Saturday, November 27, 2010

ORDER & CHAOS - 108,000 words - Chapter Five

Chapter Five:
Planar War

Oxholm and Drumtone traversed the zigzagging tunnels of The Spires.
“Brother, I’ve begun to have second thoughts about the wisdom of moving the Maegar Clan to this Plane,” said Oxholm. “In place of the omnipresent goblins we are now forced to contend with minotaurs and firbolgs, let alone the beholders and Lykanthros. This is hardly a bargain.”
“I concur, Oxholm,” replied Drumtone. “Our people are resilient warriors, though. If we remain courageous I’m sure our people will soon know peace.”
“Very well, Brother,” Oxholm answered. “Let us continue our surveillance of these passages before we report back to King Grumbold.”
The brothers had keen vision in the flickering light of their torches. Feral cries and guttural rumbles echoed from adjoining passages in the labyrinthine stronghold. The passages and tunnels of the subterranean fortress were twisting and circuitous. The dwarves relied on their mining experience to remain oriented to their path. They marched in silence for some time when they came upon a previously unexplored cavern. Stalagmites and stalactites protruded at precipitous angles from the earth and ceiling.
A group of gorgons floated down from hidden tunnels in the top and sides of the chamber. They were on the prowl and charged at the dwarf warriors with gnashing fangs. The spherical creatures spoke as they slashed at the humanoids with their needle-like teeth.
“Do not resist. We claim this stronghold on the behalf of the red dragon that now resides above. The time of the dwarves is past. Now is the Age of Chaos!”
Drumtone and Oxholm evaded the teeth of the beholders. They unbuckled their weapons as they rolled apart on the rocky floor. The gorgons were confused by this rapid movement and spun around to stay focused on their prey. The Maegar Warriors swung their weapons upward in a flurry of powerful strikes. Two of the creatures were severely wounded and slumped to the ground.
The other gorgons moaned at the deaths of their kin and chose to retreat.
“We will return, Foolish Dwarves,” said a beholder. “Your obstinacy is noted and will be dealt with by the Drystyx Monks accordingly.”
The spherical creatures fled through the routes from which they emerged.
“Drumtone, I’m concerned,” declared Oxholm. “Let us meet with Grumbold and inform him of this increasing activity. The Maegar must reach a decision.”
“I agree, Brother,” said Drumtone.
The dwarves headed to their settlement in The Spires.
* * * * *
Grumbold’s face was creased with worry.
Things aren’t going well for the Maegar Clan in this place, he thought. If the events that transpire in the next few days don’t take a turn for the better I may be forced to move the dwarves back to Gaea. It is bad kharma to tangle with the goblins but it may prove to be the lesser of two evils.
A dwarf addressed the King seated on his stone Throne.
“Your Majesty, Oxholm and Drumtone are here.”
The dwarf brothers approached Grumbold and genuflected.
“Grumbold, as you are surely aware the activity of the Denizens of Chaos has increased,” said Oxholm. “We have battled with beholders in growing numbers and suspect that the seal that was put in place by the seraph trolls has been breached.”
“Thank you for your information, Brave Fighters,” said the King. “Let us bide our time and see how the creatures behave. If necessary I will contact Lord Taliesin in Gaea and inform him of our possible return to that Realm. Go now and speak with the other humanoids of the Gorgon Plane that may aid our cause. I understand that the stone giants are friendly as well as the shape-shifters.”
“This is true, King Grumbold,” Drumtone replied. “They have assisted us in establishing a seal to keep the Creatures of Chaos out of this Plane. We will approach them on your behalf and return with their answer. I propose that we assemble the dwarves and humanoids aligned with our interests in the Midden of the stone giants. If the Gorgon Plane can yet be saved we should demonstrate our martial force at that point.”
“That is a good idea, Drumtone,” said the King. “Do as you suggest. The entire population of Maegar Dwarves will meet you there at the end of this day.”
“Drummers, begin the gathering rhythm!” Grumbold declared.
A group of male and female dwarves wheeled in a dozen barrel-shaped drums. The instruments were wide, nearly two yards in diameter. The dwarves complied with Grumbold’s request and began a steady tattoo by striking the drumheads with leather-bound mallets.
“Very well, Warriors. You have my blessing. Go now and aid the Maegar in manifesting a peaceful future.”
The dwarves knelt briefly and exited from the Throne Room. They took a tunnel that rolled downward into the damp air of the subterranean network. Oxholm and Drumtone marched for a while until they came to the chamber where the stalactites and stalagmites assumed massive proportions.
The dwarves approached the location of the Midden of the stone giants and tapped the rocky earth with their weapons. In a matter of moments the earth moved nearby and Petra and Volcan emerged from the soil.
“Greetings, Dwarves,” said Volcan. “We are glad to see you. The Lykanthros have passed this way several times, as have the beholders and minotaurs. I regret that the seal separating the Plane of Chaos from us has been breached. The movements of the red dragon, Thoth, have vibrated to us from above.”
The great, stone humanoids bore worried expressions.
“Please, Drumtone and Oxholm, speak with the Morphozoids. They are courageous. Perhaps Driptwist will consent to assist your cause.”
“That is our intention, Stone Giants,” said Oxholm. “Our people, with your permission, plan to form a base camp here. If the residents of the Gorgon Plane concert their efforts they may yet turn the Denizens of Chaos.”
“That’s fine by us, Brave Dwarves. Meet with us here and we shall see if this stronghold can yet be defended,” declared Petra.
“Both of you have our thanks,” said Oxholm. “We will speak with the Morphozoids and return here. Expect the arrival of the Maegar Clan in a matter of hours.”
The brothers continued their march through the vast cave until they came to the radiant pools in the floor and ceiling. Drumtone touched the edge of the lake on the ground with his foot. Ripples moved outward in expanding circles from the point of contact. The waves increased in size and were mirrored by waves on the lake above. Two cylinders emerged from above and below and became one. This formed into the waiting Driptwist, who slid across the surface until it stood on the shore by the dwarves.
“Hello, Dwarves, we meet again,” the Morphozoid said. “There has been trouble brewing. The Creatures of Chaos have swept by us many times recently. It seems there will be another fight. I offer my services on the behalf of the Principal Amoebids who live here.”
“We are indebted to you, Shape-Shifter,” Drumtone answered. “You are welcome to accompany us to the Midden of the Terranoids. The Maegar Clan is gathering there to engage in a pivotal battle with the Creatures of Chaos.”
“I hope you’re ready for a fight, Driptwist,” said Oxholm. “The minotaurs and such have proven quite a nuisance.”
The friends began the trek to the giants’ Midden. They were prepared for the worst.
* * * * *
King Grumbold and the Maegar Dwarves gathered before the Terranoids, Volcan and Petra. The other giants also emerged from below the surface, filling that section of the cavern with humanoids. Oxholm, Drumtone and Driptwist were ready for battle.
Zolgnath and the Drystyx Monks appeared at the entrance to the cave. Firbolgs, minotaurs, Lykanthros and beholders accompanied them.
“We’ve been looking for you dwarves,” said Zolgnath. “Thoth has taken command of this Plane. He is willing to allow you to live, for a price. We will take half of your precious stones and livestock.”
“That is unreasonable, Firbolg Mage,” replied Grumbold. “And what’s more, we don’t believe you. Return to the Plane of Chaos from whence you came or face the full ire of the Maegar Clan and their allies.”
“Very well, Dwarf Leader. We shall see,” Zolgnath responded.
The Denizens of Chaos charged. The stone giants instantaneously pummeled many of them into pulp. Those that made it through their line contended with the axes and hammers of the dwarves. Driptwist extended its limbs into lengthy tendrils that knocked over a dozen of the minotaurs.
Zolgnath and the Drystyx Monks incanted a spell of subterfuge.
“Fensores!”
The black-cloaked sorcerers, minotaurs and firbolgs were individually covered with opaque spheres. The beholders attempted a charm person spell but the dwarves’ resistance to the magic was strong. None of them fell victim to the anesthetizing spell.
King Grumbold led the charge into the fray. Every ablebodied dwarf dealt flurries of strikes to the Lykanthros. More of them were destroyed and those that were not turned and fled, exasperated.
The Denizens of Chaos were another matter, however. The shields surrounding them prevented any more of their number from being injured by the devastating attacks of the stone giants. When Volcan and Petra brought their massive fists down upon the opaque spheres they cracked the rocky floor, forming smoking craters. This was the case for the other Terranoids as well.
The aged Leader of the Dwarves had compared notes with The Watcher. Unbeknownst to the Drystyx Monks he had learned the arcane art of magic. Grumbold uttered an attack spell.
“Carvex!”
Large spheres formed around half of the shielded invaders. They thrust deadly spikes through the smaller barriers, killing those within. Zolgnath and the Drystyx Monks were outraged at the dwarf’s use of magic. They uttered a spell of their own.
“Electros!”
The wizards aimed their hands at the dwarves and stone giants and released a barrage of sparkling spikes. The charged bolts wedged into the rock flesh of Petra and her kin but they remained unencumbered. A few of the dwarves were struck by the missiles and fell to the floor, shuddering with electric arcs.
The firbolgs and minotaurs that lived moved in on the Terranoids with a renewed fervor. They hewed at the legs of the hulking humanoids, shearing masses of rock from their bodies. This was not enough to stop them and many more were pounded into the ground within their shields.
Oxholm and Drumtone rallied their kindred and rolled diagonally toward their opponents. They leapt up from their crouching positions and rendered devastating attacks to the minotaurs. The gross sound of cracking bones and torn sinew filled the air. The last of the bull trolls fell to the ground in pools of green blood.
The beholders forewent their previous strategy to charm the dwarves. They incanted a different spell.
“Tractos!”
A mesh of scalding, blue ribbons was released from the antennae of the gorgons. The arcane waves drifted into the fighting Maegar. Several of them were burned around the arms and legs but were not significantly injured.
The dwarf brothers dodged the fiery claws of the firbolgs to eliminate the beholders one by one. Those that remained fled through dark tunnels in the walls and ceiling. Zolgnath was furious at the flight of the single-eyed creatures. He unleashed another attack spell.
“Mortis!”
A green mist struck Grumbold. He was overtaken and fell to the ground, covered with festering sores. The dwarves were angered over the assault of their King and entered the fray with added vehemence. The axes and hammers of the Maegar Clan destroyed six of the Drystyx Monks.
Zolgnath addressed his cohorts.
“Retreat, Firbolgs. Pull back, Drystyx Monks. These humanoids are berserk. We shall re-enter this cavern and secure it for the red dragon at a later time. Now is the moment for us to regroup.”
In compliance with the command of their Leader the black-robed monks and firbolgs withdrew from the spacious, earthen chamber.
The dwarves and stone giants cheered their victory. They moved quickly around the wounded King. Petra gazed at the aged dwarf with her sparkling, amethyst eyes.
“Alas, I am dying, My Warriors,” said Grumbold. “There is nothing you can do for me.”
Oxholm held the King’s head and gave him a drink from his water flask.
“Thank you, Oxholm,” stated the Maegar King. “Please, if the battle with the Denizens of Chaos gets worse contact Lord Taliesin in Mystic Down. They will help the dwarves to move back to the mountains in Arkadia. May the Fates be with you all.”
Grumbold closed his eyes and died.
“Alas, our King is gone,” said Oxholm. “We will survive without him but it will not be the same. Grumbold didn’t have an heir so we will be on our own. Perhaps, when times are more peaceful, we can establish a Council of the Clan.”
“Maegar Dwarves, let us tend to our wounded,” said Drumtone. “We will construct a funeral pyre for Grumbold in a matter of hours. Our smiths will assemble steel plates to close the injuries on the bodies of the stone giants.”
“Thank you, Drumtone,” replied Volcan. “With your help we will soon be back to our whole selves.”
The dwarves and Terranoids set themselves to the tasks at hand. They kept watchful eyes for the return of the Drystyx Monks and firbolgs.
* * * * *
Claude, the vampire, sat on his Throne.
Gabrielle and I were successful, he thought. The Gypsies we met were willing recruits. They had grown weary of the perpetual destruction of their homes by the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins. Now they are part of the Tribe of Castle Stammberg. The world of the vampires has begun to return to its previous glory.
Claude established a rapport with one of the Gypsy trolls named Raphael. He acted as a go-between for the Undead Lord. Raphael updated Claude in regard to the movements of Lykanthros and goblins from Mount Crow. He was a trustworthy apprentice. As a token of his appreciation Claude delegated Raphael to use the great telescope at the top of the tallest tower in the castle. The lenses within the device were in working condition despite the years of control by the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs.
Raphael, the dark-haired vampire, entered Claude’s Throne Room.
“Hello, Raphael,” said Claude. “What news do you bring from the observation tower?”
“There is trouble abroad, Vampire Lord,” Raphael answered. “As the conflict with the goblins and wolf-creatures continues here I have seen battle to the south, in the foothills. The Troll Liege, Taliesin, has met an encampment with some Dagonites and halflings. They contended with the Dire Queen and Daemon King at the Abyssal Cairn. I move you to fly, Claude. The Harad Ghul continues to be active and we are at risk to face a frontal assault as the dwarves were some months ago.”
“Thank you for the reconnaissance, Raphael,” replied Claude. “You are a capable apprentice. I will fly this night and surveil Taliesin personally. Keep watch over Castle Stammberg in my absence. Gabrielle will assist you if necessary.”
“Very well, Claude,” said Raphael. “I bid you farewell.”
The Vampire Lord sprang from his Dais and leapt from the open window. He used his telekinetic power to soar with the wind. The light of the twin moons of Gaea shone brightly over the forest below. Numerous campfires of the goblins and orcs pockmarked the foothills. Claude passed them by and moved with the wind to the south.
He flew high. The lights of the campfires gave way to rolling hills covered with old-growth forest. The Vampire Lord’s silvery hair billowed in the gusts created by his passage. Claude swooped down again and sensed the proximity of Taliesin’s entourage.
The night-feeder landed before the warriors and addressed them.
“Hello, Taliesin. I see you have battled Guardon and the Dire Queen again. I compliment your persistence in defending Gaea from those who would dominate it unjustly.”
“Well met, Claude. I take it that you’ve reclaimed your castle once lost to the marauding goblins.”
“That is correct, Taliesin. I succeeded in ousting the goblins from Castle Stammberg. The vampires have returned to Arkadia and our numbers are growing. Taliesin, it appears that the Gong Seal in the Gorgon Plane has been breached. If this is the case then we have a full-scale Planar War on our hands. Allow me to assist you. It is only a matter of time before Thoth and the Drystyx Monks arrive here.”
“Alas, that is the case, Claude. We warriors were about to return to Coermantyr Castle to consult with Restadicus and the Lore Masters. You are welcome to join us and add your input.”
“Very well, Liege of Mystic Down,” replied the vampire. “Let us be on our way. I have no need for a horse. My recharged power allows me to fly with the wind.”
The united warriors from the various regions of Gaea set off on the trek to the west. They wished to meet with Restadicus as soon as possible.
* * * * *
Thoth howled with fury at the death of his son, the daemon.
I vow to avenge Guardon on the behalf of the Titans of Chaos. My monks and I will move while we can and demonstrate the full power of our Plane to the resistant residents of Gaea.
The red dragon circled around The Spires once more and landed in the tallest tower. Zolgnath waited on the Throne in the Audience Chamber therein. The firbolg mage was exasperated over his defeat against the stone giants and Maegar Dwarves.
“Thoth, the dwarves here are stubborn. Allow me to generate a spatial portal so that we may better contend with the humanoids in Gaea. They are due a lesson. Perhaps they will learn to resist us no longer.”
“Very well, Zolgnath,” said the red dragon. “Let us leave this Plane to the beholders and Lykanthros for a time. We have bigger fish to fry now that the accursed seal has fallen. Order the remaining monks to this room and generate a rift large enough for all of us to pass. We shall contend with the troublesome Lieges, Taliesin, Sharon Redthorne and her Key Mage, Gilead, sooner than they expect.”
Zolgnath called out.
“Drystyx Monks, come here. It is time for us to move on Gaea. We shall travel with the red dragon into the heart of the Realm and contend with those who oppose us.”
The dozen-and-a-half, black-robed monks appeared from teleportation rings of their own device. These small portals vanished upon their entrance.
Zolgnath incanted a spell to generate a portal.
“Levrond!”
A wide, oval-shaped rift appeared in the air, limned with red light. The Burial Ruins in the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens stood on the other side. The Denizens of Chaos did not hesitate and levitated through the arcane gate. Thoth glided through thereafter.
Once in Gaea the Drystyx Monks established a headquarters with sod bricks, stacked into walls and an observation tower by magical means. The red dragon flew to the south to contend with Lord Taliesin and his allies.
* * * * *
The band of fighters rode with haste into the courtyard of Coermantyr Castle. They dismounted and strode within the gothic, pinnacled structure. Restadicus waited in the Council Chamber.
“Quickly, Taliesin, tell me what has happened. I sensed the presence of the daemon and the Dire Queen again in this Plane. They are clearly desperate to usurp these regions.”
“The Gong Seal is a thing of the past, Restadicus,” said Jalhi Bengal. “Too much magic courses through the Fens to be contained in separate Planes. Our ancestors were wise to attempt such a division but their plan is no longer feasible. Since Guardon and the Dire Queen were here we succeeded in defeating them with the help of Satvinder, Alex and the others. His father is sure to arrive, though. The dragon is bound to be upon us at any moment.”
The tiger-woman’s eyes flared with a tangible urgency.
A deep, bass rumbling shook the foundations of Coermantyr Castle. The red dragon circled the fortress from outside. The screams of the citizens below echoed upward from the city streets. The odor of sulphur and smoke filled the air.
