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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 165

Xeeta found that she could not sleep. She was certainly tired enough after the long day’s travel, and she knew that the road ahead would only become harder as they progressed deeper into the mountains. It wasn’t the hardness of the stone shelf that served as her bed, or the throbbing in her legs and backside from two days spent in the unfamiliar confines of a saddle. She’d slept through worse, had had to learn to take her rest where and when she could find it.

It wasn’t the Demon, which had been quiescent of late. She had not had the need to use her magic since the fight in the sewers of Severon. She had grown in power since the Silverpeak Valley, and there were times when she worried that there would be a price to pay for that. But that wasn’t what was keeping her up tonight.

She finally rose from her bedding. She could see Bredan sitting near the fire, staring into the flames. For a moment she considered him, and why she was here. She didn’t have to come with them back to Severon. She’d decided not to remain in the Silverpeak Valley with Rodan, but there were plenty of other places she could have gone, especially now that she had the magical amulet that concealed her dark ancestry. But her new companions—her new friends—had been there for her when she had needed someone. And Bredan most of all. At first, she’d thought it just simple compassion, a sentiment that she’d been trained to exploit, growing up in and under the streets of Li Syval. A weakness.

But it had been more than that, she now knew. Bredan possessed empathy, and it was a trait that did not make him weak, rather the opposite. And some of it had apparently seeped into her, for as she covertly watched him she could sense and understand some of what he was feeling.

She crossed the room, her bare feet not even making a whisper on the stone floor of the waystation. Konstantin was just a vague shadow in his bedroll, a low hill compared to the mountain that was Quellan. A low, growling snore came from the cleric, but he didn’t stir as she passed.

Bredan hadn’t moved from his intense vigil. Xeeta didn’t want to startle him, but as she hesitated he shifted slightly to make room for her.

“I have always been fascinated by fire,” she said, keeping her voice low so as not to wake the others. “Even before my powers began to manifest. Such beauty and destruction, bound together. A power that is neither evil nor good, just… raw, primal.”

Bredan didn’t respond. After a few moments Xeeta went on, “When the magic began to grow in me I was confused, and afraid,” she said. “They called in the Demon, the ones who had created me. They were excited by it, excited and pleased, for not all of the ones they bred possessed that gift. They made me to be a weapon, shaped me to be one, under their control. But the Demon could not be controlled. And after a while, after a long while, I could not be either.”

He slowly turned his head to look at her. “You chose to be something more than what they made you,” he said. “I don’t know if I will have that choice.”

“You’re still who you are,” she said. “You’ve changed since we first met. We both have. But that hasn’t changed.”

“I’m afraid,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

They sat there together, sharing the warmth of the fire as the night deepened outside their shelter.

In the morning, the dwarves were waiting for them.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 166

Glori didn’t sleep well. Her dreams had been troubled, battles from the Silverpeak and before overlaid with new dangers that remained vague but terrifying. She woke early, and despite feeling drained she dressed and went for a walk in the gardens.

The natural beauty of the place helped still her nerves somewhat. It was quiet, the surrounding city still asleep. As the sun started to rise colors bloomed around her, adding to the sense of calm and life that pervaded the place.

She wondered about Bredan and how he was faring among the dwarves. Then she remembered that he probably hadn’t even reached them yet. It had only been a few days, but she still missed him.

That thought led her to Quellan. She hadn’t really had a chance to think about him, or the complicated web of feelings that connected them. He’d been honest with her. She owed him the same, if only she could somehow unlock what her own feelings were.

Distracted by those thoughts, she didn’t realize she was no longer alone until a familiar melody shook her from her reverie.

She turned to see Majerion slowly approaching along one of the paths that wound through the garden. The source of the music was his golden lyre, which he was playing softly with one hand as he walked. The tune was one that he had taught her years ago, shortly after they had left the elven domain to begin their journeys back and forth across the surrounding lands.

For a moment Glori felt a thread of uncertainty. She had left her own instrument in her quarters, along with her armor and weapons. But after a moment she steeled herself. Everything that she needed to confront this encounter was inside of her.

She turned to face him and waited. He finished his song with a flourish as he greeted her.

“Glorianna,” he said.

“Majerion.”

“I have heard something of your exploits,” he told her. “Your dwarven companion was quite loquacious at last night’s dinner. I am impressed.”

“‘Loquacious’ is not a word I would have ever used to describe Kosk,” she said.

“Well, it was not easy. But I have a talent for getting people to come out of their shells.”

“Yes, I remember that about you.”

He tilted his head slightly as he quirked an eyebrow, another gesture that she remembered intimately. “You are angry about something, my dearest?”

“My dear… what makes you think you can call me that?”

“It has not been so long since we traveled together.”

“Since we… you abandoned me, Majerion!”

The elf bard looked genuinely perplexed. “I left only when I knew that you could take care of yourself. I thought you understood.”

“I thought you cared about me.”

“I do, my… Glorianna.”

“Not enough to stay with me, though.”

“My life was here,” he said. “You could not stay here, so I did my best to help you find a life outside, one where you could be happy. And from what I have heard, you have that life… a place in the world, friends, people who care about you.”

“So, I was just an obligation to you.”

“No. Perhaps at first, but I did honestly come to care for you, Glorianna. When your parents died, there were none others to step in. You and I share blood, through our fathers’ lines. The same ancestor, three generations back…”

“Among humankind, we wouldn’t even rate as cousins,” she said.

“We elves are different,” Majerion said. “It was my responsibility… but I do not regret those years spent.”

“I suppose you think I should be grateful,” she said.

“I do not know what else I could have done,” he said. “If there is another solution I did not think of, I hope you would tell me.”

“Obviously staying here was not an option.”

There was an edge to her words, but Majerion nodded seriously. “Of course not. You know that individuals of mixed heritage like yourself do not fit in to elvish society. Humans are only permitted to dwell in the outskirts of our lands, and are only permitted in Tal Nadesh under strictly limited circumstances. Your father knew this when he chose to leave, to take a human wife.”

“It must have been quite the blot on your family,” Glori said.

This time the elf could not mistake the scorn in her words. “It has nothing to do with my feelings for you,” he said. “The mixture is bad for both races. Humans have no more affection for elves than we do for them, as I am sure you have learned.”

“I’ve met plenty of tolerant people.”

“Certainly. As have I. But I have also witnessed pettiness, judgment, and rank racism. It was everywhere we traveled, and I tried to teach you how to confront it, how to deal with it. How to survive.”

“Life is more than survival.”

“I tried to teach you that as well.”

She shook her head. “Racism is not just a human trait.”

“Of course not. But that is the world that we live in. I could not change it even if I dedicated my life to that cause. But the reality of the separation of elves and humans is not just founded in attitudes that have calcified over time. There are real reasons why the two races cannot, should not intermingle too closely. What happened to your parents is illustrative.”

“What do you mean?”

Majerion hesitated a moment, but finally answered her question. “The disease that killed your parents… such pestilence is almost unheard of in places like Tal Nadesh. But such outbreaks are common in human lands.”

Glori just stared at him. “So it was… my parents’ fault that they died?”

“That is not what I was trying to say. And in any case, you were blameless. You did not choose to be what you are.”

“I see. Well. In any case, I thank you for your training.”

“Glorianna… I did what I thought was best.”

She was spared from having to come up with a response as she spotted Kosk approaching them from the direction of the guest cottages. From the look on his face, whatever news he brought was urgent.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Something’s happened to Javerin,” Kosk said. His eyes flicked briefly to Majerion, but that was all the attention he spared for the elf.

Glori felt a cold feeling in her gut. “Show me,” she said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 167

Glori stared down at Javerin and tried to figure out what the hell had happened.

They had moved her to someplace different, a building not that different from the guest cottages except in size. There weren’t many elves about, but the place still had the feel of a hospital; something in the quiet ways the people moved or the general sense of calamity that hung in the air.

The elves had had to cut away most of the couch she’d been lying on when they’d found her. They’d cut away most of her clothes as well, though someone had been kind enough to lay a blanket atop her. Glori might have preferred it if they’d covered the wizard’s entire body, then she wouldn’t have to stare at the sight that spread out in front of her.

At first glance, it looked almost as if Javerin had fallen into a thorn bush and gotten tangled in the growth. Glori might have been able to stomach that, to keep the illusion simple and deny the reality. The elves had already described what they’d learned. But she forced herself to go closer, to see for herself.

Javerin hadn’t just fallen into a bush; the bush had fallen through her. Tendrils of growth penetrated the flesh of her arms, neck, and face, and Glori knew it was the same the rest of the way under the blanket. A ropy tendril even erupted from her half-open mouth, and a few tiny sprouts from it probed up into her nostrils. Only her eyes remained unblemished, though they stared straight up without any awareness within them. The healers had closed them earlier, but they’d popped back open again in a way that was utterly creepy.

The door opened behind her, and she glanced back to see Kosk enter the room. “The few elves I could manage to pin down all said the same thing,” he told her. “For all their vaunted magical prowess, they can’t seem to do much to help her. Can’t even cut the bloody parts that are outside of her.”

“That’s the first thing they tried,” she told him. “She went into convulsions as soon as they began, and started bleeding internally. Whatever it is, it’s embedded too deeply to cut away.”

“Quellan would know something,” Kosk muttered.

“The elves have clerics far more powerful than him,” Glori said. “And when it comes to plants and growing things, their lore rivals anyone’s.”

“For all the good it’s doing her at the moment.”

Glori stared down at the limp form lying on the bed in front of them and didn’t say anything.

“It’s going to be a long trip back to Severon without her,” Kosk said.

“The elves could send us back, if it comes to that,” Glori said. “But we’re not leaving without the key.”

“This was no accident,” Kosk said. “Or just a case of someone not liking a human diplomat showing up in Tal Nadesh. If you stay, if you take over her mission, you’ll be painting a nice fat target on your back.”

“I know that,” she said. “Is that a problem for you?”

Kosk spat a curse. “No, damn it. I’m just making sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

“I knew when I agreed to come here,” she said. She glanced over at him. “Where’s Embrae?”

“She went to talk to the bloody council, or whatever they call themselves. I’m not sure how likely she is to move them. Thus far they’ve been generous with their sympathies and apologies, but they’re as stubborn as rocks otherwise.”

“We can be stubborn too,” Glori said. “Javerin said we have to play by their rules. But we’re not just going to go away. If necessary, I’ll make the Advisory Council or anyone else see that.”

“Fair enough. You going to stay here a while?”

Glori shook her head. “No. I guess I’ll go back to the cottages. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Kosk nodded. “I think I’ll go visit the gymnasium. I need to punch something.”

He turned to the door but paused when she called his name. “Kosk? I’m glad you’re here.”

“Just watch your back. And don’t touch any strange plants.”

“Right.”

It wasn’t far from the hospital to the guest cottages. An elven soldier accompanied her as soon as she left the building, keeping a discrete distance but not giving her a chance to leave his sight. For once, however, Glori was not troubled by the thought of eyes watching her, at least not the ones she could see.

She was just approaching her cottage when she caught sight of Embrae approaching briskly along another of the paved paths.

“I got us a meeting with the Advisory Council,” the elven monk announced.

“Good.”

“Has there been any change?”

“No. She’s in a sort of coma, the clerics said. They don’t think that will change until they can remove whatever’s growing inside of her.”

“I’ll go get Kosk,” she said.

“He said he was going to go to the gymnasium.”

“I know where it is.”

“Embrae… wait.”

“Yes?”

“Why did you come here?”

The elvish woman paused. “You’ve probably already guessed that I left against the wishes of my kinfolk.”

