Saturday, November 27, 2010

ORDER & CHAOS - 108,000 words - Chapter Four

Chapter Four: Near Horizons

Rauros sat wearily on the Dais in the Abyssal Cairn. Word had passed for several days of an eerie serenity in the woods and highlands. Dakros approached the Leader of the Harad Ghul through the torch-lit columns of the spacious castle.
“Rauros, our scouts have reported similar situations all along the picket line with Mystic Down. The guards and patrols have diminished their size and number of reconnaissance missions. There is a greater conflict taking place beyond our Plane. If we act now we can solidify our encampments in Mount Crow and take the greater portions of the Ghastly Fens and Mystic Down for the goblins and orcs. Let me lead a garrison of Harad Ghul and Stalactite Orcs into Mystic Down. Rumors tell us that a meager corps of soldiers protects Wood’s End and Lord Taliesin’s Tower. The majority of the troll folk have returned to the forest in search of lumber for building and fertile soil for planting. They will be taken by surprise if we act quickly.”
“Your counsel is sound, Dakros,” Rauros answered.
The sun-creased assassin gazed beyond the lines of torches as he contemplated the impending course of action.
“Let us ask Loki what he thinks about the state of affairs beyond our region. There is always merit in an additional opinion.”
The dark, green member of the Harad Ghul approached his two companions at the heart of the Abyssal Cairn.
“I have been monitoring Mystic Down, My Friends. The greater mercenaries have departed from the region for some days. The machinations of the Dire Queen and her daemon companion have demanded the full focus of their attention. Breaches have formed amid the Latticework of the Planes. My bones sense the conflict from the forces outside Gaea. All of us are better off now that Ankharet has been extricated from her reign over the goblin and orc tribes.”
Loki continued to address Rauros and Dakros with a tangible vehemence.
“Only the Innkeeper’s son, Torvald, remains in the tavern in Wood’s End. If the Harad Ghul acts quickly we will succeed in claiming the stronghold in Mystic Down on the behalf of the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs. Let us assemble our Guild of Assassins and venture through the woods this night. We can yet seize the fortress of the warriors and employ the resources of their settlement and hunting grounds for our own tribes.”
“Your plan has merit, Loki,” replied Rauros.
The visage of the experienced goblin continued to manifest an expression of contemplation and ambition.
“Let us journey forth this night and put the training and regimentation of our forces to the test. It will do us good to reestablish the goblin power base as a force to be reckoned with among the scurrilous races of this Realm. It has long grieved me that our numbers have not returned to what they were in the age before the war with the stone trolls and Feudal Knights.”
“Very well, Leader,” said Dakros. “I will assemble the greater sum of our armies here tonight. We will disperse the scouts and hunters shortly with the Harad Ghul permeating the woods ahead of them.”
The red-painted elder goblins ran their separate ways through the shadowy colonnades of the Abyssal Cairn. The Harad Ghul harnessed what few Lykanthros remained as steeds. They banded with the Stalactite Orcs and enthusiastic Goblins of Mount Crow as they infiltrated the woods beyond the looming castle. The invaders would soon reach the picket line bordering their region with Mystic Down.
* * * * *
Torvald awaited the return of his father and the other mercenaries as he turned sides of mutton and beef on a large grill. The townsfolk and visiting farmers chatted cautiously among themselves.
The lithe son of the hearty Burgomeister spoke to his friends in a booming voice.
“The wolf-creatures and goblin marauders have fled us now, My Friends. We are fortunate to have such ambitious Lieges here and in Coermantyr, as well. Let us salute the newfound peace here and apply ourselves to a prosperous future!”
The patrons of the tavern cheered their approval and sloshed their mugs as they crashed them together.
A stable hand ran into the warm room. His face was creased with urgency.
“The goblins have returned! Again they ride the Lykanthros like warhorses. They have already mauled a number of gardens and destroyed our vegetables.”
“To arms, My Friends!” cried Torvald.
The swarthy troll drew a rune-etched longsword from under the countertop. The other patrons of Bard’s Inn wielded weapons from their burlap and leather cloaks. They rushed out of the tavern and stood at the ready in the main street of the modest village.
Rauros and his Harad Ghul had surged ahead of their marching kindred and slashed at hedgerows and cabbages with their scimitars. They recognized the silhouettes of the trolls as they stood before the rays of light piercing the fog from the inn.
The fierce assassins did not hesitate and engaged the standing villagers with their burnished blades. The Lykanthros remaining in Gaea were experienced with the dextrous tactics of the villagers. They dodged their weapons while issuing counterattacks with their claws and fangs.
Torvald stepped to the front of the gathering of his battling companions and lunged forward, bringing down one of the Lykanthros and its rider. Two more of the Harad Ghul were tripped by the rolling creature and also lost their feral mounts as they stumbled. They rose holding their scimitars aloft and engaged the inexperienced trolls in hand-to-hand combat. A few of them were defeated before Torvald pulled his longsword free and compromised the position of the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs.
Blueblood rode into the scene and was about to render a serious infliction to Torvald’s flank when he parried the attack just in time.
The Stalactite Orc agent of the Harad Ghul was a fierce soldier and grappled with Torvald in a forceful grip. The two warriors spun over the street of Wood’s End, toppling a bound-stick fence. They parted again and their swords clashed, emitting a shower of sparks. The other residents and visitors to the chief settlement of Mystic Down came to the aid of the Burgomeister’s son. The Harad Ghul and trolls entered a serious battle.
Torvald was cut a shallow wound on his left forearm. He addressed the large orc assassin assailing him.
“Turn from this region, Red Assassin. The troll folk seek a peaceful existence with the tribes of the Arkadian Mountains. Do not sacrifice all forwards won on this venture.”
“That is not possible,” answered Blueblood. “Our numbers have grown since the past war. We need the fertile soil here for our people. Refrain from resisting us.”
“Liege Lord Taliesin would not consent. You have a feud on your hands, Orc Leader. En guarde!”
Torvald swung a series of blows with his longsword, compromising Blueblood’s defenses. The member of the Harad Ghul was gashed on the thigh. The Lykanthros and villagers continued to fight. The red-painted orc stumbled away from the Innkeeper’s son, clutching his leg.
“Arrgh!” he yelled. “This is foolishness, My Kindred. Let us return with the echelons of goblins. The trolls here are a greater hindrance to our agenda than we predicted.”
The swarthy orc grabbed the reins of a riderless Lykanthros and pulled himself into the saddle. The horde of goblins and orcs fled from the streets of Wood’s End, leaving the trolls with their weapons drawn. They cheered their victory.
“We must prepare, My Friends,” Torvald said. “The goblins are sure to return, and in greater numbers.”
* * * * *
At last I am free, Claude thought.
The ancient vampire ran through the moonlit oaks and pines of the Arkadian Forest. He sensed the beating hearts and warm blood of a variety of creatures throughout the wilderness. Some slept while others prowled the brambles in search of prey. The dethroned Lord moved through the windswept trees with an uncanny silence. Raccoons and badgers dozed under bushes at his feet as his toes grazed the surface of the earth.
I long for the sanctuary of my castle, Stammberg. The goblins assuredly lurk therein, Claude contemplated.
The experienced night-feeder was careful to avoid random encampments of goblin and orc soldiers. Since the return of the Gaean mercenaries to their home regions the Arkadian Forces dispersed into the deep woods.
Ah, the remains of my ancestors beckon. Ages have passed since I strode the halls of my domain free of harassment from the goblins and their cousins. The other vampires fled under the duress of the invading hordes and destructive stone trolls. I wonder if any of them yet remain, thought Claude.
The returning Lord’s eyes reflected the bright, silver light of the twin moons. His visual faculties, which were keen in near total darkness, perceived the smallest details of the swaying boughs and scurrying rodents. Owls and lynxes cried from the reaches of the spruce and elm groves.
The vampire ran to a clearing at the base of the Arkadian Mountain Range. He had traveled dozens of miles since emerging from the portal generated by Restadicus at the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens. A tall fortress protruded from the slanting mountain, whose foot met the hilled prairie where Claude stood. A scattering of lights shone from windows in the high towers. Trails and extinguished campfires pockmarked the bending grass around the banished Lord.
Claude ascended the foothills of the Arkadian Mountains. The eerily-lit towers of Castle Stammberg grew tall as the vampire lurched through the reeds and oaks. His keen hearing detected the movements of goblin patrols. The aged Lord was experienced with evasion tactics and did well in avoiding the attention of the aggressive humanoids. Their snarls and grumbles caused the troll’s ears to tingle.
These fellows aren’t nearly as bad as the gorgons and Lykanthros, he thought. They don’t hunt on scent and kharmic energy like the others did.
Claude observed sporadic encampments of goblins that muttered around cook-fires and drank fermented grog. They were unaware of the presence of the elusive night-feeder as they tore at rancid meat with their jagged fangs.
I long to again sit on the Throne of my tribe, the undead troll considered. Much has gone awry in this region since the clans of vampires were expunged by the brutal stone trolls and orcs. The time has come to return this area to the Denizens of the Night, its rightful custodians.
The once-banished Lord reached the portcullis of the aged castle. The systems of cranks and levers that lifted the gate were in an advanced state of disrepair. The marauders that drove Claude’s kindred away had either abandoned the structure or relied on an alternate entrance. The powerful Leader of the Vampires grasped the base of the interlocking grid of rusted, iron strips. He ascended the fallen gate, exercising his preternatural strength, and continued up the brick wall of the southernmost tower. His ragged cloak billowed in the chill mountain breeze as he climbed. A number of bats were attracted to his predatory aura. The carnivorous, winged mammals flew near his brow before zooming past the large, circular moons and spiraling toward the uppermost towers.
The Vampire Lord spied a variety of auburn and green goblins dancing a macabre minuet through the iron-framed windows. The tapestries hung by his cousins and their friends were tattered and faded.
“I’ve had enough of this!” Claude yelled, exasperated.
The troll hurled his body through the plate-glass window, causing it to shatter in a shower of pieces. The goblins in the dining hall gasped in alarm at the dark figure plummeting through the air from above. They wielded short swords and maces in an attempt to protect themselves but their efforts were in vain. The enraged night-feeder subjugated each of the screeching invaders with his vice-like grip and needle-sharp fangs. The vampire feasted on goblin blood and his irises dilated with the addition to his reserves of energy.
Claude marched across the central chamber of Castle Stammberg and flung open the double doors at the front. The auburn goblins in the antechamber howled in fear at the sight of the panting troll. They realized the gristly fate of their companions and fled from the Arkadian Stronghold driven wild with fear.
“Away with you, Foul Goblins,” said the Escheated Lord. “Your stone troll comrades have parted ways with your invasive agenda and have left you to your own resources. I imagine it will be some time before they help you to unearth more coffins containing members of my tribe. Stammberg belongs to the creatures of the night. It is not meant to be usurped by mortal whimsy.”
Claude trotted back through the dining hall and journeyed up the spiral staircase to his reception chamber. His marble Throne remained where it had been but the standing candelabras had fallen against it, making a home for a number of spiders. The troll put the lamps in their proper places and swept the black marble free of webs. He sat in the massive chair and tossed his white hair back. The Vampire Lord considered the events that transpired since his expulsion.
He rested for but a few hours in silent meditation. The night-feeder made a tour of his family’s castle. He straightened what furniture remained in a useful condition. The detritus he collected in a pile in the central courtyard and set it ablaze. He included the broken coffins of his subordinate aids, rent by the past invasion of the stone trolls. Claude cried crimson-stained tears in remembrance of his lost friends and kindred. Although he’d spent many years perched in the dark reaches of the Gorgon Plane the memories of his youth were fresh.
The Arkadian Lord gazed at the crimson and orange flames for some time when he heard a mysterious scratching from the ramparts above the quadrant. He looked for the source of the sound but caught only the blurred shape of a black cloak as it dove over the outer wall.
Claude’s curiosity was piqued and he ran with superhuman velocity to the foot of the same wall. He used his glossy claws to scale the edifice quickly. At the edge of the woods a tall, humanoid figure ran into the standing trees. The night-feeder hurled himself from the edge of Castle Stammberg and let his form shift into that of a winged gargoyle.
He glided over the forest canopy, like an eagle, staring down at the athletic person running through the untamed wilderness below. Focused on his target, Claude let his wings of shadow dissolve and plummeted from the moonlit sky. He landed hard on the soil before the obscure Entity and grabbed its shoulders. The person struggled with uncanny strength and the cowl fell back, revealing the features of a female vampire. She was younger than Claude and had not been present at the time of the destruction of the mountain Tribe of Stammberg.
