The afternoon of the 27th of Davor, 1329: The afternoon light of Maroth was red upon the courtyard of Lok Magius. The young mage Savana was happy to be alive. She quickly headed for the library, to gear up and prepare for a second assault upon the Marksmen as soon as Lok Magius was ready.
The dwarf Droog, though, seemed despondant. With both his battle axes dragging along the ground, the dwarf started towards the chapel at Lok Magius with his head bowed. Barome tried to get Droog to pick up his axes, to keep the dwarf from dulling them, but Droog's despondancy rebuffed the desert elf's offers.
Droog strode tiredly into the chapel of Lok Magius, his axes making an evil sound as they were drug across the flag stones of the small temple.
Behind the altar to Agincoth was a wall that bisected the chapel; the other side of the chapel had originally been intended to be a library, but instead served as overflow for the hospice. Wounded mages and wilted bodies were arranged on cots in the back of the chapel, and their moans and cries of agony filled the place with despondancy that equalled Droog's spirits.
Lilliana Ravenwind was a tiny elf, barely five feet tall, and weighing little more than eighty-five pounds. She was unquestionably a powerful individual, and as the undisputed master of the chapel, she could feel the broken spirit of Droog as he slowly strode into the room.
She moved from the side of a wounded mage quickly, and knelt beside the seemingly broken Droog. Lilliana shared a glance at the concerned Barome, who had no answers for her, before she turned her blue eyes up into Droog's deep black eyes.
Droog's mind was back on the other side of the Eye of Galgiran, in the midst of that dark glade. He could hear the screams of a woman -- tortured screams that threatened his sanity. His axes had served him well, but the dwarven cleric was understanding that they could not cut out the scream in his head.
The dwarven cleric met Lilliana's blue eyes, and shook his head softly. Droog's faith was fading, and fast, and he could not put his finger on why.
Barome was concerned, thinking a spell of some sort was on the dwarf -- but Lilliana assured him that the dwarf was free of foreign spells. She gently led Droog back to the alter of the Goddess of Magic, and had Barome take the axes from the dwarf. She told Droog that the answers he sought, were there -- within him, and there, within the altar.
She left a pleading glance at Barome to watch over the dwarf, and returned towards her many patients on the other side of the chapel.
Within Droog, a battle raged. He asked, though, before Lilliana could get out of ear shot, "How will I know...?"
Lilliana said in a soft elven voice that carried over the moans of the wounded, "You will know, when Galgiran tells you."
* * *
In the courtyard of Lok Magius, the Tower Prime dominated the great hexagonal area. On the eastern side of the Tower Prime, an open-sided tent held tables and books and scrolls, and several cots. None of the dwarves for which the cots were intended slept on their cots; all were conferring, copying, looking through books, and preparing for the assault that was being slowly crafted out of the blood-red night.
A tiny blue star appeared off to one side of the open-sided tent, and then expanded in a heart-beat into a great ring nearly twenty feet in diameter. The heart of the blue ring was inky black, and the ring of blue cut into courtyard's grass and soil several feet. From within the inky blackness, marched four ranks of dwarves clad in burnished steel that reflected the red light of Maroth. Ten dwarves deep, the formation marched in perfect unison, and stopped when the last one had cleared the Eye of Galgiran. The blue ring collapsed into a star, and then winked out, as the forty dwarves made a smart movement, facing the tent.
The eldest of the dwarves within the tent stepped out from under it, and moved in front of the forty dwarves, each seeming identical.
The elder dwarf asked, "Who leads, here?"
One of the seemingly identical dwarves said in a burr, "I do: Kursk Wirebeard, Foehammer of Dwarfendale."
The dwarves conferred with one another, sharing coordinates for the Eye of Galgiran prayer, news, and battle-tactics.
Into the courtyard marched a fourteen foot golem that made the earth shake with each tremendous step. Controlling it was the huge barbarian Thedlar of the Hoard, dressed only in a fur loin cloth and fur boots, a horned helm, and a massive two-headed battle-axe.
Other mages began to join them in the courtyard, all preparing for an immenent assault on the ograns and the Marksmen.
Droog, sensing some calling, joined them all in the courtyard. Savana, more scrolls readied for the assault, also returned to the courtyard, completely unaware of the turbulent thoughts within Droog's mind. Barome stayed close to Droog, and the shield guardian assigned to them stayed close to Savana.
At last, the Foehammers opened their greater Eye of Galgiran, and raced forward into combat. The great golem of Thedlar's rushed forward with the barbarian, and the many golems, guardians, and mages behind him also raced towards the inky blackness of the Eye of Galgiran. Familiars swooped through -- and then came Droog, Barome, Savana, and their own shield guardian.
* * *
On the other side... There was no sign of the enemy. With only one mark to do it, the enemy had evacuated the site. They had left their tents and anything else large that would slow them down, but it was plain they had already left. The coyote-mounted kobolds had threaded through the forests, and the horse-mounted Marksmen had bolted through the forest trail that would lead to the Ferry-Kashin road.
There were no signs of the bulettes, rocs, orcs, and ogres that had been there, save thousands of tracks on the ground, and tunnels into the earth.
Everyone split up, wary of an attack or an ambush.
Some of the Foehammers found bodies in the abandoned tents, and when Thedlar went to investigate, he returned from one tent nearly in tears. All of Thedlar's excitement at going to battle was gone. The great barbarian began to gently gather up the bodies and the mages, and prepare to leave, along with the rest of the mages.
