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Al-Qarin: Into the Desert (3-1-24)

Ed Gentry

First Post
This is one of the best story hours I've read on this site. The setting is fun and different, the players and characters seem quirky and fun and the writing is quite excellent. Well done. Please keep up with this story hour. It would be a shame to let it experience a huge lull again.

Thanks for sharing it with us.
 

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The Axe

First Post
What Ed said.

Ed Gentry said:
This is one of the best story hours I've read on this site. The setting is fun and different, the players and characters seem quirky and fun and the writing is quite excellent. Well done. Please keep up with this story hour. It would be a shame to let it experience a huge lull again.

Thanks for sharing it with us.

Seconded, in its entirety!
 

I'm going to go out on a limb and give an update of the group.

Our group has scattered to the four winds: I moved to a different city, got married and had a baby, Galeman moved to the other side of the country and EN is busy planning his wedding with our friend who plays Shayla... All this to say, that we play about twice a year. BUT our characters are all 9th lvl and we're getting very close to wrapping up the campaign (I think - but I s'poze I need Galeman to confirm that).

The plan was - hopefully - that EN would update the story hour so that when we DID get together to play, all events would be fresh in our minds and we wouldn't spend too much of our precious time figuring out where we left off. So, there are a couple more installments in the works, but how many more after that depends on how much EN sticks to the PLAN... :)
 
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Galeman

Explorer
I'm not sure just how close to "done" the campaign we are. I do suppose that you could all die horrible deaths at the hands of some terrible fanged bunny in the very next combat, hence making the campaign close to done... how you intend to wrap up the list of requirements you uncovered last game, "soon" seems to be a bit of a pipe dream... or a death sentence :D
 

Heh, we come out on top of one plot significant encounter, without handing away all of our magic items, and Gorak thinks the campaign is won. He's probably right though, maybe we should just quit while we're ahead...

As Gorak pointed out, since we're only going to get to play once and a while, I'm mainly trying to get this down so it doesn't get forgotten, which will hopefully motivate me enough to get fully caught up. Of course, when we do play...the last game clocked in at about 15 hours straight and wrapped up at 5:30 am (it's gonna be hard to put a positive spin on the kind of tactics I was displaying at that point, let me tell you).

Anyhow, I'm glad people are still enjoying the story - the next installment is about half done and with a little luck (or effort, I suppose) it will be up fairly soon.
 
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CHAPTER 5: NEW FRIENDS AND OLD ENEMIES

Khalid had his head down, carefully placing his feet as he struggled through the knee-high snow, when the yeti attacked catching him completely by surprise. He looked up at the sound of Gorak's casting and then gasped as he was engulfed in a crushing bear hug. The yeti scooped him up, with one arm around his waist and the other holding his head, burying it deep in the filthy, damp fur of its neck and preventing him from seeing anything. He heard Shayla shriek and then a thunderous detonation but pinned as he was, he couldn't see anything but white fur. Flailing mightily, he fought against the beast's embrace. As the seconds passed, being able to see became a secondary concern to being able to breath for Khalid. Formulae raced through his mind, but with his hands pinned tightly at his sides and no air in his lungs, they were as useless to him as the spells he had studied futilely at the White Tower so long ago. Star bursts bloomed in his vision and the world began to swim and fade when the creature shifted its grip on him slightly. Raising his head, Khalid inhaled a huge gulp of air, a handful of fur and more than a few fleas. Finally able to see, somewhat, Khalid looked over the creature's shoulder and realized for the first time how much trouble they were in.

He couldn't see Shayla, but from the sound of her screams, a yeti had her, running somewhere ahead. Gorak was struggling with another yeti and as Khalid watched, the creature cinched its arms around his waist and lifted him off the ground in a spine crushing hold. Sousee, jostled out of her slumber in the wicker basket on Gorak's back, rose up over his shoulder and bit the beast in neck, just under the jaw, pumping her deadly toxin into the creatures blood. It's howl of pain was drowned out by Gorak's roar of anger, as he lifted his hands to the sky. For a second, Khalid though he was going to drive his hands into the creature's face to break it's hold, but Gorak simply arched his back and turned his face to the sky. The clouds overhead that had been fitfully snowing on them all morning began to darken and churn. To Khalid's complete amazement, a huge column of lightning arced down from the sky, slamming into Gorak and the yeti. The thunder followed instantly and rattled Khalid's teeth. The force of the bolt blasted them apart, sending half-orc, yeti and snake flying through the air. Gorak, indomitable as always, tumbled backwards into the snow and rolled to his feet. He came up running, pulling his cudgel from the loop on his belt as the yeti, dazed and poisoned, struggled to get up. Gripping his cudgel in both hands, Gorak raised it back over his shoulder as he ducked under the creature's feeble attempt to keep him at bay. The yeti's head was at the perfect height for Gorak and he threw his full weight behind the blow, twisting at the hips. The sound of the beast's cracking skull was almost as loud as the thunder that still echoed off the mountains around them. With a spray of blood and brains that stained the snow crimson, the beast toppled over.