“Let me go! You’re energy has created echoes throughout these mountains. I don’t know from whence you emerged but I detected your presence from miles away. There were vampires here once, but they disappeared long ago. My name is Gabrielle.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Gabrielle,” Claude answered. “The marauding stone trolls and goblins destroyed my companions. Since the close of that campaign the great warriors from the Ghastly Fens have dispersed from their battle Middens and adopted a tranquil existence. The goblins, in turn, have claimed Castle Stammberg and the neighboring vampire strongholds for their own use. If we rebuild the population of the people of the night the Mountains of Arkadia will be returned to a moderating position in the network of regions.”
“Your words ring true, Claude,” said Gabrielle. “I have long wondered about my origins. I was initiated as a vampire some years ago but my creator was weak and did not live long thereafter. He spoke of others of our kind but did not know if any remained in the Realm of the Living. I saw many artifacts and remnants of vampire activity in these castles but could not devise where they had gone or how they met their fate.”
“That was the past,” Claude replied. “The aggression of the stone trolls and goblin hordes brought about a dark time for the vampire tribes. If we remain vigilant and enterprising we can return this region to the structured habitat it once was. The predation of the night-feeders is but an element of the cycle of life. We must limit our hunts to individuals who have killed unjustly. Thus the vampires will promote the greater harmony of Gaea.”
“Long have we perceived the memories and traits of the mortals. If they have done wrong to each other we will know of it and act accordingly.”
“Your words bear wisdom, Claude,” Gabrielle responded. “I have hunted smaller creatures in the attempt to preserve the social balance of the neighboring races.”
The pair of vampires relied on the darkness of the nighttime forest to conduct reconnaissance on the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs. The wiry humanoids camped in sporadic groups throughout the forested foothills of the Arkadian Mountains. Gabrielle and Claude realized that the patrols issued from the Abyssal Cairn had forgotten the influence of the night-feeders over the years since their alliance with the stone trolls.
They approached one of the larger encampments before the silhouette of Castle Stammberg. Gaea’s twin moons were full and formed bright, shimmering circles behind the narrow towers of the ancient fortress. The night-feeders allowed the goblins to see them in the light of their fire. The humanoids gasped in alarm and wielded their various weapons.
“You are not natural beings of this region,” said a one-eyed Sergeant.
His brass-ringed epaulets indicated his office delegated by the higher goblin and orc officials of the Abyssal Cairn.
“The Harad Ghul has reformed under goblin administration. Our Guild of Assassins controls Arkadia and will not relinquish these holdings to anyone, no matter how pale or emaciated they appear,” declared the muscular goblin.
His companions growled their support of his declaration.
“My name is Darktooth. Flee from this place or face our wrath.”
“I will not, Darktooth,” Gabrielle vowed. “For years I have lived in the margins of the foothills, scavenging for prey amid your chaotic fires and destructive patrols. Mount Crow was once the home of a clan of vampires, as the presence of my companion demonstrates. He has already reclaimed Castle Stammberg. If you wish to partake of a peaceful coexistence with us, return to your subterranean tunnels.”
“We will not,” said Darktooth.
The hearty goblin wielded a war mace and charged Gabrielle. The fledgling vampire utilized her sharp reflexes to evade the attack of the Goblin Leader. She pivoted on the heels of her leather boots and seized Darktooth by the shoulders. The Leader of the Goblin Patrol was an adept fighter and shirked the hold of the female vampire. He flailed his left arm in a swimming motion while raising his war mace with his right.
Claude joined the fray, gripping Darktooth from behind. The aged night-feeder drove his fangs into the goblin’s neck, tapping the central artery. The other members of the patrol swarmed around the pair of vampires. They bludgeoned at the pale figures but failed to hinder their attack. The Goblin Leader fell lifeless to the ground. Claude growled and stepped toward the other humanoids. They fled into the trees, screeching with fear.
“Let’s return to the castle, Claude,” said Gabrielle. “Since your return to Mount Crow, the Dharmic Vibrations have changed. The magical experiments generated in the Abyssal Cairn have ceased.”
“The Dire Queen has been destroyed and her daemon courtesan returned to the Plane of Chaos,” explained the male vampire. “If we take the time to rebuild and refurbish Castle Stammberg to its original splendor we are sure to attract rogues and misfits interested in joining the Clan of the Night.”
The pair of undead carnivores held hands as they scrambled through the waist-high grass to the castle gate.
* * * * *
Marlin and Anemone swam through the warm shallows off the coast of Mystic Down. They had bade farewell to their land-faring Comrades-in-Arms and dove eagerly into the turbulent depths. The sea trolls were adept swimmers and took full advantage of their webbed hands and feet to propel themselves against the current.
“The feeling of the water has changed since our entrapment by Ankharet’s sorcery,” hummed Anemone.
“I agree,” said Marlin. “The environmental cycles of the ocean region are in perpetual flux. I hope things are going well with my father, Lord Dagon.”
The pair of amphibious Captains observed that the ocean was in a placid state. Green and yellow rays of light descended in oscillating columns from the surface two hundred yards above. The sandy bottom of the sea was lined with interlaced patterns of light passing through the clear water. Silver and red schools of fish billowed and writhed in bizarre formations above Anemone and Marlin.
“The crystal sharks and giant mantas are strangely absent,” said Marlin’s girlfriend. “I wonder if other aquatic predators have been deposited in the water through the random portals generated by the Dire Queen.”
“That is an imminent possibility, My Love,” responded the mertroll. “Let us remain on our guard in the event that an unexpected species appears in these depths.”
The Dagonites swam onward into the dark blue of the open ocean. The lights of the phosphorous lamps in the City of the Sea Trolls wavered at the base of a wide, submarine valley. Teams of fish hunters hauled great, seaweed nets filled with bass and carp. The lively fish flopped about in their snares as their captors left trails of air bubbles rising from the gills in their necks. A band of the hunters noticed the approach of their missing companions and swam over the edge of the alabaster city to meet them.
“Greetings, Marlin, we’ve missed you since your disappearance.”
A husky, purple mertroll embraced the returning Captains.
“It’s me, Trilobite. The regents of the coliseum were quick to enter your names into the roster of entrapped citizens. The sea was turbulent during the permeation of the spatial rifts. Dagon was vigilant in his observation of the regions above through his scrying glass. He kept us all informed as to the activities of the Lore Masters in Coermantyr Castle and the magic-users hearkening from the Ghastly Fens. He marveled at the experimental sorceries employed by the young Lieges to subvert the offensive tactics of the Arkadian Summoners. It’s good that you’re back. A new tranquility has returned to our region. Rumors have spread of strange predators afoot. The movement of the traditional schools of fish has been disturbed by some large carnivores yet unseen by our hunting patrols. I don’t believe you’ve met my companions. Allow me to introduce them to you. Their names are Nautilus and Barracuda.”
The large fish hunter indicated the male and female merfolk treading water nearby. Nautilus had red skin and bore vestigial tentacles manifesting a spectrum of colors ranging from orange to aquamarine. Barracuda was a slender merwoman whose complexion was a mottled bronze. She wore a series of ornate rings and bands on the tentacles extending from her head and back.
“We are glad to meet you, Courageous Captains,” declared Nautilus. “The regions beyond the sea are notoriously perilous.”
The Dagonites swam in a group as they neared the coral and marble city of their people. The metropolis of the sea trolls was a bustling network of activity. Amid the ornate towers and pillared temples hunters and craftsmen hurried to barter their wares. Young merfolk swam in queues to attend classes at the local schools. A variety of colored streams of heated gas rose from the phosphorescent lamps that limned the homes and streets of the Dagonite Colony.
“I look forward to conferring with my father,” said Marlin. “Much has occurred since I last spoke with him.”
The sea trolls swam over their great settlement and entered the courtyard of Lord Dagon’s columned stronghold. A number of Captains approached the returning warriors and heartily embraced them. All of the merfolk were anxious to seek counsel with Dagon and inform him of his son’s return. They swam through the elaborately carved arches at the entrance to the principle stronghold. Rows of incendiary sconces emitted rings of light as they hung from brass chains at the top of each marble column. Squidge, Dagon’s main advisor, swam from the opposite end of the long hallway and addressed the gathering of young warriors.
“Greetings, Marlin and Anemone! I am glad that you have returned safely from the invasive portals created by Ankharet in the attempt to dominate Gaea. I can only speculate as to what alien creatures and environments you encountered during your hiatus from the ocean region. Let us venture to the inner sanctum and speak with the Ruler of the Dagonites.”
Squidge beckoned for the merfolk to follow and swam through the final set of columns into Lord Dagon’s Throne Room. The warriors accompanied the advisor of the Lord and beheld Dagon, sitting on his marble and coral Dais. The large mertroll appeared to be dozing and expelled a staggered stream of bubbles from his neck. Squidge side-stroked over to his Lord and gently shook his left shoulder.
“Dagon, wake up, your son has returned!”
The middle-aged mertroll was startled. He snorted and opened his eyes. His face grinned with relief at the sight of his son and girlfriend.
“Marlin, thank goodness! I’m glad you’ve returned to us. I watched the activities of Restadicus and Siegemunde through my scrying glass. They did well to concert their arcane resources to halt the invasion of the Lykanthros, gorgons and minotaurs. Our historical tablets speak of invasions driven by Thoth and the Drystyx Monks in ancient times. They were turned then with the assistance of the seraphim from the Plane of Order. It was beneficial for the regions of Gaea that Restadicus and his companions were able to contact the Plane of Order and once again seal the breach created by the magical experimentation of the Dire Queen of Arkadia and the foul, Ephemeral Specters.”
“I’m glad to be back, Father,” answered Marlin. “The Lieges of the various regions of Gaea were disciplined in their campaign to bring a stop to the rifts reaching to the Gorgon Plane and Plane of Chaos. Lord Taliesin of Mystic Down, Baroness Sharon Redthorne of Coermantyr and the Sentinel mages from the Ghastly Fens were especially helpful to us. We are indebted to them for their valor and perseverance. Tell us, how fare things for we Dagonites now that the rampant spatial rifts have been eradicated from our waters?”
“As good as can be expected, My Son,” said Dagon. “The portals that permeated the seas brought with them strange monsters. The traditional schools of fish have been disturbed by predators yet unseen by our hunting patrols. If you get some rest and feel up to the challenge take the opportunity to survey the workings of the fish-hunting patrols and the movement of the great schools of albacore and yellowtail. Word tells us that something is amiss.”
“Very well, Lord Dagon,” Marlin answered. “I am in good health and will do as you ask. Anemone and my companions will conduct reconnaissance around the area and report back about the changes to the ecosystem.”
“Good luck, My Captains,” replied the middle-aged Leader.
The entourage of merfolk departed from the central stronghold and swam out and above the city until they reached the outskirts of the alabaster buildings.
“The gatherings of tuna previously drifted close to our city,” observed Trilobite. “Recently they’ve migrated to the deeper ocean, requiring greater effort on our part to stock our markets. Surely a new species of carnivore is competing with us for the food resources that exist in this region.”
The stocky mertroll’s face reflected his concern for the welfare of the Dagonites. The band of newfound friends swam for a while when they spied a cluster of yellowtail feeding on plankton below the surface of the deep sea.
The large fish swam in a tight spiral as a number of dark shapes moved in around them.
“I think we’ve found our mysterious predators, My Friends,” said Anemone. “They appear to have arrived here from the spatial portals established by the Dire Queen during her assertion of power from her Abyssal Cairn. Let us approach our usual quarry and see what the response of these dark predators shall be.”
“That is sound advice,” offered Marlin. “Perhaps we can convince them of the possibility of a harmonious relationship within these waters.”
The Dagonites moved closer to the yellowtail as the entire school of fish drifted with the current into a column of light descending through the clouds and the surface above. The shadowy aliens at last swam into the light, revealing the full extent of their features to the merfolk. They were large humanoids, covered with green and purple scales. They wore tight-fitting garments fabricated from sharkskin. Each of the creatures wielded a strange weapon, similar to a crossbow, but glowing with a bolt of yellow energy held in the place where the dart would be. Their faces were fish-like with sharp fangs protruding from their mandibles. One of the unusual predators swam over to Marlin and his companions.
“We are the Nozroth. I am Icthos. The fish here are plentiful. We take them for our clans below. Do not interrupt our hunt.”
