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

Khalid could only pray Gorak's magick would hold and that the tunnel was straight, blinded as he was by the flames that engulfed him. This time, unlike most others, the gods were apparently listening and he burst free from the tunnel into clear air as his magical protection faded away with the last of the flames. Coughing furiously while he swatted at his smoldering robes and beard, Khalid willed himself away from the mountain, knowing that only a few minutes of flight remained to cross the lake. Rubbing at his stinging eyes, he located the others when his vision cleared and swooped down to join them on the far bank.

We should hide, to throw off the inevitable pursuit

“Ya,” Gorak grunted, shifting back to his Orcish form. “Magic us up a portal and lets get outta sight until we're sure things have calmed down.”

Ducking inside the safety of Khalid's pocket dimension, Shayla shifted back while Azarek struggled up the rope under the weight of his gear. Once inside, he began to undo the numerous buckles that held his armour in place, spitting curses and banging about until Khalid finally dragged himself off the floor to help. Gorak remained hidden outside for a while, watching the horizon, until he was satisfied there was no immediate danger. Scampering up the rope inthe form of a mouse, Khalid pulled the rope up behind him. Finally clear of the perils of Martok, they were able to relax and assess the situation.

“Well, that was a bust,” Shayla muttered as she leaned back against the boundary of the pocket dimension.

“Ah, indeed.” Khalid replied, rubbing at his eyes. “A few possibilities, but it will take time, yes, time and experimentation to determine if we've learned anything useful.”

“I think we're done here fer now,” Gorak grunted. “I say we stop in at the village, let 'em know what's going on in there and then make the trek back to Arbaq.”

They took their ease for a few hours but after debating the matter, decided to push on to the village, confident that they had the capacity to deal with any unforeseen encounters on the way. Dropping back down to the plains, Khalid summoned mounts for them, while Gorak shifted into the form of an eagle to scout ahead. They set off at a brisk pace, keeping a careful watch on the sky behind for any sign they were being followed.

Not long after, Gorak returned, and shifted back, his expression grim. “Time to pick up the pace,” he growled.

“Whut's wrong?” Azarek rasped.

“Smoke,” Gorak replied. “Lots of it.”

Spurring their mounts to gallop, in minutes they caught sight of a smudge of smoke on the horizon. A while later they reached the outskirts of the village. Immediately Khalid could see it wasn't asbad as he feared. A handful of tents scattered through the village were burning, but tribes-folk, armed with spears and bows patrolled the paths between, scanning the sky. They weren't immediately accosted but he noted several people turn and hurry away when they caught sight of them. They were almost to the plaza in the centre of the town when they were intercepted by a guard of guards, that firmly directed them toward the old woman's yurt. On the way, Khalid caught a glimpse of the plaza, filled now with bodies laid out in rows, covered in blankets and robes. When they arrived, they found her conferring with a number of other elders. She was gesturing animatedly as they approached, her hands bandaged tightly. When she noticed them, she waved the others away androunded on them, her eyes flashing with anger. “What did you do?”

“Exactly what we said,” Gorak growled. “Went inta that mountain and had a look around. Seems like you got a look at some of what we found out. Wanna hear the rest?”

Placing a hand on Gorak's arm, Shayla stepped forward. “I know you're angry, but we're not your enemies. You've got plenty in that mountain over there. Devils, Dwerro and a dragon, of all things. I'm guessing it's the later, or at least it's henchmen that tore this place up?” she asked in a flat tone.

The old woman seemed to sag inwards. “Dragon-spawn. They descended on us just after dawn, winged and fast. Most of the damage you see was done during the first few minutes before we were organized. Once the alarm was raised we drove them off fairlyquickly.

Khalid sensed there was something else, something she wasn't saying. “Ah, is that all?” he pressed.

She looked at him with sadness in her eyes. “They took captives. Young women mostly.”

While he could not have foreseen the consequences of their actions, Khalid couldn't help but feel responsible. He could see them same impotent anger mirrored on the faces of Gorak and Shayla, but there was little they could do. Returning to Martok would be nothing more than suicide now.

