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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 80

Captain Roghan looked tired. It wasn’t just the old scars that covered the right side of his face, or the fact that the arm resting on the low table in front of him ended abruptly at the wrist. He wasn’t an especially old man, but he looked like a man who had seen a lot in recent days.

But if he sagged in his chair and looked like he could use a nap, the injured officer listened closely to their account and made the occasional note in the ledger book sitting next to his good arm. He only asked a few clarifying questions before Glori had finished her account of their journey north, focusing on the humanoid bands that had been lurking around Northpine.

“Well, you did well in the south, sounds like, but the real threat is up here,” Roghan said. “You’ve just missed the army, Prince Dalgran led them out three days ago, marching east to confront this would-be conqueror. But we can use you. Spellcasters are always needed, especially ones that can heal.”

He’d focused his attention on Glori and Quellan, after just a brief look of surprise when the half-orc had first come in. Bredan he’d hardly glanced at since the interview had begun, and Kosk he’d dismissed as a curiosity. From the look on the dwarf’s face he had a hardly better opinion of the officer.

It had taken them the better part of an hour to get this far, after explaining their mission and showing their letters of introduction to the guards at the main gate to the keep. At first the soldiers hadn’t wanted to let them in, directing them to a mustering center back toward the city gates, but Glori had managed to talk her way to a harried sergeant, who turned them over to a lieutenant, who in turn had gotten them this meeting with the captain after a span spent sitting on a long bench in a tiny niche inside the keep.

“What can you tell us about the enemy army, Captain?” Bredan asked. When the officer’s eyes flicked up they held nothing of the reassurance he’d offered Glori, and he quickly added, “We heard a lot of rumors on our way here.”

“You shouldn’t give credence to rumors,” Roghan said. “The facts are grim enough. A dozen villages and settlements have been hit, and twice as many have been evacuated. We’re dealing with a real army, one that is surprisingly well-led and coordinated in its actions.”

The four adventurers shared a look. “Is there a chance… that they might come here?” Bredan ventured.

Roghan snorted at that. “That would be a stroke of luck for us. You saw the walls coming in. This Murgoth would be a fool indeed to let himself get trapped between the city and our army.”

Bredan didn’t say anything. In the scenario he’d envisioned the army would have already been defeated, but he didn’t want to antagonize the officer further by suggesting that.

Roghan took a slip of parchment out of his folio and scribed something on it, pinning it under his stump while he wrote. “This will serve as a pass until we can get you formally mustered in,” he said, handing over the slip to Glori. “We’re building new units as recruits arrive, but with your skills you’ll likely be given a special assignment. But it’s not likely you’ll see any fighting. The goblins are mean little bastards, and their larger kin know how to fight, but we’ve raised an army the likes of which the north hasn’t seen in over a century. Chances are this war will be over as soon as the Prince catches up to Murgoth’s hordes, assuming they don’t flee back into the mountains once they’re up against real soldiers. Where are you staying in town?”

“We, ah, have not yet secured lodgings, captain,” Quellan said.

Roghan grunted. “Well, we’ve got some room here now that the army’s moved out, but the accommodations may be a bit starker than you’re used to. See the supply sergeant…”

“We’ll take rooms in the city,” Glori interjected. “If we’re going to be waiting a while anyway. We’ll send word once we’ve secured a spot.”

Roghan gave her a dubious look but made a notation in his book.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 81

“Well, kid, you’re in the army now,” Kosk said once they were back in the square outside the keep. The sentries from before had been replaced by new ones, though they regarded them with hardly less suspicion than the others even considering that they’d come from inside the keep rather than from the city.

“That’s what we came here to do,” Bredan said. “And besides, you’re in too.”

“That’s not what our letter said,” the dwarf said. “We are here to provide support to the King’s efforts against the goblin-kin, but we didn’t come here to enlist. Chances are we won’t see each other again once the folks in charge figure out what to do with you.”

Bredan looked troubled, but Quellan quickly interjected to stop the conversation from brewing into an argument. “We should focus on what we have to do next,” the cleric said. “With the city so crowded, it will likely be difficult to secure lodging…”

“The King’s Justice,” Glori said. “It’s the nicest inn in Adelar. It’s just a few blocks from the street we came in on, in the East District.”

Bredan blinked in surprise. “I thought you said you’d never been here before,” he finally said.

“I haven’t,” she said. “But unlike you, I talk to people, and I listen to what they say.”

“Well, we have money,” Quellan said. “Perhaps a few nights in a good inn would be a pleasant…”

“You go on ahead,” Glori said. “I have a few errands to run first.”

“Errands?” Bredan asked. “But… you can’t go off into a strange city by yourself!” At the look she gave him he quickly added, “None of us should. With all these people… it could be dangerous,” he finished lamely.

“Bredan’s right,” Quellan said. “Not suggesting that you cannot handle yourself, Glori, but it would be reckless to explore the city alone.”

“Fine, I’ll take Kosk,” she said. Now it was the dwarf’s turn to look surprised, but his frown returned swiftly and he growled something that might have been assent. “You two can go secure us rooms. Just for tonight, first off. I’ll probably be able to negotiate a better deal.”

“Then shouldn’t you go get the rooms?” Bredan suggested.

Glori put on an expression of exasperated patience. “We don’t know how long it’ll be before these ‘orders’ come through. There are some things I’d like to get taken care of right away.”

“Fine,” Bredan said. “I’ve got things to do too. I need to find a smith who knows how to work armor, and maybe get a new suit for Quellan.”

“I am fine for now,” Quellan said. “But we will do as you suggest, Glori. But what if there are no rooms available at this inn?”

“If that happens, I’ll meet you in the common room at supper time,” Glori suggested. “We can decide what to do then.” Without waiting to see if they had any other questions, she took Kosk by the arm and headed out into the city. The dwarf shrugged off her grip after just a few steps, but he went along with her.

“I hope he knows what he’s gotten himself into,” Bredan muttered.

“She knows how to take care of herself,” Quellan said. Bredan nodded, but the half-orc wasn’t looking at him, rather staring after Glori as she and Kosk disappeared into the crowd along the far edge of the square.

“Come on, I guess we’d better find that inn, or she’ll never let us hear the end of it,” Bredan said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 82

Bredan sat in the comfortable confines of a booth in the back of the inn. He had a tall mug of ale in front of him, along with a plate of rolls daubed in honey, but he’d barely touched either. He was distracted.

The King’s Justice had been crowded, like every other place in Adelar, but there had been a few rooms available on the uppermost floor, tucked in close under the eaves. He was still amazed at how much they had cost—what he and Quellan had paid for two rooms would have rented out a comfortable house for a month in Crosspath. As it was, Kosk would have to crawl over their beds to get to his, even though the men had the larger of the two rooms. Maybe a few beds in the keep barracks wouldn’t have been so bad for all that.

It felt odd not being in his armor. The smith they’d finally found had seemed capable enough, promising that he’d put the repairs to Bredan’s mail at the top of his queue after another not-so-small heap of coins changed hands, but he hadn’t had anything that could fit Quellan. The smith had given them the name of another shop that handled heavier armor work elsewhere in the city, but they hadn’t had time to visit before their agreed-upon rendezvous.

Bredan leaned out of the booth. It had curtains around the top to offer privacy, something he’d never seen before. He could just see past a row of similar booths into the common room, which he had to admit was far nicer than any of the inns back home or on their journey here. Rich wood paneling covered the walls, and all of the trim and fixtures were brass that had been polished until it seemed to glow. There were no refugees with their haunted expressions, though even the well-dressed folk staying at the Justice had worry on their faces. They talked in small groups over their drinks, their voices a quiet murmur, and they glanced nervously to the door anytime someone came in.

What Bredan didn’t see was Glori or Kosk. It was still relatively early, though the serving women had already started bringing out platters of food from the kitchens. The sight of a steaming platter reminded him how hungry he was, and he drew back into the booth and grabbed one of the honey buns. It was still warm, and his first bite had him reconsidering how outrageous the inn’s prices were. If this was how rich people lived, he could perhaps get used to it.

The bun was gone within two bites, and the ale he washed it down with was deliciously refreshing, but he wasn’t ready for a full meal, not yet. Not if Glori and Kosk weren’t back, though he had no idea of how he would track them down if they did not show up. He’d told the innkeeper he was expecting friends, told him to send them to him when they arrived, repeating himself until the fellow probably thought he was addlepated. If they didn’t arrive soon he’d have to go looking for them. He’d left his sword and his crossbow up in the room, but he could go get the blade at least. He needed something smaller; maybe he’d pick up a dagger when they went to visit the second smith tomorrow.

He was reaching for a second bun when something smacked down onto the table in front of him, causing him to jump up out of his seat. He turned to see Glori standing at the entry to the booth, grinning. Kosk was right behind her, carrying a heavy sack under his arm.

“So there were rooms after all?” Glori asked. “Nice place, eh? Hey, where’s Quellan?”

Bredan answered the last question. “There’s a chapel to Hosrenu just down the street. After we left our stuff in our room he decided to pay them a visit. This is from the banker?” he asked, nodding toward the purse she’d dropped onto the table.

“That, and this,” she said, reaching down to grab the sack from Kosk. The table seemed to bow as she laid it on the wooden surface, and the way it clinked as its contents shifted confirmed what was inside.

“Why did you get it in silver?” Bredan asked. The sack had to weigh twenty pounds.

Glori’s smile grew mischievous, and Bredan reached out and undid the tie holding the sack closed. He felt a sudden thrill even before he opened it to see the bright glint of gold inside.

