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


Khalid did indeed cast stinking cloud. It's a terrible, awful spell that I should disallow completely.

That scene gives a good glimpse of Khalid's magical aptitude. He was a total and utter failure at the wizard's school prior to the magical fallout. After that point, he found that he had effectively "stumbled" upon the arcane formula that make his spellcasting possible in this age. He's one of a very few who can wield arcane powers at this time.

As for his summonings "failing" that's another issue that will become more and more apparent in the future.

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Galeman said:
Khalid did indeed cast stinking cloud. It's a terrible, awful spell that I should disallow completely.

Bah. If you had your way, the only spell I'd be able to cast is 'Sword' (non-verbal, somatic, material). :p Heh, that being said, stinking cloud is one of the cornerstones of my arsenal and it gets a lot of use (no spell resistance is a big plus).

I always intended Khalid to be pretty much a pure summoner - it fits in nicely with his cowardly nature to have others doing the fighting for him. I'm still clinging to that, even though practically speaking I don't summon creatures all that often and the druid class is probably better at it - so to make myself feel better I try to add a little flavor to my spells. From a campaign standpoint, at this point Khalid was beginning to get a little nervous about summoning devils, so I was starting to hunt for alternatives - demons are too unpredictable and he's never been a really big fan of celestials/angels (they aggravate his inferiority complex and really, how can you force an angel to say, murder a helpless opponent? That just seems like bad karma and Khalid's already got enough problems - at least the devils enjoy it). You can probably see where this is going...

From a character standpoint, I had Khalid pretty much planned out from level 1 - but it's always to have a story to drape over all power gaming I do (and make no mistake, I'm a huge munchkin :D )

“Alright, here's how it's gonna go,” Gorak began before he was interrupted by Khalid's casting. With a sheepish grin, Khalid tossed a tiny strip of leather into the air as golden bands of magical armor wrapped around him.

“Okay,” Gorak growled with a pointed look at Khalid. “So I checked this place out and it's pretty much like we expected. It's cut into the side of the mountain up ahead, about fifteen feet off the ground. There's a ledge out front, maybe twenty feet across. I didn't get too close, but it looked ta me like one big room, with a wide entrance. Didn't see nobody moving around either.”

“Ah, so getting up there is going to be an issue?” Khalid suggested.

“Yup, that's pretty much it. We all gotta get up there real fast, before this guy figures out what's going on.”

“Nothing we haven't done before,” Shayla noted.

“Ya, but it takes a lot outta me, and we got one more this time.” Gorak jerked his thumb at the goblin.

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “I have something that will certainly, yes, certainly help. A new formula that I believe is ready.”

Gorak frowned and was about to say something when Shayla spoke up. “Well, is it ready or not?” she asked impatiently.

“Ah, well, under these conditions, testing it has been, ah, difficult,” Khalid stammered defensively, “and yes, I'd hoped to improve upon the duration somewhat. It's really quite limited.” He sighed regretfully.

“And what's it do?” Gorak grunted.

“Grants a measure, yes, a measure of flight, directed by will alone. It's fast, but as I said, last only a few minutes. Yes, quite.”

“Can you take care of yerself and Shayla wit that?” Gorak asked. When Khalid nodded, Gorak continued, “Good, then I'll take care of me and the goblin.” He turned to look at the little goblin, who was studiously examining his sword blade for flaws. “Since those two are gonna be buzzing around, yer only job is to keep whatever comes outta that cave off me for as long as possible.”

“Ah, yes, I'd suggest staying clear, yes, clear of the cave. It's going to be very, ah, unpleasant in there.” Khalid said with a smirk.

Since there was really no need to discuss Shayla's role, they hurriedly finished packing up their belongings, and dropped out of the magical shelter into the early morning sunlight. As they headed towards the cave, Khalid walked beside Shayla, instructing her on the use of the spell. “Ah, you will have near flawless control of your movement, and orientation does not matter so much. However, stabilizing yourself can be a challenge.” He paused for a second as Gorak waved them back and scouted the path ahead. Watching Gorak vanish around a bend, he continued in a low whisper, “Unfortunately, along with the limited duration of only, ah few minutes, the spell exerts a constant force.” When Shayla raised an eyebrow, he explained, “Ah, that means that the weight of the earth will hold you back, when you try to gain, yes, gain altitude. If you are descending however, you will pick up speed quickly.”

“How will I know when it's gonna run out? It's not just going to drop me is it?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, no, as the spell unravels the force will dissipate slowly. It permits you some time to reach the ground, but not more than a few seconds. If you concentrate, yes, concentrate on the magic, like we practiced, you will gain a feel for the strength of the weave, and the time until it fails.”

Gorak returned and crouched down on his haunches, sketching out the path in the snow. “We're close now,” he growled. “Real close. I'm gonna get our little friend here ready, then go take a look, see if they've caught a whiff of us yet. Gimme a minute or so, then if nothings wrong, kit up and join me up front.”

“What's the signal if something's wrong?” Shayla asked.

“If'n you see me come running down this path, you probably wanna follow, otherwise, I'll see ya up there.” He spat out a litany of enchantments, fortifying himself and the goblin. His spellcasting complete, Gorak tipped over Sousee's wicker basket, then closed his eyes and concentrated. Slowly his arms and legs melded into his torso and his black skin took on a scaly, emerald sheen. His features melted away as his nose lengthened. Dropping into a thick coil, Gorak slithered away down the path with Sousee following closely behind him.

Khalid counted to one hundred and, hearing nothing from down the path, began to cast spells in rapid succession. The goblin hurried down the path, with Shayla following close behind. Khalid finished his spell and felt a peculiar tension around his body as his feet slowly lifted off the ground. Skimming low over the path, he quickly passed Shayla and the goblin and joined Gorak.

Gorak and Sousee darted out into the clearing as Khalid surveyed the area. The path, up until this point, had been nothing more than a thin fracture in the mountain. Here, it widened out into a huge basin, more than fifty feet across. Directly opposite where they were standing was the ledge and just above it, Khalid could barely see the opening to the cave. The goblin rushed past him, moving quickly to cross the open ground. Khalid held Shayla back for a second, not wanting to reach the cliff before Gorak and the goblin. When he judged them close enough, he shot out of hiding, flying parallel to the ground, only inches from the surface with Shayla close on his heels. They all reached the ledge at the same time, and hesitated for a split second, listening for any sound of alarm from above.

Hearing nothing, Khalid willed himself to rise up off the ground while the goblin placed his hands on the rock and began to climb effortlessly up the side. Gorak and Sousee rose up out of the snow and found crevices in the ice, their thick muscles propelling them easily up the cliff.

Khalid reached the top first and saw instantly the that layout of the cave was perfect for what he had in mind. The angle of the sun made the interior of the cave hard to see clearly, but through the gloom he could barely make out two shadowy forms at the back of the cavern. Without exposing more than his head over the edge of the plateau, Khalid launched into a spell, opening a portal as far back as he could see. Instantly, noxious fumes poured out of the magical gate, filling the cave and spilling out onto the plateau. The area was concealed by the rust coloured smoke but Khalid could hear the sound of violent retching from within.

Gorak slid over the lip of the plateau and shimmered back into his own form as the goblin clambered up and moved into position in front of him. When Gorak began to cast, Sousee slithered around his feet and away from the goblin.

Khalid turned to tell Shayla that the coast was clear but the words caught in his throat as a huge monstrosity materialized out of the smoke. The terrible abomination offended Khalid in an almost spiritual way. It was composed of various body parts, nailed, bolted and stitched together in a hideous parody of life. Its torso appeared to be mostly hill giant, mounted on the squat, powerful legs of an ogre. Dozens of patches of stark white goblin flesh had been stitched across vulnerable joints and gear work, giving the creature a scabrous, diseased appearance. A huge fur-covered arm from a yeti, with thick steel spikes driven into the fingers in place of claws, dragged along the ground as the beast lurched towards them with surprising speed. The thing's left hand, human but grossly elongated somehow, lashed out like a whip and wrapped around the goblin's hastily raised shield. Dragging it aside easily, the yeti arm swept around, driving the steel hooks through the goblin's metal helm and deep into his skull. The reptilian head, swiveling atop the massive torso searching for more prey to feed its mindless rage, would have been almost comical if not for the expression of hideous agony etched upon its features. Shaking aside the body, the creature's milk white eyes turned to focus on Gorak.