“Salutations, Nozroth Hunter,” said Marlin. “We Dagonites also hunt the yellowtail and other fish of this ocean. Is it possible for our people to come to a partnership of sorts? There are plenty of fish to share.”
“No, Dagonite. We hearken from the Seas of Chaos. These waters are ours, now. We take these fish for the prosperity of Thoth’s Clans and no others. Flee from this zone or contend with our stun bolts!”
Icthos pointed his weapon at Marlin and growled in a menacing manner.
“Be on guard, My Friends!” yelled Marlin.
He gestured for his Dagonite companions to prepare themselves for battle. The large Nozroth Hunter fired his stun bolt at Marlin, but the agile mertroll spun quickly in the water, evading the electric missile. Nautilus and Barracuda fired their crossbows at the attacker and struck their target. The bulky Denizen of Chaos howled in vexation and clawed at the short bolts lodged in his shoulder and thigh. The green and purple-scaled humanoid used his webbed arms to retreat from the sea trolls and address his companions who continued to collect stunned fish in their travel nets.
“Nozroth, let us move downward from this school. There are others who insist on partaking from the prey that swim here. We shall return with strengthened numbers and renewed organization.”
The carnivores followed the advice of their Leader and descended into the murky depths of the ocean. The wounded hunter gave Marlin and his acquaintances a final, vengeful glare as he dove.
“Alas, I feared that we would be forced to deal with the consequences of the Dire Queen’s portals,” said Marlin. “Let us return to the Dagonite City and inform Squidge and Dagon about the events that have transpired here, today.”
The group of merfolk swam toward the shallows. They would soon reach the outskirts of the City of the Dagonites.
* * * * *
Reoren, Thorgrym, Sigrid and Leif marched over the grassy hills and sudoriferous swamp beyond the Burial Ruins at the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens. Jalhi Bengal and her battalion of feline, anthromorph rangers accompanied the lich-trolls. Fangoz, the stone troll, followed the group from the rear.
“Arrgh! The air has changed since our exit from this Plane,” observed Fangoz. “I hope that Cara fares well in this alien mist. I fear that more than Guardon’s Lykanthros have been released into this region during our absence. Let us traverse the Fens with caution.”
The fog floated in thick fingers over the cattails and reeds. In places the mist flashed with static electricity. The strange atmosphere visibly perturbed the tiger-women. Their spotted and striped fur stood on end as they looked around in apprehension.
“State your business!” growled a wily voice.
“I recognize that call,” declared Jalhi. “It seems our companions have finally returned from their journey to the farthest reaches of the Ghastly Fens. Satvinder, is that you?”
“Yes, it is I, Jalhi. We have returned at last from our quest for richer hunting grounds. Alas, our search proved unsuccessful. How fare things in this corner of the Fens?”
“Much has happened since you tiger-trolls left our camps,” said Jalhi. “The maverick Summoner, Ankharet unleashed a horde of wolf-creatures upon this Plane. They were taken from the Plane of the Gorgons. We succeeded in infiltrating the Gorgon Plane and destroying the Dire Queen. Her daemon courtesan, Guardon, was forced to return to the Plane of Chaos through a breach in the gorgon-protected fortress. Four seraph trolls from the Plane of Order helped us to seal the breach to the Plane of Chaos. Guardon and Thoth, his father, were sealed in their Plane of Origin. Restadicus and the Lore Masters from Coermantyr Castle, along with Siegemunde in the Martial Academy proved to be a great assistance in securing the Dharmic Harmony of Gaea. We are glad you have returned, Brave Warrior.”
“I’m reassured to see you in good health after your risky adventures,” answered Satvinder.
A dozen tiger-trolls emerged from the thick mist. They were dressed in similar attire to the female rangers and hefted bows and blades of their own. Many of them gaped in surprise at the sight of Fangoz, the stone troll.
“Greetings, Large Warrior,” said Satvinder. “It is unusual that one such as yourself has become aligned with our race. I take it the haranguing Lykanthros Jalhi spoke of drove you to join our cause?”
“That is correct, Tiger Ranger,” replied Fangoz. “My wife and I were finding it difficult to rest at night with both the wolf-beasts and the wily Bengal Warriors scratching at our windows. We convinced you anthromorphs of our peaceful intentions and set aside our dispute over the resources of the swamp. The lich-troll mages proved to be an additional source of offensive assertion in our exploration of the spatial rift leading to Guardon’s Spires in the Gorgon Plane.”
“Satvinder, I suggest you accompany us to the Martial Academy. The events that are transpiring of late in Gaea concern all of us and merit your audience. We should consult with Siegemunde and inform him that the Orb of Paryphax has been returned to this Realm. If we maintain our composure it is possible that a new era of peaceful cohabitation can be achieved in this expansive region,” said Sigrid.
“Very well, Sigrid. Our clan will follow your lead through the Fens. It will do us well to meet with the Administrator of your Martial Academy.”
The group of swamp-dwellers of various sizes began their journey to Lich Town. The light of the two moons rose as twin rings above the horizon as dusk fell. The familiar sound of owls on the prowl and a myriad of crickets and toads permeated the atmosphere.
Leif’s magic halo continued to illuminate the safest path through the quick mud and cumbersome foliage. The adept Sentinel’s peripheral awareness caused the hair on the back of his neck to rise and his pallid skin to acquire gooseflesh.
“Be on the alert, My Friends. I sense the proximity of a pack of Lykanthros. If they remain in this area the goblins are sure to be near, as well.”
In accordance with the lich-troll’s prediction a united garrison of goblins and orcs appeared at the ridge of one of the distant hilltops. Their Leader was Blueblood, the recently indoctrinated orc recruit to Rauros’ Guild of Assassins, the Harad Ghul. The feline anthromorphs, lich folk and Fangoz were prepared for the invasion of the survivors of the Dire Queen’s campaign. They had learned much during the confrontations they faced in the Gorgon Plane. Each of the warriors, including Satvinder’s returned tiger-trolls wielded their respective weapons of choice.
The snarling, slavering wolf-beasts charged down the soggy hill with their goblin and orc mounts saddled to their furry backs. Blueblood addressed the Gaean warriors as he led the charge.
“Rauros has reunited the Harad Ghul under his own guidance. The Abyssal Cairn and lairs in Mount Crow are now under the jurisdiction of the goblins and orcs. We claim the Ghastly Fens and Mystic Down for our own. The tyranny of the Summoner troll woman and her daemon consort were a harrowing time for our tribes. Evacuate these premises while you yet live, Troll Folk. Surely you have learned of the devastating abilities of we Denizens of the Dark by now.”
The sharp-toothed Lykanthros grew close to the fighters. The waiting warriors stood their ground in defensive postures.
“We have not met before, Orc Assassin,” declared Satvinder. “We rangers will not flee the region of our creation. If you seek a fight then you will find it here.”
The tiger-trolls notched arrows in their longbows and fired a volley at the invaders. A number of the missiles struck their marks and impeded the movement of the large Lykanthros. The male rangers then drew short swords designed in a curved fashion similar to the blades used by Jalhi and her companions but with longer blades and handles. These swords required the use of two hands for a single weapon. Blueblood’s forces were in melee range and engaged the warriors in hand-to-hand combat.
Jalhi and her rangers contended with the goblins. They rendered slashing attacks to the Lykanthros. The wolf-beasts countered with glancing blows with their teeth and claws. The goblins and orcs employed flurrying maneuvers with their curved blades to baffle the anthromorphs. Leif, Sigrid and Reoren combined their magical abilities to release a barrage of blue bolts.
“Vectrox!”
Blueblood and his comrades deflected a number of the arcane projectiles with their cast-iron shields. A handful of the missiles hit their intended targets, knocking their riders from their saddles. Fangoz moved in and crushed the struggling humanoids with his great club.
The agent of the Harad Ghul was frustrated at the casualties incurred by the warriors and addressed his soldiers.
“Retreat, My Brethren. We must confer with Rauros and return with additional forces. You have not seen the last of the Stalactite Orcs. We will return in greater numbers.”
The goblins and orcs guided their Lykanthros away from the resistant militia and crested the hill from whence they came. Thorgrym looked at his companions with concern.
“We have fought valiantly, My Friends,” he said. “We are obliged to inform Siegemunde of the growing rancor of the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins. The lich folk are bound to respond to these continuing invasions.”
The gathering of warriors marched on until they reached the outskirts of Lich Town. Several of Thorgrym’s Guards waited on the lookout from the surrounding hills. They hailed the return of their Chief and Sentinel Mages.
“Its good that you have returned to us, Thorgrym,” said one of the soldiers. “The air has changed since you ventured through the spatial portal Siegemunde generated in the Martial Academy. Word has spread that Guardon and Ankharet have been brought down from their reign of terror. Continue within and consult with the Director of our modest Academy.”
“You have our thanks, Einar. I look forward to returning to my post among you valiant Guards,” replied Thorgrym.
The travelers marched through the bound, post gates and entered the marketplace of the lich folk. Jalhi observed that the ghoul-trolls acted in a more sociable manner compared to their reticence during her first visit.
“Your kindred are more watchful of us, Leif,” observed the Leader of the Anthromorph Rangers. “They were remarkably shy the first time my amazons were here.”
“It is to be expected, Tiger-Woman. Our races have warred with one another for many generations. It has only been until recently that external stresses brought our resources together. The lich folk have always been a reclusive people. We are a race created as a response to war.”
“In many ways that has been the case for we stone trolls, too, My Friend,” said Fangoz. “It has been a benefit to the various peoples of the Ghastly Fens that we have achieved a modecum of truce in recent years. I admire the work it took to construct this battle-haven. You lich-trolls are industrious and organized, more than Cara and I were aware in past seasons.”
The warriors strode beyond the marketplace and assorted homes, built on stilts above the soggy earth. They stood before the great elevator at the foot of the Martial Academy. It took several trips to lift all of the fighters to the network of platforms above. The horses brought by the Gaeans during their first visit ate grain and hay in a collection of stables.
Sigrid guided the visitors up the stairs and flexible bridges to the Conference Chamber of the Academy. Siegemunde waited impatiently at his desk at the base of the multi-leveled classroom.
“Greetings, My Friends. I am overjoyed that you have returned to the Academy safely. You have showed up just in time. I was making the final preparations for an Integration Ritual. You have the opportunity to witness firsthand the creation of a new group of lich-trolls. It is a process like no other in all of Gaea.”
“We are intrigued,” declared Satvinder. “The events that have recently occurred beckon the consideration of we rangers in regard to our traditional approach to the neighboring races to our hunting grounds. At times the tiger-people have been hostile to the other groups living in the swamp for fear of losing game and territory. Now that continued invasions issuing from the Abyssal Cairn are imminent, it will be beneficial for us to observe your Integration Ritual.”
“Very well, Satvinder of the Bengal Clan,” answered Siegemunde. “You are welcome to accompany us to the center of Lich Town. The compounds necessary are already in place.”
The warriors joined the Director of the Martial Academy as he marched to the elevator. They descended to the ground floor. The lich folk had assembled in the expectation of the seasonal process. The farmers and workers from the marketplace gathered around a wide, circular molding pool.
Siegemunde addressed the gathering of lich-trolls as he straightened his Sentinel raiment.
“Greetings, Lich Acolytes. I return to this place again to act on the behalf of Restadicus and the Lore Masters of Coermantyr Castle. The time has come to again combine the elemental substances of earth to create a new batch of ghoul-trolls.”
The Administrator of the Martial Academy raised his hands over the pool and uttered a molding spell.
“Forgex!”
The broad pool glowed red with arcane energy. Two primordial, humanoid forms rose from the bubbling meniscus.
“Let two become one!”
The shapes merged into a small being. A lich-troll couple stepped forward and took the young member of their clan into a blanket. Siegemunde repeated the process three more times, designating a set of waiting parents to raise and educate the child.
Satvinder met with the Director of the Academy as he withdrew from the molding pool before the stilted buildings.
“Good going, Sentinel Mage. I have never before witnessed such a process in the Fens. The war with the goblins and stone trolls brought about this sequence, it is clear to me now. The times are changing for all of us. An Era of Peace is tangible for the Realm of Gaea if we remain vigilant and steadfast in our defense of our respective races.”
“Thank you, Tiger Ranger. I appreciate your participation in our affairs. We yet need the help of you anthromorphs and our newfound ally, Fangoz. Word has spread quickly of the returning agents of the Harad Ghul. All of us are now Guardians of the Realm.”