“It's cold comfort, but if you'll let me maybe I can shore up your defences a little, for when they come back.” Gorak offered. The old woman nodded and directed him toward one of the armed men lingering nearby to discuss the details.

“And what will you do now?” she asked them.

“Ah, if you'll permit us, we'll remain, yes, remain here for a few days to recover and guard against any more incursions. Then we will return to our benefactor in the west to inform him of the situation. Yes, quite.”

“He's connected to this,” Shayla muttered, half to herself. “More than he's letting on.”

“Very well,” the old woman agreed.

“Ah, I, we, are truly sorry about this,” Khalid offered.

She waved away the apology, “Your friend was correct. My anger was misplaced. You made clear your intentions and we were complicit in our aid. There is more than enough blame to go around.”

She showed them to a longhouse were they were able to rest and while Khalid felt somewhat exposed, the chose to remain outside the safetyof his portal, in order to react quicker if the town was imperilledagain. Khalid, as he often did when presented with a few scantmoments of peace, threw himself back into his studies. His time withNargammon had opened his eyes to several interesting possibilitiesand even without proper knowledge of the spells, he was able to buildupon his existing formula and shape them to his purpose.

Shayla spent most of her time brooding around the village with herloaded crossbow in the crook of her arm. Her eyes always scanningthe horizon for any sign of the dragon-spawn, with a look of grimanticipation on her face. Azarek, finding any period of inactivityan irritation, frequently joined her.

The following morning, he took a break from his studies and foundGorak in the large plaza in the centre of town. He was pacing aroundthe perimeter, counting off his steps under his breath when Khalidjoined him. “Ah, if you have a moment, there is something I wouldlike, yes, like to discuss with you.”

“Gimme a few minutes,” Gorak grumbled. “I'm just about to get started here. You'd better step back.” He raised his voice and shouted to a few guards lingering around. “Hey, you there, keep those people outta the middle.” As the people moved aside, Gorak walked to the very centre of the space. With one last look around he began to chant, a low rumbling drone that seemed to set the very air humming. When the chant rose to a crescendo, he stopped abruptly and stomped his foot on the ground. The hard packed earth seemed to ripple outwards, like the rings emanating from a pebble dropped in water. Behind was left a smooth, polished expanse of stone almost forty feet across.

Cracking his knuckles, Gorak shot Khalid a wink and said loud enough for him to hear, “Time for the fun part.” He spat on his hands and rubbed them together, than began to chant, this time, a more rhythmic, throbbing sound that bounced off the buildings around. Turning his palms toward the sky, he slowly raised his hands into the air. From the edges of the circle, stone began to flow upwards, forming a dome some twenty feet overhead. A few moments later, a huge square chunk of stone fell to the ground with a crash,and Gorak walked out, looking pleased with himself. “Now,” he grunted, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Ah, most impressive,” Khalid replied, walking toward the stone bunker. Smooth and unblemished, the walls were more than a foot thick. Casting a quick cantrip, he held aloft a glowing sultana and stepped through the door. “A bit claustrophobic, but this should serve, yes, serve my needs well.”

“Yeah,” Gorak grunted. “I'll make some hidden air vents and archer blinds. Over time, tunnels maybe, through parts of the village. But for now it'll give them a safe space to get the old folk and kids too in case of another attack.”

“Indeed,” Khalid nodded. “If I could tax your abilities a bit further, would it be possible to carve runes into the centre here?”

“Sure. Summoning circle?”

“Ah, no, not exactly,” Khalid replied. “I have found a way toduplicate a spell Nargammon cast.” He held up one hand.” If Ican open, yes, open a portal into a pocket dimension, why can I notopen a exit somewhere else?” He held up his other hand palms facing. “And then, by changing the size of the space between.” He brought he hands together.

“Teleportation,” Gorak growled with a grin on his face. “You got the hang of it?”

