Saturday, November 27, 2010

ORDER & CHAOS - 108,000 words - Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Scrying Glasses and Regatherings

The State of Coermantyr lay beyond Mystic Down. The friends passed through the cobblestone streets of Wood’s End. They decided to stop and supply their horses at Bors’ establishment.
The villagers cheered upon their entrance. The withdrawal of the packs of Lykanthros was noticed before their arrival. The air had changed upon Ankharet’s passing to the Gorgon Plane. Bors was reluctant to share the news of Bjorn Roundtree’s disappearance. The halfling was a source of laughter and entertainment for many of the residents of Wood’s End on cold nights.
The Lore Masters were known throughout Coermantyr and Mystic Down as adept magic users.
They specialized in monitoring and joining with the various energies that evolved throughout the States of Gaea. Certain areas of Gaea hardly fit the definition of States although they are labeled as such on the maps of Lieges like Taliesin and Sharon.
The Ghastly Fens were untamed and wild. This was also the case for the Woods of Coermantyr and the mountainous regions east of Arkadia.
The villagers of Wood’s End understood the necessity of the meeting with the Lore Masters in Coermantyr. They hurried the traveler’s warhorses to the livery stable where they were groomed with currycombs and fed grain. Bors briefed his eldest son, Torvald, about the disappearance of the Dire Queen from Arkadia.
A minority of the patrons of Bard’s Inn vocalized a lack of enthusiasm to retrieve Bjorn Roundtree. For absent items some had blamed him.
Bors clearly wished to recruit additional forces to assist his friends on their mission. The members of the band had no choice but to resign themselves to their own resources. Although Bors addressed the patrons of his tavern in a booming speech, they would not be swayed to accompany him.
The warriors set out on the road to Coermantyr in the morning, with Sharon and her mages leading the way. The farmland and woods were serene in comparison with the wild tracts of trees they saw in Arkadia.
As the horses passed the tilled and irrigated fields of squash and wheat, Bors paused to gather an apron-full of ripe strawberries.
“These will make an excellent pie,” he said.
The outskirts of the City of Coermantyr were bustling with activity. The farmers and ranchers who avoided the open roads under the rampage of the Lykanthros now crowded the city gates. Lord Taliesin and his friends guided their mounts gently through flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.
Several of Sharon’s guards struggled to push a disabled wagon to the shoulder of the road. She spoke to the Captain in charge.
“How fare things in the city, Captain?”
“Not well, My Lady. The roads are jammed with merchants and peddlers. Everyone is trying to sell the fruits of their harvest before they spoil. I’d advise you to rest at a tavern until nightfall. Things should quiet down by then and you’ll have clear passage to the castle.”
That night the moons of Gaea shone brightly as parallel crescents. The streets were settled and Taliesin’s band traversed the road to the castle with ease.
The large ramp leading to the drawbridge was lined with marble sculptures of valkyries and heroines of legend. In Coermantyr the office of the Baroness was passed through the generations on a matriarchal basis, from mother to daughter.
Sharon’s parents had both died several years before. She was accustomed to the duties of her role and was in no hurry to provide her State with an heiress.
Gilead met briefly with some mages at the castle entrance. The warriors’ horses were taken to the stable. Lord Taliesin and his friends scaled several spiraling flights of stairs to a great dining hall. Courtesans and gendarmes of the State applauded the travelers upon their entrance.
There was a resplendent banquet prepared for the returning adventurers. Musicians and dancers filled the Central Hall of Coermantyr Castle with a jovial ambience. At a large table the Baroness dined with her friends.
“My compliments on this excellent feast, Sharon,” Bors said.
He was chewing on a leg of turkey with gusto. The Burgomeister appeared to be enjoying himself thoroughly.
Gilead spoke to the group at the table.
“My Friends, I have arranged for a meeting with the Lore Masters tomorrow. They will advise us about the Plane where Bjorn was taken. Perhaps they will make some use of the scrying glass which Lord Taliesin retrieved.”
“Thank you, Gilead,” Taliesin said. “I look forward to finding a way to rescue our halfling friend. I also hope that the Lore Masters will give us some information as to how we can prevent such an invasion from occurring again.”
The traveling band was given lodging in the castle. Each of them was glad to have a sound night’s sleep after so many days on the roads of Mystic Down.
The next morning castle pages escorted the mercenaries. They were led to the Council Chamber of the Lore Masters. The Lore Masters were a group of a dozen mages who specialized in the storage of documents. Their massive libraries included both folkloric and historical scrolls.
The Chief Archivist of the Lore Masters was Restadicus. He wore a magenta robe tied with a silver belt. His hoary beard and shoulder length hair were braided and intertwined with strands of the same magenta thread.
The Lore Masters sat at a crescent-shaped table. Their Council Chamber was lit with bright candelabras and an iron chandelier that was suspended by a large chain hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The walls were covered with shelves of scrolls and leather-bound journals.
“Baroness Sharon, we are heartened that you and your allies have made a safe return to Coermantyr. The State has been beset by the Lykanthros for some time. Their eradication is a blessing to us all. As you have seen, the farmers and merchants have swamped the city streets in their enthusiasm to regain their lost profits.”
