himself. Speaking the final word and completing the spell, he was so taken aback by the scorching heat that engulfed his hand, he nearly forgot that this spell, unlike most of those in his spell book, required careful aim. Stabbing his finger at the creature, he closed his eyes and prayed that he'd prepared the scroll correctly. The white hot jet of magical flame struck the tree, dead center. With an enormous crack, the tree fractured into two pieces, as thick black sap pulsed from the wound. Immediately, the waving vines went limp, dropping to the ground, and the grass at their feet lost its strength.
Khalid and Shayla raced towards the motionless form of Gorak, and began hacking away at the vines that encased him. Cutting away the branches around his face, Shayla gasped when she saw the ashen grey color of his skin. “Is he...” she trailed off tearfully, too afraid of the answer to finish.

“Ah, I think he's still alive!” Khalid replied jubilantly as he felt the faintest breath of air on his hand. Fumbling for a potion at his belt, he upended the contents into Gorak's mouth. “Just barely.”***

With a coughing groan, Gorak's eyes fluttered opened. He immediately tensed up as he realized he was still bound almost head to foot by the plant, then relaxed when he saw Khalid and Shayla standing over him. As Khalid started to speak, Gorak glared at him and growled, “Don't even say it. Just get me outta this thing.” After they finished removing a few of the thicker branches, Gorak shoved their hands away and flexed mightily, bursting free of the last remaining vines. Pausing only briefly to cast a few healing spells, he continued towards the smoking ruin of the tree, with Shayla trailing cautiously behind. After a careful inspection of the carnivorous tree, which even Khalid had to admit was morbidly fascinating, they mounted up and continued their journey north.

For the next day and a half Khalid continued to mull over the battle in his mind, time and again coming to the same unsettling conclusion. When they stopped for the evening, he glanced around and judging it to be relatively safe, began cast a spell. He rambled off the words to a simple summoning spell, and with a final, beckoning gesture, summoned the spirit of a hunting canine to him. Seeing no immediate threat, the dog dropped to the ground at Khalid's feet and began to lick itself. Having felt nothing unusual while casting the spell, Khalid dismissed the dog, took a deep breath, then recast the spell, this time with a different target. Summoning the least of the devilkin, a foul mishapped blob known as a lemure, should have been a simple task for a wizard of Khalid's skill, but immediately he felt the magic slipping away from him. Sweat began to pour down his face as the arcane liturgy rippled from his tongue through clenched teeth. Finally, he felt the portal began to open, and his will exert itself over the tiny devil. With a tiny pop, the sickening little creature appeared, causing Khalid to gag at the smell of spoiling meat that surrounded it. Wiping the sweat out of his eyes, Khalid paused for a moment then frowned as he studied the lemure. Something's wrong, Khalid thought to himself as he approached the devil, which was now gibbering and moaning softly as its crazed eyes rolled wildly. Reaching out, Khalid poked the thing in the head, and then jerked his hand back, not from revulsion but shock, as the tip of his finger seemed to almost pass through the creature. Frightened, Khalid hauled back and punched the devil in the head, as hard as he could. Again, the unnerving feeling of passing through the creature before striking substance. Scowling viciously at the oblivious devil, Khalid didn't notice that Shayla had dropped out of the pocket dimension they slept in, and was watching him curiously.

“You shouldn't hit him like that,” she scolded. “He didn't do anything to you. Poor thing.”

“Bah!” Khalid cursed as he kicked the lemure full in the face, sending it toppling over. It immediately righted itself, gibbering and twitching in agitation. “It's a devil, yes, devil, Shayla,” he retorted, his voice laced with frustration, “It lives on one of the lower planes of hell. Me kicking, yes, kicking it in the head is probably the closest thing its had to a vacation in eons. Yes, quite.”

“And besides,” grunted Gorak, who had stuck his head through out of the portal to see what the commotion was about, “Arbaq's harem girls give massages that are more violent than one of Khalid's left hooks.”

“Bah!” Khalid repeated again, in no mood for the good natured ribbing of his friends. Gnawing worriedly on his lower lip, he turned his back on them and walked away, as the devil vanished with a bang.

They put two more days of travel behind them, during which Khalid studiously refused to think about the implications of his little experiment. By the morning of the second day, they had picked up a road, heading north along the foothills of the mountains. Several hours after lunch, the road turned sharply east, and headed directly into the hills. Coming over a small rise, Khalid's eyebrows rose in amazement at the village before them. The small black dot on the map called Knolton was actually an impressive town of several thousand people, carved into the top of a hill in large terraces. Houses and gardens, even pastures and fields were visible behind the walled terraces. The main road cut back and forth up the side of the hill, providing the only passage for large carts and animals to reach the upper levels. Squat stone houses with thick wooden doors and shutters lined the main street on one side, with their backs up against the hill, and the top of the hill was dominated by a huge well fortified mansion.