* * * * *
Gnoll and Alex traveled through the deep woods of Coermantyr. They were accompanied by a number of wood trolls who had joined the fray in the Throne Room of Guardon’s Spires. The old-growth forest was thick with oak, spruce, ash and pine trees. Juniper and elm groves also stood sporadically among the tall canopy. The Bodyguard of the Wood Mage of Arborea addressed his mage friend.
“I’m glad that you opted to join us on our mission to return the Orb of Paryphax to Skjold’s Tower, Alex. My fellow wood trolls fought valiantly against the destructive magic of Themistokles, Ankharet’s Vizier. We were unable to stop him from assassinating Skjold and stealing his orb. Now that the spatial breach in the Gorgon Plane has been sealed by the seraphim, Smithforge, the opportunity is ripe to deliver the orb from its stone giant caretakers to its original location at the top of the Central Tower of the Arboreans.”
“It is a wise decision, Gnoll. Restadicus has granted me his permission to study your region and the social workings therein. If at all possible I will help you wood trolls to restore order to your State and quell the movements of the goblins and Lykanthros who remain.”
“Very well, Wizard of Coermantyr,” answered Gnoll. “I expect that we have walked beyond the south-western border of your region and into the edge of Arborea. We should near the Chief City of Arborea by nightfall. My people await the latest news of the events that have occurred between the Planes.”
The warriors strode at a brisk pace through the brambles and underbrush. Only one of the two moons shone above the dusk forest. The cries of ospreys and owls echoed over the rolling hills and scattered boulders. Alex’s perception of opposing forces within the trees came to his attention.
“Beware, My Friends,” he said. “I sense the same aura that passed by us the last time we contended with the Lykanthros and their goblin cohorts.”
“Very well, Alex,” Gnoll replied.
The wood trolls drew their swords and prepared for battle. A dozen Lykanthros rushed through the trees with Stalactite Goblins and Orcs at their saddles. Loki led the charge and did not stop to parlay with the fighters. He swung his scimitar at Gnoll who parried the attack with his longsword. The other Arborean Soldiers met the clawing Lykanthros with their double-edged weapons. The goblins fought with aggression and sparks flew from the clashing steel. Loki struck a glancing blow to Gnoll’s shoulder armor. The sharp edge of the curved blade tore through the leather covering of his plate mail and left a shiny gash in the hardened metal. The melee continued for several moments until the wood trolls formed a ring with Alex at the center. The adept mage incanted an attack spell.
“Trentak!”
The red-haired sorcerer directed his outstretched hands at the mounted wolf-creatures and their riders. He unleashed a volley of electric bolts at a high velocity. Three of the goblins were knocked unconscious from their saddles and two more guided their steeds erratically as their entire bodies became awash in a pattern of electric sparks. The wood trolls were heartened by the impressive attack of their ally from Coermantyr. They charged outward from their tightly-locked ring and skewered six more of the goblins, causing the riderless Lykanthros to scamper to the deep woods in confusion.
Loki’s face exuded frustration from within his boar-toothed helm. He spoke in a booming voice to the surviving goblins and orcs.
“Move away, My Soldiers. Rauros is aware of the movement of these trolls. Let us return to the Abyssal Cairn and enter these woods again with our numbers in full effect.”
The Stalactite Orcs and their kindred turned the reins of their mounts away from the clustered Arboreans and galloped into the eastern horizon.
Alex spoke to his Arborean companions.
“We have fought valiantly here this night. I still possess the Orb of Paryphax. We must hasten to your main settlement before any other potential foes are given the chance to accost us.”
“That is sound advice, Alex,” Gnoll replied.
The warriors marched quickly through the underbrush. Gnoll was cheered to see the torches of the City of Arborea through the trees. The multi-leveled buildings were constructed of sealed wood. A handful of lookouts standing at their posts on the city walls cried out at the sight of the approaching adventurers.
The city gates were flung wide and an entourage of mounted soldiers rode out to the nearing fighters.
“Good evening, Fellow Wood Trolls! The movement of the goblins through these parts changed in the last week. No doubt it is in response to the success of our united forces in the Eastern Region. My name is Charles. Has Ankharet been destroyed?”
“Yes, Charles. I am Gnoll, one of Skjold’s Bodyguards. We hurried from Arborea in pursuit of the assassins of our Leader and ultimately avenged him in a neighboring Plane. The maverick Summoners have been defeated and the detrimental breach to the Plane of Chaos sealed. The Lore Masters from Coermantyr and a team of seraph trolls from the Plane of Order proved to be of great benefit to the harmony of Gaea. My mage friend here is Alex. He carries the Orb of Paryphax that was taken from Skjold’s Tower. Inform the residents of the city that we will hold counsel tonight so that all may know of the dispersion of the invading Lykanthros and hostile goblins. We still have our work cut out for us, I’m afraid.”
Charles nodded to the red-haired wizard.
“Welcome, Alex. We are overjoyed that the orb of our late Wood Mage has been returned to us. You are welcome to enter our city and partake of our humble fare.”
“Thank you, Wood Guard,” replied Alex.
The travelers strode within the brightly-lit reception area of the City of Arborea. The settlement was constructed out of lumber assembled via traditional carpentry. Other buildings were lofted in giant oaks, whose branches alone were large enough to support plank roads and walkways. Alex marveled at the ingenious architecture of the neighbors to his Home Region.
“This place fascinates me. I had no idea that so many people lived here.”
“Yes, Sorcerer. The wood trolls have thrived in this environment for countless generations. Our city was built in this fashion as a measure of protection during the past war with the stone trolls and marauding goblins. Alas, it was not enough to thwart the magical subterfuge of Themistokles and his Guild of Assassins.”
Charles spoke briefly with a group of pages.
“If you please, City Pages, have the residents that are able meet at the Council Hall. We will hold a meeting shortly so that the latest events that have transpired abroad can be disclosed to as many people as is possible at one time.”
The guards led Gnoll and his wood troll assistants to the hall in question. They stepped into a hoistable carriage attached to a system of pulleys. Charles turned a pair of handles connected to a crank, causing the vehicle to ascend into the branches of the massive oaks. The carriage approached an expansive deck built at the center of one of the trees. The vehicle bumped against the landing and the passengers stepped onto the hewn, wood floor.
Charles guided his companions around the deck to the far side of the tree where a series of ladders and walkways linked with a bowl-shaped Council Hall covered by a pillared gazebo. A sizable gathering of male and female wood trolls sat on the carved benches. At the bottom of the hall was a podium and table, both carved with the Arborean symbol, an osprey with wings stretched.
Gnoll walked to the base of the hall and addressed the audience in a booming voice.
“Salutations, Arboreans. My trolls and I have returned from our mission to retrieve Skjold’s Orb successfully. Ankharet and Themistokles have been destroyed and their portal to the Gorgon Plane obliterated.”
The wood trolls cheered and applauded.
“Alas, we are not magicians by trade and are hard-put to replace our fallen Leader. If I have your consent I will issue a petition to Restadicus in Coermantyr Castle requesting he send someone to fill the position.”
“That will not be necessary, Gnoll,” said Alex. “I offer my experience as a mage. The settlement here gives me a good impression. It is worth my while to study the Orb of Paryphax and assist in the monitoring of the forests.”
“Very well, Alex. You have our thanks. Do you Arboreans accept this proposal? Raise your hands.”
The vast majority of the wood trolls present lifted their hands.
“That solves it. Alex of Coermantyr shall be our new Wood Mage.”
The Arboreans clapped and cheered.
“Thank you all very much for giving me the opportunity to participate in the workings of your social infrastructure,” declared Alex. “The recent events that have taken place in the various regions of Gaea merit all of our concern. Now the opportunity stands before us to view the phenomena transpiring between the Planes with an increased degree of vigilance.”
The aspiring Mage of Coermantyr extended his hands in a gesture of acceptance.
“I will begin a sincere study of your tree civilization and follow the intentions of Skjold. The Orb of Paryphax is a powerful source of magical energy. The previous Wood Mage employed its cache of Ethereal Dynamism to monitor and encourage the growth of the trees of the deep forest, both old and young. The future stands bright on the horizon for Arborea. With the involvement of you wood trolls the settlements here can thrive in a manner yet more prosperous than that known in past ages. I will employ the fullest extent of my training under the guidance of Restadicus and the Lore Masters in Coermantyr Castle to enhance the quality of living in these forests. Thank you all again for your support.”
The wood trolls in the meeting hall clapped and hollered their approval of the establishment of Alex as their new Wood Mage.
A page returned and addressed the group.
“The Lykanthros are below! Stalactite Orcs and Goblins ride them. We must hasten to the defense of the settlement!”
Charles and Gnoll drew their weapons and sprinted from the Council Chamber. They used emergency rappel lines to quickly lower themselves to the ground level. Alex closed the Orb of Paryphax in a chest for safekeeping and secured the key to a chain around his neck. He hurried to the nearest rappel line.
The wolf-creatures and their orc riders breached the city gates and engaged the wood trolls in the streets. Gnoll and Charles rushed into the fray, as did the other trolls who had attended the meeting.
Alex tapped the power of the Orb of Paryphax from above and incanted a potent sorcery.
“Levtos!”
The Wood Mage of Arborea gestured with his hands, causing the group of attackers to levitate in the air. He moved his arms in a turning motion, forcing the Lykanthros to make an about face. Alex then guided the floating attackers through the gates where they fled in bewilderment.
“Well done, Alex!” said Charles. “The Denizens of Arkadia continue to move against us. I think it wise for you and Gnoll to travel east and seek the counsel of Lord Taliesin. He will surely want to investigate the source of these ongoing invasions.”
“Very well, Charles. Thank you all for your support. That includes you, Gnoll,” declared Alex. “We should ride for Wood’s End.”
The red-haired sorcerer and Gnoll set forth to the east with an escort of wood trolls.
* * * * *
Bjorn Roundtree, Gearzon and The Watcher hiked through the hilled woodlands of Mystic Down. Each of the short humanoids was impressed by their recent adventure and they talked excitedly among themselves.
“Glad I am to be back once again in Mystic Down. Weary I grew of the isolated halls of Guardon’s Spires,” said The Watcher.
“A burden the aggressive gorgons and Lykanthros were to my research and penmanship. Changed the oaks have since I was imprisoned by the rampant spatial portals of the Dire Queen. It is refreshing to breath the air of the wold once again. Long yearned have I for the scent of the pines and flowers that prosper in this Plane.”
The aged halfling walked with an added spring in his step. His posture was less stooped and he gazed about at the green foliage with interest.
“Watcher, it will do us good to visit Tinkerburg, the Home City of our gnome cousins. Before we do so I suggest we meet with my relative, Ben Frostberry, who lives in secrecy within these woods. He is an excellent baker. His pies are renowned within the halfling community. His food will provide us with added strength for the journey that lies ahead.”
“A good idea that is, Bjorn,” replied The Watcher. “How do you feel, Gearzon, about guiding us through your circuitous city?”
“It’s fine by me, My Friends. There’s always plenty of work to be done in Tinkerburg. The gnomes are perpetually industrious by nature.”
Gearzon and the halflings continued along their present course until they reached the straw-thatched home of Ben Frostberry. The aroma of strawberry and apple pies drifted from the chimney.
“A fine place, this is,” The Watcher observed.
The gray-haired halfling gazed with interest at the small house. It was completely surrounded by the thickest trees of the Forest of Mystic Down.
“Hello, Bjorn! I thought I heard someone approaching from inside. I just finished cooking and was about to take a stroll. Who are your companions?”
The bearded halfling shook hands cheerfully with the trio of visitors.
“The Watcher I am and glad to have returned to Mystic Down.”
“My name is Gearzon. I also have returned to Gaea after a stay in the Gorgon Plane. I was caught up in the agenda of Ankharet and Guardon but was convinced by Bjorn here to support his cause. I have offered to guide these halflings on a visit to Tinkerburg. You are welcome to accompany us, Ben.”
“Thanks, Gearzon. I’ll take you up on your invitation. It’s been a while since I’ve ventured out of this area of the forest and wouldn’t mind to visit the main city of our gnome cousins. There are always fascinating contraptions to behold in your workshops.”
“Before we depart take a moment to come inside and sample some of my baking. My pies are fresh today, coincidentally.”
The bearded halfling guided his nephew and friends into his home. They sat at the table in the central room and ate steaming slices of apple and strawberry pie.
“I’ll just collect a few items for the journey south. You fellows help yourselves, there’s plenty of food to spare in this neck of the woods.”
