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

Khalid could only pray Gorak's magick would hold and that the tunnel was straight, blinded as he was by the flames that engulfed him. This time, unlike most others, the gods were apparently listening and he burst free from the tunnel into clear air as his magical protection faded away with the last of the flames. Coughing furiously while he swatted at his smoldering robes and beard, Khalid willed himself away from the mountain, knowing that only a few minutes of flight remained to cross the lake. Rubbing at his stinging eyes, he located the others when his vision cleared and swooped down to join them on the far bank.

We should hide, to throw off the inevitable pursuit

“Ya,” Gorak grunted, shifting back to his Orcish form. “Magic us up a portal and lets get outta sight until we're sure things have calmed down.”

Ducking inside the safety of Khalid's pocket dimension, Shayla shifted back while Azarek struggled up the rope under the weight of his gear. Once inside, he began to undo the numerous buckles that held his armour in place, spitting curses and banging about until Khalid finally dragged himself off the floor to help. Gorak remained hidden outside for a while, watching the horizon, until he was satisfied there was no immediate danger. Scampering up the rope inthe form of a mouse, Khalid pulled the rope up behind him. Finally clear of the perils of Martok, they were able to relax and assess the situation.

“Well, that was a bust,” Shayla muttered as she leaned back against the boundary of the pocket dimension.

“Ah, indeed.” Khalid replied, rubbing at his eyes. “A few possibilities, but it will take time, yes, time and experimentation to determine if we've learned anything useful.”

“I think we're done here fer now,” Gorak grunted. “I say we stop in at the village, let 'em know what's going on in there and then make the trek back to Arbaq.”

They took their ease for a few hours but after debating the matter, decided to push on to the village, confident that they had the capacity to deal with any unforeseen encounters on the way. Dropping back down to the plains, Khalid summoned mounts for them, while Gorak shifted into the form of an eagle to scout ahead. They set off at a brisk pace, keeping a careful watch on the sky behind for any sign they were being followed.

Not long after, Gorak returned, and shifted back, his expression grim. “Time to pick up the pace,” he growled.

“Whut's wrong?” Azarek rasped.

“Smoke,” Gorak replied. “Lots of it.”

Spurring their mounts to gallop, in minutes they caught sight of a smudge of smoke on the horizon. A while later they reached the outskirts of the village. Immediately Khalid could see it wasn't asbad as he feared. A handful of tents scattered through the village were burning, but tribes-folk, armed with spears and bows patrolled the paths between, scanning the sky. They weren't immediately accosted but he noted several people turn and hurry away when they caught sight of them. They were almost to the plaza in the centre of the town when they were intercepted by a guard of guards, that firmly directed them toward the old woman's yurt. On the way, Khalid caught a glimpse of the plaza, filled now with bodies laid out in rows, covered in blankets and robes. When they arrived, they found her conferring with a number of other elders. She was gesturing animatedly as they approached, her hands bandaged tightly. When she noticed them, she waved the others away androunded on them, her eyes flashing with anger. “What did you do?”

“Exactly what we said,” Gorak growled. “Went inta that mountain and had a look around. Seems like you got a look at some of what we found out. Wanna hear the rest?”

Placing a hand on Gorak's arm, Shayla stepped forward. “I know you're angry, but we're not your enemies. You've got plenty in that mountain over there. Devils, Dwerro and a dragon, of all things. I'm guessing it's the later, or at least it's henchmen that tore this place up?” she asked in a flat tone.

The old woman seemed to sag inwards. “Dragon-spawn. They descended on us just after dawn, winged and fast. Most of the damage you see was done during the first few minutes before we were organized. Once the alarm was raised we drove them off fairlyquickly.

Khalid sensed there was something else, something she wasn't saying. “Ah, is that all?” he pressed.

She looked at him with sadness in her eyes. “They took captives. Young women mostly.”

While he could not have foreseen the consequences of their actions, Khalid couldn't help but feel responsible. He could see them same impotent anger mirrored on the faces of Gorak and Shayla, but there was little they could do. Returning to Martok would be nothing more than suicide now.

“It's cold comfort, but if you'll let me maybe I can shore up your defences a little, for when they come back.” Gorak offered. The old woman nodded and directed him toward one of the armed men lingering nearby to discuss the details.

“And what will you do now?” she asked them.

“Ah, if you'll permit us, we'll remain, yes, remain here for a few days to recover and guard against any more incursions. Then we will return to our benefactor in the west to inform him of the situation. Yes, quite.”

“He's connected to this,” Shayla muttered, half to herself. “More than he's letting on.”

“Very well,” the old woman agreed.