Khalid, Gorak and Shayla rode down into the wide, sunlit valley that surrounded the hill, passing more and more people heading to and from the town. After waving a greeting to the first few people and receiving nothing save for suspicious glares, Khalid hunched his shoulders and drew his hands back into the sleeves of his robes. As the road curved along the wall of the lowest terrace, Khalid could see a large wooden gate ahead, surrounded by a knot of people. Caught in the press, they dismounted to lead the horses through the crowd. The guards at the gate seemed to be simply nodding and greeting people as they entered, until the three of them reached the front of the line. Two of the guards looked at one another, then waved them off to the side, away from the gates and came over to speak to them.

“Where are you three headed?” the guard asked curtly. He was a stocky man, shorter than Gorak, with a round face and full beard that hung down over his chain shirt and tabard. His hand rested easily on a spear, and he looked the three of them up and down critically.

Gorak, not liking the man's tone, grunted belligerently, “Inta your town for the night.”

“Yeah, well we'll see about that,” muttered the other guard, a tall, lanky man that had left his post at the gate. “What's your business here?”

Khalid, trying to head off an unpleasant situation, spoke up, “Ah, just passing through on our way north, yes, quite. We'd hoped to sleep in a soft bed and re-provision, yes, re-provision before heading out in the morning.”

“Uh-huh,” grunted the chubby guard noncommittally. He then turned, rather pointedly away from Gorak and spoke to Khalid and Shayla “And where'd you three odd looking folks meet up?”

Khalid hesitated for a moment, not certain where the guard's line of questioning was heading, but becoming increasingly worried about the prospects of spending the night in the town gaol. “Ah, we set out, originally from Gem-Sharad,” Khalid stammered, “some weeks back.”

“Izzat so? You three been together, all the way from Gem-Sharad eh?” the guard pressed on.

“Ah, indeed.” Khalid replied. When the guard looked at Shayla, she just nodded.

“Right then,” the guard said, grudgingly pacified. “We'll just take a look through your packs and make sure you ain't bringing no trade into the city. There's a ten percent tax on trade goods brought in by foreigners.” Since most of their belongings were stowed within the magical haversack that appeared almost empty, the search only took a few moments. Somewhat sullenly, the pudgy guard waved them through the gate with a final warning that foreigners were not allowed to carry weapons in public, having exhausted all excuses to delay them.

Within the city, their reception was little warmer. Moving quickly down the main avenue, they didn't stop to ask directions, hoping instead that they would recognize an inn when they saw the sign. They had climbed two terraces and were half way up the hill before they found a clearly marked tavern. As they stopped in front of the door, a tow headed young boy jumped up off the porch, and rushed to greet them. “Stable your horses?” he asked, holding out his hand.

“Ah, no, thank you, that won't be necessary,” Khalid replied as they shouldered their packs and walked towards the door. With a snap of his fingers, Khalid dismissed the summoned mounts, leaving the young lad looking both amazed and disappointed. As they entered the inn, they were greeted with a blast of warm air carrying the scents of roasting meat and potatoes. Hurrying up to the main desk, Khalid quickly negotiated for several rooms and meals. The tavern keeper, a rotund man in his late fifties, eyed Gorak suspiciously until Khalid added a few more coins to the pile, and Shayla shot him an encouraging smile. Grumbling under his breath, the man swept the coins off the bar and into his apron, and directed them over to a table in a dark corner of the tavern. They settled down, and the barmaid brought them mugs of ale, as the tavern began to fill up with regulars, men and women of every age, wearing the drab brown and grey woolens that seemed to be the fashion in the town.

Despite a few less than friendly glances during their meal, they were left alone to eat in peace while the inn busied up around them. As the barmaid cleared away the last of their plates, the door to the inn banged open and a large imposing man, obviously another foreigner, strode into the inn. Standing almost a head taller than most of the locals, his fiery red hair and full beard were long, and bound in thick braids. His bare arms were massive, with thick bronze cuffs around his wrists, well suited to using the wicked looking battle axe that hung from a loop on his belt. A finely trimmed ermine cloak was clasped across his barrel chest and the glint of highly polished chain links flashed out as he moved through the bar. He looked around curiously before he stopped at the end of their table and asked in a deep voice, “Mind if I sit here?” Without waiting for a response, he swung his leg over the back of the chair, dropped his pack and sat down. “You folk look more interesting then the rest of this lot in here.” Popping open the buckle on his weapons belt, he let it slide to the ground with a contented sigh as his substantial girth expanded even further.

“Ah, well, yes,” Khalid began, somewhat taken back, as Gorak frowned disapprovingly.

“Names Hammond Auldwulf,” the man continued, extending a huge hand to Khalid. “Merchant by trade, charming rogue by nature.”

“Ah, yes, I'm Khalid...” Khalid began before trailing off with a furtive look at Gorak and Shayla, as he realized he could be talking to a professional bounty hunter, “...Abdul-Azim,” he concluded lamely, hoping that Hammond had not noticed the awkward pause.

