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

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The Axe

First Post

It's been a while since I've been on, but it's surprising how well I remember the characters---nice characterization, and good storytelling on top of it!


“What do we do?” Shayla hissed through her teeth, slowly clenching her hands into fists. Khalid didn't even have to guess at what she had in mind.

“I know yer up there,” the speaker called out again. “I jes wanna talk. I don't mean you no harm.”

“Ah, that'd be a first,” Khalid muttered.

Gorak grunted, and stood up from his half crouch. “Let's go.”

“What?” Shayla whispered incredulously. “Just walk down there?”

“Look around,” Gorak growled. “You think whoever that is was just hanging around these barren foothills, a hundred miles from anywhere, on the odd chance that Khalid might drop by? He knew we was coming and if he wanted to pick a fight I don't think he woulda introduced himself first.”

Khalid couldn't really argue with Gorak's logic, but it didn't do much to make him feel any better. He was fairly certain that the strange inflections in the speaker's voice belied an otherworldly heritage, which served to lead him down a fairly concerning line of thought. The time they spent in the mountains had done little to throw off their many pursuers apparently and if they couldn't hide deep within the mountains of the north, where could they? Khalid, resigned, stood up and followed Gorak with a heavy sigh. Shayla, looking dubious, trailed them down the path.

In the failing light, it took them several minutes to locate the stranger. Scrambling up a steep incline, Khalid peered over and saw a figure sitting astride a chestnut coloured warhorse. He looked human but as he was encased entirely in an imposing suit of matte black plate, it was difficult to be sure. Thick rams horns curled out from the sides of the closed faced helm that sat atop his head and a dark black beard spilled out from underneath. His armor had the look of expert craftsmanship, although Khalid could see where the scars of battle had been patched and repaired. The shield that hung off his saddlehorn bore no crest and, like the armor, had apparently served its owner well. He was heavily armed, not surprisingly, with an unadorned hand and a half sword hanging from his waist and a longbow slung across his back. As he watched them approach, he turned his palms up, empty handed, in a universal gesture of peace.

“Alright,” Gorak grunted. “You found us. Now start talking.”

“My words are for Khalid alone,” he rasped. He turned slightly to address Khalid. “I don't have no quarrel with you or yours. Let me speak my piece and then judge my intentions.”

Fighting down his unease, Khalid couldn't help but admit to his curiosity. Before Gorak could reply, he spoke up, “Ah, yes, very well then, I will hear you out. Let us move away a little, out of earshot but within sight of my friends, and I will listen, yes, listen to what you have to say.” Trying to summon up some no existent bravado, he continued, “But I warn you, if you are playing false with us we will not hesitate to destroy you. Yes, quite.” The stranger nodded, and turned his horse back down the path. Khalid moved to follow, when Gorak caught him by the arm.

“I hope you know what you're doing,” he growled.

Khalid shrugged, seeing the concern in their eyes. “Ah, no, not really,” he admitted. “But I sense no falsehood in his voice or manner, and I cannot, yes, cannot help but be intrigued.”

“Alright. Go if you must.” Shayla said. “We'll stay right here, ready if you need us.”

“Ah yes, quite.” Khalid replied, “Let's hope it does not come to that.”

Khalid moved away, joining the strange warrior down the path. For several hours they talked as dusk deepened into night, until finally he rejoined Gorak and Shayla, a thoughtful expression on his face. Shayla stood from where she had been teasing Emma with a bit of string, and Gorak glanced up from cleaning his armor.

“So?” Shayla asked. “What's that guy all about?”

“Ah, yes,” Khalid replied, “he is most, yes, most unusual.”

“Who is he?” Gorak grunted.

“His name is Azarek. He has been searching for me for quite some time.”

“What does he want?” Shayla repeated.

“Ah, yes, well we have not concluded our discussions yet,” Khalid replied. “I returned only to prepare your shelter for the evening.” He paused to open up the pocket dimension. “I do not believe he poses any danger to us. Yes, quite.”

“You got awful trusting all of a sudden,” Gorak growled, eying him suspiciously.

Khalid held up his hand, stopping Gorak from continuing. “I assure you, he cast no spells upon me. There are other factors, yes, factors at play here.”

“This ain't no time to be cryptic Khalid,” Gorak growled, clearly irritated.

“I will explain everything, yes, everything tomorrow. Please, trust me for the moment.”

Gorak muttered something under his breath and turned around, obviously unconvinced. Shayla shrugged and decided to take Khalid at his word, retreating into the magical shelter. Khalid returned to his conversation with Azarek, speaking with him long into the night. He returned to their camp in the morning to find Gorak sitting stoically beside the open portal, still keeping watch. As he approached, Gorak growled, “Khalid's back. We're coming up, Shayla.”

“Just a minute!” she called out sleepily. Gorak gave her barely that before climbing through the gate. Khalid followed him and promptly wilted under Shayla's scathing glare as she pulled her bedroll up around her shoulders.

“Alright,” Gorak grunted. “Start talking. What's the deal with that walking tin can down there?”

“Ah, it's complicated,” Khalid began slowly. Sensing Gorak's mood, he continued on quickly. “There are parts of his past of which he has forbidden, yes, forbidden me to speak, and I will respect that.”

“So what can you tell us?” Shayla asked.

“As you may have noticed from his speech, Azarek is not a native of this place. However, my discussions with him have confirmed, yes, confirmed what I suspected. Not only is he not from the East, he is not even from this plane of existence.” He paused somewhat melodramatically to allow that to sink in. Somewhat disappointed by the lack of response, he continued on, “Ah, well, not entirely anyhow. Azarek is the bastard issue of an unholy union.”

“Just how unholy are we talking about here Khalid?” Gorak growled. “Like Vestalt kind of unholy?”

“Ah, yes, something like that,” Khalid replied. “It is not as uncommon as you would perhaps imagine.” Noticing Shayla's raised eyebrow, he added, “Well, not uncommon if you've been exposed to the type of education I have. Yes, quite. They are known as Tiefling, but I would not call him such,” Khalid cautioned hastily. “It is a term likely to cause offense. These unfortunate creatures are not truly at home here or among the infernal realms and are often outcast among both.”

“So far, ain't nothing you said gives me a warm fuzzy feeling about this Azarek.” Gorak grunted. “What's he want?”

“Ah, yes, well, he wants to join us.” Khalid replied. “Ah, me in particular it would seem.”

“I hope you told him where to stick that bright idea,” Shayla muttered.

“Ah, no, on the contrary,” Khalid said. “I agreed.”

“You did what?” Gorak grumbled, in that dangerously flat tone he used when he was trying to control his emotions.

“Azarek sees me as an instrument to exact revenge for past wrongs. He has been counselled, yes, counselled that my survival will grant him the opportunity that he seeks. Yes, quite.”

“Oh yeah? And what do you think of that?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, yes, well it doesn't exactly fill me with joy,” Khalid admitted. “I have not promised to aid him in his task, but the fact, yes, the fact that he found me when so many others have failed demonstrates the depths of his conviction. Yes, quite.”

“How do you know he ain't just feeding you a line, waiting for an opportunity to hand you over to one of those 'others' that are out there hunting for your hide?” Gorak growled, still clearly annoyed.

“Ah, yes, I believe he was honest with me,” Khalid replied. “But there is more, yes, more to it then that. To an extent, you will have to trust me, when I say that I trust him completely.”

“I dunno Khalid,” Shayla said. “We three have come a long way together but having this...whatever he is, hanging around, that's a lot to ask.”