Thedlar had known the woman who screamed. Her name had been Bunera -- more affectionately called 'Bunny'. Bunny had been one of the King's Quarrels; they were the king's messengers, his heralds, and the carriers of dispatches for the war effort. Many had known Bunny, and Thedlar had apparently been closer to her than most.
One of the other bodies was another King's Quarrel -- probably Bunny's escort. The other body no one recognized.
When it became apparent that the ograns and the Marksmen were long-since gone, and there was no threat from the sky (according to many an airborne familiar), Thedlar took half the Foehammers and the mages back to Lok Magius through another greater Eye of Galgiran.
It was Thedlar's turn to be morose and despondant.
Seeing the huge barbarian, the needling keeper of the Hoard of Lok Magius, humbled by the death of the woman he held so dearly... Something sparked in Droog.
He pulled aside the leader of the Foehammers that remained, even as the leader's followers continued to scour the abandoned encampment for clues and ideas.
Kursk served as Droog's spiritual mentor, listening, talking softly, and guiding him back to the path of Galgiran. With an affectionate gauntlet on Droog's shoulder, the elder dwarf's rough, throaty voice told him gently that Galgiran may forge the tools of war, but the clerics were not warriors; the clerics were not fighters. The clerics of Galgiran were tools, and they were Galgiran's hammers. The hammers forged the blades; they were Not blades.
Understanding began to flow through Droog, and the younger dwarf unloaded all his worries and concerns, including his studies of Rahob's spellbook, and his concerns for the spiritual health of Skuldrag Orcbane, the bishop of the Warkore Clan that had apparently strayed from the truth.
Droog came to understand that many shared Droog's concerns about Skuldrag, and because of what had happened to Droog -- Barome's return -- then it was possible that another deity was granting Skuldrag's prayers, other than Galgiran. For Galgiran did not grant prayers to those of his clerics that used blades, and it was likely K'Tath, or another god, that had been answering Droog's calls.
The younger dwarf began to realize an atonement was needed, and began to find his footing on the spiritual path, once again.
Savana, meanwhile, had explored all the tents. One luxurious tent had held two cots, unlike the other tents, and the second tent had had bloody bandages, broken vials of glass, and other implements indicative of powerful healings. A hint of bat droppings told Savana who the wounded individual had been: Toirin. That meant he was likely still alive.
The young wizardress then went to explore the other tents, but was tired, after a day's exhaustive riding, research, the excitement, and more. She found a tent with only one cot on it, and placed Guardian at the entrance, guarding her. Savana lay her head back down on the cot, and inhaled deeply, determined to rest.
Her nose wouldn't let her. She smelled an expensive soap -- the kind of luxury item only available in either Kashin or Teras.
Droog took a moment to think on his own.
He wanted to do something special for Bunny, and for the others that had died there. The dwarf wondered if she had died when that haunting scream was cut off -- or if she had survived a little longer. He wondered if he could have saved her, somehow... If there was any way he could have prevented her death.
In the tent where she had died, blood soaked the earth beneath the bloody cot that had held her body. Blood was splashed onto the insides of the tent, and it was obvious where her torturers had hit arteries, as the spray pattern was familiar to the dwarven warrior. Vial upon vial of glass crunched under the dwarf's steel-shod boots as he paced the inside of the torture tent.
Seeking Galgiran's guidance, Droog asked the Forge God to reforge the land upon which his humble servant stood, and consecrate that part of earth to Bunny's memory, and the memory of the other two who had fallen there.
Droog knelt down amidst the tent, and intoned the memorized, sacred prayers to Galgiran, feeling them within his heart, and feeling clear of thought for the first time in a long time.
As Droog intoned the words to the prayer, another voice caught up the prayer -- and another, and another. The Foehammers lent their voice to Droog's prayer, channeling the Soul Forger's will through Droog.
The wrist-width poles of the tent began to disintegrate. The hide of the tent began to crackle and curl back. The glass of the broken vials began to melt back into the earth. The curled, as though from the heat of a forge.
Water bubbled up from the disintegrating tent. Moments later, there was little left of the tent, save bits of disintegrating hide, as the water flowed into the nearby stream. A stone rose from the earth, and its surface melted away. A tattered bit of hide continued to disintegrate, and as it did so, the words on the surface of the stone could be seen, "In Galgiran's Name; Bunera."
Kursk beat his warhammer's haft into the ground, and the head exploded into flame. A moment later, another warhammer's head was engulfed in flame. Soon the rest of the Foehammer's flames spread light throughout the glade.
Barome and Savana could only stare in awe.
* * *
Kursk sent five of his Foehammers back through an Eye of Galgiran to Lok Giran. Droog and Barome theorized that if the Marksmen could still be found, it would be on the Ferry-Kashin road. The Foehammers would ensure that several hippotauns -- dwarven cavalry -- would be dispatched through the Eyes of Galgiran to Kashin and the ferry of Mount Rilan, and would head together. If the hippotaun cavalry met in the middle, then the Marksmen would have fled, but with Foehammer support, if the cavalry met the Marksmen on the Ferry-Kashin road, then reinforcements could be brought in in an hurry -- and the Marksmen caught.
One of the Foehammers had further searched the tunnels in the earth. The sand sharks of the ograns had carved out a fair-sized set of caves and tunnels in the earth, and there had been an odd niche that attracted the attention of the Foehammers and Kursk. The niche was perhaps eight feet tall, and three feet back; large enough, Barome supposed for a statue.
