Al-Qarin: Into the Desert (2-26-23)

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I got word that EN is slowly plugging away at the next update, but I have yet to get anything to proof-read. Darned RL stuff always getting in the way!

In the mean-time, I can field any questions about the campaign if anyone has any. Maybe it'll movtivate him ;)

Another drop fell.

“That can't be good,” Gorak growled. “We'd better put a stop to that right quick.

“Anybody got a bucket?” Shayla asked with a grim smile.

“I don't think it's going to be that simple,” Geoff replied, an inscrutable look on his face. Cupping his hand, he held it out and caught the next drop. Despite his clenched fingers, the drop squeezed through and followed the other into the statue's mouth. Several more followed, each finding its way to the same place, while the pool overhead continued to grow.

“Well, somebody better figure something out,” Shayla muttered. “Because I'm guessing that the real fun is going to start when that thing gets full up.”

It was hardly noticeable but the falling blood was starting to gather within, turning the crystal a pale pink. Khalid didn't need a divination to tell him that they were in the presence of powerful magic. He could feel it all around them, like the dull throb of a rotting tooth, writhing its way into this thoughts. The others were clearly just as affected.

“As scary as that hunk of stone is,” Azarek rasped, “in about a minute, we're going to have more immediate concerns.” To prove his point, a dull thud echoed down the hall followed quickly by a second and third, spurring them into action. Gorak began to chant, his skin becoming thick and rough, while Shayla pulled out a scroll and spoke the triggering word, surrounding herself with glowing bands of armour. Khalid hesitated for a minute before moving up beside Azarek. Pulling out a small diamond from his belt, he knelt down and crushed it with the hilt of his dagger. Chanting, he gathered up the dust in his hand, and exhaling with the final word of the spell, blew it over Azarek. The diamond swirled around him briefly, coating his flesh. His craggy features seemed to harden, becoming even more angular and pronounced.

Khalid held up his hand and interrupted the question. “A spell similar to that of Gorak's, only your skin will be as hard as diamond.

Azarek ran his hand across the edge of his bastard sword, eliciting nothing more than a gravelly screech. “Nice,” he growled.

“Indeed,” Khalid said. “But remember it is only your skin that has hardened. The shock of a powerful blow may still pass through your body and bruise the organs within.” Rejoining the others, he took up his spot along the back wall. On his left was Shayla, almost in the corner. To his right were the rangers, Geoff and another ranger, a young man, barely old enough to shave, stood behind the alter, with the other further down along the wall. Geoff, unlike the other two, didn't have his bow out, and was simply standing, staring at the ceiling, his eyes focused on the falling blood.

Azarek stepped up to the door, angled slightly off to the side so as not to be directly in the line of fire. Crouching slightly behind his shield, he let the tip of his sword rest on the stone. Gorak moved over to the wall in the middle of the room behind him.

A few seconds later they heard the crash of shattered stone falling down the stairs, and Orc voices flooded the hall. Azarek shifted his weight onto his back foot, and raised his sword. The room shuddered with a mechanical grinding sound, causing the older ranger to grin wickedly. “That oughta slow em down a bit.” The Orcish war cries became screams of agony and surprise.

An orc entered from the tunnel, charging forward at a dead run, a wicked iron axe held high over his head. Before he could strike, Azarek stepped forward with his shield, stopping him in his tracks with a bone jarring impact. Lashing out with his blade, he hacked a deep wound into the Orcs arm, trying to drive him backwards and block the doorway. The orc, shaking off the wound, held his ground, allowing another to force his way into the room.

Gorak's thick growl drowned out Shayla's melodious voice as they both began to cast. The older ranger drew back his bowstring and fired, but fear of hitting Azarek caused him to miss wide. Khalid held back, waiting for a better opportunity to unleash his depleted arsenal of spells and was dismayed to see that the younger ranger was frozen in place, cowering in fear in the face of the growing onslaught. More concerning was Geoff, who still had not drawn a weapon. He stood transfixed by the thickening stream of blood, a pensive, almost serene expression on his face.