“Ah, yes, of course I understand. I will endeavor, yes, endeavor to explain.” Khalid paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “The tainted blood that flows through his veins gives Azarek abilities beyond that of a normal mortal. It also, however, carries with it some unique disadvantages as well. Those beings we call devils or demons have a presence, a force, yes, force of will that far exceeds our own. Their consciousness can often survive obliteration of their physical form in a way wholly different from our own, so strong is their mental fortitude. Their...” he hesitated, trying to find the words to describe the alien concept, “identity for lack of a better word, is far stronger than their incredible physical power. At the root of this awareness, this sense of self, is a name that binds them together. A name that provides an anchor for all that the creature is. A true name, if you will, that contains its intelligence and demeanor in its entirety.”

“Obviously,” Khalid continued, “these beings guard this name, this key, yes, key to their identity with all means at their disposal. For in the hands of somebody that recognizes it for what it is, it grants an enormous measure of control. It can be used as a weapon, to warp the very fabric of what makes the creature what it is. In the hands of a skilled magi, it can be used to compel the creature against its will or even tear apart its very essence.” Khalid looked first to Gorak and then Shayla, as the realization dawned on them.”

“And he...” Shayla began, with some surprise.

“Yes,” Khalid confirmed. “Azarek's mortal blood ensures that should you destroy his body, he will cease to be but still he carries this burden upon him. And so committed to his goals is he, so consumed by what he seeks, he has shared this name with me, knowing, yes, knowing that it would be the one thing that would allow me to trust him explicitly.”

The gravity of Khalid's words reached through even Gorak's foul demeanor. He whistled softly, and when he spoke again, at least some of the irritation had left him. “You're sure about this?” he growled. When Khalid nodded, he continued, “Alright then, maybe we can try this out. But at the first sign of anything funny.” He made a jerking motion across his neck with his hand. “It's a quick cut and a shallow hole for your new friend.”

“Ah, yes, quite.” Khalid muttered.

They dropped out of the magical shelter and moved down the hillside to join Azarek, who was waiting patiently beside his mount. Khalid made the introductions, taking no small amount of glee in Shayla's response as Azarek removed his helm. He'd purposefully neglected to mention some of Azarek's more obvious manifestations of his heritage, just to see how she would react. Encased in armor, there was little to suggest that he was anything other than human but as he removed his helm, any doubt as to his nature vanished. The curling horns that swept down around the front of his helm were not a mere decoration of his armor. Rather, the armor had been cunningly designed to conceal the fact that the horns grew out from just above his temples. Once you got past the horns however, he looked more or less like an Easterner. He was a shade paler than most, but you didn't really notice it unless you were right beside him. His eyes were a little off putting too; more pupil then iris, which made it hard to tell exactly who he was staring so intently at but besides those minor differences, his face was regular, even handsome. That night as he removed his armor, Khalid was half expecting to see a tail, or cloven hooves, but Azarek seemed to bear no other traces of his infernal ancestry.

Shayla, obviously intrigued, made an attempt to draw out Azarek as they prepared their evening meal, but even with all her considerable charm, she failed to illicit much more than a one word response from him. Frustrated and annoyed, she eventually gave up and decided to ignore him completely, which seemed to suit Azarek just fine. As they road out down into the vast Eastern tundra in the morning, the awkwardness remained, and for the most part, they travelled in silence. There was no need to discuss their destination; a solitary peak rose out of the empty plain, dominating the skyline to the northeast.

Finally, Khalid broke the silence, “Ah, so how far do you think are from the mountain?”

“Hard ta say,” Gorak rumbled shielding his eyes from the dazzling sunlight with his hand. “The map that Arbaq gave us ain't too accurate, and there ain't no way to tell how big that thing is. A few days maybe, no more than a week at most I wager.” Since, the barren landscape gave little of interest to discuss, Khalid turned to Azarek, bored enough to risk being rebuffed yet again, “Ah, yes, so something has been bothering me. How exactly did you find me.”

“Weren't easy,” he replied and then, surprisingly continued in his heavy, rasping voice. “I musta crossed this kingdom a half dozen times, seeking out every two bit charlatan and drugged out seer from here to the Great Ocean. Prophesies and ranting, gibberish and graft is mostly all I got to show fer it. But finally I got me an audience with this magician,” he put a particularly unpleasant inflection on the word, “in Caer Morag.”

“Ah, magician?” Khalid interrupted. “How long ago? Did he have access to his magic.”

“Maybe a year ago, maybe bit less. Ain't always easy keeping track of stuff like that out 'ere. I didn't see him do nothing and he spent all of about two licks of a dogs arse doing it. He took one look at me, and sent me off. Summoned me back tha next morning and gave me a map and a name.”

“Ah,” was all Khalid replied, somewhat disappointed.

“Khalid's name?” Gorak grunted.

“Nah, I already knew who I wuz looking fer by then, I just din't no where ta find 'im. The name he gave me was fer some old crone and I could tell right away that she weren't no crock, let me tell ya.”

“Oh?” Shayla perked up. “Does that come from your...” she made a little curl in the air with the tip of her finger, mimicking the sweep of his horns.

“Nope.” His armor creaked a bit as he turned to look at her. “I could tell jes by looking to the folk around 'er. You don't look at nobody like that unless you believe. She toll me where to find you. Course,” he muttered, his harsh voice turning even more sinister. “She din't tell me when. Bin sitting up there bout three damn months I figure.”

Khalid leaned back in his saddle, considering Azarek's words. What bribes and payments he must have made, to come so far and what tolls must have been extracted from him. Of course, he'd saved his best bargaining chip for Khalid. The one thing that he knew Khalid wouldn't be able to refuse. Khalid wasn't exactly sure how he felt about that. The rest of the day's ride passed slowly as Azarek's laconic tendencies returned. Khalid half dozed at the reins, directing his conjured mount to follow the others. Wearied by the previous nights conversation, he was startled when Gorak spoke again.”

“We got some of Ruwayd's friends following us,” Gorak growled.

Khalid turned in his saddle, scanning the skies for Janni when he realized what Gorak meant. On the horizon behind them, six specs were growing quickly. “Griffons,” Khalid muttered despondently.

“Yup,” Gorak grunted. “This should be fun. There's not much cover around here. Let's make for those trees.” He pointed at a stand of a dozen shrivelled looking pine trees ahead. They rode hard, whipping their mounts into a frenzy as they raced across the frozen ground.

Over the pounding hooves, Shayla called out, “We're not going to make it!”

Thinking quickly, Khalid reined in. “Ah, get off your horses! Quickly! We'll abandon, yes, abandon them to the griffons and make our way to the trees on foot, while they're distracted.”

“Speak for yourself wizard. Ain't nobody gonna eat this horse but me,” Azarek rasped.

“Yes, yes,” Khalid snapped, “fine. Not yours, but the conjured ones!”

As Shayla and Gorak jumped off, Khalid sent the horses fleeing away from them, on tangents away from the woods. Screeching as they dove in for the kill, the griffons wheeled in the air and followed.

Amid the shrieks of the dying horses, the four ran towards the sparse protection of the trees. Panting and gasping, Shayla and Khalid collapsed on the ground, as Gorak skidded to a stop behind them. Azarek dismounted and strapped on his heavy shield.

“Here they come!” Gorak growled. “And they don't look very happy that their lunch just turned into purple smoke.”

“Yeah, well if those stupid buzzards are annoyed at that,” Shayla wheezed as she staggered to their feet. “They're really gonna hate this.” She gestured up in the air, and the three lead griffons were engulfed in ball of flame. Charred and smoking, they banked hard in the air, crying out in pain as they fled back towards the mountains. The remaining three circled warily, until Shayla sent up another burst of flame, exploding it high in the air. Filling the air with frustrated screeches, they turned and followed their wounded companions.

“Well, that worked out okay,” Gorak grunted casually.

“Ah, yes, except that I can not arrange for transportation until tomorrow. Yes, quite.” Khalid pointed out. “So I believe we're camping here tonight.”