Shayla, needing no encouragement from Khalid to make an entrance, flew up and away from the ledge. The mountain wind whipped her auburn curls about wildly but it had no effect on her aim as she hovered over the ledge and called on the fury of her magic. She smiled slightly as the jet of searing flame streaked out, striking the creature dead center in chest. The smile faded as the flames washed over the abomination without even singeing the dead goblin flesh. “It didn't do anything,” Shayla cried. “I don't think I can hurt it”

“Ah, no wait!” Khalid yelled. Although it appeared unhurt, the thing began to shake and shudder violently while jets of steam burst out from vents along its spine. “I think it's overheating!”

Gorak, ignoring the monstrosity standing only a few feet away from him, finished his spell and summoned a huge wolf, three times the size of a goblin worg, behind the construct. Even before it fully coalesced, it lunged forward and sank its huge jaws into the abominations hip. There was a protesting squeal of metal and the crunch of bone as the wolf bit deep and sparks flew from the ground as the metal spikes on the creature's feet scrabbled against the icy surface. Shaking its powerful neck and shoulders viciously, the wolf swept the feet out from under the golem and sent it crashing to the ground.

Khalid, uncertain as to which of his spells would affect the magical beast, hesitated while Gorak launched into another spell. Sousee lashed out, biting ineffectually at the creature's head while Shayla began casting again, this time chanting furiously and for far longer than Khalid had ever seen. At the culmination of her spell, a thick stream of viscous acid sprayed out from her fingers, soaking the downed creature but like the flame, had no visible effect.

The abomination, flailing and struggling while steam continued to jet from its body, tried to get to its feet, but once again the wolf darted in and knocked it over. As the wolf pulled away, it tore free a huge strip of flesh from the beast's chest, exposing metal ribs beneath.

Gorak, finishing his spell, raised his hands into the air and called down a bolt of lightening, striking the creature full on. Sparks danced around the exposed bolts and wiring, and steam stopped jetting out of the thing's back. It's motions became more fluid and less hectic, but it still wasn't able to dodge away from the dire wolf's fearsome attack.

Shayla and Khalid, having no options, waited for the chance to do something. The creature, moving again with unnatural grace, curled its feet underneath it, and leapt up and away from the wolf's gnashing teeth. Landing upright, the huge yeti arm swung in a wide arc, flaying the skin from the dire wolf and sending it tumbling away.

“Don't hit it with lightning again!” Khalid cried out.

“Don't worry about that,” Gorak roared as he ducked out of the way of the golem's arm.

“Shayla! Hit it with fire again! Overheat it!”

Shayla started casting and once more bathed the golem with fire, causing steam and smoke to shoot out of its ruptured joints. The wolf barreled back into the fight and hamstrung the creature, sending it tumbling to the ground once more. Gorak, taking advantage of the off-balance golem, brought his cudgel crashing down, destroying several of the gears on the human arm.

Abandoning its futile attempts to stand, the golem lashed out at the wolf from the ground. Catching the animal before it could shy away, the powerful blow tore out one of its eyes and shattered several teeth. Gorak and the wolf continued to take turns punishing the creature. As the golem raised its hands to fend off Gorak's wicked strike, the wolf dove forward, savaging at the creature's armored stomach. Digging in its heels, the wolf sunk its teeth deep into the golems flesh, and tore out a huge mawful of gore and copper tubing. The golem continued to flail, but now its legs seemed to be working against it, twitching and kicking at nothing.

Khalid, still seeing little opportunity to help, was watching the fight anxiously as a cowled figure stumbled out of the noxious smoke. It was impossible to determine the creature's race or gender, so alien were its twisted features. Its black robes were stained and filthy, in no small part due to Khalid's spell. The creature fell to its knees and gasped for air, clutching at its stomach as another spasm wracked its body. Uncertain of how long the wizard would be incapacitated, Khalid cast another spell and coated the retching mage in a shroud of glittering yellow dust.

Gorak easily ducked under the golem's last feeble effort and pinned its human arm to the ground, beneath his foot. Drawing back his cudgel, he brought it down with a sharp crack, crushing the golem's skull as the wolf leapt in one final time and tore one of the thing's legs completely off. An instant later the wolf vanished, and the twisted leg clattering to the rock. With a terrible squeal of metal on metal and one final shudder, the golem collapsed, sending a wave of steaming fluid washing over the plateau.

Gorak quickly checked the downed the goblin but stood up again without casting a spell. Shayla and Khalid landed on the ledge, on either side of the incapacitated wizard, waiting for Gorak to join them. He stepped up between them, his cudgel held low at his waist. Looking at Khalid and then Shayla, he grunted, “Well, this is what we came here for.” He leaned down close the the wizard, who was crawling away on his hands and knees. “Maybe next time, if yer nicer, this sort of thing won't happen.” he growled as he brought his cudgel down across the back of the creatures neck, driving it to the ground. Gorak struck out again, for good measure, rendering the wizard unconscious but not killing it outright.

“Ah, maybe there is no need,” Khalid started to say when a voice that was not his own echoed in his mind.

Please...finish him...quickly

“Ah, what?” Khalid blurted aloud, startled. He realized that both Gorak and Shayla were looking at him oddly.

Hurry...do not...let him back into my...head

Waves of loathing and terror washed over Khalid. Shame and hate almost overwhelmed him, as memories that were not his own triggered primal emotions. With a gasp, Khalid jerked a knife from its sheath on his belt, and plunged it into the wizard's crumpled form.

“Uh,” Gorak grunted as stared hard at Khalid. “Right, why don't you just take care of that then.”

“Not me,” Khalid said as he stood up somewhat unsteadily. “The voice, yes, voice told me to do that.”

“Um, maybe you shouldn't be listening to the voices in your head any more Khalid,” Shayla said carefully.

Regaining some of his self control, Khalid frowned and replied. “Ah, no, I'm not crazy. It was him, yes, him.” He pointed into the gloom of the cave. With the portal closed there was nothing to sustain the foul smoke and the last of the mist was blowing away on the wind. Barely visible at the back of the cave was a damaged and bloody figure, bound tightly to a wooden rack.

Gorak moved swiftly to the bound figure and began to cut him free. Muttering a spell under his breath, he placed a powerful hand on the man's chest and pressed him down upon the table as his most potent healing magic coursed through his body.

The man thrashed at Gorak's touch, but was too weak to push him away. As the wounds began to close, sense returned to his eyes and he calmed down. When Gorak moved his hand away, the man sat up on the table, and slid off the edge gingerly, slowly testing his weight on unsteady legs.

Khalid opened a portal with a word and a gesture and they helped weary prisoner up into the safety of the magical dimension. He accepted only a mouthful of water before falling into a deep sleep. Although Khalid feared he would not live the night, his breathing seemed steady and deep. Late that night, when they were forced to wake him and depart the collapsing dimension, he seemed much more alert and healthy. Gorak took the opportunity to cast a few more healing spells before the man again dropped into a heavy slumber in the safety of the magical shelter.

They took turns watching over him as he slept well into the afternoon of the following day. He woke on his own, long enough for Khalid to reinforce the magical portal and wolf down a substantial amount of food. On the second day, he awoke, seemingly completely mended both physically and mentally from his torment. He was oblivious to the trio's curious stares as he ate in silence, finally sighing heavily and tossing half of hard unleavened biscuit back into rations bag.

“My apologies, my new friends, for my lack of composure until now. Suffering under such wretched enslavement had greatly weakened me, as you can imagine. I am eternally greatful for your courage and heroism in rescuing me from that demon and I owe you a great debt. Your will is my command.”

Khalid frowned at that curious phrase and was suddenly struck by how this man reminded him of Jalaal, only...more so. Healed of his wounds by Gorak's magic, his body was fit and strong, tanned a dark metallic bronze. He wore little in the way of clothing, but seemed bothered little by cold. His smile was quick and broad, and his teeth even and flashed brighter than the icy snow. Gold hoops and rings adorned both ears, and his earlobes had been stretched out, pulled down by gleaming golden weights. Even after all he had been through, his delicately oiled mustache was perfectly smooth, with not a hair out of place.