Shayla completed her spell, flicking a handful of magical darts at the wounded orc. Jerking backward under the impact, the orc collapsed as the last dart pierced his eye, killing him instantly. Her attack barely bought Azarek enough time to turn his attention to the other orc when the fallen one was replaced by another howling warrior. Trying to stem the tide, Gorak finished chanting, conjuring up a globe of pure flame and rolling it into the passageway.

A shouted command from down the hall caused the two Orcs battling Azarek to shift their positions, fanning out on either side of him as they battered at him with their weapons, somewhat ineffectually thanks to Khalid's magic.

From his vantage point almost directly opposite the tunnel, Khalid saw the next threat emerge into the ruddy glow of Gorak's spell. The Orc's face, painted bone white, was streaked with blood. He was almost naked, save for a thick leather harness festooned with daggers that crisscrossed his chest. In each hand was a long serrated knife, the teeth thick with gore. Sprinting down the hall, he leapt head first over the flaming barrier. He hit the ground in a roll, tumbling under Azarek's slash and, barely breaking stride, he was back on his feet, charging forward at a dead run.

Realizing somewhat belatedly that his choice of position left much to be desired, Khalid backpedalled, shrieking out the words to a spell. His timing was perfect. The Orc, only a few feet away, took the full force of his spell directly in the face. The explosion of colours that erupted from his hands overwhelmed the Orc, rendering him senseless. With vacant eyes, the orc stumbled past Khalid, smashing face first into the wall. Staggering backwards, his nose shattered, the blades tumbled from his hands and clattered to the ground.

“Geoff, help me!” Khalid pleaded, trying to jar him loose from the catatonic fascination that held him motionless. For all its theatrics, the spell he cast was a minor one and had bought him a few seconds reprieve at best. When the confusion passed, Khalid had no doubt who would bear the brunt of his rage. But even his peril wasn't enough to rouse Geoff. The older range however, heard the cry and tossed aside his bow, pushing past Geoff. Unsheathing a pair of short swords as he moved, he drove both blades up to their hilt in the stunned Orc's stomach.

More Orcs pushed their way into the room, ignoring the burns they suffered jumping over Gorak's spell. The unfortunate one closest to Shayla barely saw the inside of the room before she cut him down with a flurry of razor sharp discs of pure force. Gorak broke into another chant finishing with a snap of his fingers that caused his right hand to burst into flame. Drawing back, he pitched a burning missile at one of the Orcs, wounding him badly. Azarek continued his relentless onslaught, abandoning his defence to Khalid's magic and slashing wildly at his opponents.

Thinking to buy them a brief reprieve from the pressing horde, Khalid began to cast, angling a tiny golden spark past Azarek and down the length of the passage. The spell detonated with a silent flash, briefly chasing away the darkness. Howls of rage echoed through the chamber, indicating that more than a few succumbed to the blinding effects of his magic. Despite his success the sheer number of glowing, dust covered Orcs that jammed the tunnel did little to improve his morale. Seeing no immediate opportunity to help, Khalid took a step towards Geoff to grab and shake sense into him, when he nodded once, and looked around, seeming to see the battle for the first time. “I understand,” in response to an unheard question. Then, he began to sing.

It seemed ludicrous under the circumstances but Geoff's voice, a deep rolling baritone at odds with his rough and craggy appearance, filled the room, drowning out the sounds of battle. The words of his song evoked images of cool glades and running streams; rustling branches and shining meadows. A tiny pinprick of golden light materialized in front of him, above the statue. He raised his hands up slowly, in time with the rising swell of his voice and the light expanded, forming a glittering bowl that captured the stream of falling blood. Extending his hands above his head, Geoff turned his face up towards the ceiling. The bowl continued to grow, flooding the room with a glow akin to sunlight and forming a barrier that covered the entire ceiling, trapping the blood and preventing it from reaching the statue.

Khalid felt his spirit soar and for the first time, began to believe they might yet survive the ordeal. The Orcs, shaken by a ritual more powerful than their own, quailed beneath the light. Azarek seized the advantage and bashed aside his opponent's feeble defence, nearly decapitating him with a brutal slash. Gorak and Shayla continued their furious attack, driving the Orcs back into the mouth of the tunnel.