On the second day, they picked up a river that ran down out of the foothills and, according to their map, flowed all the way to the mountain. Its banks cut a relatively straight path through the snow and ice, and they followed it for several more days as the solitary peak continued to grow on the horizon. By the middle of the fifth day, Khalid was starting to think it might be some sort of weird arctic mirage until he began to make out features around its base. Frowning slightly as he tried to work out what he was seeing, he took his hat off and mopped his sweating face. Seeing Shayla fanning herself, he asked, “Ah, is it just me, or is it getting warmer?”

“It ain't just you. That's grass down there, near the mountain. Looks like a lake too. That cloud around the base is steam coming up offa the water.” Gorak rumbled. “Probably underground springs running all through this area, heating up the air. I'm gonna go take a look around.” He tossed the reins of his horse to Shayla and dropped out of the saddle, shimmering into the form of a hawk before he hit the ground. Azarek rode up from the rear of the party, to take the lead. Within minutes, Khalid and Shayla had to strip down to attire that would have been suitable for Gem-Sharad. Azarek seemed content to suffer within his steel armor. As they rode on, the ground beneath their horses hooves turned from frozen earth and snow to lush green grass. Khalid judged them to still be several hours away when Gorak returned, circling high overhead. He swooped down and reverted into his natural form in front of them.

“We've got a problem,” he growled.

“What else is new,” Shayla sighed.

“There's a village up there,” Gorak continued, “on the lake. I flew through it to check it out, and I think I might have spooked 'em.”

“How so?”

“Well it looks like nothing but a bunch of crude yurts and long-houses, but I think I caught at least two of 'em doing some sort of ritual. And more than one of 'em stopped to take a good long look at me.”

“Ah, yes,” Khalid replied, mulling over the situation. “Then we must decide if we should present ourselves to them, or try to avoid the village and head directly to the mountain.”

“They might not be hostile,” Shayla pointed out. “And if they live right under the thing, they might know what's inside, or at least have stories or legends about it.”

“They're gonna outnumber us pretty badly,” Gorak grumbled as he climbed on his mount, “if they don't take a shine to yer pretty little smile.” He nudged his mount into a trot, angling it slightly away from the direction of the village. “Normally I wouldn't worry too much about a bunch tribesmen in a village out in the middle of nowhere, but there's something strange going on there.”

“Yes, quite.” Khalid said. “Still, I hate to pass up the opportunity to learn, yes, learn what it is we might face.”

As they debated, they turned further away from the village to buy more time before making a decision. The sun was setting behind them when Gorak cursed and called Azarek up from the rear of the group. “Looks like we don't get a choice no more,” he growled. “I count at least a dozen men, running hard this way.”

The minutes felt like hours as they waited for the tribesmen to reach them. Azarek strapped on his shield and drew out his sword, resting it across his saddle. Khalid fiddled nervously with his spell components, feeling dreadfully exposed, sitting on top of his horse in the wide open terrain. He was certain that they could at least outrun any difficulty in the short term, but didn't relish the thought of being harried by the locals across the tundra.

“You'd better put yer hat on,” Gorak growled to Azarek, “things are gonna get started real soon, and either way, yer gonna need it.” Azarek nodded and donned his heavy metal helm, concealing his origins.

They tribesmen weren't precisely running when they spotted the party, but rather they moved in a rolling jog that quickly ate up the distance. As they approached, they began to fan out. Each one had a longbow drawn with arrow nocked, as they formed a semi-circle around the horses, keeping well back. Khalid cursed under his breath as he watched how carefully they warriors spaced themselves out, severely limiting his options. He was forced to agree with Gorak's assessment that these were more than mere plains folk.

The two groups eyed each other cautiously for a few seconds before the man Khalid took for a leader spoke up. Unfortunately, whatever he was saying was incomprehensible gibberish to Khalid. He looked over his shoulder at Gorak and Shayla, but saw only his own incomprehension mirrored in their faces. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Khalid rattled off greetings in all of the languages he knew. Since these consisted mainly of the various dialects of the other realms of existence, he wasn't surprised with the lack of response. He paused for a moment before trying the foul speech of the devils. He wasn't really prepared to consider what a response from them in that tongue would imply, but he decided it was worth the risk. Dredging up vague memories from his schooling, he tried what he thought was a reasonable greeting in the cursed tongue.

Azarek chortled behind his helm as the tribesmen glowered back in silence. “'S'a damn good thing they din't unnerstand what you jes toll 'em we was gonna do to 'em. ”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered. “That's the problem with the infernal language. Everything is expressed in degrees of torture.” He spoke up again, “This is going to be a problem, yes, quite. They don't speak any language that I'm familiar with.”

Gorak tried a few words of goblin but was met with the same stony silence. Frustrated, the man turned and spoke to a smaller, cloaked figure standing behind him. To Khalid's surprise, a female voice gave him a sharp rebuke. The cowled figure turned back her hood, and Khalid's amazement turned to shock.
She was dressed in a similar fashion, clad in well worn leathers embroidered with patterns of beads, but seemed ancient compared to the men around here. Deep lines and wrinkles covered the old woman's bronzed, weathered face. Despite her advanced age, she seemingly had little difficulty keeping pace with the young warriors, the oldest of which Khalid estimated at a third her age. There was no trace of fatigue in her voice. As she walked past the taller man, his tone went from harsh to imploring, but she brushed aside whatever he was saying, and crossed the fifty yards that separated the two groups. The warriors raised their bows threateningly.

The old woman ignored this as she stomped over to Khalid, a look of supreme annoyance on her face. Reaching into pouch at her waist, she drew out a tiny, hollowed out gourd and motioned for Khalid to come closer. Placing the gourd between her teeth, she whistled an odd, hollow tune through it and seized Khalid by the hand. Cringing slightly at the old woman's touch, Khalid tried not to look threatening as the warriors trained their bows on him. Preparing to defend himself against any attack, physical or magical, he was surprised when the old woman released his hand, practically flinging it away from her.

“You understand now?” she asked.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid stammered, caught off guard.

“Good, you speak for the others then. Why are you here?” she demanded, with no preamble. The strength of her voice was belied by her frail form.

“Ah, yes,” Khalid agreed, getting a hold of himself. “Perhaps you would share coffee with us,” he offered, thinking quickly about what he knew etiquette, and deciding that Magol's type was probably the most appropriate in this situation. “We have brought gifts and items, yes, items of trade from the West. Let us sit and discuss these things and our purpose for being here.”

“We care nothing for your trinkets or your bribes,” the old woman retorted, her scowl darkening. “Explain yourself.”

“Ah, yes,” Khalid muttered, stalling as he searched for a way to placate the old woman.

What's she saying? What's going on?” Gorak growled, clearly frustrated. Whatever the old woman had done, it had only affected Khalid.

“Ah, she is not impressed.”

“Well, then tell her it ain't none of her business what we're doing here,” Gorak snarled.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid muttered. “I don't think I'll tell her that.” He turned back to the woman, who clearly was following what he had been saying. He offered her a partial explanation, hoping to deflect scrutiny from their intentions, if not their destination. “Ah, we are on a pilgrimage, you see, to the mountain. Yes, a pilgrimage. These two are my guides, and she is my wife. Yes, quite. I am a scholar.”

“Martok does not welcome visitors,” the old woman warned them. She pointed at Azarek, “That one failed to mention that after he found you, he was bringing you back here.”

Khalid cursed under his breath, “Ah, that's the old woman that told you how to find me?” he said in the language of the devils, incredulously. “You might, yes, might have mentioned that.”

“You din't ask,” Azarek grunted.

“Now what's she saying?” Gorak growled. Khalid could sense his mood turning belligerent.

“Ah, she's warning us to stay away from the mountain, of course,” Khalid said.

“Now, I ask again, what do you want with Martok?” the old woman demanded.

“Ah, the mountain?” Khalid asked, starting to run out of lies. “We were led to believe it was uninhabited. We are on a pilgrimage from the West, you see...”

“Turn away from this place. Martok sleeps now and we dare not wake him.”