“This is a terrible day for all of us,” said Restadicus. “I must contact Hydro and ask if there is any means to combat this Colossal Beast of Chaos. Give me a moment to use my scrying glass.”
Wotan and the other Lore Masters hurried into the Council Chamber. Their faces were etched with fear for the safety of their region.
“Restadicus, we must do something. The red dragon outside is setting fire to the rooftops of the village. No one is safe with this monster flying about.”
“I agree, Wotan,” answered Restadicus. “I am contacting Hydro in the Plane of Order as we speak. I fear that we will need more than the seraph trolls he sent this time around.”
Restadicus bowed his head and focused on the magical glass on the wooden stand before him. He uttered a spell of divination.
“Bindu!”
The magenta-cloaked wizard tossed his head back. His eyes rolled white as he focused on the inner visions of the scrying glass. He kept his fingertips in contact with the device.
“Hydro, can you hear me? It is I, Restadicus. We have need of your aid. This time more than before.”
“Yes, Restadicus, I can hear you. I understand that Thoth, the Demigod, has invaded Gaea after centuries of banishment. It seems that you need a dragon of your own, one who will defend the harmony of your Plane as vehemently as the red dragon intends to usurp it. Let me see if there is a silver dragon that is willing to help. One moment...”
“Hurry please, Hydro. Thoth is upon us and is destroying our village,” said the Leader of the Lore Masters.
“Yes, there is a female dragon here who is willing to visit Gaea. She is experienced with conflicts of this nature and has interceded on my behalf in Planes similar to yours. Her name is Mara. I will send her through a portal now. I hope you succeed in turning Thoth, Restadicus. Feel welcome to contact the Plane of Order at any time.”
A large, oval portal opened in the Council Chamber of the Lore Masters. A massive, silver dragon crept through it and crouched on the tiled floor. The portal closed behind her.
“Greetings, Gaeans. I reckon I’ll be on my way since Grumpy is making a mess of things out there.”
The silver dragon pushed out a pillar connecting two of the many arches surrounding the tower. She dove and then flapped upward, chasing after Thoth.
The two dragons snarled at each other and grappled in mid-air. The Demigod of Chaos was enraged at the presence of the silver dragon and clawed at her to no avail. They twisted and spiraled in a massive dance, spewing green and orange flames haphazardly.
At last Thoth disengaged his hold and scoffed.
“This plane suits only one dragon. I will return and claim what is mine at a later time. Be on your guard, Silver Dragon, for I am not a fellow to be toyed with.”
The red dragon turned and flew north to Zolgnath in the Ghastly Fens.
Mara circled the tower and perched at the edge of the Council Chamber of Coermantyr Castle.
“It looks like I showed up just in time,” the silver dragon observed. “I can help protect your regions from the tyranny of Thoth and his Drystyx Monks. You warriors must wage a campaign to defeat them. My efforts alone will not be enough to destroy the red dragon or banish the black-robed sorcerers. The arcane technique employed to banish Thoth and his cohorts from the Gorgon Plane will not be successful if attempted again. The Gong Seal repaired by Smithforge is no longer strong enough to detain their malevolent intentions.”
“Restadicus,” continued Mara, “it is wise to contact Hydro again and request the return of the four, seraph trolls. They fought well in previous battles here in Gaea. The magic of the Drystyx Monks is potent and will require the additional support that they possess.”
“Very well, Mara,” said Restadicus. “We are indebted to you for your help and will be additionally thankful for your protection. The events that have transpired here of late are unlike anything documented in our historical scrolls. I will contact Hydro on your advice and ask for the four seraphim.”
Restadicus laid his hands over the scrying glass and again uttered the divining spell.
“Bindu!”
The white-bearded wizard addressed Hydro in the Plane of Order.
“Hydro, It’s Restadicus again. We have repelled Thoth from his assault on Coermantyr Castle. He and his Drystyx Monks remain in Gaea, however. Mara suggests that you have the four, seraph trolls who helped us before visit the Council Chamber here. We have a tough campaign ahead of us and can surely benefit from their resilience and expertise.”
“That is a fine idea, Restadicus,” replied Hydro. “Tell Mara I’m proud of her. The four seraphim are here and are ready and willing to visit your Plane. Keep in touch.”
Four portals appeared in the Council Chamber. Through them emerged Smithforge, Listhew, Glasslook and Heartsing. They embraced the warriors and Lore Masters.
“We are glad to see all of you,” declared Glasslook. “It seems we have our work cut out for us. The red dragon is a persistent Demigod and will not be easily banished from this Plane now that he is here.”
“Let us journey to the Ghastly Fens,” said Sharon. “We must confront the Drystyx Monks and Thoth while our strength is at its peak.”
“I agree,” stated Alex. “This invasion from the Plane of Chaos concerns all of the regions of Gaea. Siegemunde is stuck on the far side of the Fens. It will be prudent for us to reach him and proposition his aid.”
“I will do as you suggest, Alex,” said Restadicus. “Siegemunde is a capable magic-user and deserves to be informed of the recent events.”
The Leader of the Lore Masters pressed his hands to his scrying glass.
“Siegemunde, this is Restadicus. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Restadicus. The Daemon Lord and Dire Queen have battled in Arkadia. This has happened because the Gong Seal has been broken. Is everything alright over there?”
“I’m sorry, Siegemunde. Taliesin defeated Guardon and his companion. Thoth and the Drystyx Monks have attacked us here in Coermantyr as an act of vengeance. They are based at the Crossroads in the Ghastly Fens. We will try to reach you if possible. Hold the fort there until we get through. We have a Planar War on our hands, Able Wizard.”
“Thanks for the information, Lore Master,” answered Siegemunde. “The lich folk and I will hold our own on this end. Don’t worry about us. Deal with the Denizens of Chaos on the behalf of Gaea. I will contact you if they come this way.”
“May the Fates be with you, Siegemunde,” answered Restadicus.
“Its time for us to head north, My Friends,” said the Leader of the Lore Masters. “Representatives of every known region are here. Wotan will accompany us and Mara will fly above. With the assistance of the staunch seraph trolls we have an opportunity to turn these foul invaders before they do any more damage. Let us be on our way.”
The warriors took fresh mounts from Coermantyr Castle and set forth on the trail to the Crossroads. They saw groups of goblins and orcs riding Lykanthros but they steered clear of the sizeable group. Lord Taliesin and his mercenaries had established a reputation among the scurrilous humanoids as fearsome fighters.
The warriors traveled through the twilight hours and came to the Burial Ruins at nightfall. Gaea’s twin moons formed parallel crescents behind the tower of the Sod Stronghold. Eerie torches burned along the ramparts. Mara circled above the structure but Thoth was nowhere to be seen.
Zolgnath and a handful of his assistants appeared on the ramparts and issued a warning to the Lieges and their friends.
“Do not tarry here, Gaeans. The Demigod, Thoth, claims this land. If you choose to resist us you shall be destroyed.”
“That is not an option, Zolgnath,” replied Restadicus. “We are here to send you back to the Plane of Chaos. You do not belong here. You have enough power and influence in your own Realm. Go now or face our wrath.”
“I refuse. This Plane is ours,” said Zolgnath.
The Leader of the Drystyx Monks incanted an attack spell.
“Smoldent!”
A green, poison cloud appeared over the stronghold of the monks and rushed down at the Gaeans. Wotan uttered a counter-spell.
“Aeros!”
A gust of wind carried the noxious mist out of range of the fighters.
Sigrid and Jalhi Bengal fired a volley of arrows at the monks above, striking two of them. Alex, Reoren and Leif cried out their missile sorcery.
“Trentak!”
The caustic, electric bolts overtook two more of the black-robed monks.
The portcullis of the stronghold lifted and a gathering of Stalactite Orcs and Goblins emerged from within. They engaged the warriors in a bitter melee.
Gilead, the Key Mage of Coermantyr issued forth a ring of warding to push them back.
“Protex!”
A half-dozen of the charging wolf-creatures were successfully pushed away but the others were already too close to be affected.
Taliesin and Sharon Redthorne drew their longswords and contended with their opponents. Gnoll also unsheathed his sword and entered the fray. The five merfolk fired a barrage of bolts from their crossbows, dropping three of the orc riders. Smithforge and Heartsing exchanged blows with the circling goblins. Glasslook and Listhew opted for longbows and felled three Lykanthros with their high-velocity arrows.
Bjorn, The Watcher and Ben Frostberry joined the battle with their companions. Ben used his dagger while the other two halflings employed their slings. Satvinder and the other tiger folk joined with Fangoz, the stone troll, to initiate an all-out assault on the wolf-creatures. They braved their slashing claws and fangs to bludgeon and hack at riders and mounts alike.
Nighthawk and his goblins tumbled around the Lykanthros and their mounts to drop a dozen of them.
Gilead issued an attack spell of his own.
“Tractos!”
A blue energy ribbon flew upward at the Drystyx Monks but overshot its mark.
Restadicus and Wotan used an experimental spell.
“Frigidos!”
A wide, blue beam of ice issued forth from the hands of the two, adept mages and merged into a single, wide beam. This they guided up the wall and across the rampart where the Drystyx Monks stood. Three of them were frozen solid and subsequently shattered by the hurled stones of The Watcher and Bjorn Roundtree.
Thoth flew over an outcropping of stones on a nearby hilltop. Mara responded quickly and tackled the red dragon in mid-air. The two, great lizards struggled for some time, exchanging blows and bites. Green dragon blood fell to the Fens below and sizzled on the damp soil. Mara was enraged at the bullying of Thoth and struck him a powerful blow to the jaw. The red dragon lost consciousness and fell to the ground with a sickening thud.
Restadicus spoke over the din of battle and issued Zolgnath an ultimatum.
“Drystyx Monks, this is your last chance. Leave this Plane or be destroyed.”
“Alas,” Zolgnath cried, “we yield for now, Restadicus. Do not think we will not return for what is ours. We will meet again at another time.”
The Leader of the Lore Masters joined with Wotan to bind the dragon and his black-robed cohorts.
“Baniscent!”
The Drystyx Monks and comatose Thoth were lifted in an Ethereal Funnel guided by the hands of the Gaean sorcerers. Gilead and Leif generated a spatial portal to the Plane of Chaos at the base of the whirlwind. The denizens were forced through it and vanished from the Burial Ruins. The goblins and Lykanthros that remained fled in apprehension.
“Excellent!” cheered The Watcher. “Done well this day all of us have. The goblins and orcs remain but a newfound grasp of our resources we gained. Ready we’ll be for coming challenges we face.”
“I agree, Aged Halfling,” said Restadicus. “Each of you brave warriors have honored your respective regions. Let us venture north to meet with Siegemunde in Lich Town. I’m sure you, Sigrid and Reoren will be glad to see your homes free of the red dragon for a time, Leif.”
“Yes, Restadicus,” replied the Sentinel. “I will speak with Siegemunde. We have much to research in the Academy. Our magical abilities are sure to be challenged again. Let us go, My Friends, while our strength is with us.”
The warriors mounted their horses and followed the magical halo of Leif through the marshes of the Ghastly Fens. They would reach Lich Town in a matter of hours.
* * * * *
Raven awoke from a full night’s sleep.
I feel surprisingly rested, she thought. I’ve been concerned for Sharon Redthorne. Something tells me that she’s doing alright. Well, I’d better be off to college. I’ve got my work cut out for me, that’s for sure.
Raven conducted her ablutions and donned a fresh set of clothes. She ate a quick breakfast and rushed to the nearest bus stop.
* * * * *
Rauros witnessed the demise of the Dire Queen and her suitor. He was surprised that Lord Taliesin and his companions did not attempt to enter the Abyssal Cairn.
They must have other concerns on their minds, he thought. So be it. I have my own affairs to attend to.
The Leader of the Harad Ghul had sat on his Throne for a few hours when the other agents of the Guild of Assassins returned to the Council Chamber of the Abyssal Cairn.
“Greetings, Dakros, Loki and Blueblood. It is good to see the Harad Ghul gathered together. Have any of you seen the specters, Athros and Zalkos?”
“They approach as we speak, Rauros,” replied Blueblood.
The green specters flew through the torch-lit colonnades of the Arkadian stronghold. They hovered over the proscenium of the Council Chamber.
“The Gaean warriors have returned to Coermantyr Castle, Rauros,” said Zalkos. “They have banished the red dragon, Thoth and the Drystyx Monks that remained. This was accomplished by the sorcery of the Lore Masters of Coermantyr and a silver dragon. It is evident that the Plane of Order has taken an active stance in thwarting the movements of the Plane of Chaos in this Realm as in others. It has been ages since direct war was waged between the Titans of the distant Planes. This may occur again with the imbalance of power employed by Restadicus.”
“Thank you for the information, Specters. I regret that those who summoned you are no more. You are welcome to stay in this Plane. Conduct additional reconnaissance on those who oppose us and you shall be duly rewarded. I shall consult the scrolls in the library here. The Titans that you speak of intrigue me. Perhaps I shall find a means to contact them.”
“Such a thing is simple, Master Assassin,” said Athros. “You need a scrying glass to channel your energies of perception.”
“A scrying glass?” replied Rauros. “That is what the Dire Queen, Iskendrea, used during her arcane experimentation. Her tool was taken from this place, however. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in the possession of Siegemunde in the Ghastly Fens. He is a dabbler in magic and would be intrigued by such an object when the more traditional mages of Coermantyr would set it aside.”
“Rauros, let us hasten to the Ghastly Fens,” declared Blueblood. “The orcs are ready to prove themselves in their service to you. Allow us to journey north and we shall surely find the scrying glass you seek.”
“Very well, Blueblood,” said Rauros. “We will act on the intelligence of these Ephemeral Specters. It seems we have need of this magical tool once used by Iskendrea to contact Guardon. I have grown weary of the confines of this cairn for a time. It will do me good to travel through the open wilderness once more.”
The goblins and orcs rushed from the Abyssal Cairn and mounted their Lykanthros steeds. They charged through the moonlit forest in the direction of the Ghastly Fens.
* * * * *
Lord Taliesin and his companions approached the edge of Lich Town. Leif and Reoren rode up to confer with Einar, who had taken charge of the village guards during their absence.
“I’m glad you’re back,” declared the sturdy guard. “There are rumors of a dragon afoot and the lich folk have kept indoors for safety. I understand there was a Gong Seal separating the Plane of Chaos from the Gorgon Plane. It appears that this barrier has been breached. Fishermen and hunters in the southern Fens have reported fiery wizards and a Stronghold of Sod at the Crossroads.”
“Regretfully your intelligence describes the situation accurately, Einar,” Reoren answered. “I spent some time trapped with other Gaeans in the Gorgon Plane and have been saddened to witness the appearance of the Denizens of Chaos in Gaea around the same time that I returned with the other warriors.”
“Thoth, the red dragon, has been sent back to the Plane of Chaos with the Drystyx Monks,” said Leif. “We must meet with Siegemunde and encourage him to delve into his tomes of experimental magic. There is a Planar War upon us. Every outlet of arcane energy that may defend our Realm will prove beneficial to us in our time of need. The other warriors are waiting, Einar. Allow us entrance into Lich Town so that we may meet with Siegemunde and discuss possible future defenses for the various regions.”
“Very well, Leif,” answered the guard. “Do as you must. Siegemunde has informed us that he awaits the latest word. Travel within and discuss these matters with him personally.”
The travelers thanked Einar and gestured for the other riders to move forward to the town gates. Other lich folk hastily turned cranks to open the broad, wicker doors to their settlement.
A few lich-trolls remained out of doors despite the warnings of the presence of the red dragon. They went about their business in hushed tones. Taliesin and his allies passed through the marketplace and tethered their horses to the elevator leading to the Martial Academy. A stablehand took their spent steeds and prepared fresh mounts for their eventual exit.
The warriors marched across the network of bridges and platforms constructed over the soggy earth. They entered Siegemunde’s study. The Director of the Martial Academy was immersed in a small mountain of scrolls. He looked up from his project and smiled.
“Greetings, Taliesin and Friends. It is good to see all of you. I understand there is a red dragon flying the skies of Gaea.”
“This is true, Siegemunde,” Taliesin said. “The Gong Seal in the Gorgon Plane has been breached. The Summoners, Guardon and the Dire Queen of Arkadia, returned to the Abyssal Cairn. They were destroyed but the Denizens of Chaos yet plot against us. Restadicus petitioned the Ethereal Entity, Hydro, in the Plane of Order to send a silver dragon named Mara to help us. The four, seraph trolls that aided us before have also returned and stand before you here.”
Taliesin gestured toward Listhew, Heartsing, Smithforge and Glasslook. The seraphim nodded to Siegemunde in greeting.
“With the invaluable assistance of Mara Restadicus succeeded in banishing Thoth and the Drystyx Monks to the Plane of Chaos,” said the Liege of Mystic Down. “We do not know if or when they may again attempt to invade us here. For this reason we ask that you go over your experimental records and search for new magic that may help us better defend Gaea in this desperate time.”
“That is wise advice, Taliesin,” responded the Director of the Martial Academy. “I have already undertaken a holistic perusal of the arcane materials I have collected. I will inform you if I come across any lasting method of again separating the menacing Denizens of the Plane of Chaos from us. Unfortunately, this task will take time. I have many unorganized and undated scrolls of mysterious authorship. They speak of sorceries that can prove risky at best and cataclysmic at worst. Let me look on these documents for another day and meet with me here. All of you appear tired and have ridden hard on the trail to get here. Get some food in your stomachs and a full night’s rest. We shall discuss this business again, tomorrow.”