He needn't have worried however as Hammond had already turned and offered his hand to Shayla with an engaging grin and a wink, and then to Gorak as well. As he shook hands with Gorak, he remarked, “I must say, you're a helluva brave man.”

Gorak, unsure if he was being made the butt of some joke, growled, “Some people think so. But since I never met you before, what makes you say that?”

Suddenly, all conversation in the bar stopped, as a single bell began to toll, somewhere down in the lower city. It peeled once, twice, then a third time, with increasing urgency when another bell tolled, from far up the hill. In an instant the town was reverberating with a cacophony of bells ringing from all quarters. Within the bar there was an explosion of activity. People leapt up from their tables and ran to the doors, leaving their meals still steaming on the table. The barmaid vanished into the back room, as the barkeep pulled a stout iron bound cudgel off the wall behind him and leapt over the bar, rushing out the door and closing it with a bang.

As Gorak, Shayla and Khalid looked around in a stunned amazement at now deserted bar, the sound of a dozen bells echoing in their ears, Hammond's grinned faded and he turned to Gorak with a deadly serious expression. “I think you're about to find out.”

* * * * * * * * * * *​

* This was frustrating. I had to sit silently while they debated where to go while I was chasing Hazal. As soon as they decided to head to Gormo's inn, I knew the adventure was over and we failed. Again, one of the problems with only playing once every few weeks - they'd both forgotten that Khalid had studiously avoided Gormo and had no idea what inn he was staying at.

** This was absolutely infuriating. I played Khalid so carefully – up until this point, I'd barely even got hit. I took more damage in that first surprise round then I had in the campaign to date, and they almost killed me.

*** This random encounter nearly ended the campaign (silly druid, cavorting with unfamiliar foliage). We just weren't picking up on the fire resistance (wooden tree = fire bad right?) on the assassin vine, but really, we didn't have a lot of options.
 
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Hurrah!! Great to see you back Eternal Newbie - I hope this means a revival from suspended animation for this thread and (at least slightly) more frequent updates. :D

... especially as I want to know what's going on!
 



The Axe

First Post
Yay!

Yer back!

I would have chimed in a bit earlier, but I had to go back to re-read the thread---[codger voice]the ol' mem'ry ain't what she used'ta be![/codger voice]
 

The end of Chapter 4: Thicker than Water.

* * * * * * * * * *​

There was only a moment of stunned silence before the three seasoned campaigners rose to their feet. “Guess we better check it out,” Gorak grunted as he headed towards the door, buckling his darkwood shield to his arm as he moved. Shayla grabbed her trusty crossbow out from under the table, and fell into step with him. Khalid joined her, mumbling slightly under his breath as he reviewed the magical formulae stored in his mind. As Gorak threw open the door, Khalid glanced over his shoulder, and was disappointed to see their new friend looking quite content with a pilfered tankard of ale. He raised a mock toast to Khalid, who sighed and turned his back on him, stepping out into the cool mountain air.

All three of them stopped and assessed the chaos that had engulfed the town. A few buildings were glowing with burgeoning flames and as Khalid watched, the fire began to spread into the fields. Between the almost incessant tolling of the bells, he could hear people screaming and the sounds of battle. Dozens of townsfolk were fleeing from the lower city, seeking safety further up the hill. Some were dragging or carrying small children, while others labored up the incline under the weight of their worldly goods. Interspersed in the crowd were a few guardsmen trying to fight against the press and make their way down to the lower levels.

Seeing no immediate danger, they moved nearer to the edge of the terrace and looked down. Despite the apparent success of their assailants, Khalid could see that the town was constructed to be a besieger's nightmare. Carved into the side of a huge hill, the lower two terraces of the town were broad, but narrowed significantly at the third terrace, where the inn was located, and the two terraces above. Buildings of varying heights had been constructed right against the hillside, some with roofs almost level with the road in front of the terrace above. Most of the houses were constructed of solid brick or stone, with stout doors and heavy shutters and roof top gardens. As Khalid watched, soldiers began to clamber onto the roofs of houses on the level below them, and rain arrows down on the first terrace.

Squinting through the smoke and darkness, Khalid saw a lone attacker run across the road directly below them, then drop as three arrows landed in rapid succession. As the figure crumpled and fell, the body rolled out into a circle of torchlight, and Khalid whistled slightly in understanding. Their adversaries were orcs, full blooded judging by the length of the tusks, but with mottled greenish brown skin, fortunately for Gorak. They had launched their attack at the perfect time, considering their flawless night vision; in the few moments since the start of the attack, the sun had set behind the hill line and the town was plunged into darkness. Few torches had been lit in the lower levels, meaning the only light in those parts was that thrown from the increasing number of burning buildings.

Looking back behind them, Khalid saw more soldiers begin to filter down the hill, and a group, apparently under the command of a rather junior looking lieutenant, gathered about sixty feet from the inn, near the curve where the main road came up from the second level.