“Martok? Who's Martok? Is that the mountain, or something that lives in the mountain?” Khalid asked, somewhat confused by the old woman's usage of the strange word. Whatever she had done seemed to be conveying meanings as much as translating words, but he couldn't quite grasp the connotation of the word.

“Martok is the mountain and the mountain is Martok,” the old woman replied cryptically. “Long ago did the children of Martok worship at his feet, but their time has passed. Now only Martok remains, locked in restless slumber.”

“Ah, yes, and what is your role in this?” Khalid asked.

“We abide against his awakening, and deal with those who would hasten the arrival of that day.”

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “If you will permit us a moment?” He turned to Gorak and Shayla. “Is there any use in guile? They have lived in the shadow of this mountain for some time. Surely they are not, yes, not wholly uneducated.”

“Maybe,” Gorak grunted. “Let's stop playing games then. Ask them if they're gonna stop us.” Khalid somewhat hesitantly translated.

The old woman pursed her lips slightly, and looked at the four of them. “You are not welcome here.” she said finally. “And should you think that you might sneak past our scouts, know this. When the children of Martok departed this place, they left upon it a powerful curse, to ensure that none would supplant them as Martok's favorites. Martok demands a heavy toll, should you seek to venture within.”

“And that is?” Khalid asked.

The old woman chuckled slyly, “His children surrendered that which they held most dear unto him to gain his favor, if you seek him out, he will demand the same of you.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Khalid muttered. “What else would it be.” He drew the others aside and spoke quietly. “Well, now what do we do?”

“She could be lying,” Gorak growled bluntly as Khalid relayed the conversation. “Maybe they're just trying to keep us outta that place.”

“Arbaq didn't say anything about a curse,” Shayla pointed out.

“Ah, yes, well, my faith in Arbaq's judgement is somewhat diminished these days. Yes, quite.” Khalid responded “I can potentially deal with any magical seals that bar our entry but curses are another matter entirely.”

“That's a helluva distinction to be making now,” Gorak growled.

“The timliness of the statement does nothing, yes, nothing to diminish its relevance,” Khalid retorted. “We are on no specific time frame to procure what Arbaq requires. Perhaps we should investigate more fully what may lie in wait for us within that mountain before we rush headlong into it. Yes, quite.”

“What part of 'ancient Dwerro citadel' led you to believe this was gonna be easy?” Gorak snarled.

“Ah, the 'abandoned' part. In case you haven't noticed, no part of this journey has gone according to plan. By rights, yes, rights, we should be dead back in those mountains. All I am saying, is that, for a change, let us prepare for the situation, rather than react to it. Yes, quite.”

“How do you know we're gonna be able to find anything?” Gorak grunted as he considered Khalid's words.

“I don't, really,” Khalid admitted, “but you're telling me that there's a giant, yes, giant mountain, stuffed with relics of the Dwerro empire, and in the last three hundred years, nobody has tried to rob it, or study it.? Besides, it's entirely, yes, entirely possible that what we seek can be found within a library or alchemist's lab.”

“Shayla?” Gorak growled.

“I don't know,” she said. “I got the feeling that what we were doing was important to Arbaq. That maybe it was urgent. But,” she admitted, “he's hard to read. Maybe it's just a big business deal, or his reputation on the line. And you know what I risk.” She looked at Khalid. “What we risk.” Khalid knew what she meant and certainly wasn't going to disagree, guilty as he might feel.

“So where are you gonna look?” Gorak growled.

Khalid frowned and turned back to the old woman, “Ah, If we are forbidden to study the mountain itself, where else could we turn? Is there perhaps somewhere in Caer Morag?”

“If whatever you can seek can be found in books, then certainly the cities of the south are the place to look,” the old woman replied, clearly indifferent to the question. “But you would be best to simply return to the west. The south winds blow heavy with the stench of war.”

“Ah, yes, Dwerro,” Khalid replied. “Moving east from the mountains. You know that when they get things settled, yes, settled in the south, they will come looking for this place.”

“It is a possibility,” the old woman shrugged off the danger, clearly losing patience with the discussion. “But far from a certainty. The children of Martok have not faired well during their exile. Few if any remain, and the other Dwerro have sense enough not to come to this place uninvited. As should you.” Looking at all four of them in turn, she settled finally on Khalid and jabbed her finger at him. “You are not welcome here,” she repeated. “If you insist on travelling to Caer Morag, head in that direction and do not stray. If you are still within our lands when the sun rises, you will be removed.” There was no mistaking the threat in her tone. With that, she turned and walked past the line of warriors. The men slowly faded back, not turning away until the old woman and her guards were well ahead of them.

Abruptly dismissed, they stood around and watched as the tribesman departed. Gorak fumed silently until they were out of earshot and then burst out, “Alright, so what are we really gonna do?” For a while, they debated risking a confrontation with the villagers but in the end, decided that they had nothing to lose but a few weeks by travelling to the city. As they talked, Khalid conjured up their mounts and they began to gather up their packs. The rode out slowly, under the light of the full moon, passing through rows of planted crops and tilled volcanic earth. Within a few hours, they passed the border of the natives territory, clearly marked by a line of snow and frost that covered the ground beyond. Unwilling to travel further in the dark, they pitched their camp just on the other side, and vanished into the safety of the magical portal.

In the morning, when Khalid woke up, Gorak was already gone. Khalid gathered up his pack and dropped down into the snow, just as Gorak returned, swooping down out of the sky and change back into his natural form. Khalid eyed him suspiciously.

“Ah, where have you been?” he asked.

“Leaving our friends a little surprise,” Gorak rumbled, with a grin on his face that served only to heighten Khalid's anxiety.

“Ah, the kind of surprise that is likely to result in mob of angry villagers tracking us to the walls of Caer Morag?”

“Nah,” Gorak chuckled. “Not that I didn't think about it. I left 'em the kind that just might gain us a little currency if and when we come back this way.”

Consulting the map given to them by Arbaq, they traced out a route from the mountain to the city of Caer Morag that would keep them away from roads and other populated areas that might have drawn already drawn the attention of the Dwerro. Slowly, as they headed south, the tundra turned to steppes and the weather turned from late winter to early spring. In the first few days after leaving the mountain, the terrain was rugged and untamed but as they travelled, the sparse game trails had become well worn hunting paths. They debated the merits of approaching one of the small towns or villages marked on their map, with the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the Dwerro army, but each time they rode past, opting to avoid suspicion and rely on Gorak's scouting to carry them past any danger. By the end of the week, they were skirting small villages and crossing rutted, well worn roads daily. As the risk of detection increased, fortunately the terrain turned to their advantage. The sparse stands of trees that dotted the northern plains began to thicken and in places, became actual forest. The ground, which had been flat enough to see to the horizon in the north, here rolled with gentle hills, aiding their efforts further.

The morning of the eight day after their meeting with the tribesmen found them picking their way carefully through well groomed forest of ancient trees. Through a combination of caution and luck, they remained unnoticed during the journey. Although it was impossible to determine exactly where they were on the map, Khalid was certain that they were close to the city. Twice now, they had been forced out of their way by Dwerro patrols and the last village they had come across, a half day back, had been abandoned and razed. Khalid surmised that the Dwerro army had been through here in large enough numbers to scare off the population some time ago, but not in sufficient force to hold it.

The shadows were lengthening among the trees when Gorak returned, swooping to the ground in front of them and shimmering back into his own form. “We gotta be careful now,” he rumbled. “We're real close to the city.” Rather than scout ahead again, he led them on foot through the thinning trees. Ahead, Khalid could hear a sound, like the echo of distance thunder filtering through the brush. “Stay low,” Gorak growled. “We're coming out on a small rise overlooking the city.”