The painted orc beside him, shocked free of the magical confusion by the agony of his wounds, pulled a knife from the bandolier on his chest. Even mortally wounded, he struggled with the ranger, managing to stab him in the neck with his blade. The ranger jerked back, pulling his swords free, causing the orc to groan and sink to his knees. He lashed out again, but the orc managed to feebly parry his blows, taking another wound but denying the killing blow.

Blinded Orcs, staggering over the flaming orb, stumbled into the room only to be cut down in the crossfire from Shayla and Gorak. Azarek kept his opponents at bay but was unable to score a telling blow, while the Orcs in turn were frustrated by his heavy plate and hardened skin. The ranger at his right continued to struggle with the orc, taking another wound to the thigh, before running the edge of his blade across his throat, leaving him to die gasping in a pool of blood. Abandoning his bow, he moved up to support Azarek and prevent the Orcs from surrounding him.

Still seeing no need to intervene, Khalid watched Azarek and the ranger systematically demolish the lead orc; one of them would faint to draw his defence while the other stepped in to strike. A flicker of motion caught the corner of his eye. The young ranger, obviously heartened by Geoff's singing, was finally joining the battle. Khalid turned to extoll him into action as the look of fear melted away, replaced with a vicious sneer.

But he wasn't looking at the Orcs, Khalid realized in horror.

He was looking at Geoff.

“NO” Khalid screamed as the young man lunged forward, burying his dagger to the hilt in Geoff's armpit, just above his armour. Geoff sagged forward, slumping over the statue. The traitor pulled out his knife and readied for another strike.

AZAREK! Help Geoff!

At Khalid's mental shout, Azarek spun around on his heel, taking a blow to the back of the head that without his magical protection would have broken his neck. Instantly recognizing the danger, he charged across the room. Diving over the statue, he tackled the ranger and dragged him to the ground before he could strike again. Gorak, flicking another flaming missile down the hall, looked over his shoulder and, seeing Geoff fall, started towards him.

Pushing himself upright, Geoff struggled to continue his hymn, managing a few more words before he took a breath and began to choke on blood from a punctured lung. Gasping, he fell forward again, his lifeblood washing over the stone orc and flowing into its mouth.

And then, the light went out.
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EN, your writing was pretty good already at the beginning of the story hour, but I think it's clear you're really improving!

I suspect that it's more that the story itself has become more interesting, rather than any improvement on my part (there's only so many ways to describe casting sleep...) but thanks.

And thanks for all of the bumps during the long delays between posts - I've cracked the page on the next update at least and have it mostly mapped out. I just need to sit down and finish it. Maybe throwing that out there will motivate me to get it done...

Gorak sprinted to Geoff's side, roaring out the words to one of his most potent restorative spells. Grabbing Geoff and hauling him to his feet, he shouted, “ Keep singing! Keep the ritual going!”

“I can't,” Geoff replied, his voice trembling and hoarse. Despite Gorak's aid, his face was chalk white from loss of blood and his hands trembled with exhaustion. He struggled to stay standing.

“Gorak!” Shayla shrieked between spells, giving him a second's warning before a charging Orc split open his skull with an axe. Spinning on his heel, Gorak gripped his staff in both hands, raising it over his head and catching the blow with the haft. Stepping forward, he used his massive strength to drive the attacker away from Geoff.

Without Azarek at his side, the ranger at the door was hard pressed. Lacking heavy armour or a shield, his fluid defence was not enough to keep the Orcs at bay. Inspired by Geoff's fall, they redoubled their efforts to gain control of the entrance but before the lead attackers could drive him back, Shayla came to his aid. Drawing on her considerable reserve of power, twin jets of flame leapt from her fingertips, passing on either side of the ranger, incinerating the Orcs trying to flank him.