“Very well, Siegemunde,” replied Taliesin. “I admit that all of us could use some rest. The invasion of the red dragon and the Drystyx Monks has been foremost on all of our minds. All of us shall retire this night and return here at the morn. May your research prove rewarding, Bald Mage.”
The warriors departed from the Martial Academy and stayed at a town house on stilts across from the marketplace of the lich folk. Sigrid, Leif and Reoren met with other guards and lich-trolls, informing them of the latest events. The fighters of Gaea were treated to a fine dinner of rabbit stew in the dining hall of the town house. They ate their supper heartily and retired to their rooms early in the evening.
It was later that night when the alarm horns blew. Lord Taliesin and his companions awoke and assembled in the reception room of the town house. Einar rushed in and addressed the group.
“The Harad Ghul is attacking Lich Town! They are led by Rauros and his red-armored assassins.”
The band of fighters hastened outside and saw the wicker gates at the front of the marketplace forced open. The goblins and orcs had taken one of the stone pillars from the Burial Ruins and placed it atop a set of wheels to function as a battering ram. Dozens of Stalactite Orcs, Goblins and Lykanthros ran into the marketplace of Lich Town. They grappled with enraged merchants and guards who raced from their dwellings to the front line. Lord Taliesin and his friends drew their weapons and entered the battle as well.
The mages, Alex, Gilead, Leif, Reoren and Sigrid combined their magical resources to generate a ring of warding around the defenders of the town.
“Protex!”
A broad ring of magical energy surrounded the villagers and warriors. It repelled some of the attacking humanoids but many more braved the scorching heat of the enchantment to leap into the melee. The merfolk fired their crossbows. Each of the Dagonites hit their marks and five of the goblins fell to the damp soil. Bors and his son, Torvald, united with Fangoz to execute a whirling attack pattern with their weapons. The large stone troll bludgeoned two of the goblins into pulp, while Torvald ran another through and Bors flattened a fourth.
Siegemunde appeared on the ramparts of the stilted Academy and uttered a bolt spell.
“Trentak!”
He guided his hands over the battling humanoids, releasing a barrage of electric missiles. Five more of the goblins and orcs fell to his attack.
Jalhi Bengal and Satvinder incanted a shielding spell for the tiger rangers.
“Pranath!”
Each of the feline anthromorphs was covered in aquamarine armor. Boosted by their Ethereal Shields the rangers spun into the center of the battle, attacking their opponents with both their curved daggers and longbows.
Rodnik, Thorgrym, and Claude strode with vehemence into the fray, slashing with their weapons and claws. They released torrents of green blood that sprayed over the crowd.
The halflings, Bjorn Roundtree, Ben Frostberry and The Watcher fired their slings at their enemies from a distance.
Nighthawk, the defected goblin, and his assistants forewent parlaying with their maverick kindred and engaged in battle with full force.
Flamering and Starfling, Jalhi’s wyvern familiars, fought with Athros and Zalkos in the air over the mob. The young dragons spat fireballs at the clawing specters to no avail.
Gnoll, the wood troll, and the four seraph trolls fought directly with the Harad Ghul. They defeated five of them by evading their scimitars and parrying with their longswords.
Rauros and Loki left Dakros in charge of the goblins and orcs. They scrambled to the side of the marketplace and scaled the ramparts of the Martial Academy with a pair of grappling hooks. The red-armored assassins rushed to Siegemunde’s study and took the scrying glass ensconced there. Rauros put it in his travel pack and the two goblins rappelled down to the battle. Siegemunde saw the escaping Harad Ghul from the opposite end of the ramparts. He unleashed a series of electric bolts at them. The baldheaded wizard’s shots missed their targets. Rauros and Loki returned to their garrison of invaders.
“Retreat, Goblins and Orcs,” cried Rauros. “We have tested these fighters enough this night. Let us regroup in Arkadia and return again.”
The humanoids followed the command of their Leader and moved back out of the marketplace of Lich Town. Lord Taliesin and Sharon Redthorne were confused by the sudden lack of interest of their opponents. They checked their companions for injuries.
“Let us hold, My Friends,” said Taliesin. “Although I wish to pursue our enemies as much as you it is prudent that we tend to the welfare of the lich folk, here. They have suffered substantial destruction to their homes and have need of our assistance.”
“Thank you, Taliesin,” stated Leif. “We will rebuild what was lost soon enough.”
“Taliesin, the scrying glass has been taken,” yelled Siegemunde. “It is missing from my study.”
The Liege Lord ran to the base of the Martial Academy.
“I understand, Siegemunde,” replied Taliesin. “I wish to retrieve it as we speak but cannot. This night’s battle was fierce. The fighters here need rest. Let us hold a meeting in the morning and determine the next course of action. The Harad Ghul move on us like never before.”
“Very well, Taliesin,” responded the Director of the Academy. “I’m simply concerned over the detrimental possibilities of such a powerful item falling into the wrong hands. We are both familiar with the result of the Dire Queen’s contact with Guardon in the Gorgon Plane.”
“Yes, Siegemunde, your concern is valid,” said Sharon.
The Baroness of Coermantyr strode up to the base of the Martial Academy next to Taliesin.
“We shall journey south to Arkadia tomorrow. For the time being allow us to help the lich folk rebuild their tents and booths. The silver dragon, Mara, remains in Gaea. We will inform her as to what has happened here. She will keep a watchful eye for Thoth’s possible return along with the movements of the marauding Stalactite Goblins.”
“Thank you both for your input,” said Siegemunde. “I will return to my study and burn the midnight oil. There are yet sorceries to be learned that may prove successful in keeping the Denizens of Chaos from Gaea permanently.”
The warriors retired for the second time that night to their lodgings in the town house. They took some time to clean their weapons then went to sleep.
* * * * *
Rauros steered his Lykanthros mount south. The hordes of goblins and orcs marched behind him. They traveled through the night and reached the Abyssal Cairn by morning. Athros and Zalkos flew over the red-painted shoulders of the Leader of the Harad Ghul.
“Quickly, Rauros, the scrying glass,” hissed Athros. “Tap its power before the warriors of the other regions arrive here.”
“Very well, Ephemeral Specters. I will do as you suggest for I also fear the entrance of Lord Taliesin and his numerous allies.”
“Tiamat awaits,” rasped Zalkos.
“Tiamat? Who is that?” asked Rauros.
“She is a five-headed dragon,” answered Zalkos. “Each head is of a different, Chaotic Color. These are red, white, green, blue and black. The red head throws sulphur, the white ice, the green acid, the blue steam and the black ash.”
“A formidable asset this dragon would be if convinced to join our cause,” said the Leader of the Harad Ghul. “I will use this scrying glass, once employed by the Dire Queen, to contact this Titan of Chaos.”
The wrinkled goblin assassin extended his hands over the scrying glass, mounted on a swaying frame before his throne. His eyes rolled white from the strain of the invocation.
“Tiamat, this is Rauros. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” replied a deep voice. “Release me from these bonds so that I may fly free.”
“I will consent to this on one condition,” Rauros said.
“Yes,” replied Tiamat. “What is it?”
“Lead the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs to victory against Lord Taliesin of Mystic Down.”
“As you wish, Rauros. I shall do this as soon as I enter your Plane.”
An Ephemeral Oval appeared over the proscenium of the Abyssal Cairn. It widened as it grew and the giant, five-headed dragon stepped through it.
“Join with me now, Goblin and Orc Assassins,” declared Tiamat. “We shall claim this Plane on the behalf of Chaos.”
“Very well, Tiamat,” answered Rauros. “We shall march to Mystic Down and deal with the trolls there directly.”
The Leader of the Harad Ghul addressed the hordes of goblins and orcs crowded around the colonnades of the Council Chamber of the Abyssal Cairn.
“Stalactite Goblins and Orcs, our time is at hand. Let us enter Mystic Down without trepidation. The great dragon is with us. In honor of her agreement to assist us we will mark our shields with the insignia of the five-headed dragon. Now we shall be known as the Stalactite Forces of Tiamat!”
The dragon flew through the many pillars of the stronghold and the humanoids charged after her. They were ready for a pivotal conflict.
* * * * *
Taliesin and his comrades rose at the dawn after a few hours of sleep. They helped the lich folk reassemble their booths and tents in the marketplace. Afterwards they visited Siegemunde in his study in the Martial Academy.
“Taliesin, you and your friends should leave this place,” declared the Director of the Academy. “Go with Leif, Sigrid, Reoren and Thorgrym. They will better help you find the lost scrying glass from the central location of your Tower in Mystic Down.”
“I agree, Siegemunde,” Taliesin replied. “The goblins are sure to have prepared a serious fight for us by now. They are likely to move on Wood’s End and my stronghold soon. We will journey there and prepare our defenses. If Lich Town is assailed send a message to us directly and we will come to your aid. Einar will remain here and is a competent guard. He organizes the defensive garrisons of the lich-trolls with order and efficiency.”
“We bid you farewell, Siegemunde,” said the Baroness. “You are an adept magic user and researcher as well. The sorceries you find will yet prove to be a great asset to our cause.”
The warriors departed from the settlement of the ghoul-trolls and headed south. They passed the abandoned Sod Stronghold of the Drystyx Monks in a matter of hours and soon met the standing trees of Mystic Down. All of them urged their steeds to move quickly for they shared a common concern for the harmony of their Realm. Mara, the silver dragon, flew above the group, passing back and forth over the horizon.
The mercenaries reached Taliesin’s Tower by nightfall.
* * * * *
The Stalactite Goblins, Orcs and Lykanthros hordes charged on Wood’s End. They were surprised to find the village abandoned of residents and livestock.
“The troll folk have been expecting you, Rauros,” said Loki. “They have surely learned of the missing scrying glass from Lich Town by now.”
“I agree,” replied Rauros. “We should move on to Taliesin’s stronghold. He assuredly awaits us there with his bothersome companions.”
The humanoids followed the lead of the Harad Ghul and headed directly for the gates of Taliesin’s fortress. The howls of his wolves rose from the kennels in the dungeons below the gothic structure.
* * * * *
The Watcher marveled at the anklet worn by Bjorn Roundtree.
“Bjorn, a strange accessory that is. Find it did you in this Plane?”
“Yes, Watcher,” answered Bjorn. “I borrowed it from Guardon, the Daemon Lord. I don’t believe it was fabricated here, however. It vibrates sometimes with mysterious force.”
“I also have an unusual amulet,” offered Sharon.
The Baroness showed the ruby necklace she’d found to The Watcher.
“An uncanny item this also is,” observed the aged halfling. “Clear it is that trade of some kind has existed between the Planes in previous ages. More than what they appear these trinkets are. Suspect I do that these are talismans that are able to harness your kharmic energies into enhanced abilities in combat and what projects you may undertake. With you keep them and their effects inform me so that record the information in my continuing historical scrolls I may.”
“We will do as you suggest, Watcher,” said Sharon. “This Realm is filled with archaic items yet to be discovered, I’m sure.”
* * * * *
The warriors of the various regions of Gaea stepped outside of the gothic fortress of Lord Taliesin. Tiamat was waiting and emitted fire from all five of her heads.
Gilead, the Key Mage of Coermantyr, was prepared for such a devious attack and uttered a spell of shielding.
“Sentiex!”
A sphere of golden light formed around the warriors, deflecting the acrid blast from the behemoth.
Jalhi and Satvinder of the Bengal Tribe uttered an armor spell for their clan of tiger rangers.
“Pranath!”
The entirety of the feline anthromorphs was covered in Ethereal Armor of an aquamarine color. They fired their longbows and charged headlong into the Stalactite Orcs at the front.
Tiamat’s heads writhed in confusion over the deflection of her multiple-chemical attack.
She flew over the battling crowd and strafed the group of fighters with flaming sulphur. Gilead’s shield held, however, and the heat of the blast dispersed in a sphere around the fighters. The Watcher and Bjorn fired their slings at the flying dragon but did no significant injury. Ben Frostberry entered the battle with his dagger and slashed down two of the growling orcs.
The seraph trolls each strode into the fray, hewing in semicircles with their steel swords. Their weapons cut through the rough, iron shields and blades of the goblins and orcs. Together they felled a dozen of their opponents.
Starfling and Flamering flew into the night air and contended with Tiamat. The heads of the dragon spat balls of flame at the wyverns. They were agile fighters and evaded the many attacks with ease.
Nighthawk and the other defected goblins did not hesitate and engaged their chaotic kindred in a fierce melee. They were familiar with the battle tactics of the Stalactite Goblins and used their knowledge to the disadvantage of the hordes of the Harad Ghul.
The vampire, Claude, slipped within the crowd of orcs, taking many of them with his fangs. The night-feeder’s face bore a wild expression.
Gnoll, Fangoz and Bors again united their efforts against Dakros and a gathering of the red-painted assassins. They parried and dodged the whirling scimitars of the goblins and orcs before they brought down their heavy clubs. Dakros fell to their attack, as did two more of the Goblin Masters.
Trilobite, Nautilus, Barracuda, Marlin and Anemone fired their crossbows at the horde of Stalactite Goblins. They then contended with them using their curved blades.
Leif, Sigrid, Alex and Reoren uttered a missile spell.
“Trentak!”
They guided their barrage of electric bolts at Tiamat. The thick, scaled hide of the Titan was strong and deflected the attack of the adept mages.
Mara circled from around Taliesin’s Tower and grappled with Tiamat. She evaded the multiple sets of teeth to claw at the beast. The silver dragon succeeded in pummeling the green and white heads into unconsciousness.
Rodnik and Thorgrym fought with battleaxes against the intruders. They brought down a pair of the Lykanthros mounts.
At last the mages of various races united their abilities to bind the dragon and invaders.
“Baniscent!”
An Ethereal Whirlwind overtook Tiamat, the orcs and goblins. Against their will they were pulled into a portal to the Plane of Chaos.
The battle was over. The warriors panted for air.
“You have my and Sharon’s gratitude,” said Taliesin. “The rifts to the Neighboring Planes yet exist but we have made a fearsome start to bring peace to the Realm of Gaea. Now we must rest and consult again with the scrolls that are kept by The Watcher, Restadicus and Siegemunde, too. They are adept Lore Masters, all of them.
“With time and endurance,” continued the Liege, “we can yet secure this area for future generations. The Titan, Hydro, is also familiar with the ambitious wiles of the Denizens of Chaos and can advise us to create a means to guard our regions. This may require assistance from additional Planes in the Dharmic Equilibrium. Gaea alone is a vast wilderness. It yet remains for us, with your help, Watcher, to compose a map that will contain documentation of the distant mountains, valleys and seas.”
* * * * *
Raven turned in her sleep. Her dreams were intense and she was sure there was more to come.
* * * * *
Rauros and the Harad Ghul met with Thoth and the Drystyx Monks in the tallest chamber of the stronghold of the Chaotic Wizards. Tiamat was enraged by her banishment from Gaea and circled the tower while breathing a variety of fiery streams from her five heads.
“Thoth, bring us back to Gaea,” demanded the behemoth dragon.
“We are obliged to wait, Titan,” replied the red dragon. “If we attempt to enter Gaea again we will be banished to this Plane by the same sorcery used by the mages there. The guardians of that Realm are keen now to our intention to usurp their regions. Let us consult with the Monks of Chaos and determine whether they can devise a means for us to travel the planes free of interruption.”
“It is possible, Strong Dragons,” said Zolgnath, the firbolg. “But it will take time for us to generate a shielding spell that will countermand the forceful incantations of the Lore Masters and their adept apprentices.”
“We must return to Gaea while our campaign is fresh,” declared Zalkos. “We offer our Ephemeral Powers to aid you, Drystyx Monks. Initiate a shielding ward and we will ensure that it is honed of Chaotic Energy. This will ensure you of safe passage to Gaea.”
“Very well, Specters,” said Tiamat. “Do as you speak. The minotaur and firbolg legions await your protection.”
Athros and Zalkos united with the black-robed monks to incant a new sorcery of shielding.
“Vengex!”
The legions of humanoids hollered throughout the spiraling levels of the tower. Chaotic Energy incapsulated them in red magic. The spell hardened around each invader, forming crystalline, Ephemeral Armor.
“We are ready,” stated the five-headed dragon. “Let us be on our way.”
The Drystyx Monks again generated a spatial portal.
“Levrond!”
A gateway formed in the fabric of space and the Chaotic Forces ran through it to the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens. They returned to their Stronghold of Sod by the ancient Burial Ruins.
* * * * *
The warriors of Gaea assembled before the Lore Masters in the Council Chamber of Coermantyr Castle.
Wotan addressed the group of fighters.
“Guardians, the seraphim trolls remain with us, along with Mara, the dragon. Unfortunately we are unable to prevent the eventual return of Tiamat and Thoth. Lord Taliesin, approach.”
The Troll Lord did as the wizard asked.
“Allow me to take your weapon. Smithforge will aid me. We will create a dragon sword from it.”
“Very well, Wotan,” answered Taliesin.
He unsheathed his weapon and laid it on the table before the blond-bearded wizard.
Smithforge and Wotan combined their Ethereal Energy.
“Forgex!” they cried.
A green mist flowed around the Liege Lord’s longsword. It was lifted into the air and turned magically. Archaic runes became etched on both sides of the blade. It gleamed with a metallic, green hue and rested again on the table.
“You may sheath your weapon, Taliesin,” Wotan said.
“Thank you, Weapons Craftsmen,” said Lord Taliesin. “I will use this dragon sword to continue the efforts of my parents, Lord Raymond and Lady Elwen, to defend Gaea. They intended to defend the trolls and other races from the ongoing disturbances to the harmony of our lands. I will fight with all my strength on your behalf.”