Khalid, rallied by Gorak's victory, quickly ran through his options. With his arms pinned at his side, there weren't many available to him. There was no chance of breaking free from the yeti's clutches, so he wormed a hand over to his belt and drew his remaining wand. He shouted the command word as he frantically dug the point into the beast's belly but the yeti's only response was to tighten his hold on him, and Khalid gasped in pain as one of his ribs cracked. Realizing he was poking the creature with the wrong end of the wand, Khalid attempted to flip the wand around in his palm, but the creature shifted him at the same instant and the wand tumbled from his shaking fingers, vanishing into the snow.

Khalid slumped, about to give in to despair when he saw Gorak, running hard behind him. Moving like an arctic hare, he was practically skimming over the deep snow, quickly closing the gap. His wolf-skin cloak billowing out behind him and his dreadlocks dancing wildly about his head still charged from the blast, Gorak was the embodiment of rage as he charged into the back of the yeti, bringing his cudgel down across the back of the beast's neck. The yeti howled in pain but rushed on, trying to escape. Gorak followed behind, hammering relentlessly at the creature's back. Unable to withstand the brutal assault, the yeti dumped Khalid and turned to face the threat behind him Khalid scrambled to his feet, and waded awkwardly away, trying to put some distance between himself and the fight. Gorak danced around the yeti, easily outrunning it as he called down a third strike from the clouds above. The yeti, badly wounded, turned and fled.

Both Khalid and Gorak ignored the fleeing yeti and headed after the one carrying Shayla. She was no longer screaming, and her head lolled limply to the side as she bounced in the creature's rough grasp. Khalid quickly foundered in the snow and realized he would never be able to catch up to the beast as Gorak raced past him, his long strides quickly eating up the distance between them. With mounting trepidation, Khalid watched the yeti drag Shayla towards a rocky cliff face. The creature could undoubtedly climb far better than Gorak and was obviously hoping to take refuge among the rocks and boulders above.

Gorak saw the danger before Khalid could call out a warning. He slowed long enough to spit out a spell and set his hand alight with elemental flame. Loping after the yeti, he drove his burning fist into the creature's back. It screeched and snarled as Gorak continued to attack, fur and flesh beginning to smolder and blacken from the heat..

Unable to stand the searing assault, the beast dropped Shayla and ran as fast as it could for the cliff. Gorak stopped chasing it, and as soon as he judged the yeti a safe distance from Shayla, raised his hand into the air above his head, and closed it into a fist. The yeti staggered as the first bolt of lightning struck it, burning the fur completely off it's right side. Before it had a chance to even topple to the ground, a second bolt snaked down from the sky in a titanic flash that blinded Khalid momentarily. The thunder that followed rumbled on for what seemed like an eternity while the spots and sparks slowly faded from Khalid's sight. When his vision finally cleared, he could see nothing left of the yeti, save a blacked, smoking crater in the hillside.

Puffing and wheezing, Khalid pushed through the snow as quickly as he could towards Shayla. By the he reached her, Gorak had already knelt down and muttered a few words, causing the flames on his hand to flutter out. Khalid hovered over him, frowning worriedly. “Ah, is she okay?” he asked, just as her eyes began to flutter open.

“She'll live,” Gorak grunted as he hauled her to her feet, and steadied her with a hand on her arm.

Blinking and shaking her head, Shayla finally regained her senses and smiled at Khalid and Gorak. She was about to say something when her nose wrinkled. Sniffing at her sleeve, she twitched back before she came within half a foot of it..“EEEEEEEEEEEEWWW,” she gasped. “I smell like wet dog! I'm not going anywhere until I get cleaned up. Khalid,” she demanded, “open up a portal.”

Looking at Gorak helplessly, Khalid started to cast the spell. Gorak just grunted in annoyance. “Fine, you two stay here, I'm gonna go take a look around, try to find the start of the pass. We gotta be close now.” He turned and jogged away towards the mountains.