“That part is none of my business. That wasn’t why I was asking.”

“I know. I never wanted to come back here,” she said. “Leaving was a decision I made on my own and have not regretted. But Abbot Anaeus said that I’d left matters unfinished. That I would never find peace until I closed this chapter of my life.”

“Well, he couldn’t have anticipated this.”

“No. But somehow, what happened to Javerin… I shouldn’t say it.”

“It makes the rest of it easier to deal with?”

The monk nodded. “I’ll go get Kosk, and then meet you at the Hallowed Hall.”

“I’ll be there.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 168

Armed guards escorted them to the doors of the council chamber, but they did not follow them in. Glori was barely aware of the doors swinging shut behind her and Embrae, she was so focused on the strange beauty of the place.

The room was round and spacious, with a vaulted ceiling that rose to a dome high overhead. It was hard to make out many details, for it was almost completely dark. Tiny globes that seemed to drift down from the ceiling glowed with soft, flickering light that reminded Glori of fireflies. There was a deeper blue glow around the perimeter of the room that evoked the last lingering vestiges of twilight. Together those two sources of light were enough to reveal a number of irregular platforms all around them. Those platforms had been shaped to resemble trees, down to the spreading “branches” that connected with each other and joined with the buttresses that supported the ceiling. Even the floor contributed to the illusion of a nighttime forest, the surface slightly spongy beneath their steps instead of rigid like hardwood or stone.

“What is this place?” Glori asked. It was just the two of them; Kosk had not been permitted to enter the inner chamber. Embrae had been upset, but the Council guards would not budge, even when she’d threatened to leave. Glori knew that was an empty threat, especially after all of the maneuverings they’d had to go through to get this audience. Finally, Kosk had told them to go on; he would wait for them in the outer chamber.

“This is where the Advisory Council gathers,” Embrae said.

“When will they get here?”

“They are here now,” the elf replied. “Look.”

Glori turned back to the near-darkness. Her keen eyesight—a gift of her mixed heritage—helped her to pick out details that she had missed earlier. The upper parts of the “trees” had been shaped into nooks that could have served as chairs. But instead of robed elves, all that she saw were vague, silvery orbs, glistening bulbs maybe two feet across. Not all of the tree-pedestals had them, but there were at least a dozen that she could see from their current vantage.

“They don’t actually meet in person?” Glori asked.

“Tradition,” Embrae said, interjecting a sour note to the word that had Glori considering her in a new light. “The elves love their political games. I remember them well.”

“Things have changed since your departure, Princess,” a voice said. Glori nearly jumped; the voice seemed to come from all around them, though it wasn’t any louder than a normal person speaking.

“Some of the faces behind the shaels may have changed, but the underlying truth hasn’t,” Embrae said.

Glori looked back up at the silvery spheres and didn’t need to see the faces behind them to sense the judgment there. “We did not come here to argue,” she said. “The Ambassador, she is in grave condition. The Arreshian authorities must be notified…”

“They have already been told,” another disembodied voice said. Distorted by whatever magic allowed the Advisors to communicate from wherever they were, Glori couldn’t tell if it was the same speaker as before or another, but she decided it probably didn’t matter.

“And their response?” she asked.

“They will send another ambassador when one becomes available,” the voice said.

“Another…” Glori stopped herself and took a steadying breath. “What about Javerin?”

“You know all that we know,” the voice said.

“That is not much,” Glori said. “Surely you must have encountered something like this before…”

“The Ambassador was ensared by a potent magic,” the voice said. “A kind of power unlike any practiced within Tal Nadesh.”

“So you’re saying that there is nothing you can do? Nothing at all?”

There was a long pause, and Glori had to resist the urge to shout into the darkness. She wondered if the Advisors could speak with each other without their audience listening in. Finally, a voice said, “There is one, perhaps, who can help.”

“The Druid,” Embrae said suddenly.

“Yes,” the voice said.

Glori turned to the monk. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Embrae looked up at the platforms, but when there was no response she signed and said, “At the core of the elvish kingdom there is a place that is left untouched by settlement or other interference—the Reserve.”

“I’ve heard of it, I know it’s a place that’s kept pristine,” Glori said. “Part of the elvish commitment to living in harmony with nature.”

Embrae glanced up at the silent watchers again before she continued. “Yes, that is the common view. What is not commonly known is that it is kept… pristine, as you said, for another reason.”

“Magic is a phenomenon of the natural world,” one of the Advisors said, the deep, sonorous voice filling the chamber. “It draws power from life. The Reserve is kept free of civilization to keep that power pure.”

“But you still tap that power,” Glori said.

“Yes,” the voice said. “Much as humans tap the power of their machines and dwarves the power that is deep under the earth.”

“And do you think this power is somehow tied to what happened to Javerin?” Glori asked.

“More that the power can possibly help your Ambassador,” the voice said.

“And the Druid, he’s what, the keeper of this Reserve?”

“He is the leader of a group of people called the ‘Tenders,’” Embrae explained. “They ensure that the Reserve is kept protected.”

“So, let’s get this Druid and bring him here, then,” Glori said. “Or take her to him, if you need to be inside this place to use the magic.”

“It’s not that simple,” the monk said. “The Reserve is truly separate from our realm. It’s isolated, there are no communities in or near it, no roads, not even a regular trail. It’s not easy to get to, and magical means of communication won’t function within it.”

“You seem to know a lot about it,” Glori said.

“The Princess sought at one time to join the ranks of the Tenders,” one of the voices said.

Glori looked at Embrae, but the monk lowered her eyes. “That was a long time ago,” she said. “A road I ultimately did not choose to walk.”

“So, what I’m hearing is that you can’t bring Javerin to the Druid, you can’t summon him remotely, and getting to him isn’t an easy prospect. Does that about sum it up?”

“Your conclusions are more or less accurate,” the voice said.

“You would not have brought it up if you didn’t think this was the only option,” Glori said. “Do you think Javerin will survive long enough for someone to get to the Druid and bring him back?”

“We will continue our research, but as you noted, there does not seem to be much else we can do.”

“Javerin is important, and I’ll do anything I can to help her,” Glori said. “But we have another mission, one that is more important than the life of any one person.”

“Yes. We know why you are here.”

“You cannot be ignorant of the troubles that are stirring in the world. Kavel Murgoth was involved in it, but there may be others as well. There is a dark power at work in the world, one that threatens not just the humans of Arresh.”

“We know of this power, and concur with the plan to access the Elderlore Libram.”

Glori blinked in surprise. Then why the delays? Unless… There’s something more, isn’t there.”

“Your two quests are related, Glorianna Leliades. For the elves’ portion of the Shattered Key also lies within the Reserve, in the custody of the Druid who dwells within the Green Tower at its core.”
 

carborundum

Explorer
Aha! Assuming the tree-bomb was from this Druid, they've just doubled the price to access the Key.
The Council must know the Druid could be responsible though - "power not like any practiced within Tal Nadesh" indeed.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Let's just say that there are a lot of hidden wheels at work within elvish society. But for now we'll drop in and see what Bredan and company have been up to...

* * *

Chapter 169

The dwarves were a quiet, competent-looking lot, all warriors clad in plate armor with various axes, hammers, and crossbows hanging about their persons. They rode sure-footed mountain horses that stood several hands shorter than the mounts that the companions had brought from Five Spires. The only one who introduced himself was their leader, a gruff-faced figure named Trok. There were seven in all, a number that Quellan said held special significance for the dwarves.

Grimacing slightly as she settled once again into her saddle, Xeeta fell in with her companions as they resumed their journey. The dwarves spread out and surrounded them, almost like an honor guard—or just guards, she thought. They seemed to watch the surrounding landscape and their charges with equal scrutiny, and Xeeta had to school herself to keep her attention focused ahead, and to ignore the eyes she could feel on her back.

The road continued to climb as the day advanced, and the temperature dropped steadily even as the sun rose higher into the sky. Dark clouds gathered over the mountains to the south, but they remained too distant to threaten the company.

Bredan had grown quiet again, withdrawing once more into himself. Konstantin tried several times to start up a dialogue with Trok, but the dwarf made it difficult with his monosyllabic responses. But the wizard persisted, occasionally drawing Quellan into his conversations to fill the gaps. He was a natural diplomat, Xeeta thought. Certainly more so than the rest of them. She looked again over at Bredan. She wasn’t here because of the Libram, and didn’t really care if the quest that the wizards had set them upon succeeded or failed. She knew that it was all about power. That was a topic that she knew something about. But she didn’t need the power of a book or some other forgotten lore. Her power burned in her blood, her birthright, her curse.

They paused for a brief lunch at another rest station. The dwarves moved with the efficiency of warriors who had spent much time together, caring for the horses and moving their charges along. They seemed impatient, though none of them showed as much as an irate grimace on their faces.

It was midafternoon when they spotted their destination ahead. The small column emerged from a steep-walled defile to see another long ascent in front of them. At the top of the ridge stood a walled town, nestled against the shoulder of a white-capped peak. To their left the road dropped away to a steep plummet that concluded in a tree-lined valley hundreds of feet below. Xeeta instinctively shied away from that edge, but their escorts rode a scant arm’s length from it, heedless of the danger. She had a mental image of a sudden gust of wind knocking one of them over the edge, the dwarf rattling in his armor as he bounced down the slope.

To distract herself from those thoughts she focused on the town ahead. The wall was impressive, maybe twenty feet tall if she had her scale correct, but the area it sheltered did not look especially large. Only a few buildings were visible behind it, and certainly nothing that came close to the monumentalist structures of Severon.

“This is Ironcrest?” she said. “Doesn’t look like much.”

She hadn’t meant to be heard, but Quellan was close enough to make out her question. “That is just Hightown,” he told her. “Just one of the districts that makes up the dwarven city. Underhold is said to be breathtaking.”

That just raised more questions, but not wanting to show her ignorance she didn’t ask them. She would see for herself soon enough, she thought.

As they approached the walls of the town she could make out more detail. Her guess about the height of the wall had been, if anything, a bit low. The gates that the road ended at were generously banded in iron and looked thick. They were flanked both by arrow slits to either side and murder holes above, dark openings behind which vague shadows moved. Two protruding towers stuck out from the wall, each supporting platforms that bore heavy ballistae on swivel mounts. Xeeta noted how they tracked the party as it approached.

“Really laying out the welcome mat, aren’t they?” she asked. But this time her companions, distracted by their own thoughts, did not respond.

Their escort did not slow as they approached and the gates began to swing slowly open. Xeeta could see that they were operated by a heavy mechanism rather than muscle; she could hear the gears grinding together within the walls as they passed through. There were more guards inside, armed and armored much like their escort, but they made way to let them pass into the town.

Hightown was fairly unremarkable. It was laid out on a simple square grid, the streets straight enough that Xeeta could see all the way to the outer wall each time they came to an intersection. They continued straight on from the gate, down a central avenue lined by stores and workshops. The buildings were all made of stone, with steeply sloping wooden roofs designed to keep snow from piling up. The streets were busy but not crowded, and while they drew attention no one stopped what they were doing to stare. She saw that her estimate of the size of the town was more or less accurate; they had only traveled a few blocks when she could see the cliff face that marked the shoulder of the mountain against which the dwarven community rested. She guessed that there couldn’t have been maybe fifty or so buildings in the town altogether; one of Severon’s smaller neighborhoods could have swallowed it up with room to spare.

But the mystery posed by Quellan’s earlier comment was quickly solved as they passed through the last part of the town. The structures here were larger but still not especially tall. They had large doors on one ends and few windows; Xeeta guessed them to be warehouses. But her attention was drawn to the cliffs ahead, where another gate was just coming into view.

