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

Gorak tossed the rope out, and opened the gate. Khalid barked out an order in the hideous infernal tongue and the hound dropped through. It had barely touched the ground when it leapt up, twisting its body in the air as the snow beneath it exploded. It sprang away as it landed and vanished out of sight.

Khalid had no time to be scared as he jumped out of the gate and took off running. Months of hard travel and dangerous living had given Khalid the eye of a seasoned campaigner. As he sprinted clear of the portal, he quickly assessed the battlefield.

There were maybe fifteen goblins arrayed against them, posted in a semi circle around the plateau, and two more archers hanging from the cliff face across the path. The trap that Khalid's hellhound had dodged was a fairly typical, poorly thought out, goblin affair. A net, buried in the snow, had been tied between two powerful canines. At the first sign of movement, the dogs had bounded to their feet and ran towards their handlers. Having failed to capture the hellhound, however, there was no resistance on the dogs and they raced clear across the plateau, inadvertently snaring two hapless goblins who were moving into position to attack. The four went down in a snarling tangle of fur, fangs, claws and rope.

The hellhound had darted away from the trap and being semi intelligent, ran towards a group of three rather surprised looking goblins. It stopped directly in front of them, and vomited out a wave of flame that scorched the stunned goblins. One of them toppled soundless over the edge, while the others shrieked and fired their small crossbows blindly trying to drive the hound back.

The air was filled with the sound of humming bowstrings as several more goblins fired small crossbows. The two archers on their narrow perch across the path were firing relentlessly if not particularly accurately. Khalid started to cast as Gorak dropped out of the gate. As he had predicted, a few of the more level headed goblins had held their fire and now loosed a volley of bolts at Gorak, who flinched and growled as several of the darts landed true. Recognizing the danger of the two archers on the opposite cliff, as they drew a bead on him, Gorak edged back to avoid being surrounded and launched into a spell.

By the time Shayla joined the fight, most of the goblins were busy reloading, or fleeing from the hellhound. She didn't even move as she dropped, catlike, out of the gate and spat out the words to a spell. Three glittering discs arced from her hand, the high pitched whine that accompanied their unerring flight turning into meaty thuds as they found their mark. A goblin took one in the chest and another in the throat, dropping instantly. The other disc veered sharply and grievously wounded a goblin frantically trying to load his crossbow.

As Khalid reached the pinnacle of his spell, he caught sight of three figures cowering near a jumble of rock; two distinct looking goblins in polished steel breastplates, and a suspiciously familiar looking humanoid in a long gray robe. With a gesture, he wrestled forth another hellhound, and dropped it beside the three at the same instant that Gorak conjured up a hippogriff. The huge beast took to wing immediately, and flew over to harry the two archers. The hellhound didn't even have to move to bathe the three enemies in flame.

The rapidly dwindling number of goblins fired another volley of bolts at Gorak, scoring a half dozen hits. Shayla returned fire, and felled another two goblins with bright lancets of force as Gorak raised his club with a roar, and half charged, half staggered into the goblin warriors, battering at them with his cudgel. Finally having the breath to speak, Khalid shouted, “Shayla, those three, yes, three to your left! Don't let them escape.”

Even as Khalid directed Shayla's attention, the lanky, robed figure abandoned the fight, and dove into a concealed tunnel near the edge of the cliff. The larger of the two remaining goblins clawed his way past the other, and followed the beast into the hole, as Shayla turned. Khalid and Shayla both began to cast, almost in unison. A flash of golden sparks blinded two panicked looking goblins, while Shayla destroyed another with a blast of flame. Gorak was still taking the occasional dart from the last remaining goblin crossbowman on the plateau as he warily circled an axe wielding foe, unable to gain the advantage. The hippogriff, having dragged one of the unfortunate goblins archers away from the cliff face, swooped down and crushed the other's head in its powerful beak.

The hellhounds sprinted over, and mauled the axe wielding goblin facing Gorak, who took advantage of the goblin's plight to cave in his skull with his cudgel. The crossbowman, seeing overwhelming odds and no chance of mercy, gambled and leapt off the top of the pillar, hitting the ground below with a sickening crack. As Shayla turned on the goblin in the breastplate, and began to advance on him, he immediately threw his sword on the ground and croaked out, in passable Westron, “I surrender!”