“Almost. It carries with it a degree of risk however. The real challenge is to open a portal somewhere you are not. It requires holding a crystal clear mental image, yes, image of the spot you wish to arrive, while holding in place the formula to draw in the weave. Lose focus and the results can be...ah, unpredictable at best, yesquite. The rune markings will help with that. By linking, yes, linking a specific pattern with the location in my memory, the risk becomes negligible.” He sketched out what he needed on a sheet ofpaper and left Gorak to his work.*

By the time a few more days had passed, it became clear that the town wasn't in immediate danger of being overrun. The scouts reported no activity near the base of Martok and the skies were empty of winged spawn. While they packed up their belongings for the journey, the old woman joined them to say farewell.

“Events are moving quickly now,” she offered by way of caution. “I suspect we will see you back here before long.”

“Yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “Gorak will cast his sight to this bunker from time to time. If you have need, yes, need to contact us, leave a message upon the floor here.” The old woman simply nodded, and left them to their preparations. Khalid turned to the others, “Ah, yes, Arbaq's mansion is well known to me but without arune pattern, there is some risk.” He began to cast spells on each of them in turn. “This will safeguard us should the portal open in mid-air.”

“What happens if it opens up inside a wall, or the ground?”Azarek muttered.

“Ah, yes, well, being able to fly probably won't help in that case,” Khalid replied. “But I'm fairly certain, yes, certain, that's unlikely to happen.”

“How certain?” Azarek growled, but was drown out by Khalid's chanting. There was a brief moment of vertigo as the portal collapsed around them and they stood blinking in the sunlight filtering in through the windows of Khalid's enormous room in Arbaq's estate in Gem-Sharad. Khalid breathed a sigh of relief. The first time was always the worst.

Opening a door into the hallway, Gorak waved down a passing servant. “Go tell Arbaq we're back.” He grabbed the fellow by the arm before he could turn. “On second thought, why don't you just bring us to him right now, he's gonna want to hear what we have to say.” Leaving Azarek behind, they followed him through the winding passageways of the grand estate to Arbaq's study, where they found him just sitting down to break fast. He looked up to see them standing in his doorway, his normally calm demeanour was broken by a moment of shock, followed by a broad smile. “Gorak, Khalid, Shayla...” he trailed off as he stood up. The magical earring she wore cloaked her in an illusion that resembled her prior form almost but not quite perfectly. It was clear Arbaq noticed something amiss, but he continued on after a brief hesitation, “The guards didn't notify me of your return.”

“Ain't their fault. We came in through the side door,” Gorak grumbled good-naturedly.

“Come, sit,” Arbaq beckoned them in. “You there,” he pointed at the servant. “More food, immediately and fruit juice.”

Khalid caught the man's sleeve on the way by. “Ah, and something stronger perhaps, to settle the nerves.”

They spent the rest of the morning bringing Arbaq up to speed on their endeavours over the past few months. Much like he had in the past, Arbaq displayed a talent for asking leading questions, uncovering things they'd thought forgotten, all the while making notes in a journal. They traced their path for him, through the battle at Knolton, to the trek into the mountains east of Daggerfalls. A grimace of disgust twisted his features when he learned of their betrayal in the mountains and he apologized for the carelessness in vetting his informants. “Shameful as my failing was, some good may come of it yet. I know of the Seven Hills tribe. An ally among them is a rare thing and may be valuable indeed.” They detailed their first encounter at Martok and the interaction with Nargammon in Caer Morag. When Gorak began to lay out the attackon the Dwerro caravan, he gave Shayla a sidelong glance. She nodded and removed the earring. It was perhaps a bit cruel, to shock Arbaq that way but Khalid couldn't help but be amused. For once, they had broken through his seemingly unflappable facade.

“How...” he stammered. He looked from Shayla to Gorak. “Why?”

“The how is long conversation about the universe and yer place init,” Gorak rumbled. “The why...now that's the real interesting question and I ain't got the faintest clue what the answer is.”

Shayla just sat silently while Arbaq stared at her, dumbfounded. “I didn't choose this,” she said finally when the silence became unbearable.

Shaken from his fascination, Arbaq replied, “I'm sorry, it's just...that was most unexpected. And magnificent,” he added, breaking into a smile. “Please, continue but if they are any more shocks of a similar sort, I pray give me some warning first.”