This gate made the entrance to Hightown behind them look humble by comparison. These doors were solid stone, and each stood a good fifteen feet high. They were embedded into the mountain, at the end of a short tunnel that could accommodate the massive portals with room to spare. Xeeta didn’t see any arrow slits or other defenses here, but she could still feel eyes watching them as they approached.

Trok reined in his horse a good fifty feet from the mouth of the tunnel. The dwarf waited until the others had all stopped, then he slowly raised his right hand and made a fist.

The mountain rumbled in response. The doors shook, then slowly began to swing open. Xeeta had thought the gears from the outer gate had been loud. This was like the thunder of an earthquake, even though they were far enough away that she could not see any details of the mechanism. Inside the tunnel proper it had to be deafening.

The doors only opened partway before the grinding came to a stop, leaving a gap of maybe six or seven feet between them. Trok dismounted, and his men followed suit. “Your animals will be cared for,” he said.

The members of the diplomatic party slid down from their saddles. Xeeta handed the reins of her horse over to one of the guards. Apparently, they would be continuing on foot from this point.

As they started forward, a figure appeared in the gap between the doors. It was another dwarf, his beard split into two long braids that covered a richly-embroidered tunic with silver trim and a fur-lined collar and cuffs. He waited for them in the entry, and as the companions approached a pair of lights began to shine from recessed niches inside the roof of the tunnel. They were bright enough that it was painful to look at them directly, and as they entered that radiance Xeeta felt something else, a slight prickling sensation on her skin that made her feel slightly uncomfortable. She could now see other dwarves waiting beyond the gates, a mix of warriors and well-dressed officials like the one standing before them.

“On behalf of the Council of Elders of the Dwarven People of the Iron Crags, I welcome you to Ironcrest,” the dwarf said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 170

“I am Dergan Steelhammer, Representative of the Council,” the dwarven official said. “I hope that your journey was not too arduous, Ambassador Konstantin.”

“The journey was not difficult, thanks to your hospitality, Representative Steelhammer” Konstantin said. He offered a slight bow and then turned to his companions. “Allow me to present Bredan Karras, Quellan Emberlane, and Xeeta of Li Syval.”

Dergan inclined his head toward them. Xeeta was watching the dwarf carefully, but he did not betray any particular reactions that would explain their interest in Bredan. “I bid you welcome,” he said. “The Council is quite eager to meet with you. Quarters have been prepared where you can refresh yourself prior to the meeting, but first I am afraid that I must ask Xeeta to yield her amulet.”

Xeeta blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I am sorry, but you cannot conceal your features within Ironcrest. The use of such illusions is illegal within the city. I assure you that none will take issue with your true appearance, and your device will be kept safe and returned to you when you depart.”

Xeeta looked at the others in alarm, not at the request specifically, but the fact that they’d detected it and seemed to know all about her already.

She started to reach for the amulet, but Bredan interrupted. “Is this how you treat all of your honored guests?” he asked.

“Bredan, it’s all right…” Xeeta began, but he held up his hand; he was not going to let it go. It looked for a moment like Konstantin would intervene, but the wizard ultimately held his ground. Maybe he agreed with Bredan testing their boundaries here, before they passed through these gates.

If Dergan was ruffled, he didn’t let it show. “The difference between civilization and barbarism is law,” he said calmly. “If I were to visit your country, I would expect to be bound by your laws. I am afraid that I have no authority to grant an exception in this case. However, I give you my word that when you pass these barriers, the full power of the Council will guarantee your safety.”

“I have heard such assurances before,” Bredan said. But he stepped back and turned to Xeeta.

“I have nothing to hide,” she said. Still, she felt a moment of apprehension as she removed the amulet and the illusion screening her features dissolved. But Dergan merely accepted the device with a nod of acknowledgement. He stepped back and gestured them forward.

The companions made their way past the giant doors. The tunnel continued beyond them, a perfectly smooth corridor through the rock of the mountain large enough to accommodate two wagon teams riding side-by-side. There was plenty of light, with periodic niches that glowed with a softer version of the bright spotlights that had framed the entry. The dwarves that were waiting inside formed another honor guard, escorting them forward. Once they were all inside Dergan came forward to lead them, walking alongside Konstantin. They spoke together quietly as they walked, the words overpowered by the solid thump of their escorts’ feet on the ground and the clank and clatter of the warriors’ armor.

Quellan sidled up to Xeeta, his bulk managing to make the imposing dwarf warriors seem slight by contrast. “I assume you’ve never been in a dwarf hold before,” he said.

She realized he was trying to distract her from the just-concluded encounter and the forced revelation of her true form. She didn’t need it, but for his sake she said, “There weren’t many dwarves in Li Syval.”

“Understandable,” Quellan said. “If my body was denser than water, I would probably not want to settle on an island.”

“I did not know that about them,” she said.

“It’s a weakness they don’t like to publicize,” he said with in an exaggerated whisper.

If any of the dwarves were listening in, they didn’t let it show on their faces. The tunnel seemed to be quite long, but Xeeta could make out something ahead, a widening into a broader space.

“I admit, I’m quite looking forward to this,” Quellan said conspiratorially to her. The cleric had a broad grin on his face, an expression that would probably be terrifying to someone who didn’t know him well.

They reached the end of the tunnel and found themselves standing on a broad jut of stone that overlooked a vast cavern.

The space extended for hundreds of feet both above and below them. It looked like the entire interior of the mountain, or at least a considerable portion of it, was hollow. The far side was only visible due to the hundreds of tiny lights, in an assortment of colors, that gave the place the look of a forest grotto buzzing with fireflies. It was an astounding tableau, one that held the three companions for a long moment. Even Bredan was overwhelmed and could only take in the view in silence.

There were plenty of details to study once the initial impact had worn off. The city itself was spread across many tiers, a fascinating vertical arrangement that looked impossible at first, until one noted the creative engineering that the dwarves had implemented to solve the problem. The tiers were connected by gantries that looked like cobwebs from a distance but had to be made of heavy steel. Bridges suspended by cables from above crossed over gaps, and lifts that rose and descended along thick guiderails provided a quick way of traveling between levels. Elsewhere wheeled vehicles that resembled mine carts were winched up ramps to deliver cargo or passengers to a higher destination. Most of the buildings stood atop flat shelves of stone, but others looked as though they had been carved from the very walls of the cavern, resembling birdhouses in the way they stuck out over the abyss.

“Uh, wow,” Bredan said.

“The books do not do it justice,” Quellan said.

Drawn forward by her curiosity, Xeeta stepped forward almost to the edge. There was no handrail or other safety feature, and the drop to the next tier had to be at least fifty feet.

“Careful,” Quellan warned.

Xeeta saw that the bottom of the cavern was a flat, shimmering surface, one that reflected back the faint glow of the many lamps that dotted the cavern walls. It was a lake, she realized. Tiny boats—or maybe not so tiny, given the distance—scuttled across the surface, heading toward still more buildings that surrounded the water.

She turned back to the others. Dergan was waiting for them with a knowing look on his face that suggested he had witnessed this reaction before.

“You now stand before the heart of Ironcrest,” he said. “Welcome to Underhold.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
There are many times when I wish my creative talents extended to art. :)

* * *

Chapter 171

Bredan felt wrung out, almost as if he’d fought a long battle. Maybe he had, in a sense, he thought as he and his companions left the council chambers. Konstantin remained inside, engaged in small talk with a few of the Councilors, but Bredan was just grateful that his role as diplomat had come to an end, at least for today.

The “preliminary meeting” with the Council of Elders had lasted nearly four hours. He knew that for a fact since there had been an elaborate, dwarf-made clock on the mantle above the huge hearth that had dominated one entire wall of the chamber.

His adversaries on the imagined field of battle had been seven elderly dwarves. Seven again—he’d heard earlier Quellan telling Xeeta about how the number was significant to them, but he hadn’t made out the details. He regretted not paying enough attention to the conversations on the way here, or asking questions about the details of dwarven government prior to their arrival. What he gathered was that these seven were high-ranking members of the dwarven elite, lords among their crafts organizations or something similar.

Konstantin’s role during the just-concluded meeting had been vital. The wizard seemed to get along well enough with the irascible dwarves, never getting flustered or impatient. The same could not be said for himself, Bredan thought. The dwarves on the Council had had questions for all of them, but their main focus had been on him.

They’d agreed in advance that they were not trying to keep secrets from the dwarves, but even so Bredan felt as though he’d been raked over hot coals. There were things he definitely was not going to tell the dwarves, things he hadn’t even shared with the Arreshian wizards, but it had been difficult keeping things hidden from those seven gnarled faces, from dwarves who dug for truths as ardently as a starving miner questing for precious metals or gemstones buried in the earth.

Bredan’s thoughts were on a meal, maybe a hot bath. He’d heard mention that there were hot springs on one of the lower levels of the city, springs that fueled pools where tired dwarves could soak and ease muscles tired from a long day’s work. At the moment he was even willing to put up with the inquiring stares that seemed to follow them everywhere in the city. Though in fairness, it was possible that those stares were more for his companions than for him. While the Council of Elders knew his name and wanted him for some still-undefined purpose, he doubted that the common dwarves of Ironcrest knew or cared who he was.

As they were leaving the complex of rooms that belonged to the Council they saw Dergan approaching with a younger dwarf clad in a long coat of mail at his side. “Ah, Bredan, Quellan, Xeeta, I am glad I found you here,” the dwarven official said.

“Ambassador Konstantin is still in the council chambers,” Bredan said.

“Actually, it was you I was hoping to find,” Dergan said. “Now that your meeting is over, I thought you might enjoy a tour of the city.”

Thoughts of food and steaming water almost caused Bredan to reflexively refuse, but he remembered what Konstantin had said about being cooperative while absorbing what information they could about the dwarves and their motives. Besides, he thought, all of them had been equally impressed by their first view of the city, and he was sure that Quellan probably had a long list of questions to ask of their hosts. “Sure,” he said.

“Excellent. This is Darik Broadshield,” he said, introducing his companion. “He is one of the Defenders. He can show you the many sights of Underhold and answer any questions you might ask.”

“If you don’t mind, I think I will take a pass on the tour,” Quellan said. “If it is possible, I would like to visit the Temple of Hosrenu…”

“Of course,” Dergan said. “I can take you there. Darik, take care of our other guests, please. Give them the full tour.”

“The full tour, you’re certain?” Darik asked. Something passed between the two dwarves, a look that held hidden meaning. “We don’t need anything special,” Bredan said.

“It’s no trouble,” Dergan said definitely. “It is important that you understand what we’re fighting for here. When you’re done, Darik will show you to the guest quarters.”

Bredan felt a vague sensation of unease, but it was too late to back out now. Still, he watched with some regret as Quellan left with Dergan. Maybe if he’d been the first to speak up… no, it was him that the dwarves were interested in, him that they wanted to see whatever was part of the “full tour.” And he still had Xeeta with him just in case there was something more behind that look the two dwarves had shared.

“All right, lead on,” he said to Darik.

“I understand you were a smith?” the dwarf warrior asked. At Bredan’s nod he said, “We’ll start at the forges then, they’re a sight. We’ve been refining metal here for over seven hundred years…”

Bredan prepared himself for more long hours of patient nods and practiced smiles as they followed their guide back into the dwarven city.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 172

The dwarven temple was on the lower levels of Underhold, on a jut that overlooked the lake fifty feet below. Dergan did not accompany Quellan inside, excusing himself to attend to unspecified business of the Council. The half-orc thanked him for his aid and went inside.