“Very well, Taliesin,” declared Wotan. “We are confident in you. Take a night’s rest, all of you. There is sure to be battle soon. You are welcome to stay in the castle lodgings.”
“We will stay here, Wotan,” replied Sharon Redthorne. “My parents also would be heartened by our efforts. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of the Chaotic Dragons.”
The fighters retired for the evening in Castle Coermantyr. They awoke early the next morning and acquired fresh horses from the stables.
“Let us venture north to the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens,” said Gilead. “If the Forces of Chaos return to this Plane, they are likely to take up residence in the Sod Fortress they constructed.”
The warriors did as the Key Mage suggested and guided their steeds north. They passed through the Forest of Coermantyr and entered the marshes of the Fens. Mara, the silver dragon, flew overhead and spoke to the group below.
“My Friends, I sense the dragons, Thoth and Tiamat nearby.” Mara said. “They are relentless. The Stalactite Goblin, firbolg and minotaur legions have also entered Gaea. We must prepare for a bitter struggle.”
The fighters approached the Stronghold of Sod and were dismayed to find the Drystyx Monks had returned. Tiamat and Thoth circled the sky above and Mara engaged them in a fiery battle.
The black-robed wizards had built a series of arbalests and catapults along the ramparts of their fortress. They released a barrage of magical fire that spewed across the marsh when it struck the ground. The warhorses of the Gaeans were nimble and maneuvered successfully to avoid the aerial attack.
Taliesin, the Liege Lord of Mystic Down, beckoned to his companions.
“Let us move to the gates, My Friends. All of Gaea is counting on us. The courage we muster will be noted in the annals of the Lore Masters. Let us breach this Sod Stronghold and contend with the Denizens of Chaos within.”
The warriors of various races surged into a valiant charge. They hewed at the sod barrier blocking the entrance with their steel weapons. The door was ripped open and the guardians clashed with the legion of firbolgs and minotaurs within. A group of beholders attempted to charm the group but their sorcery was ineffective. The Harad Ghul guided their Lykanthros mounts with agility inside the Stronghold and attempted to drive Taliesin and his allies outside.
The Chaotic Dragons grappled with Mara. They pushed the silver dragon away and dove down a pair of cylindrical shafts in the base of the Sod Stronghold. Bjorn Roundtree and the halflings were the first to reach the edge of the rifts in the earth. They were thrown back by a series of fiery blasts from below. The incendiary gusts caused the pits to collapse.
“Thoth and Tiamat have sealed themselves in a network of tunnels beneath this structure,” Mara declared. “I cannot reach them. You Gaeans must join with the seraphim to permeate the lower dungeons and destroy the Chaotic Dragons.”
The Harad Ghul and Denizens of Chaos fell back from their line of resistance. They retreated to the inner halls of the Stronghold of Sod. Taliesin watched them sprint down sets of spiraling stairs into the Under Earth.
“I am loath to pursue our opponents there,” confessed the Liege Lord. “But we have no choice. If we leave the invaders will only return to our populated areas and harass us.”
“Light the torches, My Friends,” Taliesin announced. “Our quest leads us into the Under Earth.”
“We must divide ourselves into separate parties,” said Sharon. “That way we will be sure to prevent ourselves from being flanked.”
“I will travel with Gnoll, Leif and Glasslook, the Dagonites, Claude and Nighthawk’s band,” declared Alex.
“I will go with Torvald, Fangoz, Heartsing, the anthromorph rangers, Thorgrym, Reoren and Sigrid,” said Bors.
“I will journey with you, Sharon, Gilead, Smithforge, Listhew, Rodnik and the halflings,” said Taliesin. “Let each of us follow a stairway downward and contend with the Denizens of Chaos below. May the Fates be with us.”
The Gaean mercenaries parted ways and lit their torches. The sodden walls of the curling tunnels flickered mysteriously. Each of the fighters steeled himself for the conflict ahead.
Alex’s group was the first to enter an open chamber in the Under Earth. Additional torches glowed eerily on the walls. A gathering of minotaurs and beholders rushed at the fighters from the opposite end of the room. The Wood Mage incanted a missile spell.
“Trentak!”
Alex directed his hands across the charging line of bull trolls while releasing a volley of electric bolts. A number of them were struck but were phased only temporarily.
The minotaurs continued forward after Alex’s electric missile spell. Claude and Nighthawk’s entourage contended with the menacing bull-trolls. The Denizens of Chaos clashed with the warriors in a noisy battle.
The vampire and defected goblins wove themselves among their larger opponents. The defected goblins grappled with the horned minotaurs. Claude evaded the hammers and axes of the hostile anthromorphs and used his heightened speed to bring two of them down.
Anemone, Marlin and the other Dagonites discharged their crossbows at the beholders, wounding three of them. They wielded their daggers and swords and entered the melee.
The beholders combined their caches of arcane energy to attempt a multiple charm person spell on the Gaeans.
“Trozos!”
Two of Nighthawk’s goblins and Nautilus fell asleep in the middle of the fight. Alex uttered a protection spell.
“Protex!”
A red ring appeared around the fighters. The warding incantation pushed many of the minotaurs back. The warriors engaged the anthromorphs and beholders, striking at them through the Ethereal Shield. Six more of the bull-trolls fell to the strategic attack.
One of the beholders addressed the Denizens of Chaos.
“Pull back, Minotaurs. We shall regroup in the deeper dungeons. These Gaeans are a determined lot.”
The anthromorphs and gorgons followed the advice of the beholder and withdrew from Alex’s warding ring. They fled through a group of tunnels leading downward.
“We have done well here, My Friends,” said Alex. “Let us continue into this stronghold on the behalf of our regions.”
* * * * *
Liege Lord Taliesin and his acquaintances followed a curving passage into the depths of the Under Earth. Murky rivulets and streams trickled through the compacted soil at their feet.
“Taliesin, I am concerned about the existence of this structure,” said Listhew. “It has been ages since the Entities from the Plane of Chaos have ventured to this Plane in this manner.”
“I understand,” replied the Liege of Mystic Down. “The opposing forces that ebb and surge within the Dharmic Equilibrium are reaching critical mass. The Ghastly Fens have seen conflicts of this nature in eons past. If we remain vigilant I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of this War of the Planes.”
“We will try our best, Taliesin,” answered Gilead. “My knowledge of the workings of magic has increased on this campaign as I’m sure it has for the other mages in our group. Let us continue along our present course and see if we can convince Tiamat and Thoth that they are not welcome in this Realm.”
The mercenaries did as the Key Mage of Coermantyr suggested and followed the spiraling tunnel downward for some time. They came upon a chamber with a small lake and cataract.
“This is strange,” observed Rodnik. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone else here.”
“Deceiving appearances can be,” The Watcher said.
Smithforge wielded his hammer. His face was wrinkled with apprehension.
“We are not alone, My Friends. Prepare yourselves.”
A group of gryphons arose from the lake. Each of the creatures had the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle and the tail of a scorpion. They shook the water off their fur and flapped their wings. The manticores flew toward the mercenaries in an attack formation. Their avian screeching reverberated off the sod walls of the cavern.
Lord Taliesin swung his longsword upward in a powerful maneuver. He skewered one of the gryphons from below, taking care not to be stung by the lashing tail.
Gilead incanted a sorcery he’d learned.
“Acentus!”
Seven of the manticores were incapsulated in mid-flight. The aggressive beasts were trapped in cocoons of green energy. This gave Bjorn and The Watcher time to utilize their slings. Ben Frostberry unsheathed his dagger and entered the fray.
Sharon Redthorne and Taliesin united with Rodnik, Smithforge and Listhew to contend with the gryphons. They parried against the sharp beaks and claws of their opponents. The warriors counter-attacked with their edged weapons, destroying eight of the creatures.
The halflings maintained their barrage of round stones. At last the fighters succeeded in defeating the gryphons.
“We are victorious!” declared Rodnik. “Our battle experience has grown since our outset on this campaign. I have learned much from you, Lieges.”
The mercenaries took time only to clean their weapons before they set forth again on the trail to the deeper dungeons of the Drystyx Stronghold.
* * * * *
Bors and his allies traveled for some time when they reached a dense, wooden door. Torvald, Bors’ son, knelt before the lock. He pulled a set of tools from his travel pack.
“I’ve locked myself out of the inn several times. That’s how I got pretty handy with these tools.”
The Innkeeper’s son twisted and turned a slender, metal tool in the steel lock. The travelers heard a faint click and the portal opened.
“We should proceed with caution, My Friends,” said Sigrid. “I have a shielding spell ready if the need arises.”
The group of travelers entered a mysterious library. All manners of books and scrolls filled the walls. The shelves reached from floor to ceiling. Everything was constructed from dry, sod bricks.
The Sentinel lich-woman perused the tomes briefly.
“Bah! These texts are Chaotic. They speak only of malevolent magic, intending to wreak havoc in the Dharmic Equilibrium. The Drystyx Monks have yet to learn the benefits of balance.”
“Very well, Sigrid,” said Reoren. “We will take your advice and leave these books here. It is unfortunate that the Entities of the Plane of Chaos have chosen such a turbulent path against us. This is also the case for the Harad Ghul. Trolls and other humanoids have free will. It is the individual decision of each of us to determine the course of action we deem fit.”
The warriors marched onward and came upon a widespread cavern. Rauros and the Harad Ghul waited therein with a pair of large beholders. They did not hesitate when seeing the Gaeans and guided their Lykanthros mounts into full charge.
Sigrid activated the shielding spell she’d prepared.
“Sentiex!”
A sphere of golden light appeared around the warriors. The aggressive Lykanthros attempted to breach the barrier. Tiny motes of light formed at the contact points and drove the wolf-beasts back.
Satvinder, Jalhi and the tiger-trolls entered the battle. First they fired bolts from their bows then drew their curved blades. These weapons they thrust through Sigrid’s energy matrix, destroying five of the goblins.
The gorgons were angered by the persistence of the Gaeans and generated a scorching, blue energy ribbon.
“Tractos!” cried the single-eyed creatures.
Their eyes changed colors as the ribbon floated in the direction of the mercenaries. The incantation passed through Sigrid’s shield and scorched Fangoz on the leg. The stone troll only increased the fervor of his attack and squished two more goblins with his massive club.
Jalhi’s wyvern familiars, Flamering and Starfling, spat a volley of fireballs at the beholders. Their attention was diverted to the scalding missiles and their energy ribbon dissolved. The anthromorph rangers charged through the compromised shield and engaged the Lykanthros and goblins with full force. They deflected the slashing scimitars of the Forces of Tiamat and countered with their own, curved blades. The melee was fierce and Jalhi shielded the amazons and tiger-trolls.
“Pranath!”
Each of the feline anthromorphs was covered in an aquamarine shield. They charged through the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs, hacking at all sides. Torvald relied on his rune-etched weapon. He joined with Satvinder, Thorgrym and Reoren to attack first one gorgon, then the other. They defeated the single-eyed creatures and focused their attention on the red-armored goblin assassins.
The battle was fierce and intense. Rauros contended with Heartsing, the seraphim. The warrior from the Plane of Order relied on his height and strength to keep the leader of the goblins and his slavering Lykanthros mount at a distance. Other Stalactite Orcs and Goblins came to the aid of their Leader. Heartsing dealt with them deftly and Rauros found himself unprotected once more. The Goblin Master swung his scimitar in a whirling maneuver. This confused the seraph troll briefly but it was enough to allow the Leader of the Harad Ghul to move back.
Many goblins died in combat with the experienced warriors. Others strode forward to fill the places of those who had fallen. The Forces of Tiamat were driven berserk and leapt in the fray without hesitation.
Starfling and Flamering continued their barrage of incendiary missiles. Jalhi glanced at the small dragons as she parried against an orc.
“Good work, My Wyverns. We are bound to succeed with your aid.”
The other tiger rangers kept up the pace of their attack and defeated over a dozen of the forces from the Arkadian Mountains.
Rauros gave the order to retreat.
“Fall back, My Goblins. These warriors are relentless. We must hasten to the dragons’ lair.”
The Stalactite Orcs and Goblins followed the command of their Leader and exited from the cavern at the end opposite to the mercenaries.
“I must catch my breath,” said Fangoz. “Those humanoids are a tough lot.”
“I agree, Stone Troll,” replied Bors. “We have faced their numbers before and succeeded. If we conserve our strength and battle with care we will yet bring peace to Gaea.”
“Let us be on our way,” offered Heartsing. “Once we meet with the other warriors our forces will be better prepared to contend with the dragons below.”
The fighters marched at a steady pace along the trail of their opponents. They exited the cavern and continued their precarious hike downward.
* * * * *
“The deeper we go the more treacherous the terrain becomes,” declared Trilobite. “Let us take extra care to avoid potential snares and traps.”
“That is good advice, Mertroll,” said Leif. “We should never underestimate the cunning of the Denizens of Chaos.”
Alex’s battle group reached a cave.
At the opposite end a group of kobolds charged. The humanoids had spiked hair. Each was armed and ready for battle.
The kobolds were fierce and used their spears well. The merfolk were forced to parry the strikes of the longer weapons with their curved daggers.
Leif and Alex cast an attack spell.
“Frigidos!” they cried.
Five of the kobolds were frozen solid. The bolts of the Dagonites shattered them.
Gnoll joined with Nighthawk and the defected goblins to contend with the remaining eight kobolds. The spiky-haired humanoids turned their spears and used them like quarterstaffs. Claude moved in on the kobolds and brought two of them down with his fangs. Those that continued to fight were no match for the tactics of the merfolk.
“We are successful,” said Barracuda.
The merwoman was heartened by their victory.
“We should move on, Friends,” Anemone declared. “There are sure to be more Denizens of Chaos on the prowl. The deep dungeons are an ideal location to conduct an ambush.”
The mercenaries followed the advice of the merwoman and continued along the path. At times there were no candles or lamps ensconced on the walls. The warriors were forced to follow the light of Alex’s staff and their own torches.
After some time the travelers reached a spacious chamber. Two other passages descended into the cavern. A fourth continued downward from the room.
“We should wait for the other warriors,” stated Alex. “The dragons must be lodged beyond the lower path. We’ll need their help to confront them.”
The warriors did as the Wood Mage of Arborea suggested and sat on the rocky floor of the cavern. They drank water from their flasks and ate dried food. The members of Alex’s group began the wait for the appearance of their friends from the other two tunnels.
* * * * *
“Cautious we must remain,” said The Watcher. “In many ways remind me this place does of The Spires in the Gorgon Plane. Similar architects the Drystyx Monks and Guardon are.”
“I agree, Aged Halfling,” replied Rodnik. “I’d trade settings for the Wolf’s Fang Inn anytime.”
“Alas, all of us could use a respite from the task at hand,” Gilead declared. “Unfortunately it will take some doing to convince Thoth and Tiamat to leave Gaea. The Chaotic Dragons are stubborn and ambitious. Whatever Entities of the Ephemium brought them here were determined to initiate a Planar War.”
The mercenaries continued along their chosen path. Their trail continued to spiral downward. Many places were devoid of lamps or braziers. The fighters were obliged to use their torches and Gilead’s halo of light to find their way once more.
Taliesin’s battle group entered a crevasse within the sod. The warriors were unable to determine whether the Drystyx Monks or the erosion of the variegated water table in the Ghastly Fens formed the ravine. A cluster of hydras crawled along the walls in search of food. The giant mollusks probed the sod before them with numerous antennae. The hydras detected the presence of the mercenaries and turned as a group toward them. Three of the predators spat globs of acid at Taliesin’s group. Gilead was ready for such a contingency and uttered a shielding spell.
“Sentiex!”
A sphere of golden light appeared around the Gaeans and intercepted the acid missiles of the hydras. The mollusks did not hesitate and charged the trolls with gnashing beaks.
Smithforge and Listhew drew their longswords. They thrust their weapons through Gilead’s protective barrier and skewered two of the hydras. The slimy predators oozed green blood as they fled from the seraph trolls.
Bjorn and The Watcher flung stones from their slings at their opponents. When the projectiles struck their marks the eyeless creatures wheeled about, unsure of the source of the attack. Ben Frostberry opted to use his dagger. The middle-aged halfling rendered a sizable gash to the side of the nearest hydra.
Rodnik joined with Sharon and Taliesin to finish off the remaining attackers. Each of them had accrued heightened experience with edged weapons during their campaign.
“Let us move on,” stated Taliesin. “We must attempt to rendezvous with our friends somewhere below us. I’m sure that our chosen tunnels will converge.”
“Very well, Taliesin,” replied Sharon. “Gilead’s magic kept us free from injury. Let us set forth on this descending path.”
The warriors followed the advice of the Lieges and continued their exploratory journey.
* * * * *
Bors, Heartsing and the other mercenaries continued along their path. The tunnel in which they marched was devoid of light sources. Thorgrym and Reoren lit a number of torches and handed them to the other members of the battle group. The sod walls flickered in the firelight. Sigrid saw the ends of roots and semi-precious stones imbedded in the soil.
The female Sentinel said, “These halls were constructed with speed and efficiency. They tell us of the ambition of the Dragon Titans and their black-robed attendants. If we complete our task here we should speak with Siegemunde. He researches experimental sorceries as we speak.”
“That is sound advice, Lich Woman,” replied Fangoz. “Before joining with you other people I had no idea as to the sophistication of your settlement and Martial Academy.”
“Nor did I,” added Satvinder. “The Ghastly Fens are more populated than I previously thought.”
The warriors continued along their chosen route. They again came to a chamber, hewn by magic in the depths of the Under Earth.
A group of minotaurs and firbolgs waited at the center of the room. Both species from the Plane of Chaos were covered in the Ephemeral Armor produced by the Drystyx Monks.