The short length of rope that Khalid carried for the spell slowly rose into the air, and the portal opened. Brushing past him, Shayla threw her pack up through the gate, and vanished up the rope. As Khalid placed a hand on it, her head poked back out through the portal. “And where do you think you're going?” she asked with an arched eyebrow. “I'm getting cleaned up. Stay out there.” With a jerk, she pulled the rope out of his hand, and sealed the gate.

Shivering in the cold, Khalid grabbed his hat by the legs and pulled it down firmly around his ears. Muttering under his breath, he pinched his nose shut with one hand, and sat down in the snow, sullenly cursing his fate, women in general, and his spell selection.

* * * * * * * * *​

Khalid groaned and pulled off his hat, using it to mop the sweat from his face. Puffing heavily, he leaned against the mountain face and surveyed the steep climb ahead. Two days ago, they had found the oddly shaped rock formation that indicated the start of the path into the mountains. Despite the grueling hike and yeti, Khalid had to admit that so far, it hadn't been as bad as he feared. Between Gorak's ability to navigate the harsh terrain and Khalid's magical shelter, they didn't have to worry about becoming trapped or succumbing to exposure at night. Even the path, while steep, was easier to navigate than he expected. The constant wind whipping through the peaks swept it clear of snow and while it was narrow and treacherous in places, for the most part it was wide enough that they could walk in single file without worry of slipping and plunging over the thousand foot drop.

The weather had cooperated and was cold, but clear. The day before, Gorak had taken pains to protect Sousee from the bitter cold during their march and, after being forced to listen to Khalid and Shayla complain all day, had finally relented and offered them the same magical insulation. Although Khalid was thankful for the respite from the sub-zero temperature, he knew it was consuming a great deal of Gorak's power each day to protect them all.

Stuffing his hat into the rucksack on his back, he hurried to catch up with Gorak and Shayla, who turned a corner up ahead. Gorak was on point as usual, although they did take turns when it became necessary to break a trail through heavy snow. Rounding the corner in a hurry, he slipped on the icy rock and skidded into Shayla. She steadied him with a hand on his arm and a glare, then turned back to listen to Gorak.

“As I was saying,” Gorak grunted. “Here's a pretty good place to take a break.” He gestured at the path ahead, which widened enough for them to sit comfortably. “Take a load off. I'm gonna take a look around.”

“Sounds good,” Shayla replied, and then shrieked as Gorak stepped backward, and fell off the path. Khalid dove to the ground, sliding to the edge of the cliff, and peered over. He expected to see his friend smeared across the ground below, but his eyes widened as Gorak, plummeting head first towards the ground, began to shimmer and blur. He was no more than fifty feet above the ground when he finished his transformation and opened his wings. Taking the form of an eagle, he used the momentum of his dive to soar high into the air, circling above their heads, before vanishing over the mountains.

“Did you know he could do that?” Shayla accused Khalid, her voice trembling slightly as she regained her composure.

Khalid, his normally tan face the color of the snow beneath him, clambered to his feet and then clasped his hands together to stop them from shaking. “Ah, no, that's a new trick to me as well, yes, quite.”

“Bastard,” Shayla muttered under her breath as she stared hard at the spot Gorak had vanished before turning and stomping back over to her pack.

“Indeed,” Khalid agreed, feeling more than a tinge of envy.

They traveled this way for the rest of the day and into the following, with Gorak in eagle form scouting ahead while Khalid and Shayla navigated the path. After being gone several hours, Gorak finally returned as they were about to make camp. He hovered briefly in front of them, before reverting to his natural form. As Khalid was about to speak, he growled, “There's a guard post about half an hour up ahead, watching the path. It's right around the spot that the path splits and,” he drew out a tattered piece of parchment and studied it briefly, “we gotta take the left path, that goes higher up into the mountains.”

“Ah, guard post?” Khalid asked.

“Goblins,” Gorak grunted. “Two of em, and a wolf. But don't worry about that, I'll take care of it in the morning.”

After a fitful night's sleep, plagued by dreams of deep caverns and red-skinned goblins, Khalid awoke, feeling as though he hadn't slept at all. He stumbled out of the magical shelter into the frigid mountain air, and saw Gorak casting his daily protection on Shayla. Repeating the divine words again, he walked past Khalid and cuffed him on the arm. Instantly, Khalid stopped shivering as the temperature rose to a comfortable degree.

“I'm gonna go take care of them goblins,” Gorak said as he rumbled out another spell. “You two just keep moving up the path, and I'll circle back when I'm done.”

“Ah, perhaps there is no need?” Khalid ventured hopefully. “We are not interested in anything they have, yes, quite and only wish passage through their territory. Perhaps, yes, perhaps they will simply allow us to pass unmolested?”