The interior of the temple was much larger than the exterior had suggested, its chambers burrowing deep into the rock of the mountain. The massive stone blocks that made up the vestibule were ancient, and Quellan could make out faint runes still etched into their surface. He was not especially familiar with dwarven history, but he guessed that this place probably dated back far enough that it might have served as a temple to the Stone Lord, back before the dwarves joined the other races in paying homage to the New Gods. The stylized book of Hosrenu carved over the interior arch looked much more recent than the rest of the place.

Quellan peered briefly through the arch into the nave of the temple. The manner in which it was laid out was a bit different than the other temples he had visited, but there was enough of the familiar to offer him a sense of reassurance. He almost stopped to pray—he could have used a moment’s peace right then—but the directions that Dergan had given him led him to the rear of the temple behind the altar, where a much humbler arch led to a recessed door. He went to the door and knocked on it. There was no response. He tried the door and found that it was unlocked.

“Hello?” he said, sticking his head inside.

This chamber was more familiar to him, with its racks of books and multiple writing desks situated strategically throughout the room. A coal fire burned in a hearth fronted with a metal screen, adding a friendly warmth. Two doorways led to other parts of the temple, but the place appeared to be empty.

Quellan hesitated in the doorway, not wanting to trespass. He was about to go back when a voice from the main temple drew his attention back around.

“I never thought I would see the day when an orc entered the sanctum.”

The speaker was an elderly dwarf, his hair and beard a pale gray that was almost white, his features a complex landscape of crags and ridges. He was dressed in a simple robe that fell from his broad shoulders to brush lightly on the bare stone of the temple floor. The eyes that fixed on Quellan burned with an outrage that the half-orc knew only too well.

“I am here with the diplomatic party from Arresh,” Quellan said.

“So I am told,” the dwarf said. “I have heard that you brought a demon-spawn with you in the city. Is that true?”

“You did not mention my human friend,” Quellan said. “Perhaps you had something to do with why he is here?”

The dwarf gave him a hard look. “What do you want, boy?”

Quellan resisted the urge to sigh—“boy” was at least an incremental step better than “orc.” “I seek knowledge, elder,” he said.

The dwarf’s expression did not give in the slightest. “You know the words, but even a well-trained animal can be taught tricks. There is nothing for you here.”

Quellan allowed a bit of the anger he’d kept banked to slip free. “I am an anointed priest of Hosrenu.” The dwarf started to protest, but he said, “Beyond that, I am an emissary of the Kingdom of Arresh, with a seal of appointment from the High Priest of Severon.”

“Human authority,” the dwarf said.

“Yes, human authority,” Quellan said. “Authority that your Council of Elders has already acknowledged. Now, before either of us says something that we might… regret, allow me to present myself formally. I am Quellan Emberlane, Priest Initiate of the Monastery of Crosspath, under Abbess Laurine. To whom do I have the honor of addressing?”

For a moment it looked as though the dwarf would not reply, but finally he said, “I am Akhenon Loremaster.”

Quellan inclined his head in a gesture of respect. “Loremaster. May you learn something new this day.”

The dwarf waved his hand in irritation. “If you absolutely insist on disturbing my work, then we can at least have this conversation in the temple quarters.” He waved Quellan toward the door, as if the half-orc was the one delaying them.

Quellan kept his face carefully neutral. Progress, of a sort, he thought. “As you wish, Loremaster.” He preceded the dwarf into the interior chamber. The fire gave it a homey feeling that compensated somewhat for the decidedly chilly welcome from its occupant. “You operate the temple alone?” he asked.

“I have some young aspirants who help keep the place orderly,” the dwarf said. “I suppose you’ll be wanting something to drink.”

“There’s no need to go to any trouble,” Quellan said. “Whatever you normally offer to brothers of the faith will be fine.”

He couldn’t help but smile as the dwarf went off into a side chamber, growling to himself.

The room itself looked quite comfortable. Quellan walked over and examined some of the bookcases. Many of the volumes were familiar, though there were plenty whose spines were marked only with blockish dwarven runes instead of the softer letters of the Common language shared by the three dominant civilized races of the continent. Quellan resisted the urge to examine some of the books—that would be rude—and continued his circuit of the chamber.

His gaze lingered on a tapestry that hung on the wall opposite the hearth. It wasn’t that interesting—there was no historical or literary scene depicted, just a simple geometric pattern—but somehow his attention was drawn to it. He glanced at the far doorway, but all he heard was a soft clatter of cups as his host prepared refreshments. Even that sound was a little bit angry, Quellan thought.

He turned back to the tapestry, but before he could examine it a soft click drew his attention to another corner. There was another device there, a sphere resting in a stone frame that he’d taken for a globe when he’d first come in. But as he went over to it he saw that it was something else. The sphere was covered in a complex web of markings, which were being augmented as he watched by a slender stylus that dangled from a thin metal arm attached to the surrounding frame. The sphere appeared to float in a bowl made of glass or crystal that was filled with a viscous fluid. The sphere was rotating very, very slowly in that liquid, which coated the part of it that stuck out above the rim of the bowl with a glistening sheen. As Quellan leaned in close, fascinated, he saw that the stylus was leaving its marks not on the sphere itself, but on that thin layer of liquid. The rotation of the sphere was causing the marks left by the stylus to create a spiral orbit, one that was slowly contracting so that the marks never quite overlapped. For the most part those lines were straight, though he noted small bumps that appeared at irregular intervals.

“Don’t touch that!” Akhenon said from the doorway. “It’s extremely delicate.”

Quellan looked up to see the dwarf cleric standing there, holding a small tray that supported a couple of porcelain cups.

“Is this a seismograph?” Quellan asked.

The dwarf gave him a suspicious look before he nodded. “Yes. It senses disturbances in the underlying strata that surrounds Ironcrest.”

“Do you get a lot of earthquakes here?”

“Some. Come away from that, you’ll disrupt the readings with your clopping around.”

Quellan doubted that the thing was sensitive enough to detect footsteps—if that were the case, then every service in the temple would ruin the results—but he went over to the chairs by the fire where Akhenon took his drinks. The dwarf thrust a cup into his hand. Quellan smelled the steaming liquid then took a sip. It was incredibly bitter, but with the dwarf’s eyes on him he was able to avoid betraying a reaction.

Akhenon looked a little disappointed; he took a deep swallow from his own cup, ignoring the heat of the liquid.

“I am impressed that you are able to find fresh lilisqua leaves in these mountains,” Quellan said. He took another sip for politeness then put the cup down on the small table next to the chair.

“You know your herb lore,” Akhenon said.

“The Abbess at Crosspath encouraged her acolytes to pursue diverse fields of study.”

The dwarf didn’t venture an opinion on that. He settled back in his chair and fixed his hard stare on Quellan. The half-orc, used to such examinations, just say quietly and prepared to wait him out.

The Loremaster took another swallow of tea and put the cup down on the small table. “So, I believe we were going to talk about why you and your companions are here.”

“You know about the book,” Quellan said. “The Elderlore Libram.”

The dwarf priest paused at that, but only for a moment. “Yes,” he admitted. “We do not forget our history the way that humans do.”

“If they had forgotten, we would not be here.”

“I did invite you in here to engage in games of rhetoric.”

“Very well. Let us talk about Bredan Karras, and the key.”

Akhenon said nothing, just studied the half-orc under his furrowed brows. Quellan met that gaze with equanimity, and after a seemingly long interval that was perhaps ten seconds he started in surprise.

“You have it,” Quellan said. “You have it here.”

The dwarf’s eyes flicked aside, just for an instant, but that was enough to draw Quellan’s attention. He turned and looked across the room at the tapestry that had attracted his scrutiny earlier. He rose from his chair and walked across the room to face it.

Akhenon scowled but after a moment he too rose and joined the half-orc. The dwarf reached up to the silver holy symbol around his neck and chanted a brief incantation. The tapestry shimmered and disappeared, replaced by a steel door recessed deeply into the stone wall. It was a disk maybe five feet across, and it evoked for Quellan a memory of a similarly-shaped barrier in the shrine in the southern Silverpeak Valley, not so long ago.

“I am custodian of this Lorevault,” the dwarf said. “Within it are the rarer and most important of our histories and other books of knowledge and power.”

“You keep your histories locked up behind a steel door?” Quellan asked.

“We preserve our traditions,” Akhenon shot back. “And from what I have heard of you and your friends, you should know better than most that some kinds of knowledge are dangerous, and must be controlled.”

“I did not mean to challenge your perspective,” Quellan said. “And the key?”

“As I said, I am custodian of this vault, but it is not mine to open in this instance.”

“We are looking for partners in this,” Quellan said. “We don’t want the bring the Libram back into the world to gain access to its power. From all that I have heard, it might be better if it is kept sealed away for all time. “But recent events have suggested that the power that this book represents is connected to what has been happening in the world. The rise of Kavel Murgoth is one example.”

“Murgoth was defeated,” Akhenon said.

“Yes, though at a high cost,” Quellan said. “But that is not the end of it. Those that facilitated the goblinoid invasion are still out there. And we have learned that there are other groups as well who may be connected to these mysterious outsiders… and I use that word with purpose. I do not yet fully understand myself how it is all connected, but we cannot allow them to gain access to the power that the Libram represents.”

“So, you wish to fight them by making the book more accessible.”

“Whatever is happening, it has happened despite the seals that have kept the book protected—isolated—for all these centuries. For all we know, the Libram may be our only means of fighting back.”

Akhenon turned and walked back over this chair; after a moment the tapestry shimmered and reappeared. “The god is with you,” he said. “But it is not I who you need to convince.”

“You could help.”

“My seat on the Council is only advisory. You and your friends will get a chance to make your case. The first meeting today was just to take your mettle.”

“As was this one?”

Akhenon put the two cups back onto the tray. “I need to get ready for the third-shift services.”

Quellan offered a small bow. “Thank you for the tea, elder.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 173

The tour wasn’t even over yet, but Xeeta felt as though she’d walked to Severon and back. Darik was a competent enough guide, and seemed to know every detail about Underhold, but her legs were burning and her eyes were starting to feel like they had tiny weights attached to them.

She had to admit that the underground city was interesting. Darik had shown them his promised forges, which had interested Bredan, but then took them to workshops, living quarters, common spaces, the massive water pumps that lifted water from the lake to the upper part of the city, and even a couple of farms. She would have thought that it was impossible to grow crops inside a mountain, but the dwarves had rigged up a series of mirrors in shafts that allowed sunlight and fresh air to enter from outside. They’d even ridden in one of the odd lift cars they’d spotted from the entry. Ascending in one had been interesting, but that was nothing compared to the ride they’d taken down a few levels in one. Xeeta still wasn’t quite sure her stomach had returned to its usual place.

Ironcrest was a city with many wonders, but Li Syval was also such a place, and Xeeta knew first-hand that such places always concealed darker secrets. All “civilized” cities she had visited had them, a seedy underbelly where the darker elements that existed everywhere intelligent beings gathered came together. She didn’t know the dwarves well enough yet to spot what they were hiding from casual view, but she knew it was there.

She did know that the dwarves wanted something from them. During that hours-long initial meeting the dwarven elders had dodged any references to the key they had come here to get. But it was obvious that they understood that the outsiders wanted something from them, and that they fully intended to use the leverage that this gave them.