Khalid, seeing no way to help either Azarek or Gorak, both locked in close combat with their foes, cast another spell to temporarily blind the reinforcements crowding through the door. Geoff, leaning heavily on the statue, seemed once again incapable of action, his expression one of pain and something else...almost rapturous. The flow of blood continued unabated and the statue was now more than two thirds full. The distant look fading from his eyes, Geoff took a deep breath and heaved himself up onto the pedestal. Turning over, cradled between the Orcs outstretched arms, he lay back, allowing the blood to wash over him, soaking his armour and streaming off his face. Then he opened his mouth and began to swallow the blood pouring from the ceiling.

Khalid's revulsion quickly faded when he realized the effect Geoff was having. The blood that coated him was pulled into the statue, but little more. Eyes closed in concentration, his throat moved reflexively as he swallowed mouthful after mouthful of blood. Seizing on a glimmer of hope, Khalid realized his companions were too engaged to see what was happening, and sought to rally them. Geoff may yet thwart the ritual! We must buy him more time!

Gorak took a punishing blow, only partially borne by his magical protections before lashing out and driving the tip of his staff into the Orc's chest with bone crushing force, doubling him over in agony. Before he stave in the Orc's head, the Orc stumbled backwards, slashing defensively to keep Gorak at bay.

Azarek, still wrestling with the ranger on the ground, was unable to turn the fight to his advantage. His knife made useless by Azarek's hardened skin, the ranger dropped it and focused his efforts on squirming free. Heavy plate hampering his mobility, Azarek managed to use his weight to keep the ranger down but struggled to do any meaningful damage.

The blinded Orcs stumbling through the entrance bought a few seconds reprieve before Gorak's flaming barrier vanished. Shayla, ignoring the front ranks, concentrated on thinning the ranks behind, casting a handful of magical darts down the passage. The older ranger, the sole bulwark against the pressing horde, fought valiantly to keep the Orcs away from her.

Between Gorak and Shayla, the air in the tiny room was thick with smoke and the stench of burning flesh, making Khalid's eyes water and his throat burn. Almost depleted of offensive magics, he kept a close eye on Geoff and the pool of blood on the ceiling. To his overwhelming dismay, it seemed virtually undiminished. A blinded Orc, stumbling over the body of one his kin brushed against another similarly impaired Orc. For a few moments, chaos reigned as the two Orcs swung wildly imperilling everyone around them, including the Orcs trying to enter the room.

Gorak, still trading blows with the axe wielding Orc, roared in pain as the Orc recovered his balance and attacked. Holding the staff in both hands, he countered with a feint and then delivered a powerful strike to the neck, shattering the Orc's jaw and crushing his throat. The Orc dropped to his knees, axe falling from his hands as he clutched at his neck and gasped for breath that wouldn't come. Gorak followed through, swinging his staff over his head and bringing it down with all his considerable strength, breaking the Orc's collar bone. Stepping back from the mortally wounded Orc, he clutched at the ragged wound in his stomach and began to summon the power to restore himself.

A strangled cough pulled Khalid's attention from the battle and back to Geoff. His stomach was grossly distended, straining the buckles on his armour and his face was chalk white, streaked with the blood he was unable to choke down. Moving quickly to his side, Khalid pulled out his knife and cut free the binding straps. Geoff was beginning to struggle, unable to keep pace with the flow of blood any longer. Khalid, seeing no other way to intervene, reached out with his thoughts, placing the words directly Geoff's mind.

You are not alone. Your friends still stand at your side and hold the room.

“Azarek!” Shayla screamed. Risking a glance over, Azarek immediately caught her meaning. Relinquishing his dominant position he rolled over onto his back, dragging the ranger with him. Wedging a knee into the man's chest, Azarek propelled him upwards and held him at arms length as Shayla completed her spell. The first jet of flame raked across his body, searing away his leather armour and flesh, exposing the muscle beneath. Before he could scream, a second jet took him full in the face, blasting off his helmet and setting his hair alight. Oblivious to the flames, Azarek heaved the dieing man away, sending him crashing into the wall beside.