Ben rummaged through a trunk in the adjoining room.
“Thanks again, Uncle,” said Bjorn. “We should meet with the Mayor of Tinkerburg and inform him of the events that have taken place recently. The different races and magical persuasions of the regions of Gaea have increased their conflict of late. The movements of the orcs and Lykanthros concern the gnomes as much as the rest of us.”
“That is sound advice, Bjorn,” Gearzon commented. “The gnomes have deterred many of the invading wolf creatures with their battlemechs and catapults. They and their goblin riders have continued to assail our city in increasing numbers over the past months.”
“Forward we look to disclosing the events that have taken place with your kindred, Gearzon,” said The Watcher. “Much have I revived since returning to these woods. Glad I will be to help you organize a defensive position among the gnomes. Ben Frostberry, are you ready to travel with us?”
“Yes, My Friends, my travel pack is filled. Let us embark on our journey to Tinkerburg. The south woods of Mystic Down are yet untamed and hold many surprises for unwary souls.”
The short humanoids marched from the clearing that contained Ben Frostberry’s house. The dense underbrush closed around them and the light of the afternoon sun shone through the overlying canopy in a series of broken rays.
The Watcher perceived the chittering of weasels and badgers in the dark reaches of the wood. The calls of falcons and pigeons emanated from the boughs of the oaks and pines. The quartet of explorers moved with precision through the unmarked thickets. They relied solely on animal trails and rows of polished stone demarcating seasonal brooks.
Gearzon observed that the distance between the trees became wider and the brambles grew scarce. The woods opened upon a hilly glen. A labyrinth of burrows pockmarked the grass-covered soil.
“Be careful, My Friends,” whispered Ben Frostberry. “These woods are proliferated by giant centipedes and nymphae. They are magical beings and do not enjoy the presence of humanoids or foreign creatures.”
A number of the serpentine creatures emerged from the gaping tunnels in the hills. They probed the ground and air with sensitive antennae. Gearzon, Bjorn and The Watcher remained out of the sight of the giant centipedes by crouching behind a stand of bushes.
“Look to the trees on those mounds,” hissed Ben Frostberry.
The others raised their gazes and watched the dextrous centipedes climb the rough trunks of the pines to the branches above. The shiny, segmented beings varied in color from maroon to green. They fed on smaller insects and rodents as they foraged throughout the clearing.
“We should travel along the perimeter of this opening. It will be for the best if we avoid detection by these giant centipedes entirely,” Ben whispered.
The grizened halfling glanced at the menacing creatures with an expression of apprehension.
“Wise advice, you speak, Sturdy Kin,” murmured The Watcher. “Continue a roundabout course we should for indeed slavering these centipedes appear.”
“Halt, Short Humanoids. This is hallowed land and will not tolerate defilement by thieves and rogues.”
A luminescent wood nymph hovered over the four travelers. Her body was humanoid, much like a petite troll woman. She bore a pair of broad wings from her back that resembled those of a moth or butterfly. Her ears were pointed and she had red hair. The female nymph carried a short lance in one hand and a round shield in the other.
“I am Deirdre. The nymphs and dryads of the wold have sensed heavy disturbances in the Dharmic Equilibrium. No doubt it is due to the reckless, magical tampering of you, City Dwellers. What business have you this far into the wilderness?”
“We are going to Tinkerburg, the city of my people,” Gearzon answered. “We mean you no ill intentions, Deirdre. There has been a growing conflict with sorcerers and orcs from Arkadia. We journey to bring word of the preternatural portals that they created between the Planes.”
“That is to be expected, Gnome Engineer,” said the nymph. “My people have long been accustomed to the conflicts that arise from the various races of this and other Planes. The Dharmic Equilibrium is frequently beset by challenges and disturbances by those who manifest these Realms in their dreams.”
“Manifest these Realms in dreams…that is strange. Explain your meaning to us, Lady Nymph, if you please,” responded Ben Frostberry.
“It has been known to a few of us in Gaea that we are simply an embodiment of challenges and wishes faced by a race of people called humans.”
“Humans? Deirdre, who are these people? More importantly where are they?” asked Ben Frostberry.
“They are residents of the spherical Plane of Earth. They live in cities, villages and wild lands. Humans are industrious. They range in social inclination from the athletic to the administrative, from the scientific to the romantic. In fact they are just as diverse in temperament as the various creatures that reside in the more proximal Planes known to many wizards.”
“Is there any way they can help us in our struggle with the remaining Harad Ghul and Lykanthros?” Gearzon asked.
“I’m not sure,” answered the female nymph. “Some humans care more for the events that transpire in the dream world than others. It is clear that if we remain dedicated to our cause the opportunity for the humans’ concern for our fate will grow.”
“No other choice we have than but to continue on our quest and their support petition,” said The Watcher.
“Be careful, Humanoids,” declared Deirdre. “The centipedes have become wise to your presence and have rallied their kin from their tunnels in the soil. Prepare yourselves for battle. I’ll intercede when I can.”
The luminescent nymph gazed at the clearing in the forest with concern. The waves of silver and gold light surrounding her intensified. She flew to the canopy of the pines to get a better view.
The Watcher and Bjorn drew their slings and armed them with rounded stones. Gearzon forewent the option of a sling altogether and wielded a slingshot of his own fabrication. Ben drew a shiny dagger that functioned as a short sword for the halfling.
The giant centipedes had indeed become alerted to the presence of the travelers from the sound of their conversation with the nymph. They squirmed turbulently on the grassy hills in an angry conglomeration. As a unit they dropped from the trees and charged across the clearing. Several of them spat globs of green acid that burned the foliage before them.
From above Deirdre called out, “Nymphae and dryads, help us! We are in danger here.”
A number of forms that The Watcher had taken to be tree stumps and branches moved eerily and rolled along the forest floor. They stood erect and assumed humanoid forms. They were dryads born from the enchanted trees of Mystic Down.
From the distant forest, blue and silver lights shone amid the trees. A battalion of male and female nymphs flew to the clearing at a rapid pace. They wore flowing robes similar to those worn by Deirdre.
Before the centipedes reached Bjorn and his friends the forest dwellers met with the perturbed centipedes. The cylindrical creatures twisted and snapped at the flying nymphs but were no match for their piercing lances and resilient shields.
From the perimeter of the clearing the dryads moved in, glaring at the beasts with angry expressions in their bark faces. Over a dozen of the centipedes latched themselves to the log-like arms and legs of the dryads. The woody humanoids howled loudly as they dragged their attackers in earthy gashes across the topsoil. Many of the tubular beings were squashed under the gnarled feet and fists of the dryads. More of them fell to the lances of Deirdre and her people.
Gearzon fired a volley of stones from his slingshot as did Bjorn and The Watcher from their slings. Their missiles hit their intended targets, breaking three maroon centipedes into two pieces that shivered and then lay still.
Ben Frostberry uttered a war cry and rushed into the clearing, hacking and slashing with his steel blade. The vexed centipedes turned their attention from the dryads and spat a barrage of green acid at the middle-aged baker. He evaded the attack deftly, tumbling across the hilly ground, but was hit in the calf by a glob of searing acid. He yelled in pain and wiped the chemical clean with a handful of grass.
The lithe halfling rolled forward and drove his weapon downward in a series of strikes, destroying three more of the farsighted centipedes. The dryads and nymphs attacked again as did Ben and his acquaintances. They finished off the remaining creatures and stood from their hiding place. Each of the travelers gave a cheer of victory.
“Hooray!”
“To our rescue you came, Wood Dwellers. Our thanks you have,” said The Watcher.
“I never realized that the south woods were so populated with Entities,” observed Ben Frostberry. “We are indebted to you tree folk and nymphs for your aid. Alas, my friends and I would love to stay and visit but we must be on our way.”
“That is fine by us, Brave Halfling,” anwered a tall dryad. “Call me Woodfist. We dryads sleep much of the time but are willing to act to preserve the harmony of the forest. “Deirdre, we are tired. With your permission we will return to our slumber until such time as you need us.”
“That is fine, Woodfist,” said Deirdre. “We nymphs will fly to our Hive and regenerate our natural energy there. Goodbye, Short Humanoids. We may meet again.”
“Goodbye, Deirdre,” replied Ben Frostberry.
The dryads marched from the clearing and merged within the shadows of the forest. The nymphs left trails of light through the trees as they sped into the deep woods.
“Let’s be on our way, My Companions,” said Gearzon. “Tinkerburg can’t be much farther through these thickets. If we keep a steady pace we may reach my home city by tomorrow morning.”
The halflings and gnome had keen vision and traveled through the moonlit forest through the night. They took care to march in silence and were not again accosted by hostile creatures.
As dawn broke The Watcher sniffed the air.
“Ah, close the sea is. From long ago I remember that smell.”
“Yes, Aged Friend, the gnomes are near,” Gearzon replied.
The travelers reached the southern edge of the forest of Mystic Down. They beheld a stretch of windswept coastline and the white-capped sea of Lord Dagon beyond.
“Let us pause for some breakfast,” Ben Frostberry said. “I’m hungry.”
“That’s a good idea, Gray-bearded Friend,” the gnome engineer agreed. “Tinkerburg is a bustling metropolis and it can be hard to find succor in a convenient fashion.”
The journeyers sat down in the billowing field to a modest meal of pie and jerky. They drank water from their travel flasks.
In the midst of their breakfast, Gearzon and his allies were shaken by a tattoo of rumbling through the ground.
“Uh-oh,” said Bjorn. “This doesn’t sound good.”
An entourage of battlemechs and ground-hoppers rose over the crest of a nearby hill. The sun was briefly blocked by a group of aircraft, carrying pairs of male and female gnomes. The flyers used oil-burning engines that transferred power to a spinning blade at the nose of each vehicle.
Gearzon was the first to get to his feet and he trotted toward the land-faring machines as the flyers turned for another pass. The ground-hoppers stopped a few yards before the engineer. Gnomes wearing gloves and goggles like Gearzon’s drove the biped creations.
“Hi, Gearz! Long time no see. What’ve you been up to that kept you from Tinkerburg so long?”
A female gnome addressed the engineer from her seat atop a ground hopper.
“Greetings, Galatia. The spatial rifts created by the Summoners in Arkadia captured me. These are my friends.”
Gearzon introduced The Watcher, Ben and Bjorn.
“Quite a bit of turmoil has taken place throughout Gaea in recent months, Galatia. A Planar War has come to a head. I think it wise that we travel to Tinkerburg and meet with the Mayor. I’m glad to see that your machines are operational.”
“Yes, we’ve come a long way since the war with the stone trolls,” the female gnome said. “Their invasions left many of our enterprises in ruins. The gnomes have remained diligent and rebuilt much of what there once was.”
“I have an idea, Gearzon. Allow me to signal Axel and his fleet of flyers. They will land on this beach and let their copilots disembark. That way you four can fly to the city ahead of us.”
“Sounds great, Galatia. It will benefit the gnomes if we deliver our message as soon as possible.”
“In one of those contraptions you wish us to ride? Not sure I am of their safety,” declared The Watcher.
“Trust me, Aged Friend,” said Gearz. “My kindred are superb technicians and will convey us to the city with care.”
“Whatever you say, Gearz. We might as well give your friends a try,” offered Bjorn.
Galatia drew a long, white scarf from her tool vest and unfurled it in the wind. She waved it in a signal pattern until she caught the attention of the flyers. The pilots turned their vehicles from the sea and brought them down to a halt on the grassy field.
A stocky gnome leapt from a flyer and strode over to the place where the ground hoppers and battlemechs had stopped.
“Galatia, I see you’ve met some visitors on the beach. Gearzon, how are you?”
The robust gnome grabbed Gearz in a hearty embrace.
“I’m fine, Axel. I was trapped by some wizards for a while.”
“Well, its great that you made it back to us. We were wondering what happened to you. The wolf creatures and goblins have been making a nuisance of themselves in the outlying villages.”
“The Lykanthros have also appeared at Wood’s End in Mystic Down,” Bjorn replied.
“You have much to discuss with the Mayor, Gearz. Let’s be on our way,” Galatia said.
The copilots riding in the rear seats of four of the flyers jumped to the ground and climbed aboard a group of waiting battlemechs. The rumbling, three-legged vehicles belched steam as their engines thrust into forward gear.
The four travelers followed the lead of Axel. Each took a seat in the rear spaces in the flyers. Gearzon’s burly friend pulled his goggles over his eyes and signaled his fleet to take off. The propellers of the aircraft whirled at a fast rate as their oil-burning engines whined into lift off.