If it were a statue, as Barome supposed, then it could have come from a desert elven village -- perhaps a statue of Galanus, or the like, was what the ograns were using to cloak vast portions of their armies.
Whatever it was, the Foehammers agreed that it was time to return to Lok Giran.
While they had been in the glade, and again at Lok Giran, Kursk had checked a scrybook -- one of a set of books that were all linked together. There were only a dozen in all of Rakore, but the scrybooks allowed the Foehammers to coordinate amongst one another, the books having been taken from one of the Cache Vaults by Dwarfendale himself. The scrybook of Kursk's indicated that, even marks later, the hippotaun cavalry from Lok Giran had not yet found the Marksmen -- but word had been spread in Kashin that the Marksmen were the enemy, and allies of the ograns.
Savana wanted nothing more than to rest, and did so in the arms of the shield guardian -- using a cot borrowed from one of the tents in the glade. Barome stayed in the courtyard of Lok Giran, remembering his last visit to the Fortress of the Soul. It seemed a lifetime ago, even for the century-old elf.
* * *
Following Kursk's advice, Droog went to the main chapel of Lok Giran. The huge chapel was carved from the solid heart of the mountain. The vaulted ceilings were lost in darkness far above, and the only illumination to the chapel -- large enough for over 400 dwarves -- came from the glowing embers at the front of the chapel. The alter was a double-headed anvil, within which was supposedly one of the whiskers from Galgiran's beard; around the anvil glowed embers fed by the prayers of Galgiran's followers.
As he had done sometimes before, Droog knelt before the alter, and poured into the glowing embers what little gold and silver he had.
Kursk nodded, and left the young dwarf to temper his heart in service to Galgiran.
There were other dwarves in the chapel, but for the most part, the chapel was empty. Lok Giran was considered by some the spiritual fortress of all Rakore.
Droog considered that, and more, as he knelt before the alter. He considered his quest, since the War of the Undead. He had stood beside a cleric of Galgiran -- a cleric that had fallen. He had found a spellbook of draconic writing, and struggled for ten years to decipher its contents, to unlock powers greater than Skuldrag's. Droog realized that he had strayed from the path of Galgiran as suredly as Skuldrag had.
Droog's prayers had been answered, time and again, by a god other than Galgiran. It was obvious that K'Tath, the God of Vengeance, had been fueling Droog's heart for too long. Droog had turned to Agincoth, Goddess of Magic, for aid in deciphering the spellbook of draconic words. The dwarf had even been willing to turn to Galanus, the God of Stealth, once a God of Death, for Barome.
The dwarf sighed long and hard, not caring that his knees ached against the stone floor. Droog was grateful that Barome had been given life, once more, but it saddened the dwarf that the great desert elf's spirit was imprisoned to watch over him, a wretched priest that had strayed far from the path of Galgiran.
Droog thought back to the glade where Bunny had died. He and Barome had done what they thought was right; they had retreated before a superior force. They had acquiesed to the gift of a shield guardian, thinking its might would be enough to get them into the Marksmen's camp. They had sought out the source of the ograns' ability to prevent scrying in a great area, and instead, allowed the ograns to escape.
They could have used the portal token at any time, and used it as soon as they had realized they were out numbered. Roc-hawkes. Sand sharks. Ogres.
Droog had known fear, and it shamed him. Worse, he had realized he had had little faith left in Galgiran.
Kneeling there in the relative darkness of the chapel of Lok Giran, Droog asked for strength from Galgiran. Kursk had lit for him the way, but the distance was still great.
Staring into the embers of the Soul Forger, Droog wondered at how much gold and silver and prescious metals had been offered to the Soul Forger over the years since the chapel had been carved out the heart of the mountain. He wondered at the sacrifices that gold and silver represented. He wondered at the sacrifices of all the dwarves that worshipped the Soul Forger. He thought upon the sacrifices of all the people of Rakore, as the ograns invaded.
The ograns. Aided by traitors within. Marksmen.
Droog glanced down at his hands. No axe was in them. No orc scimitar. No bladed weapon. No weapon at all, save the hands of a dwarf. And a ring, made for the Marksmen.
Droog ripped the ring of the Marksmen off his finger, and without a thought, tossed the magical ring into the embers of the Soul Forger. The ring empowered each Marksman to fall from any height as gently as a feather. It allowed them to drop from the backs of roc-hawkes wherever they chose. It helped them to leap up onto their war-horses -- or onto the backs of roc-hawkes. It represented a ring of rising, and a ring of falling. The rise of the ogran powers. The fall of Rakore.
The young dwarven cleric started as the gem within the Marksman's ring shattered. Thousands of shards of some red gem burned in the heat of the embers. The metal of the ring sagged as though beneath a great weight, melting.
"Thank you," said a distant, contralto voice.
Droog stared into the air over the double-headed anvil. "Wha?"
"Thank you," said the voice from a greater distance. "Thank you, for freeing me. The ring..."
Droog asked, frowning, "Who are you?"
"Bunny. I am Bunera." She cried, and Droog could hear tears falling. "Tell the king, I'm sorry. They took it all. They took it all!"
"How? Wha? They took all of what?" asked the confused dwarf. None others in the great chapel seemed to hear.