He quickly pulled it shut and rose up out of the booth to look around the edge of the curtains. “Where did you… how… you walked around the city carrying this?”

“Calm yourself, boy,” Kosk said, edging past Glori to slide into the booth. He grabbed Bredan’s ale and took a long pull. “Nothing draws attention faster than looking like you’ve got something to hide.”

“This is a lot more than five hundred gold,” Bredan said. Just saying that felt strange; a month ago five hundred gold would have felt like all the money in the world, and there was more than that sitting right in front of him right now.

“It’s just over twelve hundred,” Glori said. “I sold the jade dagger we found in the Dry Hills, along with the moonstones we found in the ruin near Northpine, and a few other things I’ve been carrying around. The inflated prices due to the war actually helped a bit, portable forms of wealth like gems are selling at a premium right now.”

“Your girl has a nose for barter,” Kosk said. “Would have come in handy… back in the day.”

“So, how was your afternoon?” Glori asked, sliding into the booth next to Bredan. He was still trying to figure out what to do with the sack, and finally Kosk yanked it back and dropped it onto the padded seat next to him. “Did you find a place to fix your armor?”

“Yeah,” Bredan said. “They didn’t have a new suit for Quellan, but I got the name of a place we can check out tomorrow.”

“Cool,” Glori said. “Should we wait for him? I’m starved.”

“I’m not waiting,” Kosk said through a mouthful of honeyed bun. Bredan blinked; the other rolls had vanished while he’d been distracted.

“I’ll go get us a pitcher of ale and put an order in for supper,” Glori said. “My treat,” she said, grabbing the fat purse with a wink. But as she started to get up she smiled and waved. “Quellan! Over here!”

With the half-orc’s arrival the booth was crowded, but with a grunt Kosk slid over to make room for him. Without his armor and wearing a plain robe the cleric looked different, though his bulk still caused the table to rattle a bit as he sat down. “I’m glad we’re all together again,” Quellan said. “This place… it’s rather chaotic.”

“Cities are great places for adventures,” Glori said.

“How was the temple?” Bredan asked.

“Quiet,” Quellan said. “Peaceful. I’d almost forgotten. I spoke with the high priest. They’ve been working with the other temples to help with the refugees. Many people have fled their homes to escape the war. They didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Could go south,” Kosk said, as he finished Bredan’s ale and let out a loud belch.

“That’s a long journey, and a difficult one,” Quellan said. “Especially for people who are carrying everything they own with them.”

“Well, when the goblinoids are defeated, they can go home,” Bredan said.

“Okay, I’m going to get us some supper, before Kosk starts chewing on the table,” Glori said.

“Someone’s coming this way,” Bredan said.

They all turned to see a man walking down the line of booths, coming toward them.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 83

The stranger was lean and handsome, with a short beard forming a neat fringe around the sharp lines of his jaw. He wore a dark green coat with silver trim that was fit for a lord, but it failed to conceal the links of mail he wore under it or the slender sword with a well-worn hilt that rode on his hip. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat that he doffed as he reached their table.

“I beg your pardon for interrupting your repast,” the man said. “My name is Golver Haran. My friends call me Hari.”

“Can we help you, Golver Haran?” Kosk asked. He grunted as Glori elbowed him.

“Say rather that I can help you, and you can help the King’s cause,” Haran said.

“I don’t understand,” Bredan said. “We only just arrived in Adelar today.”

“Yes, I know,” Haran said.

“Best say what you mean, then,” Kosk said, after shooting Glori a look. “We’ve had a long day and have not yet eaten.”

“Please, then, let me pay for your meal,” Haran said. “It is the least I can do for your trouble. And I suspect you will want to hear what I say.”

He made a gesture toward the front of the common room, and in a matter of minutes they were whisked into a small private dining room on the second floor of the inn. Haran was obviously known here, and the innkeeper bowed to him as if he was in fact a lord, though his easy manner never slipped even with the servers who brought in platters of steaming food and pitchers of ale and wine. For a while eating absorbed their full attention, and Haran joined them with as much gusto as Bredan, who ate as if he’d not consumed food since they’d left Crosspath. Finally they all leaned back in their chairs, sated. One of the servers brought a final course of sweet wine to settle their stomachs, placing the small cups on the table as their plates were cleared.

“Well, you have certainly earned our time,” Quellan said. He’d eaten more modestly than the others, and he passed on the offered brandy. “You mentioned helping the King’s cause?”

Haran waited until the last of the servers had left and closed the door behind them. “Yes,” he said. “I’m in charge of an expedition that is heading up into the mountains in a few days. To the Silverpeak Valley.” He paused a moment, but seeing no recognition on their faces went on, “It’s not anywhere near the invasion, it’s rather isolated from anything, actually. It became important a few generations back when silver was discovered there. The mining boom’s twenty years past, now, but there are still folk up there, a few scattered settlements and one proper town, Wildrush.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with us,” Glori said.

“Well, the expedition I’m leading is bringing supplies—the valley is mostly self-sufficient, but there’s things they need that they can’t make up there—but also soldiers to reinforce the garrison. As I said, Silverpeak is isolated, but it’s still in the mountains, and it’s strategically important. The goblinoids haven’t shown any interest in it, but it controls a pass that leads from the higher range down into the low country around Adelar. Frankly, I can use your help. Even with the reinforcements I’m bringing the garrison up there is just a token one, and few specialists with proven skills and a strong mettle is just the thing, I think.” He downed his brandy and settled back with a grin.

Bredan glanced at the others. “We’d like to help, but we’re waiting for orders,” he said. “We’ve already signed in at the keep, and they said they’d been sending us instructions soon.”

“Wait no longer,” Haran said. With a flourish he reached into his coat and produced a fold of parchment sealed with blue wax bearing a seal that matched the standard that flew over the city.

“Why didn’t you open with that?” Kosk said sourly.

Haran leaned forward and placed his arms on the table in front of him. “I wanted to convince you,” he said. “This mission may not seem important against the broader course of the war, but I assure you that it is. The mountains are dangerous, especially with the bulk of the King’s army focused elsewhere. I don’t know what you’ve learned about this Murgoth character and his army, but so far they’ve proven quite capable, good at surprising even the finest military minds in charge on our side. And even if Silverpeak doesn’t turn out to be a major theater of the war, the folk there are good people, they deserve protection.”

“Thus far, the people of the north haven’t been especially welcoming,” Kosk said.

Haran regarded him for a moment. “You seem like a man who understands what war can do to a people,” he said finally. “But I’ll not lie, there are reasons why you might have had difficulty if you’d gone after the main army. I don’t know what you’ve heard since you’ve only just gotten here, but it’s hardly a secret that both the elves and the dwarves have thus far refused to answer King Dangren’s call for aid. It seems like the old treaties just don’t have the same power that they once did, or maybe it’s that they consider the north our problem.”

Kosk’s face was a thunderhead, but Quellan quickly interjected, “We’re not really interested in politics. We truly just came to help.”

“Well, I do need your help, and the people of the Silverpeak do as well. And from what I’ve been told, you know how to handle yourselves. A priest would be particularly helpful up there. I won’t lie and say there won’t be any reactions to your ancestry, but the folk of the Silverpeak are a diverse lot. Up there, folks learn to judge a man on who he is, not what he is.”

Glori had slid the packet of orders across the table, and had been looking at it during the exchange. “From this, it seems we are at your disposal, Captain Haran,” she said. “You even managed to spell my name right,” she added with a quirk of her lips. “But as my friend noted, we only just arrived, after quite a long journey. We have a number of errands to attend to, including repairs to armor and a few other things.”

“That’s no problem,” Haran said, “take your time, as long as you are at the Square of Departures at dawn three days hence. My understanding is that you don’t have horses, is that correct?” At their nods he continued, “Just bring whatever fighting gear you have, the King will provide the rest.” With a final smile he rose and adjusted his coat before leaning one last time over the table. “Your tab will be paid through then. Enjoy the hospitality of the Justice, the accommodations in the Silverpeak are a bit more… modest. Until then, if you need to reach me just leave a message at the keep. Gentlemen, madam.” With a tilt of his hat, he left them as quickly as he’d appeared.

“Well,” Bredan said into the sudden silence.

“I don’t like that man,” Kosk said, before turning to Bredan and pointing to his untouched glass. “You going to drink that?”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 84

The interior of the tiny shop was dingy and dim, the only light filtering through a small window that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. The shop wasn’t that far from one of Adelar’s several busy squares, but its outer door opened onto a disused alley, not one of the busy streets that flowed with worried townsfolk and refugees from the war.

It seemed unlikely, however, that the shop would have seen more custom even if had been more favorably placed. It was difficult to even tell what was on sale; the only merchandise on the narrow shelves consisted of an assortment of wooden boxes. If the boxes themselves were the products then they clearly needed attention; even the best of them looked like they had been dropped off a wagon or left outside in the elements for a few weeks.

The same could be said for the old man who sat behind the counter. His sagging flesh was all wrinkles and spots, and while his coat looked like it had once been decent it now had frayed edges at the cuffs and collar, as well as a large faded stain on the left shoulder the size of man’s fist. He sat there eating shelled walnuts from a crumpled bag. A curtain behind him led to a back room where even more boxes were visible, stacked into precarious-looking mounds.

The old man’s eyes flicked up when a shadow passed in front of the window, but there was a delay of ten heartbeats before the door swung open. The new arrival also had the look of a merchant, but one of an entirely different class than the proprietor of the shop. His coat had been recently pressed, and there were lines of golden thread at the cuffs, with ivory buttons carved into decorative spirals. Enough of those buttons were undone to reveal that he wore two chains, one in silver and one in gold. Each of those was likely worth more than anything in the shop, the old man included, but the shopkeeper’s eyes barely flicked over them before settling on the new arrival’s face.