The Watcher moaned with apprehension as his female pilot pulled her flyer sharply upward. The winged machine turned over the sea and continued to climb.
“An unnatural state this is,” said the halfling historian. “If meant to fly we were, born with wings we would have been.”
The waves of the sea crashed on the shore below and the trees of the forest whipped by at a dazzling speed.
Gearzon hooted with glee.
“This is wonderful. I always wanted to ride in one of your inventions, Axel.”
“I love it,” said the pilot. “We got these craft going earlier this year and they’ve been running like a charm ever since. I have plans to set up a network of message carriers to all the regions of Gaea someday. That will have to wait until we’ve dealt with the marauding orcs, however.”
The clock tower and minarets of Tinkerburg rose on the horizon. Axel thrust his flyer to the head of the formation and brought his craft to landing altitude. A crude airstrip was leveled out of a field outside of the city. A gathering of gnome children cheered at the approach of the vehicles.
The Watcher sighed with relief as the flyers landed smoothly, leaving trails of dust in the air behind them. The passengers jumped to the ground. A number of ground-hoppers harvested apples from a nearby orchard.
“Let’s hurry into the city, My Friends,” declared Axel. “There is always plenty of business taking place in the market. We’d be wise to be on our way while the sun is still with us.”
A pair of battlemechs guarded the gates of the city. The travelers passed within and were immersed in a crowd of gnomes. The streets were zigzagged and intersected at random points. Merchants and shoppers mashed together under an army of multicolored tents and booths. They sold everything from melons and smoked meats to clocks and ground-hoppers. Instead of horses the short-statured gnomes preferred llamas as their beasts of burden.
The air was replete with the smells of cooking food and curing leather. Ben Frostberry and Bjorn moved in and out of the crowd, making sure to sample unwanted morsels.
Axel and Galatia led the group of humanoids past the marketplace to the bureaucratic district. The Watcher beheld rows of brick and wood buildings, most of which were in a state of remodeling. Scaffolding surrounded the majority of the structures. Gnome workers dismantled walls in some places and constructed fresh ones in others.
“At last, we are here, Halflings,” said Galatia. “Across this square is our City Hall. It is the crowning achievement of gnome architecture.”
Bjorn observed a large, bronze fountain, portraying what must have been the Founders of Tinkerburg. The statues each worked on some device. One held a sundial and another a telescope. They all stood with expressions of vision and diligence.
At the opposite end of the square stood a wide building. It was three stories tall and had dozens of windows on each floor. The corners of the roof held towers that were topped with colorful minarets. Over the center of the building arched a bronze dome with an arched window at each of the four points of the compass. The travelers marched up the staircase at the entrance and spoke to the guards at the front desk.
“Hello,” said Axel, “my friends and I are here to speak with the Mayor. Is he available? Their message is important. I’ll vouch for that.”
“Very well, Axel,” replied a guard. “You have done well in your research of flying machines. The Mayor has stated his appreciation of your endeavor. You and your companions may proceed within.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Axel replied.
The capable gnome engineer directed his friends to follow him into the central Council Chamber. Bjorn helped the pilot to open a pair of large, wooden doors so that the humanoids could march inside.
The council floor was covered with polished, wood seats. A well-dressed gnome wearing spectacles was finishing a speech to the room, which was about two-thirds full with representatives. When he finished the audience applauded, some more vigorously than others.
Axel approached the podium and spoke in hushed tones with the Mayor. The gray-haired Leader glanced over the engineer’s shoulder and gazed at the group of travelers. His bushy eyebrows lifted with recognition when he saw Galatia and Gearzon. The outgoing gnome hurried over to the group as the delegates filed out of the spacious chamber.
“Galatia! Gearzon! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you two. You’ve been keeping yourselves busy I suppose. I haven’t met your halfling acquaintances before. Allow me to introduce myself to them. My name is Miles Davenport.”
The gnome shook hands with each of the travelers and they said their names in turn.
“Miles, there is growing conflict with the orcs and goblins in the Arkadian Mountains,” said Gearzon. “At first they worked at the behest of the Dire Queen, Ankharet and the daemon, Guardon. Now they follow what remains of the Guild of Assassins known as the Harad Ghul. For some time I was trapped in Guardon’s Plane and aided residents of the other regions of Gaea in sending him and his father to the Plane of Chaos.”
“Ankharet and her assistant Summoner, Themistokles have been destroyed. The Lykanthros and orcs are sure to be reorganizing their forces and are bound to turn south to Tinkerburg. You should order the battlemechs and ground-hoppers to the perimeter of the city in the event of a full-scale attack.”
“Your words confirm the information conveyed by farmers and other travelers,” replied Miles. “There are growing movements of the wolf-creatures. They have already destroyed some of our crops and ranches. I will issue a request to you, Axel, with copies delivered to all of the Gnome Council Delegates. We are in need of more battlemechs and flyers. They will better protect our citizens and capitol.”
“Very well, Miles,” answered Axel. “With additional hands I’m sure we will better defend Tinkerburg.”
“Now, before we attend to any further business, let us partake of a state dinner in commemoration of your return, Gearz.”
“Sounds great,” said Bjorn. “I could use a solid meal.”
“You are all welcome to stay in the inn across the square. Get some rest and return here this evening.”
The visitors shook hands with the Mayor and strode from the large room. Axel led The Watcher and the others to a sturdy, brick building across from the clock tower. The concierge took their names down in his book and they went to their separate lodgings. The travelers reclined on the stuffed quilts and got a few hours of sleep. They were roused that evening by porters and donned their best clothes for the state dinner.
The guards in the lobby of the City Hall again let Gearzon and his friends proceed inside. They were directed to a neighboring reception room with wood floors and walls. A group of gnome musicians played unique music from a dulcimer, harpsichord and oboes.
Miles Davenport recognized his friends when they arrived and excused himself from the group of gnomes with whom he was chatting.
“Ah, I’m glad you’ve joined us, Gearzon and Halflings. I hope you enjoy our bustling City in the South.”
“Yes, active and industrious this population is,” The Watcher said.
Miles directed his companions to sit at his side at the head of the main table. They were served a savory repast of roast doves and squash. Everyone dug into the food with relish. As dessert was served the Mayor stood and addressed the crowd.
“Fellow Gnomes, I have asked that you assemble here today due to the arrival of Gearzon and his halfling acquaintances. Their report confirms our suspicions. The goblins and orcs are continuing to build their forces against us. We must prepare for I fear that their attacks are bound to increase over the coming months…”
A bass rumbling shook the building. The candle lamps and chandeliers swung from the force of the shock. Several guards ran into the room and addressed the Mayor.
“Mayor, the orcs are here, and in greater numbers than before,” said a guard. “The battlemechs have withdrawn into the city and continue to fight. You must prepare yourselves for combat.”
The gnomes rose from their seats and hastened to the various exits. The travelers grouped together and ran out the main entrance of the City Hall. A battlemech and some gnomes fought with a battalion of orcs against the large building. The steam-powered machine was pushed back against the wall of the hall. It had broken the wood panels on the outside and was the source of the rumbling within.
Volleys of incendiary missiles flew over the walls of the city, igniting booths in the marketplace and spraying fire over the streets.
“The goblins are using catapults,” said Gearzon. “We also have such war machines but will take time to prepare them.”
Bjorn watched a gathering of gnomes open the doors of what he had taken to be a livery stable. They wheeled out a trio of catapults and armed them with packages of spiked steel balls. The industrious gnomes turned the cranks on the machines in pairs, pulling back the large arms. A gnome Sergeant did not hesitate and ordered his soldiers.
“Fire at will!”
The gnome catapults unleashed their burdens of steel and the balls dispersed in the air as they flew over the city wall. The Watcher heard guttural cries as many of the missiles struck their intended targets.
Axel was anxious and addressed his companions.
“Galatia and I must get in the air and survey the resources of the enemy. I must depart, My Friends. We thank you for your information.”
The male and female gnome engineers ran from the group and headed toward the makeshift airstrip.
Gearzon and the three halflings made their way through the ruckus on the streets of Tinkerburg. Brigades of gnomes passed buckets of water from wells to extinguish the random fires.
Ben observed that one of the two gates to the city had been opened and a group of ground-hoppers and battlemechs joined with citizens to fight the invading orcs in hand-to-hand combat.
Gearzon addressed his friends.
“I must help my people. You halflings should march to Mystic Down and give word to Lord Taliesin that the agents of the Harad Ghul are still on the move. We will hold and await reinforcement from the trolls at Wood’s End.”
The stout gnome drew his wrenches from his tool belt and hurried into the melee.
“Don’t worry, Gearz!” yelled Bjorn. “We’ll be back with Lord Taliesin as soon as we can.”
The halflings drew their dark cloaks about their faces in order to avoid detection by the aggressive attackers. They sprinted alongside the grappling warriors and ran into the fields beyond. Ben noticed Loki among the Lykanthros and Stalactite Orcs that slashed and growled at the gnomes.
Once out of the line of sight behind a cluster of bushes Ben spoke to The Watcher and Bjorn.
“We must retrace our steps and deliver the news of this attack on Tinkerburg. The gnomes are resourceful and will hold their own for a while. Let us go as fast as we can. Taliesin and Bors will know what to do.”
The halflings traveled through the night and drew near to Wood’s End by the afternoon of the following day.
* * * * *
Oxholm and Drumtone patrolled the tunnels beyond the settlement of the Maegar Dwarves.
“Alas, a challenge this Plane has become since our arrival here from Gaea, Brother,” said Oxholm.
“I agree,” Drumtone answered. “I regret the absence of the warriors of the neighboring races. They fought valiantly and did well to turn the red dragon and his servants. Despite their absence we should remain on the lookout for lingering wolf-creatures and beholders that assuredly prowl these passages.”
The dwarves continued their march along the outside perimeter of the tunnels and caverns mined by their clan. They entered a large cave and saw a gathering of Stalactite Orcs, Goblins, two beholders and a minotaur.
They feasted on mysterious meat that they tore at as it turned on a spit over a roaring fire. The goblins snarled when they saw the dwarves and drew their scimitars. The minotaur held a giant war-hammer and the two beholders screeched with alarm and rose into the air. The eyes of the spherical beasts fluctuated a variety of colors.
“Flee from us, Persistent Dwarves!” said an orc. “These caves yet belong to the Harad Ghul and those for whom they fight.”
“We will not, Hobgoblin,” replied Drumtone. “The dwarves have already fled from your invasions in our Realm of Origin. If you insist on delivering our fight here then you will have it.”
The dwarf brothers charged. Oxholm whirled his axe and Drumtone swung his hammer. They obliterated four of the goblins immediately with flurried strikes. The minotaur brought his large hammer down to crush the fighters but was too slow. The agile dwarves rolled to the left and right, evading the bull troll’s attack.
The pair of beholders emitted scalding rays from their antennae. The dwarves were quick on their feet and again dodged the attack. The Maegar Dwarves rolled under the beholders and thrust their weapons upward into their rock-like flesh. Their steel broke deep into the gorgons, showering the dwarves in green blood. The beholders moaned in agony and slumped on top of the warriors like squeezed fruit.
Drumtone and Oxholm pulled themselves free of the gore and contended with the minotaur. The horn-headed anthromorph was not fast enough and was dealt powerful strikes to the legs and torso. He fell to his knees and was finished off by Oxholm’s axe.
The goblins and orcs gasped at the deaths of the larger creatures and fled from the cavern.
“We shall return,” one of them cried.
“Ah, we are victorious, My Brother,” declared Oxholm. “Let us return to the settlement and inform King Grumbold of this growing activity. It seems that our clan has its work cut out for it despite our moving to the Gorgon Plane.”
The brothers embraced and returned from whence they came.
* * * * *
Lord Taliesin sat uneasily on his gargoyle-etched Throne. The wind blew eerily past the windows of his Tower, at times sounding like ghostly voices.
I am concerned for Gaea, he thought.
The troll found respite in patrolling the kennels in the cellar of his Tower. The wolves were energetic and howled when he entered the hall adjoining their cages.
The trolls and troll women that resided within his fortress were appreciative of Taliesin’s reticence. He seldom chatted with the citizens of Mystic Down. They understood his silence and were cognizant of his support of their tasks.
The Liege Lord also found solace in updating his journal. Since the passing of his parents he took it upon himself to document the events that occurred throughout the region with diligence.