“Oh yeah,” Gorak growled as he marched over to Shayla. “And jush why should we care about that?”

“I know what you want,” the goblin said hastily, dropping to his knees, “and I can help you get it.”

“Izzat so?” Gorak growled, his voice laced with scorn. He did, however, stop advancing.

“Yes,” the goblin replied, emboldened by the chance to barter. “You seek a way through the mountains. Even for three such as you, the path will be difficult. I can help you!” he blurted out in a rush.

“Bah,” Gorak spat. “Like I'd trush you to lead me anywhere other than onta a goblin spear!”

“Perhaps, yes, perhaps we should consider this for a moment, Gorak.” Khalid said, placing a restraining hand on Gorak's arm.

“What harm can I do you, bound and watched?” the goblin pressed on, sensing a potential ally in Khalid.

“Typical goblin treashery,” Gorak sneered, “Swishing sides as fash as he can speak tha words.”

“Consider this, Orc,” the goblin retorted, his voice seething with anger. “The two men who ordered me up here, solely to their own personal benefit, are currently running away from here as fast their cursed feet will carry them. Why should I show them more loyalty then they have shown me?”

“We can at least hear him out, while we clear outta here.” Shayla interrupted as she quickly scavenged the goblins for anything useful. Disappointed, she shouldered her pack and examined the hidden escape tunnel.

“Fine! But thish don't mean I won't drop you o'er the edge of the cliff.” Gorak slurred.

Khalid frowned and peered at Gorak, who turned his back and walked over to the knotted mass of fur and rope that was the end result of the goblin's failed trap. He practically fell to one knee when he reached it, and fumbled at his waist for his belt knife. Khalid walked over to him, concern etched on his face, while keeping a wary eye on the goblin. Immediately, he could see that Gorak was in trouble. His hands were trembling, and his skin, normally as black as obsidian, was ashen gray and slick with sweat. Gorak glanced up, and Khalid could see a line of blood on the left side of his face, which now seemed to sag down in a rather peculiar way.

“Poishun,” Gorak muttered. “Thosh bassard's had poishun arrows. I'm jush about finish'd, but don let that goblin shee.”

With a shaking hand, Gorak pulled out his belt knife. A hound, the only thing to survive the disastrous trap, whimpered softly as Gorak put it out of its misery. Then, taking a deep breath, Gorak forced himself back up to his feet. Walking stiffly, he shouldered his pack with a grunt and moved towards Shayla.

Before he reached her, she turned turned around with a disgusted look on her face. “We can't go down the same way they did. They jammed up the tunnel good, and you don't wanna know with what. If we want down, I think we're climbing.”

“Ah, perhaps we should make camp here again tonight?” Khalid offered, with a glance at Gorak. “With the tunnel blocked, yes, blocked, the goblins will be most unlikely to attack again I should think. Yes, quite.” He looked hopefully at the goblin.

The goblin nodded, looking somewhat pained. “You have slaughtered many of the best scouts and warriors of the tribe. I do not think they will dare to climb up here to face you three again. I think tonight, the remaining warriors will be busy inquiring of the spiritwalker how the auguries could have been so misleading.”

They kept watch for several hours from the edge of the pillar, to see if the goblins would be foolish enough to return. After several hours of seeing little but falling snow, they retreated into Khalid's magical shelter.

There was some debate, initially, as to whether or not the goblin was going to be brought into their hiding space, but eventually Gorak relented. They agreed on a watch order, and hauled him up the rope. Loosing his bonds a bit while they ate, they discussed the goblin's arrangement.

The goblin, it turned out, didn't know the way through the mountains. But he know somebody that did. The goblin would lead them to this friend in exchange for his freedom.

“And what's the catch?” Shayla asked him shrewdly, as she absently twirled a strand of her fiery red hair around a finger.

“The catch,” the goblin continued with unpleasant grin, “is that the bastard that's caught him, is not going to let him go without a fight. I will aid you of course.”

“Ah, yes, well, I'm not quite, yes, quite sure that I'm just going to burst in on some poor chap and assassinate him, on the word of some goblin,” Khalid said. “Ah, no offense,” he added, with an apologetic look at the goblin.