Lord Taliesin opened his travel pack and placed the dark, glass shard he’d taken from the Abyssal Cairn on the Lore Masters’ table.
“Restadicus, tell us what you can about this scrying glass. It belonged to the Dire Queen, Ankharet. She was using it to communicate with Guardon in the Gorgon Plane.”
The Leader of the Lore Masters extended his spindly fingers over the black glass.
“This glass has been used to communicate with more than one Plane,” Restadicus said. “I perceive a spatial breach that has been sealed. This must be the portal which Ankharet generated to channel her Lykanthros into this Realm.”
The grizened mage gazed at the scrying glass with an interested expression.
“Your friend, Bjorn, is stuck with magic users of a hazardous, wreckless persuasion. I regret constructing a new breach to rescue him when Guardon and Ankharet are still desirous of usurping our lands. Let us think on the appropriate course of action and meet here again, tomorrow. We have much to learn from this magic shard.
Restadicus pocketed the glass in his robe for later research.
Bors and Rodnik relished their stay in the luxuriant setting of Coermantyr Castle. They enjoyed not having to work all day. They reclined decadently on the pillows in their quarters. Servants of the region regaled them with cool beverages and sumptuous food.
Leif appreciated the sophistication of the library of the Lore Masters. He and his friends waited for the Council of Mages to reach a consensus as to their course of action.
The ghoul-troll perused the vast archives of scrolls and leather tomes. Although an adept spellcrafter and magic user, there were ancient casting and incanting techniques that he had never seen before.
Many volumes spoke of legendary orbs, different in appearance and function from the Orb of Paryphax. Among the lists were the Orbs of Falstaff, which, according to several journal entries, provided greatly needed assistance to their bearers in battle situations. An unwanted side effect of these orbs was that they vanished out of place and time once used.
Leif, the half-undead mage, noticed a shelf of tomes written by Restadicus himself. He’d recorded every message received about the Baroness’ progression toward the Abyssal Cairn of the Dire Queen. As Wood’s End and the subsequent forest were cleansed of the marauding Lykanthros, farmers and ranchers raced to Coermantyr to deliver word of the disappearance of the predators.
The Sentinel hoped that Restadicus would find a way to make use of the scrying glass that Lord Taliesin brought. It might enhance the ability of Coermantyr to observe events that threatened the civic harmony of their region.
That night the Lore Masters reached a decision. They had studied Ankharet’s scrying glass in private and learned what they could from it. A gathering of several hundred citizens dined in the Central Hall of Coermantyr Castle. Minstrels and jugglers entertained the villagers and children while they ate.
Bors eagerly joined in and sang another of his many songs.

“In ancient times when work was done the clown, Woodruffe, did sing.
The people loved him for his mirth and his colorful vest.
At the fountain the maid, Gwendolyn, fed doves with fluttered wings.
Woodruffe tried hard to woo her but the maid would not say yes.
Desperate to find a working means to win Gwendolyn’s heart,
Woodruffe sought far and wide for an enchanted rose to bring her.
Gwendolyn’s Rose he named it so they would never be apart.
She’d be his without dispute once enchanted by the flower.
Magic thickets were abound, the clown was scratched and stung.
Yet faeries led him to the place where the coveted blossom grew.
He plucked the rose without contest although the maid was young.
Still Gwendolyn refused and said, ‘I simply don’t want you.’
In sadness Woodruffe strode through the town, sniffing at the bloom.
Then he spied another maid sweeping with a broom.
Woodruffe asked her, ‘Share my kingdom though it modest be.’
‘I will,’ she replied and the friends were the merriest pair to see.”

Restadicus and his fellow mages addressed Sharon, Gilead and Taliesin’s mercenaries in the spacious Council Chamber of Coermantyr Castle.
“Thank you for your patience, My Friends. My assistants and I have studied the shard you brought us with utmost scrutiny. Ankharet’s scrying glass is much like our own. The wizards of this castle use such objects from time to time to access distant regions. We take great care, however, to avoid Planes and Realms alien to Gaea. Testing such waters has proven risky at best and cataclysmic at worst. All scrying glasses hold shadows; memories of places they’ve seen and Entities they’ve contacted. That is why this shard is unique. It veritably hums with energies that have run through it. It is clear that its previous possessor had no regard for whom or what gained knowledge of Gaea.”
The aged Lore Master scratched his beard.
“We wizards fear to leave your friend, Bjorn, in the Gorgon Plane. Apart from the risk to his wellbeing, he may be forced by the Dire Queen and her cohorts to divulge intelligence in regard to the locations of settlements and fortresses in Coermantyr and Mystic Down. It isn’t wise, however, for us to concert our efforts into recreating a spatial rift such as the one that Leif and the rest of you succeeded in closing. At least not in these populated regions.”
“Your Sentinel lich-troll friend has demonstrated an uncanny expertise in untested spell-casting. This is due to his training at the Martial Academy in the Ghastly Fens.”