“Master Markuin,” he said, his voice scratchy with age, or perhaps from disuse. “What do you have for me today?”

“I made an interesting purchase recently,” Markuin said, turning to shut the door behind him. His eyes registered distaste as they swept through the interior of the shop, but he made an effort to collect himself as he went over to the counter. “Of the sort you are interested in.”

“Oh?” the shopkeeper said. If he was interested he hid it well, shoving another handful of nuts into his mouth. Bits of them fell out through the gaps in his teeth as he chewed.

Markuin seemed a bit put off by the other’s reaction. “A young woman of part-elven heritage visited my shop the other day,” he said. “She had some small pieces for sale. Nothing special, for the most part, some decorative jewelry in silver, a small ivory statuette of a warrior. But one item of note. A knife, the blade a solid slab of jade, surrounded by a hilt made of bronze plates. Quite old.”

The shopkeeper had reached into his bag, but as the other man spoke he drew his hand out and thrust the sack under the counter. “You have my attention,” he said. “The artifact… did you bring it?”

Markuin smirked, and gave the interior of the shop another evaluative look. “I may give you the opportunity to make a bid on the item, in respect for our… past relationship, but it will be at a time and place of my choosing.”

The old man snorted. “Tell me of this girl. Where did she come from? Did she say where she found the object?”

“My understanding is that this transaction involves some sort of renumeration,” Markuin said.

The shopkeeper regarded him for a long moment, then reached under his counter and produced a small leather pouch. It clanked when it landed on the wooden surface. Markuin snatched it up and undid the snap to look inside, then gave it an evaluative heft before tucking it into a pocket of his coat. “She is a recent arrival, just came to the city a few days ago. She and some companions journeyed north to join the King’s forces. As to the artifact, she was somewhat cagey about that, but indicated that she and her friends had been looting ruins in the south. From her accent I’d say not too far south, she didn’t have the coast on her tongue.”

“As if there’s anything to find down there,” the old man said. “How much did you give her for the artifact?”

“I offered three hundred, but allowed her to bargain me up to four. Perhaps a bit high for the raw materials, but she seemed to have some understanding of its… historical value.”

“Where is she staying, this girl?”

“How should I know? I got the impression she did not expect to remain in the city long. She may be gone now, for all I know, off to join the fools’ crusade.”

The old man’s jaw clenched, but with an effort he loosened it and nodded. “Let me know when you are ready to sell. I will make you a fair offer for the item.”

Markuin made a slight bow, but the awakened greed was already clear in his eyes as he turned to leave. The door creaked as it swung shut behind him, and a moment later the shadow of his passage slid past the window. But the shopkeeper waited a full fifty heartbeats before he said, “Did you hear all that?”

The curtain shifted and a hulking figure that barely fit through the doorway slid into the room. In the deep shadows away from the window his face wasn’t quite visible, but he looked like he could have picked up the old man and snapped him in two without straining. He didn’t say anything, just stood there looming in silence.

The shopkeeper didn’t even glance at him, he just looked thoughtful for a moment. “Tonight,” he finally said. “Make it look like an accident. Take nothing but the key.”

“The girl?” the giant rumbled.

“Leave her to me,” the old man said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 85

Kurok stood in the narrow entrance to Scar Canyon. He was tired and hungry, and wanted nothing more than to avail himself of the hospitality, limited though it might be, of Usk’s people. But he could not shake the feeling that something was off.

From where he stood he could see the feature that gave the place its name, the jagged fifty-foot cliffs that looked as though they had been hewn from the surrounding rock by a giant serrated knife. He could only see a handful of the hundreds of hundreds if not thousands of caves that pocked those cliffs, extending along the canyon for almost a mile before they ended in an almost sheer drop into an even deeper canyon below. It was said that creatures of Shadow dwelt within that hole, in places where the light of the sun never reached.

Kurok had no fear of shadows, but he was beginning to suspect that something was wrong here.

He made his way forward cautiously, staying close to one of the almost sheer walls of stone that flanked the trail leading into the Scar. Usk’s people should have seen him by now, should have seen him coming before he’d approached the mouth of the canyon, but the caves he could see were dark and empty.

He’d only advanced maybe fifteen or twenty steps before he found something. The route into the canyon was not perfectly straight, and there were numerous places where one of the surrounding walls curved inward or bent around some protruding obstacle. Behind one such obstacle, a sharp jut of granite buried in the ground like the point of a massive spearhead, were several bodies.

He smelled them before he saw them, but neither until he was almost on top of them. They had been dead for a few days at least, but it was difficult to tell more from a casual glance, even how many there had been. The bodies had been… melted seemed to be the closest word that fit. Pale white bones jutted up from the tangled mess. The surrounding rocks were discolored, likely from splashes of whatever had killed them.

His senses on high alert now, Kurok crept closer and bent over the remains for a closer examination. The gashes in his hip twinged in pain as he knelt, but he quashed the feeling with an effort of will. A small pack of crag cats had decided to make a meal of him a few nights back. He’d dealt with them, but the minor wounds he’d suffered had been an annoyance. Had he not been in a hurry he would have made a coat from their hides, a reminder to the other predators of the mountains that he was not to be trifled with. Another annoyance.

He felt no fear as he examined the bodies, but he was starting to wonder if he would find anything left of those he had come here to meet. There wasn’t enough evidence for him to conclusively identify what had done this killing, but could make a few educated guesses.

He resumed his progress down into the canyon. At one point he heard a sharp cry from somewhere high above, a deep sound that echoed off the surrounding walls. Kurok tensed and slipped deeper into the shadows along the cliff wall, but the cry was not repeated. It did not sound like the source had been close, but it confirmed one of his suspicions.

After a moment he started forward again, moving faster now, stealth replaced by speed. His weariness and wounds did not slow him, not after the jolt that shriek had given him.

He passed the outermost caves, glancing at them only to confirm that the sentries that he had expected were not present. He’d never been to the Scar, but he’d seen maps, and knew that the deeper caves that connected to the underground complex were further in. The nearest of those was a good ten feet off the ground, accessed by a narrow ramp that left anyone approaching completely exposed to attack from other caves higher up. No attacks came, which was not unexpected.

He had to bend low to fit into the cave, but after the entry it grew a bit more spacious. A familiar scent greeted him, not the foul stink of death from earlier but the earthier air of those he had come to meet. It might have been old, but he didn’t think so. He thought he could smell something else on the air, a tangible waft of fear. It might have been a projection of his own desires, but he didn’t think so.

The cave sloped down slightly as he made his way deeper, then widened at the end into a proper corridor. There was a small niche there, and as he started to turn into the passage a figure emerged from the darkness and lunged at him with a spear.

He almost blasted the attacker by instinct before his brain took over. Dodging back out of the way of the clumsy thrust, he pointed a finger and said, “Halt”.

His attacker froze. It was a goblin, the creature’s eyes wide with fear.

“Do you know who I am?” The goblin could barely shake its head, and Kurok said, “I am of the Blooded.”

If the goblin had been afraid before, now it trembled with terror. As the effects of Kurok’s command faded it collapsed to the ground in front of him, all but throwing its spear away. “Forgive me, great one!” it squealed. “I did not know!”

Kurok gave the creature a desultory kick with his boot, not enough to injure it severely. “Get up,” he said. “I want you to take me to Usk Bloodrider.”

* * *

Author's Note: Earlier I had posted a note that I would be taking a break from this story during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m going to start the hiatus in October, so there won’t be any new posts in October or November. I do intend to wrap up the story and already have most of the Silverpeak Valley arc completed in draft. I will probably end at least the ENWorld part of the story with Book 6 (we’re in the middle of Book 4 right now). I’ve been keeping notes for how I might convert these stories into novels (mostly removing all of the game-specific content and trimming down the random encounters), so that might be option down the road.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 86

The cavern was spacious, but it seemed smaller crowded with dozens of goblins and their companions squeezed close together within. The stench struck with the force of a physical blow, but Kurok had long since disciplined himself to ignore such things.

It was harder to ignore the eyes that watched his every move, or the look from the goblin seated on the broad stone seat in front of him. Usk Bloodrider was half Kurok’s size, but the goblin otherwise looked as tough as a wire-bristle brush. His bare torso was covered in a web work of old scars, but even more imposing was the massive worg that sat on the floor next to his seat. The creature lifted its head slightly so that Usk could scratch it, while its red eyes never shifted from Kurok’s as its master continued his account of why his forces had not reported in to Murgoth’s muster of armies.

“The beast arrived a few weeks ago,” Usk said. “At first we thought it just a wanderer, but it established itself in one of the crags that surround the Scar, high above the canyon floor. It clearly has laid claim to this place.”

“You have weapons,” Kurok said.

A slight rumble started in the crowd at that, but it quieted as soon as Usk held up a fist. “Yes. Slings, and bows, and sharp spears. As well as the teeth of our friends.” He rubbed behind one of the worg’s ears. The creature likely could have torn the goblin’s arm from his body with one sharp jerk, but it tilted its head slightly to give him better access. “The beast remains out of range of even our best archers. It breathes acid death or drops boulders. It has chased scouts for miles and miles, able to see even the slightest movement from its chosen heights. The Bloodriders are loyal to Murgoth, but what good would it do for us to set out, only to be destroyed before we can get to him?”

“I will deal with the creature,” Kurok said.

That comment created an even greater stir, and this time Usk did not attempt to cut it off. The goblin chief gave Kurok an evaluative look. “You are Blooded,” he finally said. The din quieted as those around the stone chair tried to listen. “But this creature is a great enemy.”