“Ah, someone has enchanted these humanoids with a blocking spell,” said Sigrid. “The black-robed monks are attempting to prevent their being banished to their Plane of origin. If such is the case then we must vanquish them here.”
Starfling and Flamering unleashed a barrage of fireballs at the armored invaders. The armor of the minotaurs and firbolgs was resilient and deflected the attack. The tiger rangers fired a volley of bolts from their crossbows and drew their weapons. They strode at the core of the firbolgs and contended with their fiery claws.
Bors and Heartsing led the attack. Torvald, Thorgrym and Reoren were close behind. They grappled with the axes and hammers of the minotaurs. The bull-trolls were strong and issued forth a series of hammering strikes with their weapons. The Gaeans were experienced with this tactic and sidestepped the blows of the massive anthromorphs.
Torvald was the first to breach the magic armor of a minotaur with his longsword. The blade of Bors’ son cut through the leather raiment of the bull-troll and rendered a deep gash. The large humanoid buckled at the knees and fell to the floor, unconscious.
The other mercenaries were quick to imitate Torvald’s method of attack. They succeeded in wounding five more of the minotaurs and two of the firbolgs.
Reoren and Sigrid incanted a harnessing spell.
“Captros!”
Half of the surviving bull-trolls and firbolgs were incapsulated in an orange, magic field. The invaders struggled against their magical bonds to no avail. Fangoz seized the opportunity to move in on the trapped humanoids. He squashed several of them with his rusty mace. The floor of the cave was awash in green blood.
The surviving firbolgs and minotaurs were enraged at the destruction of their kindred and initiated a berserker attack against the warriors.
Torvald and Satvinder parried the rapid strikes of their adversaries and the other fighters in the group followed suit. At last the Denizens of Chaos acquiesced to the Gaeans. The firbolgs and minotaurs retreated to the lower dungeons.
“We have fought well,” declared Sigrid. “The junction of the tunnels can’t be far from us. Let us continue our course downward and meet with the other battle parties.”
The warriors followed the advice of the female lich-troll and embarked down the descending path.
* * * * *
Trilobite whispered to the others in his battle group.
“Be alert, My Friends. Someone approaches.”
The Gaeans wielded their weapons as the light of several torches shone down the upper tunnel. Gilead and Smithforge appeared. Listhew, Taliesin, Sharon, Rodnik and the halflings soon followed them.
“We are glad to see you fighters,” said Claude. “We’ve been waiting for you in this cave.”
“Relieved we are that here we got in one piece,” offered The Watcher. “Yet to arrive remains another group. Wonder I do how Bors and Fangoz are faring.”
“I’m sure they’re fine, Watcher,” replied the Baroness of Coermantyr. “They too are experienced fighters and can handle themselves in battle as well as any of us.”
“Hello! Is anyone down there?”
Bors’ voice boomed down the third tunnel from above.
“Yes, Bors,” Taliesin answered. “We are waiting for your group so that we may continue to the dragons’ lair.”
The Burgomeister of Wood’s End, Torvald, Heartsing, Reoren, Sigrid and the anthromorph rangers entered the room. They rested on the floor and ate a meal of hearth bread and dried meat. Once they were finished Bors’ group joined with the rest of the Gaean mercenaries to explore the single, descending tunnel. The smell of sulphur and near volcanic heat wafted on the air current as the fighters marched.
“Be courageous, Warriors,” said Sharon. “The fate of Gaea lies on our ability to banish or destroy the Chaotic Dragons. Our success will bring harmony to our war-swept regions.”
The warriors entered a vast chamber. A hundred yards above, the ceiling sparkled with semi-precious stones. In the middle of the Dragon Midden sat Thoth and Tiamat.
“Flee from us,” screeched Thoth. “The Legions of Chaos have taken Gaea for their own uses.”
“We will not, Chaotic Dragon,” answered Taliesin. “We’ve come here ready for battle and will not leave this Plane before you.”
The red dragon was angered further by the seriousness of the words of the Liege Lord of Mystic Down. Thoth drew in a deep breath, as did Tiamat. The two, large dragons released a massive stream of incendiary chemicals at the mercenaries. Leif and Gilead incanted a shielding spell.
“Tractos!”
A blue energy ribbon surrounded the warriors and captured the destructive energy of the blasts from the dragons. The four seraph trolls spread out and waited for the breath of the dragons to subside. When it did they charged to the giant creatures and laid into them with their reflective longswords. Their blades, sharpened in the Plane of Order, left scalding gashes on their scaled hide. It was not enough to stop the dragons.
Thoth and Tiamat began a struggle with the surrounding Gaeans. The tiger anthromorphs from the Ghastly Fens and the Dagonites from Lord Dagon’s ocean region attempted to inflict damage to the dragons. Their curved blades were not sharp enough, however. Fangoz and Bors pounded at Tiamat’s legs but their clubs were not massive enough to compromise their sizable limbs.
Jalhi Bengal’s wyvern familiars spat fireballs from the air but did little more than distract Tiamat’s five dragon heads. Claude, the vampire, was the fastest and moved around the stomping feet of the dragons. The Arkadian Lord leapt onto the back of Tiamat and drained the blood from the neck of the white dragon head. It fell limp to the floor beside the four seraphim.
Taliesin stepped into the fray. The Liege drove his dragon sword into Thoth. The red dragon gave a final breath of fire and expired.
Tiamat’s green and red heads focused on Taliesin and unleashed a stream of acid and sulphur. The Liege was ready and raised his shield, blocking the attack. Before the other heads of the behemoth responded to his closeness Taliesin moved in. The enchanted dragon sword thrust into the chest of the demigod, stopping her heart.
The troll warrior turned to face his friends, panting for air. He was covered from the waist down with bubbling, green dragon blood. This he washed off with water from his flask.
“We are victorious!” said Taliesin.
The Troll Liege smiled for the first time in many weeks.
“Look, Taliesin! Behind you,” cried Bjorn.
The Liege Lord turned with his sword ready, expecting that one of the dragon heads was still alive. The still bodies of the dragons faded and shrank. In a matter of moments they disappeared entirely.
“The dragons are no more, Taliesin,” observed Gilead. “But the forces that they embody yet plan against us in the Plane of Chaos. We have time to prepare for what manifestations these foul Titans may assume. They will not risk entering Gaea in dragon form again. Too much energy is lost and the resources they tap in their Plane are extensive, but not infinite.”
“All of you have our thanks,” said Sharon. “You are welcome at Coermantyr Castle anytime. I’m sure that you wish to return home and confer with your kindred.”
“That is correct,” added Marlin. “We Dagonites have business to attend to.”
“I should return to Arborea with Gnoll,” declared Alex. “I must fill my office as the new Wood Mage now that these dragons have been destroyed. I advise you warriors to let the four seraph trolls and the silver dragon above to return to the Plane of Order.”
“That is wise, Alex,” replied Taliesin. “You are free to go with our thanks, Seraphim.”
The four, armored trolls nodded their farewell and stepped through a spatial portal to the Plane of Order. The mercenaries made their way to the surface of the Ghastly Fens. Firbolgs and minotaurs did not accost them during their exit. The goblins and orcs were also strangely absent.
Sharon Redthorne addressed Mara, the silver dragon, where she rested on a grassy hill.
“You may return to your Home Plane, Mara. Taliesin vanquished Thoth and Tiamat in the dungeon below.”
“I sensed as much while I rested,” said Mara. “Dragons have a keen awareness of the Dharmic Equilibrium. I felt it when the two dragons were defeated. If you have need of assistance in the future, contact Hydro once more. I am glad to help when I can.”
The silver dragon passed through a large, spatial portal that closed behind her.
“You mercenaries can join us at Coermantyr Castle,” said Sharon.
“Thanks, Baroness,” Jalhi replied. “We rangers must hold council in the Deep Fens.”
“We Dagonites must also return home,” stated Marlin.
The merfolk bowed farewell and headed to the southeast.
Twilight was falling when Taliesin, Gilead and Sharon guided their mounts to the north and Lich Town. Leif, Claude, Nighthawk’s goblins, Bors, Torvald, Thorgrym, Reoren, Sigrid, Rodnik and the halflings accompanied them.
The travelers rode along the trail for several hours. As night fell over the Ghastly Fens, the air became chill and damp. Leif heard the rhythmic hoots of owls and the cries of badgers throughout the mossy hills.
“Siegemunde is bound to be concerned for the welfare of the lich folk and his Martial Academy now that the Harad Ghul has stolen the scrying glass of the Dire Queen,” observed Sigrid. “We are to find the Director of our Academy immersed in tomes and spell books. He takes his work seriously and is perpetually trying new incantations.”
“I agree, Sigrid,” replied Leif. “The Sentinel Order of Mages would not be at its best without the endless research conducted by Siegemunde and the rest of us.”
The mercenaries rode onward into the night. Their warhorses were accustomed to negotiating their passage through the murky swamps and hills by torchlight.
At last the group of travelers met with Einar and the guards of Lich Town.
“Welcome, Brave Warriors,” Einar said. “Siegemunde has given us word of the destruction of the Chaotic Entities manifested as Thoth and Tiamat. He says that they will take some time before attempting to enter Gaea once more. Unfortunately we are obligated to contend with the continuing movements of the goblins, orcs and their Commanders, the Harad Ghul. Let us venture within the City of the Ghoul Trolls. Our bald Director insisted that you be escorted to his study as soon as you arrive.”
Einar guided the fighters through the marketplace. Taliesin and his companions rode the crank-driven elevator to the linked platforms of the Martial Academy. Siegemunde sat at his desk with a pair of glowing candelabras illuminating the stacks of parchment and scrolls before him.
“Welcome, Friends,” Siegemunde entoned. “I understand that you have destroyed the intruding dragons. Restadicus and Wotan were wise to issue a dragon sword to you, Taliesin. You have demonstrated your persistence as a guardian of the Realm. The marauding Stalactite Goblins and Orcs yet stand before us. Are you willing to continue your campaign to secure harmony in Gaea?”
“Yes, Siegemunde,” answered the Liege. “I will do all that I can to uphold the sovereignty of the Regions.”
“Very well, Warriors. Leif, come here, if you please,” the bald wizard asked.
The Sentinel lich mage approached the Director’s desk. Siegemunde handed him a freshly-penned scroll.
“I have collected a number of spells from the archives. They will enhance your ability to deal with the goblins of Mount Crow. Use the incantations as you see fit. These are changing times and they require new approaches to the use of magic. I have confidence in both you and Sigrid.”
Taliesin addressed Siegemunde.
“You have my thanks, Sorcerer,” said the Liege Lord. “The Harad Ghul move with aggression through the regions of Gaea. All of us must remain on guard for none of us know when or where the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins will strike next. My group will take its leave of the Ghastly Fens and station itself in my Tower. Mystic Down is strategically at the center of the regions that are targeted by the Lykanthros riders.
The mercenaries shook hands with Siegemunde and his attendants. They returned to the elevator and disembarked after their horses. The warriors mounted their steeds and headed south. Some of the lich folk waved at the fighters as they departed the marketplace.
“You have gained an honorable reputation among the lich-trolls, Taliesin,” said Sigrid. “It is quite an honor considering our reclusive nature.”
“I appreciate the gesture,” the Liege Lord replied. “You Sentinels are powerful magic users and have filled places within the Dharmic Equilibrium that the Lore Masters in Coermantyr have yet to research. Alex, the new Wood Mage of Arborea, benefited greatly from your experience and expertise.”
“Let us hope that our spell-casting proves to remain effective against the cunning goblins,” offered Leif.
The travelers continued along the trail demarcated by the lich-troll mages. The humidity of the swamp was palpable. They passed the Stronghold of Sod, now abandoned by Zolgnath and his Drystyx Monks. The structure was an unusual addition to the scattered stones and burial mounds of the Crossroads. The ramparts cast an eerie, jagged shadow across the rolling hills.
Lord Taliesin’s group traveled through the night until they came to Wood’s End and Bard’s Inn. Bors and Torvald hastened to the hearth behind the counter and emerged with platters of beef and pitchers of ale.
“Eat and be merry, My Friends,” stated Bors. “The Lykanthros and goblins may venture to Mystic Down at any moment.”
The Burgomeister downed a hearty swig from his mug and smiled. The mercenaries dined with relish. Many of the farmers and villagers spoke with the returned warriors for several hours. By the time the residents retired the dawning sun sent rays of light through the iron and glass windows.
The warriors slept for a few hours when over a dozen villagers rushed into Bard’s Inn bearing faces livid with worry.
“The Lykanthros have returned!” declared a farmer. “They are in greater numbers than the last time and many attack us without riders.”
“Lord Taliesin, we petition you for arms. We are willing to fight the invaders as much as you,” said a tall farmer.
“Give them swords, Taliesin,” added Sharon. “They have a right to protect their families, crops and livestock as much as we.”
“Very well, Baroness,” answered the Liege of Mystic Down. “Now that the Chaotic Dragons are gone, the Stalactite Hordes are sure to increase their efforts to spread into our regions. We can use every able set of hands at this hour.”
Taliesin addressed Bors and Rodnik.
“My good friends, Burgomeister and Sergeant-at-Arms of Coermantyr, I have a sizable cache of weapons in store. Please take this signet key and open the armory of Mystic Down on my behalf. I will move to the front line immediately and see if I can turn these invaders while the day is young.”
The Liege Lord exited from the inn and called for the stable hand to bring his warhorse. The other warriors followed suit and mounted their steeds. Bors and Rodnik hastened to unlock the armory in Taliesin’s Tower. The mercenaries clashed with the invaders in the streets of Wood’s End.
The noise of the Lykanthros in melee with the fighters was tumultuous. The howls of the wolf-beasts melded with the slashing steel of the trolls. Many of the Lykanthros were slain. Forces from the rear moved forward to replace those who had fallen. The battle continued with no end in sight when Bors and Rodnik returned from the armory with two-dozen farmers and villagers bearing swords and spears. The citizens of Mystic Down gave a chilling war cry as they leapt into the fray along with the vampire and lich-trolls.
The Lykanthros clawed at the chain mail of their opponents but failed to inflict any serious damage. Sharon, Thorgrym and Reoren used their experience with swordplay to destroy six of the wolf-beasts. The other Lykanthros were relentless and continued their undirected attack on the villagers.
Claude flew through the crowding Lykanthros to drain five of the goblins of their vital juices. The pale, ghostly face of the Vampire Lord was enough to frighten five more of the attacking Lykanthros.
Sigrid and Leif incanted a battle spell.
“Mortis!”
The rot spell smote two-dozen of the wolf-beast horde and their riders. Their limbs decayed rapidly and the last of the Lykanthros fled in fear.
The residents of Wood’s End cheered. Taliesin spoke to the villagers.
“My People, you have our thanks. All of Gaea has faced daunting challenges of late. I ask that you organize yourselves into a watchful militia. This will better insure the safety of the homes and ranches along with the surrounding countryside.”
One of the residents introduced himself to the Liege Lord.
“My name is Rex. The people of Wood’s End have nominated me to speak on their behalf. I offer my organizational abilities to direct a garrison of trolls to monitor Mystic Down.”
“I appreciate your offer, Rex,” said Taliesin. “If you trolls police the area it will better enable us to move offensively against the Harad Ghul and their cohorts.”
“Very well, Taliesin,” replied Rex. “Your parents would be proud of your diligence to protect us. Ride your steeds at the morn. We will cover you from this end of the conflict.”
The Liege of Mystic Down shook hands with Rex.
“You have my thanks, Brave Citizen. I entrust you with the safety of this town. Guard it well for I fear how long my warriors and I will traverse the open roads of Gaea. Once the Stalactite Forces have been quashed I will return.”
The mercenaries exited from Bard’s Inn with Bors and Torvald in tow. They set forth toward the picket line separating Arkadia from Mystic Down. The trees grew shorter beyond Deep Tree. The fighters approached the foothills of the Arkadian Mountain Range.
Taliesin heard the movements of humanoid troops beyond the thicket. Before he issued a warning to the others of his group Claude vanished into the moonlit trees.
Prepare yourselves for battle,” said the Liege of Mystic Down.
A sizable group of Stalactite Orcs and Goblins ran in skirmish formation through the dense underbrush of the Arkadian Forest. The humanoids used their scimitars to rend a path through the clinging brambles. Taliesin, Sharon and Nighthawk’s entourage were the first to engage the attackers. Sparks flew through the night when their blades met with those of the orcs. Random Lykanthros moved in the fray along with more than a dozen of the wolf-creatures that carried goblin and orc riders.
The magic-users, Gilead, Leif, Reoren and Sigrid combined their Ethereal Resources to issue a counterattack spell.
“Acentus!” cried the mages of different races.
Cocoons of green energy encapsulated six of the mounted Lykanthros, rendering them immobile.
Bjorn Roundtree and The Watcher flung stones at high velocity at the trapped humanoids. Their missiles whizzed through the magic barrier and knocked them unconscious.
Bors and Torvald united with Thorgrym and Rodnik to attack the hostile goblins in a conventional manner. Such was the case for Ben Frostberry, who tumbled through the horde of slashing Lykanthros to lance a pair of them from underneath.
The resilient opposition of Taliesin’s group confused the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins. They turned their mounts eastward and fled from the fighters before more of them were felled.
“The Fates are with us,” declared Rodnik. “Let us venture onward while we have our opponents on the run.”
“Verily, Rodnik,” Taliesin replied. “The goblins and orcs are sure to return if we don’t pursue them.”
The band of warriors followed the recommendation of the Liege Lord and pushed deeper into Arkadia. In a matter of hours they reached the wild rose hedges before the Abyssal Cairn.