The spatial portals generated by Ankharet and Guardon were dangerous, Taliesin thought. It remains to be seen what ill will arise from their maverick sorcery. I fear for Dagon and Tinkerburg as well.
Someone rapped on the door outside the Throne Room.
“Enter, please,” said the Lord.
Bors, Torvald and Rodnik entered Taliesin’s Chamber and shook hands.
“Greetings, Rodnik, Bors and son. What news do you bring from Wood’s End?”
“The goblins and orcs continue to attack us, Taliesin,” Torvald declared. “We have no choice but to assemble a garrison of warriors to quell the invaders. Before you arrived I was forced to fight the humanoids in the streets of Wood’s End.”
“Alas, I feared the goblins would return again,” said the Liege Lord. “They were not appreciative of the tyranny of the Dire Queen any more than we. Since her downfall they have reunited and are now moving aggressively once more. Let us ride to Coermantyr and advise the Baroness of these events. The invasions concern her region, too.”
The fighters trod down the stairs of Taliesin’s Tower and acquired fresh mounts from the stable. Their saddlebags were laden with supplies and they set forth to Coermantyr.
By evening they approached The Wolf’s Fang and the gothic spires of Coermantyr Castle. Lord Taliesin and his companions tethered their horses to the post at the front porch of the inn and walked inside. The tavern was filled with gossiping citizens and soldiers loyal to the Baroness. Bors leaned against the counter and spoke to Gilead, the Innkeeper.
“Greetings, Gilead. Bring some ale for us, if you please. We are the bearers of bad news, unfortunately.”
“I feared as much, Sturdy Bors,” replied the Key Mage.
He placed a pitcher of ale with three mugs on the counter.
The visitors sipped their drinks. Torvald next spoke with Gilead.
“Before you fighters returned from the Nether Planes Wood’s End was accosted by goblins and orcs. They are on the move once again. You must inform the Baroness that we should return to Arkadia and convince the invaders to leave our regions free of harassment.”
At that moment Ben Frostberry, Bjorn and The Watcher entered the inn.
“Thank goodness. We’re glad to see you all,” Ben said. “We sought you at Bard’s Inn but the patrons told us you had ridden here.”
“There is trouble in Tinkerburg,” continued the halfling. “We hiked there with Gearzon. Loki and the Stalactite Orcs are laying siege to the city as I speak. The Harad Ghul separated themselves over Gaea and are mobilizing against us at multiple locations.”
“This is ominous news,” said Gilead. “You warriors wait here. I will speak with Sharon directly and return. I’m sure that she’ll agree that we should ride this night and take our feud directly to the source at the Abyssal Cairn in Arkadia.”
The visitors to the Wolf’s Fang rested for a while and tasted the simple fare that was served in the establishment. The Baroness of Coermantyr entered the tavern, dressed in full armor. Gilead, her Key Mage, stood at her side.
“I have heard of the recent events in Mystic Down and the region of the gnomes. These attacks concern all of us and demand a quick response. Let us ride tonight toward Arkadia and prepare to settle the score with the Harad Ghul directly.”
The troll folk in the inn cheered their support.
The fighters mounted their horses and set off into the moonlit forest.
* * * * *
Raven awoke from her sleep. She’d had many dreams of late. The college student thought about Sharon Redthorne, the woman in her memories.
The Baroness is a strong person, thought Raven. She has dilemmas of her own to face. I guess the world would be pretty boring without the challenges and trials set before us.
The young woman ate a quick breakfast and prepared a fresh ensemble of clothes for the bus ride to Jefferson Community College.
I have to be careful not to fall too far behind in chemistry class, Raven considered. I’ll review chapter seven on the bus.
* * * * *
The environment in the Gorgon Plane had gone from bad to worse. Dweeble Dworx did everything in his power to hurry the Arachnoids to a new Hive a safe distance from the menacing Spires.
The elders are slow to move, embedded in their chitinous nests, he thought.
The eight-legged spider-creature hummed a rallying call, signaling his kindred to pick up their pace.
Dozens of the Arachnoids carried giant, volcanic boulders over the ferrous hills of their world. The Lykanthros continued to harass them despite the absence of their daemon controller. The fangs and claws of the wolf-beasts did little damage to the resistant flesh of the Hive Builders. Their intrusion was a nuisance, though, and only emphasized the need of the group to construct a habitat elsewhere.
Dweeble skittered into the original Hive and followed a complex network of tunnels to the Central Chamber where the elders thrived. A series of vents brought fresh air down to the floor from the ceiling several hundred yards above.
The ambitious spider-creature addressed his seniors who still gnawed and tore at the foundation they’d been fused with for several generations.
Dweeble used mindsong to communicate with them.
Please, Elders, this place is no longer secure. Hurry so that we may flee to a new Hive away from these diabolic intruders. The young will not be able to grow in this Hive any longer.
The elders hummed a bass-like tone indicating their understanding. They hastened their work to free themselves but it was evident that it would take several hours for them to become completely dislodged.
I will go out and check on the foundation of the new Hive. Thank you for your understanding.
The Arachnoid hummed farewell to the older creatures and exited through the passages to the surface. He scaled a number of steep hills, following the caravan of boulder carriers. Dweeble Dworx came to the edge of a steep valley. At its center the Arachnoids had placed the volcanic rocks in a wide circle and dug a pit within.
Before he was able to descend into the valley the spider-creature was attacked by a trio of Lykanthros. The feral beings fought more viciously than before. The friend of the Gaeans extended his forelegs outward to push his enemies away.
The Arachnoid realized that the Lykanthros had organized an offensive and had broken the chain of the caravan. Each of the spider creatures was caught in a perilous fight. They parried and evaded the swinging claws of the wolf creatures.
Dweeble hummed a note in mindsong.
To the Hive, My Kin. We must protect the elders for they are not ready to move.
The Arachnoids followed the advice and skittered a hasty retreat over the red hills. They clambered into the entrances of the glossy structure. The aggressive Lykanthros did not follow. Dweeble was heartened to find the elders had nearly completed the task of extricating themselves from their ensconsement. A few of them walked weakly to the exit portals and gazed at the swarming wolf pack outside.
We Hive Builders should move. Don’t worry about us. The important thing is for the Arachnoids to reside in a safe place, hummed an elder.
The last of the aged spider-creatures pulled free of their chitinous base. They ambled carefully to the tunnels and began the trek to the new habitat.
Younger Arachnoids banded together and surrounded the marching elders. They risked life and limb to repel the occasional Lykanthros that dared to attack. The Lykanthros continued to move in on the eight-legged creatures but were unable to stop the elders from reaching the new Hive. The builders hurried their pace to finish the structure.
This is getting bad, thought Dweeble. We could use the help of the Gaeans once more.
* * * * *
Guardon wailed with anguish into the air of the Plane of Chaos.
I miss Ankharet and the company of the Lykanthros, he thought.
His father’s Realm was a desolate place, devoid of companionship. He flew back from the empty valleys and mountaintops he’d covered.
I wish to avoid Thoth as much as possible. His endless ambition tires me. I want only to sit on my Throne again and manage the wolf-creatures.
The daemon passed over the Drystyx Temple and climbed until he reached the Gong Seal to his Throne Room. He raised his arms and pressed upward, straining with preternatural force. It took time and effort but eventually a creaking noise emanated from the edge of the seal.
Guardon flapped his wings at a fervent pace and thrust his shoulder into the metal barrier. It loosened and pivoted as on an axis. This gave the daemon space to climb inside. Once within The Spires he pushed the seal down again, blocking whoever may follow from entering his domain. Guardon surveyed his Throne Room.
The bodies of firbolgs, orcs, beholders and Lykanthros were strewn randomly on the floor. The daemon moved through the carnage and found Ankharet’s corpse. He knelt and held her in his arms. Guardon sobbed in grief and released a chaotic wail.
“Ankharet, I thought you would be safe here. Our enemies were determined to destroy us. I will have you back and make my life blood yours.”
The daemon bit his wrist, driving his fangs into the tissue. Green blood dripped from the opening and he held it to her mouth. For some time the fluid oozed down her throat. Then, Ankharet’s eyes opened. Her white within white eyes changed to a luminescent green. The Dire Queen gasped and grabbed Guardon’s arm, pressing his cut wrist to her mouth. The daemon moaned and allowed Ankharet to drink then pushed her away.
“Ah, that is enough, Dire Queen. You live again. Miserable I was without your company.”
“Ankharet is no more,” said the undead troll woman. “My life blood flows with that of you, Guardon, and your father, Thoth. I choose a name befitting this transformation. I am Iskendrea.”
“Very well, Iskendrea. I am happy that you live no matter which name you select.”
“How fare the Goblins of Arkadia?” asked the Dire Queen.
“I don’t know. I was trapped for some time in the Plane of Chaos. My father breached the Gong Seal and it was only until recently that I was able to return to this Plane without risking detection by him or his attending monks.”
“Very well,” said Iskendrea. “I shall generate a spatial portal to the Abyssal Cairn and seek the audience of Rauros. I’m sure he’ll be able to bring us up to date as to the state of the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs.”
“Spiros!”
A rift formed in the fabric of space, creating a gateway to the Throne Room in the Abyssal Cairn. Rauros sat on the Dais on the other side. He gazed through the portal at Iskendrea and Guardon.
“Hello, Summoners. It has been some time since we last spoke. I assume that the warriors of the various regions have proven to be as much of a nuisance to you as they have to us.”
“Yes, we have battled with other races of Gaea, Rauros,” said Guardon. “We wish to return to the Cairn. Do we have your consent?”
“No, Guardon. The Dire Queen was inconsiderate to we goblins and deserved to die. I have taken command here and have no need for her or your participation in our campaign.”
“I am not the person I once was, Rauros,” replied the troll woman. “I have returned from death. Now I am Iskendrea. I give my word that if allowed into your Throne Room I will not act as harshly as I did in the past.”
“Very well, Iskendrea. But remember that the Harad Ghul will be watching you and will gladly remove you from the world of the living once more if you misbehave.”
The pair of Summoners passed through the portal and entered the Audience Chamber of the Abyssal Cairn.
The Dire Queen addressed Rauros.
“Goblin Master, if you please, allow me to summon assistants to aid our surveillance of the other regions. The warriors of Mystic Down and Coermantyr are sure to be on the lookout for us. Extra pairs of watchful eyes will help us in the motions we take to secure the neighboring regions on the behalf of the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins.”
“Very well, Iskendrea and Guardon,” said Rauros. “Just don’t let your familiars interfere with the goblin patrols. They follow their own chain-of-command and have no need of outside direction.”
“Conjelex!” cried the Dire Queen.
Green points of light formed in the air throughout the Audience Chamber of the Abyssal Cairn. They coalesced and formed a dark, green cloud. This split into two shapes that assumed legless, humanoid forms. Guardon named the taller of the specters.
“I call you Zalkos.”
Iskendrea named the broader of the two specters.
“I dub you Athros.”
“Venture to Mystic Down and give us intelligence as to the doings of Lord Taliesin and his acquaintances,” ordered Guardon. “They are sure to have encountered the reformed Harad Ghul and their assistants by now. If you perform your tasks for us satisfactorily you will be rewarded with your freedom. Fly, now.”
“As you wish, Masters,” replied Athros. “We will return with the information you seek.”
The pair of green specters flew out of the Abyssal Cairn and into the moonlit night of the Arkadian Forest.
* * * * *
The Driptwist-Morphozoid Entity sensed the presence of Guardon and Iskendrea. The school of nuclei shuddered with the ramifications of the return of the malevolent Summoners.
This bodes poorly for the peace within the Gorgon Plane, thought the Morphozoids. The beholders and wolf-creatures will return to their past fervor. We must contact the Gaeans and ask for their assistance.
Driptwist began the preparations necessary to assume a humanoid form. It planned to emerge and discuss the growing turbulence among the untamed creatures in The Spires with the stone giants.
* * * * *
“The scrying glass beckons,” said Siegemunde.
The Director of the Martial Academy excused himself from the Integration Ceremony. He gestured for Jalhi, Sigrid and their friends to follow him. The group returned to Siegemunde’s study on the uppermost platform of the Martial Academy. There the scrying glass, brought by the warriors in a previous visit, glowed with blue light.
“Siegemunde, can you hear me? It is I, Lord Dagon, Ruler of the Dagonites.”
“Yes, I can hear you,” said the teacher. “How fare things in your ocean region?”