Gorak grunted and ducked out of the way as a crossbow bolt whizzed over his head. “They ain't holding them, there's more of 'em pouring up the road.”

Further up the road, Khalid could see soldiers and civilians alike leaping off rooftops from the lower terrace and scrambling up onto the road in front of the third level. In a few places where the defenders were unwilling or unable to flee, Khalid could see them frantically fortifying their positions, forcing the orcish mob to engage in brutal house to house fighting to clear the roof tops of archers. The sounds of battle were louder now, as several of the bells in the lower city went quiet. Khalid could tell that if the advancing orcs could capture enough of the town behind their lines, they could starve or blackmail the remaining defenders into submission, and judging by the numbers running by below them, they were about to breach the third level.

Just then, a bugle sounded out from the fortress at the top of the hill, and was answered by another. Instantly, Khalid's spirits were lifted and he turned to Gorak who stepped back away from the edge.

“Alright,” Gorak growled, “Looks like we got some help behind us. I'll keep them from scaling the cliffs and offa them rooftops here.”

Khalid, nodding in agreement, was already moving. “Ah, yes, and I'll bolster the guardsman. Shayla, help, yes, help Gorak but be ready to fall back and cover the guards if things turn for the worse. Yes, quite!”

As he moved closer to the guards, the inn door flew open and Hammond strode out. In one hand he held a wicked looking half-moon battleaxe, in his other, a broad steel shield. A huge fur hat, matching his cloak, was perched at a jaunty angle on his head and a chainmail coif spilled down his neck. Ale foam dripped from his mustache as he winked at Khalid.

From the corner of his eye, Khalid caught a flicker of movement and saw the young lieutenant stagger as a javelin skewered his upper thigh. Turning desperately, he fell backwards towards his men as a bloody faced orc appeared out of the darkness and cut him almost in two with a terrible blow from his greatsword. The men flinched back almost collectively. Khalid could see their nerve breaking but he forced himself to wait while more orcs appeared out of the gloom and charged the line. Then, seeing several orcs bunch up, Khalid seized the opportunity and began to cast. He grinned as his spell went off, and a golden explosion burst in the midst of the orcs blinding them and coating them in sparkling gold dust. A cheer went up from the guards, who rallied immediately and cut down the blinded orcs with quick, professional attacks. With a roar, Hammond raised his axe charged into the fray, grievously wounding a blinded orc who was laying about frantically with a spiked mace.

“Khalid! Get ready! I'm gonna slow 'em down but you're gonna have a helluva lot more company in a few seconds!” Gorak roared before he launched into a spell. Howls of frustration echoed up from the street below as whatever Gorak had done confounded the orcs. Shayla took advantage of the confusion to cast a handful of glittering discs into the mob.

Khalid wasted no time and began casting again. Watching through half closed eyes as he rhymed off the words to a summoning incantation, he saw the last of the blinded orcs cut down, only to be replaced by two more. A guardsman in the front line collapsed on the end of an orcish spear, and the remaining four battled on desperately. Hammond was a stone wall in their center upon which the tide of orcs broke. Wielding his axe with a deadly grace, his savage fury matched that of the orcs he faced, and he gave no ground despite his mounting injuries.

The words rolling off Khalid's tongue and the rush of blood in his ears drowned out Gorak and Shayla's renewed casting. Seeking something with as much psychological effect as physical, he called forth the spirit of a simple scorpion, and perverted it with fell energies. The resulting monstrosity that appeared with a sulfuric detonation, caused both man and orc to shy away. The scorpion was over seven feet long with a glittering jet black carapace that faded to blood red at the tips of its claws and stinger. “Ah, fear not!” Khalid cried out to the guardsmen, somewhat unnecessarily as the scorpion scuttled forward and plunged it's barbed stinger into the chest of an orc. Drawing out one of his pilfered wands, he waited for a few more more orcs to appear and then with a flick of the wand and an arcane word, Khalid caused a huge netting of thick spider webs to descend over the roadway. Anchored between two buildings, it trapped a few unfortunate orcs charging up the path and completely cut off the those at the front, battling the guardsmen, from any reinforcements. Understanding that no quarter would be given, the orcs fought on in a frenzy, biting and clawing at their opponents when they were stricken to the ground.

Seeing the remaining orcs being contained by the the four uninjured guards, aided by Hammond and the conjured scorpion, Khalid allowed himself a moment's respite believing the situation to be in hand. A scream from Shayla grabbed his attention and he looked nervously over to where she was standing.

“There's some sort of ogre or something coming down the road!” Shayla cried as she cast another spell.

“Son of a bitch! That ain't no ogre!” Gorak roared. “Khalid, in about thirty seconds yer gonna have a giant up there with ya! Get ready!” Both he and Shayla drew back from the edge of the road.