Bredan had been engaged during the initial stages of the tour, asking Darik questions about dwarven metalworking practices and their engineering, but as the tour stretched on he again became distracted and withdrawn. Xeeta understood his struggle a little better now, but also knew that they would need him to be one hundred percent with them in the coming days. One of the secrets the dwarves held close was why they had wanted Bredan here. Xeeta didn’t think that the dwarves wanted to harm them, but that was a long, long way from trusting them or their motives.

They were heading down another long corridor when Xeeta asked, “Are we almost done here? We’re tired, and it has been quite a long day.”

Darik stopped immediately and turned to face them. “There is only one more thing that I need to show you.”

Xeeta’s thoughts sharpened immediately at that, and she sensed Bredan straighten as well beside her. “This thing… this is what Dergan wanted you to show us?” he said.

“Yes.”

“What is it?” Xeeta asked.

“It is easier just to show you,” Darik said. “Please, it’s not far.”

Xeeta shot Bredan an evaluative look. “Fine,” he said.

The “not far” was relative, and involved another ride, this time in an enclosed lift that descended through a square shaft over several levels. An old dwarf clad in armor operated it using a large metal lever built into the frame of the lift. They descended all the way to the bottom, and when they came to a softly-jarring halt the operator announced, “Darkfall Gate.”

“Darkfall?” Bredan asked.

“We’re here,” Darik said.

When the heavy metal door on the outside of the lift swung open, Xeeta could see what he meant.

They were in yet another cavern, one that extended for several hundred feet ahead of them. The place was brightly lit, so bright that Xeeta had to blink until her eyes adjusted from the relative dimness that was pervasive through the rest of Underhold. The light came from over a dozen beacon lanterns that hung from chains throughout the cavern. They clearly illuminated a massive fortification that stretched across the cavern at its far end.

The Darkfall Gate made the defenses outside Hightown above seem feeble by contrast. It was as if someone had taken a whole castle and just slapped it down here in its entirety. The Darkfall Gate had battlements, turrets, and yes, a gate, another massive stone barrier that she could see clearly even from the far side of the cavern. The dwarves that clambered over the defenses seemed like ants.

“Follow me, but please don’t wander off here,” Darik said, starting across the cavern. It looked as if the place had been a natural feature at some point, but the dwarves had worked it until it was as flat and level as the smoothest street. Xeeta could see side-chambers that looked like storerooms or workshops; the clatter of metal being worked issued from some of them as they passed. The Darkfall Gate was almost like another small city within the city, with everything focused on the barrier that they were approaching.

As they got closer, Xeeta could see that the defensive features of the Gate faced away from them. Multiple sets of stairs and steeply sloping ramps led up to the battlements, which rose to roughly half the height of the cavern ceiling. From this side she could also see the huge mechanisms that operated the main gate, each of the gears several times the size of the dwarves that tended it. She wondered briefly at what provided the power to work those gears; it was doubtful that even the combined strength of every dwarf here could open the giant doors.

“What does this gate protect against?” Bredan asked.

“Few on the surface are aware of this, but there is a whole other world that exists under the one that you know,” Darik said. “There are entire civilizations down here that never see the light of the sun. And other things as well, monstrosities that rival anything you may have confronted above.”

“If they’re so dangerous, why don’t you just collapse all of these caverns?” Xeeta asked.

“If that alone would keep us safe, then we would do it,” Darik explained. “But masses of earth and stone alone are not a sufficient barrier against some of these dangers. By maintaining this outpost, we retain the ability to strike out against someone who is trying to assail us. And there have been many who have tried.”

“So, this is what you wanted us to see,” Bredan said.

“Yes, and one other thing, if you are willing,” Darik said. “It lies just beyond the Gate.”

“Beyond…” Xeeta said. “But if those dangers you mentioned are as you said…”

“There is risk,” Darik acknowledged. “But the place I would show you is not far, and we send frequent patrols into the closer tunnels. I cannot compel you, but the Council of Elders wished you to see what is in the Lakeshore Grotto.”

Again, Xeeta looked to Bredan, who from his face was clearly not trusting but at the same time was driven by the desire to know, to understand what had brought him here, how it was connected to the changes that were happening to him. She was not surprised when after a moment he nodded. “Show us, then.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 174

Making the decision to accompany Darik beyond the Darkfall Gate turned out to be easy compared to the elaborate production that was actually getting beyond the Gate.

All of the dwarven sentries that they encountered seemed to know Darik, but that didn’t keep them from scrutinizing his credentials twice and asking him in-depth questions about his two companions. To be fair they didn’t seem to give Xeeta any more scrutiny than they did Bredan, but maybe that was due more to the intense look on her human friend’s face than from any tolerance toward tieflings. At one point they were all forced to walk through a rune-encrusted arch that made Xeeta feel a sensation similar to the one they’d experienced on their initial entry into Underhold. She assumed that it was likely magical, and for a brief moment she could feel the Demon stirring within her in response before they were through and she could quickly tamp it down.

Darik didn’t have the guards open the massive main gates, but instead took them to a sally port accessed within one of the squat towers that guarded the wall. To get to that they had to pass through two steel doors, the second of which swung open to reveal a narrow passage that could barely accommodate Bredan’s wide shoulders. The walls to either side were generously populated with ominous dark slots that looked just big enough to accommodate a spearhead, and when she looked up she could see that the low ceiling was buttressed by steel struts that likewise suspiciously disappeared into openings in the walls.

“Rigged to collapse,” Darik said from ahead.

“You certainly have a lot of security,” Xeeta said.

“It’s called the Darkfall Gate for a reason,” the dwarf said. “If it falls, then darkness will sweep over Ironcrest and destroy everything that we’ve worked so hard to build.” He’d paused briefly in the guardroom to equip himself with a helmet, shield, and battle axe. He’d offered his companions their choice of weapons, but again they had declined. Bredan did accept a lantern, a heavy device that swung on a thick pole that itself looked as though it could be used as a flail in a pinch. Xeeta was starting to feel a nervous itch from all of the preparations.

“Are you certain we do not need an escort for this?” she asked. One of the officers who’d challenged Darik had asked the same question, but he hadn’t pressed it when the dwarf had refused.

“We’re less likely to draw attention if we keep the group small,” Darik said. “We won’t be going far from the Gate, just the portions that are well-patrolled.”

Xeeta tried to gauge Bredan’s reaction, but her young friend had gotten a lot better at concealing his feelings over the last few months. Trying not to provoke the Demon, the sorceress gently reached out to her magic. She summoned the protective aura of mage armor, feeling better once she felt the invisible barrier settle around her.

Darik was waiting beside what had to be the outer door, another slab of solid steel. The mechanism in the center drew back six steel bars that would have held against anything short of a battering ram, based on their thickness. Xeeta tensed as the dwarf swung the heavy door open, but nothing materialized from the darkness to attack them.

Despite the massive scope of the cavern that held Underhold, Xeeta had expected something else from the tunnels beyond the dwarven city. Maybe it was all of the legends and stories she’d been told of the world under the surface, or maybe it was just her own preconceptions, but she thought that they would be creeping through narrow tunnels and claustrophobic spaces where anything might be lurking. There was some of that, to be true, and she regarded the side-passages they passed with suspicion. But for the most part, the terrain they covered was unlike anything she could have predicted.

The landscape of the underworld was complex and expansive. They walked through caverns that could have swallowed the monumental structures of Severon several times over. There were chasms that looked like they might descend forever, and high vaulted ceilings that the light of Bredan’s lantern couldn’t begin to reach. They passed a cliff face that held what looked like a hundred cave mouths, some of them fifty or more feet above their heads. Xeeta tensed there, feeling invisible eyes marking their passage, but Darik led them quickly by and nothing sinister stirred to threaten them. Their journey would have been a lot shorter if they could have taken a direct path, but the web of caverns had clearly not formed with the convenience of travelers in mind. Darik seemed to know where he was going, and did not stop to check a map or other guide, but Xeeta realized that it would be very easy to get lost down here.

But just as she was about to say something to Bredan they reached their destination. This was another cavern that bled into the one they’d been walking through. Its floor was well below where they came in, and they had to descend along a steep slope that hugged one of the walls. It wasn’t anything they couldn’t handle, but it occurred to Xeeta that she would not want to have to make the climb while under attack. The air was damp here, and the bare rock was slick in places that forced them to carefully place each step. Darik reached the bottom well before his companions and waited for them at the shore of the underground lake that gave the place its name.

The Lakeshore Grotto was peaceful and might have even been pleasant, if not for the wary mindset that all of the dwarves’ security precautions had placed in Xeeta’s mind. The lake filled most of the cavern, leaving a crescent-shaped shoreline that extended from the base of the ramp. For a moment Xeeta wondered if this body of water connected with the one that filled the bottom of Underhold, but after a moment she dismissed the thought. From all that she’d seen she doubted that the dwarves would miss such a glaring vulnerability in their defenses.

Bredan looked a little impatient as they joined their guide. Xeeta noticed him opening and closing his hands, as if he was right on the brink of summoning his sword. A crust of minerals crunched under their feet as they approached the water’s edge. “Well, we’re here,” Bredan said. “What did you want us to see?”

Darik reached into his pocket and drew out a thick, stubby wand. “Watch your eyes,” he said.

He did something with the end of the wand and a bright light exploded from its tip. It was a flare, Xeeta realized, blinking as she tried to adapt to its intensity. It took her a few moments, but when she could see again she sucked in a startled breath.

The flare had driven the darkness well back. Its radiance extended for more than twice the distance of Bredan’s lantern. It illuminated a vast swath of the cavern wall behind them, and it was that which had drawn Xeeta’s attention. Seeing that, Bredan turned and looked for himself, staring up at what the light had revealed.

Someone had painted a huge mural on the wall. The quality of the artwork was primitive at best, but the artists had made up for it in scale. The painting extended from shortly beyond the ramp to well out over the lake, and while it never quite reached the ceiling, it did not appear to be from lack of trying.

The figures were crude, the colors garish, with the bright red of freshly-spilled blood featuring prominently. For the mural’s topic was violence, and specifically the violence of war.

It didn’t take long for Xeeta to make out the targets of the artist’s ire. Darkfall Gate was central to the scene, the huge wall shattered and aflame, and then a space that was clearly meant to be the interior of Underhold. There was a lot of creativity shown in the number of ways that dwarves could be killed. The attackers were somewhat more nebulous. They stood somewhat larger than the dwarves, with monstrous faces full of oversized teeth and long claws that hooked like sickles. They had been painted using dark pigments that made it difficult for Xeeta to make out more details, even in the light of the flare.

“Who painted this?” Bredan asked. “Who are those… things?”

“Trolls,” Darik said. “Deep trolls. One of the more organized of our many foes, from the Dark World.”

“Trolls?” Xeeta asked. She gave the mural a second look. She didn’t notice the water of the lake start to ripple, about twenty paces behind her. “Those don’t seem like any trolls I’ve ever heard of.”

“The ones down here, they’re almost a different race,” the dwarf said.

“This must have taken a very long time to make,” Bredan said. He stared at the grim painting as if it hid deeper secrets for him. Maybe it did, Xeeta thought. Whatever had happened to her friend, it seemed to give him a strange insight into things that tended to mystify her.

“They have been down here for a very long time,” Darik said. “I can give you a closer look of one, there’s a specimen that they keep preserved down at the—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as Xeeta suddenly felt something hard twist around her ankle and pull her down. She let out a surprised cry as she fell to the ground. The sound was eclipsed by a wild splashing from the edge of the lake behind her as a thing emerged from the water. It looked like an oversized, distended crocodile, its jaws swollen until they could barely contain the rows of bent, jutting teeth that spilled out from them. Several long, slimy tentacles extended out from around that gaping maw, one of which was wrapped tight around Xeeta’s leg.