“Ah, I, we, are truly sorry about this,” Khalid offered.

She waved away the apology, “Your friend was correct. My anger was misplaced. You made clear your intentions and we were complicit in our aid. There is more than enough blame to go around.”

She showed them to a longhouse were they were able to rest and while Khalid felt somewhat exposed, the chose to remain outside the safetyof his portal, in order to react quicker if the town was imperilledagain. Khalid, as he often did when presented with a few scantmoments of peace, threw himself back into his studies. His time withNargammon had opened his eyes to several interesting possibilitiesand even without proper knowledge of the spells, he was able to buildupon his existing formula and shape them to his purpose.

Shayla spent most of her time brooding around the village with herloaded crossbow in the crook of her arm. Her eyes always scanningthe horizon for any sign of the dragon-spawn, with a look of grimanticipation on her face. Azarek, finding any period of inactivityan irritation, frequently joined her.

The following morning, he took a break from his studies and foundGorak in the large plaza in the centre of town. He was pacing aroundthe perimeter, counting off his steps under his breath when Khalidjoined him. “Ah, if you have a moment, there is something I wouldlike, yes, like to discuss with you.”

“Gimme a few minutes,” Gorak grumbled. “I'm just about to get started here. You'd better step back.” He raised his voice and shouted to a few guards lingering around. “Hey, you there, keep those people outta the middle.” As the people moved aside, Gorak walked to the very centre of the space. With one last look around he began to chant, a low rumbling drone that seemed to set the very air humming. When the chant rose to a crescendo, he stopped abruptly and stomped his foot on the ground. The hard packed earth seemed to ripple outwards, like the rings emanating from a pebble dropped in water. Behind was left a smooth, polished expanse of stone almost forty feet across.

Cracking his knuckles, Gorak shot Khalid a wink and said loud enough for him to hear, “Time for the fun part.” He spat on his hands and rubbed them together, than began to chant, this time, a more rhythmic, throbbing sound that bounced off the buildings around. Turning his palms toward the sky, he slowly raised his hands into the air. From the edges of the circle, stone began to flow upwards, forming a dome some twenty feet overhead. A few moments later, a huge square chunk of stone fell to the ground with a crash,and Gorak walked out, looking pleased with himself. “Now,” he grunted, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Ah, most impressive,” Khalid replied, walking toward the stone bunker. Smooth and unblemished, the walls were more than a foot thick. Casting a quick cantrip, he held aloft a glowing sultana and stepped through the door. “A bit claustrophobic, but this should serve, yes, serve my needs well.”

“Yeah,” Gorak grunted. “I'll make some hidden air vents and archer blinds. Over time, tunnels maybe, through parts of the village. But for now it'll give them a safe space to get the old folk and kids too in case of another attack.”

“Indeed,” Khalid nodded. “If I could tax your abilities a bit further, would it be possible to carve runes into the centre here?”

“Sure. Summoning circle?”

“Ah, no, not exactly,” Khalid replied. “I have found a way toduplicate a spell Nargammon cast.” He held up one hand.” If Ican open, yes, open a portal into a pocket dimension, why can I notopen a exit somewhere else?” He held up his other hand palms facing. “And then, by changing the size of the space between.” He brought he hands together.

“Teleportation,” Gorak growled with a grin on his face. “You got the hang of it?”

“Almost. It carries with it a degree of risk however. The real challenge is to open a portal somewhere you are not. It requires holding a crystal clear mental image, yes, image of the spot you wish to arrive, while holding in place the formula to draw in the weave. Lose focus and the results can be...ah, unpredictable at best, yesquite. The rune markings will help with that. By linking, yes, linking a specific pattern with the location in my memory, the risk becomes negligible.” He sketched out what he needed on a sheet ofpaper and left Gorak to his work.*

By the time a few more days had passed, it became clear that the town wasn't in immediate danger of being overrun. The scouts reported no activity near the base of Martok and the skies were empty of winged spawn. While they packed up their belongings for the journey, the old woman joined them to say farewell.

“Events are moving quickly now,” she offered by way of caution. “I suspect we will see you back here before long.”

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “Gorak will cast his sight to this bunker from time to time. If you have need, yes, need to contact us, leave a message upon the floor here.” The old woman simply nodded, and left them to their preparations. Khalid turned to the others, “Ah, yes, Arbaq's mansion is well known to me but without arune pattern, there is some risk.” He began to cast spells on each of them in turn. “This will safeguard us should the portal open in mid-air.”

“What happens if it opens up inside a wall, or the ground?”Azarek muttered.