“Just show me where it dwells,” Kurok said. “If I fail, you have lost nothing. But if I succeed, then I ask that you honor your commitment to Warlord Murgoth.”

The room remained quiet as Usk considered, but the tension was almost palpable. “We will show you,” he finally said.

* * *

Kurok’s boots crunched on bits of loose stone as he trudged up the steep slope. It was clear that others had come this way before, likely goblin scouts taking advantage of the height to stand sentry, but none of those signs were recent. But there were other, fresher signs, deep gouges in the rock or discolored patches where the stone had been eaten away. At one point he saw a goblin skull sitting on a boulder as though watching him. He flicked it away, and it tumbled off a few rocks before vanishing into the depths of the canyon below. He could not hear the sound its impact over the soft rush of the wind in his ears.

Unfortunately that constant blowing meant that he might not hear the sound of something approaching until it was too late. Kurok had to school himself to ignore the prickling feeling of being watched. He didn’t care to delude himself that his approach had gone unnoticed, but he wouldn’t betray anything other than determination.

The clouds in the sky above had parted and the late afternoon sunshine shone brightly on his shrouded form, making him sweat under his cloak. He had briefly considered waiting for nightfall to make his approach, but that idea had been quickly discarded. He was a creature of shadows, but the foe he hunted could see in the dark far better than he could, even with his gifts.

The trail he followed curved to the right before straightening into a sharp ascent that rose between two massive blocks of stone. The crevice seemed tiny from a distance, but he doubted that it would offer much protection. Kurok paused a moment to take a drink from his water flask then resumed his ascent, careful of the loose rocks that littered the route. A fall would undermine the effect he was trying to cultivate, but it could also prove fatal; the distance between the edge of the path and the drop into the canyon was one he could have covered in two strides.

He reached the shelter of the cleft without incident. It was cooler out of the direct sunlight, even cold as the wind froze the sweat on his face and neck. The opening was narrow at the bottom but widened to maybe ten paces across at the top. He could see where it ended maybe two hundred paces ahead. From Usk’s instructions he knew that the cleft opened onto another exposed ascent that rose another few hundred paces more before culminating in a spire of naked rock. There was an overhang there, a protected niche where the goblins used to keep a watch. Now, according to Usk’s scouts, it was where their tormentor had chosen to make its lair.

Kurok paused ten steps into the cleft to listen. The wind made a slight whistling sound as it traveled through the gap between the stones, but other than that there was nothing. But the feeling of being watched had redoubled, almost like an itch that crept slowly up his spine.

Kurok reached into his pouch and took out a small wooden case. It opened to reveal two rows of tiny vials in padded niches. He took one out and dropped it into a pocket of his cloak, then replaced the case. The walls felt like they were pressing slowly closer as he resumed his march.

He had only covered a fraction of the distance to the reassuring brightness at the end of the cleft when he heard something over the wind. At first it sounded like a sudden gust, a subtle shift in the breeze, but then it was accompanied by a sharper sound, like a massive bellows being worked. It grew louder quickly. At first it sounded as though it was coming from everywhere, but as the source approached he could tell it was coming from behind him.

He turned around. He took out the vial and drank its contents. He nearly tossed the empty container aside but finally tucked it back into his pocket. He folded his arms together under his cloak and waited.

He did not have to wait more than a second or two. The sounds of rushing air and the pulses of the giant bellows built to a crescendo before a dark form materialized above. It was just a shadow at first, but then a huge winged figure swept out over the slash of blue at the top of the cleft, pivoting smoothly in mid-air before it dropped into the gap at the entrance that Kurok had just passed under just moments ago. It easily filled the full breadth of the opening, its claws seizing hold of the surrounding stone and tearing out divots that rained shards of rock down onto the ground below. A few of those fist-sized bits of debris struck within five paces of where Kurok stood.

The hobgoblin warlock stared up at the creature. It was a dragon, its hide the bright copper of freshly-minted coins. As it drew its wings closer around its body it lowered its neck to fix its eyes on the hobgoblin standing below it. It opened its jaws and let out an earth-shaking roar.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 87

The copper dragon was a young specimen by its size and the brightness of its scales, but it was no less imposing for that. As the echoes of its roar continued to sound down the length of the ravine it watched Kurok expectantly. No doubt it thought him paralyzed with terror. Kurok had been trained to control his fear, but even Murgoth himself likely would have been impressed by the creature’s sudden appearance and display of power.

He drew back his hood and with a flourish of his cloak sketched a deep bow. “I greet you, Mighty One.”

The dragon couldn’t express the range of facial expressions of a humanoid, but it seemed taken aback by the gesture. “You speak my language.”

“I have only a modest talent in Draconic, Mighty One,” Kurok said.

“Your speak better than your filthy kin,” the dragon growled. “What is your name, little hobgoblin?”

“I am called Kurok. May I have the honor of knowing who I address, Mighty One?”

“You may address me as Carthadantilis,” the dragon said. “Or simply ‘Carth,’ if your small brain cannot encompass the whole.”

“You honor me,” Kurok said, with another small flourish. He was careful to keep his arms clear of his body, and his hands open. “I have come seeking parlay.”

“What interest could one such as I have in your concerns?” the dragon said.

“That is for you to decide, mighty Carth.”

“Speak, then, and be done with it. My time is valuable.”

“By your command, I will speak plainly. This is not your place. You have come far from the hills that are your home, and the lair you have chosen is already the property of another.”

The dragon lashed its tail, its anger obvious. More bits of stone rattled down around Kurok, a few pieces bouncing off his body. “Who are you to tell me where to make my home? I go where I want, hobgoblin!”

“You cannot stay here,” Kurok said.

For a moment the dragon just stared at him, then its eyes narrowed. “And you are going to stop me?”

“You are powerful, Carthadantilis,” Kurok said. “But young, as age among your kind is reckoned. And I am not as helpless as I may seem.” He didn’t move his arms, spread wide outside his cloak, but a stream of energy flashed from the right, blasting a line from the cliff wall beside him. The suddenness of it drew a reaction from the dragon; a shifting of its clawed limbs that was too significant to be an accident, yet it recovered its equanimity swiftly.

“Do you think to frighten me with your paltry powers?” Carth rumbled. The cliff walls seemed to shake with the threat in the dragon’s voice.

“Unlike you, I have done nothing to attempt to frighten or intimidate you,” Kurok said. “I am only letting you know that I am prepared for this confrontation. You will find that your acidic breath will not affect me as much as it did your former victims, and in the narrow confines of this cleft you may find it difficult to bring your superior size and speed fully to bear.”

The dragon’s eyes flicked to left and right as though considering. “You cannot remain in this place forever,” he said.

“I do not intend to,” Kurok said. “It was you who initiated this confrontation. If we do battle, one of us will be destroyed. Perhaps it will be me, perhaps you. I have already acknowledged that you are a mighty foe indeed, perhaps greater than the others I have faced. But know this, dragon. If you defeat me, others will come. They will keep on coming until your corpse is rotting in the floor of one of these canyons. These lands belong to Kavel Murgoth, and he does not suffer trespassers.”

“I have heard that name,” Carth said. “I am not impressed. The world is full of hobgoblin warlords, another hardly makes a difference.”

“I am not trying to impress you,” Kurok said even before the dragon had fully finished. “Murgoth commands armies, but beyond that, he has the allegiance of a cadre of spellcasters, masters of arcane and divine magics. I am only the first of those you will face, and am not the strongest of those by far. Do you really want to build a lair—to start a life—in a place where every hand is turned against you? A foe that will keep on coming, no matter how many you kill?”

The dragon drew up, spreading as wings as far as the narrow confines of the cleft would permit, a barely-visible plume of noxious vapors rising from his nostrils. “I will not take orders from the likes of you,” Carth said.

“I am only letting you know what you face,” Kurok said. “You are the intruder here. From my perspective you are a killer, a thief. I have come here openly and I have showed you the respect you deserve. But I will not back down. None of my kind will.”

“You have a great deal of pride for such a small creature,” Carth said. “But if you know anything of dragonkind, you know that we do not back down either.”

Kurok nodded. “That I have heard,” he said. “One final thing to consider, then. My orders direct me to leave this place swiftly for the west—assuming I survive this encounter, of course. I intend to take the bulk of the goblin tribe that dwell within this canyon with me, including all of the worg riders and their mounts. As for what happens after I leave… well, as I said, these lands belong to Kavel Murgoth, but his attention is focused elsewhere, for the moment. Should I accomplish my mission, it is doubtful that anyone will care what happens here.”

The dragon regarded him for a stretch of time that might have discomfited an average person, but Kurok only stood there waiting. “You disgust me,” Carth finally said.

“I am not interested in your regard,” Kurok said. “I will have your decision.” He shifted, only slightly, but there was a clear threat in it.

The dragon lifted itself on its hind legs and spread its wings again. “I grow weary of hunting goblinoids. Your flesh is stringy and foul-tasting. It may be a day or two before I return. Pray to your gods that we do not meet again, little hobgoblin, for on that day one of us will meet his end.”

Kurok didn’t move as the dragon dove backwards off the cleft, twisting its body around until its wings could spread fully to catch the air. It swept out over the canyon, briefly dropping out of view before it emerged again, rising to the north before it disappeared behind one of the far peaks. Kurok remained where he was until it was fully gone, then he took a deep breath and let it out. But he allowed himself only a moment’s rest before he started back the way he had come. He had a long hike ahead of him, and Usk would need time to make preparations for the clan’s departure.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I enjoy writing villains almost as much as I do the heroes. Even in just his first few scenes Kurok has gotten a lot more complicated than my original outline, and there are some more twists to come...