“Not likely,” Gorak growled, “and we can't risk it. You two are having enough trouble up here already, without being harried by goblins every step of the way. And besides,” he shrugged, “they're just goblins.” Before Khalid could argue,Gorak cast another spell and then leapt off the cliff, shimmering into eagle form and flying away.

Khalid and Shayla pressed on, moving slowly up the path. Without Gorak to lead them, they walked cautiously, always fearful that the treacherous ground would betray them to their death. Minutes later, the sound of distant thunder reached their ears and then Gorak returned, buzzing past them with a shrill cry before circling overhead and flying back down the trail.

They found Gorak up ahead, perched upon a rock in bird form, picking at something on the ground. As they neared, he lifted his head, tearing a strip of flesh of the mouse caught beneath his talons.

“That's disgusting!” Shayla said, horrified.

With a mocking shriek, Gorak launched into the air, swooping past Shayla and dropping the remainder of his breakfast on her boot before flying high into the air. He circled briefly around a nearby cliff, drawing their eyes upward to what Khalid assumed had been the goblin outpost, still smoking slightly from repeated lightning strikes.

Cursing, Shayla cleaned off her boot and muttered to Khalid, “He's becoming downright insufferable lately. Next time he tries something like that, we'll see how well he can fly with all his tail feathers burned off.

Gorak stayed close by now, and directed them towards a cleft in the cliff face, which, after a short climb, led them up to barren, windswept peak, covered with a thick crust of snow. Khalid looked longingly over his shoulder at the path behind them, which seemed to slope gently down and to the south, presumably leading to a valley between mountains. Trying to remain optimistic, he welcomed the change of scenery at first, but his mood quickly soured. The snow was almost firm enough to walk on. Almost, but not quite, and every few steps their feet would plunge through the crust causing them to stumble. Half walking, half crawling, they crossed the peak and descended down a narrow path, similar to the one leading to the peak. They trudged on for several more hours, before the failing light made travel too dangerous. As the sun set behind the peaks, Gorak flew off ahead, returning some time later.

He joined them in the magical shelter and pulled the rope up behind, sealing the gate. “We got more trouble.”

“Ah, more goblins?” Khalid asked.

“Yup. Too many for me to deal with alone, so we're gonna have to figure something out.”

“How many?” Shayla asked.

“At least five and some wolves, up on top of a kind of a pillar that looks right down on the path. I circled it a few times, and I ain't sure I see any way to do it clean.”

“Perhaps, yes, perhaps we can just sneak past them?” Khalid offered leaning forward, eager at the prospect of avoiding a fight. “It is within my ability to turn all of us invisible. We can just walk past, leaving them none, yes, none the wiser.”

“Won't they see our foot prints appearing in the snow?” Shayla pointed out.

“Ah, yes, well, I hadn't thought of that,” Khalid admitted, slumping down in defeat.

“Now wait a minute, this might work out okay,” Gorak rumbled. “You make sure they can't see us, and I'll make sure we don't hafta worry about no tracks.”

In the morning, Gorak proved his versatility by changing into a small scrub brush, outside the portal, to allow him to commune with the earth undetected. Although not a perfect disguise, it was better than the alternative, and when both he and Khalid had finished their morning rituals, they set off.

They came creeping up on the goblin watch post just after noon. Reasoning that the nocturnal, cave dwelling creatures would be their most disadvantaged under the blinding glare of the midday sun, they prepped themselves some distance away. Quickly casting spells in rapid succession, their words were whipped away on the howling wind.

“Okay,” Gorak growled as he faded from sight. “I'm gonna go about twenty feet up, Khalid, you go about ten and Shayla you just stay lower than that. That way we won't run all over top of one another. When we reach the other side, just come down real slow, and keep moving. Since you're the only one that can see us Khalid, grab a hold of us and lead us down the path until we're clear. Let's go.”

As he walked, Khalid flexed his hands idly, which felt oddly tacky as a result of Gorak's magic. Despite knowing that his spell hid him from sight, Khalid's heart began to race as they approached the encampment. Knowing that the goblins couldn't see him and actually standing in the middle of the path in broad daylight while goblins milled about overhead were two entirely different things. He pushed Gorak forward, then watched nervously as he scuttled up the side of the rock face. The pillar looked to be about sixty feet across and slightly more than half that distance across. The top, which looked almost perfectly flat from Khalid's vantage, was about thirty feet above them. Gorak climbed straight up, then begin to sidle across the cliff face, move quickly, but cautiously. Waiting for him to make some progress, Khalid then nudged Shayla and sent her on.