“None taken,” the goblin said with a smirk that showed his pointed teeth. “But you must understand something,” he continued as the grin faded away. “Killing this man will be doing the world a favor. This place is not so desolate as it first appears and these mountains are home to far more things than goblins. This thing preys on them all. The goblins learned long ago to avoid him; they have neither the will nor the strength to fight him. And neither did I,” the goblin admitted, “until that son of a bitch took my friend. You three are different though. You're organized, and you're strong. Strong enough to kill him.”

Khalid watched the goblin carefully as he spoke, absently stroking his beard. He detected no falsehood in the creature's speech, and his face betrayed nothing but sincerity. Still, Khalid admitted to himself, he didn't have a lot of experience dealing with goblins in any fashion other than setting them on fire. “Ah, what has this friend done for you, to inspire such courage?” he asked curiously.

“He did me a kindness once,” the goblin growled. “Unasked for, and expecting nothing in return. That's pretty damn rare around these parts and he deserves the same. And besides, I know of no other who has traveled the mountains as extensively as he has. He will not only set your feet upon the path, he will show you the way through the mountains,” the goblins said sagely.

Gorak, Shayla and Khalid conferred together, in low whispers as far away as they could get from the goblin in the tiny space. In the end, they decided to at least keep the goblin around a little longer, to feel out his story a bit more and see if he'd slip up.

Khalid, in an uncharacteristic fit of charity, volunteered for the middle watch, and immediately regretted it upon being woken by Gorak. Finally dredging his mind out of its sleep shrouded fog, he picked up his spellbook and absently scratched out a few formula. His eyes kept drifting up however, to look at the goblin, who was awake and staring back at him. Realizing he wasn't going to get any serious work done, he abandoned his book and moved closer to the goblin. “Ah, you're an odd one, aren't you?” Khalid asked in a low whisper, not really expecting much response from the surly goblin.

“I suppose I am,” he agreed with a nod. The goblin's whitish gray skin blended well with the smoky horizon created by the spell, making it look at times as though he was sinking into the surroundings. “I suspect that you'll want to discuss your foe?” he whispered back with a look of cunning on his tiny face.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed and opened his spellbook to a blank page to take notes.

“Then let us plot and scheme my friend,” the goblin said wickedly, “for those are traits I share with my kin, in abundance.”

Unfortunately, what the goblin did know was sketchy and based mostly on hearsay and rumor. He was able to rough out a passable map of the entrance to the beast's lair but knew little more of value other than their foe was some sort of magi or wizard and had his friend imprisoned and quite possibly enslaved somehow. Much to Khalid's delight, the goblin was also able to confirm his suspicions about their mysterious stalker. The creature was almost certainly Arbaq's informant: a foul tempered and half deranged gnoll.

Although not particularly relishing the prospect of a brisk, early morning climb down an icy cliff face, Khalid managed to make it down without much difficulty, as did Shayla and the goblin. Gorak dislodged the grapple and tossed the rope down, before shifting form and swooping low off the cliff. He circled around their heads twice and then flew off down the path. They pushed on for several hours, reaching the split in the path and taking the other fork, which the goblin assured them would eventually lead them out. They kept careful watch ahead and behind, for any sign of goblins but by the time they could go no further, they had seen no signs of pursuit.

The day's gruelling hike, the first after several days of relative inactivity, weighed heavily on all of them. Frustrated by the hard climbing and lack of progress, Khalid opted for first watch in an effort to spend some time putting the finishing touches on a new set of formula. By the time his shift was over, Khalid was wide awake and engrossed in his work and sleep was a long time in coming. Just as he put his head down, it felt like it was time to get up and start moving again. In foul humor, he ate in silence and jumped out of the portal as soon as Gorak indicated it was clear. The path ahead, looked if anything, more ominous and treacherous under the harsh glare of the morning sun than it had the evening before. At their left was a sheer rock face, several hundred feet high, while on their right the path sheered away sharply, falling a thousand feet or more into the valley below. It was narrow and steep and crusted with snow and ice. They set a cautious pace with Gorak out in front, breaking the trail, and Shayla following close behind. Khalid, was at the very back, keeping an eye on the goblin in front of him. While he felt exposed at the back of the group, he certainly didn't mind walking on a well trodden path. As the day wore on, the path began to take them up higher into the mountains, instead of lower as it first appeared. Soon they were wading through snow up to their knees and the bright sun flashed off the surroundings, blinding and disorienting them.