“Ya,” Gorak grunted, “we'll you'll get a chance ta work off that debt right soon, don't worry. You're going to show us through these mountains.”

“Of course,” the man said quickly. “Whatever you wish.”

“Ah, yes,” Khalid interjected carefully, motioning Gorak back. “Time enough to discuss that later. Tell us, yes, tell us my friend, what is your name?”

“Ruwayd of the Seven Hills tribe, from the great northern oasis, at your service.” He said, with a low bow over his hands and a flash of his brilliant smile.

“Ah, yes,” Khalid nodded, then narrowed his eyes shrewdly. “And so there are no misunderstandings, what, exactly are you?”

The smile didn't waver as the man bowed low again. “Janni my friend, the Seven Hills tribe are janni.”

“Yes, quite, that would explain it.”

“What's all this about?” Shayla asked curiously.

“He is a wind walker.” Khalid said slowly, as the Janni Ruwayd nodded. “The spirit of air rushes through his blood. His people are not from this world, but well suited to it.” Receiving only a blank stare from Shayla, he sighed. “He is, kin to the creatures of fabled desert lore, the djinn and the efreet. Genie.”

“So you grant wishes?” Shayla asked pointedly.

The man laughed uproariously at the suggestion, “No, my lady, unless it is your wish to always be bathed within the light of my smile.”

“Charmer, this one,” Shayla said with a toss of her curls. “Well, that tells me everything I need to know. Are we about ready to move on?”

“Ah, we should perhaps attend to his friend,” Khalid said, delicately.

“Friend,” Ruwayd asked, with a confused look.

“Yes, in truth we did not rescue you of our own accord, we were led here, yes, led here by another. A goblin.”

“How remarkable. And since he is not here among us, I assume he has paid for my freedom with his life?”

“Yes, quite.”

“Another debt to repay,” the Janni half-whispered. Then he spoke aloud, “I would see to my friend's rest, before we set upon our journey.”

“Whatever,” Gorak grunted. “I guess he deserves that much. He weren't half bad, fer a goblin.”

They gathered up their belongings and prepared the goblin's tomb. To his surprise, Ruwayd suggested that they build a small cairn within the wizard's cave. “All things will avoid this place for many years to come, I think,” he pointed out. “He should enjoy his rest undisturbed.”

Khalid took the opportunity to filch a few choice tomes from the wizard's library, while the janni bowed his head and whispered a few words in a floating, airy language. The goblin properly interred. They set out down the path, with the Janni leading the way.

They hadn't gone very far, when the Janni turned and called back over his shoulders. “What I say now, is not an attempt to relieve myself of my obligation to you, but I think you should know that the way ahead is quite difficult.”

“Don't worry about that,” Gorak grunted. “We got ways to take care of all that.”

“I had assumed as much, since you have made it this far and bested that fiend on your own merit. I just thought I should prepare you for the journey.”

As they traveled along, Khalid wracked his mind for anything he could recall about Janni. He knew they were possessed of several extraordinary powers by virtue of their heritage, but he could remember little of the specifics. He did know that they tended to be tribal and fiercely loyal to their friends, which did much to set Khalid at ease around him. Watching the Janni carefully confirmed one of his suspicions however. Like Gorak, the Janni appeared to walk normally, but his feet barely disturbed the snow on the path.

They spent several torturous days climbing over frozen bridges of ice between two peaks and then struggled further up the side of another mountain. By the morning of the forth day, the had reached a small plateau and were faced with a short climb over a ridge before descending in the the valley below. Ruwayd, seemingly never wearied by the climb, motioned for them to rest while he easily scaled the rock face.

He disappeared from sight briefly and then leaned over the edge. “I had feared as much. You had best join me up here, quickly.”

They scrambled to their feet and climbed up the cliff to join Ruwayd on a broad ledge. The view before them was breathtaking, as the mountain fell away into a deep valley, covered with thick pine trees and buried in snow. As Khalid took in the scenic panorama, the Janni whispered, “You said that you had methods to deal with the dangerous parts?” When Gorak grunted, the Janni continued. “Then prepare yourselves, for this is one of those places.” He pointed across the valley, mid-way up the side of a mountain. At first, Khalid could see nothing. Then a distant shriek, unlike anything Khalid had heard before, split through the air.

“Impossible,” he gasped. From a small perch on the cliff face, a beast leapt away from the rock and spread its wings. Sunlight glittered off of the bluish green scales as the beast quickly gained altitude. With another shriek, the dragon rolled over in the air and plunged down into the forest below.
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“Ah, so, what exactly am I looking at?” Khalid asked.

Ruwayd pointed across the valley. “There are griffon aeries scattered across the peaks to the east. From here, the way across the mountains is safest, deep underground. The entrance to the cavern we seek is on the other side of the valley.” Ruwayd replied, pointing. “There.”

Khalid sighted down his arm and could barely make out a dark smudge against the base of the cliff, three or four hundred feet south of the dragon's nest. A drift of snow almost completely obscured the narrow crevice, indicating the path had not been used in the recent past.

They slid down back from their perch looking into the valley, and huddled close to discuss their options.

“So, what's the plan?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, the usual?” Khalid offered.

“Run like hell?” Gorak grunted. “I'm good with that. With a little luck, we'll be right across that valley and into the cave before that thing even knows we're there.”

Khalid was about to comment on the quality of their luck recently, but with a careful look at the Gorak's expression, decided better of it. They sat down and began to sketch out the details of their plan. After having been in numerous harrowing situations together, it took little time for the three to incorporate Ruwayd into their tactics. Khalid and Shayla, buoyed by Khalid's magic, would fly across the valley led by Ruwayd, whose inhuman heritage allowed him to walk about the wind as though it was firm ground. Gorak, unable to fight effectively in his altered form but possessing speed and agility in the air, would scout above and ahead and watch their descent into the valley before following them underground.

Taking refuge within Khalid's magic, they spent a few days trying to study the habits of the dragon, to little avail. On the second night, Gorak joined them in the portal, with a frustrated curse. “Useless,” he grunted. “I can't tell when it sleeps, if'n it sleeps at all. Maybe the damn thing has another entrance to that cave, someplace outta sight. If I had more time,” he shrugged. “So as far as I'm concerned, going at dawn is just as good as the middle of the night. At least we'll all be able to see where we're going then.”

Khalid nodded, finding no fault with the plan. They readied themselves to depart early, and bedded down without watch within the pocket dimension. In the morning, Gorak shook them awake, and they began to prepare for the mad sprint across the valley. Closing his spellbook with a determined snap, Khalid stood up and wasted no time in rhyming off a litany of spells, while Gorak closed his eyes and willed himself into the form of a fierce looking eagle. With Gorak perched on his shoulder, and the rest of them hovering slightly, Khalid took a deep breath, and collapsed the walls of the magical dimension. It took only a second for Khalid to get oriented, as Gorak launched himself into the air. Robes fluttering in the frigid wind, Khalid willed himself after Ruwayd, who had already begun to descend into the valley. With a worried glance at the cloudy sky, Shayla trailed a few seconds behind.

They were half way across valley and Khalid had just allowed to himself hope that they would make it across unscathed, when the dragon hurtled down through the clouds, right on top of them. As it dropped directly down in front of Ruwayd, the beast flared out its massive wings almost instantly slowing and opened its maw wide. Khalid, stunned by the dragon's appearance, couldn't manage to change direction in time. With an awful hiss, the dragon exhaled a caustic green mist that enveloped Ruwayd and Khalid. As the gas seared his eyes and lungs, he felt a numbing cold sink deep into his bones, unabated by his magical protection. Unable to even scream, Khalid's control faltered, which probably saved his life. Falling out of the fog, into the clean, cool mountain air, Khalid gasped for breath as his tortured lungs burned. Through tearing eyes, he saw Ruwayd roll out of the mist, clutching at his throat, coated in frost.