Khalid took a deep breath, and followed after her. The spell Gorak had imbued him with allowed him to easily grip the sheer rock face and he moved almost effortlessly up the side. Seeing a shower of pebbles and snow trickle down, he paused briefly and then started moving again, slowly.

He was about half-way across the cliff, when a booted goblin foot appeared over the edge above him. Freezing in place, Khalid waited anxiously, expecting for the alarm to be raised at any second. Instead, the goblin simply dropped his trousers and proceeded to recycle his wine, almost on Khalid's head. Alternately praying to and cursing the lost gods, Khalid waited until the goblin finished and staggered away, before picking his way gingerly to the other side. Dropping to the ground, he corralled Gorak and Shayla and led them out of sight of the goblins.

The hurried down the path, shooting worried glances over their shoulders long after Khalid's spell wore out. Finally, spotting a small ledge up and away from the main path, Gorak called a halt. “That took a lot out of us, and I didn't scout out much further than this last night. Maybe we oughta just hole up here fer the night.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed, his frayed nerves longing for the cool, gray expanse of the magical shelter. Gorak hooked his hands together, and boosted Khalid, then Shayla up on to the ledge. When he reached the narrow perch, Khalid opened a portal and clambered inside, extending a hand out to help Shayla.

Gorak stuffed his large wicket basket up through the hole, but then dropped back down. “Alright, pull that rope up, but keep an out eye fer me,” Gorak called up. “I don't want to be stuck out here the whole damn night.” And with that, he vanished from beneath the gate.

Khalid pulled the rope up and sealed the entrance. He and Shayla took turns watching the gate, in case Gorak showed up in need of immediate help. Unfortunately, since the gate opened straight down to the snowy ground of the ledge, it was spectacularly uninteresting. Several hours passed, and Khalid was starting to fear for his ability to stay awake during the remainder of his watch, when Gorak flew into sight below. Khalid kicked the rope out, and Gorak flew straight in, changing form beside his pack. He kicked over the wicket basket, spilling Sousee out, who protested with an angry hiss.

As Gorak rummaged through his stuff, Khalid and Shayla looked at each other in concern. “Ah, Gorak,” Khalid ventured carefully, “what's wrong?”

Gorak said nothing, seizing piece of parchment and unrolling it. Staring at it intently, he snarled out a vicious curse and tore it in half, flinging the crumpled pieces to the ground.

“Ah, Gorak,” Khalid started again, “was that the map?”

“This bloody passage doesn't lead through the mountains. It leads into a gods damned goblin warren.” Gorak spat in response.

“What?” Shayla asked, her voice rising slightly.

“You heard me.” Gorak snarled.

“Ah, perhaps we took a wrong turn, made a mistake, yes, mistake,” Khalid said, shaking his head in denial as he reached for the torn shreds of paper.

“We didn't make a wrong turn, or get lost or confused!” Gorak roared. “I followed the damned instructions! This path don't lead nowhere except across very narrow bridge into a big stinking pile of dog-:):):):):)ing goblins.”*

Khalid and Shayla stared at him in silence as the enormity of what Gorak was suggesting sank in. “And oh yeah,” Gorak continued in a caustic tone. “It gets better. I speak a bit of goblin, so I perched on a rock nearby some of their guards. Turns out half their damn tribe has been scouring these mountains for us for a week.”

“Ah, a week,” Khalid said absently, with a little frown on his face. “but that would mean...” he trailed off, his eyes widening.

“You said you were bottom of your class in the White Tower? I never woulda guessed,” Gorak growled sarcastically as the truth of the matter descended on Khalid.

“What?” Shayla demanded angrily, stomping her foot on the ground.

“Ah, yes, well, we haven't been in the mountains for a week,” Khalid answered in a sick tone. “So that means we've been...”

“Betrayed.”

* * * * * * * * * *​

Notes:
*Heh, I didn't actually look at the post after I put it up. Evidently I'm using profanity without even realizing it - I wasn't even sure that the term I used here was a real word...apparently it is (but not according to dictionary.com) and it describes Gorak's feelings about those goblins perfectly. I'll leave it to your imagination :cool:
 
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“So who set us up?” Shayla asked, after Gorak had calmed down a bit.

“Halaal,” Khalid answered immediately, “it has to be, yes, has to be Halaal. The only question, yes, is whether or not Arbaq was involved.”

“Absolutely not,” Shayla replied without hesitation.