The loss of Nargammon's tower and the knowledge within clearly pained him. They glossed over the period between the fall of Caer Morag and the entrance to Martok, since little of that detour had any relevance or significance to the matter at hand. By the time they had finished describing their discoveries within Martok and the raid upon the village, the sun had begun to set and servants appeared to light lanterns around the room. Arbaq slumped back into his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “An almost unbelievable tale,” he said when they finished speaking. “The knowledge gained only serves to reinforce the precarious position that we're in. Still, possibilities remain and with a little experimentation perhaps the seeds you found in Martok will eventuallybear fruit.”

“About that,” Gorak grunted. “We've got our suspicions and Shayla filled us in some but it's time you lived up to your end of the deal we made in Shalazar, and come clean. What seemed like maybe a rich man's hobby at first has put us square in the path of some planar scale unpleasantness. And judging from your expression, you ain't looking to get out of the way.”

“You're right about that part, at least. Your labours have brought you closer to the heart of the matter than perhaps a handful of others. The Dwerro you rescued in Malakai's mines told you the truth, so far as he knew it. He was, however, wrong about one thing. The Elven people survived that final battle! But they are in grave peril.” He leaned forward in his chair, resting his fingertips together as he looked at each one of them in turn. Gone was the weariness that plagued him a moment ago, replaced once again with the stoic mask they knew so well.

“And I mean to save them.”

* * * * * * * * * *
* We made some adjustments to teleport, as neither Galeman or I particularly like the typical scry and fry of late game 3.5e. We increased the miscast chance (I forget by how much, but it was meaningful) unless I had the opportunity to create a focal point, as described.
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Khalid leaned back in his chair, mouth agape. He looked to Gorak and saw the same surprise mirrored in his grim expression. Shayla was staring down at her hands, hair covering her face, but when she looked up, her expression was unreadable. After a moment of stunned silence, Arbaq repeated, “Four hundred years ago, the human empire didn't destroy the Elven people. In fact, it could almost be said it was the other way around. As the final battle approached, the Elves saw no way to prevail over the forces arrayed against them and so called on the greatest spellweavers and lorekeepers to prepare their salvation. When the human army marched upon the capital in the heart of the Brentwood, the Elves tore open the fabric of reality and created a gateway to another realm, large enough to allow our people to escape. There may never have been a greater concentration of magical power called forth in history, save perhaps for when the Dwerro darkened the skies a year past. But as the portal grew, they lost control of the weaves. The results were catastrophic. The elves and most of the might of the human army were hurled into chaos.” He paused and drank from his wine glass to clear his throat.

“Had the Dwerro not been so fearful and sealed themselves away, they would have witnessed the damage done. Within a few short decades, the empire, destabilised by the loss of their armies and most powerful commanders, collapsed, torn apart by infighting and the greed of those that remained. But unbeknownst to all, the elves didn’t destroy themselves or their enemies.” He shook his head. “Beyond that, the story is hazy, even to me. Whether by accident or some more nefarious misfortune, some few did manage to escape, but the place they arrived at was no paradise. Having traded the frying pan for the fire as it were, all their strength was focused on maintaining a barrier between them and the chaos that pressed in from all sides.”

“So how'd you figure all this out,” Gorak growled, echoing Khalid's thoughts.

He brushed back his hair, showing them his upswept ear. “Not all the elves vanished from the world on that grim day as you well know. Some of us were left behind. Most were hunted down. But a few were able to escape detection. They kept the stories alive, as best they could. With the advantage of time provided me by my heritage, I built a vast commercial enterprise to fund my search for the truth. Decades and a fortune spent, the likes of which you can't even imagine. But I found them!” The stoic mask was gone now. He leaned forward in his chair, his face and hands more animated and a note of fervour in his voice. “Not only that, but possibly a means to bring them back!”

“And to do that, you needed adamantine,” Khalid interjected.

“Yes! It's the only material strong enough to bear the forces required. But I miscalculated. I need more. Or the means to work what little I have with greater refinement.”