“Ah, yes, ready, quite,” Khalid stammered as he looked around helplessly. Realizing with a start that he still held the wand in his hand, he began to jab it frantically in air in the direction of the road, shouting the command word repeatedly and slowly filling up the road with layer upon layer of webbing. There was a shout from the terrace below them, and then a tremendous crash as the giant pulverized a building covered in defenders. Ignoring the screams of slowly suffocating orcs struggling futilely at the center of the web, Khalid continued to discharge the wand, until the hill giant's huge head came into view around the corner. Even worse, the duration of Khalid's summoning ran out, and the scorpion, with one final lunge at an orc, vanished, leaving one less obstacle between him and giant.

Standing well over twelve feet tall, the giant resembled a grotesquely distorted orc. Its filthy skin was the color of dried mud and rancid hides stitched with bits and pieces of scavenged armor were draped about its powerfully muscled shoulders. It's face was almost brutishly childlike, with thick, stump like teeth, and bleary eyes covered by matted, greasy hair. Wounds and cuts covered its body and in one hand was a gnarled tree stump, tacky with blood and gore that oozed down over the beast’s fingers. As the giant stared in confusion at the obstacle blocking the road, an arrow sailed out of the darkness from above and ricocheted off his head, tearing back a flap of skin and causing the giant to howl in pain. Surging forward with a thunderous roar, the giant ploughed into the webbing, struggling mightily. For an instant, Khalid though the spell might hold the beast but then with a sharp twang, the strands began to pull free from the buildings and road one at a time, dragging huge chunks of mortar and stone away. Khalid pointed the wand directly at the giant's head and spoke the command word but nothing happened. Having expended its last charge, the wand was now nothing more than a ornate stick, and Khalid tossed it aside. Running low on options and lower on valor, Khalid muttered a few more arcane words and promptly vanished.

“I'm going to prepare our escape!” Khalid called out to Shayla and Gorak, as he headed back towards the inn. “Turn right when you enter the door to the inn!” Ducking back into the inn, Khalid opened a portal and then darted back outside. The giant, slowed by the sticky filaments, had not yet reached the defenders but they had at best a few seconds before it was free. Two orcs remained fighting the guardsmen and Khalid prayed fervently that they both be dispatched before the giant reached them. Hammond stepped forward, and with a powerful blow, answered Khalid's prayer and cleaved in the head of one of the orcs, even as one of the guardsmen staggered away from the mêleé, and fainted from his injuries. The giant lurched forward with surprising speed, and tore through the last few feet of webbing. Bringing his huge club arcing down, he caught the guard on Hammond's left and crushed him into the cobblestones, killing him instantly. The other two guardsmen backed away cautiously, too disciplined to flee, but too scared to approach the giant. Arrows buzzed out of the blackness overhead, striking the giant in the face and chest. While most were turned aside by the giant's thick skin and matted hides, several landed true.

Gorak and Shayla had abandoned their post overlooking the road and fell back towards the inn. Hammond, the sole defender facing the giant now, raised his shield defensively and stepped forward. Hoping to engage the beast while it was still hampered by the magical ensnarement, he delivered a powerful blow that bit deep into the giant's upper thigh. The giant's roar of pain echoed off the stone walls as he shook free of the last remaining strands of Khalid's spell. Drawing his club back over his shoulder the giant leveled a terrible blow at Hammond. Still off balance from his attack, Hammond just barely managed to raise his shield to absorb the killing force of the hit. The impact lifted him off his feet and sent him crashing into the wall of the building beside him. Barely standing and dazed by the shock, Hammond turned to flee and was caught by the giant's back swing, propelling him once more through the air. He landed in a crumpled heap, then incredibly struggled to his feet. His shield arm hanging uselessly by his side and with an obviously broken ankle, he half crawled, half staggered towards the inn, leaning heavily on his axe.

Shayla stopped abruptly, and Khalid could see her gather herself up for a spell. As the magic consumed her, Khalid was forced to squint as her hands burst into searing flame. The giant, distracted by the two guards, took the full brunt of the spell as Shayla unleashed a ray of magical flame. Blackened, ghastly wounds appeared on the giant's shoulder and neck where the flame landed, and the stench of burned flesh filled the air.

Gorak ran on past Shayla and intercepted Hammond, dragging him up to his feet. “Get back in 'er!” he roared as his hands flashed with magical healing. The pain that accompanied Gorak's spell, jerked Hammond back to his senses, even as his arm straightened and the bones in his ankle mended. Propelling Hammond back towards the giant, Gorak stepped aside as Shayla ran past, the wounded giant bellowing in pain and lumbering along behind her. As she passed them, she skidded to a stop and turned around. Her green eyes flashing in the flickering light of a dozen fires, she called out words of power in a clear, confident voice. Again, a lance of pure elemental fire leapt from her hands and struck the charging giant, dead center in the chest.