The older ranger, now bearing half a dozen wounds, struggled to catch his breath. Seeing an opportunity, he gathered himself up and lunged at a blinded Orc stabbing him in the stomach. Fatigued from wounds and battle, he couldn't recover fast enough to avoid the Orc's unexpected counter. Instead of recoiling from the blow, the Orc dropped his weapon and seized hold of his arm, pulling him off balance. Another Orc stepped around his wounded kin and hacked off the ranger's arm at the elbow. Stunned by the grievous injury, he was slow the react as the Orc swung again. The axe sheared through the ranger's leather armour and sank into his chest, felling him instantly.

Azarek struggled to his feet beneath the weight of his armour, trying to collect his sword and shield to seal the breech left by their fallen companion, but he was slow to recover. Gorak made a move towards the ranger, but more Orcs poured out of the passage, barring his way. For a moment, they held defensive positions around the door, while another Orc stepped through behind. The twisted scars of flesh seemed to writhe beneath the flickering torchlight, as he surveyed the room and those that stood to oppose him. “Dogs,” he cursed. “Rasha'guar will feast upon your hearts this night.” In his hand, a gnarled club, blackened and twisted, seemed to seethe with a malevolence all its own.

Shayla, never one to be intimidated by a few words, framed her response in the form of a blast of flame that burned away the fur pelts draped over the Orc's body and heated the links of the chain shirt beneath until they glowed red. Along his arms and neck, the skin began to blacken and blister under the assault.

Khalid, almost drained of spells, saw the opportunity he had been waiting for. As the last syllable of the arcane words passed from his lips, the ground beneath the Orc's feet burned away with a flash of purple flame.

What happened next was the stuff of nightmares.

Dead bodies were hurled around the room, landing in grotesque heaps as a forest of squirming tentacles erupted from the ground. The Orc advancing on Gorak lunged forward, only to be snagged around the neck by a whipcord thin tentacle, and hauled backwards. Before he could catch his balance, he was dragged closer to another, and then was swarmed by a half dozen other appendages of varying thickness. He shrieked as he was slowly pulled apart, limb by limb. The Orc that had killed the ranger was encircled by a tentacle thicker than Gorak's leg, pulsing with dark blotches of muscle. He had no breath to scream after the first, as he was slowly crushed to death. The blind Orc beside him was seized and flung upwards against the ceiling with such force that it drove the top of his helm down level with his shoulders, killing him instantly.

The scarred Orc, surrounded by his dieing marauders, struggled forward with inhuman determination. Tearing his hand free from of the grasping tentacles, He began to chant, his guttural voice rising above the screams of the injured. “You are nothing before the might of Rasha'gaur,” he screamed, eyes bulging, consumed with religious fervour. Burned skin began to flake away, revealing greyish scabs beneath. Raging forward, bloody froth staining his lips, another tentacle snared him before he could pull entirely free. Twisting to face Gorak, he beckoned, “Join me brother! The hour of glory is upon us! It is not to late to take your place at his side.”

“Brother,” Gorak spat, his lip curling into a sneer. “If you wanna be in the arms of your false god that bad, all you had to do, was ASK!” he roared. Raising his hands above his head, he curled them info fist, and jerked them down The temperature in the room became explosively hot, as the ceiling above the Orc seemed to tear away, replaced by a gaping rent of billowing flame. An instant later, a column of elemental flame poured from the rent, incinerating everything beneath. For a moment, Khalid could see the shadowy form of the Orc writhing in the flames, before the light and heat forced him to look away. When the flare subsided, little remained of the Orc was a charred lump of flesh, streaked with molten steel, slowly being torn apart by the curiously unharmed tentacles.

Billowing smoke filled the small room, sending Khalid down to his knees in search of breathable air. Glancing up, through the haze, he could see the edges of the pool of blood on the ceiling pulling towards the centre. He could barely contain his elation. The ritual was drawing to a close and he began to hope he might yet live this terrible ordeal. Geoff, still draped across the statue, continued to drink, his stomach now grossly distended, continuing to swell, ripping apart his armour. Hands curled into claws, his body seemed to tremble and twitch, trying to escape the punishment his resolve forced upon it. But for all his strength, Khalid could see him begin to fail. His eyes flashed open, bugling from his head, and blood began to stream down the sides of his face as he gasped for air. Losing his struggle, he vomited up a mouthful of blood and began to choke.