Khalid glanced up in surprise as he heard a sound that he'd never heard before, but recognized instantly. He grabbed at the cliff face as huge weight of snow fell on him with a deafening roar. Blinded and crushed, Khalid somehow managed to hold his grip as the avalanche eased and the noise abated. Frantic, he clawed at the snow in front of his face and burst free of the snow, taking in a huge gulp of air. He saw Gorak emerge at the front, shaking the snow free of his dreadlocks.

The seconds passed as Khalid, still panicked, struggled to free himself from the weight pinning him to the ground. His legs were bent awkwardly under the snow and he couldn't get a firm hold or the leverage to free himself. He glanced up as Gorak called out a warning, but the words were lost to him as a terrible thought dawned on him.

“Gorak!” Khalid shouted, “Where's Shayla!”

* * * * * * * * * *​

*Heh, this was mostly my plan, but I was just as happy it didn't succeed. As a player, the prospect of easy XP appealed to me, but really, from Khalid's point of view, it was pretty despicable.

**Sheesh. You'd think we'd learn.

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Thanks. Honestly, I'm a little surprised that there's anybody still following the story, given my long delays in getting new posts up. I was hoping to manage two a month until I was caught up, but once a month is probably more realistic. I've can only allocate so much time to D&D, and between this, running a game for Shayla, Gorak, Mrs. Gorak and Ronik (from Chapter 1) and all the prep work that entails, and intermittently playing in another campaign...heh, well, yeah, once a month probably.

Ah, perhaps we should make camp here again tonight?” Khalid offered, with a glance at Gorak. “With the tunnel blocked, yes, blocked, the goblins will be most unlikely to attack again I should think. Yes, quite.” He looked hopefully at the goblin.

This was a tough choice; we didn't want to stay but Gorak was almost helpless with the amount of strength damage he took. I think the fort save against those arrows was 15 and I had a +9 to my save - but alas, it was one of those nights. I started with 18str and took close to 15pts of str damage. I was worried about those secondary saves, because if I was too weak to cast 'lesser restoration' in the morning, we might have been up there for days....

BTW, on another note:

*Heh, this was mostly my plan, but I was just as happy it didn't succeed. As a player, the prospect of easy XP appealed to me, but really, from Khalid's point of view, it was pretty despicable.

I think it was primarily MY idea to cast 'contagion' on the goblins (Come on admit it EN, I was excited about getting to use my new spells!!! When do you ever ACTUALLY get to use 'contagion' for anything useful?). Now, Gorak's "world view" is probably a bit different than that of most people's, and although he didn't see it that way, I guess the plan was pretty despicable ;)

TaranTheWanderer said:
I think it was primarily MY idea

Quiet you! It's my story hour, and if I want to grossly inflate my own role in the campaign, I'll go right ahead...although, on second thought, considering how that all panned out, you can have the credit. I'll take it for the ones that work :D

Heh, well anyhow, the story continues....

* * * * * * * * *​

A scream from below sent relief crashing over Khalid. It evaporated instantly as Shayla screamed again, “Khalid! Gorak! Help me!”

“Shayla!” Khalid yelled down as he struggled to free himself. “Ah, are you okay?”

“I think my leg's broke! And there's something down here with me!”

“We'll get you out of there,” Khalid called back, although he wasn't sure how.

“Get back!” Shayla screamed, then began to cast.

Khalid glanced at Gorak, but he was in the middle of a spell. Eyes closed, his powerful voice echoed off the peaks around them as the clouds above began to gather and darken.

Feeling helpless, Khalid leaned forward and dug into the snow. Grabbing the goblin by the scruff of the neck, he dragged him up, gasping and sputtering. As a crack of thunder split the air, Khalid shook the little goblin frantically, trying break his confusion. Seeing the goblins eyes focus on him, Khalid pulled him close and hissed into his tufted ear, “Ah, we do not want this. Your people or mine! Call for parlay! Make them talk!”