* * *

Chapter 88

Bredan let out a sigh of relief as he relieved himself into a knot of bushes. It was not an easy procedure in armor, complicated by the fact that he’d been on the back of a horse for most of the morning.

When he was done he turned and made his way quickly back to where he’d left the animal that Haran had lent him. The horse was cropping weeds but at his approach its head came up and it peered at him with what Bredan thought was a suspicious look. The two had not gotten along especially well for the journey thus far. At least the pain in his legs and back had started to ease up. Bredan had ridden a horse before, but not for days on end, and it was hardly something he was used to.

“It’s easy for you,” he told the animal as he unfastened the reins from the branch where he’d left them. “You can go whenever you want.”

He was able to mount without difficulty, though not without a grimace as the movement awakened a fresh twinge in his thighs. His pause hadn’t taken very long, but the last of the wagons had already rumbled past, the caravan making good time despite the poor quality of the road. They had already risen out of the plains that surrounded the city, moving into hills that caused the road to weave and curve, sometimes bending almost back on itself as it navigated particularly difficult obstacles. But as Bredan glanced up at the mountains ahead, a line of peaks that had drawn closer with each passing day since they had left Adelar, he knew that their progress would be slowing even further soon enough.

His mount—he hadn’t given the animal a name yet—carried him swiftly past the line of wagons, the horse nodding its head as if mocking the lesser beasts pulling the vehicles. The four wagons each had a four-horse team, and each was piled high with supplies and gear.

“Did you have a nice piss?” Glori yelled out as he rode past. Harvin, the old driver beside her on the wagon seat, let out an amused snort. All of Haran’s drivers were like him, men as old and gnarled as these hills, but they all knew their business and they’d escaped anything worse than minor delays as the inevitable parts broke or horses threw shoes. Bredan figured that most of the young men were probably all off with the Prince and his men, hunting down Murgoth’s invading army. He responded to Glori’s comment with a rude gesture and rode on.

On the next wagon, the driver looked tiny in contrast to the man seated next to him. Quellan looked even more imposing in his new armor, the suit of half-plate giving the half-orc a warrior’s mettle. They had been lucky to find a suit that would fit him. The armorer hadn’t been that clear about where he’d gotten it, but the subtle signs of wear and recent repairs suggested that its previous owner might not have fared so well as the armor. Even with the damage it had cost most of Quellan’s and Kosk’s shares from the Northpine treasure combined. Bredan had settled for having his own mail repaired. Quellan had offered to yield him the plate, but even if they’d had time to adjust it to fit his rather smaller frame he preferred his chain. He was used to it, and it reminded him of his father.

Quellan waved and offered him a smile as Bredan rode past. Orrek, the driver, seemed to shrivel in his seat, and Bredan wondered if Quellan knew the effect his smile had on the man. He hoped not; the cleric was sensitive to the impression he had on people.

The next two wagons had Haran’s men riding sentry beside the drivers, the guards clad in long leather coats covered in metal studs, with crossbows cradled in their laps with bolts close at hand. Bredan wasn’t surprised not to see Kosk; the dwarf spent as much time walking as riding on the wagons, and yet somehow he seemed to have no difficulty keeping up even in the straighter stretches where the wagons could build up a bit of speed.

One corner of the tarp that protected the bed of the lead wagon had started to come loose from its moorings, and Bredan pointed it out to Willem, the guard, as he drew up alongside the front of the wagon. That wagon carried perhaps the most important cargo: among the tools and other supplies it carried were several dozen bow staves and crossbows wrapped in oilcloth and packed in crates and a number of barrels full of carefully-wrapped bundles of arrows and bolts.

And then he was past, ahead of their little caravan and the fountain of dust raised by the wagons. Haran and the three soldiers he’d brought with him were at the front of the column, just far enough ahead that they could spot any danger before it threatened the wagons. The leader of the expedition was riding close to his scout, the only non-human among the men he’d brought from Adelar. Gilanis was a wood elf, his shaggy mountain pony a good five hands shorter than the bigger horses the other men rode, but the animal was sure-footed and managed slopes that Bredan might not have tried even on foot.
Haran turned as Bredan rode back up to the vanguard and grinned at him. Gilanis rode on ahead, no doubt to resume his scouting duties. The elf seemed to cover twice as much ground as the rest of them each day, but neither he nor his mount complained. “You holding up okay?” Haran asked.

“I think my blisters are getting blisters, but I’m all right,” Bredan said. “I thought I was in good shape from working in the forge, but riding all day takes some getting used to.”

“Different muscles,” Haran said. “You could always take a spell in the wagons. I bet your friend wouldn’t mind riding.”

The look when he glanced back made it clear who he was talking about, but Bredan still had to suppress a laugh as the image of Quellan upon his horse flashed in his mind. It would serve the animal right for their initial troubles, Bredan thought. “I’m sure she’s good at it,” he said ruefully. Glori hadn’t complained when Haran had told them that he only had one extra horse, or when he’d offered it to Bredan, but there had been something in her eyes that suggested that she was entirely aware of the effects a few days in the saddle would have on him. “You had said that there’s a village up ahead?”

“Camber’s Rise,” Haran said. “It’s the last settlement of note between us and the mountains. It’s been evacuated, but at least there’s shelter.”

“Evacuated?” Bredan asked. “I thought that the goblins hadn’t raised this far west.”

“They haven’t yet, but all of the smaller settlements in the foothills were encouraged to evacuate. There are too many hamlets and small holds in these hills to protect.”

“So that’s why Adelar seemed so crowded,” Bredan said. “How long can the Baron keep them all fed?”

“Long enough for the army to confront Murgoth’s legions and wipe them out,” Haran said. He sounded confident, but out here, alone in the shadow of the mountains with just a few wagons and a handful of armed men, Bredan felt less certain.

“From Camber’s Rise it should take us three days to reach the Silverpeak,” Haran continued. “We’ll need to keep an eye out, as there are always dangers this far from the plains country, but if we’re lucky we’ll be through these mountains and arriving at the valley before you know it.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 89

As he stared down the slope at the remains of Camber’s Rise, Bredan didn’t feel especially lucky.

The place had been tiny, just half a dozen wooden structures around a larger stone building, not quite a tower, in the center. The latter was the only place left standing, and even then there wasn’t much left but a hollow shell.

He could smell the acrid stink of char on the air, but he guessed this was old, maybe a week, maybe more.

“A good thing they evacuated,” Glori said. Bredan almost jumped; he hadn’t heard her approach.

“Yeah,” he said. “Look, Gilanis is coming back, let’s see what he has to say.”

Quellan and Kosk joined them as they headed over to where Haran was waiting for the scout. The drivers and the rest of the soldiers had remained with the wagons, a bowshot back along the road. Kosk looked sour, as though he’d expected to see something like this all along. Quellan looked concerned, though he’d agreed to wait for the elf’s report on Haran’s assurance that there hadn’t been anyone here when trouble had arrived.

The adventurers reached Haran just as the scout did, but the expedition leader didn’t seem to mind them hearing Gilanis’s report. The elf had his short bow strung but he had tucked his arrow back into the quiver on his hip.

“This happened six or seven days past,” he said. “A small group. They came from the east and returned that way after they were done. They stayed long enough to be thorough, but it doesn’t look like there was much left worth taking.”

“Goblins?” Bredan asked.

“Difficult to be sure,” Gilanis said. “That squall that blew through a few days back made a mess of the tracks. Definitely humanoid, but I cannot be more specific.”

Haran looked thoughtful. “All right,” he said. “We’ll bivouac next to the stone structure tonight, that’ll offer some shelter should our friends decide to stage an encore. But I’m sure they’re far away by now.”

“Will you send word back to Adelar?” Quellan asked.

Haran shook his head. “I can’t spare anyone,” he said. “We’ll watch in double shifts tonight. Gil, take a circuit around the area, see if you can find anything else.” The elf nodded and ran over to where he’d left his horse. “I’ll go tell the others, and then we can start setting up camp,” Haran added, then trudged back up the rise to the line of wagons.

“I guess we might not be as far away from the war as we thought,” Glori said.

* * *

Even with worries of waking to rampaging goblins rushing through the camp, Bredan dropped off into a hard sleep as soon as he finished his shift on watch and didn’t stir until Willem shook his shoulder roughly the next morning. For a moment he was still caught in the edges of whatever dream he’d been having, then it faded as his aches and weariness rushed back in. With a groan he pulled himself up out of his bedroll and began putting on his armor.

The members of the expedition were well used to working together by now, and the caravan rumbled its way back onto the road even before the sun had fully crested the uneven line of hills to the east. Maybe they were even a bit faster than usual; all of them seemed eager to leave the wreckage of the burned settlement behind them.

At first the road leading up from Camber’s Rise was barely more difficult than the one winding through the foothills, but by midmorning the ascent grew steeper, the surrounding terrain more challenging. The road was obviously not traveled frequently, and as the day grew older they had to pause more frequently to clear away obstacles. Most of the time that was fallen rocks that could hazard the wagons, but in one case an entire tree had slumped over to block the road and had to be cleared with axes and ropes before they could proceed. Fortunately they had brought everything needed with them, including spare wheels for the wagons and an assortment of tools, but Haran still had them be careful with their resources.

The road frequently bent back upon itself as it gained altitude, and at one such bend Bredan paused and looked down over the edge to see the ruined tower of Camber’s Rise in the distance below. It didn’t look all that far away for the hours they’d already put in.