The tiefling screamed as the creature dragged her toward those snapping teeth.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Just a quick note that I will be doing some traveling starting at the end of next week. The story will be on hiatus for a few weeks during that time.

* * *

Chapter 175

The alien monster’s huge jaws swelled to fill Xeeta’s vision as the tentacle dragged her inexorably closer. She tried to pull free, to grab hold of something, but her fingers only scratched painfully on the uneven stone, unable to find solid purchase.

She felt a scream bubble up as the creature lunged forward, but before it could strike Bredan was there, his sword flashing in his hands. He chopped down and severed the tentacle a scant foot from Xeeta’s ankle, freeing her. The creature let out a feral cry of pain and turned on him. It reared up, its jaws snapping out at Bredan’s torso, but before it could impact he summoned a shield that kept those nasty teeth at bay. The creature tried to engulf the magical barrier, but it held long enough for Bredan to grab hold of Xeeta and pull her free. But even as the sorceress fumbled to her feet she saw that the creature wasn’t finished.

“Look out!” she warned, but was too late to help Bredan avoid one of the tentacles that came slashing down like a club. It smashed hard into the warrior’s shoulder from behind, staggering him from the impact. It slashed around, seeking his neck, but he was able to avoid the probing tendril. But as the shield dissolved the rest of the creature came lurching forward again.

Bredan turned to meet it, but before he could engage it again Darik came rushing in from the side. The dwarf slammed his axe down, nearly severing one of the tentacles and damaging one of its stubby legs. The creature lashed out blindly in pain, driving both warriors back with the frenzy of its struggles. Its remaining tentacles slashed out wildly like whips, and Bredan suffered another hit, a stinger to the hip that had him grimacing with pain.

Xeeta stepped forward, her eyes ablaze. Fire lashed from her hands, blasting into the creature’s face. One of the scorching rays shot into its open maw, searing the interior of its throat. She let out a ragged cry as the magic poured out of her, then stumbled back as the last of the fiery beams faded. But some of the power still clung to her, and she stared down at her hands in surprise as red flames continued to engulf them, blazing like a pair of torches.

The lake monster had apparently had enough; it retreated back to the safety of the water, hissing as it immersed its seared mouth. Bredan and Darik watched it warily until it was gone, then turned to Xeeta.

“Are you all right?” Bredan asked her, coming forward.

“Don’t touch me!” she warned, holding her arms away from her body. “It’s… I’m okay, it’s not hurting me.” She turned away, unwilling to let him see the shame in her eyes as she fought to push the Demon back down into its cage within her soul.

Stung a bit by her demeanor, Bredan turned back to Darik. “What was that thing?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the dwarf said. “Never saw one of those before.”

“What do you mean you’ve never seen one before?” Bredan asked. “I thought you were the expert!”

“I told you, all kinds of awful things live in the deep places under the earth.” He gave Xeeta a quick look as she continued to struggle with the flames surrounding her hands. “We should get back.”

As if to confirm the dwarf’s words, a distant sound reached them, a deep, moaning cry. All three of them lifted their heads, listening until the echoes of the sound faded. “Yeah, I think that’s a very good idea,” Bredan said. “Xeeta, you’re sure you’re…”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s just go.”

Bredan made his sword vanish again and recovered his lantern. They made their way quickly back up the slope to the other cavern above. Darik led them swiftly back along their path, Xeeta trailing behind. Her focus was on her burning hands instead of the route, but Bredan lingered back, making sure she didn’t fall behind. Through an intense effort of will she kept the flames from spreading, and after a minute or so they faded back into nothing, leaving her hands as they had been.

“Thanks for driving it off,” Bredan said.

“You saved my life, again,” Xeeta said. “I should have blasted it myself when it was dragging me, but I couldn’t think. Another second and I probably would have pissed myself.”

“I felt pretty much the same,” Bredan said. “Do you think… was it just a coincidence, it being there?”

Xeeta looked at Darik, who was a good thirty feet ahead of them, pushing the pace. Whatever the cry they’d heard had been, it had clearly spooked the dwarf. “He didn’t hesitate to help us.”

“Maybe he didn’t know. It wasn’t his idea to take us there, remember.”

“Still, it seems something of a stretch to think that the Council of Elders wants us dead,” Xeeta said.

Darik turned and waited for them at the mouth of another tunnel. “Come on,” he said. “Are you all right? Injured?” He gestured at Xeeta’s leg.

“I’m okay,” she said. “Bredan took far heavier hits than I did.”

“I’ll take you both to the infirmary when we get back,” Darik said.

“I’m fine,” Bredan said. “I’ve taken worse in practice bouts.”

“Better to be safe,” Darik said. “Some of the things down here… they inject poison or carry spores that can cause a disease if left untreated. It might hurt diplomatic relations if your arm were to fall off in a few days.”

He hurried forward again, and the other two shared a look. “Dwarf humor,” Xeeta suggested.

“The wonders of diplomacy,” Bredan said dryly.

They passed several familiar features, and soon they entered another cavern where they could see the reassuring bulk of the Darkfall Gate, surrounded with a bright nimbus of light, waiting ahead.

This time, approaching from the outside, Xeeta was able to study the Gate in more detail. This side obviously lacked the stairs and ramps and mechanisms on the other side, and looked smooth at first glance save for the uneven notches that formed the battlements at the top. But as they got closer she could see that the first impression belied a more complex truth. The wall was marked with hundreds if not thousands of gouges and other scars, some old, some new. There were a number of places where it looked as though repairs had been made. Some of the marks looked as though they might have been made by claws, which caused Xeeta to shudder.

They returned to the sally port beside the main gates. The steel door swung open at their approach and several armored dwarves stepped out to greet them. They were only permitted to pass after another interview, this one conducted quickly with frequent glances toward the darkness beyond the lights that wreathed the Gate. Their guards remained close until they had passed through the rune arch again.

“I need to report in to the watch officer,” Darik said. “I’ll just be a few minutes, then we can go to the infirmary.”

“Really, we’re fine,” Bredan said. “And we have a cleric with us in case there are any lasting issues.”

“I’d feel better if you let our medics give you a quick check,” Darik said. “And there is something else in the infirmary you may want to see. The last part of the story that began with that mural.”

He headed off, and Bredan escorted Xeeta to the one side of the guardroom, where there were a few empty benches. “What do you think?” he asked.

“I think we need to learn as much as we can about what’s going on here, as quickly as possible,” she said.

“Agreed. We need to… hey, there’s Quellan!”

Both of them rose as the cleric came in, escorted by another dwarf warrior. “Are you both all right?” Quellan asked. “They said you’d gone to the lower gates of the city, but it looks like you’ve been in a fight!”

“Just a minor disagreement with a weird monster,” Xeeta said. “Apparently this place is thick with them. What about you? Did you learn anything at the local temple?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Quellan said. He looked around in a significant way. There were several dwarves in other parts of the room, but none of them seemed to be paying any attention to them. He leaned in and in a lower voice said, “They know about the Book, and have the key. But I don’t know why they’re interested in Bredan, or whether they intend to let us take the key back to Severon.”

“Our guide went out of his way to show us that Ironcrest is threatened,” Bredan said. “It could be that they’re setting us up for asking for something significant in exchange for the use of the key. Have you talked with Konstantin yet?”

“No, he wasn’t in the quarters the Council reserved for us. I figured I should come look for you first. Maybe we should stick together from here on out.”

“Darik’s coming back,” Xeeta said.

The dwarven warrior approached them, acknowledging Quellan’s presence with a neutral nod. “Are you ready?” he asked.

“Lead on,” Bredan said.
 
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Lazybones

Explorer
As long as you don't leave it on a cliffhanger ;)
I make no promises!

* * *

Chapter 176

The infirmary was located not far from the Darkfall Gate, in a side chamber just off the main cavern. A small waiting area with several benches gave way to a larger examination room flanked by partitioned spaces that each held one or two beds for patients needing a longer period of recovery.

They were greeted by a scene of apparent chaos as they came in. A muscled dwarf possessed of a truly explosive beard was struggling with several robed orderlies atop one of the examination tables in the center of the room. It wasn’t sure what the warrior wanted to accomplish, but it was easy to note the source of his trouble: the shaft of a ballista bolt jutted from his chest. Blood had soaked into his coat and his beard, and was starting to form puddles on the floor under the table.

“You need to hold still!” one of the orderlies was saying. “You’re going to bleed out!”

“Bah, it’s just a scratch!” the wounded dwarf insisted. He managed to pull one of his arms free and lifted a leather flask to his lips. He was able to get a few generous swallows out before one of the medics snatched it away.

Quellan immediately started forward to help, but the dwarf saw him and started in surprise, nearly poking one of the orderlies in the face with the end of the bolt. “Orc!” he said. He fumbled for a weapon that wasn’t there before Darik quickly intervened. “These are guests of the Council,” he announced. “From Arresh.”

“Ah,” the injured dwarf said. “That’s fine, then. Hello, lass,” he added to Xeeta. “Koron Deepdelver, at your service.” He looked like he wanted to offer a bow, but his struggles were getting weaker and the orderlies were able to hold him still.

“I am a cleric,” Quellan said. “I can help you…”

“No need,” Koron said. “If it’d hit anything important, I’d already be dead.”

“What happened to you?” Bredan asked. “How did you get shot?”

“It was that bloody bastard Porvik!” Koron announced with a loud shout. “If he hadn’t flinched…”

Darik rubbed his forehead. “You weren’t playing that bloody game again with the siege engines…”

“I would have won, mark me,” the wounded dwarf said. “Where’s that bloody doctor, I’ve got a shift to finish…”

Quellan started forward again, but before he could intervene another dwarf bustled in. This one was all business, dressed in a utilitarian apron over his simple clothes, a leather satchel marked with a single dwarven rune slung over one shoulder. To the surprise of the companions, he wore a sigil of Sorevas around his neck. He gave the outsiders a bare glance before hurrying over to the table.

“Again, Koron?” he asked. “Didn’t I just fix you up last week?”

“It’s that bloody idiot Porvik’s fault,” Koron said. He was starting to weaken, but he still managed to hold onto his flask when one of the orderlies tried to take it from him.

“Hold his shoulders,” the dwarven cleric said. “This will hurt, but try not to move,” he added to his patient.

“Just do what you gotta do, doc,” Koron said.

“I am a cleric, I can help,” Quellan said.

The dwarf noted his holy symbol and gave him a nod. “The head of the bolt is buried too deep, we’ll need to push it out through the back before I can heal him. It looks like it somehow missed the lung, but it still might penetrate it going through. Keep him steady.”

Quellan nodded and grabbed hold of the patient, who protested weakly. The dwarf cleric didn’t pause, but seized the bolt and jammed it straight through Koron’s body. The wounded dwarf’s eyes flashed open and he tried to break free, but the half-orc’s massive hands held him still. The head of the bolt, glistening with the dwarf’s blood, erupted from his back. The cleric came around and pulled it the rest of the way out. Blood jutted from both sides of the wound, but the cleric quickly covered the openings with his hands and cast a potent healing spell. A bright blue glow surrounded Koron’s body, and he let out a gasp as the power suffused him. When the cleric drew back a moment later the bleeding had stopped, and as the others watched the gaping hole in his flesh sealed itself.

“Ah, thanks doc,” Koron said. He lifted his flask toward his lips, but only got it halfway before his eyes drooped shut. The orderlies gently lowered him to the surface of the table as he began to snore.