The female voice -- Bunny's voice -- said as though from across a vast field, carried by the wind, "I was tortured." Her voice grew stronger, momentarily. "Tell the king, I'm sorry. They took, all the information I had, save this: they know not that the king will leave Mount Basilisk. They know all else." Her voice faded. "Thank you, Droog Grimfire."
The voice was gone, and Droog looked around the chapel. One other dwarf met his eyes, but the look was one of consternation; the other dwarf had not heard the voice, only Droog's questions.
Droog stared back into the embers, as the last of the metal of the Marksman's ring melted away. It could not have been the ring that killed Bunny; whomever had done that was still on the loose. Droog had obtained that ring of the Marksmen some days before, while chasing Jolve north from Rilan.
The cleric scowled, wondering. Thinking. The Marksmen had captured one of the King's Quarrels. They would have gone through her dispatches -- read the correspondence of the war effort between the generals of Rakore; those that did not use the Eye of Galgiran, or the mages' powers. They would have wanted more. Torture. They had tortured Bunera. The vials that had been beneath her cot, had been vials of potions, used to bring her back from the brink of death; vials full of healing restoratives that could be bought in any church or at any temple to restore health, heal breaks in the skin, mend bone...
Bunny would have wanted to die, and her soul would have been unable to escape her body, bound by so much healing magic poured into it, and bound by so much torture and blood and horror to the very spot she had died in. The healing magic would have trapped her soul there, possibly forever. Droog realized that his consecration of the area had made it hallowed ground, and allowed her to escape -- but she had still been bound by fear.
Droog glanced at his hand, and flexed it into a fist, realizing that Bunera had been beaten repeatedly by one of the Marksmen -- a man with a Marksman's ring.
The dwarven cleric started, remembering. He reached into his purse, and pulled forth the rubies that all of the Marksmen had held. One of them had held a soul within it. Droog had wondered when to release it, and how. With a gesture, he tossed the storm of small rubies into the embers around the anvil.
There was silence for a moment, and then a shattering, as the rubies exploded into a thousand pieces. Something else happened, and a concussion like a wall of air threw Droog back, deafening him, making his armor ring like a bell, echoing throughout Lok Giran
Immediately above the anvil, a white apparition appeared. The apparition was clad in steel armor, and was a human as proud and noble as man could be. His cape billowed in a celestial wind, and the apparition said with a voice from beyond the edge of the world, "One boon, for one soul..."
The light was suddenly gone.
"By Galgiran's beard!" shouted a dwarf from behind Droog.
"Did you see that?" asked another.
Someone ran out of the chapel, as another shouted, "Find the Baron-and-the-Bishop!"
Another dwarf ran forward, and kneeled beside Droog, looking up into the air where the apparition had been.
Soon, a commotion had begun. Something had happened.
Tears of joy leaked from Droog's eyes.
* * *
Outside, Maroth had barely a mark left. The majority of its great banded disk was below the horizon, and only a quarter of it remained. It was framed perfectly by the west-facing towers of Lok Giran. The two large towers were the only parts of the fortress not carved from the mountain itself, and guarded the one road up the mountain. The road continued on from Lok Giran, to Lok Magius, and hippotaun riders and scouts were continually leaving the courtyard, and moving out to protect the roadway.
Barome stared out at the setting giant. Nearby, Savana rolled over in her sleep. The human woman seemed not to mind sleeping four feet off the ground, her cot in the arms of a steel guardian.
"The ring!" shouted a dwarf.
From the great double-doors that were the only entrance into the mountain, half a dozen of the strangely armored berzerker dwarves called forth. They raced towards Barome and Savana as though in a blood lust, and Barome had no idea what was going on.
Savana awoke as the cot fell away, and she found herself pinned against the torso of Guardian. True to its programs, it was protecting a 'member of the party' against a perceived, hostile threat. The shield and the guardian's left arm held Savana protectively, and its right hand was prepared to deal damage.
Dwarven gauntlets and feet and body parts tried to maneuver around the shield to get at Savana, and they kept shouting in the common tongue, "The ring!" "The ring!" "Shiblonnak the ring!"
Guardian, unsure of what to do, negligently flipped its hand against one of the strangely armored dwarves, sending it flying through the air. It landed twenty feet away, and did not move, to Barome's horror. Savana was more scared for the dwarves than for herself, and yelled at Guardian, "Stop! Put me down!"
The golem obeyed, and dropped her unceremoniously. Before she could catch her feet, pain shot through her forearm. One of the dwarves had grasped her forearm, and the razor-sharp, armored flanges of the guantlet tore into her forearm. The dwarf cared not, shouting, "The ring! The ring!" The other dwarves crowded around her, frightening her.
In the dim red light, she could see the razor-edged sharpness of their armor's ridges, everywhere, even along their helms. Worse, she could see the whites around their eyes. The dwarves were not sane.
Savana gasped out, "What ring?! I don't understand? Which ring?" She held out her other hand, showing that it, too, held a ring.
The dwarves seemed not to understand, and grabbed that forearm, too -- sending her into agony, as she was drawn forward. The young woman swallowed her pain, and stared at the Guardian preparing to attack the dwarves, "Stand down! Follow!"
She allowed herself to be drug along by the dwarves -- drug further towards the maw of Lok Giran.
Barome followed, not knowing what was going on. He knew Droog was in no trouble, though how he knew, he could not say. He could not say Savana was not in trouble.