Occasionally the road widened as it passed along a level stretch or made its way through a broad gap between peaks. At one such spot they paused for lunch, to tend to the horses, and stretch their legs. Given how slow their progress had been thus far, Bredan wondered if they would make it to the Silverpeak Valley within the time that Haran had predicted. Given the nature of the trip, he wondered why anyone would bother to come this way at all. There had been silver, thus the name, but Bredan thought it would take more than money to make him want to come all the way out here to live. And now there wasn’t even the silver, and yet people remained.

Shortly after their break the road turned deeper into the range and they left their view of the foothills behind. They were now within the forest of peaks that they’d seen approaching since leaving Adelar, but every time they passed one there were other, taller ones ahead to greet them. Haran had them remain closer together now, the outriders and wagon crews alike alert to any signs of danger. They remained well below the bare granite summits of those mountains, but even in the vales between them there were plenty of hazards to navigate. The road wound through dense forests and rocky dells, and at several places they had to ford streams where the fast-moving water came up to their horses’ knees and the wagons’ axles. They took those crossings slowly; that was not a place where one wanted to foul a wheel. But they made their way across safely, pausing only to top off their water barrels before moving on.

They were making their way up yet another slow ascent—thankfully, none of them had been as steep as the initial climb that morning—when they came to another obstacle. The sun was almost touching the tallest of the peaks to the west and Bredan was thinking of dinner when they came around a bend to see a boulder the size of a cottage blocking the road ahead.

Haran immediately called a halt, and the wagons ground to a stop about thirty paces behind the lead riders. They were at an exposed but not particularly difficult spot, with a steep but manageable slope rising fifty paces to a boulder-encrusted crest on their left and a somewhat sharper descent into a densely wooded dell to their right. Both sides of the road were overgrown with dense tangles of brush, but there were only a few trees nearby, struggling to find purchase in the stony soil.

Haran signaled to two of his men. “Gilanis, Kors, check ahead a bit. Make sure there aren’t any surprises.” The elf and the big human soldier offered salutes and nudged their horses forward.

“We’re not moving that,” Bredan said. He glanced back and saw that the wagon crews were watching. Some of the guards had dismounted, but they would stay with the wagons until Haran signaled them forward. He caught a glimpse of Glori, standing on the bed of the rearmost wagon.

“No,” Haran agreed. “We’ll have to cut a bypass. Easier on the right, but only if there’s enough clearance.”

“Yeah, if a wheel slips, it’s a long way down,” Bredan said, peering over the drop a few paces beyond the edge of the road.

“We’d better start breaking out the shovels and axes,” Haran said. He turned to gesture toward the wagons, but hesitated as a shout of alarm came from around the boulder, accompanied by a loud whinny that was abruptly cut off.

The riders reached for their weapons even as Haran opened his mouth to shout a warning, but before he could speak a loud rumbling cut him off. The sound came from a torrent of rocks that was pouring down the slope. The riders and their animals flinched in reflexive alarm, but the focus of the slide was behind them, back toward the wagons. The crews took cover as the bouncing rocks reached them. The teams looked to be in more danger, with no room for the horses to evade, but the collapse wasn’t as bad as it had looked. By the time it reached the road most of its force was spent, and only the rearmost wagon was damaged as a boulder the size of a man’s torso slammed hard into one of its front wheels.

Bredan had pulled his horse around to go help them when another shout had him turning back toward the huge boulder ahead. A projectile came flying over the giant stone. It twisted awkwardly in the air before plummeting down toward the riders. Bredan barely had a chance to tug his horse aside before it slammed down into the packed surface of the road. He stared down at it in surprise.

It was Gilanis, his neck obviously snapped. The elf’s face was frozen in a look of surprise.

“Enemies!” Haran was yelling, yanking Bredan’s attention back up. The expedition leader was pointing with his spear up the slope, where the source of the rockslide had revealed itself. Bredan had never before seen the three hulking forms that emerged from positions of cover atop the ridge, but he had heard enough stories to be able to identify them. From the cries of alarm among the riders and the wagon crews, he wasn’t the only one.

“Ogres!” he breathed. The three brutes immediately started down the slope toward the wagons, launching fresh tumbles of rocks ahead of them with each step.

Bredan’s wild tugging on his reins had spun him and the animal completely around, so he was still facing the boulder when the full nature of their situation became apparent a moment later. Another foe came into view, one that made the ogres seem a meager threat by comparison. For a moment Bredan had a wild flash that somehow it was the cyclops returned, but this creature had two eyes, dark beads under a protruding brow.

The hill giant was holding Kors in his hands. The human warrior looked like a child’s doll in its grasp. The ground shook as it trudged around the massive boulder, which barely came to its shoulder. Haran was shouting something, no doubt issuing orders, but all Bredan could hear was the pounding of his heart. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the giant as it fixed its stare on him, then almost casually snapped Kors’s back and tossed him out over the chasm. The broken man seemed to hang in the air for a split second and then dropped out of view.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 90

As soon as Kors vanished, Bredan blinked as if coming out of a dream. The giant still filled his vision, the hulking creature somehow more horrible than even the cyclops, but it made no move toward them. As he watched it reached into its bag and drew out something. Bredan could see that it was a rock twice the size of a man’s head.

A scream yanked his head around, and he saw that his companions had already moved to engage the ogres. Haran and the last of the riders, an old veteran everyone called Ironjaw, were already fighting one of the huge creatures. Mounted they were almost as tall as the things, but as he watched the ogre shrugged off a thrust from Ironjaw’s sword as if it was nothing. The ogre lunged forward and toppled the man off his horse, animal and rider crashing to the ground together with bone-jarring force. Haran drove his spear into the ogre’s side, causing it to scream in rage. It reared back and tried to sweep him from his saddle with its massive club, but with an expert tug on his reins the rider pulled just barely back out of its reach. But there was a second ogre already rushing forward to pin him between it and its companion. Bredan could just make out the last one further back among the wagons. For a split second he caught a glimpse of Quellan, for once the half-orc looking small against the sheer bulk of his enemy.

Bredan absorbed the whole scene in an instant, but even that momentary distraction cost him. He spun back to see the giant’s arm already raised, the boulder cupped in its huge fist. He was kicking the horse’s flanks but the animal, no doubt possessing more sense than him, was already moving. He hardly had to tug the reins at all; the horse was clearly willing to go anywhere as long as it wasn’t closer to the giant.

Bredan tried to reach for his sword, but he had to focus all his efforts on staying atop the horse. He tried to think himself small, trying not to think of that huge arm coming forward…

Even expecting it, the impact came as a surprise. One moment he was atop the horse, charging back toward the wagons, the next he was flying through the air. He barely had a chance to realize that something had changed before the ground rushed up to meet him. He slammed into the hard surface with enough force to knock the wind from his body, and his face struck the ground hard enough to embed bits of gravel into his skin.

A voice in his skull that sounded like his uncle was yelling, Get up! but it was all he could manage to lift his head a bit. That was enough to see a grim sight; one of the ogres, the one that Haran had wounded, looking hardly the worse for wear as it slammed its club down two-handed into Ironjaw’s body. The soldier, still trapped under his fallen horse, had no chance. The blow killed both of them, and when the club came back up it was messy with their blood. A spray of it covered the ogre’s face, giving the creature’s features the look of a garish mask. Its jaws cracked open in a grim smile as it fixed its eyes on Bredan, then it started forward toward him.

The lead wagon burst into flames.

It wasn’t quite an explosion, but it wasn’t tentative either. Fire swept over the tarp and around the bed of the wagon, burrowing into the half-exposed crates and barrels under the cover. For a moment it surprised both Bredan and the ogre menacing him, but after that moment passed the monster resumed its approach toward the stricken warrior.

But the participants in the melee weren’t the only ones startled by the unexpected conflagration. The horses in the team in front of the wagon had been alarmed by the battle swirling around them. They had been jumping in their traces, straining against the tack holding them in place. But the fire right behind them pushed them over into panic, and as the four big animals lunged forward together they overpowered the wagon brake and charged forward up the road.

Right at Bredan, who was still lying in the middle of that road.

The sight of a four-horse team coming at him at a full sprint jolted him even more than the approaching ogre, and with a curse he sprang up and rolled to the side. It was hardly an elegant maneuver, and the sword still strapped to his back jammed into his neck as he completed the roll, but the clattering hooves passed him by with scant inches to spare. He only just barely yanked his arm back before the wheels of the wagon would have crushed it, but then the burning vehicle was past. Blinking through a sudden haze of smoke, he watched as the panicked horses headed right for the boulder and the giant that blocked their way. The team seemed to realize that they could not go that way, and with the drop-off to the right an obvious hazard they turned together to the left. The horses in their terror somehow managed the rocky slope, but the wagon could not. It tipped over, spilling its burning contents onto the road behind it. The horses, burdened now by the full weight of the fallen wagon, could not escape as the giant strode over to them.

Bredan didn’t have time to watch what was going to happen to them, for the ogre was coming at him again, the smoke swirling around its massive body as it crossed the road. The young fighter was still dazed from being flung from his horse, but he managed to get his sword out and rise into a fighting stance. The ogre paused a moment, perhaps wary of a sword almost as big as its own weapon. It had to be feeling the effects of its wounds, especially the puncture in its side that had matted its mangy furs with blood, but it didn’t look any less imposing for that. Bredan could only make out bits and pieces of what was happening back at the rest of the wagons through the smoke, but it was impossible to miss the other two ogres, still fighting his friends. He couldn’t tell who was winning.

Abruptly the ogre stepped forward and lunged, its club sweeping around toward Bredan’s head. He ducked under it and slashed with his sword at the ogre’s forward leg.