Looking at the statue, Khalid began to panic as the blood began to fill it once again. The whelp was almost full and the ceiling was still coated with blood. Afforded a brief respite by the waving tentacles Khalid wracked his mind for a solution. Seizing hold of one last desperate thought, he concentrated for a second, recalling to mind the words of Geoff's hymn and shifting his focus to include his allies in the room. Sing he commanded. With whatever breath you can spare. With his long years of training juggling several magic formula in his mind at once, Khalid kept the lyrics and rhythm of song flowing out to his friends. Gorak and Azarek raised their voices, more chanting than signing, as Shayla's clear tone rose above them both. The effect on Geoff was immediate. His body relaxed and he stopped struggling as the familiar words renewed his faith and strengthened his will. Moments later, the pool shrank to the size of a dinner plate and then it was gone, the final stream of blood splashing down on Geoff.

Shayla carefully pulled the downed ranger back, away from the grasping tentacles and checked for any sign of life. Catching her look, Gorak didn't bother moving, turning his magic inward to bind up his own wounds. Azarek gathered up his weapons and moved as close to the door as he dared, pausing briefly to stomp on the throat of a dieing Orc. Feeling the threads of magic holding the portal open begin to fade, Khalid could see figures moving in the darkness behind the receding mass of appendages. Forcing his troubled mind through the meagre catalogue of spells remaining to him, he grimly pulled out a wand from his belt, and stepped behind the alter. Inspired by Geoff's selfless sacrifice, he steeled himself for the end, and prepared to sell his life dearly, in the company of the only friends he ever had.

As the last of the tentacles withdrew, Azarek gathered himself up for a charge, sword held back over his shoulder. He took a half dozen steps forward as a figure emerged from the tunnel. Seeing Azarek bearing down on him, the man yelled, “Hold! Hold! Allies!” and tried to duck Azarek. Pulling his blow at the last second, the blade whistled past his head while Azarek staggered past, carried forward by the moment and crashing into the ranger coming behind.

“'Bout damn time,” Gorak growled as more rangers crowded into the room. “I'm up to my arse in roast Orc down here. Word was quickly passed back along the tunnel, and the press near the door subsided. A few men entered the room, helping Azarek to lift the unconscious Geoff from atop the the altar. Khalid fought down his desperate need to leave the suffocating room that had almost been his tomb, to allow Geoff to be carried out. Moving to follow, he caught sight of Gorak through the haze, kneeling down near the remains of the Orcish priest. He brushed aside the pile of ash and charred bone, uncovering the twisted black staff. Before Khalid could say anything, he reached down and picked it up. A shudder rippled over his body and his eyes widened, then he shook his head and grinned slightly.

Khalid, a worried frown on his face glanced about to see if anyone else had noticed. Somewhat unsettled by the sight of the powerful weapon, he reached out to Gorak. It would perhaps be best, if you do not emerge carrying that. The villagers are already on edge and to see it in the hands of an Orc.... He left the rest of the thought unfinished.

Gorak scowled at him, then nodded grudging and dropped it into the magical haversack. Khalid breathed a sigh of relief, the hurried to follow the others out of the room. From down the hallway on the right, a thick stream of green Orcish blood flowed past their feet. The dim light made worse by the smoke in the air, Khalid kept his hand on Shayla's shoulder. Following the others, Khalid stumbled over an Orc with his leg torn off, the lower half caught in a wickedly concealed trap and the rest of his body a trampled mess from the crush of the frenzied mob. Peering around his friends, Khalid could see the stairs, packed full of dead bodies. Orcs fleeing the room had encountered those fleeing from above, resulting in terrible carnage when the rangers attacked from the rear. Azarek shifted his grip on Geoff, hooking him under the arms and walking backwards up the stairs. Shayla, seemingly in no rush, waited for him to turn the corner, finally allowing Khalid out of the tunnel. Blinking in the light, strong hands grabbed his arms and pulled up the last few steps.