“Yet, all we brought you were unsubstantiated rumours,” Khalid replied despondently.

Arbaq sighed. “I've followed thinner threads before. But we're running out of time.”

“Why?” Gorak grunted. “They've been in there four hunnert years, what's a few more?”

“Those cursed Dwerro,” Arbaq spat. “They've damned us twice. First through cowardice and second through ignorance. Whatever they did in the mountains to kick off their grand armee, threw everything out of balance. It severed magick and the gods from this world, and cast free the anchor that held the Elves from drifting into chaos. Where once I might have had decades, now that time is measured in years if not months. If we don't free them soon, they'll be truly lost.”

“So do we have any options?” Shayla asked, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

“We always have options,” Arbaq replied, “but none of them are particularly good. I must think upon what you have told me tonight. In the meantime, I'll set my smiths to work, insomuch as they can test out your theories on forging adamantine. You, of course, have the run of my estate, just inform me if you plan to depart.”

Khalid waved the comment away. “Ah, I for one, have no desire to wander the streets of Gem-Sharad. I have several tomes from the library of Martok to keep me occupied. Yes, quite.”

Gorak grunted in agreement. “Probably best if we stay close. Any chance you got a good leatherworker on yer payroll?”

“No,” Arbaq replied. “But I know of several. What do you need?”

“Bring me the best,” Gorak rumbled, pulling out one of the dragon scales from the magical haversack. “He’s gonna make me a suit of armour unlike any he’s made before.

“Magnificient,” Arbaq marvelled, examining the scale. Dark blue, fading to white at tip, it almost seemed to glow from within as he held it beneath the magical lamp on his desk.* “I know someone suitable indeed. A master among masters, here in Gem-Shard. He will jump at the chance to craft a masterpiece from this.

“Well I ain’t got no fancy dragon feathers to cover my cod,” Azarek rasped. “But send me one of them smiths you were talking about. Saving Khalid’s sorry hide got me more than a few dents I need banged out.”

Arbaq nodded, “The captain of the guard can assist you with that. There’s a forge in the armoury and men with the skill to repair your kit.” With that, they departed for their rooms, leaving Arbaq deep in thought.

Safe within the confines of Arbaq’s gated mansion and guarded by his best mercenaries, Khalid felt comfortable enough to risk a night’s sleep in a bed, rather than the security of his pocket dimension. Ensconced in luxury he hadn’t known in months, he quickly fell deeply asleep. A disturbance outside his window woke him in what he judged was early afternoon, from the bright sunlight filtering in through the curtains. Poking his head outside, he saw Gorak rummaging around in the garden. Pulling on a robe, he joined him outside and found Shayla sitting at the base of a tree, absently eating a peach plucked from above while she watched him work.

“Ah, Gorak, I would have thought it would be a week at least, yes quite, before you were bored enough to take up landscaping.”

Whatever his reply, it was lost beneath the sound of the burbling creek he straddled, and judging from the look he shot Khalid, he was better off not hearing it. Gorak dropped another stone into the creek, and stepped back, watching as the water began to pool behind his makeshift dam.

“Ah, yes,” Khalid turned to Shayla. “What’s he searching for?” he asked, recognizing the spell he was about to cast.

“We’re in Gem-Sharad,” Shayla replied quietly, not taking her eyes off Gorak. “Who do you think he’s looking for?”

She had barely begun to speak when Khalid realized the answer to his question. Magol. Gorak was going to try and find Magol again. Chewing nervously on his lower lip, Khalid squatted down on his heels beside her.

When he judged the gathering pool to be of sufficient size, Gorak settled down on his knees and began to chant the ritual. Completing the spell, he reached out and brushed the surface of the pool with his fingers, leaving behind a streak of ice that rapidly grew in a disk several feet across. Khalid held his breath as Gorak stared intently at the ice, willing the vision to manifest. A moment later, the ice turned pitch black. With a curse, Gorak slammed his fist into the ice, shattering it. Kicking at the rocks of his makeshift dam to free water, he stalked off to the other side of Arbaq’s garden, leaving the two of them behind.