The queasiness in the pit of his stomach rose in concert with the din coming from the valley as Khalid followed Gorak out onto the ridge. From their vantage on a ridge on the north side, they could see down into the valley east and west of the city, and beyond, to the untamed wilderness that bordered the south. With a gasp, all thoughts of concealment fled from Khalid's mind as he stared at the chaos in the valley below. Everywhere he looked around the walls of the city flew the standards of Dwerro clans. Huge barricades had been erected across the main road running east-west through the city, on both sides. At regular intervals around the walls, regiments of Dwerro infantry were entrenched just beyond arrow range. To the west, a battery of siege engines, monstrous counterbalanced catapults, shuddered and groaned as teams of Dwerro artillerymen swarmed around them like tiny ants, reloading them. Khalid watched with a dreadful fascination as the crews finished their preparations and released the weights in quick succession. The missiles were still in the air when the sound of the grinding crash from the machines reached Khalid a few seconds later. The enormous stones flew threw the arc in a high arc and the skill of the Dwerro engineers became immediately apparent as three projectiles landed within a arm's width apart on a section of the wall. The first shattered into pieces; the second buckled the wall and the third smashed low into the base of the fortifications. For a second, Khalid thought perhaps they had missed their mark, when a large chuck of masonry slowly toppled out onto the field below. Dust and debris billowed out on the field as the weakened wall began to collapse, widening the breach. Trumpets began to sound in the camps on that side of the city and glittering rows of Dwerro infantry scrambled into position. On the hillside, the frantic task of reloading the catapults began again.

“If it wasn't for bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all,” Shayla muttered despondently as she watched the events unfolding below. Unable to believe their misfortune, Khalid was forced to agree with her bleak assessment once again.
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Just finished reading through the entire Story Hour. Cool story, cool campaign.

Thanks. It's always nice to hear from new readers...

You're back!

Still reading, still enjoying!

...and old ones ;)

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“Ah, I don't think I want to watch this,” Khalid said, but overcome with morbid fascination, he couldn't force himself to follow through on the words. Like the others, he watched as the scene below unfolded. Bells tolled out from the section of town closest to the breach while the Dwerro regiments continued to reposition, forming up for the advance. Row upon row of infantry clad in glittering mail were soon supported by a contingent of crossbowmen, firing relentlessly at the disorganized defenders who were rushing to blockade the crumbling defenses. The siege engines unleashed another barrage of stones, most of which sailed over the wall, demolishing houses and buildings in plume of smoke and dust. The sound of drums signaled the start of the Dwerro advance and the infantry moved towards the wall in lockstep to the steady beat. From the wall, the besieged soldiers fired a volley of arrows down into the massed soldiers. Here and there among the ranks, a Dwerro tumbled down and lay unmoving as the archers found targets, but it seemed a pitiful effort in the face of overwhelming odds.

“Well that was a waste of two weeks,” Gorak growled callously. He turned to Khalid, his eyes narrowing. “Any more bright ideas?”

Khalid knew Gorak's belligerence was likely a cover for his concern but had to admit he didn't have an answer. He hadn't thought past Caer Morag, pinning all his hopes on its library. “Ah, well, maybe,” he stammered. “I guess I don't really...”

“What the...” Shayla interrupted. “Look at that!” she exclaimed, pointing at the city below.

The Dwerro host broke into a deliberate jog, still holding their lines as they approached the gap. They were within ten yards of it when the earth in front of the wall erupted and a huge slab of stone rose up, sealing the breech. Instantly the number of archers on the wall seemed to double and the shouted command to fire reached their ears seconds after the mass volley slammed into the advancing soldiers. From hidden positions within the city, catapults flung baskets of fist size stones high into the air, smashing into the panicked troops at the rear of the attack. The front ranks of the advance began to break and stall, while the archers on the wall drew back for a second barrage.

“Guess we know how they've managed ta hold off the Dwerro so far,” Gorak grunted in surprise.

Chaos reigned within the Dwerro ranks as they tried to recover from the deadly attack. Trapped between the newly repaired wall and the soldiers moving up from the rear, those in the lead of the advance bore the brunt of the defenders rage. Only the legendary discipline of the Dwerro kept the troops from being routed. Those in the back ranks raised their shields overhead, moving up to cover those ahead of them, while those in the front fell backwards in step, presenting a steel shell to the defenders on the wall. Arrows and stones still found the gaps within the formation, and occasionally a hole would appear as a Dwerro soldier fell. Another shield always rose quickly to take the place of the fallen and methodically the Dwerro regiments retreated back out of range of the defenders.

“The wizard Nargamon?” Shayla asked.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid replied. “It would appear that Zarum has not yet discharged his task. Unchecked, the presence of a skilled magi within the ranks of the defenders could present a formidable, yes, formidable obstacle.” Shayla frowned at the mention of the Dwerro they had rescued, still not completely at ease at having returned him to his people, in light of her ancestry.

“Alright, so it doesn't look like we're gonna be dining with Dwerro in Caer Morag tonight,” Shayla said. “But there's still an awful lot of them between us and that city. How are we gonna get inside?”

“Ah, Gorak can take care of himself obviously, and I will make arrangements for the three of us. It will consume, yes, consume most of my ability for the day, but we should be able to fly over the army undetected.” Khalid frowned in though as he eyed the distance to the walls. “We'll need to get closer, yes, much closer to the city however, or we risk landing in the middle of a horde of angry Dwerro troops.” He turned to Azarek, “And, ah, yes, I won't be able to do anything about your horse.”

“Jes great,” Azarek muttered. “You gonna buy me a new one?”

“Ah, well, should the need arise, I can conjure one up for you.”

“I promised that stupid nag she was going inta my stew pot when I was dun wit her. Yer gonna make a liar outta me.” Azarek muttered darkly. Khalid chose to ignore that.

“In any event, I can't do anything about it this evening. We will have to proceed tomorrow. Yes, quite.”

Saying he was going to fly them over the Dwerro army and actually doing it were two completely different things. Gorak roused Khalid before dawn and he groggily flipped open his spellbook, forcing his sleep fogged mind to focus on the arcane words. An hour later he was prepared, and they dropped down out of the portal into the early morning gloom. Staying low, Gorak led them quickly through the sparse brush, their efforts to hide aided by the thin wisps of fog rising up from the damp ground. After several nerve wracking minutes, Khalid finally judged them close enough. Tugging on Gorak's sleeve, he gathered them close around and whispered a few last minute instructions.

“Ah, yes, you will not be able to see each other, but you can see Gorak, and I can see you. Follow him, and I will keep either of you from straying. Do not climb higher than you need to in order to clear the walls, it will only slow you down.”

Without waiting for Khalid, Gorak shimmered into the form of an eagle and launched himself into the air. Always cautious, Khalid began by bending the light around Shayla and hiding her from view, before moving on to Azarek and them himself. As he prepared the spell that would grant them flight, a Dwerro challenge rang out, startling him and almost causing him to stumble over the complex intonations. Trusting his magic to hide them, he hurried as much as he dared, and finished weaving through the gestures of the spell. A few seconds later, the three of them flew into the dawn sky, leaving a somewhat bewildered Dwerro scout behind.

Even though he knew he couldn't be seen and was fairly sure he had calculated the distance correctly, flying over the Dwerro army was more than a little unnerving. They passed over orderly row upon row of tents and wagons piled high with stocks of weapons and shields. Beneath them, the first signs of activity were appearing as the army prepared to take up the siege for another day. They flew over the scouts patrolling the perimeter and finally crossed the trenches and breastworks that surrounded the Dwerro enclave and into the no man's land in front of the city wall Feeling the weave of his spells beginning to unravel, he glanced up and spotted Shayla hovering just on the other side of the wall. Picking out Gorak circling overhead, Khalid steered Azarek towards her, and guided them both away from the wall towards the burned out shell of a building, close the edge of the city.