Two men were carefully shoring up the the sagging roof with a large beam. Through the shattered remains of the door, he could see Gorak standing the square, talking to Erik. “...the attack in the South was a feint. As soon as they realized that, they started shifting back north, and we linked up with them two streets over, by the forge. We'd bled them for every inch of the square and counterattacked as soon as we had the strength. We drove a wedge through their reinforcements coming in from the North, by that time, mostly cripples and cowards straggling in. We turned 'em back into the alleys and ground the rest up against the cabin. They were so eager to get the relic, they were jammed up tight, with barely enough room to swing a weapon.”

“You cut it pretty close,” Gorak growled. “Another minute and we were broke.”

“I can't imagine,” Erik replied. “What you did for us...”

“Most of it was yer man Geoff. Without him, it all woulda went for shyte. Khalid will fill you in. I'm gonna go check on the worst of the wounded. Might be I can do one or two of 'em a good turn.” He turned and walked after the two men who'd taken Geoff from him, toward the barracks.”

Khalid took a moment to process the terrible cost of the battle. Heaped around him were the bodies of dead and dying Orcs. Those that hadn't been killed outright were shown no mercy. Groups of young boys moved among them with drawn swords, aiding them on their way. Women searched the faces of the dead, calling for stretcher bearers for wounded men, some dropping to their knees in grief at the discovery of a loved one. Wails of sorrow mixed with laughter and sobs of relief, as people began to emerge from hiding. Behind him, two men were shoring up the sagging corner of the building with timbers pulled from the shattered defences.

Turning his attention to Erik, Khalid related the events of the battle with flawless accuracy. His grim satisfaction turned to reverent awe as Khalid described Geoff's heroic actions. Several other rangers had gathered around, after overhearing the conversation. After he finished, he could hear the whispers swirling through the dark, filtering throughout the village. Reluctant to be badgered into empty speculation about something he was wholly unprepared to discuss, before any of the villagers around him could speak, he asked Erik,“Is there, ah, someplace, perhaps that I could take my rest?”

Azarek at his side, he followed a villager through the darkening streets to a small, unassuming cabin. Having lost track of Shayla in all of the chaos, he instructed the villager to find both her and Gorak and tell them where to find him. Opening the door, he found a tidy and serviceable room. Although it was adequately furnished, Khalid knew that there was only one place he would find an untroubled night's sleep, and opened a portal. Shaking with exhaustion, he dragged himself through the opening and collapsed on the ground. He was vaguely aware of Azarek joining him, before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

He awoke several hours later and grabbed a few biscuits from the magical haversack, to sate a raging hunger. Not anticipating any further trouble in the village, he decided to let Azarek sleep and dropped out of the shelter. Pausing briefly to mutter a few words and strip the soil and sweat of combat from his body, he set out in search of Gorak or Shayla, neither of whom had apparently sought him out during the night. Stepping out into the sunlight, he judged it around noon the following day. Not really knowing where else to look for his companions, he headed back to the main square.

The industrious villagers wasted no time in erasing the scars of battle. The square was bustling with activity. He needn't have worried about food, as several tables had been set up, laden with food for the taking. Men worked, shoring up building and hauling away bodies. Those of friends and family were covered in makeshift shrouds and carted away to the cemetery; those of the enemy hurled on a raging fire. He caught sight of Erik across the square, talking to Gorak and Shayla, and about a half dozen men wearing armour and heavily armed. Approaching the group, Khalid was surprised to see that some of them were young men who he was sure weren't dressed that way two days ago.

“ the East, follow the creek bed and check that camp over at Heron's pond. Circle back along the ridge if you don't find anything and head back here.” The men dispersed, gathering up rations and supplies.

“Ah, you're going out there?” Khalid asked, somewhat surprised.

“We slaughtered them. Less than one in ten are left I wager and the worst hit were the fanatics from the forest tribes. We've counted their dead, and I think we might have wiped two clans out, to a man. The stragglers will be from the hills or the plains and they don't know this forest like we do. We've got a real chance to end the Orcish threat in these woods for generations to come. And I mean to take it.”