“We’ve experienced some conflict with a new race of fish hunters. They call themselves Nozroth. Several of my merfolk were turned away when they asked to share the yields from the schools of fish. We plan to contact Restadicus in Coermantyr Castle but wanted to consult with you, first. Is there anything you can do to help us, Siegemunde?”
“It is possible. I know of spells that can allow troll folk to traverse the depths of the sea. This is done by generating a layer of Ethereal Armor that functions as gills.”
“I suggest that you send some of your Captains to Coermantyr to consult with the Lore Masters. Their numbers are large and can harness greater reserves of arcane energy than I am able to here. If they so choose they can send a battalion of amphibious land trolls to the ocean. They will better help to equate the loss of staples you speak of.”
“Very well, Siegemunde, thank you for your advice. I will send five merfolk to the Ghastly Fens. Their names are Marlin, Anemone, Trilobite, Barracuda and Nautilus. They will escort what warriors you have available to the Lore Masters. You have my thanks, Teacher. The spatial rifts created by the Dire Queen have yet delivered unexpected challenges to us.”
“We will await the arrival of your Captains and depart thereafter.”
The light faded from the scrying glass in Siegemunde’s study.
* * * * *
Liege Lord Taliesin of Mystic Down and his friends rode their horses at a steady march through the forest. The warrior’s eyes scanned the perimeter of the road. He was on the lookout for any surprise attacks by the goblins or Lykanthros.
“Taliesin, I detect the presence of maverick magic-users in the direction of Arkadia,” said Gilead. “I wonder if Guardon and some other sorcerer have somehow returned to the Abyssal Cairn. We should make haste to that location for I fear what this new vibration in the Dharmic Equilibrium may signify.”
A Lykanthros horde rushed the group of fighters. The eyes of the feral beings emanated green light. They were again under the guidance of the Dire Queen in her reanimated form.
The warhorses responded to the charge by rearing back on their hind legs and striking at the wolf-creatures with their hooves. The fighters drew their weapons and swung down at the Lykanthros, destroying three of them.
Gilead incanted a harnessing sorcery.
“Captros!”
The Lykanthros were incapsulated in a bright, red net of arcane energy. A few of them broke loose but the majority was trapped by Gilead’s spell. The wolf-creatures that were free charged toward the warriors and engaged them in a fierce melee. Torvald slew the remaining Lykanthros with his sword.
“There is definitely a driving force behind these energized wolf-creatures,” observed Bors’ eldest son.
“I agree, Torvald,” said Bors. “I regret to consider that the new Gong Seal has somehow been breached from the Plane of Chaos. If that is the case we may face the wrath of Guardon and Thoth once more. We should ride on to Deep Tree and the picket line that separates Arkadia from Mystic Down. It will do us good to learn who is in charge in that region.”
The band of fighters agreed with the Burgomeister’s recommendations. They guided their horses east to Deep Tree.
* * * * *
Trilobite, Marlin, Anemone, Nautilus and Barracuda marched on the dry sand of the beach north to Tinkerburg. They followed the order of Lord Dagon and sought the Ghastly Fens. The merfolk walked for a short while when they saw smoke on the horizon.
“Hello, Dagonites!” a spritely voice called. “What brings you from your aquatic region?”
A trio of halflings appeared at the crest of a nearby dune. Marlin recognized Bjorn Roundtree and The Watcher from their imprisonment in the Gorgon Plane.
“Greetings, Halflings,” said Marlin.
He shook hands with the three travelers.
“I don’t believe I’ve met your bearded friend before. Allow me to introduce my acquaintances and I. My name is Marlin. These stout fellows are Trilobite and Nautilus. These two merwomen are Anemone and Barracuda.”
“It’s nice to meet all of you,” answered Ben.
“I am Ben Frostberry, Bjorn Roundtree’s uncle. The Stalactite Orcs and Goblins are conducting a siege on the home city of our gnome friend, Gearzon. We are traveling on the behalf of the Mayor there to seek military reinforcement in Wood’s End.”
“What brings you fish hunters to dry land?” asked Ben.
“There is trouble in the deep,” answered Anemone. “A new race of hunters has arrived in the ocean through the random portals generated by Guardon and the Dire Queen. They are aggressive and do not wish to share the yields of the schools of fish that move with the current.”
“It’s a good thing that we met here, today,” said Ben. “We should travel north and west into Mystic Down so that we may inform Lord Taliesin of the invasions that are taking place in these regions.”
“I agree,” said Marlin. “We have greater strength in numbers.”
The warriors marched until twilight. They stopped to set a modest camp and conserve their strength for the hike ahead.
“Hello!” a voice growled. “Is anyone there? We are searching for Mystic Down.”
Satvinder and Jalhi Bengal emerged from the forest. Alex, Gnoll, Leif, Sigrid and Fangoz accompanied them.
“We met this aspiring magic-user from Arborea on our way here.”
Satvinder hugged Alex around the shoulders.
“Each of the regions of Gaea is beset by continuing attacks by the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins,” the tiger-troll declared. “My name is Satvinder. I am a longtime associate of Jalhi’s. We tiger-trolls regretfully were unable to help you in earlier battles. For many weeks we’ve prowled the open swamp in search of game for our people. It seems that the struggle for the liberation of the regions unfolds before us. Each of us is an adept warrior with unique style. Let us move to Arkadia and determine whether or not we can stop Guardon and whoever else may have returned there.”
“That is sound advice, Brave Ranger,” said Lord Taliesin. “All of us share an interest in the harmony and tranquility of our respective regions. Let us ride into the Forest of Arkadia now and bring an end to this war.”
The fighters did as Taliesin suggested and razed their camp. Each of them was motivated by Satvinder’s words to carry on the fight. They followed the illumination spells of Sigrid and Leif through the trees.
* * * * *
Rauros addressed Iskendrea and Guardon.
“The specters search for intelligence as we speak, My Allies. We must remain cautious for the Lieges of the regions of Gaea do not take the movements of our forces lightly. I am loath to consider it but if the battle becomes fierce we may be forced to ask you, Guardon, to again bring the involvement of the red dragon, Thoth.”
“I would not do that willingly, Goblin Master,” answered the Daemon Lord. “My father is uncontrollable and follows nought but his own wiles. Let us contend with those who would stop us directly. I doubt if things will go so far as for us to need the Denizens of Chaos.”
“Very well, Guardon,” said Rauros. “I will set a rotating watch of the Stalactite Orcs and Goblins in the forest beyond the Cairn. If any one approaches us we will know of it.”
* * * * *
The band of warriors marched into the deeper woods of Arkadia. The howls of the Lykanthros permeated the trees but the wolf-creatures did not attack the large group of warriors. They rode at a steady pace. At last they approached the outer edge of the tangled rose garden of the Abyssal Cairn.
Bjorn fingered the anklet he’d taken from Guardon. The mysterious jewels still refracted the light strangely.
“This anklet grows cold,” said the halfling. “It’s almost as if it senses the presence of its previous owner. That’s strange because the last time I saw Guardon he was sent to the Plane of Chaos far from here.”
“My amulet also feels chilled,” said Sharon Redthorne. “I took it from a cave where goblin marauders stayed. Like your anklet, Bjorn, I suspect it was made in an alien Plane.”
“Speaking of strange items, I’m still learning about the magical facets of the Orb of Paryphax,” declared Alex. “Although I’ve been appointed as the new Wood Mage in Arborea there is magical power that I’ve yet to deduce how to tap.”
The fighters passed through the clinging gardens and entered the main gate of the Abyssal Cairn. The Harad Ghul waited at the opposite end.
“Turn from this place, Taliesin,” Dakros growled. “You should have realized that the Stalactite Goblins and Orcs are unstoppable. We will conquer your regions for ourselves whether you consent to it or not.”
“That is unfortunate, Adept Assassin,” replied Taliesin. “My parents fought against you to the best of their ability, as did Sharon’s. Now we will finish what they intended to complete a generation ago. En guarde!”
The warriors wielded their weapons as they drove their warhorses into a battle charge. The Harad Ghul directed their wolf-beast mounts at the fighters. The opposing forces clashed on the black cobbles of the Cairn. The fight was intense with neither side offering quarter.
Alex, Leif, Sigrid, Reoren and Gilead united their abilities to generate an attack spell.
“Trentak!” they cried.
Powerful blasts of golden plasma struck dozens of goblins and orcs. Some of the malevolent humanoids were knocked from their saddles while their foot soldiers were obliterated.
Lord Taliesin, Rodnik, Sharon, Bors, Torvald, Fangoz, the Bengal Clan and Thorgrym grouped together. The warriors laid into their opponents with full force. Bjorn and The Watcher used their slings and Ben used his sword. The merfolk also joined the fight.
The Harad Ghul fought valiantly with their scimitars but were no match for the aggression of the warriors. They were destroyed.
Iskendrea and Guardon levitated with green magic as they entered the courtyard of the Abyssal Cairn.
“Know not do I how these two returned to this place. Alas, they must be challenged once more.”
The Watcher flung a rounded stone at Guardon. The large daemon batted it away.
The warriors did not hesitate and strode over the fallen goblins to attack the Summoners. They hewed at them with their sharpened steel.
Enraged, Iskendrea uttered a projectile spell.
“Nechros!”
A dozen, spiraling, green blades flew at the fighters. They used their agile reflexes to deflect the enchanted blades with their weapons and shields.
Frustrated at the failure of her attack, the Dire Queen incanted another sorcery.
“Drisenta!”
A battalion of transparent skeletons and zombie knights contended with the warriors. Gnoll and Reoren were baffled by the illusion, but only briefly. The other fighters were accustomed to this device and ignored the animated images altogether.
Nighthawk and the defected goblins struck at the Illusionaries with their weapons. The maverick mages evaded their attack.
Bors and Fangoz swung their clubs in vain against the telekinetic gestures of Iskendrea.
Rodnik and Gnoll struck at Guardon with their axes but did no significant injury to the daemon.
The merfolk fired their crossbows but did not strike their targets.
The Watcher and Bjorn unleashed their rounded stones at Guardon, distracting him. Ben Frostberry parried around the Dire Queen with his dagger.
Before Iskendrea was able to utter another incantation the mercenaries rushed her, skewering her to the floor in numerous locations. Guardon fought valiantly with the Gaeans. Taliesin yelled a battle cry and ran the daemon through with his longsword. The bronze-skinned humanoid spewed a shower of green blood and died.
“Hooray! Victorious we are,” exclaimed The Watcher. “Return we should to Coermantyr Castle to inform Restadicus. Done well we all have. Proud your parents would be, Sharon and Taliesin.”
The fighters guided their horses out of the gateway of the Abyssal Cairn and began the journey home.
* * * * *
Raven sat on the bus on the way to Jefferson College. She was still concerned about Mrs. Eggnog. Her trigonometry teacher was ambitious.
I don’t know if I’m going to make the cut-off point with Mrs. Eggnog this semester, thought Raven. I need a math class in order to transfer to a university. If things go as they have been I’ll take a ‘W’ for withdraw and try again next semester with a different professor.
Maybe that’s why I’ve had such strange dreams lately.
* * * * *
Thoth moaned within the Drystyx Temple.
“Guardon, my son, is dead. Drystyx Monks, join with me in seeking vengeance for his untimely demise. Let us push above to the seal once more. If we concert our efforts we will surely gain entrance.”
The black-cloaked Drystyx Monks did as the red dragon suggested and flew with him to the Gong Seal in the sky. The dragon asserted the full brunt of his strength against the seal and broke through. The Drystyx Monks again flew into the Gorgon Plane. A battalion of firbolgs and minotaurs accompanied them. The humanoid warriors levitated into the Plane through the guidance of the Monks of Chaos.
Zolgnath was pleased.
“Good. I am glad that we have returned to this place. The opportunity exists for us to expand our holdings within the Dharmic Equilibrium. Let us disperse our troops, Thoth, and secure this mountain stronghold for the Servants of Chaos!”
“Very well, Zolgnath,” said the red dragon. “Take command of this structure. I will fly above and survey the area.”
The dragon flew from the Throne Room of The Spires and flapped his wings over the red horizon. The Lykanthros that swarmed below raised their heads at the arcane aura of the dragon. Dweeble Dworx and the Hive Builders hurried inside their newly constructed Hive to avoid detection.
Thoth spotted the last of the Arachnoids scramble into the habitat and dove low to the earth. He released a bolt of green acid at the Hive. The volcanic rocks from which the building was constructed were resilient and did not give way to the noxious chemical.
The dragon circled around and headed back to The Spires.

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