The dragon tucked its wings in and continued its dive, dropping far below them and skimming across the treetops, before climbing once more into the sky. Gorak shrieked in helpless rage, as he dove, incredibly, to the lip of the dragon's lair and shimmered back into his own form.

“Khalid, damn you,” Shayla cursed as she raced past. “Don't just hover there! Move!”

Ruwayd summoned his inhuman fortitude and shook off the effects of the dragon's breath incredibly quickly. Reversing himself instantly in mid-air, he shot past Khalid and Shayla. He drew his scimitar out of his belt and held it out like a lance, as he charged straight at the dragon, seeking to intercept it.

“Get over here, we've got to force it to land!” Gorak roared from his perch, before launching into a spell. The clouds overhead churned and darkened, but in the blinding after image burned into his aching eyes, Khalid saw the lightening bolt flow around the beast like water. Unfazed, it surged toward Ruwayd, with thrusts of its powerful wings. The distance between them vanished in an instant. Ruwayd rolled onto his back and tried to drop beneath the creature, aiming for the it's vitals. But dragon was a cunning hunter and with devious intelligence, anticipated the move and rolled onto it's back as well, offering him nothing but armored scales. As they passed, the beast flicked out its wickedly barbed tail, smashing into Ruwayd and sending him cartwheeling through the air, dazed and bloodied.

Khalid willed himself towards Gorak, as he realized the dragon wasn't turning and would be on top of them in mere seconds. With dismay, he realized there was little chance he could outrun the dragon and then, with horror, realized Shayla was slowing down. She turned to face the dragon and Khalid saw a familiar look in her flashing green eyes. She wasn't going to get caught running.

The dragon, perceiving Ruwayd as the greatest threat, presumably from his size, rushed heedlessly at them and made a mistake made by dozens of other unfortunate men and beasts alike. It got far too close to Shayla.

In her lyrical voice, Shayla rhymed off the words to a spell. The dragon let out an earsplitting roar and banked sharply away as a lance of fire seared the flesh from its skull. Smoking and shrieking, the creature turned as sharply as it could, and tried to climb above them.

Khalid, not wanting to be anywhere near Shayla if the dragon decided to breath again, shrieked out a spell and spun one hundred and eighty degrees in the air. Sailing backwards through the air, he tossed a cloud of golden dust in front of the dragon with little effect; the golden dust just swirled in the creature's wake as it emerged unhindered.

Glancing down, Khalid saw that Ruwayd's unearthly heritage had saved him, as he righted himself only a dozen feet from the face of the cliff. Shaking his head, he again flew straight at the wounded beast. The dragon was forced to level off and face him, or risk being attacked from behind. Ruwayd snaked and twisted in the air, trying to fool the dragon. As the creature's claws slashed through the air inches beside him, Ruwayd lashed out with his scimitar, biting deep into the flesh between the claws. The two separated as the dragon surged upwards again, trying desperately to gain more distance from Shayla.

With a wicked grin, Shayla flew after the beast, and unleashed another torrent of fire into its back, blackening the pale green scales. The dragon shrieked again, but still bent on attack, headed for the clouds above. Khalid settled on the rock beside Gorak, peering nervously into the darkness as Gorak chanted quickly. As his hand burst into flame, he drew back his arm to throw, but then cursed as the dragon pulled out of range.

Ruwayd flew up near Shayla, then climbed past to protect her from the dragon's fierce dive. Shayla, however, continued to chase the dragon as it flew and then pulled up, shrieking out the words to another spell.

With his heart hammering in his ears, Khalid couldn't hear what she was saying. Running through her repertoire of manifestations in his mind, he couldn't think of any with a range sufficient to hurt the beast now, but Shayla surprised him with her raw power, once again. The final word left her lips and she pointed at the dragon, engulfing it in a ball of flame as the air, superheated by her magic, caught fire. Too wounded to even cry out, the dragon ceased climbing and banked hard, diving at the ground. Shayla, her red hair streaming behind her, pursued and once again, the dragon flew directly into a huge orb of flame to emerge on the other side, charred black, pummetting towards the trees below. Even high up on the side of the mountain, Khalid could hear branches breaking and saw the tops of several large trees disappear, as the dragon crashed to the earth.

With a triumphant grin, Shayla landed on the cliff beside them, followed by Ruwayd. Eyes flashing, she was about to hug Khalid when she caught a with of his pungent, smoking clothing and grabbed Gorak instead. Looking over his shoulder, her smile grew even wider. “Hey, what are those?”

Gorak put her down, and turned around. “Oh, right,” he grunted. “Those. Eggs.”

“No, not those,” Shayla said, “those things sparkling in the snow up there. Are those diamonds?” She walked around the room cautiously, ignoring the eggs.

Stepping into the darkness with Ruwayd, Khalid was hit with the full enormity of what they had done, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. In a small pile in the center of the cavern were four eggs, each about the size of a head of cabbage. Three of them were dark, greenish blue, but the one on top had a dull metallic, almost golden sheen to it. Tears filled his eyes as he considered the fate they had bestowed on the unborn dragons. Looking up, he saw the normally stoic Ruwayd looking despondent. “What have we done,” Khalid half-whispered to himself.

“What's that?” Gorak grumbled. “Hey, forget about those things. I think Shayla was right, I think these things are diamonds.”

“Gorak,” Shayla scolded from up on a ledge in the broad cavern. “Bite your tongue. Gather up those eggs and be careful with them.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “That's exactly what I was thinking.”

“Sure, we can have omlettes tomorrow,” she suggested, poking her head out over the edge.

Khalid stopped and glared up at Shayla. “Absolutely not.”

“Wonder what they taste like,” Gorak mused.

“We are not eating these things. Yes, quite.” Khalid repeated indignantly. Ruwayd nodded his head in agreement.

“What? Why not?” Gorak grunted in surprise.

“Ah, yes, perhaps because dragons are almost, yes, almost extinct as far as I know.” Khalid retorted, his voice rising.

“I fail ta see what part of that ain't a good thing fer us,” Gorak growled.

“The loss of these eggs is tragic, yes, tragic,” Khalid insisted.

“Fine,” Gorak grunted, relenting. “Whatever. I'ma gonna go check out where that thing landed. Make sure it ain't still thrashing around out there.” He stepped off the edge of the cliff and vanished from sight.

“Wait, does this mean omelettes are off the menu?” Shayla asked, before retreating under Khalid's furious gaze.

Gorak returned a few hours later, carrying something in his talons. As he shimmered back into his own form, Khalid realized with disgust that it was the dragon's heart. Shayla looked up from where she was stacking gemstones into neat little piles on the floor. “Eeew,” she cringed as she looked at the bluish white lump in his hand.

“You gotta try this,” he grunted.

“What?” Shayla asked incredulously, her eyes wide. “Are you serious?” She looked at him closely. “You are serious, aren't you?”

“The only word I can use to describe it,” Gorak rumbled, “is exhilarating. I ain't fooling around.”

“Ah, Gorak, how did you know it wasn't poison, yes, quite?” Khalid asked as the blood drained from his face. “That thing breathed toxic, yes, toxic gas on me.”

“Well it ain't, is it?” he grunted in reply. “And I don't care if you do or you don't, but I'm telling you, it ain't like nothing you've ever had before. And you ain't never gonna get another chance.”

Her disgust turning to curiosity, Shayla stood up and approached him, as he held out her hand. Leaning forward, she sniffed at the heart, then closed her eyes and took a small bite. Rocking back on her heels, she opened her eyes in surprise. “I see what you mean,” she said. “Khalid, you've got to try that.”

Gingerly approaching Gorak, Khalid felt himself succumb to the old pressures, and give in. Khalid, like Shayla, closed his eyes as he took a small bite. It melted almost instantly in his mouth, like packed snow, sending a shivering surge through his body. His heart began to hammer in his chest and for a brief instant, Khalid had never felt more alive. As the tingling faded, he looked down at the eggs with some guilt, even as a feeling of power still coursed through his veins.

Ruwayd joined them in the primitive ritual, before Gorak cast the heart far out into the valley. As they sat around a shielded fire, in the relative safety of the dragon's lair they discussed their next move.

“I wanna go skin that dragon,” Gorak growled immediately. “We should camp down there for a few days, then move into the tunnel under the mountains.”