Gorak nodded in agreement. “Good luck with that. I'm going to need a few more days with the wounded. Still a few that are touch and go here.”

“Ah, how's Geoff?” Khalid asked.

“Better,” Gorak grunted. “Or at least smaller. I figure that's gotta be a good thing. He hasn't woke up yet and that's probably for the best.”

They spent the next few days recuperating in the village. On the third day, it was clear that both Shayla and Azarek were bored, and not likely to become better company because of it. Having recovered physically, if not entirely emotionally, from the battle, Khalid sought out Gorak to discuss their next move. He found him among the wounded, most of whom were well on their way to recovery thanks to his extraordinary skills. There was no question that the casualties would have been significantly higher, if not for his help and all thoughts of distrust had long since vanished from the village. Seeing him approach, Gorak grunted a greeting.

“How fare the wounded?” Khalid asked.

“Well enough,” Gorak rumbled. “Their healers can manage from here.”

“Ah, and Geoff?”

Gorak sighed. “Nothing physically wrong with him. The lights is on, but ain't nobody home. Nothing more I can do for him now.”

“Ah, yes, well, then as much as I do not wish to venture out into the wilderness again, it is perhaps time to resume our trek home.”

“Ya,” Gorak grunted. “This place ain't gonna be safe forever. Best not to get too comfy.”

The chatted for a few minutes longer, before Khalid took his leave. Turning over an idea in his mind, he sought out Azarek and bid him follow as he returned to the rangers barracks. Walking to the back of the long room filled with cots, he opened the door to room where Geoff lay. Approaching quietly, he knelt down at the side of his bed and studied him carefully. He had to agree with Gorak; there seemed to be nothing physically wrong with him. A fresh, pink scar was visible below his right arm, where he had been stabbed, but his stomach had returned to his normal size. His face was peaceful, and his breathing deep and even. He looked like nothing more than a man in a deep sleep.

“Ah, I'm going to attempt something and I do not know what the results may be,” Khalid said quietly. “Stand guard, and watch. It is likely that nothing will come of this.”

Placing his hand gently on Geoff's forehead, he closed his eyes. Reciting a mantra to clear the mind, he slowly shut off his senses, one by one, and extended his consciousness. Geoff. Can you hear me? It's Khalid. Receiving no hint of awareness, he tried again. The battle has been won. You're safe and the village has been saved.

It was the smell that reached him first. Thick, and loamy; the forest just after the rains. He opened his eyes to see trees all around. Birds and other animals chattered and conversed, filling the air. Sunlight filtered through the thick canopy, illuminating the hollows and casting dim shadows all around. A flicker of motion caught his eye and again he reached out. “Geoff!” The shocking harshness of his voice shattered the harmony, causing birds all around him to take flight. Khalid was no fool; he had long ago developed the confidence to trust his instincts. This was no dream.

The thought gave him little comfort.

He cannot not hear you, replied a voice carried on the wind. Or perhaps the voice was the wind, rustling the trees. Khalid couldn't tell.

“Who are you?” Khalid asked, searching the trees. Again the briefest glimpse of a form, walking alone along the treeline.

You know who I am. He did. He relaxed only a little, still a little wary at how easily he had been overwhelmed and inherently cautious around a being of such incredible power; power that other men might call a goddess. “Is Geoff okay?” he asked.

He is safe.

“When will he return?”

He is not ready. His body is healed but his spirit is damaged. In time, he will be whole again and he will rejoin his brethren.

Satisfied. Khalid quickly considered his next question. Talking to a being of such power was an opportunity he did not intend to waste. “What is...”

The pain was unbelievable. A thousand stars burst before his eyes and he felt an extreme sense of vertigo, like he was falling without end. Grasping at his head, it was all he could do to retain his sanity as his reality changed in a split second. Reeling in confusion, he struggled to raise his defences before the next onslaught, but the words wouldn't come. Only in the presence of a devil had Khalid felt as helpless as he did now.

Epic Threats

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