But the leg wasn’t there. Too late he realized that the ogre’s lunge had been a feint; it hadn’t followed through and instead took a step back. Bredan stumbled, drawn off-balance like a novice. He had just enough time to hear his uncle’s stern voice in his head before the ogre stepped in again and smashed him in the chest with its club.

This time the attack was no feint. The impact lifted him off his feet and flung him to the ground. His head dropped farther than it should have and he realized he was right on the lip of the drop that descended a hundred feet at a sharp angle to the forest below.

As stars flashed in his vision he saw his sword glittering in the late afternoon sunlight as it toppled end-over-end through the air before vanishing much like Kors had earlier.

For a moment he could only lie there despite the crushing pain in his neck. He could feel echoes of that pain stabbing through his torso; the blow from the club must have broken a few of his ribs. It took a heroic effort, but he managed to lift his head enough to see in front of him.

What he saw was about what he’d expected. The ogre was there, standing over him just as it had stood over Ironjaw just moments before. It seemed to be waiting for him to notice, then it smiled a toothy grin and lifted its bloody club to finish him.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 91

Bredan turned his head—and paid the price as another stab of agony shot through his neck—but there was no one close by, none of his friends coming to save him.

The ogre’s foot slammed into the ground next to his leg and the club came plummeting down. There was nowhere to go, not even enough time to roll off the edge and take his chances with the fall. All he could do was lift his hand in a vain attempt to stop the death descending toward him.

There was a flash of light, a crash of impact.

Bredan blinked in surprise.

A glowing disk of transparent energy hung in the air between him and the ogre. The creature looked to be just as surprised as he was; the hovering shield had somehow completely absorbed the impact of the heavy club. But the surprise lasted only a moment, and before Bredan could do more than scramble up into a crouch the barrier dissolved into nothing as suddenly as it had appeared.

The ogre quickly lifted his club to strike again.

If only I still had my sword, Bredan thought. He started to reach for his hammer—a pathetic weapon against an ogre, but all he had—but was suddenly amazed to feel the familiar weight of his father’s sword in his hand.

There was no time to think about whether he was hallucinating; he rose and thrust with all the strength he had left. Pain erupted throughout his body, but he let out a cry that pushed through it, pushed with everything he had.

After a moment he realized that he was still alive. He was pressing against something that gave slightly, something that filled his nostrils with a terrible stench. He drew back slightly and realized it was the ogre. He was clinging to the hilt of his sword with both hands. The entire length of the blade was buried in the creature’s body.

He drew back another step—wary of the drop right behind him—and looked up at the ogre’s face. It wore a stricken expression, one that grew slack as the life drained from it. Ever so slowly it began to lean backward as its knees gave way, and then it topped over onto the hard surface of the road.

Thankful for that small blessing—if it had fallen forward it might have pinned his sword under its bulk, or taken it off the cliff for a second time—he stumbled forward to try to recover his weapon. As he did he saw that the smoke around the other wagons had cleared in the brief interval, giving him a better view of what was happening.

One of the other ogres was down; the thing looked like a pincushion with all the bolts and arrows sticking out from its body. The other one was still up and fighting, but Bredan could see both Quellan and Kosk battling it. Those among the wagon crews still alive, including Glori, had taken cover behind their vehicles and were taking shots with their bows when they could.

A deep thumping sound drew Bredan around in time to see the hill giant as it emerged from the dense plume of smoke rising from around the still-burning wagon. Its fur leggings were stained red from the blood of the horses it had killed, and to Bredan’s horror he saw that it had a bloody haunch in one hand, from which it took another gory bite as he watched. On seeing that the fight was still going on the giant dropped its half-finished meal and reached into its sack for another boulder.

Bredan quickly lunged for the hilt of his sword, but before he could try to yank it from the ogre’s body a clatter of hooves on the hard-packed surface of the road announced Haran’s return. The expedition leader looked battered, with one of his shoulder plates torn away and his helmet missing so that the bloody gashes above his left eye were clearly visible. But he had somehow managed to both stay on his horse and keep his spear, which he raised as he charged at a full gallop at the giant. The horse had to be well-trained, for it didn’t veer from its course in the slightest as the gap between the two foes closed in an instant.

Bredan kept pulling on his sword, but it was caught on something and wouldn’t budge. All he could do was watch as the giant pulled a club that made the ogre weapons look like toys from its belt. With that and the length of its arms it could swat Haran from his saddle before he could hope to get within reach to use his spear.

But Haran didn’t turn aside; even as the giant started its swing he ducked low and hurled his spear with all his might and momentum behind it. The shaft drove into the giant’s side, and the massive creature reared up in pain. But it was just too huge to be seriously hurt by even that blow. With a subtle tug on his reins Haran guided his horse to the left. It looked like he would get clear, but at the last moment the giant simply hurled its club at its foe.

The club, the size of a good-sized tree, smashed into mount and rider from behind. The horse crumpled, its rear legs broken by the impact. Haran was launched flying much as Bredan had been earlier, but instead of falling to the ground he hit the mass of the boulder that blocked the road. He bounced off the unyielding rock and collapsed in a limp heap.

Trying to ignore the stabbing pains his efforts caused, Bredan planted a foot against the ogre’s body and tried to twist his sword around to free it from whatever it was embedded against. Blood jutted from the ogre’s fat torso as he strugged, but finally the sword came free. Stumbling as he staggered clear, he lifted the weapon and confronted the giant from twenty human-sized paces away.

Arrows and bolts were buzzing this way now from the wagons, and although some stuck in the giant’s body it reacted as it might have to a mosquito’s sting. Bredan glanced back and saw that the last ogre was down, but Quellan was bent over someone, probably one of the guards hurt in the fighting. Kosk was coming around the wagons, but the dwarf was moving with a definite limp.

Bredan heard the thump of the giant’s massive stride and tensed, but when he looked back he saw that the creature was moving away. It passed behind the massive boulder in just a few steps, the smoke from the burning wagon concealing even its considerable form. He heard rather than saw it continue down the road and out of the fight.

Bredan knew he should go after it, or at least check on Haran, but it was all he could do just to remain upright.

“You all right, lad?”

Just turning around was difficult; Bredan managed an awkward shuffle. “I’m okay,” he said.

Kosk glanced at the fallen ogre and the bloody sword in Bredan’s hands. “Sorry we couldn’t get over here earlier.”

“Haran…” Bredan said.

Kosk nodded. “I saw. I’ll go check on him. You wait here, Glori’s coming.”

She arrived before the dwarf had managed ten steps. Unlike Kosk she didn’t ask how he was; she could see it on his face. “Hold on,” she said, placing a hand gently against his chest while she strummed her lyre. While she didn’t need it to invoke her magic anymore, she often still used it as a focus. Her hand glowed briefly, and Bredan let out a sigh of relief as the healing energies faded into him. It wasn’t enough to treat his various wounds fully, but at least he didn’t feel like he was going to collapse.

“Thanks,” he said. “Go help Kosk with Haran.”

Glori ran after him, but from the way that Haran hit that boulder, Bredan wasn’t optimistic. He had come very close to a grim fate himself, and would have died if it hadn’t been for… what had happened? He might have thought that the shield had been Glori’s work somehow, but he clearly had seen his sword fall over the cliff, and then it had been in his hand again. It was possible that the hit from the ogre’s club had scattered his brains, but for a moment there had been something, a flash of power within him…

A shout from someone drew his attention back to the moment. Glori and Kosk had turned from Haran, the looks on their faces confirming Bredan’s earlier suspicion. The ogres were dead and the giant gone, but one look was enough to remind Bredan that their situation remained precarious. The lead wagon was a total loss, but they would still need to move it in order to get the rest of their caravan past the giant boulder. There were also graves to be prepared, or more likely cairns, given the nature of the ground here. And it was getting late. The fight felt like it had lasted for hours, but the sun had only dipped incrementally in the sky. But Bredan knew that night would arrive swiftly once it dipped below the horizon.

He dug in his pouch for a rag to clean his sword, then started toward the wagons.

* * *

Now you know why I didn't want to post the stat blocks for the most recent level-up. :)

I'll finish book 4 on Monday, then put the story on hiatus for a while. Thanks to everyone who's been reading along and posting replies, XP, and laughs.
 
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Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 92

The wagon seat jolted under Bredan, driving a sharp stab of pain through his already aching posterior. He’d thought that riding a horse had left him sore, but two days riding a wagon had awakened a whole new series of torments for his already battered body. Not that he’d spent all that much time riding; when the wagons weren’t bouncing on the increasingly terrible road they were waiting while Bredan and the other survivors of the giant ambush hacked through fallen trees, cleared rockslides, or engaged in other backbreaking and usually dangerous tasks to allow the wagons to continue forward up the next ascent. It wasn’t all climbing, of course. The descents were in some ways worse, the drivers riding their brakes while Bredan stared at narrow drop-offs where a slip of a wheel could lead to the wagon and its entire team being dragged off cliffs that varied in every way except for the likelihood of death if such a fall occurred.

The wagon jolted again, harder this time, and Harvin yanked his reins and lunged for his brake. The wagon rattled to a stop. Bredan didn’t hear anything different in the sound, but he’d learned to trust the old driver’s instincts.

“Think something’s broken?” Bredan asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Harvin said. He made no move for the edge of the seat, but cracked his back and reached into the bed behind them for his waterskin.