“Ah, what happened?” Khalid asked, confusedly. “Did the spell fail?”

Flicking the peach pit into the bushes, Shayla wiped her hands on her pants and stood up. “It didn’t fail Khalid. If it failed, he’d try again.” She sighed. “It didn’t work because Magol is dead.”

Khalid didn’t want to acknowledge the fact but he knew she was right. Halaal wouldn’t have had any more use for him, once they fled the city. He decided to give Gorak a wide berth for the next few days. Khalid felt some small twinge of guilt at this part in Magol’s demise, although he had long since convinced himself he was nothing more than an innocent victim in Halaal’s schemes.

As he so often did, Khalid found respite in his studies. He alternated between his magical research and translating the Dwerro tomes he’d stolen from Martok. Unlocking the secrets of telepathy had opened several exciting new possibilities to him, and he felt he was close to unlocking several new formulae. The Dwerro books were almost as interesting. In his search for the secret of forging adamantine, he’d come across a trove of books detailing the art of fusing magical weaves into mundane items. He had puzzled out the basics of the theory and soon felt confident enough to try it on Azarek’s repaired armour, binding the joints with magical weaves and improving its defence against attacks. His first attempt a success, he began to consider other possibilities beyond the simple enhancement of arms and armor.

Immersed in his work, Khalid barely noticed the passing days, until Gorak sought him out. “Gather up yer stuff,” Gorak grumbled. “I gotta head out inta the desert and I might need ya.”

“Ah, yes, of course, Gorak,” Khalid replied. “When are we leaving.”

"Didn't I just tell you to grab yer stuff?” he replied. “Meet us out front. Bring Azarek if he wants ta come.”

Not willing to provoke Gorak’s ire, Khalid informed Azarek of their plans and hastily gathered up his things. He met the others out near the front of the mansion but with the prospect of running into some of Halaal’s presumably more competent henchmen by venturing into Gem-Sharad, Khalid suggested they leave individually, by the side gate. He also borrowed Shayla’s magical earring to conceal his appearance, while she covered her distinctive features with a heavy veil. His fears unfounded, they regrouped near the eastern gate of the city, continuing on foot for several more miles until Khalid judged it safe enough to summon mounts for them all.

With no real idea of what they were doing, Khalid followed Gorak into the desert. They picked a tack that Khalid judged would lead them close to the tribe’s camp, but not directly to it. As the sun began to set, Gorak seemed to be searching the horizon, until he finally pulled his horse up, and dismounted. “This’ll do,” he grunted. “Gimme some space and don’t interrupt me. Yer just here in case things go sideways and I need help getting back to the city.”

They moved a little way apart from him, as he set up four charcoal braziers in front of him in a square, each four feet from the other. Filling them from a pouch at his hip, he muttered the words to a spell, and lit them. Settling to his knees, facing the rapidly setting sun, he sat in quiet meditation for some time. Khalid watched nervously, now having an inkling of what was to come.

Gorak began to chant in his low baritone, starting the ritual. The smoke from the braziers stopped drifting into the desert air and gathered around him instead. Even at distance, Khalid could see the strain on his body, as his muscles tensed and sweat rolled down his scarred back. Swaying slightly with the rhythm of the words, he increased the tempo slowly raising his hands above his head. With a sharp motion, he plunged his hands down into the sand in the center of the square formed by the braziers, words of power continuing to roll from his lips in an indecipherable growl.

He held that pose for a moment then jerked forward, bent almost double, as though something deep within the sand had seized hold of him and pulled him down. The thick muscles in his shoulders heaved and bunched as he resisted. His chant rose to a shout and the words tumbled without flaw from his lips despite the raging physical struggle, made worse by his position, kneeling with his forehead almost touching the sand. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, he leaned back, drawing his arms from the ground, his undauntable strength beginning to prevail against the invisible foe. When they emerged from the sand, locked in his hands were another pair, gripping him tightly. Khalid watched, overcome with awe much as he was the first time, when Gorak reached into the nether and brought back Shayla to them.