“Ah, camp down there?” Khalid asked hesitantly. “I agree that we could use a break, but up here would be much, yes, much safer. There is nothing foolish enough, save us, yes, us, who would brave a dragon's lair.”

“Well, one way or another, I'ma gonna skin that dragon. You have any idea how valuable that stuff is?” Gorak growled.

“Who knows what else lives down there? Yes, quite.” Khalid argued. Seeing Gorak shift slightly and look away he pressed. “Ah, yes, Gorak, is there something else down there?”

“Maybe,” he grunted. “I thought maybe I saw something, moving around in the trees while I was near the dragon. But I'm not sure. Maybe it was just my nerves, you know, all jacked up after a fight.”

“Well, I'm not going down there. Yes, quite.” Ruwayd nodded as Khalid spoke.

“Shayla'll come then, right?” Gorak growled, looking hopefully at Shayla. “Keep a lookout while I work.”

“Uh, sure, I guess,” she replied, glancing at Khalid.

“And how, yes, how is she going to get down there?” Khalid asked smugly.

“You can cast that spell on her,” Gorak growled, his temper quickly rising.

“Ah, certainly. But how, yes, how will she return. You cannot carry her, and the magic lasts mere minutes.”

With Gorak getting madder by the second, Shayla intervened. “Khalid can cast that spell on me, and I can at least check on you every so often. And maybe Ruwayd too?” she asked, with a coy look on her face.

“Perhaps, but the forest below is a dark and dangerous place, you really should remain here.” he advised. “While I would relish a few more days beneath the open sky before plunging under the earth, you will forgive me if I'm not eager to hurl myself into any more peril than is warranted.”

“Sure, whatever,” Gorak growled, still glaring at Khalid. “Shouldn't take me more than a few days to take care of it. And there's probably nothing in that forest anyhow.”

Shielded from the cold by Gorak's magic, Khalid, Ruwayd and Gorak decided to sleep in the open air within the cave and forgo the confines of pocket dimension. Delighted with the privacy, Shayla made Khalid cast the spell regardless, and vanished inside.

When Khalid awoke the next morning, Gorak was already gone. He passed most of the day chatting with Ruwayd, and exploring the cave. At the back, they found a passage that was navigable, as far as they dared to venture within.

Ruwayd seemed unsurprised by their discovery. “I suspected this might be here. The tunnel we seek branches below, with one path climbing high into the heart of the mountain. I believe this is where it exits. Having never fully explored it however, and with the dragon here, I didn't think it worth mentioning.”

Somewhat less secure than before, Khalid shook aside his doubts, comforted in the knowledge that few things would dare enter a dragon's den. He returned to the main cave with Ruwayd, and their discussion turned to the eggs. Shayla checked on Gorak throughout the day, but reported no signs of trouble. In the evening, Gorak returned and joined them by the fire. “I got another day, two at the most, and then we can get outta here. I'll clean up the scales as best I can, wrap em up and stuff in the magic sack. We might have to move some stuff around. And there are definitely things down there in the valley. I caught a coupla glances of em, watching me from the trees.”

“What were they?” Shayla asked quickly.

“Dunno. Never got a real good look at 'em. Humanoid, swaddled up in robes, which suggests they're more than just animals. I may try tracking one of 'em down tomorrow. Who knows, maybe they'll be able to show us a safer way through the mountains.”

“Ah, yes, and maybe they'll show you why they live in the valley with the dragon, yes, quite. Maybe they worship the thing. Have you considered, yes, considered that?” Khalid asked.

“Well we sure won't know until we at least try to talk to them,” Gorak growled. “And besides, another two days, and we're out of here.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid muttered. “That will, of course, kill the eggs.”

“Yeah, well, no help for that really.” Gorak growled. “I still say you take one of 'em wit you. You could write a book or something, about it.”

“Ah, yes, a book you say.” Khalid half-whispered as his eyes widened. “I'd famous, yes, famous. Who else has done such a thing, in recent history?”

“That's the spirit,” Gorak grunted.

“Yes, quite,” Khalid muttered. “But it will only be truly great, if the dragons survive. I must keep these eggs alive at all, yes, all costs.”

“Right,” Gorak grunted, giving Khalid a long, careful look before going over to talk to Shayla. Khalid pulled out his spellbook and began to make notes, estimating the weight and dimensions as best he could. He even went so far as to try and sketch them, before realizing that was probably a better use for his spellbook then filling it with black ovals.

In the morning, Gorak sealed the opening at the rear of the cavern. After muttering a few words, he knelt down on the stone floor, raised his hands above his head and plunged them down, straight into the stone. At his touch, the floor became as malleable as clay, and he quickly covered the passage with a thick layer of rock. That finished, Gorak descended down into the valley without speaking to Khalid.

Despite how foolish he thought Gorak was being, Khalid wasn't sorry to see him gone for a while. Now that he, and his foul temper, were out of the way, Khalid could study and tend to the eggs in peace, with Ruwayd's help. Shayla mostly ignored the two of them, having little interest, beside culinary, in the eggs. It was becoming apparent to Khalid that the time was beginning to wear upon her. She'd grown bored of sorting and counting the piles of gems that littered the floor of the cavern, and sat in sullen silence until she felt it was time to badger him into granting her flight and setting her free from the cave.

Her mood changed abruptly when Gorak returned that evening, a deeper scowl than usual twisting his face. He threw down a pile of dragon scales and picked up the enchanted rucksack, slowly conjuring out all of its contents, one at a time. He carefully pushed the edge of the scales into the magical bag, which expanded to accommodate it.

“Ah, yes, so I take it you're done down there?” Khalid asked.

“I think it's about time we got ourselves outta here,” Gorak growled.

“Right now?” Shayla asked, sitting up from the stalagmite she'd been reclining on. “It's a bit late to get started now, don't ya think?” She looked over his shoulder pointedly, at the rapidly darkening sky.

“We're heading inta a cave. What difference does that make?” He grunted, slowly stuffing their belongings back into the haversack.

“Ah, yes, well, still.” Khalid protested. “It's late, and I've been up all day. It will take time, yes, time to pack up my belongings. Why not depart in the morning, yes, quite.”

Frustrated, Gorak finally blurted out, “Alright, look. I finally got a hold of one of those little buggers down in the valley. One of 'em even spoke a little bit of orc. I guess they do some trading with some of the mountain tribes around these parts.” Seeing Shayla's mounting impatience, he returned to his point. “Look, those little buggers are terrified of something that lives in this valley, or at least passes through it on a regular basis.”

“Ah, the dragon?” Khalid asked, sensing where Gorak was leading.

“No,” he growled. “Not the damn dragon. They could see me hacking that thing up. There's something else that's got them trembling in their little grey robes.”

“What then?” Shayla asked.

“I dunno,” Gorak snarled. “They were evasive little bastards, and they had me at about a twenty to one disadvantage at the time, so I didn't have a chance to ask proper.” He took a deep breath and gave Shayla direct look, “Anyhow, I think it's damn well time we got out of this cave.”

Shayla glanced at Khalid and he guessed she was looking for his support to get out of a midnight march. Not particularly relishing the idea himself, he spoke up. “Ah, even so, we've seen no evidence, yes, evidence of any beasts around, have we?” He looked at Gorak.

“Well I haven't exactly been looking,” he grunted sourly.

“Still, it stands to reason that whatever they are referring to, it cannot fly. Yes, quite. I would think that few things would compete with the dragon in the air, and that it would not stand for rivals. We should be safe, yes, safe enough up here.”

Khalid could see the anger building in Gorak as he explained his reasoning. His hands curled into fists, and his scowl darkened as he sought to refute Khalid's logic. Then he glanced at Shayla, and seeing no support, exhaled slowly and mastered his emotions. Fine.” Gorak barked. “But we're leaving first thing in the morning.” He stomped off in silenced and stood alone, staring out over the valley.

Khalid grimaced slightly as the mood around the camp receded from overtly hostile and became sullenly unpleasant. Having little stomach for further conversation, he turned in early but found sleep to be a long time coming. Thoughts of his research and incomplete book weighed heavily on his mind, as did the fate of the eggs. Certainly the creatures were dangerous, but beautiful and majestic, in their own way. Finally, late into the night, he reached a decision. Resolved, he fell asleep easily, a contented smile on his face.