“Clean him up, but be careful of the beard,” the cleric said to his assistants. “He’ll never forgive me if I let anything happen to it.” He turned to Quellan, and heedless of the blood covering both of them extended a hand. “Thank you for the assistance. I am Goran Thunderhammer.”

“Quellan Emberlane. I was not aware that there were many followers of Sorevas among the dwarves.”

“There aren’t that many, no,” Goran said.

“Underhold’s not a place you’d expect to find adherents of a god whose symbol is the sun,” Xeeta said.

“We honor the god in the aspect of the Life-Bringer,” Goran explained. “Come on, there’s a sink and some clean towels in the back, you can tell me what brings you here as we wash up.”

It didn’t take long for introductions to be made and for Darik to explain the reason for their visit. “You get cases like that often?” Bredan asked, gesturing toward the examination room.

“Not many that are quite that dramatic,” Goran admitted. “But warriors get bored, and when they get bored, they do things that lead them to my door. But better that than the alternative. Things have been quiet at the Gate of late, and I’ll happily keep them that way.”

“It wasn’t so quiet at the Lakeshore Grotto,” Xeeta said.

“Monsters are a fact of life down here,” Goran said. “More dangerous are the intelligent races, like the duergar and the trolls.”

“Speaking of which, I thought our guests could take a look at your prize specimen,” Darik said.

Goran let out a snort. “I suppose. But first let’s take care of business.” He held up his holy symbol, which began to glow as he passed it first across Bredan, and then Xeeta. “I don’t sense any contagion or infection,” he said. “But keep an eye on your friends for a few days,” he added to Quellan.

“I will do so,” the half-orc said.

“All right,” Goran said. “Let’s go visit the menagerie.”

The dwarf took them through a side door that led to a hall that connected to another series of rooms. This part of the complex apparently went back quite some distance. They passed several open doorways that led to small storerooms before they came to another iron-bound door. Goran took out a key and unlocked it. “Let’s see if we can’t find out what you ran into,” the cleric announced as he pulled the door open.

The chamber beyond the door was narrow but long. A single lamp that glowed too steadily to be anything other than magical shed provided light. Niches along the walls held glass cases that held an assortment of small dead creatures preserved in liquid. Between them were shelves that held books and additional specimens in glass jars. Goran went to another large book spread out on a reading stand. “We’ll start with ‘aberrations, aquatic’,” he said. He began paging through the book.

“I’ll help you track down the monster, but first I wanted to show our guests our friend,” Darik said.

“Hmm. Very well,” Goran said. He led them to the very back of the room. The others followed, Quellan tearing himself away from a case containing a beetle the size of his head, its carapace shimmering in a wild mélange of colors. The light didn’t quite reach all the way back, but with a snap of his fingers Goran summoned a light spell that drove back the darkness.

The spell revealed a final alcove that was shielded by a heavy black curtain. The cleric grabbed hold of it, and with a flourish toward his audience yanked it aside.

The companions felt themselves drawn forward. The alcove was filled with a much larger specimen case, this one fashioned out of nearly transparent crystal. In it floated a figure roughly Quellan’s size, though there any resemblance to any of them ended. It was instantly recognizable as one of the creatures from the mural, though the reality was if anything more horrid than the depictions.

“Ugly bastard,” Xeeta said.

“Amazing,” Quellan said. “So very different from surface trolls. It looks… almost misshapen. What’s wrong with its skin?”

“The texture is like rock, and just as hard,” Goran said. “The shapes vary from creature to creature.”

“It looks like it would have trouble moving,” Xeeta said.

“That is a false impression,” Darik said. “They can move damned fast when they want to.”

“What’s that on its chest?” Xeeta asked.

“Ah, you noticed,” Goran said. He stepped forward and held up the light so they could get a better view. The slight irregularities in the crystal fractured the radiance, but they could just make out the outlines of a shape seemingly etched into the creature’s stony hide. It looked almost like a collection of random scratches at first, but they weren’t scars, but rather embedded into its flesh.

“They all bear these marks?” Quellan asked.

“All of the adults that we encounter,” Goran said. “We first noted them about a year ago.”

“Does it mean something?” Xeeta asked. “Do you recognize it, Quellan?”

The half-orc shook his head. Goran explained, “We have not been able to make any sense of it either. It doesn’t match any language or rune that is known to us.”

Xeeta looked over at Bredan, who was staring at the mark. He leaned in until his face was almost touching the crystal. “Bredan? Do you know what it is? Bredan!”

He jolted a bit as she touched his arm. “No. I don’t know what it means.”

“Are you okay?” Quellan asked.

Bredan said, “Sorry. Just tired, I guess. It’s been a long day, and I guess that creature took a bit more out of me than I thought.”

“I’ll see you to your quarters,” Darik said. “I’ll come down later and help you trace that beastie,” he added to Goran.

“Of course, of course,” the cleric said. With one more look at the companions, he drew the curtain back over the dead creature.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Story update: I just finished Book 8 today. I'm about 45 posts ahead at the moment, so plenty of story left to go.

I envision that Forgotten Lore will go for a total of 10, maybe 11 books altogether. The story is currently at 281k words and probably has another 100k or so left to go.

Just a short update today. We'll be back to Tal Nadesh on Wednesday, which will be my last post for a while.

* * *

Chapter 177

The cycles of the sun did not penetrate into Underhold, but the dwarven city operated according to its own schedule. The dwarves and their machines never truly rested, but during Third Shift most of the heavier industrial works slowed and ceased, and a relative quiet descended over the cavern. This allowed for necessary maintenance but also gave most of the dwarves a chance to rest. Those dwarves that worked Third Shift adapted to the noise during their off hours, and some claimed that the subtle vibrations in the rock even helped them to sleep better.

It was the middle of Third Shift, and most of Ironcrest was asleep, both Hightown and Underhold. The visitors from Arresh were ensconced in the guest quarters provided by the dwarves. Eyes watched over them but maintained a discreet distance.

In a small, private chamber elsewhere in the vast cavern complex, a group of dwarves held a meeting. The room contained a stone table and four chairs, three of which were occupied. The only light came from a small iron stove. The faint glow from the slots in the front revealed the faces of Akhenon Loremaster and Dergon Steelshield. The third individual, seated on the other side of the table, remained just a vague shadow.

“That was a risk,” Akhenon said. “If the envoys had died, it could have created great difficulties for us.”

“It was a necessary risk,” Dergon said. “We need to flush our adversary out into the open. Time is running out, we know this.”

“What of the cleric?” the shadowed figure asked.

“I am not yet certain,” Akhenon said. “He is powerful.”

“And the boy?” Dergon asked.

The other two looked at the dark figure. For a moment he just sat there in silence, then he finally said, “We will have to wait and see if today’s events have produced any result. Though it is ironic. With our own house in disarray… the Arreshians may be the only ones we can trust.”

Akhenon nodded. “I think….” He trailed off as an abstracted look came over his features. He reached into a pocket of his robe and took out a small blue gemstone that flickered in his hand, a faint light pulsing from within.

“Is that…” Dergon began.

The cleric rose suddenly. “It appears, gentlemen, that we have even less time than we thought.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 178

The morning sky was overcast and a cool breeze blew as Glori, Kosk, and Embrae made their way along a lightly wooded path on the western outskirts of Tal Nadesh. They were far enough from the core of the elvish city that they could have pretended that they were alone, save for the light tread of the three soldiers who shadowed them from ten paces behind. The leaves in the trees rustled in the soft wind, and occasionally an insect buzzed by, taking a brief interest in them before continuing on its business.

“I still say that this is a bad idea,” Kosk said. “These elves know more about what’s happening than they’re letting on. No offense,” he added in an aside to Embrae.

“You won’t get any disagreement from me,” the elven monk said.

“We’ve already covered this,” Glori said. She adjusted the strap holding her lyre as she walked. She was back in her full traveling kit, including the chain shirt that Bredan had given her as well as her bow, sword, and dagger. It was a bit awkward carrying it all, especially after a few days spent in more normal attire, but she felt better having her usual adventuring gear on her person.

Kosk had no difficulty; he carried just his staff, the bracers holding his throwing knives, and a small leather satchel. “I know we’ve talked about it, but it’s suspicious. Why would the elvish council suddenly be so interested in letting us go on this expedition? They went from stonewalling us to suddenly being eager to have us go into this sacred forest of theirs, where conveniently there’s no way to contact anyone…”

“They weren’t lying about that,” Embrae said.

“It doesn’t matter, either way,” Glori said. “I agree with everything you’ve said, and yes, it could be that they just want us out of Tal Nadesh, and out of their hair. But even if they’re lying about the key, we still need to find the Druid, for Javerin’s sake. And if there is something deeper going on, I’d still rather be doing something than staying in that cozy little cottage in Tal Nadesh, waiting for something to happen. You don’t have to go, in fact it might be better if one of us were to stay, just in case…”

“You can stop that right there,” Kosk said. “Bredan and Quellan would each kill me if I let something happen to you. And I have my own reasons.”

Glori glanced over at him, but it was clear from the look on his face that he was not going to elaborate. She looked past him at Embrae, who was carrying even less gear than Kosk, without even a simple knife at her belt. At least she’d traded in her flowing robe for functional traveling clothes and actual boots. The elven woman remained something of an enigma to Glori. After the meeting with the Advisory Council she’d confronted her about her knowledge of the Druid and the Reserve.

“Why didn’t you say anything about all this before?” Glori had asked her.

“To be honest, it did not even occur to me,” the monk had told her. “My apprenticeship to become a Tender was brief and took place many years ago. It was even a different Druid back then; the man in the position now was a senior Tender back then that I barely met. You have to understand, I only ever thought of the position as ceremonial. The Druid isn’t really even part of the government, he’s something separate and isolated. I certainly never thought of him as possessing magical power beyond that of the clerics and wizards of the court.”

“But he controls the Reserve,” Glori had persisted.

“Not in the sense that you are thinking of it,” Embrae had replied. “It’s not something that can be controlled like that.”

But someone was controlling power behind the scenes, Glori thought as she returned to the present. There was something off in Tal Nadesh; she’d felt it even before the anonymous strike against Javerin. Whatever it was, she doubted that they were finished. She would have to trust her instincts, going forward.

The trees around them thinned ahead as they came to a broad clearing. The path ended in front of a pleasant-looking house. It looked quite ordinary, although it possessed the same intricate features and decorative touches that they’d seen elsewhere in Tal Nadesh. A walk of uneven stone steps led past a small pond to a raised deck and the front door. Advisor Lendelaine was waiting for them there on a covered bench beside the pond. He rose to greet them as they approached.

“Princess,” he said first to Embrae. “Ambassador,” he added with a nod toward Glori. “Master Stonefist.”

Glori’s surprise must have showed on her face, for Lendelaine said, “Oh, did you not know? You were indicated as the second-ranked emissary on the paperwork that we were sent from Arresh prior to your arrival. With the Ambassador… incapacitated, you assume that authority.”

Glori resisted the urge to grit her teeth. The Advisory Council had elected to leave that bit of information out of the conversation during their meeting yesterday. Embrae sent her a knowing look, as if to say, I told you so. “Thank you, Advisor,” Glori said. “I appreciate you waiting for us.”

“Of course. Shall we meet your escort?” He gestured toward the front door of the house. “We have arranged for a group of Rangers to accompany you on your mission,” Lendelaine said. “Their leader is somewhat… assertive, but she has experience with the Reserve.”

“I thought that only Tenders were allowed inside,” Glori said.

“For the most part that is the case, but there are occasionally there is a need such as this one… and sometimes something makes its way to the border that the Tenders cannot handle, but which needs to be dealt with before it can escape.”