Hiding a grimace, Bredan got up and hopped down from the wagon. At least there was enough room to move around; their current stretch of road took them through a thinly-wooded valley before it rose again in yet another climb. The other two wagons had stopped just ahead on noticing that Bredan and Harvin had called a halt. Bredan could see that Quellan had already dismounted and was heading back to check on them. Up in the lead vehicle, Glori was standing atop the uneven heaps of supplies in the bed, a hand held to shade her eyes as she looked to see what was happening. Bredan offered a reassuring wave before he bent to check under the wagon.

He was hardly an expert, but he’d gotten to know the wagons and their workings in more detail than he’d wanted over the last few days. This wagon had been damaged in the ambush, including a cracked axle, and it had taken most of their spare parts to complete a hasty repair. Bredan’s skills had come in handy, though he might have been less enthusiastic if he’d known that the drivers would all defer to him from that point forward. He couldn’t blame them, not really, not after the man who had hired them along with most of the soldiers that were supposed to protect them had died in the ambush.

Everything looked okay, but Bredan crawled under the wagon—hoping that Harvin had set the brake firmly—and tapped a few spots carefully with his hammer. The repairs seemed to be holding, though he wouldn’t want to take this wagon on another trip without a full overhaul. Mentally he amended the thought; he didn’t want to take any more trips with a wagon train for about, oh, fifty years or so.

As he pulled himself out from under the wagon and stood up again Quellan arrived. The half-orc looked as indestructible as ever, though Bredan knew that he’d stinted on treating his own wounds until all of the injuries suffered by the others had been healed. There had been more damage to go around than he and Glori combined could heal, even with the cleric’s Prayer of Healing ritual, and it hadn’t been until the morning after the fight that they’d finally been able to address the worst of it.

“Everything okay?” Quellan asked. Bredan knew that his friend was asking about more than just the wagons, but he just nodded and said, “It’ll hold together for a bit longer, anyway.”

Quellan nodded and looked up at Harvin. The old man was holding his waterskin in his lap as though wishing it was something stronger. “Orrek thinks we’re getting close,” the half-orc reported. The driver just shrugged and tossed the skin back into the bed of the wagon, then took up his reins and looked down as if Bredan was the one holding them up.

Bredan didn’t say anything to the man as Quellan trudged back to his wagon, he just circled around to the far side and clambered up onto the seat. The horses looked as tired as he felt, and a few were taking advantage of the pause to crop at the straggling weeds that grew thick along the edges of the road. He had barely settled back into his seat when Harvin snapped his reins and the wagon started forward again.

Bredan didn’t mind that his companion was not particularly garrulous. He had a lot on his mind, even leaving aside the threat of another ambush or an encounter with one of the hostile creatures that Haran had said lived in these mountains. He still had no explanation for what had happened in the battle with the ogres. He hadn’t told his friends, not yet. He knew he could talk with Glori, at least, but somehow in all the chaotic bustle that had followed the attack, and the way they had all collapsed into their bedrolls in their camp that night, he hadn’t gotten the chance. He had managed to ask enough vague questions to confirm that none of the others had seen what he’d done, if in fact he had conjured a magical shield out of nothing and summoned his sword into his hand from over the cliff where he’d dropped it.

He’d tried to repeat either feat, but the failure of his tentative experiments had hardly left him feeling reassured. He had no idea how one cast spells, but he couldn’t remember anything remotely like what Glori or Quellan did when they used their magic. Or even Xeeta, with her inherent gifts. He wished she was still with them, so he could ask her. The tiefling woman seemed to know a lot about a great many things.

He was jolted out of his musings again as the wagon shifted under him and he realized they’d reached the far side of the valley and the next ascent. The original builders of the road had cut a winding route that kept the grade from becoming too difficult, but even so the horses had to strain to bear the weight. Harvin muttered to himself as he snapped his reins, but he never reached for the whip set in a niche in the wagon seat next to him.

Up and up they went, the road bending around and around until it felt like they were going in circles. The valley fell out of sight behind them but still they kept climbing, each curve revealing still another ahead. Sometimes those curves were sharp enough that Bredan lost sight of the lead wagon, and when that happened he always tensed, his hand sliding seemingly of its own accord toward the hilt of his sword. He’d left his crossbow tucked into a gap between two barrels right behind him, within easy reach, but thus far the weapon had not been of much use. In fact, he realized with a start, he had yet to hit anything with it since he’d bought it.

Intellectually he knew that the climb had to come to an end eventually, but he was still caught by surprise when they came around another bend to see the other two wagons stopped just ahead. Harvin spat a curse and yanked back on his reins, perhaps a bit harder than was necessary. The horses were all too happy to stop, and the wagon came to a halt a good twenty paces behind the next one ahead.

The lead wagon had stopped just below a bend that appeared to mark the final stage at least in this climb, just below an exposed crest that had nothing but empty sky and a few far-distant peaks behind it. Bredan could see that his friends had already dismounted from the wagons and were heading up to get a look. He quickly jumped down and headed after them, trying not to sway too much as his sore backside protested at the rapid movement.

Willem was standing on the seat of the second wagon, his crossbow loaded and ready in his hands. “Do you think we’re there yet?” he asked Bredan as he passed. The smith could only shrug; how was he supposed to know?

The others had turned off the road just shy of the crest, cutting up a slope too steep for the wagons to a jut of stone surrounded by weeds. There was a solitary tree there, stunted and bent but with enough growth to offer at least some cover. Glori, Kosk, and Quellan were all standing next to it as Bredan struggled up the last stretch of the ascent. Glori was the only one to turn at his approach. There wasn’t any immediate alarm on her face, but her expression was enough to have him hurrying the last few paces.

What he saw almost took his breath away. The Silverpeak Valley wasn’t that big, a few miles wide at its narrowest point, curving away as it extended into the distance, its exact dimensions lost within a dense expanse of forest. Its sides sloped sharply on this end, promising another death-defying descent, though Bredan couldn’t see the road from this vantage. He could see where it ended, however, the town of Wildrush clearly visible along the banks of the stream from which it took its name. They were too far away to see much in the way of details, certainly too far to see people, but what they could see awakened a fresh stab of dread in Bredan’s gut.

“For once, it looks like trouble beat us here,” Glori said quietly.

“It doesn’t look like the entire town was burned,” Quellan said, one hand raised to shelter his eyes in an echo of the gesture Bredan had seen Glori make earlier. “In fact, most of the damage seems focused on the northern edge of town. Maybe they repelled an attack.”

“Maybe it was just an accident,” Glori said. “A spilled lamp, gotten out of control.”

“Or maybe Murgoth’s forces decided to come this way after all,” Bredan said.

“We’ll not find out from here,” Kosk said after a moment’s pause. “We’d better get moving, if we’ve any hope of getting there by dark.”

The others turned around and started back toward the wagons. Bredan glanced back for one more look into the valley. For some reason, he felt as though his life was about to change significantly once he started down that road, and not in the plummeting-to-his-death kind of way.

“Bredan, you coming?” Glori called after him.

“Yeah,” he said. But it took an effort to turn his gaze away.


Chapter 93

Stones shifted under Kurok’s feet as he stumbled up the steep slope. The ascent was treacherous, and the bare ground offered little in terms of support; a rock he reached for to steady himself might well give way at his touch. He’d already slipped a few times; more than a few, if his knees were any guide.

The rise ahead looked much the same as the hundreds he’d climbed in the days since he’d left Scar Canyon. He was exhausted, and not just because of the hard pace he’d set. Even now he frequently lifted his head to scan the skies, and every unexpected noise had him turning swiftly, his magic stirring instinctively at his call. But his luck had held; the dragon had not elected to make an appearance.

The sun edged below the crest ahead, casting the hillside into shadow. The absence of light felt reassuring, though it meant they would have to stop again soon. He and his companions had no difficulty in the dark, but other things haunted the mountains in the night, things he was not eager to confront. Already they had had their share of encounters, though nothing that had been a real threat to their progress. And those interludes had given him a chance to evaluate his new allies.

The ground began to level out ahead of him, and he looked up to find that he had reached the crest. A mistake, to let his thoughts wander so, but even the Blooded were ultimately mortal flesh. He would need to rest before he reached his destination.

But as he continued forward, he realized with a start that his destination was right in front of him.

The valley spread out like a curved blade. His vantage was near one narrow end, where the two sloping sides converged to not quite a point. Directly ahead and below him was a vast sea of green, a dense forest that could have hidden anything within its fastness. Somewhere within that expanse was what he had come here to find. He imagined he could feel it pulling at him, but that was likely just a byproduct of his weary mind.

His eyes were drawn to the northwest. The fading sun was still bright enough to blind him, and thick forests and rise and fall of the terrain concealed whatever details that were not fogged by distance. But he thought he could see faint wisps of gray rising into the sky before the wind caught them and tore them apart. He pinned those markers onto a mental map, then nodded to himself. Only then did he turn, slowly, lifting one hand and forming it into a fist.

The column parted as it reached him, the worgs and their goblin riders passing to each side. The Bloodriders did not stop to take in the view as Kurok had; they barely slowed before they found the best routes down the opposite slope and poured into the Silverpeak Valley.

Kurok remained where he was until they had all passed him. They were as tired as he, mounts and riders alike, but it took less than a minute before the last straggler had joined the column in the descent. The lead riders were already almost to the fringe of the uppermost trees that clung to the rocky slope. The odors of his army swirled in the air as a lingering reminder of their passage.

Kurok took one more look at the landscape that stretched before him, then he followed after them.

There was much to be done.

* * *

I'll continue the story in December.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I finished my novel! This year's my seventh time participating in NaNoWriMo. I have a quick writing pace normally, but NaNoWriMo requires an average of 1,666 words/day, which means no taking days off. :)

I've already resumed writing Forgotten Lore, and I'll have updates for you again starting Friday.
 

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