He awoke the next morning, feeling refreshed and at ease for the first time in weeks, despite having only slept a few hours. Gorak and Shayla were already up, sitting on the cave floor packing up the last of their things. Knowing in his heart that he was doing the right thing, he still approached approached them with some apprehension.

“Get yer stuff together and lets get the hell outta here,” Gorak growled, without looking up.

“Ah, yes, about that,” Khalid replied. “I'm not going.”

“What did you just say?” Gorak asked in a perfectly even tone, without raising his head. He stopped packing, a pewter mug clenched tightly in his hand.

“Ah, yes, well, I cannot in good conscience abandon these creatures. There is far too much at stake. Yes, quite.”

“Just how long are you planning on staying here?” Shayla asked, with a surreptitious glance at Gorak.

“Ah, well, just until the eggs hatch, I suppose, and the dragons become self-sufficient. No more than a few months, I hope.” Khalid replied.

“But you have no idea, do you?” Gorak accused him angrily, barely able to spit the words out. “Maybe those things take years to hatch, have you thought about that? And what are you gonna do about food?”

“Ah, yes, food. Well I had hoped to persuade you to remain and help, yes, help me. You would, of course, feature quite prominently, yes, prominently in my book.”

“Not a chance,” Gorak barked.

“Yes, well then,” Khalid continued, undetered, “I believe Ruwayd will remain and, while he does not have your, ah, skills, we will manage. Yes, quite.”

Ruwayd, looking somewhat dubious, nodded his head in agreement. “It is the right thing to do.” Gorak glared at them both in silent fury and the handle of the mug he was holding bent underneath his thumb.

“What about Arbaq?” Shayla asked. “He's counting on us to return.”

“Arbaq has no doubt been plotting and scheming, yes, scheming over his little plan for years. A few more months should not inconvenience him too much, given the rather uncertain nature of our endeavour. In fact the more, yes, more I consider our recent escapades in Gem-Sharad, the more I think a few months hiding deep in the mountains might be the wisest course of action for me.”

“That's it.” Gorak stood up, as the pewter mug crumpled like paper in his hand. He poked Khalid hard in the chest and growled, “Those damn eggs are messing with yer head somehow. Just listen to yerself.”

“Ah, the very idea that those helpless eggs could ensnare someone of my intellect is preposterous. And besides, Ruwayd is in agreement with me on this. Yes, quite.”

“And yet, here you are, ready to abandon yer friends and stay behind, on the top of this forsaken mountain, without any food for the lost gods only know how long.”

“As I see it, we're the ones being abandoned.” Khalid rejoined.

“Whatever. We're leaving and there ain't nothing you can say that's gonna change my mind.” Gorak snarled belligerently.

“Shayla?” Khalid implored.

Biting on her lower lip, Shayla looked torn as she glanced from Khalid to Gorak. Finally, she shook her head slightly and took a step back, to stand beside Gorak.

“Well then,” Gorak growled. “I guess this is good bye.” The crushed mug clattered to the cave floor as Gorak lunged forward at Khalid.

Gorak, to his credit, barely betrayed himself, but Khalid had fought beside him through unrivaled peril and had come to know him like a brother. More importantly, while Gorak may have been a peerless hunter, Khalid had spent most of his formative years learning to recognize when he was about to take a beating. Skipping backwards, he ducked under Gorak's reaching hands and fled across the cave, fumbling for his spell components. Chanting hastily, he caused a sunburst of golden dust to implode directly in of Gorak's face.

Gorak roared and clapped his hands over his eyes. “Shayla, smash the eggs!” he yelled as he staggered blindly after Khalid.

Shayla turned and raised her hands, but Ruwayd quickly stepped in front of her. “Please, my lady, do not do this thing,” he begged. They eyed each other warily, neither willing to make the first move. Ruwayd spread his hands wide to prevent her from rushing by, but left his scimitar tucked in his belt. Shayla glared at him in frustration as she kept her distance, having the means to reduce him to a sooty smudge on the cave floor, but no way to force the Janni aside.

“Damnit Shayla,” Gorak cursed as he flailed around, “Do something.”

“Ruwayd, subdue her without hurting her, before she damages them!” Khalid countered as he put more distance between himself and Gorak, moving back against the far wall of the cavern.

“I'm sorry, my friend,” Ruwayd said with an apologetic smile as he reached for Shayla.

“Not half as sorry as you're gonna be,” Shayla muttered as she slipped easily away from his grasp. Casting a spell, she flicked out her hand and sent three shining orbs of force at Ruwayd. He staggered backwards as they impacted, causing huge red welts appear almost instantly on his bare chest.

Stung by the punishing wounds and coursing with adrenaline, the janni whipped out his sword and slashed at Shayla, scoring a huge bloody gash on her arm as he sought to prevent her from casting again.

Stunned by the sudden violence and foreseeing the situation spinning rapidly out of control, Khalid acted. Pulling far back against the wall, he muttered a few arcane words and tore open the fabric of space. A ghastly tear appeared near the front of the cave, a billowing clouds of rust coloured vapors filled the cave, dispersing a dozen feet in front of Khalid. Ruwayd and Shayla collapsed to the ground, coughing and retching in the foul coloured smoke. Gorak, still blinded and deathly ill from the noxious vapour continued to stagger forward, then took a few halting steps to the side before stopping to gag.

In horror, Khalid realized what he was trying to do, as Gorak took another blind step towards the centre of the cave and nearer to the eggs. Khalid was about to step forward and plunge into the mist when a tendril of smoke reached his nose and caused him to recoil back in disgust.

Gorak, now heaving violently, took two more shudder steps to his left and heard an egg crunch under foot. With a weak gasp, he dropped to his knees and then crashed down on the remaining three, crushing them beneath his vast bulk.

Khalid blinked.

Gorak, Shayla and Ruwayd continued to roll around on the ground, coughing and gasping in the hideous mist, unless the portal closed and the mountain wind swept the tunnel clear. Rising weakly, Shayla stood up and moved over to Gorak, her red red stark against her deathly pale face. Gorak stood up, dripping with albumen and yolk, glaring furiously at Khalid. Ruwayd looking confused, glanced first at his hands, then at the bloody scimitar. He looked as though he wanted to apologize to Shayla, but her blazing eyes kept him silent.

Khalid looked around sheepishly, and toyed with the idea of feigning amnesia, but discarded that idea when he realized Ruwayd might not play along. Summoning up every ounce of his long endured humility and eloquence, he said, “Ah, I don't suppose, I could say sorry...”

“Don't you dare say a word to me. Either of you.” Shayla hissed through clenched teeth, as Gorak channelled his restorative powers on her arm.

“Get your stuff together,” Gorak growled as he dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. “We're getting out of here. Right now. No arguments, no discussions.”

Khalid grabbed his spellbook and began to frantically prepare what spells he could, as Gorak and Shayla talked quietly. Finally, Gorak muttered, “Yeh, it might have stashed some more stuff down that tunnel. It's worth at least checking out. If the Janni's right, we won't have ta fly down into the valley.” He slung Sousee's basket over his shoulder, and kicked Khalid's feet as he walked past. “Let's go. We're gonna hit up that back tunnel, see what's back there.”

Khalid hastily cast a few spells, as he stood up to follow. Gorak reached the stone door he had fashioned, and put his hands on the crude stone bar holding it shut. “Get ready,” he growled as he pressed his ear up against the stone door. Hearing nothing, he removed the bar, then jumped aside as the door fell back towards him, shattering into pieces on the cave floor. Still holding the improvised club, Gorak turned and sprinted away from the door, as a huge wolf burst into the cave.