They floated through a hole in the roof, down to the rumble on the ground, apparently all that remained of the second floor and most of one of the walls. As they landed, Khalid dismissed the magical invisibility with a wave of his hand. Almost immediately he was overwhelmed by a stench that rivaled his most potent magic. When they stepped out through the gaping hole into an alley and onto a main street, it wasn't hard to see why.

Khalid had survived the siege at Knolton but the situation in Caer Morag was beyond anything he had ever witnessed. Knolton was a fortified town of hardy hill folk, accustomed to rubbing elbows with unruly neighbors. From what he could recollect, there hadn't been a true war in the East in well over a hundred years, and these villagers and peasants were wholly unprepared for a determined, well trained and superbly equipped enemy. Caer Morag bulged with refugees. They lined the streets and huddled in doorways. Some camped in the ruins of their houses, sheltered from the foul spring weather underneath sodden blankets and patched tarps. Most didn't even bother to beg as the group walked passed. Nobody in the wretched city had anything to spare.

Khalid, absorbed by the misery around him, almost bumped into Gorak, who'd stopped to allow a weary looking group of men to trudge past. Covered in soot, they were obviously part of a bucket brigade, returning from the wall. Save for them, Khalid noticed, most of those living in the streets were women and children, which came as little surprise to Khalid, having heard any number of unsavory rumors about the habits of the Dwerro army. He started playing closer attention at the defenders of the town as they continued through the winding streets and the more he saw, the more his estimation of the wizard Nargamon grew. It was painfully clear that the defenders were over matched by the Dwerro. Not one man in five wore a uniform and even then, not all bore the same crest. They carried whatever arms they could find and as many held ancient, rusty weapons as did hastily and crudely crafted new ones. Armor for most, consisted only of as many layers of cloth as could be stitched together, with only the regulars wearing cuir bouilli or chain. Khalid pulled his cloak tighter, trying to ward off the feeling of fear and despair.

“So where are we gonna find this Nargamon?” Shayla asked Azarek.

“Whar else?” he gestured with a nod of his head towards an imposing looking tower rising up from the center of town. It lacked the threatening beauty of the Ivory tower, but it was immediately clear where the true power lay within the city.

“Another tower,” Gorak grunted, clearly unimpressed. “On of these days yer gonna have to explain that to me,” he growled at Khalid.

“Ah it's simple. Magi enjoy looking down on people,” Khalid replied. Seeing Shayla's raised eyebrow he added somewhat lamely, “Ah, well, most of them anyhow. Yes, quite.”

Gorak snorted in amusement and led them further into the maze of crooked cobble stone streets, following glimpses of the tower caught between buildings. Emerging from the warren near the walls, they came across larger, more prominent avenues, but the grim mood in the city changed little. Near the tower, they passed a group of new recruits, mostly young boys and old men, training half-heartedly under the stern watch of a wounded veteran. As he cursed at them for falling out of formation, his hand fiddled absently with the bloodstained bandage knotted around the stump of his left arm. Turning a corner, they left the square behind and turned on to a huge boulevard that ran through the center of town. As it was in all cities, proximity to power denoted to wealth, and Caer Morag was no exception. The street that led to the gated confines of the tower was lined with large, expensive looking shops and well appointed homes. In times passed it had no doubt been impressive, but now the huge trees that lined either side had been cut down, scavenged for the war, and the bronze statues that stood at each intersection had been removed at the base, no doubt recast into something more useful.

Khalid spoke up as they approached the gates. “Ah, I should probably do the talking,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily, since only he and Azarek could speak the Eastern tongue. Two weary looking guards, with flat expressions and resignation in their eyes, stepped out of an alcove near the gate and challenged them.

“What do you want?” the soldier on the right asked brusquely, casually shifting the grip on his his spear, lowering it, but not quite leveling it at them.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid replied, “we wish to speak to the wizard Nargamon.”

“Nargamon's busy. He ain't got time to meet with every refugee that wandered in off the plains. There's a shelter over on Lion street,” he gestured vaguely. “They might have food or blankets or something.”

“You misunderstand,” Khalid said, raising a hand and mumbling the words to a spell. He floated a gold sultana out of his belt pouch and over to the guard, not so much as a bribe, but simply to prove a point. “We have recently come over the wall, and bring news from the north and west. We have crossed Dwerro held lands, and eluded their patrols. There is much information we could share.”

The two guards exchanged a long look, before the silent one leaned his spear against the wall, and unlocked the gate. “Wait here,” he ordered and then turned and jogged back into the small courtyard. A few minutes passed until he returned, trailed by a young man in a dull gray robe.

“My name is Kaleb. If you would follow me,” he gestured at the four of them, “I will show you to quarters where you can wait. Nargamon will speak to you in a short while.” He nodded to the two guards, who stepped back into their posts and held the gate open for them to enter. Khalid studied the young man carefully as he locked the gate with a key on a chain around his neck. He couldn't have been over twenty judging by the length of his beard, but the wand on his waist and battered book, held at his hip by a strap over his shoulder, showed the source of his confidence.

“Ah, so Nargamon,” Khalid asked as they stepped into the shadowed halls of the tower, “he is training apprentices?”

“Save your questions for Nargamon,” the young man replied. “It's not for me to talk about. These are your rooms, he said as he led them through a wing of the building extending off of the base of the tower. By the dust on the floor, Khalid guessed that if Nargamon was training apprentices, it was far too few. The each had their own room and despite the somewhat uncertain situation, the opportunity for some privacy overwhelmed them. Khalid retreated to his room, and quickly began shrugging off his gear. Glancing in a polished bronze mirror, he was somewhat taken aback with his appearance, having had no need to concern himself with it over the last few months. Weeks spent hiking through the snow under the harsh winter sun had darkened his normally tanned skin by several degrees and the relentless wind had weathered him. A thick black beard, prematurely shot with gray, bloomed from his chin, and his hair, now shoulder length, was ragged and matted. With the wave of his hand, he used a minor spell to clean himself up, but still felt somewhat under dressed for a meeting with the de facto ruler of the city.

An hour later, Kaleb returned and, with a polite knock on the door, summoned them to a meeting with Nargamon. Shayla, Khalid noticed, had taken liberal advantage of the amenities and looked as though she had just stepped out of the Sultan's court, rather than the high peaks of the northern mountains. Gorak of course, looked exactly the same, save for being slightly more annoyed at the long delay. They followed Kaleb to a broad staircase that spiraled upwards into the center of the tower. As they climbed they passed doors and landings, and occasionally met others coming down from higher levels. Just as Khalid began to break out in a sweat, they reached the top of the tower, and a small landing before a broad oaken door, bound with heavy steel bands. Symbols, etched in white, bordered the frame, but didn't prevent Kaleb from reaching out and knocking on the door. Opening it without a word, he gestured for them to enter, and shut the door behind.

As it turned out, Khalid needn't have fretted over his attire. Stepping into the huge square room at the top level of the tower, he was almost overcome with the smell of old food and stale sweat. Shelves lined each wall from floor to ceiling, crammed with books. Half a dozen tables were spread out around the room, which wrapped around the staircase in the center. Each table with covered in a mound of books and alchemical equipment.

Behind a enormous desk, sat the wizard Nargamon. He didn't look up as they entered, but stared silently at the book before him for a few long minutes, before dipping his quill in an ink pot and scratching out a few words on a scroll of parchment. Khalid was forced to quickly abandon any preconceptions he'd had about Nargamon. The man before them was hardly the regal commander. His shoulders were thin and hunched; his skin sallow and pale from lack of sunlight. His chin seemed determined to reach the floor, and was slowly pulling the rest of his face down after it. He closed the book and turned his rheumy gaze on them, peering over the spectacles that dangled precariously on the tip of his long nose. Brushing back a stranded of lank, greasy black hair, his breath wheezed through the numerous gaps in his teeth as he asked in Western, “Well? What do you want?”

“Ah, yes, well,” Khalid began, “we come bearing information. We have traveled from the west, through the Dwerro army recently. We thought maybe some of what we learned might, yes, might be of use to you.”