Nodding in understanding, the goblin began to shout at the top of his lungs. The two figures on the ridge above them had faded back out of sight and in the eerie silence after the lightening, the goblin's voice carried through the mountains. Khalid dug for his spell components, desperately hoping the goblins would listen to reason instead of dropping more of the mountain on them. A few agonizing seconds past before a rasping voice answered back. Khalid couldn't understand what they were saying, but Gorak lowered his hand slowly.

The goblin exchanged more words with his hidden tribesman. Fearing to even try to dig himself out, lest it be construed as a hostile action, Khalid waited anxiously. Finally, the goblin exhaled slowly, “They have agreed to speak with you. They will join us down here, on equal footing, shortly.”

Gorak pushed himself up on top of the snow with a grunt and leaned over the edge. “Shayla,” he barked, “are you safe?”

Khalid struggled out of the snow, and dared to look out over the edge. Shayla was lying, half buried under a mound of snow, about forty feet below them. Her face was pale from pain and shock, and her fiery red hair looked like a smear up blood upon the white snow. “I burned whatever was down here, and it ran off I think. Get me out of here.”

Working quickly, they fashioned a crude harness out of their climbing ropes, and threw it down to her. Looping it under her shoulders, Shayla gasped in pain as the three of them began to haul her up the side of the cliff. Even though she was slight, and Gorak did most of the work, Khalid was gasping and sweating by the time her head appeared over the edge of the cliff. Gorak quickly mended her leg with a few divine words while they waited for the goblins to appear.

About twenty minutes later, two goblins, following an enormous worg came down the path from behind them. The worg's mottled greyish fur was burned and scorched, from the corner of its right eye all the way down its flank. It padded up the trail until it was no more than ten feet from Khalid, and sat down on its haunches. Khalid, having been hastily nominated to deal with the goblins, looked up and prepared to greet them as they approached, when the worg growled in rough western, “Speak to me human. I speak for chief.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered, trying to hide his surprise. He recovered quickly and got straight to the point, ignoring the fact that he was speaking to a large dog. “Very well then. You have been misled by one who calls, yes, calls himself your friend. The gnoll, he has perhaps told you we are thieves, come to take what is yours, or perhaps merely weak and foolish travelers, yes? Well, I assure you, we are neither. We counted him as our friend once too and were rewarded by being led into a trap. Regardless of whether you agreed to help him or not, we would have been sent here, straight into conflict with your tribe. He sought us out with purpose and knew full well the harm we would inflict upon you.”

The goblins rankled at the subtle threat, but the worg just stared impassively. Finally, it growled, “What do you want from us?”

“Ah, yes, while the gnoll poses no real threat to us, we would have the name of his master, so there will be no, yes, no mistake when this insult is returned in kind. Deliver to us the gnoll and we will leave this place and bother your tribe no more. Yes, quite.”

“Wait,” the worg barked. “It will be decided.” It turned and leapt over the two goblins, racing down the path. The goblins stared hard at their tribesman, who was standing slightly behind Khalid, but when he made no move to follow, they turned away, scowling.

They set up their magical camp on the other side of the avalanche, on a clear, broad stretch of trail, and waited. Gorak, protected from the cold and not particularly fond of the otherworldly expanse of shelter, offered to spend as much time outside on watch as possible. After the first day went by, Khalid began to get concerned. Considering the travel time, they could have arrived at any time if the answer had been immediately decided.

All his worrying was for naught as the next day, four goblins, carrying the trussed up gnoll on a spit between them appeared on the path, led by the huge worg. It's burns had been completely healed and were only visible as lighter patches of fur along that side. As the goblins dropped the gnoll roughly on the ground the worg growled, “There's answer. One condition. That one,” he twitched his snout towards the renegade goblin. “You take that one too.”

“Yes, quite.” Khalid nodded.

Without another word, the goblins dropped the gnoll's belongings on the ground and left. After waiting to ensure they were well down the path. They advanced on the gnoll. Gorak had a broad grin on his face, and clapped Khalid on the arm as he walked past. Shayla was watching their captive intently, muttering angrily under her breath. Waving the goblin away, out of earshot, Khalid inspected the gnoll. The reason for the delay became apparent from the number of wounds on the gnoll. It had been beaten severly. It's upper lip was in tatters, and several of its top fangs were broken. Its right eye was gone, and what was left of its ruined clothing was stained with blood. It was barely conscious, and shied away from Khalid more out of instinct than recognition.