As the strange dwarves drug her further into Lok Giran, into a more well-lit portion of the mountain fortress, they passed a dwarf in robes with a nose red from too much drinking. "I say!" he said in the common tongue. "What's going on?"
The escort dwarves said something in the dwarven tongue, but barely more than, "The ring!"
The ruby-nosed dwarf asked, "Does this have something to do with the spirit seen in the Great Hall? Oh, my! You're bleeding!"
Savana glanced to it, and tried not to faint, seeing blood pouring from her fingertips and pouring down the gauntlets of the dwarven escort. The strange dwarves glanced at her, and then their gauntlets, and realized their error. They pulled back from her forearm, and Savana could have sworn she saw a tendon rippling beneath her flayed skin.
"In Galgiran's name, the Soul Forger burns thee!" cried the ruby-nosed dwarf, and a flash of heat from the forge engulfed them.
The skin on Savana's forearms tingled, burned, and glowed as her skin rehealed at a phenomenal rate.
The leading dwarves cared not, and their wide eyes gestured, quickly, "The ring!"
All of them moved through the depths of the fortress, and finally into the Great Hall -- the main chapel of the dwarves.
In the chapel, hundreds of dwarves filled the pews, though the main aisle remained empty, save for a great red carpet that had been pulled aside.
Beneath the red carpet had been footprints, made by a dwarf -- eighty feet worth of dwarven footprints, made by someone who walked through stone as though it were mud, led right to Droog, standing beside a dwarf with a strangely white beard, before the glowing altar of Galgiran.
The dwarf with the white beard had a restraining hand on Droog's shoulder, and his armor was perfect beyond doubt. As Savana was rushed forward by the oddly armored dwarves, she noted that the white-bearded dwarf had a look in his eyes only slightly more sane that the other dwarves, but it was also a look of someone who had seen Beyond, into the next world.
Barome glanced behind him. The golem was stuck at the entrance to the chapel, still attempting to walk forward, but unable to proceed because of some invisible force. Barome shouted, "Guardian, wait here!" as he moved in after Savana.
The dwarf with the white beard held up his left gauntlet, high, and Savana could see the five golden rings affixed to the mithril gauntlet. She realized, as silence descended on the chapel, that he was the Baron-and-the-Bishop, Dwarfendale.
Droog held out his hand to Savana, and said, "The Marksman's ring. Please."
Savana blinked, confused, and then looked at her hands. She quickly grabbed the ring, and pulled it off, offering it to Droog.
Droog looked at the ring for a moment, and then tossed it into the glowing coals of the altar. After a moment, the red gem in the ring shattered, and its pieces burned. The ring slowly began to melt.
Droog turned back to Savana, and said, "The rubies we took, from the Marksmen."
Savana unquestioningly took off her purse, and handed it to Droog. Droog tossed the whole of the purse into the coals. The velvet purse smoldered for a moment, before bursting into flame. It held its shape, and then gave way beneath the weight of the rubies and gold and silver taken from the Marksmen. Rubies spilled out of the bag onto the smouldering embers and coals.
Braced as he was for it, Droog was almost knocked off his feet, again, when a concussive shock wave of air blew out from the altar. Several dwarves lost their feet, but the Baron-and-the-Bishop helped Droog to stay steady.
Barome shielded his eyes with his forearm, but when he dropped his forearm, a gasp escaped him.
In bright white, transluscent light, several feet over the altar, stood a human dressed in a chain-mail suit, over which he wore robes. The dignified human's robes clearly showed the stylized 'four rays of light' symbol that was undeniably Whalin's.
The spirit looked out at the whole of the congregation, and spoke with a voice that reverberated with power, from somewhere far in the distance. "To all those present, I give to thee the blessings of Whalin." The light flared, and then was gone.
Silence descended over the hall, and then a great vast whoop, and cheers, echoing all through the chapel.
As dwarves patted one another on the back, gauntlets rang on chain mail, and smiles broke out all around, Droog explained what had happened to Savana and Barome.
By the time Droog had explained it all, the cheering had died down somewhat, and there was an expectant air in the hall.
Dwarfendale held up his gauntlet, again, and silence descended. He looked about, and then looked at Droog. His voice carried to the far reaches of the chapel.
"This, is an historic day. Three souls have been freed from their eternal imprisonment this day; three souls that deserved better, and have received it."
Dwarfendale went on to explain to all assembled that Droog was a dwarf reforged by Galgiran. Like all dwarves, he had had his moment of disquiet; he had questioned his faith; he had doubted. He had looked within himself, though, and found Galgiran's hearth. Not only had two souls been freed from the soul stones that held them, but one of Rakore's first heroines had been freed of her torturous conditions, as well.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop of Lok Giran, Lok Magius, Mount Rilan and the city of Rilan, called for blessings to be bestowed upon them all. He signalled his guards, and they brought forth the extremely heavy Maekar's Skull. Silence filled the chapel as the skull was placed on the hearth before the altar.
Maekar had been one of the first of the prophets of Galgiran, over ten millennia ago. His skul had been filled in with lead, and then encased in lead -- and then covered in a thin layer of mithril. The extremely heavy relic had been a blessing to priests of Galgiran since his death. Since the War of the Undead, the skull had been a curse, infused with necromantic energies that made it dangerous.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop had obviously cured the relic, and restored it to its true form. The skull of Maekar observed the ceremonies, binding them all to Galgiran's will.