“Maybe,” Nargamon snapped. “But that didn't answer the question. The question was: what do you want?”

Seeing little use in dissembling, Khalid replied, “Ah, yes, well what we would like, is access to the library.”

“The library.” Nargamon echoed flatly. “You want access to the library.” He placed the quill in his hand in an small bronze holder. “Alright then. I'm training apprentices, anybody that has ability, to help fight. You swear allegiance to the city and then maybe we talk about what it is you want to find in the library.”

“Ah, yes, well, I am afraid we could not commit ourselves to something like that. We are presently engaged on a separate task. Perhaps when we have found what we seek, we will be in a position to aid you.”

“You've heard my offer.” Nargamon replied. “This is not a negotiation.”

“We have information,” Gorak growled, his patience wearing thin. “About the troops out there, we can tell you where they're located, what they're doing.”

“I already know that,” Nargamon said with a sneer. He gestured at a map tacked up across the bookcases behind him. The city was etched out in detail far beyond the ability of any human hand to create, and as Khalid looked carefully, he could see the individual Dwerro regiments moving slightly. “The books in this room are but a fraction of the knowledge stored in this place. You think I can just allow you to browse through that. Who knows what you will deliberately or accidentally unleash?”

“Ah, yes, well, “Khalid interrupted, trying to calm down the situation, “surely there is some accommodation we can reach? What we seek is not dangerous.”

A little of the belligerence seemed to seep out of Nargamon. “So little time,” he muttered, almost under his breath. “There's so much to do and so little time.”

“Ah, pardon me?” Khalid asked carefully.

“There's no point in lying to you.” Nargamon said finally, his cross eyed gaze focusing on Khalid. “Do you know what this is?” he asked as he picked up an open book on his desk and tossed it to Khalid.

He studied the images on the page below him, but couldn't make any sense of what appeared to be Dwerro runes etched around the strange images pressed into the thin sheets of bound bronze. “Ah, no, I don't” Khalid was forced to concede as he set the book down.

“I didn't think you would,” Nargamon said somewhat condescendingly. “It is a type of siege engine called a bombard, and it makes those trebuchets out there look like slingshots. It uses a potent alchemical mixture of crushed stone and metal that the Dwerro call...well, I guess the closest translation would be “sun smoke”. This book predates the Dwerro isolation and trust me when I say that they have improved upon the design in their absence. The ones pictured in the book could throw a ten pound ball five hundred yards with enough force to kill a knight. The three that approach the city are five times the size. My divinations have revealed that the Dwerro preparations are almost complete and soon the devices will be assembled outside the city walls. When that happens...”

“The Dwerro will pound the city walls ta dust faster than you can patch em up again.” Gorak finished for him.

“Precisely.” Nargamon smirked, the edges of his smile tinged with desperation. “In a little less than a week, Caer Morag will fall.”
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Great work EN, and great to see this story alive and kicking again. This is definitely one of my favourite stories extant on these boards. Hope you can keep the updates coming ...


First Post
I have to admit, I like the attitude of Nargamon. He's got to be at his wits end, barely protecting his city and KNOWING it will soon fall... and here come these PCs to complicate things.

Great to see this story hour contine, EternalNewbie. I love your characterizations and description.

I have to admit, I like the attitude of Nargamon.

Heh. Well, that makes one of us. I absolutely hate the bastard :]. But in all honesty, most of that is residual from the first campaign played in this world where I had to rescue his sorry hide from an Ogre Magi that was holding him 'hostage', almost getting burned alive by a bunch of suicidal goblins in the process. (Turned out he was macking it up with her the whole time. As bad as that sounds, he was getting the better part of that deal - I think Nargamon's charisma is somewhere just north of 5 or so).

Anyhow, another little update to keep the story rolling along.

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“So why don't you take care of that?” Shayla asked. “You know,” she wiggled her fingers at him. “Boom.”

“Ah, because he is not the master of this place,” Khalid said, his eyes narrowing shrewdly.

“I am the Master here,” Nargamon barked, banging his fist on the table as he rose to his feet. Struggling briefly to master his emotions, he sat back down slowly. He stared at Khalid with obvious annoyance. “Now.” he finished, grudgingly. “I can keep them from getting through the city walls but I can not defeat an entire army or obviously I would have done so already.” He turned his withering gaze on Shayla. “By now, they may have discovered the Key, as we have. Even if they haven't, they're bound to have a few relics scattered throughout the troops. Most of the artifacts were removed from this place by the time I arrived, and those books which would be truly useful are heavily warded and quite possibly beyond my skill. It is far too dangerous.”

“Your apprentices?” Gorak grunted.

“Useless. You were skilled enough to make it past the Dwerro and over the wall, so I'd wager than not one of them has more than a third of your ability. He looked at Khalid condescendingly. “Well, half anyhow.”

“Have you told the people of the city? The generals or commanders or whatever of the army?”

“What's the point? There's nothing they can do about it. Even if the soldiers, and I use that term in the loosest possible sense, could break out, the refugees would never make it. And where would they go?”

“You have to tell them,” Shayla insisted.

“Look. Have you ever taken a bunch of rats, thrown them in a cage and shook it really hard?”

“Obviously not.”

“Yeah, well if you want a idea of what it's like, go down there and tell those people what I just told you. You'll get a real good look at what desperate people will do to one another, when they're caught in a trap.”

“Ah, yes, quite.” Khalid muttered. “So you want us to stop the caravan then?”

“I don't care what you do,” Nargamon snapped. “I'm just telling you that, in about six days, Dwerro soldiers are going to be traipsing through the streets of Caer Morag. And when that happens, I'm going to destroy this tower and get the hell out of here.”

“You can knock down this tower but you can't blow up a few fancy catapults?” Shayla asked.

“That's easier than you might think. Around here, all you have to do is open the wrong door and...” He wiggled his fingers in a mocking little imitation of her. “Boom.”

“Yes, but provided we can intercept these devices before, yes, before they reach the city, you will permit us access to the books here?”

“Maybe. That still depends on what you're looking for.”

“The secret, yes, secret to forging adamantium. Or failing that, whatever information exists on a mountain, yes, a mountain called Martok. It was once a Dwerro citadel.”

Nargamon shrugged. “Well, that sounds like the sort of stuff that you'd find here but I can't promise you that you'll locate the answers you seek.”

“But you'll allow us to look,” Shayla pressed.

“Sure,” Nargamon relented finally. “That seems harmless enough. If metalworking and ancient Dwerro culture are really that important to you, then who am I to stand in the way?”

“Excellent.” Khalid exclaimed as he studied the map on the wall carefully. “Then it makes sense, yes, sense to hit them here, at the furthest distance between the army at Caer Morag and the garrison at the bridge to Westgate.”

“Here.” Gorak poked his finger at the map. “It's about half way between, and the forest looks like it comes up real close to the road. Good place to retreat back to.”

“If you want my advice,” Nargamon interrupted, “and the lost gods know you need it, I'd stay away from that forest if I were you. It has a particularly unpleasant reputation.”

“Don't worry yer pretty little head over us,” Gorak growled. “We can take care of ourselves.

“Oh I'm not worried. Not about you anyhow. Now, if you wouldn't mind planning your collective suicide someplace else, I have work to do.” Nargamon rather pointedly returned to the scroll in front of him.

They let themselves out and were met at the bottom of the stairs by Kaleb. He inclined his head slightly, and gestured down the hall. “Nargamon has offered you use of four rooms within the tower, if you wish. He presumes that you will not be departing the city until tomorrow.”

Not really wanting to spend the evening within the magical portal if they did not have to, they took Nargamon up on his offer. In truth, the rooms were only slightly more comfortable than the barren magical shelter, but anything was a welcome change to that flat gray expanse. They rose early in the morning, but saw no trace of either Kaleb or their host. Khalid prepared while the others packed up their belongings. Without a word, the guards at the front let them out, locking the gate behind them. They picked a random street and headed south, having decided the best way out of the city lay in that direction and the dubious safety of the woods. Not willing to risk a forced landing on in the middle of the army, Khalid insisted that they get as close to the walls as possible.