Gorak wasn't as quick to answer. He scratched his jaw absently as he looked from Khalid to Shayla. “Maybe.” he grumbled at last. “Maybe he decided end our little arrangement on account of us messing about with Halaal, but if'n that devil don't scare him, I don't see one wizard without no spells giving him pause. I don't see no profit it in. Do you?” he asked Khalid.

“Ah, no, not really,” Khalid agreed.

“But even if he didn't set us up, he's a damned fool for not checking out his informants a little better,” Gorak growled.

“So what do we do now?” Shayla asked.

Gorak shrugged. “Simple, go forward or turn back.”

“Ah, forward? Through the goblin warrens?” Khalid asked incredulously.

Shayla crossed her arms across her chest and shivered slightly. “I don't think...” she started softly, then trailed off. Starting again in a clearer voice, she said, “I don't think I'm ready for that. Not yet.”

“Yeah, well that ain't exactly what I meant. The path split a ways back. Maybe that branch leads through to the other side.” Gorak rumbled.

“Ah, perhaps, or perhaps there is no route through the mountains and that was all just part, yes, part of the ruse.” Khalid pointed out.

“Ya, maybe,” Gorak agreed as he leaned back against the invisible boundary of the spell. “But we've got enough provisions for months up here. I can get around easy enough to scout out a trail and with my help, you two can make it over the rough spots. One way or another, we're getting over these mountains.”

“What about the goblins?” Shayla asked. “It's gonna be hard enough without them harrying us from one end of the mountains to the other.”

“We'll stomp that outpost flat on the way back. Leave 'em a nice little warning. Maybe they'll get the point.” Gorak gave them both an evil grin as he cracked his knuckles loudly.
“Ah, yes, well from what I've seen of goblins, you're going to have to impale each and every one of them before they get the point.” Khalid said bitterly, then he sighed wistfully. “If I had access to alchemical supplies I could distill, yes, distill a narcotic. A little bit in their cisterns, or in their food and the entire tribe would sleep, yes, sleep for a week.”

Gorak sat up quickly, an intent look on his face. “What did you just say?”

“Ah, nothing Gorak,” Khalid said, dismissing the question with a wave of his hand. “Just wishful thinking. I have none, yes, none of what I would need.”

“Maybe you don't, but I do,” Gorak growled with a toothy grin. “But I ain't gonna put 'em to sleep. You remember, about a dozen years back, what happened in the poor quarter, out near the floodplains?”

“Ah, vaguely. There was a pestilence, was there not? Some sort of fever, yes fever spread through the population.”

“Yup,” Gorak replied, “they even tried seal off the poor quarter. None of my tribe could get inta the city for a month. Well, I got a spell that can conjure up something just as nasty. I'll turn myself into a big rat, and go fer a little stroll. I'll nip the first goblin I see and in a few days, we won't hafta worry about them bothering us no more.”*

“Ah, Gorak, didn't quite, yes, quite a few people die from that illness?” Khalid asked.

Gorak shrugged. “I don't remember. Maybe some of the weaker folk. But even so, we'd be doing 'em a favor. You know, culling the herd a little before winter. And you'd have to figure the chances are pretty good that the next time the universe spat 'em out, they'd be something a bit better off than these poor bastards.”

“Ah, well, yes, I suppose...” Khalid began.

“And it sure beats the alternative. Or did you really want to do it the hard way, one at a time?” Gorak interrupted before he could finish.

“Well, no, of course not...” Khalid started again.

“If it means I don't have to go into those caves, I'm all for it.” Shayla spoke up eagerly.

“Ah, it's just that...” Khalid tried one last time.

“Look,” Gorak growled, growing impatient with Khalid's objections. “They're bound to have a shaman or a wiseman or something. It'll probably just make 'em real sick for a little while 'till they get it under control.”

Outnumbered and overruled, Khalid abandoned his objections and resigned himself to the plan. They had to wait until the next day for Gorak to acquire the necessary spells and the time passed slowly in the featureless dimension. In the morning, Gorak dropped out of the portal, and shifted his form into that of a tree. An hour later, he briefly reverted back to his own form to cast a spell and then turned himself into a giant rat, and vanished out of sight.

Surprisingly, it didn't take him long to return. Shayla nudged out the rope with the toe of her boot, opening the gate, and Gorak climbed in. His customary scowl was more pronounced then usual as he growled, “Well that was a waste of time.”

“Ah, what happened?” Khalid asked.

“Nothing.” Gorak grunted. “I musta bit the healthiest goblin in the whole damn tribe. The spell didn't take. I think I can get another shot at it again tomorrow. I got outta there pretty quick after I attacked him and judging from the state of that cesspool, rat bites are a pretty common occurrence.”