The giant, caught in the throes of a killing frenzy, ignored Hammond and Gorak as he pursued Shayla, intent on smashing her to a bloody pulp for the terrible damage she had inflicted. Hammond, taking advantage of the giant's reckless haste, swung his axe in a wide arc and slammed it into the giant's ribs. Wounded by Shayla beyond all reason, the giant ignored the bloody gash into its side and ran on, finally reaching her. Bellowing incoherently, the giant swung wildly, causing Shayla to shriek in terror. Bending almost double at the waist, Shayla ducked underneath the giant's fearsome attack.

Khalid, fearing that whatever god had reached out and protected Shayla a moment ago could not be counted on twice, circled around to position himself for one last desperate attack. Staying clear of Gorak and Hammond, who had moved in with their weapons at the ready to flank the giant, he hesitated, trying to time his gamble. Having only one offensive spell remaining, and faced with the prospect of being both helpless and visible before an enraged giant, he waited.*

Shayla, snapping upright, nimbly danced backwards and raised her hands in front of her face. Peering at the giant from between her fingers with a coy smile on her face, Shayla summoned her magical fire one more time. Recognizing the terrible fate about to befall it, the giant lashed out desperately. Shayla's auburn curls blew back over her shoulder as the giants club whistled past, inches from her face. The giant's howls cut off instantly as a jet of flame pierced it under the chin, burning a hole clear through its neck.

Khalid, about to step forward and cast his final spell, was forced to turn aside with a startled yelp as the giant toppled over backwards, almost crushing him. For an instant, nobody moved as the adrenaline continued to course in their blood. Both Gorak and Hammond stood, weapons raised, as though waiting for the beast to rise once more. The shock broke, as the last remaining guard ran past them. Khalid turned in dismay and saw a half dozen orcs round the corner. Thankful he was still invisible, he worried for his friends he moved aside to gain room to cast.

Out of the darkness overhead, an order was barked and a sheet of arrows rained down from the sky into the midst of the orcs. Several dropped immediately and as the remaining ones turned to flee, another wave of arrows fell, driving them to the ground. Barely able to contain his elation, Khalid's invisible smile grew broader as he turned to see a column of foot soldiers moving at almost a dead run down the road. They raced past without stopping, weapons and armor clanking, and turned the corner down to the second terrace. Archers, clad in light leathers with their bows strapped to their back, began dropping down from rooftops and moving to the edge of the terrace to cover the advancing soldiers.

Moving to the edge with the archers, Khalid could see the column of soldiers clearing the road below. They moved quickly, with small groups breaking off from the main column to venture into breached houses. As he watched, the troop crashed into a group of attacking orcs and linked up with a pocket of resistance. This scene was repeated again and again, as the orcs continued to attack in the face of determined resistance and withering arrow fire.

“Where's Khalid!” Shayla called out, from back near the inn, and with a guilty start, Khalid willed himself back into visibility.

“Ah, yes, sorry, I'm right here,” he called out with an apologetic grin, as she joined him overlooking the terraces below.

They watched for several minutes, as the battle raged on down below. The advancing guards quickly gained momentum, and their numbers swelled as they moved through the city, as more people came out of hiding. It soon became apparent that the battle had turned into a rout for the attacking orc tribes, and Khalid turned away. He spotted Gorak down the road, tending to some critically injured soldiers. Feeling vaguely guilty, Khalid looked around half-heartedly for some way to help. Seeing a tired looking guard dragging the men who had fallen defending the turn in the road out of the way, he moved to offer his assistance. As he bent down to help lift one of the bodies, he realized that by some strange turn of chance the man he was helping, the only guard to have survived the fight with the giant, was the same stout soldier that had rudely questioned them at the gate. He was no longer wearing his uniform and armor, but was dressed instead in simple pants and a tunic. A filthy and battered orcish helmet still rested on his head, and a crudely cast iron longsword was tucked in his belt. When he saw Khalid looking at him, he smiled wanly and wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, leaving a smudge of soot in its place. “We just got off shift,” he gestured at his fallen friend, the tall, slim guard that had searched their belongings. “We were headed up inta the city ta get something ta eat. I thought sure we was gonna make through, when you gummed up the road there.” He sighed. “Then that giant came along and killed him dead.” He looked straight at Khalid and said, “But that little girl burned him up good. You thank her for me, al'right?” Khalid, thinking of Jalaal, lying unburied somewhere beneath a mountain, nodded wordlessly.**

He put his friend down, then reached out and closed his sightless eyes. Standing up slowly, he wandered away up the hill, stopping briefly to offer Gorak a tired, but sincere looking salute. Khalid, having seen enough death for one day, wiped his hands off and stood up, joining Shayla and Gorak as they entered the inn. Hammond was already inside, busy redistributing uneaten meals, mostly to himself. He handed a plate to Gorak as he sat down, then shot a wink at Shayla and chuckled. “Healing always makes me hungry.” Finding himself ravenously hungry, despite eating only a few hours earlier, Khalid tucked into his purloined food. So distracted was he by the cold joint of meat, and vivid discussion of tactics, he didn't notice the barkeep enter the inn and walk over to their table.