“I am still allured by these haphazard blooms,” declared Sharon. “It is a shame that they are not kept in a more orderly fashion.”
“I concur, M’Lady,” Gilead replied. “Since we came here to confront Guardon and the Dire Queen I too have marveled at the unkempt beauty of these blooms.”
The mercenaries rode until they reached the main gate of the ominous Abyssal Cairn. The twin moons orbiting Gaea silhouetted the spindly, gothic towers of the structure.
The warriors tethered their warhorses outside the main entrance to the stronghold and marched within. Each of the fighters held his respective weapon at the ready. Deep within darkened passages Gilead heard goblin and orc voices.
“The humanoids who have caused us so much trouble are exhibiting an ironic lack of interest in who may set foot in their principle stronghold.”
“I agree, Key Mage of Coermantyr,” replied Reoren. “The Stalactite Forces push their nonchalance to the limit. I offer that we follow one of these side-passages and see if we can acquire the attention of the Denizens of Arkadia in the dungeons.”
“That is a good idea, Reoren,” Taliesin added. “It will not bode well for the future of our regions if we turn back from this structure unopposed.”
The warriors marched in a queue down a flight of stairs spiraling downward. The condition of the torchlight was scanty at best. Leif incanted a light spell.
“Lumus, luminares!”
The Sentinel donned a bright halo of light. The other members of the group followed the guiding light of the lich mage. The mercenaries descended the stairs for some time when the path opened into a large room covered in cobblestones.
The chamber was occupied with a gathering of draconians and gryphons. The lizard-trolls turned from their cook fire and snarled at the warriors at the opposite end of the room. The gryphons screeched with annoyance at the sight of the armed travelers.
“Alas, the Drystyx Monks have aided the goblins,” said Leif. “They strengthened the resources of the Harad Ghul during their brief stay in this Plane. Now we must contend with the Stalactite Hordes along with whatever Denizens of Chaos Zolgnath and his cohorts left in their wake.”
The gryphons flapped their wings and flew in an attack formation at the warriors. The draconians wielded their spears and swords. They charged across the chamber at Taliesin’s group.
Bjorn and The Watcher flung their stones at a handful of the gliding creatures. They did no significant damage to the beasts but succeeded in distracting them momentarily. Ben Frostberry joined with Thorgrym and Rodnik to waylay the gryphons with his sword.
Claude, the vampire, leapt onto the back of a gryphon and drank its blood from its neck. Bors observed that the Vampire Lord’s physical resources had increased since his return from the Gorgon Plane. The vampire moved the focus of his attention to the draconian humanoids. Their skin was a leathery green and brown. They stood on two legs and held swords and spears in their clawed hands. The lizard-trolls clashed with Bors and Torvald. The father and son parried the strikes of the foot soldiers with club and sword, respectively.
Gilead, Leif and Sigrid uttered an offensive spell.
“Nechros!”
A half-dozen, spiraling, blue blades flew under the direction of the three wizards. They guided the aerial weapons into the gathering of gryphons. The scythe-like blades destroyed half of the creatures’ number. The gryphons were perturbed by the persistent Gaeans and rallied against their opponents. Torvald was cut a glancing blow on his left shoulder. The beaks of the hawk-headed creatures were razor sharp.
Ben Frostberry strode forward to fill the space of Bors’ son. He lanced the lion-creatures in the chest and was covered in a deluge of green blood.
The other mercenaries organized themselves into a triangular formation to prevent them from being flanked. The melee continued for several minutes as the Denizens of Chaos grappled for position against the brave warriors. The quantity of active gryphons dwindled until less than a dozen of them remained.
The dragon-trolls spoke in a cryptic language to one another and formed a line between the surviving manticores. Claude, the vampire, did his best to impede the green and brown humanoids from harming the wizards in his group. He was cut several times on the arms and shoulders. The night-feeder did not bleed for his metabolism was a veritable blood-conserving machine.
Nighthawk and his entourage of defected goblins came to the aid of Taliesin and Sharon. The gaunt humanoids parried and lunged with their steel weapons. The goblins succeeded in reducing the amount of attacking humanoids to fifteen.
The draconians gave no indication of retreating. The adversaries of the fighters continued to conduct attack patterns despite the casualties they suffered.
Taliesin, Sharon and Thorgrym, the Lich Town guard, commenced a herculean effort and swung their swords with renewed strength. Lord Taliesin brought down three more of the goblins single-handedly and the lich-troll another three.
The battle raged on and the last of the gryphons and draconians gave their all. Bjorn and The Watcher maintained their barrage of flung stones and struck the remainder of the humanoids with growing accuracy.
At last the invaders were vanquished. All of the members of the group of warriors panted for breath. Their faces exuded fatigue from the exertion of the battle.
“We have done well, My Friends,” said Sharon. “Let us pause for a moment before continuing on. Our weapons demand cleaning. Gilead, help me to attend to Torvald’s injury.
The Key Mage of Coermantyr did as his fiance asked and tore strips of burlap from his travel pack. Torvald helped his comrade to tie the bandage to his arm and shoulder with pieces of twine.
The fighters drank water from their travel flasks. They ate dry, salted bread and smoked meat. Grumbling voices in the depths of the network of tunnels echoed over the resting warriors. Bjorn turned his ear to the sounds and estimated the distance to the unseen creatures.
“There are goblins and orcs about a thousand yards from here,” declared Bjorn. “Their numbers have increased since the disposal of the Dire Queen. I will remain on the lookout for us all and will notify you trolls of the enemy’s proximity.”
“Thank you, Courageous Halfling,” replied Taliesin. “Your hearing is keener than ours. If the Harad Ghul draw near we will be ready.”
The perception of Bjorn Roundtree proved to be accurate. The group of mercenaries marched about a half of a mile beneath the foundation of the Abyssal Cairn when they entered an immense cavern.
“This is the largest cave I’ve seen,” Bjorn observed.
“Yes, without equal this place is,” agreed The Watcher.
Sigrid fired an arrow swabbed in oil from her longbow. The projectile was alight and left a trail of flame as it ascended into the darkness above. The shot lofted and turned as it passed through invisible drafts of air. At last the arrow arched at its zenith and began its long return to the earth below.
“The ceiling is beyond our sight,” said the female Sentinel. “This place must have held a subterranean lake ages ago. The mineral water has long since evaporated, leaving this sandy soil and eroded stone as the only indication of its presence.”
Bjorn addressed the group.
“My Friends, the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins are grouped in a larger population than previously observed by trolls. I fear that we have gotten ourselves in a terrible bind. Let us group together and face our adversaries as a single unit.”
“That is wise advice, Observant Halfling,” replied Gilead. “We wizards will stick to the center of the gathering so as to better secure time to incant spells, defensive and otherwise.”
“Good idea,” Taliesin added. “We are going to need the help of you mages now more than ever.”
A colossal horde of screeching orcs and goblins rushed at the warriors from all sides. Their wrinkled and fanged faces reflected the light of Gilead’s halo and the torches of the fighters.
Lord Taliesin and his companions drew their weapons. The cluster of goblins and orcs were pushed from the rear. Rauros and several other members of the Harad Ghul emerged, brandishing their scimitars in an intimidating pose.
“Greetings, Taliesin and Company,” Rauros said. “We meet again and under much different circumstances as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Yes, Rauros, if that’s whom you appear to be,” answered the Liege Lord. “We are here to convince you to leave our regions in peace. The farmers and villagers of Mystic Down and Coermantyr have lost a goodly yield of crops and livestock to your insatiable forces.”
“I’m afraid I can’t consent to that, Taliesin. The regions you speak of are just as much a possession of the Stalactite Forces of Tiamat as Mount Crow in Arkadia. We caused the Maegar Dwarves to flee their mountain kingdom and are soon to do the same to you.”
“If there is no chance for us to work out some kind of mutually beneficial trade agreement then I have no choice but to fight, Rauros,” replied the Liege Lord.
The Leader of the Harad Ghul did not hesitate and led the charge against the warriors.
Gilead and the lich-troll Sentinels had a spell ready and incanted it as the goblins and orcs moved in to strike.
“Sentiex!”
A translucent sphere of golden light surrounded the group and drove away a majority of the humanoids that attempted to draw near. The pressure within the horde of goblins was stronger and many still made it through to engage the fighters in hand-to-hand combat.
The struggle was fierce and the mercenaries did well enough to battle the chaotic horde two at a time. The warriors combined their abilities to form a defensive triangle with the magic-users in the center. Rauros’ Guild of Assassins attempted to breach the lines of defense by attacking with their scimitars in a whirling fashion.
Rodnik and Thorgrym were cut shallow wounds about the arms but maintained their position within the triangle. Bors and Nighthawk pushed closer to the side of their injured comrades and aided their counterattack.
“We are in trouble here, My Friends,” bellowed Lord Taliesin. “Let us form a retreat from this dungeon while we yet have the strength.”
“A wise decision this is,” The Watcher added. “Return to fight another day we must.”
The halflings fought to the best of their ability but were no match for the greater strength and number of their adversaries.
The warriors did as The Watcher suggested and exited from the vast hollow in the Under Earth. They marched with caution as they journeyed to the ground level of the Abyssal Cairn. The Baroness of Coermantyr noticed that the bas-reliefs and tapestries ornamenting the walls of the network of tunnels contained images that were recently updated. The pictures included renderings of draconian soldiers, beholders, firbolgs, griffons and packs of Lykanthros mounted by familiar portraits of the Harad Ghul.
“The Drystyx Monks have inspired Rauros,” observed Bjorn. “The Guild of Assassins thinks highly of themselves.”
“That much is obvious, My Halfling Friend,” said Lord Taliesin. “The goblins and orcs are resourceful and scrupulous adversaries. I feign to imagine what surprises they may hold in store for us.”
“Worry not about future battles,” replied The Watcher. “Time enough have you to rebuild your forces from the farmers and villagers in Wood’s End and Coermantyr Castle.”
Taliesin and his friends backtracked through the mesh of tunnels they’d used to reach the deeper dungeons. The sounds of orc and goblin garrisons reverberated through adjoining passageways. The mercenaries took care to move in near silence.
After an hour the fighters emerged in the spacious courtyard of the Abyssal Cairn. Their warhorses waited at their tethers outside the main gate. Each of the warriors climbed into their saddles and departed the labyrinthine structure.
Lord Taliesin gestured for his companions to head west toward the picket line and Mystic Down.
“We must give Torvald, Rodnik and Thorgrym time to nurse their injuries,” said Sharon.
“I agree, Sharon,” declared Taliesin. “These trolls will be of no use to anyone in their battered condition.”
Taliesin’s group arrived at Wood’s End.
The villagers and farmers who petitioned the Liege Lord earlier now patrolled the streets with vehemence.
Rex saw the approaching warriors and trotted over to greet them.
“Salutations, Lord Taliesin and Company! How fare things with the wily forces from the east?”
“Not so well, Sturdy Rex,” replied Taliesin. “The hordes of Stalactite Orcs and Goblins from Mount Crow have grown exponentially. Our group intended to sway the maverick humanoids and their chaotic cohorts to accept the proposal of a peaceful coexistence one way or another. They chose to fight and we were greatly outnumbered. We decided to arm you citizens none too soon. In addition we shall petition the Maegar Dwarves in turn. They are stationed in the mountain stronghold of the Gorgon Plane. The Hive Builders there may be convinced to align with us in these desperate times. Every peaceful race will prove to be an asset to our campaign.”
“That is wise, Liege Lord,” declared Rex. “We are yet discovering the significance of the Dharmic Equilibrium and the Helix of the Planes. If the forces you speak of prove willing and able to assist us, I’m all for it. First you all can use a good night’s rest. Let us deal with the details of your mission at the morn.”
The warriors slept well. At dawn they gathered their belongings and followed Sharon, Gilead and Rodnik to Coermantyr Castle. That afternoon they met with the Lore Masters.
Restadicus perused the scroll given to the mercenaries by Siegemunde.
“Ah, our friend in the Martial Academy has continued his research,” observed the Leader of the Lore Masters. “Now that the hostile dragons and mages have been sent beyond this Plane the Harad Ghul is bound to lead their Stalactite Orc and Goblin population against us.”
“Restadicus, I suggest that we take some time to observe the next move of the Harad Ghul. We should build our defensive forces while we can,” said the Baroness. “The farmers and villagers of Mystic Down have taken up arms with the intention of defending their families, crops and livestock. They have already engaged in combat with the Stalactite Forces and demonstrated their resiliency. I wish to assemble a similar militia here in Coermantyr. To deal with the increasing movements of the hordes from Mount Crow and the Abyssal Cairn we must educate our citizens in the aspects of self defense. In the event that the orcs and goblins initiate a full-scale assault against this region our chance for survival relies on adequate preparation.”
“That is a wise plan,” answered the Leader of the Lore Masters. “Magic can only do so much to protect a population. Do as you have said and perhaps we will be successful in turning the Guild of Assassins and their army from the regions of the trolls.”
“Once your militia is established, Sharon, send word to me at my Tower in Mystic Down,” asked Lord Taliesin. “The security of the regions of Gaea lies foremost on my mind.”
“Taliesin is in greater need of our help at this time,” said Leif. “We Sentinels and lich-trolls will take up temporary residence in Mystic Down. It is there that our knowledge of magic will prove most useful.”
“Nighthawk, Claude and the halflings will journey to Taliesin’s Tower with me,” said Bors. “Torvald and I have been away from Bard’s Inn too long. I hope we haven’t lost our patronage.”
“Very well, My Friends,” replied Sharon. “Gilead and Rodnik will stay here with me. We will study the tomes that the Lore Masters have collected. My hope is to find information in the history books that report of similar conflicts to the one we face.”
“That is a shrewd plan,” said Taliesin. “The saying, There is no knowledge that is not power. holds truth for all of us.”
“If you please, Baroness, to stay here I wish,” The Watcher said. “Many books there are in your library. Contribute I can to your histories for many things I observed during my imprisonment in the Gorgon Plane.”
“Of course you are welcome to stay with us, Watcher. The Lore Masters will benefit from your notes. Lord Taliesin will be fine without you. Your memoirs will be a welcome addition to our collection,” declared Lady Redthorne.
“I will take my leave of Coermantyr for now,” said the Liege of Mystic Down. “I will keep in touch with you and return if necessary.”
The hazel-eyed Liege Lord bowed his farewell and departed from the Council Chamber of the Lore Masters. The travelers acquired their warhorses from the courtyard in the castle and began the ride to the tower to the east.
* * * * *
Oxholm and Drumtone were concerned for the welfare of the Maegar Clan. Sadness swept through the dwarves’ settlement after the death of King Grumbold. The King’s subjects gave him a proper funeral. They laid the deceased on a wooden pyre in a distant cave. The dwarf brothers placed Grumbold’s finest sword over him and ignited the pile. Many of the Maegar Dwarves shed tears that sparkled in the firelight.
“Alas, our King is gone. The Council of Dwarves decided against appointing a new King,” said Drumtone. “No one was able to get a majority vote from the council. Our clan faces hard times due to the presence of the chaotic creatures. Oxholm, I move that we return the Maegar to the Arkadian Mountains. I’d rather face the servants of the Harad Ghul than the firbolgs, minotaurs, beholders and Lykanthros that perpetually prowl this Plane. Do you agree, My Brother?”
“Yes,” replied Oxholm. “Let us meet with the Dwarf Council. It may be difficult to convince them to initiate another exodus. I don’t see any other choice, however.”
Oxholm’s brow wrinkled with worry.
“It will take much doing for us to gather our supplies and people for such a trip. Let us return to the Council Chamber and address the Clan Leaders while this objective is still fresh in our heads.”
Drumtone retrieved his timpani from a storage alcove and rolled it into the Council Chamber. He beat a gathering tattoo. Over the course of the next hour the Council Members of the Maegar Clan convened in the large cave.
“Brother, the Council is here,” declared Drumtone. “Make your speech so that all may know our opinion.”
“Very well, Drumtone,” said Oxholm. “Thank you for maintaining the rhythm of meeting.”
Oxholm addressed the gathering of dwarves with a booming voice.
“Maegar Dwarves, as you are aware our clan has suffered a great loss of late. The invaders to this place from the Plane of Chaos killed King Grumbold. He will be remembered in all of our hearts. Another significant happening for us was the decision to forego the office of the King altogether.
“Since the Council is now the highest governing body I ask you to make a decision. Things have gone from bad to worse since we abandoned our settlements in the Arkadian Mountains for this Plane of the Gorgons. Our children need the opportunity to thrive in safety. The dwarves are able fighters and do not mind the occasional battle. The number of adversaries of varying species that have set foot here as a stepping-stone to Gaea has reached an overwhelming point.
I ask you, Maegar Council Members, to allow us to return to the mountains in Arkadia. The warriors from the neighboring regions there yet conduct an active campaign against the Harad Ghul and their wolf-like steeds. We can help Lord Taliesin of Mystic Down and Lady Sharon Redthorne of Coermantyr. The Vampire Lord, Claude, has also returned to Arkadia after spending several years trapped in this mountain stronghold. Think on this request. I will be here again at this time tomorrow and will await your decision.”
Oxholm bowed to the Council Members and exited the chamber with Drumtone. The Council Members applauded their support. The middle-aged male and female dwarves who sat at the crescent-shaped table looked at each other with expressions of concern. They distributed paper and ink around the table and began the process of taking a vote. Assistants to the Council entered the room and ignited oil-burning lamps so the representatives could deliberate through the night.
* * * * *
The following day Drumtone again beat the cadence of gathering in the Central Hall of the settlement of the Maegar Dwarves. The majority of the population of the clan filled the Council Chamber. Oxholm again stood before the Council.