“Ah, Gorak, he's no use like this.”

“Right,” Gorak grunted. “Seems like a waste though.” He cast a spell on the helpless gnoll and slowly some of the more garish wounds began to mend.

While Khalid waited for the gnoll to regain consciousness, he idly walked over to where Shayla was sifting through the gnolls belongings. She muttered a quick cantrip and then squealed in delight. “Finally! What do we have here?” She fished a long, wickedly curved dagger out of a tattered rucksack and sighed slightly. “Give this to Gorak,” she said as she tossed the dagger aside. As she dropped the bag on the ground, a small vial rolled out of a fold in the lining and bumped against Khalid's foot.

He bent over and picked it up, studying it carefully. Some sort of white powder, one of a hundred possibilities. He worked the stopper free, and took a whiff on the contents. His eyes widened as he recognized the acrid smell, and he wet his finger and dipped into the vial, placing the tiniest bit on his tongue. Spitting into the snow, he nodded to himself and put the vial in his pocket.

Khalid returned to Gorak's side as he was slapping the gnoll awake. The gnoll shook its head, and its one remaining eye focused on them. As recognition dawned, its upper lip curled back in a snarl.

“Ah, yes, now that you're awake, we can get this whole mess sorted out,” Khalid began. “Who sent you after us?”

“I not talk,” the gnoll muttered. Gorak growled deep in his throat and stepped forward threateningly. “You beat me, I not talk!” the gnoll rasped hastily. “You let me go, I leave note, never come back.”

“Ah, no, I'm sorry my friend,” Khalid said as he shook his head sadly. “I'm afraid we can't let you report back to your master with an assessment of our abilities. Even were you to honor your word, you would be found, yes, found sooner or later. Yes, quite.”

“No,” he repeated again, “you will meet your final end in this place, and these mountains will mark your grave. There is no question of that. The true question you need to ask yourself, my friend, is how that end will come.”

Khalid leaned in close to the gnoll, inches away from his face. “Gorak wants to break your wrists and ankles, and leave you here. Shayla, yes, well the things she would do to you are best left unspoken. Is that what you wish, my friend? That your last hours be filled with pain and suffering? Undoubtedly your will is strong and it will take time to break you, but eventually, after Gorak has revived you a few times, you will talk.” Again Khalid shook his head. “I have no wish to see you suffer, and so I offer you this choice.” He pulled out the tiny vial of powder. “Speak now. Answer our questions truthfully and you will be rewarded. A long peaceful sleep after a pleasant dream. Yes, quite. Think carefully my friend. This offer will not, yes, not be made again.

Khalid stood up as the the gnoll regarded him carefully. Its eyes darted to the vial in Khalid's hand and it began to speak in a low growl. “Malakai. Malakai sent me.”

Khalid hid his surprise, having already concluded that it was Halaal. “Yes, quite. Where is his base of operations?”

“In mountains, northeast of Gem-Sharad. North of Knolton.”

“Indeed. How did you infiltrate Arbaq's network?”

“Malakai tell me Arbaq want big secret real bad. He tell me where big secret is, give me good story to tell. Name of guy who knows another guy. Arbaq want big secret so bad he take big risks.”

“Ah, yes, and your reward?”

“Malakai smart. You wreck old business, he start new one.” The gnoll gestured at the vial in Khalid's hand with his snout. “He spending lots of money, making big promises to get you.”

“Obviously not big enough.”

“Not yet,” the gnoll agreed with a vicious grin. “But ten thousand sultana's? There lots of hunters want to catch that prey.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered. He stepped back to confer with Gorak and Shayla. “I sensed no falsehood in his voice.”

“Yeah, it's a pretty good story if it ain't true. It fits.” Gorak agreed.

“So is there anything else we need from this thing, or can we get moving?” Shayla asked pointedly.