On Foehammer's Kursk's recommendation, Dwarfendale brought forward the ridged and razored plate of the Baron-and-the-Bishop's guards. The plate was hammered into form-fitting shape by master-smiths on the double-headed anvil of Galgiran, and then fitted to Droog's body, as his old armor was taken away. Into Droog's razor-gauntleted hand -- a gauntlet without the five rings of Dwarfendale -- was placed one of Pisear's hammers. Droog hit the haft upon the ground, and the head of the warhammer was engulfed in flames.
Droog was whatever he chose to be, before Galgiran. He was, as Galgiran had intended him to be. Soul-forged to carry out the will of the Soul Forger. Neither Foehammer nor guard, Droog was armed by both, and accepted by both.
Barome, half-hidden in the shadows of the chapel, had been praying to Galanus. The sharp-eyed Dwarfendale had known what the desert elf was about. The Baron-and-the-Bishop signalled to Barome, and the Shadow Guardian complied. The air around the Shadow Guardian rippled as though from the desert's heat, as the desert elf strode forward.
While the master-smiths continued to fit Droog...
Dwarfendale held up a loop of twisted metal rope. "One band of silver. One band of platinum. One band of steel. This ring was taken from the Cache Vault of Galanus, and is a testament to the God of Stealth -- when he was the God of the Dead. May it serve you well, Shah'Reer of Galanus, Hand of Brigain."
Barome's eyes were wide, as he accepted the ring. He took off one of his other magical rings, and slipped onto his smallest finger the twisted metal ring with ease. He felt the power inherent in the ring.
Dwarfendale held up a staff that seemed to be of twisted, dark willow. At its top was a flawless crystal of quartz with veins of gold at its base, twisting down into the wood itself. "From the Cache Vault of Agincoth, comes a staff of enlightment; a staff of knowledge; a staff of divination. Finally, a mage steps forth who can use it," and his voice went into a roar, "And use it to find the Traitor!"
A great roar went up among the dwarves, but Dwarfendale's hand was up, calling for silence, almost immediately.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop said, "One more has brought freedom for three souls released this day." He pointed down the aisle to the entrance of the chapel. "You, come forward!"
No one stepped forward, until Savana spoke out in a clear and authoritative voice, "Guardian, move forward."
The golem had been unable to enter the chapel earlier, but it's earlier inability to move did not phase it in the least. The steel golem strode forward as though it were an unstoppable juggernaut, its steel feet striking and echoing with each step.
The dwarves had for millennia been against magic. Many still only grudgingly accepted the king's directive to use magic against their enemies. For the golem to be allowed to stride into a chapel of Galgiran was strange. To allow it to trod upon the steps in the floor seemed to confuse and anger many of the dwarves.
The dwarves in the chapel knew whose footsteps those were in the stone of the aisle, whose footsteps were usually covered with a thick layer of red velvet, in reverence to He whom had stepped there: Galgiran himself.
Savana knew it not, but instructed the golem to halt precisely before it ran over Dwarfendale.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop had shown no fear as the golem approached. Savana wondered briefly who would have one, and knew a moment after she wondered that Dwarfendale would have won.
The leader of the dwarves of Lok Giran tamped the haft of his hammer on the floor, and it exploded into flame. Dwarfendale struck the hammer upon the anvil altar, struck it against the mithril-clad skull of Maekor, and then struck it against the golem's steel head. The golden note that rung from the golem's body echoed throughout the chapel.
Dwarfendale said into the silence, "Blessed are the tools of Galgiran." He held his flaming warhammer high, and a hundred other hammers were suddenly engulfed in flame, and held as high. A gentle roar began, and grew, as hundreds of dwarven voices echoed, "BLESSED ARE THE TOOLS OF Galgiran."
Droog smiled, knowingly. Dwarves were tools of Galgiran. He understood, too, that all could be tools of the Forge God. "Blessed are the tools of Galgiran," he echoed.
Dwarfendale roared, "All right. Ceremony's over. Time for ale, boys!"
* * *
The hawk flew across a mountain's ridge, and then dove down a bit. The ground of the valley below was covered in a strange green sea. As the hawk continued to drift down, the sea came into sharper focus: green-skinned orcs, almost all of them in armor. Hundreds -- thousands -- flowed beneath the hawk as it flew across the valley. The sea of orcs continued beneath the hawk, in wave after wave after wave of orcs.
Ogres appeared, now and again, throughout the sea of orcs. Several minotaur lizards appeared as larger waves within the sea. Across their backs, rode more orcs, many hanging from strange gimbals that would allow them to shoot even if the minotaur lizards were vertical.
The hawk continued on, and evaded to one side as a barrage of orc arrows tried to reach up and touch the hawk, and fell far short.
A vast shadow suddenly passed over the sea below, and the hawk instinctively dove. It fell into the vast sea of orcs, and promptly ducked under a wagon pulled by camels. Coyotes immediately ducked under the wagon, snapping at the falcon. Kobold spears and swords began poking towards the falcon, and it leapt about, before taking flight, diving between two kobolds, and struggling to gain as much altitude as possible, while dodging arrows from below.
The hawk dove again, and flew left, and then right, and then gained more alititude. An enormous beast strode through the sea of orcs, so large that tents were arrayed along its back. Standards representing many ogran leaders stood all around the great beast, as it lumbered through the sea of orcs on four legs. The creature was sand-colored, and resembled some cross between an alligator and a lizard.