Dumping a handful of coins on the table, the barkeep said, “I don't want these.” As Khalid stood up to insist that they were going to pay for the food they had taken, the man continued. “I saw wut you done out there,” he said, rubbing his bald palate with a meaty hand. “And none of you has ta pay for anything in here no more, any time your passing through town.” He blew out his mustache and stared down his nose as though daring them to challenge him.

With a grin, Khalid settled back into his chair, and ordered another round. The inn slowly filled up again, with other foreigners and townsfolk looking to celebrate the hard fought victory. The mood was muted out of respect, but cheerful. As hard as Khalid tried, he couldn't force himself to dislike Hammond, despite the fact he was convinced that the man was a professional sellsword. Khalid stayed sober enough to deflect his repeated and increasing incoherent questions about where they were going and why, until the party wound down in the late hours of the evening.

They were awoken early the next morning by a riot of construction, echoing up from the lower quarters. After a hasty meeting in the commons room of the inn, it was unanimously decided to spend another day in town, and they retired to the blissful quiet of Khalid's magical shelter. Waking late in the afternoon, Khalid put his free time to good use and immediately began working on his studies, while Gorak and Shayla wandered the town, surveying the damage.

When they returned late in the evening, they found Khalid eating sullenly downstairs by himself. Grunting in response to Shayla's greeting, he ignored them and stared at his stew. “What's up with you?” Gorak rumbled.

“Ah, nothing,” Khalid muttered.***

Gorak shrugged. “Whatever. You seen Hammond around?”

“Ah, I think, yes, that he said he was leaving, early this morning, for Gem-Sharad,” Khalid reminded him.#

“Right, forgot about that,” Gorak grumbled. “Fun guy. I like him. Anyhow, if we're still leaving at first light tomorrow, I'm gonna go get some rest.”

The short ride through town the next morning impressed Khalid with the village's resilience. Most of the rubble from burned buildings had been removed, and in some places new frames had already been erected. The cobblestones had been washed and the buildings were being repainted. While a few people glared at Gorak as he passed, surprisingly more still smiled and waved. Their deeds had garnered a certain amount of celebrity within the town and while it wasn't a parade, Khalid felt particularly pleased with himself as they rode out into the valley.

* * * * * * * * * *​

Khalid shivered miserably in his saddle, thinking longingly of the warm taproom of the Dancing Pig in Knolton. A week's journey saw them more than a hundred and fifty miles northward and the brutal desert heat of late autumn had turned into the chill of early winter on the northern steppes. Already wearing both sets of his robes and his cloak, Khalid searched around his saddlebags, pulling out a pair of socks and sliding them over his hands. Shayla still seemed bemused at the huge flakes of snow that had been falling for two days now, gathering in fluffy clumps in her auburn hair. Gorak, steadfast as always, had merely cinched his cloak a little tighter over his bare chest. Grasping at his hood as a gust of swirling snow blew into his face, he asked for the tenth time today, “Ah, how much...”

“Khalid,” Gorak growled. “I swear to the lost gods that if you ask how much further one more time...There's your damn answer.” He pointed to a strange rock formation, jutting out of a cliff face, in the valley ahead.

Shayla shook the snow out of her blazing curls, and shielded her eyes with her hands. “Is that the falls?” she asked. “It looks frozen or something.”

Gorak grunted. “That doesn't bode well for a hike through the mountains.”

It took several more hours to reach the base of the cliff. Situated on the near side of a huge lake fed by the frozen falls, the village was a rude shock after coming from Knolton. The houses were low, rambling wooden affairs, laid out, as far as Khalid could tell, by no particular plan. Thick brownish black tar had been smeared across the exposed wood, which was poorly treated. More than half of the buildings had sod roofs and the look of permanently ongoing construction. Furry, half feral looking pigs roamed the streets in small herds, tended to by shrieking children with short sticks.

The villagers themselves looked more like Easterners than Khalid would have guessed. The majority seemed to have fair skin and pale hair, although there was a definite mix. Draped in fur and armed with bows and knives, men with hard, flat stares watched them ride into town. Gorak pulled up in front of one of them and asked, “This village is Daggerfall, right?”

The man looked at him rather oddly, “Ayup.”

“Whadda call that?” he gestured, pointing at the cliff.

Speaking slowly, as though to a small child, the man replied. “Dagger. Falls.”##

Grunting in annoyance, Gorak nudged his horse forward. They wandered through the sprawling lanes between buildings, and located a tavern by the raucous singing that poured out. As Khalid waved away the horses, they shouldered their packs and pushed their way into the crowded barroom. Forcing their way to the bar, Gorak tapped the barman on the arm and shouted over the noise, “We need a room.”