“Ah, I doubt he'll know anything more significant than he's already told us. I can't see a drug addled lapdog being deep within Malakai's council. Yes quite.”

Uncorking the vial, Khalid walked over to the captive gnoll, and up ended the contents into his mouth without a word. The gnoll swallowed, coughing as the bitter powder went down. After a few minutes, its eyes rolled back and the bonds went slack. Being over cautious, they waited for the end, and after an hour or so, the gnoll twitched violently, arching his back and straining at the ropes that bound him. Then he went limp and moved no more.

Gorak checked the gnoll quickly, then nudged the body off the edge of the cliff into the valley below. “Let's go,” he growled. “We're done here.”

A day and a half later, and they still had not reached the boundry of the goblins territory. The path had been difficult and in several places, completely blocked by snow. Khalid was anxious to leave the goblin tribe behind, despite the fact that their presence was undoubtedly responsible for driving away any number of unpleasant predators. When they stopped for the evening, Khalid opened a portal, but stayed outside as Shayla and the goblin vanished up the rope. Pulling out his spellbook, he flipped it open, well aware of Gorak's curious gaze. Running over the words one last time, he selected a point, thirty yards down the path, and began to focus his will.

“Whut're ya doing?” Gorak grumbled.

Khalid sighed and relaxed, letting the magick slip away. “Ah, just trying out a new set of formulae.”

“So wut's gonna happen?”

“Ah, well, if everything works as I've planned, a portal will open. But don't worry, whatever comes out of it will be fully under my control. Yes, quite.”

“Now wait a minute, what do you mean, whatever...”

Khalid closed his eyes and began to chant, visualizing the formula in his mind. Weaving through the complex motions that directed the energy, he opened his eyes and focused on a spot, some fifty feet down the path. Khalid felt the magic surge through him as a thin disc opened parallel to the ground, right where he visualized it. For a moment, nothing happened, then a thick fog, the colour of old rust, began to pour out.

Gorak walked up behind him and stared at the mist slowly spilling over the edge of the path. “Izzat doing what it's supposed to?”

“Ah, yes, ah, I'm not quite sure.” Khalid said, somewhat crestfallen. “It was sort of a gamble. I was hoping, yes, hoping to snare something useful, that had no particular, ah, agenda, shall we say. It appears as though I've opened a gateway to a dead world, however. Still, it may yet, yes, yet prove to be of some value.”

“Some of that stuff is getting pretty close.” Gorak grunted.

“Ah, it's probably not toxic,” Khalid assured him, watching the portal carefully as the magic weaves began to unravel and fade. “And besides, the portal is failing, it will close shortly.”

“Yeah, but it's pretty windy up here, maybe you should step back some,” Gorak rumbled as he moved away.

Khalid turned to respond just as a gust of wind sheered through the peaks and wafted the leading edge of the smoke cloud over him. Instantly his eyes watered and his throat seized up. His lungs and sinsus felt as though he'd inhaled red hot embers. “Back,” he gasped to Gorak as he staggered away from the cloud. “Into the refuge.”

Gorak, seeing the look of horror on Khalid'd face, turned and leapt into the magical shelter. Khalid was only a step behind, and clawed at the rope as the wind blew the mist closer. Gorak's strong hands grabbed him as he crossed the barrier and hauled him inside. Shayla grabbed the rope and tugged it inside, as the smoke swirled and billowed below.

Collapsing to his knees, Khalid wrapped his arms around around his chest and shuddered violently. “Ah, that's dreadful!” he gasped when he could finally speak again. “That's absolutely the worst, yes, worst stench I've ever encountered.”

“Really?” Shayla scoffed. “What about the goblin jakes in Malakai's mine?”

“Lilacs, yes, lilacs and roses compared to that horror.” Khalid's eyes crossed slightly and he snatched his hat off, just in time to be noisily sick in it. While Gorak, Shayla and the goblin watched with thinly veiled amusement, Khalid continued to wheeze and sweat for several minutes. Finally, still shivering slightly, he regained his composure. Looking up with a somewhat sickly grin, he said, “Ah, I think perhaps that might, yes, might be a useful spell after all. Describe to me again the beast's lair?” He leaned back and as the goblin began to recite once more what he knew of their foes lair, the smile only grew larger.
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