“That sounds rather ominous,” Kosk said.

“Such occasions are infrequent,” Lendelaine said. “The whole point of the Reserve is for us to minimize our interference.”

The interior of the house contained an odd juxtaposition of styles. The door swung open onto a broad foyer, with natural light pouring in through tall bay windows and a pair of narrow skylights. An open arch carved to resemble flowering vines led into a long chamber where a number of people were moving about.

As Lendelaine escorted them into the room Glori could see that the house was currently serving as an armory. Racks along the walls held a wide assortment of weapons, including small and large bows, swords of all shapes and sizes, a matching variety of knives, and some more exotic items that Glori had never seen before. There were also suits of armor arranged on wooden mannequins, and shelves that contained enough goods to fill a considerable general store: packs, leather harnesses, pouches, cloaks, tents, rope, waterskins, and packets of what Glori assumed were various kinds of supplies.

A portion of the gear was spread out across three large tables that dominated the center of the room. Most of the activity was there, where five elves clad in dark green and brown clothes were checking their equipment. As they turned to regard the new arrivals Glori could see that there were three women and two men. One of the women came over to greet them.

Glori could tell at once that the elven woman was not pleased. She had a look to her that Majerion would have called “hard-edged.” Faint scars were visible along the line of her jaw on the left side of her face. She wore her pale hair cut very short, an unusual style for elves. She gave the three of them a long, evaluative look, then gave Embrae the slightest nod of acknowledgement. Her lips twisted into a frown as she looked at Glori, but that deepened into a scowl when she shifted her attention to Kosk.

“You can’t be serious,” she said to Lendelaine.

“I was not aware that there was any ambiguity to your orders, Patrol Leader Shreskra,” he returned. The official’s tone was stern, but the elven woman did not yield anything to it. The other four elves were all quietly watching, Glori noted.

Shreskra sent a meaningful look at Glori’s lyre. “This is not a stroll through a forest glade,” she said. “The Reserve is dangerous. It will be a difficult journey, and there aren’t any inns along the way.”

“We’re used to roughing it,” Glori said. She was tempted to show her, conjuring some magic with the lyre the woman was so quick to dismiss, but resisted the urge. Majerion had taught her when empty gestures were necessary and when they only complicated a situation. This was clearly one of the latter instances. A woman like this would not be impressed with magical tricks; the only thing that could win her over was actions that proved their mettle.

“I hope so,” Shreskra said. Turning her attention back to Lendelaine, she said, “I want it understood that in the Reserve, I am in command. I don’t care who these people are, or how important they are.” At that last statement her eyes flicked briefly to Embrae, telling Glori that the Patrol Leader knew exactly who she was. “I won’t risk the lives of my team if one of them does something stupid.”

“That’s enough,” Lendelaine said.

“The Patrol Leader’s statements are reasonable,” Glori said. “I would likely say the same, if I was in her position. I’ll just say that we’re not here for a casual visit. A woman’s life is at stake, and probably more than that. We’re here because of that, so we’ll follow your lead, as long as you get us to the Druid.”

“Is that acceptable, Patrol Leader?” Lendelaine asked, in a tone that indicated his patience was nearly at an end.

“We’ll see,” Shreskra said.

“All right,” Lendelaine said. “Transportation to the border of the Reserve has been arranged and should be here shortly. You will meet up with your guide there, a retired Tender who knows the best route to the Green Tower.” He looked around the room. “Where is the final member of your expedition?”

Shreskra let out a snort. “He went to avail himself of the washroom some time ago.”

Lendelaine nodded. “Then I will leave you to introduce your team and see that our guests have everything that they need. I will take my leave of you now, Ambassador,” he said to Glori, before turning to Embrae. “Might I have a brief private word, first?” Glori could see the effort he made to avoid using her title. Embrae shot her a quick look before nodding in agreement. They didn’t leave the building, but retreated back to the foyer where they conversed in low voices.

“Well, come on then,” Shreskra said. She took them over to the tables, where the Rangers were waiting. Starting from her left, she gestured at each of them in turn and said, “That’s Darethan, Loriellan, Razelle, and Tenaille. Darethan is our archery specialist. Razelle is our best scout. Tenaille is a climber and knife-fighter. Loriellan just looks pretty, for the most part.”

“And I do it so well,” the Ranger said.

“I am Glori, and this is Kosk,” Glori said. “I’m a bard. I can heal, conjure illusions, and cast fear into the minds of our enemies. Kosk is a monk of the Open Fist. We’re here to get to the center of the Reserve and find the Druid as quickly as possible.”

The elves just nodded.

“All right, let’s get you geared up,” Shreskra said. “Rangers, help our new friends get what they need. On this trip, everyone carries their share.” She shot a meaningful glance at the foyer, but Embrae was still engaged in a heated exchange with Lendelaine in low voices.

“We don’t have a problem with that,” Glori said.

Shreskra looked past Glori just as she heard footsteps coming from the hall that led to the back of the house. “Finally,” the Patrol Leader said.

Glori turned to see Majerion standing there.

None of the Rangers happened to be looking her way, so none of them saw her flinch. He saw, however. Kosk, standing beside her, must have sensed something, for he said quietly, “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said. “Go on, I’ll be there in a moment.”

She walked over to him. She could feel her neck and cheeks coloring and imagined that the eyes of everyone in the room were on them. But she forced herself to stand calmly, or at least as calmly as she could manage; she had no illusions that she was fooling her former mentor.

“Could I have a word?” she asked.

Majerion made a short formal bow and allowed himself to be led back into the hall. When they were out of sight of the others in the armory she spun to face him. “What is this about?” she asked.

“I have always wanted to visit the Reserve…”

“This is not some casual trek into the wilderness,” she said, wishing that she wasn’t just aping Shreskra’s words from earlier.

“I am aware.”

“If this is about… if you think this will change what’s between us…”

“My dear, not everything is about you,” he said.

“I could ask the Advisor to forbid you from coming,” she said.

At that some of his practiced ease faded, and a hard look came into his eyes as he fixed them on hers. “I do what I want,” he said. “Since you seem to have forgotten that about me, let me be clear. No one tells what I can or cannot do. Not you, not the King, and certainly not the Advisory Council.”

He stepped closer for a moment. “I hear our ride is coming soon, better grab something for the road. Remember what I taught you: always be prepared.”

He headed back into the room, casually strumming the bars of a traveling song on his lyre. It was one of the many such songs that he had taught her.

Glori lingered a moment to take a steadying breath, and then followed him.

The others were checking their packs. Embrae had rejoined them; Lendelaine was gone. The elf monk looked up as Glori came over to the tables. “Is everything all right?” Embrae asked.

Glori refused to look over at Majerion, who was telling a joke to several of the Rangers a few feet away. “Wonderful,” she said. “Just wonderful.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I'm back!

* * *

Chapter 179

Under different circumstances, Glori thought that she might have enjoyed the journey from Tal Nadesh to the border of the Reserve.

On seeing the conveyance provided by the elves, her first thought had been, Nice carriage… but where are the horses?

The elves had begun boarding the vehicle before anyone had thought to explain to her that the carriage was magical. The driver sat in a seat in the front, where he had an array of control mechanisms set out in front of him. Glori might have liked to investigate further, but Shreskra was impatiently directing her into the passenger compartment. She and her Rangers clambered up onto the exterior, where they settled into precarious-looking seats.

Glori would have preferred riding with them, despite the obvious lack of safety features, if it would have gotten her out of riding with Majerion. Her mentor had quickly boarded the carriage with Kosk and Embrae, leaving her little choice but to follow. The compartment held two padded benches, forcing the four of them to squeeze in together to fit. She’d barely settled into the seat before Shreskra barked a command and the driver started the carriage forward.

The vehicle moved swiftly, and Glori was grateful of the seat’s padding before too long. The road was of better quality than most in Arresh, but at the speed they were traveling every little bump was amplified. At that point she was definitely glad that she wasn’t riding up top. Every time the vehicle encountered a particularly hard jolt she had to resist the urge to look out the windows to see if one of the Rangers had been knocked clear.

Her ire was only bolstered by the fact that Majerion was a perfect traveling companion. He played his lyre, the rough road giving him no difficulty whatsoever. He recounted elaborate stories and told jokes that even had Kosk smiling a few times. It was typical for her companions to get annoyed with each other whenever they spent a long day traveling. But Majerion’s performance—and Glori recognized it as such—did not become tedious or repetitive even as the day stretched on. He was keeping them distracted from the hazards of their high-speed journey and the dangers of the mission ahead of them. Glori might have even appreciated it if she wasn’t still so pissed at him.

They stopped only once, at a small rest station where robed elves provided food and drink and access to restrooms. They were back on the road within half an hour, with Shreskra prodding them back into the carriage. Majerion organized a word game that kept them occupied as the landscape continued to pass them by. Glori participated, but with ill grace.

You won’t turn my friends against me, she thought.

They did not reach their destination until late afternoon. The road had been growing steadily worse, and the driver slowed the carriage of necessity until they were traveling at roughly the pace that a real horse-drawn vehicle would have taken them. Glori could no longer find a position that was comfortable, as the repeated jolts had left her backside universally sore.

The carriage finally rolled to a stop. Glori could hear the Rangers jumping down from above, then the door swung open to let a ray of brilliant late-afternoon sunshine into the passenger cabin.

“Welcome to Easthaven,” came Shreskra’s voice, but before any of them could respond the Ranger leader was already moving away.

Blinking against the intense light, Glori stepped out into the day. Easthaven was a small community of wooden houses that had clearly been built with fortification in mind. They all stood atop thick posts that suspended them about ten feet off the ground. The architecture was otherwise not that dissimilar from that of Tal Nadesh, although the windows were narrower and the doors sturdier.

Turning away from the settlement, Glori took her first look at the Reserve.
The forest didn’t look any different from much of the countryside they’d spent the day passing through. There was no obvious boundary, no wall or other barrier to set it apart, but Glori could feel something, a tension that felt almost tangible. For a moment she experienced an uncomfortable tickling sensation along her spine and thought she could feel unseen eyes watching her…

“Looks like we’ve got a welcoming committee.”

Glori jumped slightly at Kosk’s words, and quickly turned to see an elf approaching from one of the raised houses. He was clad in simple working kit, a leather vest over a plain long-sleeved shirt and breeches of rugged corduroy. He lacked the ageless look common to the elves of Tal Nadesh; his face was as rugged as the landscape around them, his features weathered by a lifetime spent outdoors. His hair was thin and white, covering his scalp like a tuft of cloud. As he approached them he ran a hand through it in an absent gesture and she noticed that he was missing one of his fingers.

“Tender Brightbriar,” Shreskra said in greeting.

The Tender stopped and gave the group an evaluative stare. “So… these are the ones who want to visit the Reserve,” he said. He did not seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect.

Before the Ranger leader could respond, Glori stepped forward. “We already got the routine from Ranger Shreskra here, so maybe we could just get to business,” she said.

The old elf gave her a second look. “Fair enough,” he said. “We’ll enter in the morning.”

“Is there anything unusual happening in the forest?” Embrae asked.

The Tender peered at her, then looked over his shoulder at the Reserve. “It’s always like that,” he said. For a moment he looked as though he wanted to say something more, but finally he waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal. “Come on. I’ll show you where you will sleep tonight. There’s food in the common hall, nothing special, but more than you’ll get in there, so enjoy it.”

As he led them off Kosk turned to Glori. “Are you all right?”

She looked around for Majerion, but he had disappeared again. “I’m fine,” she said. With a final look back at the Reserve, she followed after the others.
 

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