“Dwarf Leaders, have you reached a decision?” asked the burly warrior.
“Yes, we have,” answered a gray-haired dwarf. “I am Cooper. The other Members of this Council have nominated me to speak on their behalf. The Maegar Council has decided to leave the Gorgon Plane and return to the Arkadian Mountains in Gaea. This was a weighty issue for us because the goblin Guild of Assassins and the voracious Lykanthros continue to wreak havoc in the various regions of that Plane. We Maegar Dwarves return to Arkadia under duress. Our clan is prepared to defend itself regardless of location.”
“Very well, Cooper,” answered Oxholm. “The dwarves will prepare themselves for the journey ahead. We are bound to encounter resistance from the Stalactite Forces that moved into our mines and farmland. It will prove challenging to secure peace but it is not an unreachable goal. My brother, Drumtone, and I volunteer our skills to help the clan move and defend it upon our arrival.”
“I will send word through the tunnels the Maegar dug. By this time tomorrow we will be ready to pass through a spatial portal,” said Drumtone.
The dwarf families were quick to abandon their mushroom farms and dwelling places. It was clear that the invasions of the Denizens of Chaos were burdensome to their subterranean lifestyle. The following day Drumtone again beat the gathering rhythm in the Council Chamber. Dwarf families had tied up their belongings in makeshift wagons. The Council Members were not adept mages. The had saved, however, the research notes of King Grumbold. Cooper used the memoirs of the deceased King to generate a portal in the Council Chamber.
“Spiros!”
A wavering gateway appeared in the fabric of space before the waiting dwarves. The humanoids pulled their wagons through the portal, carrying axes and hammers in their belts. Oxholm observed that the members of his clan bore anxious expressions. The dwarves emerged at the foothills of the Arkadian Mountain Range. Twilight had fallen.
“We should move into the mountains quietly,” declared Cooper. “The orcs and goblins lurk everywhere. Our age-old nemesi are sure to be on the alert for Lord Taliesin has waged a campaign against them on multiple fronts.”
Drumtone observed several cookfires near the horizon.
“Let us steer clear of those lights. The less contact with goblins in this open wilderness the safer I’ll feel.”
The dwarf brothers guided the Maegar Clan upward to their clandestine farmland. The night air was chill. It carried a brisk breeze down from the mountaintops. Despite the harrowing environment the dwarves understood the necessity for moving on. They pushed into the road-less hills for a few hours.
At last the Maegar reached a meadow enclosed by a group of peaks. Fresh water poured from a cascade. Pale flowers reflected the light of Gaea’s moons over the rolling hills.
“This is a good location to settle the clan, Brother,” said Oxholm. “King Grumbold would have approved of this place.”
“I agree, Oxholm,” replied Drumtone. “Alas, I fear that it will be but a matter of time before the Stalactite Forces of the Abyssal Cairn discover our presence and ride their wolf-beasts in this direction. Our chances have improved for the Legions of Chaos were present in greater numbers than our adversaries in Arkadia.”
“That is true, Drumtone,” answered Oxholm. “I have confidence in our clan’s ability to protect this settlement. The Maegar have more battle experience than when they departed for the Gorgon Plane. When the time comes to fight, we’ll be ready.”
“Come with me, Brother,” beckoned Oxholm. “Let us help our people set up camp for the night. We can use some rest before we face tomorrow’s tasks.”
Drumtone followed his brother to the circle of wagons and began the task of setting up a modest camp.
* * * * *
Taliesin met with Rex in the Throne Room of his Tower. The fighters gathered there to decide their next course of action.
“Lord Taliesin, you have our thanks for giving us the arms to defend ourselves,” said Rex. “The Harad Ghul continues to run haphazard through the regions of Gaea. I suggest that you let we villagers and farmers take care of the defense of Wood’s End and this Tower. There are rumors among the patrons at Bard’s Inn. Word tells that a different race of humanoids fights the goblins and orcs on the opposite side of the Arkadian Mountain Range.
“A group of Gypsies that spent the night in town said the mysterious warriors call themselves Qualinesti. They are taller and more lithe of stature than we trolls. The Qualinesti have angular faces that bear high cheekbones. Their ears are pointed, giving them a devilish appearance. This combination of features resembles that of the elves of the past. Storytellers, as you may recall, describe the existence of elves, as have traveling minstrels returned from the east.
“The Gypsies were surrounded by the Stalactite Forces when the entirety of the marauders was defeated by a shower of enchanted arrows,” Rex continued. “Ricardo, the Leader of the Band of Gypsies, was unable to give me many details about these Qualinesti for when he approached them they were cool and distant.
“Despite the reticence of these humanoids I recommend that you approach them, Lord Taliesin. They could prove to be a powerful asset in the defense of these regions against the hordes under the Harad Ghul.”
“You have piqued my curiosity, Rex,” said the Liege of Mystic Down. “The information you have delivered, as sparse as it may be, is helpful to our cause nonetheless. Please do as you suggest and remain on guard here. I will travel east with the Baroness of Coermantyr and my other acquaintances. If these Qualinesti Elves share a common cause with us then I should have little difficulty in convincing them to send a delegation of their kin to aid us in quelling the Guild of Assassins.”
“Do not worry about us, Lord Taliesin,” declared Rex. “The residents of Wood’s End have already trained extensively with the weapons you gave us. If the Lykanthros and goblins reappear in Mystic Down we will be ready for them.”
“You have my thanks in advance, Rex. We will be on the road to the Mountains of Arkadia by nightfall.”
Taliesin kept his word and departed through the gates of his Tower by twilight. The halflings, Gilead and Sharon, the lich-trolls, Bors, Torvald, Rodnik, Claude and Nighthawk’s entourage accompanied him.
The battle group was assailed by three wolf-beasts soon after exiting from the populated area. The mercenaries were prepared and vanquished the trio of Lykanthros with ease.
Several bands of Stalactite Forces patrolled the picket line along the border of Mystic Down and Arkadia. As the fighters passed Deep Tree they encountered a larger group of orcs and goblins. Gilead, Leif, Sigrid and Reoren combined their caches of arcane energy to intercept the charging wolf-beasts and their riders.
“Grondos!” they cried.
An aggressive, green mist surrounded the attackers, causing them to gasp for breath. The humanoids fell from their slavering mounts and rolled on the ground. The warriors moved in on their adversaries and finished them off with their hardened, steel blades.
“We should continue along our present course,” said Taliesin. “The more we hesitate, the likelihood of the goblins finding us increases. I am anxious to meet these Qualinesti Elves. Based on the story of the Gypsies they sound like a force to be reckoned with.”
“I agree, Taliesin,” replied Sharon. “We face an imbalance that demands correction. If we traverse a pass between the Arkadian Mountains we will be in a position to locate the mysterious elves. We can only hope that the information given to us by the visitor to Bard’s Inn contained accurate orientation.”
The mercenaries urged their horses onward. Claude flew ahead of the land-faring group as makeshift reconnaissance. As the grade of the foothills steepened the trees grew shorter. Granite boulders were abundant along with rugged shrubbery and moss.
“The air grows cold,” said Sigrid. “I expect the snow falls here on a staggered basis.”
“That is correct, Sentinel,” answered Gilead. “When I gaze to the east from Coermantyr Castle I frequently see the tops of these mountains covered with snow.
“Nevermind the cold. We are here on business. We’ll be over this pass before we know it.”
The vigilant mercenaries pushed their warhorses to the crest of the chosen pass. The wind gusted forcefully between the two mountains harboring the path. The riders pulled their cloaks on tightly and began their descent into a broad, wooded valley. Several miles away smoke rose from the trees.
“Those fires must belong to the Qualinesti Elves,” observed Leif. “I can make out some architecture at that place, but it is too far away to discern any detail.”
Claude appeared at the summit of the trail.
“I carry a retractable spyglass, if you warriors care to use it. It is a compact version of the one in the principle tower of Castle Stammberg.”
“Thanks, Night-Feeder,” Leif replied. “I read of such devices in the tomes of the Martial Academy but never before saw one firsthand.”
“Be my guest, Sentinel,” offered the Vampire Lord.
He handed the small telescope to the lich-troll. Leif extended the interlocking brass tubes and removed the lens cap. He pointed the device at the columns of smoke in the valley below.
“Ah, I can see much of the elven structures,” marveled Leif. “Their settlement is built into the oaks like the architecture in Arborea. The visitor in Bard’s Inn gave us accurate directions. The buildings are complex. More than a generation of elves must have worked on this stronghold. Let us be on our way. The sooner these enigmatic elves are informed of our legitimate business, the safer I’ll feel.”
“Legitimate business?” a voice asked. “We will be the judges of that.”
A group of tall humanoids with pointed ears and thin faces stepped out from behind a cluster of pine trees. They aimed their longbows at the mercenaries. The head of the group was a muscular elf. He signaled for his companions to lower their weapons.
“Greetings, I am Llewellyn. It has been many years since trolls or lich folk ventured this way. I suppose you’re here because of the increased movement of the goblins and their kin.”
“Your guess is correct, Llewellyn,” answered Taliesin.
The Troll Lord strode over to the elf and shook his hand.
“I am Taliesin, Liege Lord of Mystic Down.”
The Troll Lord introduced the other members of his group to the band of elves.
Bjorn Roundtree was intrigued by the stealthy humanoids.
“Are you the Qualinesti Elves?” asked the halfling.
“Yes, we are, Friend Halfling. Our tribe chose this name centuries ago. As we did then we favor the safety and tranquility of the deep forest,” answered the Elf Captain.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” said Bjorn. “Hostile humanoids have invaded Gaea on multiple fronts.”
“We are aware of that,” replied Llewellyn. “The Leader of the Qualinesti Elves in our woodland city, Fangorien, wishes to meet with all of you. The opportunity exists for us to create an agreement of mutual protection.”
“That is a good idea,” replied Bjorn. “Our gnome cousins in Tinkerburg are battling Loki and the Harad Ghul as we speak. With your assistance we may yet bring peace to that area.”
“I agree,” stated Llewellyn. “We should meet with Valinor. He is the oldest living elf in our humble community. Valinor will meet with us and determine the appropriate course of action. Please follow us into the Valley of the Qualinesti.”
Llewellyn gestured for Taliesin’s entourage to accompany him down the foothills. The warriors from the various regions of Gaea followed the tall elves who brought out their own horses from where they were tethered in the thicket. As the mercenaries rode downward and east one of the elves played an eerie tune on an ocarina. Other elves who were hidden in the lofty branches of the oak trees sprang to the earth and allowed the trolls and others to pass.
Lord Taliesin chuckled at the sight of the elves.
“Your kin are adept users of subterfuge. I’m glad that we are welcome visitors for I would fear to venture here without permission.”
“Yes, Taliesin,” answered Llewellyn. “We take our territory seriously and have ambushed many a wayward orc and goblin who have accidentally set foot on our land.”
The fighters rode a few miles more when they reached the outer wall of the City of the Qualinesti Elves. Llewellyn spoke briefly with the guards at the tall, wicker gate. They chatted in Elvish. The guard subsequently signaled the elves on the ramparts above to open the massive, wooden doors.
As Taliesin and his friends passed into Fangorien they were taken aback at the sophistication and development of the tree-bound architecture. The buildings were lodged in the trees. A network of suspension bridges connected the giant oaks. The city was more elaborate than the structures Alex reported on in the settlement of the wood trolls.
“This place is wondrous,” said Sharon. “I had no idea there was such a developed elven population east of the Arkadian Mountains. My heart is strengthened to see that we may yet arrange an alliance strong enough to cordon the Stalactite Forces from their ongoing invasions.”
“Please, My Friends,” declared Llewellyn, “tether your horses to this tree. My kindred will water and groom them while we meet with Valinor above.”
The warriors did as the Elf Captain suggested and dismounted. They strode to a large, crank-driven elevator and stepped aboard.
Over a dozen Qualinesti Elves waited for the visitors. They escorted Taliesin and his companions to a vast study at the city’s center. Valinor was a gray-haired elf. The shelves of his office were replete with books and tomes of various shapes. The Elf Leader looked up from his documents and took off his spectacles.
“Welcome, Lord Taliesin and Baroness Sharon Redthorne. Your reputation preceeds you. I congratulate you on your defeat of the Dragons of Chaos, Thoth and Tiamat. There is a risk that the power-hungry Demigod and Behemoth Titan may return. The Qualinesti were allies of the trolls in the ancient war. I knew your parents, Taliesin and Sharon. They would want for we elves to join your campaign and aid you in quashing the recent uprising of the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins.
“The elves have been swayed into a state of melancholy by the turbulence that has smitten the Dharmic Equilibrium. An attempt to return to the previous state of order to the Helix of the Planes will incite a serious power struggle with the Harad Ghul and the devious specters who assist them.”
“I agree with your assessment of the current situation,” said the Key Mage of Coermantyr. “I am Gilead and also fear the possible return of the Dragons of Chaos. The magic of we mages and that of the Lore Masters in Coermantyr Castle is not enough to banish the forces of evil permanently. A rotating watch, representing the various Regions of Gaea, is what is needed. Join with us, Valinor, and with the help of Siegemunde in the Ghastly Fens we may better understand the juxtaposition of the proclivities that are manifested in the different Planes. Clearly it is unwise to tamper with the natural separations that exist between the Planes.”
“Those are thought-provoking observations, Gilead,” replied Valinor. “It is clear that despite the challenges that face us we must remain optimistic and dedicated to our cause. I will delegate Llewellyn and a dozen elves with battle experience to aid you in turning Loki and his hordes from Tinkerburg. I wish we could move directly on the Abyssal Cairn but, based on your statement describing the tactical difficulties you faced, would forego attempting to quell the activities of the Guild of Assassins at its core. Take each day as it comes. We will deal with the scurrilous dragons in the event that they return.
“Go now, Brave Warriors,” declared Valinor. “Llewellyn and his battle group will show you the quickest path through the Arkadian Mountain Range. From what you tell me the gnomes are in serious need of tactical reinforcement.”
“You have our thanks, Valinor,” said Taliesin. “If our endeavors are fruitful we may meet again.”
Llewellyn guided the mercenaries from Valinor’s study. The entourage of warriors descended to the ground in the elevator. The fighters mounted their warhorses and headed west, out of the forested valley. Taliesin noticed that they were traveling to a different section of the Arkadian Mountain Range than the one they passed on the way in.
The Elf Captain led the group through a lower pass.
“This route is not as grueling as the one we took before,” said Rodnik.
“I believe you, Sergeant-at-Arms,” stated Llewellyn. “Over the ages we wood elves have become quite familiar with the contours of the mountains. Look beyond the foothills.”
Rodnik did as the tall elf asked and gazed to the south. Pillars of smoke rose from a city by the sea.
“Ah, that is Tinkerburg,” Rodnik observed. “They remain under siege. I hope we are not too late.”
“There is still time,” said Ben Frostberry. “We must hurry to assist the gnome engineers. The upper hand in the battle before us is not yet determined.”
Claude flew to the edge of the gnomes’ city. Ground-hoppers and battlemechs clashed with mounted Lykanthros. The Stalactite Forces were aggressive and used a number of battering rams to punch holes in the walls of Tinkerburg. The vampire swept down through the twilight air and grabbed an orc from his ride. The growling humanoid was no match for the preternatural strength of the Undead Lord.
Llewellyn, the Qualinesti and Taliesin’s group were hot on the trail of their vampire companion. The warriors drew their various weapons and engaged Loki’s forces from the rear.
Ben Frostberry and Bjorn Roundtree used their slings to pelt the goblins before them. Bors and Torvald entered the battle simultaneously, hewing to the left and right with their sturdy weapons. The lich-trolls incanted a sorcery as a single unit.
“Chronos!”
A barrage of sticky clouds entrapped a third of the Stalactite Forces. As the goblins and orcs fell over one another the Qualinesti Elves loosed their arrows into the battalion. Several goblins were slain by the shots of the wood elves. Llewellyn signaled his kindred to draw their swords. A few of the elves wielded enchanted blades that glowed various colors in response to the proximity of their opponents.
The gnomes had successfully deployed their ground-hoppers and battlemechs into a line across the breached entrance to Tinkerburg. The large machines conducted the arduous task of pushing Loki’s forces out of the city.
Axel and Galatia led a squadron of flyers in a circling pattern over the battle. They flung makeshift bombs from their aircraft. The resulting craters sent confusion throughout the ranks of the Stalactite Horde.
The din of war surrounded the mercenaries of the various regions. Nighthawk teamed up with Bors, Torvald and Thorgrym. They followed Rodnik’s lead into the middle of the clashing steel. The warriors tangled with the disoriented goblins. They overpowered the greater numbers of the Stalactite Horde.
Loki scanned the scene from atop his Lykanthros mount.
“Retreat, My Goblins. These others have pressed us back far enough. Let us convene at the Abyssal Cairn. We shall return to Tinkerburg and claim it as our own.”
The Stalactite Horde sprinted from the opening in the outer wall of Tinkerburg. The Lykanthros gave a final howl and hastened for the Abyssal Cairn in the northeast.
The gnomes used their ground-hoppers to assemble and bury the deceased that lay strewn about the battlefield.
Axel and Galatia signaled the other flyers to land on the airstrip next to the city. The squadron of flyers drifted in and rolled to a stop on the dusty ground. The two gnomes disembarked from their vehicles and ran to meet with the returned warriors.
A ground-hopper bounced toward Taliesin and his companions. The steam engine slipped out of gear. Gearzon leapt to the earth and shook hands with each member of the group.
“It’s great to see all of you again,” Gearzon said. “We were getting worried. I didn’t know whether you trolls intended to arrive.”