Surging to his feet, Gorak continued to drag the figure from the coalescing sand. As he stood, the shoulders and head of a man appeared, thrashing and struggling to free himself from the grasping earth. Dust and grit poured off the creature, becoming long black dreadlocks. Gorak took a huge breath, pulling in the smoke that hung in the air around him and breathed it all out, directly into the forming features of the creature in front of him. It coughed and choked, spitting out clumps of sand around thick ivory tusks. With one final heave, Gorak pulled the spirit of Magol back into the mortal realm.

Much like Shayla, his appearance was altered. He towered over Gorak now, his hard Orcish features now more feral and brutish, if such a thing were possible. Gone were the long dreads, replaced by a mane of shaggy fur that extended down his back. His skin, once darker than even Gorak’s, was now the colour of the desert sand, and his eyes were almost pure white, with only the barish trace of a pupil. His tell-tale scar was gone as were his long tusks, and yet there was no question it was Magol. He looked around wildly, desperately trying to make sense of his surroundings. Gorak grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him to look right at him, locking his gaze. Magol reacted instinctively, seizing him by the upper arms and suddenly Khalid was thrown back to that night so long ago, in the camp of Gorak’s tribe. Gorak held him still, powerful muscles trembling under the strain as his father jerked and twitched. The tormented expression on Magol’s face made it clear that he was undergoing a mental struggle that far surpassed the physical one. Then, Gorak lunged upward, cracking his forehead hard against his fathers. Magol, stunned for a moment, blinked twice and then shook his head, awareness rising up through the confusion. “You brought me back from that place,” Magol whispered, his voice hoarse.

“You owe me fifty gold for that Hatori egg, old man,” Gorak growled with a fierce grin, releasing his hold. “And a trip to hell ain’t gonna settle that debt unless I’m the one that sends ya there.”

Magol laughed. A low, rumbling chuckle that became a bellowing roar as he turned his head up to the heavens, and the canopy of a million stars that greeted his return. He flexed his jaw, running his tongue over his sharpened teeth, before reaching up to run his hands across his face. “And you brought me back ugly,” he growled with a grin. “Yer Ma ain’t gonna like that too much.”**

“Oh, I think it suits you just fine” Shayla replied dryly.

Magol grinned at her, spreading his huge, powerfully muscled arms apart, “Ugly,” he repeated. “But big. Can’t complain about that. Kinda miss the tusks tho, that’s gonna take some getting used to.”

They remained camped in the desert for the few days it took Gorak to recover from the casting. Khalid, once again awed by the spectacle, tread lightly around Gorak. These feats of Gorak's always served to put in perspective his own magical aptitude and its many limitations, as happy as he was for Gorak to have his father back. He watched Magol carefully, if discreetly, curious to determine the impact his absence had on his personality. He seemed to be regaining his memory quickly enough, and was almost as raucous and crude as Khalid remembered. Almost. Around the edges of his actions, Khalid thought he detected...something else. The way he looked at Gorak now, was not the fondness of a father for a son; not that Magol had ever showed much of that anyhow, but now there was something else. Reverance perhaps; what Azarek had once called, “belief”. It was unnerving on the whole, and Khalid made a point to avoid him, and the subject entirely.

Parting ways on the morning of the third day, the group headed back to Gem-Sharad, while Magol returned to his camp. Khalid was uncertain of the welcome he would receive, having some idea of the unstable power structure of Orcish tribes, but Magol and Gorak seemed unconcerned. Finally, common decency overcame his innate shame, and he broached the subject with Gorak as they settled into their magical shelter. “Ah, I know what you sacrificed for me, so many months ago in Gem-Sharad,” Khalid began. “I’m glad, yes, glad Magol didn’t have to pay an eternal price for my cowardice.”

‘I never blamed you,” Gorak grumbled. “Halaal dealt you a shyte hand and there weren’t much you coulda done about that, even if you did manage to smear a little bit on us too,’ he added with a grin. He turned sober again. “Ta be honest, that shouldn’t have worked. That ritual usually requires casting right after death, before the energy of the spirit returns to the ether. But what Shayla described after them Dwerro killed her got me to thinking.”