Khalid shook his head in disbelief, as the beast appeared. It was easily three times the size of the goblin worgs, but unlike those mangy beasts, it had brilliant white fur, the color of fresh snow. Malevolent blues eyes peered out from under a ruff of grey fur, like frost, that framed the wolf's head. Even insulated from the elements by magic, Khalid could feel the temperature in the cave plummet, as tendrils of frost thickened and crept across the walls. With terrifying intelligence, the wolf regarded each of them in turn, before stopping on Gorak. Still covered in bits of shattered shell and egg, the wolf's lip curled back to reveal ivory white fangs, as its cold sapphire eyes burrowed into Gorak. Throwing its head back, the wolf let out an bone-chilling howl that reverberating through the cavern. Just when Khalid thought it couldn't get any worse, the wolf ceased its wail, and the fur along its back began to rise, as it roared out in strangely accented common, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
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Heh...This was a funny session. Forgive me if I vent ;)

I often chide EN for making Gorak seem more gruff and angry in the story hour than I think I play him, but I think this time he really capture how angry I/Gorak was.

This was at least the second time that Khalid failed a critical Will save (remember the summoning circle?) and we caught on pretty quick that he was charmed but EN is good at arguing his point which made it very frustrating that he wanted to stay in the cave. To boot, I wanted to make dragon-hide armour because my armour class at this point was 14. (*sigh* I often regret putting my 16 in CHA instead of DEX.)
Anyways, the fact that he wouldn't help me skin the dragon threw me over the edge. To make matters worse I failed both saving throws against Khalids spells - I think I only needed to roll a 7 vs the stinking cloud :p

In the end I think we were all disappointed to have to smash the eggs...it might have been fun to take one with us and see if we could get it to hatch ;)
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Formulae burned in Khalid's mind, flaring into clarity as options swirled through his head. Several of his most powerful spells had been expended attempting to subdue Gorak and the rest were either irrelevant or unsuitable for the tight confines of the cave. Gorak was slightly ahead of him but all four of them were easily within striking distance for the wolf. Ruwayd's hand rested on the pommel of his scimitar but caught off guard, he hadn't drawn it. Shayla edged back, trying to get behind him, instantly drawing the wolf's attention. Its huge head swung around and it bored into her with hate filled eyes. Khalid clenched his teeth, almost frantic now, as the low growl rumbling deep in the beast's chest became a snarl. If it went for her first, he couldn't see how they would rescue her before she was torn apart. If it chose another, there was a chance Shayla's devastating power would destroy it.

The snarl hung heavy in the air and Khalid prepared to defend himself from the flurry of violence that was about to descend. Abruptly, the wolf turned its gaze past them to stare at the eggs. The rage flowed out of the great wolf as it assessed its chances of surviving the battle. It didn't look at them again; it just stepped aside from its position in front of the tunnel. Khalid could hear the profound sorrow in its voice, when it spoke again. “You do not even understand the tragedy you have committed here today. Leave now and never again return to this place.”

They edged past the wolf, slowly and carefully, not willing to risk provoking it. Khalid was certain the wolf would change its mind at any second, tearing the flesh from his bones, but his fears proved unfounded. They stepped into the narrow cave and Khalid worked up the courage to look back, before walking into the darkness. Over his shoulder, he saw the great wolf pad softly over to the ruined eggs and drop to its haunches. His final image of the beast was of it sitting there, head hung low, silently mourning.

It took him some time to put the events of the morning behind him, a task made more difficult by the surprisingly easy and monotonous journey down through the heart of the mountain. While the path was narrow in spots, the floor of the cave was, for the most part, smooth and the spiraling decline, gentle. They passed the first day and most of the second, before arriving at a deep fissure in the cave wall, that bisected another passage below. Squeezing through the cramped opening, they dropped down into the tunnel below. Glancing in both directions, Ruwayd nodded to himself and motioned for them to follow. “This way, leads under the mountains. That way, leads back, out into the valley,” he said in a hushed tone.

The journey continued in much the same way for several more days. A brief run-in with some over-sized cave spiders was easily handled, due in large part to Gorak's unrivaled instincts. Thankful as he was for the ease of passage, that very same fact constantly gnawed at Khalid. There seemed to be no further signs of recent use as far as he could tell which, considering his skills, wasn't very far at all. Gorak seemed unconcerned, but then again, he looked that way when in life threatening peril sometimes too, so on the whole, Khalid wasn't particularly reassured. There were enough side passages and fractures in the cave wall to lend weight to his wild imaginings and he hoped dearly that the Janni knew where he was taking them.

At some point on what Khalid guessed was about their sixth day underground, the Janni called a halt. Gorak cursed mightily and stared out out into the blackness beyond their sheltered light. Shayla, turned her palm up and uncovered the small glowing stone in her hand, shining it across a huge wall of fallen stone blocking their way. They all looked up nervously at the ceiling overhead, and backed carefully away from the cave in. Stepping back a fair distance, they knelt down into a tight huddle, leaning in close.

“Now what?” Shayla whispered, barely more than mouthing the words.

“If you think, yes,” Khalid paused, took a deep breath and spoke directly into the ground. “Think we can risk the sound of my chanting, I will open a place where we can speak, freely, yes, quite.”

“Do it,” Gorak grunted, drawing out the tiny fetish that hung around his neck and placing on hand on the stone floor.

Taking a steadying breath, Khalid unwound the length of soft silk rope wrapped around his waist. He spoke the words clearly and carefully, not willing to risk ruining the spell for the sake of his nerves. Practically leaping into the gate as it opened, Khalid helped Shayla and Ruwayd in, before Gorak pushed past him, sealing the entrance.

“Alright, now what” Shayla repeated. She seemed a trifle paler than usual but then again, Khalid felt a few shades whiter himself at the moment. Being underground would never agree with either of them.

“Is this the only way?” Gorak rumbled, looking to Ruwayd. “We passed another tunnel, bout a day and a half ago, where's it go?”

“Long have these mountains and their inhabitants held a fascination for me, but there are still many places that I can not, or dare not tread.” Ruwayd replied. “That tunnel is one of them. All the legends of this place speak of a place of great evil, festering deep at the roots of these mountains. It has been suggested that the very presence of this place poisons the very mountains, driving many of those that dwell here to ruin. Down that tunnel, lies death made manifest.”

“Right,” Gorak grunted, giving the Janni a sour look. “Death. Lots of it. Very helpful, thanks for that. Or I could just burrow through this rock tomorrow, say about thirty feet that way, and then up along the wall until its safe to crawl out the other side.”

Since there was no real decision to be made, they lounged around in the security of Khalid's magic, passing the time with idle chatter while Gorak gathered his strength. In the morning, they dropped out of the shelter and crept as close as they dared to the sight of the cave in. Gorak knelt down, facing the stone wall of the passage. Taking a slow, deep breath, the words of the spell rumbled out of him, like the sound of grinding stone. Reaching out, Gorak placed his hand on the stone wall of the passage. At his touch, it swirled and dissolved, forming a perfectly smooth tube a little over three feet in diameter. Tying his pack to his ankle, he climbed in head first, and vanished into the darkness.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered, eyeing the small tunnel with trepidation. “I had hoped it would be a bit, ah, larger, yes, quite.”

“The larger it is, the longer it ain't. Let's go,” Gorak growled impatiently, his voice echoing oddly in the cramped space.

The Janni shrugged and raised himself into the air, rotated parallel to the ground and floated into the tunnel. Shayla bit her lower lip, as much from irritation as fear, and finally stepped forward and wriggled into the tunnel after Ruwayd. Tightening the numerous buckles and straps on his belt, Khalid sighed and crawled into the tunnel, clipping both his head and knee painfully on the edge on his way in. Focusing on a getting through the ordeal as quickly as possible, he almost immediately bumped into Shayla, who had stopped.

“Ah, what's the matter,” he asked, a note of panic creeping into his voice despite his best efforts.

“Nothing,” Gorak growled, “Just hold up a bit.”

The sound of chanting rolled through the tunnel, and for an instant, the stone beneath Khalid's hands seemed to rippled and flow. The back wall slowly sealed up behind him, doing little to ease Khalid's mind, even as he recognized the value. They crawled on their hands and knees for what seemed like hours, but couldn't have been nearly that long. At one point, Gorak called back, “We're gonna hafta keep going. I didn't smooth over a patch here, and there's way too many cracks to make me want to head out there and take a stroll around.”

Khalid tried not to look as he crawled past the rough spot. What he did see out of the corner of his eye, made his breath quicken. He immediately fought down the urge, concerned as he was about the amount of air for them in the small enclosure.