“Of course we did,” replied Taliesin. “We attempted to neutralize the Forces of Tiamat at the Abyssal Cairn but were unsuccessful. My fighters hence chose to assist in terminating the siege of Tinkerburg.”
“You got here none too soon, I’ll say,” Galatia added. “We were nearing the last of our oil and coal reserves when you arrived.”
The female gnome noticed Llewellyn and his entourage of elf warriors. Llewellyn returned the gaze of the engineer and smiled.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” offered the Elf Captain. “I am Llewellyn of the Qualinost Valley. These are my aides. We have traveled over the Arkadian Mountains upon the request of Lord Taliesin and Baroness Sharon. This city is developed and possesses unique architecture. I will leave four of my elves here to keep watch in case the Harad Ghul return.”
“That is a good idea, Llewellyn,” observed Gearzon. “We gnomes will take you up on your offer. Extra pairs of hands are welcome in these desperate times. Our orchards and gardens yet need protection. We can only do so much with our ground-hoppers and battlemechs.”
“Very well, Gearzon,” said Sharon Redthorne. “We will depart from Tinkerburg. We yet seek a working means of preventing the return of the Dragons of Chaos, Thoth and Tiamat.”
“That is a wise decision, Lady Sharon,” offered Gearzon. “The gnomes will hold their own for a goodly time. Seek the advice of Siegemunde in the Ghastly Fens. He is known to enact sorceries that the Lore Masters avoid. If you find yourselves in need of armored support, contact us again. We have updated battlemechs rolling off the assembly line on a daily basis.”
Lord Taliesin and his companions bade farewell to the gnome engineers gathered before the gate to Tinkerburg. They rode their warhorses hard into the night. Claude continued to conduct surveillance for the mercenaries by flying in search patterns.
The mercenaries passed through the hills and woods of Mystic Down. By dawn they reached the Burial Ruins at the Crossroads. The Stronghold of Sod left by the Drystyx Monks made a looming outline on the horizon. There was no one on the ramparts and the warriors continued along their chosen trail.
“I wonder how the Bengal Clan fares,” said Bjorn.
“I’m sure they’re on the hunt somewhere,” Ben replied. “We will issue a search party for them if the dragons return. The feline anthromorphs are bound to be stocking up their staples as we speak. I understand they are adept hunters.”
The fighters continued to follow the iridescent halo worn by Leif. The fog was thick and the marshes numerous.
“I continue to be amazed at the navigating faculties of you lich-trolls,” said Rodnik. “I would not desire to traverse these swamps alone.”
“I agree, Sergeant-at-Arms,” added Torvald. “I’d much prefer the warmth and comfort of Bard’s Inn.”
“Alas, there is yet much work to be done, My Son,” said Bors. “We must apply ourselves to securing the regions of Gaea from future invasions from the Plane of Chaos. We are obliged to carry on until we consult with Siegemunde once more. He is an adept wizard who I’m sure has been researching experimental magic day and night.”
At last the warriors rode over a tall hill and beheld Lich Town. Einar and a group of guards approached Taliesin and his acquaintances.
“Welcome back, My Friends,” declared the sturdy lich-troll. “I gather that Restadicus was reluctant to enact our experimental magic.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” answered the Baroness. “I am yet concerned for the merfolk. Before we assist another region we wish to have Siegemunde bestow us with amphibious armor. Thus we will be able to visit Lord Dagon in his ocean region. We want to help control the invasions of the Nozroth who have been hoarding the schools of fish.”
“That is a fine idea, Sharon,” replied Einar. “It is good diplomacy to come to the aid of the regions of our allies. They have helped we land-faring trolls to win decisive battles on the land. It is just to help the Dagonites with their challenges under the ocean. Venture within and consult with Siegemunde. I’m sure he has the ability to cast the spell you speak of.”
“Thank you, Loyal Guard,” said Taliesin.
Each of the members of the group nodded their heads to Einar and his fellow guards as they passed once more through the great, wicker doors. The lich-trolls within were accustomed to the presence of the outsiders. They no longer hid their wares or closed their booths when the gathering of mercenaries rode through the marketplace.
The fighters again hoisted their warhorses four at a time into the elevated stable of the Martial Academy. Once the members of Taliesin’s group were on the pylon-supported platforms they walked to Siegemunde’s study.
“Welcome, Friends,” declared the baldheaded wizard. “I understand that you helped the gnomes push the Stalactite Hordes out of Tinkerburg. You have my appreciation.
“Alas, there continues to be conflict in the ocean. The Dagonites, Marlin and Anemone, left word that the Chaotic Nozroth continue to close-off the access to the large schools of fish that feed the mertrolls in the City of Dagon.”
“We are willing to help, if we can,” said Lord Taliesin. “I understand that a sorcery exists that can render us as the amphibians. Is this a spell that you are willing to attempt, Siegemunde?”
“Gladly, Lord Taliesin. I have researched the process of transformation for some days now. Let me know when you are ready for me to begin the procedure.”
“We are ready, Siegemunde,” declared the Baroness. “Our elf friends are willing to accompany us to the region of the Dagonites.”
“Very well. Steady yourselves, My Fellow Gaeans,” said the Director of the Academy.”
“Aquas!”
A yellow mist congealed around each of the mercenaries. The surface of the magic armor hardened until it reflected the candlelight of Siegemunde’s study. A preternatural breathing mechanism formed at the back of each watertight suit of armor. This allowed the wearers to respirate in air and water.
“Thanks, Siegemunde,” said Llewellyn. “We will make haste to the sea so that we may help our mertroll cousins.”
“Very good, Llewellyn,” answered Siegemunde. “May the Fates be with you all.”
The Gaean Fighters exited from the wizard’s office. They left their warhorses at the stable. The warriors set forth at once for the beach. Claude, the vampire, flew overhead and surveyed the coastline. He didn’t see any goblins or orcs during the journey.
Once on the shore the warriors dove in and swam downward until they moved just a few yards over the ocean floor. Leif again donned his magic halo, which created dancing ribbons of light as the Gaeans swam through clusters of sea plants and beds of coral.
In a matter of minutes a group of Dagonites, who patrolled the shallows, noticed them.
“Welcome, Warriors. We’ve been expecting you,” declared a mertroll. “We are glad to see that Siegemunde’s gill suits are effective.
“Do you recognize us? It’s Marlin. There is Anemone, Trilobite, Nautilus and Barracuda. We are unfamiliar with your pointy-eared companions.”
Llewellyn swam to Marlin and shook his hand.
“I am Llewellyn of the Qualinost Valley. These seven elves are here to help bring tranquility to the regions of Gaea. I understand that you helped these land-faring trolls defeat the Summoners and Chaotic Dragons.”
“That is correct,” answered Marlin. “The invasions of late are the concern of all the races of Gaea. We Dagonites are as concerened for the trolls on the land as we are for those in the sea. Follow us to the City of Dagon, my father. He will be heartened to see you visitors to our region.”
The warriors followed Marlin into the greater depths. They swam over the alabaster walls and towers of the City of Dagon. Taliesin and his friends were able to keep up with the brisk pace of the web-footed mertrolls. Their amphibious armor possessed artificial flippers that extended several inches beyond their feet. Thus the mercenaries propelled themselves at the same pace as the fish hunters.
Marlin led the visitors to the central colonnades. The guards allowed their entrance. In the Audience Chamber Lord Dagon sat on his alabaster and marble Throne.
“Welcome, Gaeans. The Denizens of Chaos are yet abounding. A group of aquatic hunters, calling themselves the Nozroth, has infiltrated the major schools of fish. These we depend on for food. My son and Captain, Marlin, reports that the Nozroth have refused to share the existing caches of fish in a peaceful agreement. Please, Elves and Trolls, help me to keep the major currents in the sea open to those who would seek food there.”
“We are glad to offer our assistance, Lord Dagon,” replied Lord Taliesin. “With your permission our group will seek out these Nozroth and convince them that the ocean is not a place to hoard or dominate the food supply.”
“Very well, Taliesin,” Dagon responded. “You have the thanks of the Dagonites in advance.”
The battle group, with Marlin’s fellow merfolk in tow, bade Lord Dagon goodbye. They followed Marlin’s lead out of the City of the Dagonites. The warriors equipped crossbows and bolt-throwers from the merfolk’s armory. They swam in the open ocean for some time. After several miles they came upon a school of yellowtail. The scales of the fish reflected the light of the sun descending in rolling waves from the surface.
Nozroth hunters had the school surrounded. Marlin advanced toward them and caught the attention of the Leader, Icthos.
“Leave us, Mertrolls,” cried the large Nozroth. “We have already claimed these waters for the Denizens of Chaos. Thoth is the authority to be reckoned with in this Plane, as in others.”
“I understand that is your belief, Nozroth. The Dagonites require sustenance as much as anyone. Allow us to share these fish or face us in battle.”
The Nozroth was angered beyond words and discharged his crossbow at Marlin. The Dagonite Captain was prepared for such an attack and evaded the dart. A fearsome battle commenced. Both sides fired their projectile weapons but did minimal damage. Taliesin’s group attached their bolt-throwers to their belts and drew their steel weapons. The Nozroth, in turn, wielded curved swords, similar to those used by the Harad Ghul. A fervent melee ensued.
Llewellyn and his Qualinesti Elves were experienced fighters and parried the blows of the Nozroth. The relentless elves ran through a pair of the humanoids.
The magic-users of Taliesin’s group cast a warding spell.
“Sentiex!”
A spherical shield of golden light surrounded the battle party. The Nozroth were powerful swimmers but were unable to force their way through the Ethereal Shield.
Taliesin, Sharon, Bors and the other mercenaries treaded water within the magical barrier until they were face to face with their opponents. They thrust their fire-burnished blades through the energy matrix, wounding six more of their adversaries.
The Leader of the Chaotic Invaders was taken in awe of the united warriors. He addressed his cohorts in a gurgling voice.
“Withdraw, Nozroth. These are bizarre fighters. Let us regroup and return with the leviathans. It is time for our familiars to awaken.”
The jagged-toothed, Chaotic Hunters turned from the Gaeans and swam deep into the purple haze of the ocean.
“We have arisen victorious, My Friends,” declared Marlin. “These fish are available to us once more. Before we return to the City of the Dagonites let we merfolk catch some of these yellowtail.”
“By all means proceed, Aquatic Friend,” said Lord Taliesin. “We could use a solid meal as well.”
The mercenaries watched the mertrolls appreciatively as they linked segments of net from their travel packs. This formed a larger net that they passed over the school of fish. As an organized unit the Dagonites pulled the ends of their weighted net together, catching a large portion of yellowtail.
“Thank you for bearing with us, Land-Farers,” offered Trilobite. “We much needed this fresh catch. Follow us now to the City of our Lord where we will make a hearty feast.”
The warriors swam with the Dagonites back to the alabaster city. Other merfolk cheered at the sight of the fresh fish. Marlin and his kindred lowered the trapped yellowtail down to the marketplace of the settlement. The citizens fired phosphorous braziers and placed the quickly cleaned fillets on the grills. Dagon himself swam to the gathering with his vestigial tentacles billowing behind him. He eyed the cooking meat with pride.
“You have done well, My Son,” the Lord said. “I take it that you and our visitors convinced the hostile invaders that we needed a share of the school.”
“Yes, Father,” answered Marlin. “We wouldn’t have been successful without the aid of these land-dwellers. They have earned a portion of these yellow-tail.”
Dagon turned to Taliesin’s battle group with a complimentary grin. He shook hands with each of the warriors.
“You have our thanks, Fellow Gaeans,” he stated. “We’ve had quite a struggle with the results of the rifts created by the Dire Queen and her cohorts. Join with us in partaking of the fruits of your labor.”
“Thank you, Lord Dagon,” said Lady Sharon. “We are glad to help when we are able.”
The warriors from the different regions of Gaea sat at a row of marble benches and dug heartily into the roasted fillets. Claude, the vampire, tasted the cooked fish but it was not to his liking. He swam over to the net of live fish and drained the juice out of three of them.
“Ah, I feel much better,” the vampire declared. “I am interested in the architecture of this city, Dagon. How long have you mertrolls lived here?”
“Three hundred years, Night-Feeder,” Dagon rumbled.
“That is impressive,” Claude replied. “In many ways your longevity resembles that of these elves.”
“That is true, Claude,” said Nautilus. “I sometimes wonder if we share common ancestors with the Qualinesti.”
“It is possible that we are distantly related to the mertrolls,” offered Llewellyn. “We have not always been referred to as the Qualinesti. There was a time that the elves outnumbered the trolls, dwarves and halflings. Many of our number moved far to the east after a great war. In past ages the goblins and stone trolls were also more populous. Our forefathers lost a generation of elf warriors in the fight to control the regions of Gaea. Since that time we regrouped as the Qualinesti and have kept our distance from the lands of the troll folk.”
“It is fortunate, then, that our regions have come together once more,” answered Lord Taliesin. “In the future let us maintain routes of communication between our respective races. There is always strength in numbers.”
“I agree with your observation, Taliesin,” said Lord Dagon. “If Siegemunde reclaims the scrying glass taken from the Ghastly Fens we will be able to communicate with you land-faring trolls with greater ease and efficiency.”
“That is a good idea, Dagon,” responded Leif. “The Stalactite Forces run wild through the woods of Gaea. I have sensed recent movement in the Helix of the Planes. I suspect that the Maegar Dwarves in the Gorgon Plane have chosen to return to Gaea and confront the Stalactite Forces that took their land. When our battle group is able I suggest that we trek to the Arkadian Mountains and welcome the courageous Maegar Clan formally.”
“As I think about it,” said Sharon Redthorne. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the hive-building Arachnoids also decide to construct a habitat in Gaea. They have contended long and hard with the gorgons and firbolgs that run rampant through their Home Plane.”
“I agree with your assessment, Sharon,” replied Leif. “The conflicting energies within the Dharmic Equilibrium have reached a state of critical mass. It is therefore no surprise that sentient groups are on the move to calmer Realms.”
Before the warriors were able to discuss the issure further a female Captain of the fish-hunters swam hurriedly into Lord Dagon’s Throne Room.
“Greetings, Lord Dagon,” said the merwoman. “I am Calliope. I regret to report that our city is under attack by the Nozroth. They ride giant, crystal sharks and are firing their crossbows at our citizens. We must move against them before anyone is seriously hurt.”
“Thank you for the report, Calliope,” answered Dagon. “Join the other Captains. We will follow you shortly.”
The female Captain did as the amphibious Lord suggested and exited from the room with her crossbow held at the ready.
Dagon addressed the Gaeans gathered in his Throne Room.
“We will move at once to deal with these invaders. My Friends, I regret to inform you that the city is under attack. I am loath to ask you to battle for us again.”
“Nevermind that,” replied the Baroness. “We are glad to help when we are able. Let us swim to the city’s edge and convince the riders of the crystal sharks to turn around.”
The gathering of trolls and elves swam from Dagon’s Throne Room with the Lord of the Merfolk in tow. Taliesin saw the giant, crystal sharks as they circled around the alabaster and marble city.
The massive fish were called “crystal” because of the translucent nature of their bodies. Like other sharks they were one of the oldest species living in the ocean. Their anatomy contained cartilage without bones. Many merfolk rose from the streets to contend with the Nozroth and their mounts.
Marlin and Anemone fired their projectile weapons at the Riders of Chaos. They succeeded in stopping only a few of them. The Dagonite Captains hummed the tone of attack.
Every able-bodied mertroll swam up from his or her watching place throughout the city. They unleashed a barrage of missiles from their projectile weapons and drew their curved blades. Lord Taliesin gave a rallying cry from the helmet of his gill suit.
The Dagonites stabbed at Nozroth and mount alike but their blades were too small to impede their opponents significantly. The warriors did well, however, in avoiding the knife-like teeth of the crystal sharks.
Llewellyn and his entourage wielded their longswords and entered the fray with Taliesin’s group. They drove their lengthy blades into the massive, crystal sharks, destroying them. The Nozroth that stood atop the oceanic predators were forced to abandon their positions or sink to the ocean floor.
Gilead and the Sentinels uttered a binding spell.
“Captros!”
A large percentage of the dismounted Nozroth were trapped by a sorcery that resembled the coiled net of a giant spider. The sticky cords wrapped themselves around more than half of the jagged-toothed humanoids. They were unable to fire their electric bolt-throwers or use their swords. The spell of Gilead and the Sentinels also restrained the Leader of the Chaotic Hunters.
“Curses, you have us trapped,” declared the Nozroth Leader. “I, Icthos, will take your offer to share the fish seriously. If you release me from this infernal contraption I vow to partake of simple pieces of the schools and leave the remainder to you Dagonites. Thoth would not be pleased, but there is nothing I can do about that now.”
“Very well, Icthos of the Nozroth,” replied Dagon. “I will take your word at this time. Do not doubt that if your hunters hedge on this agreement our friends from the land will assist us in this manner again.”
Gilead and the Sentinels gestured with their hands and the Ethereal Cords dissolved. Icthos bowed to Lord Dagon and called to his cohorts to leave the City of the Merfolk.
“We have done what we can to help here, Dagon,” said Lord Taliesin. “We will depart to the beach. If you have need of our help again you are welcome to send your Captains to us. These Nozroth are sinister-looking. Keep a steady watch and let us know if they hoard the fish again.”
“Very well, Lord Taliesin and Company. You have our thanks,” answered the Lord of the Dagonites.
The land-faring mercenaries swam west of the City of the Mertrolls. They reached the beach near Tinkerburg in a matter of hours. Once the fighters were on the shore Gilead deactivated their amphibious armor.

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