They walked quickly through the city. Khalid stared straight ahead, not wanting to see the faces of the doomed. Even if they were successful in thwarting the Dwerro this time, it would surely only delay the inevitable. His sorrow was tinged with more than a little guilt as the only thing he truly wanted to do was use his powers to flee this place and never return. Absorbed in his own thoughts, Khalid glanced up and realized he'd led them astray as they came out to the city wall in the southwest corner of the city. Gorak scowled and pushed past him, taking up the lead and following the wall along its length. The streets here were mostly deserted, littered with rubble and debris from the unrelenting siege. The Dwerro had not yet taken up the day's assault and for the moment, the streets were strangely quiet. They traced their way along the wall for while, before coming upon a group of soldiers huddled around a small cook fire in the ruins of a building. The men glanced up at their approach, but didn't even bother to challenge them, returning their attention back to the thin gruel that bubbled over the fire. Khalid couldn't help but sympathize. Of all the places in the city to be stationed, they had been charged with defending a brutally weakened section of the fortifications. Ahead, the wall bulged out dangerously, the huge stones at its base cracked and uneven. The shattered remains of the guard tower than anchored it to the next part of the wall lay mingled with the rubble of the houses it had crushed when it toppled. There was little doubt that when the siege engines resumed the assault, the Dwerro engineers would focus their missiles here.

Gorak glanced at the pathetic looking soldiers and muttered something under his breath. He shrugged the worn wicker basket off his shoulder, and turned to face the wall. Curling his hands into fists slowly, popping each knuckle in turn, he leaned forward and placed his hands on the wall. Lowering his head slightly, he began to chant, a low rumbling growl deep in his chest. Beneath his hands, the stone began ripple outwards, like waves in a pond. The cracks disappeared and the wall straightened as the huge blocks melded together. When the last syllable rolled from his lips, Gorak stood before a smooth expanse of unblemished stone.

In typical fashion, Gorak didn't even look back as he picked up his gear and set off down the road. Khalid glanced back over his shoulder, before joining him. The soldiers were all watching them, but not one moved or spoke. With a sigh, Khalid hurried to catch up. Even stone didn't last long in the face of indomitable Dwerro will; how could these men endure? He forced his mind away from such depressing thoughts, occupying himself the rest of the hike reviewing the spells he was about to cast. They left in the same manner as they arrived, this time heading due south and landing in the band of woods along the near bank of the great river that split the kingdom. Turning west immediately, they rode Khalid's summoned mounts when possible, but were forced to walk as often as not, while Gorak scouted overhead. Trying to stay close enough to see the road as they traveled, more than once they were forced to move deep into the woods, to the banks of the river, to pass Dwerro patrols. At first Khalid feared that the road would be too heavily traveled to permit them to assail the caravan, but as the days passed, they saw fewer Dwerro soldiers. On the third day, Gorak scouted ahead and determined the forest came no closer to the road then where they were.

Khalid surveyed the area critically. The road was still a good two hundred yards away from the bush here. The space between was covered in the knee high stalks of last years growth, and the green shoots of spring. A gentle slope led down to the road, bordered by a thin ditch on the far side, that would provide only the illusion of cover, should the plan Khalid was considering play out.

Gorak swooped down and changed form. “It ain't much,” he grunted. “If we press on, maybe we can still trap 'em on the bridge from Westgate.”

“Perhaps,” Khalid replied. “But we, ah, do not know exactly where the caravan is. We may come upon it in poor location. And following, yes, following the caravan for any period of time exposes us to the risk of discovery. Yes, quite.”

“Maybe,” Shayla said eyeing the area skeptically. “But how are we going to keep them from rushing over top of us. I'm not sure Azarek's charm is quite sufficient for the task.” She shot him a wry smirk.

“Jes try me, darling,” he rasped with a wink.

“Ah, yes, well, I have a few ideas about that,” Khalid offered. “And I think the element of surprise, dropping out of thin air, is too valuable to risk.”

“Yeah, I got a few tricks that should help,” Gorak rumbled. “This might work out okay, if yer stuck on it.”


They set to work planning from the security of Khalid's magical shelter. Gorak ranged out frequently, scouting the roads for any sign of the Dwerro column. The next day, late in the afternoon, he climbed up through the portal, his expression grim. “They're close,” he growled. “They ain't going no further tonight, but they'll be here bright and early in the morning I'd wager.”

Shayla didn't miss the look on his face. “How many?” she asked.

“There's one big bitch of a wagon, and about thirty Dwerro,” he grunted. “At least. I couldn't tell how many more might be in the back of that behemoth they've got carrying those things.”

“So we're gonna do this then?” Shayla looked at Khalid.

“Ah, what choice do we have?” Khalid said with a confidence he didn't feel. He knew the caravan would be guarded, but he had desperately hoped there would be fewer. “I cannot help but feel as though we must try, for the sake, yes, sake of the city.” Azarek stared at him intently, but said nothing.

Gorak looked at Khalid, then nodded and turned to Shayla. “I agree.” he grunted. “We've gotta try. The forest is close; we can outrun them if we have to. With a portal prepared we should be able to hide and regroup.”

Huddled in a circle, they went over their plan in detail again before turning in for the night. Sleep eluded Khalid for some time, as he considered the danger they faced. He finally managed to drift off only to be woken a few hours later by the toe of Gorak's boot as he headed out to watch the road. Khalid's grogginess faded almost instantly, his thoughts turning quickly to the task that lay ahead. He dug out his battered spellbook and began to study. Azarek grunted and rolled over, muttering something about waking him up when it was time to fight, promptly falling back asleep. Shayla, despite having no need to prepare, yawned and stretched, sitting up and leaning back against the invisible boundary of the spell. The minutes dragged past while Khalid silently mouthed the formulae to his most powerful spells, committing the calculations to memory. He finished before Gorak returned, fortunately, but then was immediately faced with the prospect of the long terrible wait before imminent violence. With Azarek's low rumbling snore marking the passage of each second, time seemed to crawl.

Finally, unable to take it any longer, Khalid spoke, “Ah, does it bother you at all, that the Dwerro have started this war, ah, for you basically and here we sit, preparing to thwart them.” The instant the words left his mouth, he regretted than.

Shayla, who had been staring off into the dim horizons of the pocket dimension slowly focused on him. “They're not doing it for me,” she said softly. “Or for the memory of the elves. Or for honor. These wretched creatures lost that a long, long time ago.” The corner of her lip curled slightly as a look of disgust crossed her beautiful face. “It's guilt that drives them. It consumes them. The whole race. It's festered in them for four hundred years and they've convinced themselves that this will make it all better. But it won't. It's woven into the fabric of their identity and they'll never tear themselves free. Believe me when I tell you that this isn't going to end here. They'll sweep across this land, and whatever kingdoms lie to the east. And when they hit the great sea, they'll turn around and come back for us. And you know what the really sad thing is?” she asked him, not waiting for an answer. “Some day, their children are going to harvest the same bitter fruit as those poor wretches in Caer Morag.

“Of course,” she continued, a fiery spark rising into her eyes. “A few of them are gonna reap it a hell of a lot sooner.”

No sooner had she finished when Gorak poked his head through the opening. “It's time,” he growled. “Let's go.”

Khalid's heart began to hammer in his chest. The hair on the back of his neck rose and he immediately glanced at Shayla. He could feel the charge in the air, almost see the magical weaves gathering around her as she relaxed her self imposed restraints. The gleam in her eyes turned into a raging fire. “Well boys?” she asked coyly, a devilish smile playing across her lips. “Are you ready to have some fun?”
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