The hawk flew over the great beast, and flew over wave after wave of orcs, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. More minotaur lizards appeared, each with an ogre in plate across its shoulders.
There was an enormous shadow flying in from the right, and then nothing.
The illusion faded, revealing Giselle's small hands. The illusionist let slip one tear for the loss of her beloved familiar. And then the short woman with the short blonde hair was all business.
Savana asked, "What was that... beast?"
Giselle asked, "The big one, with the tents...?" Her voice was rough, and had a great deal of iron in it. "I've never seen its like, before now. It's larger than a dragon."
Barome said, "I've seen one."
Giselle, Savana, and Droog all turned their eyes to Barome.
Barome said, "In the deep deserts, there are creatures we call... the hatori." The desert elf paused, remembering. "The one we saw in the... illuision, was middle aged -- maybe two or three thousand years old."
Giselle inhaled sharply, her delicate nostrils flaring. She asked, "How large do they get?" just as Savana asked, "What do they eat?"
Barome said, "The hatori are why there are no desert-like dragons. The beasts will eat their fill -- sometimes denuding a desert -- and then go into a torpor, like a snake, for centuries, growing in their sleep, growing larger."
The desert elf turned his red-brown eyes to Savana. "They eat everything." To Giselle, he said, "The largest I have seen is a series of hills, deep in the desert. It is said he has slept since the Storm Wars. He is... easily three times as long as the one we just saw."
Giselle said, "And the ograns have one?!"
They all considered, for a moment... The ograns had mastered the minotaur lizards. They had mastered the roc-hawkes. And it appeared that they had mastered the hatori.
* * *
After Kursk brought them to Lok Magius, they split up. Savana went to the Tower of Divination, Droog went to find Thedlar, and Barome went to find Mistress Brin.
The base of the Tower of Divination held the library of Lok Magius -- but its top held the scrying crystals, crystal balls, and other items of power that helped the mages watch one another and coordinate their efforts. A plump mage on duty had acknowledged Savana, and then led her to another crystal where she could attempt to scry for the ograns, along with several other mages.
Droog found Thedlar deeply inebriated, mourning the loss of his friend Bunera. The dwarven cleric consoled the huge barbarian, and offered his condolences. Thedlar shifted between deep sadness and rage at his inability to avenge Bunera's death. Droog, having recently recovered from his own bouts of self-doubt, led Thedlar out of the depths of mental darkness.
Barome found Mistress Brin in her office; the circles under her eyes told the desert elf all he needed to know. She had been administering the mage's academy for years before the ogran invasion, but the level of administration needed to run a barracks full of battle mages was something else altogether in times of war. Barome managed to lure her down to the Bad Brew tavern, to at least take a break long enough to refuel herself.
Thedlar brushed Savana aside from her scrying, drunkenly thinking to find Bunera's killer or talk with her spirit. The image of a roc-hawke with four orcs on its back was held suspended within the image, as Savana managed to maintain the scrying even from several feet away. She returned her attention to the crystal ball, mentally willing more information to flow through the star-lit image.
Droog apologized to Savana, and managed to lure Thedlar back down and out of the Tower of Divination. In the courtyard, Droog could barely keep up with the drunken barbarian, as he easily lifted the dwarven cleric on duty in one fist. The tent-awning for the dwarves of Lok Giran barely accomodated the big man's alcohol-laded breath, and the dwarf spoke little to none of the broken common Thedlar slurred.
Barome managed, with a tankard of high-octane ale and a full belly, to get Mistress Brin into bed. Reed, her executive secretary of Lok Magius, monitored Barome from the shadows, and nodded his approval of the desert elf's tactics -- if not his attentions to his woman.
Droog, meanwhile, had suggested that Thedlar wait for him in the chapel -- where Bunny's body still lay wrapped up on a stone bier.
The dwarven cleric knew that Thedlar was right, in his drunken ravings: they needed to speak with Bunera, and ask her who had killed her. The one problem was that she was dead. As one of Galgiran's priests, though, Droog knew that it was possible to ask her body what had happened, to a limited extent. Her eyes held images; her brain held decaying tissues that remembered life; her sinuses remembered smells. Though Bunny's spirit had gone on to her Relic, whomever she worshipped, her body remained, and it held knowledge.
Droog first went to the library, but the guardians denied him entry when he failed to answer their esoteric, arcane question. Realizing that the situation was more important than a silly librarian's need to educate students, Droog bypassed the librarian and went straight to the head mage's quarters. His fist banging on the door, he nearly beat the door down waiting for Selera an Hakiel to answer. When she did, and he explained the situation to her disheveled form, she knew immediately who to talk to.
Droog smacked himself in the face, realizing he should have done the same as Selera -- as she led him straight to the chapel, and to Lilliana Ravenwind, the High Priestess of Agincoth for the chapel of Lok Magius.
Lilliana was one of the more powerful priests in all Rakore, spreading as she was the faith of Agincoth, the Goddess of Magic, to a new generation of mages.
At Selera's and Droog's request, Lilliana asked Agincoth for the answers they all needed. Thedlar, his arms draped across Bunny's body, was silent during the ceremony.