Forced into inactivity and stuck within the cramped confines of Khalid's spell for another day, boredom weighed heavily on Gorak and Shayla. Gorak in particular found the bland and empty dimension hard to endure. Khalid took advantage of the brief respite to resume his studies and was pleased with the progress he made. Looking over his notes before putting them away for the night, he was certain he was on the verge of unlocking a new combination of formulae that would increase his growing repertoire.

Gorak was already gone by the time Khalid and Shayla awoke. They passed the time with idle talk, as they waited for him to return. Judging from the light outside, it was just past mid morning when he returned. He stormed into the portal without a word, and the foul expression on his face told Khalid everything he needed to know.

“No luck?” Shayla asked him, somewhat courageously.

Khalid could see the explosion coming, but to his surprise, Gorak paused for a second and mastered his emotions before growling, “No. This has got to be the hardiest damn tribe of goblins in the West.”

“Maybe it's the mountain air,” Shayla suggested.

“Yeah, well whatever it is, this ain't gonna work. Worse yet, I think they're on to me. The bastard that I bit clubbed me, and he got real excited when I didn't squish like he was expecting.”

“Ah, yes, well, what are we going to do now?” Khalid asked, although he was fairly certain he knew what Gorak's answer would be.

“Back to the original plan,” Gorak growled. “We hole up here for a bit 'till they calm down, and then we go stomp the piss outta those buggers on the plateau on the way out.”

With a task before them, the time passed a little more quickly as they each undertook their own preparations. Outside, Khalid was dismayed to notice it had begun to snow until Gorak pointed out that it would cover their tracks and any signs of the battle they were about to initiate. They dropped out of the portal and hurried up the path towards the outpost. As they walked, Gorak ran through the plan one last time, in the thick growl that passed as whispering for him. “When we get close, I'll make it easy for us to climb up the side. I'll check it out first, then start climbing. You two follow me up. I'll try to keep 'em back away from the ledge, long enough for you two to get your footing. Once we're up there, just finish 'em off like usual.”

Khalid's heart began to hammer in his chest, long before he caught sight of the plateau. The odd stickiness that accompanied Gorak's spell wasn't helping either, as it prevented him from fiddling with his spell components. Muttering a calming mantra under his breath, he stopped speaking as Gorak motioned for them to stop. Scarcely before Khalid realized it, the situation became deadly serious. Gorak poked his head around a sharp jut of rock, then sprinted across the twenty feet of open ground to the side of the pillar. Leaping into the air, he caught the rock face of the cliff with one hand, about eight feet off the ground, and swung his other hand overhead to grab a hold. Moving quickly, Gorak scaled the rock face.

Hesitating for only a second, Khalid ran after him, with Shayla a step behind. His breath whistling in short gasps between clenched teeth, Khalid clutched at the rock and began to climb. His robes billowed out around him as he scuttled up the cliff face below Gorak. Gorak reached the top and Khalid sidled away, trying to avoid the shale and ice tumbling down on him. The move saved his life as Gorak, scrambling to his feet at the top of the cliff, was surprised by a quick witted goblin. Driving a shield into his face, the goblin sent Gorak tumbling backwards off the plateau with a roar. Narrowly missing Khalid, he plunged thirty feet to the ground below. Fortunately for both Gorak and Sousee, a snowbank at the base of the cliff broke their fall somewhat.

Khalid, feeling dreadfully exposed but knowing he wouldn't fare any better than Gorak if he continued climbing, stopped where he was and began to recite the complex intonations of his most powerful summoning spells. A goblin, hearing the noise, leaned out over the edge, giving Shayla a chance to incinerate him. As the smoking body fell past Khalid, he forced out the last words of his spell and struggled mightily to impose his will on the resisting creature. Then, with a flash of flame, a huge muscled hound, snorting sulfurous smoke, appeared on the ledge directly above Khalid's head. It immediately vanished out of sight, but the screams of panic from above left no doubt the effect the hell hound was having. Moving sideways another half dozen feet, Khalid started casting again almost immediately.

A goblin appeared above Shayla and fired an arrow down at her, barely grazing her shoulder. The goblin tried to duck back out of sight, but Shayla cast out a handful of glittering discs and took his head clear off before he could take cover.

Gorak, groaning, staggered to his feet at the base of the cliff, and then cursed as the goblin head bounced off the rock above him and showered him with gore. Gripping the cliff face carefully, he began to climb upwards again, carefully watching the ledge. He passed Khalid on the way by, who finished his second summoning spell, and summoned a powerful hunting mastiff up on the plateau. Although small compared to its infernal cousin, the hound still and had a powerful bite, and attacked the goblins with heedless fury at Khalid's urging.