“Ah, but what does it mean,” Khalid asked.

Gorak shrugged. “Other than everything’s all buggered up? If I had ta guess, breaking open whatever’s trapping those souls might restore power to the lost gods, but who knows what’ll it do ta the elves.”

Khalid sighed. “I feel as though the more we learn, the less, yes, less we know about anything. We’re still just blundering about in the dark.

“Just like always,” Shayla replied.

They returned to the city, disguising themselves as best they could while making their way back to Arbaq’s estate. Khalid settled back into his research, and with Shayla’s aid, crafted several artifacts that boosted his concentration, and Shayla’s ability to channel. Gorak spent most of his time with the leatherworker crafting his armor, while Arazek amused himself sparring with the guards in the courtyard. Free from the stress of the road, and lost in his work, he was jolted back to reality when a servant knocked gently on his door, summoning him to a meeting with Arbaq.

He met Gorak and Shayla waiting outside Arbaq’s study. Gorak was wearing his newly crafted set of dragon scale armor, overlapping white scales on his shoulders darkening to a deep blue in a v-shape down his chest, belted at the waist and extending down to his upper thighs.

“Still chafes a bit,” he replied to Shayla, “but I’m getting it worked in.” He nodded to Khalid. “Magic it up for me?” he grunted.

“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed. “I’ve got the hang, yes, hang of the process now. It’s a bit taxing on me but I have the resources to complete it. Ah, I should be able, yes, able to get started tomorrow.

The door opened, and a servant bearing an arm load of documents motioned for them to enter as he hurried away down the hall. Arbaq was sitting at his desk, and gestured at three chairs across from him.

“Your smiths make any progress,” Gorak rumbled, skipping the customary pleasantries.

Arbaq, unflapable as always, replied, “Not much I’m afraid. The metal is stubborn to work with, and even with the information you provided me, there is a distinct lack of both Dwerro blood and magma in Gem-Sharad. I have sent agents to the mountain pass; it’s possible Malakai had access to lava within the mountain. In truth, I doubt their chance of success however, at either capturing a Dwerro, or gaining access to Malakai’s forge. There are possibly other suitable places along the mountain range, but they will be difficult and time consuming to access.

“So what’s our next move?” Shayla asked.

“This was brought to my attention recently, and is the reason I summoned you here,” he replied. “Where did I put it...” he muttered under his breath as he opened a series of drawers on his enormous writing desk. “Aha,” he pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment and handed it to Gorak.

Gorak scanned the document before handing it over to Khalid. “You know that's a trap, right?” he growled.

Khalid read the details. An offer to sell 3 bars of refined adamantine, for 10,000 gold each, with the exchange happening at a remote location in the mountains. A note at the bottom indicated the letter had come with a small sliver of metal attached. He passed it on to Shayla.

“My alchemist verified it, the metal matched the sample we had. It's adamantine.”

“I mean, I'm with Gorak,” Shayla said after she finished reading. “That has trap written all over it. It’s Malakai for sure and he’s not even being subtle about it anymore.”

Arbaq nodded. ‘There was an attempt to conceal its origins, but you’d be foolish to think otherwise.”

“Still,” Gorak rumbled. “He’s been dogging us since our first run in and it’s clear he ain’t gonna give up.” Khalid, perfectly content to never cross paths with the fat goblin again, had a sinking feeling in his stomach as he knew what was coming next. “Might be worth it just to put an end to it,” Gorak continued with a smirk. “And who knows, maybe that fat bastard is just dumb enough to bring a sample of the goods to lure us in.”

Khalid sighed. Back into the mountains, once again.

* * * * * * * * * *​

* Ret-conning a bit here. In the post with the dragon, I had described it as a hybrid blue-green, it was actually blue-white.

** Gorak spent almost all of his character points here. We don't exactly recall what the original roll was, but it was something pretty inappropriate like an elf. He was hoping to get him back as an Orc but the cost was 1pt per 1% shift on the table, so Bugbear was as good as he could get. Shayla really lucked out on her roll.

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