Bunera's corpse, flooded with the energy of Lilliana's celestial powers, was able to answer several critical questions. Bunera had been tortured by one of the Marksmen -- or as her corpse remembered it, one of the 'Men of Rings'. The Marksman that had tortured and killed her had been known as Badrin. Badrin's master had been there. His master was not, as they had suspected, Vadrus Hague; Badrin's master was Doom Rex. Doom Rex had been there, in the glade, and the party had not even known. The most chilling thing Bunera's body remembered, was almost a riddle.
Her corpse remembered hearing the silent screams of the desert elven priests, begging for release from their own deaths. Bunny remembered the fear and horror at seeing one of them, before she, too, was tortured.
Droog swallowed, glad that Barome was not present. The dwarven cleric realized that that was how the ograns were shielding themselves. The foul beasts had captured desert elven priests, and were torturing them in undeath, using their souls to power the greatest power of their god Galanus: stealth. Each ogran-captured priest of Galanus was probably trapped in a nightmarish feed-back loop of fear, agony, death, and retreat, calling upon Galanus' strength to shield their fear-trapped souls. The evil of the ograns knew no bounds.
Bunera's teeth remembered biting the hell out of Badrin's hand, and receiving his ring in her cheek as thanks. Her guts remembered being spilled, again, for biting her torturer.
Thedlar stood unsteadily to his feet, and stood triumphantly. He had, at last, a name. He knew upon whom to take out his anger and aggression. He also knew to catch himself as he passed out from alcohol poisoning, but his arms didn't quite work in time.
Together, Droog, Selera, and Lilliana managed to move Thedlar's large form into the back of the chapel, to lie with the other brave warriors and mages of Rakore.
From there, after thanking Lilliana, Droog went towards Savana's apartment, exhausted from a very long day.
As the dwarf trudged out of the chapel, he realized who the Marksmen truly were.
The Marksmen were the mercenaries the Ogre Nations had hired to train all the ograns against the srik. No one in Rakore had ever questioned where such a highly trained group of mercenaries had come from, in the days after the War of the Undead. No one had thought to look for humans in the pay of the ograns -- humans that worked for ogran rubies.
* * *
Later that night, as Droog slept fitfully, and Barome stood quietly in the corner, Savana finally returned. Clear Eyes, whom had been left behind during their adventures, greeted her at the door with his tongue lolling and his tail wagging. Savana petted the puppy that was already growing too heavy for her to pick up anymore.
The young woman tiredly moved towards her room, half-hoping that her parents had finally returned. She worried about them. Her father and her mother were on different teams, working with their respective gifts and powers at the behest of Mistress Brin and the King of Rakore, sewing chaos and trouble among the ogran ranks, assassinating high-level commanders, and more.
She half-hoped for a letter, or a signal that her parents had been home, but there was nothing.
Savana undressed, and crawled into bed, pulling the sheets over her. Clear Eyes leapt up into her bed, and curled himself against her legs, his gangly long legs half hanging of the bed.
As she drifted off to sleep, she realized she had been scrying for all the wrong things. Savana had watched the lone roc-hawke with its four orcs fly on, in the darkness. She could see them with her eyes closed.
The great hawk's wings barely moved in the air currents so high above the world. No light fell on the hawke, save the light of the stars. No lights shown from below, and in the darkness, a candle would have been seen beneath the trees.
Savana had watched the roc until the jagged edge of mountains far in the distance had shown themselves only by cutting out a piece of the stars. She had been unable to figure out where the mountains were, but watched as the great hawked winged in for a landing. Other hawkes were nearby, and in the darkness, orcs swarmed about. She could feel and hear an army, and could not tell where it was, in the darkness.
Savana's eyes snapped open, and Clear Eyes' ears perked up. Savana had been able to track the roc-hawke into the army, and she had realized that not all aspects of the ograns could be shielded or protected from the scrying, however it was done.
It had been a long day, and she had not been thinking clearly for some time, as the late hours of the night had continued. She realized that she only needed a reference, in order to scry for Toirin, or Doom Rex, or any of the Marksmen -- and she had them, galore. She could scry for Marksmen, by their rings. She could scry for Toirin, by his bat-stamped theme on his metal works. They had held the answer all the while, and not even realized it. Sooner or later, a Marksman or Toirin would not be shielded.
A snore from Droog in the next room reminded her that she needed her rest. And so she fell to sleep, not even knowing how the stealth field was generated.
So ends the very early morning of the 28th of Davor, 1329.
James is getting the hang of the game mechanics, and starting to be able to handle both story and mechanics together. Now, I had made a mistake, by allowing him to still be a 'cleric of Galgiran' and have bladed weapons -- something that goes against the clerical ethos. James and I worked the issue out together, and we came to understand that once a cleric opens himself up to the higher powers, he sometimes doesn't get his prayers answered by the high power he chooses.
James found the faith of his character interesting. He said, "If my character is suposed to be a representation of myself... My cleric is constantly praying to his god, asking for guidance; then I should pray to God just as much." In essence, James' cleric's faith in his gods is helping James to rebuild his own faith in God. When Droog needs spiritual strength, he prays for it. James is realizing that it's just as easy for him to pray for spiritual strength, as well.
Erin has Savana and Barome sorted out well enough in his own mind, but James and I are still having trouble figuring out when Erin is which character -- but other than that, we're going well.
Things do not bode well for Rakore, though. The players could have, theoretically, snuck in and perhaps freed Bunny or captured Toirin or the gods alone know what else, but I think the players did the prudent thing by escaping, forming up, and preparing to go back in. That critical hour, though, was all Doom Rex needed to escape. Again.