A second after the dog vanished from sight another burned goblin, this one covered in smoldering bites, toppled over the ledge. There was a short scream, followed by a horrible gurgling sound, and then silence. After a moment, Khalid looked at Gorak and Shayla, and then the three of them climbed the rest of the way to the top. Peering over the edge just in time to see the hunting dog disappear, they were greeted with a grisly scene. Three mauled goblins lay scattered about the watch post, two of them badly scorched. After a quick glance through the camp, they circled the edge of the plateau, watching the path below for any escaping goblins. Satisfied after a few moments, that there were no survivors, they considered their next course of action.

“Let's just stay here,” Gorak growled.**

“Ah, are you sure about that?” Khalid asked, somewhat nervously.

“Sure,” Gorak grunted as he heaved one of the corpses far over the edge of the path below, into a ravine several thousand feet deep. “We'll just tidy up here. With all this snow falling, it'll look like we've never been here in a few hours.” He paused to boot an arm off the ledge. “When the replacements get out here, they'll think these guys ran off scared, or are chasing us, or just got bored and wandered away. Then in the morning, when your spell runs out, we'll jump out and take care of 'em. Two fer the price of one, eh?” He grinned toothily at Khalid and Shayla.

Too wound up to argue, Khalid helped dispose of the remainder of the goblin camp, and then opened up another portal for them. He spent a fitful night tossing and turning, dreaming of distant, darkened caverns and awoke several times to hear Shayla muttering under her breath in her sleep.

He rose the next morning feeling groggy and stiff. He stumbled about in a daze, absently shuffling his possessions around while his mind slowly switched on. After a few minutes, he realized that Gorak was awake, standing over the portal and staring intently at the ground below. As Khalid walked over to see what he was looking at, Gorak grunted, “What's that look like to you?” He pointed, somewhat unnecessarily, at the ground.

At first, Khalid saw nothing, as his eyes adjusted to the bright glare of sunshine reflecting off the snow. Then he squinted as a gust of wind swirled the snow around. “Ah, that looks like a rope.” Another gust of wind kicked up, and scoured more of the snow away. “Yes, quite.”

“That's what I thought. You'd better get Shayla up. I don't think we're alone up here.”

Shayla woke up grumbling at Khalid's urgent prodding, but quickly shook herself awake when they explained what was happening. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, Shayla asked, “Are you sure that isn't just a piece of junk from their camp?”

“I don't think so, I'm pretty sure that wasn't there last night,” Gorak replied.

“So what do we do now?” Shayla asked, stifling a yawn.

“Khalid, how much time we got left in here?”

“Ah, about two hours.”

“Alright. So we sit tight in here for a bit and let them freeze. The longer they wait out there, they less alert they'll be. I ain't got much in the way of magic left after last night, but I gotta coupla surprises still.”

“So let me get this straight,” Shayla said in a dangerously calm voice. “You just woke me to tell me we're not going to be doing anything for the next two hours. Is that right?”

“Ah, well, yes,” Khalid stammered, “I suppose it is.”

Shayla glared at the two of them wordlessly, then grabbed her bedroll and wrapped herself up in it. Whatever else she had to say to them was muffled by her pillow, but Khalid was fairly certain that he got the gist of it.

Khalid sat down to study his spells for the day while Gorak took up watch at the portal. By the time Khalid had finished studying, Shayla was awake again and, unfortunately for the goblins outside, in an even fouler mood then before. They gathered up their belongings as Khalid ran through the plan quickly. “Ah, the first person out of the portal is going to be in significant, yes, significant danger, so I'm going to summon a hellhound, and send it out first. It should draw, yes, draw their initial attacks giving me time to escape, invisible and unnoticed. Yes, quite. Then I'll begin to summon more fiends to aid us while Gorak drops through the gate.”

“Maybe I should go next,” Shayla interrupted. “You know, to provide some covering fire.”

Khalid could see the bloodlust rising in her eyes, and hurried on, “Ah, no, that's probably not a good idea. Some of them might be disciplined, yes, disciplined enough to hold their attacks, so it should be Gorak next. Yes, quite.”

Without knowing how many goblins were outside, or where they were arranged, there was no use in any further planning. Taking a deep breath, Khalid launched into a spell, and faded from sight. Gorak gathered up the rope and prepared to open the portal as Khalid started in on his summoning spell. The instant the slavering demonic hound appeared, the battle began.
 

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