“Ah, yes, well, being able to fly probably won't help in that case,” Khalid replied. “But I'm fairly certain, yes, certain, that's unlikely to happen.”

“How certain?” Azarek growled, but was drown out by Khalid's chanting. There was a brief moment of vertigo as the portal collapsed around them and they stood blinking in the sunlight filtering in through the windows of Khalid's enormous room in Arbaq's estate in Gem-Sharad. Khalid breathed a sigh of relief. The first time was always the worst.

Opening a door into the hallway, Gorak waved down a passing servant. “Go tell Arbaq we're back.” He grabbed the fellow by the arm before he could turn. “On second thought, why don't you just bring us to him right now, he's gonna want to hear what we have to say.” Leaving Azarek behind, they followed him through the winding passageways of the grand estate to Arbaq's study, where they found him just sitting down to break fast. He looked up to see them standing in his doorway, his normally calm demeanour was broken by a moment of shock, followed by a broad smile. “Gorak, Khalid, Shayla...” he trailed off as he stood up. The magical earring she wore cloaked her in an illusion that resembled her prior form almost but not quite perfectly. It was clear Arbaq noticed something amiss, but he continued on after a brief hesitation, “The guards didn't notify me of your return.”

“Ain't their fault. We came in through the side door,” Gorak grumbled good-naturedly.

“Come, sit,” Arbaq beckoned them in. “You there,” he pointed at the servant. “More food, immediately and fruit juice.”

Khalid caught the man's sleeve on the way by. “Ah, and something stronger perhaps, to settle the nerves.”

They spent the rest of the morning bringing Arbaq up to speed on their endeavours over the past few months. Much like he had in the past, Arbaq displayed a talent for asking leading questions, uncovering things they'd thought forgotten, all the while making notes in a journal. They traced their path for him, through the battle at Knolton, to the trek into the mountains east of Daggerfalls. A grimace of disgust twisted his features when he learned of their betrayal in the mountains and he apologized for the carelessness in vetting his informants. “Shameful as my failing was, some good may come of it yet. I know of the Seven Hills tribe. An ally among them is a rare thing and may be valuable indeed.” They detailed their first encounter at Martok and the interaction with Nargammon in Caer Morag. When Gorak began to lay out the attackon the Dwerro caravan, he gave Shayla a sidelong glance. She nodded and removed the earring. It was perhaps a bit cruel, to shock Arbaq that way but Khalid couldn't help but be amused. For once, they had broken through his seemingly unflappable facade.

“How...” he stammered. He looked from Shayla to Gorak. “Why?”

“The how is long conversation about the universe and yer place init,” Gorak rumbled. “The why...now that's the real interesting question and I ain't got the faintest clue what the answer is.”

Shayla just sat silently while Arbaq stared at her, dumbfounded. “I didn't choose this,” she said finally when the silence became unbearable.

Shaken from his fascination, Arbaq replied, “I'm sorry, it's just...that was most unexpected. And magnificent,” he added, breaking into a smile. “Please, continue but if they are any more shocks of a similar sort, I pray give me some warning first.”

The loss of Nargammon's tower and the knowledge within clearly pained him. They glossed over the period between the fall of Caer Morag and the entrance to Martok, since little of that detour had any relevance or significance to the matter at hand. By the time they had finished describing their discoveries within Martok and the raid upon the village, the sun had begun to set and servants appeared to light lanterns around the room. Arbaq slumped back into his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “An almost unbelievable tale,” he said when they finished speaking. “The knowledge gained only serves to reinforce the precarious position that we're in. Still, possibilities remain and with a little experimentation perhaps the seeds you found in Martok will eventuallybear fruit.”

“About that,” Gorak grunted. “We've got our suspicions and Shayla filled us in some but it's time you lived up to your end of the deal we made in Shalazar, and come clean. What seemed like maybe a rich man's hobby at first has put us square in the path of some planar scale unpleasantness. And judging from your expression, you ain't looking to get out of the way.”

“You're right about that part, at least. Your labours have brought you closer to the heart of the matter than perhaps a handful of others. The Dwerro you rescued in Malakai's mines told you the truth, so far as he knew it. He was, however, wrong about one thing. The Elven people survived that final battle! But they are in grave peril.” He leaned forward in his chair, resting his fingertips together as he looked at each one of them in turn. Gone was the weariness that plagued him a moment ago, replaced once again with the stoic mask they knew so well.

“And I mean to save them.”

* * * * * * * * * *
* We made some adjustments to teleport, as neither Galeman or I particularly like the typical scry and fry of late game 3.5e. We increased the miscast chance (I forget by how much, but it was meaningful) unless I had the opportunity to create a focal point, as described.
 
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