Gorak continued to burrow through the mountain, stopping once more to extend the tunnel. Khalid could barely contain his joy when the tunnel turned sharply and he stumbled out the last few feet onto the rough floor of the main cave. He'd never have imagined at feeling relief at being in a cave, but given that ordeal, he was grateful for the opportunity to stretch, if nothing else. Picking up the light and focusing it down the tunnel behind, Khalid couldn't see any sign of debris. Gorak had led them well past the point of danger but they pushed on and headed further down the tunnel, eager to put the cave in as far behind them as possible.

There was little to distinguish this part of the journey from the path before. They had been under the mountains for the better part of five days and from what Ruwayd offered, they had at least a few more before reaching the other side. Only the belief that should they need it, Gorak could carve a hole out of the side of the mountain, kept Khalid functioning clearly. They moved quickly, trying to shield the light as much as possible, as they passed numerous fissures and caverns branching from the main tunnel. There was little they could do to hide evidence of their passage and even their best attempts sent echoes up and down the caves. Nervous as he was, Khalid was still taken by surprise when the native inhabitants discovered them. The creatures came swarming out of the darkness soundlessly, half running, half loping towards them. Their skin was the colour of uncooked dough, and hung off their slight frames in folds. Reptilian tongues slavered and twined around a circular maw of fangs, beneath a smooth expanse of skin. Khalid's recoiled as he realized the beasts had no visible eyes, and must have hunted them by smell, touch or some other preternatural sense. Wicked flint axes, chipped and jagged, were clutched in meaty fists, while the beasts used the other to race low along the ground, like the gorillas Khalid had seen in the arenas of Gem-Sharad.

What the creatures had in ferocity, they unfortunately lacked in judgement. Overcome with lust for the kill, they rushed headlong at Ruwayd, in the lead. Unaware of the Janni's unique heritage, the two charging beasts in front vanished with a shriek into a wicked pit trap, obviously meant to ensnare their prey. Ruwayd dipped in the air slightly as the thin sheet of slate, carved to fit perfectly into the stone floor, shattered beneath their weight. Howls of pain echoed gruesomely off the walls, as the beasts were impaled on the sharp spikes lining the bottom of the pit.

It only took a second for Shayla to react. She spun on her heel, facing back down the tunnel and was ready even before another half dozen of the creatures appeared behind them. The four in the lead vanished in a burst of flame, their bodies almost completely vaporized by the incredible heat. Scorching smoke washed back over Khalid, burning his eyes as he hastily dug spell components out of a pouch at his waist. Forcing the irritation out of his thoughts, he started the droning incantation of a summoning spell.

Ruwayd's flashing scimitar kept the other beasts from leaping across the pit and assaulting them from behind. Weaving and thrusting while he hovered in mid air over the pit, he repeatedly foiled their attempts to reach him. Enraged, one of the creatures hurled its axe at him, but a deft flick of his blade sent it smashing harmlessly into the cave wall. Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, another beast leapt across the chasm, only to be intercepted by Gorak. With a contemptuous shove from the tip of his cudgel, Gorak sent the hapless attacker tumbling backwards to join its companions on the spikes below.

Devastated in the open moments of the attack, the remaining creatures broke and fled, their howls of rage turned to fear at the viciousness of their defeat. Ensnared within the complex ritual of summoning, Khalid wrenched forth a monstrous spider, laced with fell energies, only to open his eyes and discover the battle was over. Khalid frowned at the glittering black arachnid, half relieved that the battle was over and half disappointed at the wasted spell. With the wave of his hand, he sent it scuttling down into the pit, where the feeble cries of their wounded assailants were quickly silenced. As they steadied their nerves and crossed the simple but flawlessly crafted trap, Khalid hoped that whatever those things were, that they were the dominant creatures in the area. He was satisfied, at least, that word of their strength, assuming those things had the capability of speech, would dissuade any further attacks.

For a change, his hopes were rewarded and two days later the first whiff of fresh, frigid air reached them. Even Gorak was invigorated and picked up his pace. The cave lightened somewhat but to Khalid's disappointment, it was almost dusk when they finally reached the exit. Even though the deepening darkness shrouded the terrain below, Khalid felt a sense of significance as he stepped out into the high foothills of the Eastern Kingdom. Patches of snow still lurked in the long shadows cast by the jumbled rocks and boulders that dotted the rugged hills, and from what Khalid could see, the terrain looked fairly similar to what they had encountered on the other side. They dropped their gear on the ground and stretched, trying to relax cramped muscles. Fortified from the cold by Gorak, they relished the open air, gathered around a sheltered fire, nestled in the crags of the barren hills. Inhospitable as their surroundings were, they enjoyed themselves as though it were one of Arbaq's finest dining halls. Although in a foreign land, in a wild and untamed region and surrounded by war, the tension of the long hard journey through the mountains fell away easily. For a change, the conversation didn't focus on how to survive the coming day. They talked long into the night, sharing those few stories they hadn't already told the Janni and being regaled with tales of Ruwayd's more scandalous adventures. Before they realized it, the sky began to lighten, and the morning was upon them.

Stifling a yawn with the back of his hand, Khalid was somewhat dismayed at the prospect of crawling into the magical shelter but knew he wouldn't be able to sleep otherwise. The Janni, however, seemed invigorated, and grabbed his meager possessions as the others began tossing gear up through the portal.

“Alas my friends, although my debt will never truly be repaid, please let me take my leave of you now, having fulfilled what I pledged to do.” Ruwayd bowed low at the waist, not looking up as he continued. “Long years have I been absent from my tribe, with no word. It is not right that they should grieve for me, any longer than is necessary.”

“No need to be so damn formal,” Gorak grunted. “You did us one helluva good turn getting us through those mountains, and that bastard holding you up there was overdue for a little spiritual recycling. So everybody's a winner.”

“Yeah,” Shayla added, “thanks for getting us through the mountains.” Khalid thought that Shayla sounded maybe a little less than sincere and he suspected that she still held a grudge against the Janni, in particular, for attacking her. Still, she was making the effort at least.

“Ah, thank you my friends, I am truly blessed. Should ever you need my help, seek out Ruwayd of the Seven Hills tribe, and I will place my sword at your service.”

Khalid reached out, and shook the Janni's hand vigorously. “Ah, it was a honor to have met you, yes, quite.” A thought occurred to him. “Ah, you aren't planned on returning through the tunnels are you? The path, yes, path is blocked.”

“No, my friend, I do not think that will be necessary,” he replied with a hint of a smirk.

“Ah, but the griffins?” Khalid asked.

“Yes, well the griffins, Khalid, the griffins were never a concern for me, exactly.” The sound of his laughter drifted down from above as he shot in the the air, quickly vanishing into the clouds.

Somewhat more sombre, they set off the next morning, having slept almost straight through the previous day. Horses were useless in the steep and rocky terrain, forcing them to pick their way down carefully on foot. Khalid's elation at being outside was quickly dampened by a chill sleet that hung in the air like a mist, obscuring their vision, and coating everything with a thin layer of slush. Gorak's spell could ward off the worst of the cold, but it did nothing for the wet and before long, they were all soaked.

Gorak took the opportunity to suggest that maybe summoning up a few mountain goats would be helpful to which Khalid responded with a suggestion of a few things Gorak could summon up, and where exactly he could pull them out of. This set Shayla to laughing, until she remembered that she was still somewhat annoyed at Khalid and three of them dropped into a sullen silence as they trudged down out of the foothills. Their progress was slow, but for the most part, Gorak kept them on a fairly decent path, clear of any significant obstacles. Somewhat miserable and focused on the task at hand, Khalid was jerked out of his internal musing as a gravelly voice cut through the gloom. “I seek the one known as Khalid ibn Bahir!” The words were heavy and guttural, laced with a strange foreign accent.

“Sh*t!” Gorak growled. “Dwerro by the sounds of it.”

It took Khalid a moment to recognize the strange inflections. “Ah, no, that's not a Dwerro” Khalid muttered, his stomach clenching into a tight knot as he guessed at the speaker's native dialect. “That's something much, yes, much worse.”

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