The barman looked at Shayla, and asked, “You want the good room, or the other room?”

“What's the difference?”

“The good room's fer traveling merchants, the other room is a place ta sleep for the night.”

“The good room then,” Shayla said, elbowing past Khalid and digging out some of Arbaq's money.

As Shayla paid, Gorak spoke up again. “We need some information about the mountains. Any suggestions?”

The barman waved at the room, “Just ask around. Most of the folk in here are trappers or trackers of one sort or 'nother. But I don't know that yer gonna have much luck fer finding somebody that'll take you up this late in the season.”

Turning to Khalid, who had shrunk into his cloak at the mention of trackers, and Shayla, Gorak growled, “That don't sound good. Take my stuff upstairs and start buying supplies. I'm gonna start hunting around for somebody that knows these mountains.”

They split up, with Shayla leaving to get provisions while Gorak looked for a guide. Khalid spent his time hunting around for the various supplies for his art, but was unsurprised to be mostly disappointed. He met up with Shayla laboring under several bags of food on the way back to the inn, and dutifully shouldered some of the load. As he swung a bag over his shoulder, Shayla looked at him oddly.

“What's that,” she said.

“Ah, what's what?” Khalid puffed, peering around.

“That thing on your head.” She pointed.

“Ah, it's my new hat!” Khalid exclaimed. “I bought some clothing suitable for a trek into the mountains.”

“Um, is it supposed to look, ah, quite that fresh?” The hat's cold, dead eyes bored into Shayla reproachfully.

“Ah, Indeed, the trapper assured me it's much warmer like this,” Khalid said, nodding enthusiastically. Then he flinched and yelped as his hat inadvertently kicked him in the eye. Laughing, Shayla pushed upon the door to the inn for him, and they went inside to wait for Gorak.

Gorak showed up an hour later, with a foul look on his face. “I'm tired of being laughed at, and called crazy. It's starting to hurt my feelings,” he growled. “They all hunt the damn things, but not one has crossed 'em. We got one more person to try, an old hermit whose supposed to know these mountains like the back of his hand and has gone up in midwinter before. We'll hit him up tomorrow, and if he can't tell us anything useful, then we just keep right on moving.”

The next morning, they packed up and rode around the lake towards the falls. As they got closer to the falls, Khalid realized that they weren't entirely frozen. Water still trickled and streamed down the sides of the huge icicle, into the lake below. Soon, they could make out a thin band of smoke rising from a small cabin, among a copse of trees on the lake’s edge. When they approached, an old man barged out of the house and looked them up and down. “I don't like people.” he declared before they could speak. “So what are you people,” he put a particularly unpleasant emphasis on the word, “doing in my yard?”.

Gorak eyed the shabby little man up and down. Dressed in well cured leather, he looked about a hundred years old, although his spry step and bushy grey hair indicated he was probably slightly younger. “We're looking for a way through the mountains.” Gorak replied.

“You're crazy,” the little man retorted.

As Gorak growled deep in his throat, Khalid intervened quickly. “Ah, yes, well, we'd heard that you were the best, and that you'd done it before. Yes, quite.”

“That was a long time ago, boyo,” the old man said, “and I ain't that crazy no more.”

“That's it,” Gorak growled. “We're leaving.”

“You're crazy!” the old man shouted as they turned their horses into the wind and began to ride east towards the mountains. There's goblins up there! And the weather's gonna turn soon!”

“You'd be surprised,” Gorak grunted over his shoulder, “at just how little either of those things scares me.”

Khalid sighed and wished he could say the same, as he pulled his hood low to ward off the rising sun. Behind them, the huge icicle began to groan and creak as the first light of the morning hit it. With a shuddering crack, a huge spear of ice broke free from the main spire and crashed to the ground below, shattering into a thousand pieces. Pulling his cloak a little tighter against the stinging chill, Khalid tried not to think about omens or portends or just how much the mountains loomed over them, like a maw of jagged fangs.

* * * * * * * * * *​

Notes:

* I was totally trying to steal the kill here. My only offensive spell left was burning hands, so I had to be pretty close to him get it off and I wanted to be sure. I'd been lurking around invisible for a few rounds, but I chickened out and waited one round too long :cool: That giant may have been hurt when it came up the terrace, but once it got there Shayla did about 90% of the damage to it - Hammond was the only other person to wound it, as far as I remember.

**Had to give some love out to the redshirts! They did a fantastic job in their supporting role of meatwall, at least until the giant showed up...

***This was me, failing to scribe dispel magic off a scroll. Needed to beat a 3, rolled a 1.

#Ah, good ole Hammond, meant to be a potential a) tank, b) cohort c) guide through the mountains, but that would be far too easy! Khalid's paranoia deals the party yet another blow...

##heh, ask a stupid question...get immortalized in a story hour! I remember this exchange, but to Gorak's credit, it *might* have been me that asked the question (I'm pretty sure it was him tho :D ).
 
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