“The Academy is run by an acquaintance of this Council of Mages. An alumnus of the Lore Masters, Siegemunde, has functioned as the Chief Administrator of the Martial Academy there for the last few years. He moved there from our offices during the past conflict with the stone trolls and goblin hordes.”
“In answer to my urgent request, Siegemunde has agreed to see you. You must hasten to the Ghastly Fens. There you will be positioned farther away from the settled regions of Gaea. The lich folk are a resilient and courageous race. Their own spawning was based on an unexpected binding of opposing magics. They will be willing to open a temporary rift upon the guidance of their Leader.”
“Seek your halfling friend, Bjorn Roundtree, in the Gorgon Plane. Do not hasten to disrupt the Mandala of the Planes.”
Restadicus’ brow furrowed with concern.
“If you are confronted by Ankharet and Guardon deal with them, as you must. Be aware, however, that you will be fighting them in their home region and their powers will be functioning at full capacity.”
“Make haste to the Martial Academy in the Ghastly Fens. Siegemunde has my authorization to tap the scrying glass of the Abyssal Cairn once more. He will be cautious and wise to the risks involved.”
Lord Taliesin and the Baroness assembled their friends in the courtyard of Coermantyr Castle. Among the bartering merchants and bleating livestock the two Lieges addressed their companions.
“My Friends, I am grateful for your support and loyalty to this point. You have proven an invaluable assistance to us in our quest to bring peace and civility to the regions of Gaea.”
“Lady Redthorne and I still need your help. We ask that you accompany us to the Martial Academy in the Ghastly Fens. There we shall meet with Leif’s Mentor, Siegemunde.”
“The lich-trolls have experimented with magic more keenly than we have in Mystic Down and Coermantyr. It has been our approach to treat magic use in a traditional manner. Don’t you agree, Gilead?”
“Verily, Lord Taliesin. We care not for risky and daring sorceries. There are too many villages that must remain safe,” the Key Mage said.
“Let’s gather our horses and prepare to travel to the Ghastly Fens. I am sure Leif can navigate us,” said Sharon.
“I can take you to my home region, My Friends. You must understand that my kin are cautious and not readily accepting of visitors. Most of our trade is done at the Crossroads. It will be best if you allow me to speak for us when we encounter others of my race. The Ghastly Fens are a mysterious place, even to those who call them their home,” the Sentinel said.
The mercenaries set forth on the road to the Martial Academy in the morning. Leif took the lead on his dappled mare. The villagers of Coermantyr cheered their passage.
* * * * *
Bjorn Roundtree awoke in a strange place. He’d lost consciousness upon his passage through the portal. The halfling lay among a cluster of large boulders. His first instinct was to look for Ankharet and Guardon. He climbed cautiously to the top of the nearest rock. The hordes of Lykanthros still swarmed over the hills of the Gorgon Plane. Bjorn observed the movements of the wolf-creatures had taken a circling pattern.
They must detect the presence of their Daemon King, he thought.
The sky was an eerie red yet there was no sun. The Lykanthros spiraled around a distant mountain. Guardon’s Spires, the daemon’s enchanted fortress, stood at its peak. Its sharply angled towers and flying buttresses crackled with blue, electric bolts that extended miles outward, forming a canopy within the crimson sky.
The halfling was surprised to find he was holding Guardon’s copper anklet. The hefty chain sparkled with encrusted jewels. They were of a type he’d never seen. The azure and violet crystals caught the light in a mysterious, almost rhythmic pattern. He also noticed strange writing along the inner circumference of the anklet. The characters were etched deep into the close-linked chain. The letters were fluid and calligraphic.
They said, Tread not but wisely with gorgons.
Bjorn was startled by the scratching of talons or claws on the volcanic boulder behind him. He spun around and found himself face to face with a large Arachnoid. Its purple exoskeleton was shiny and covered its segmented body entirely. Before the halfling uttered a word the creature extended its pair of flexible antennae close to his ears. It issued a low frequency vibration that generated buzzing sounds in Bjorn’s head.
Dweeble Dworx I am named. I am one of the Hive Builders. I have not seen one of your kin before. Are you a relative of those irritating magic users from the Arkadian Castle?
“I’m afraid not,” the halfling answered. “I am a halfling. My name is Bjorn Roundtree. I arrived in this place accidentally when my friends attempted to stop the daemon, Guardon, from sending his Lykanthros into our home world. I should get back to them. Do you know of a way to Gaea?”
I’m sorry, Dweeble answered. The wolf-creatures rushed to a foreign place through a spatial portal generated by Guardon and the white-haired Summoner, Ankharet. The gateway is closed now. It disappeared soon after you and they passed through. We should hasten to the Hive. There are other humanoids from your Realm that have gathered there. They too are not allies of the Summoners. If you climb onto my back, I’ll take you there quickly.
Bjorn did as the large Arachnoid suggested and ensconced himself on its back. The Hive Builder scrambled over the rocky hills faster than a horse. They rapidly approached a great Hive several hundred feet tall. The dextrous Hive Builders constructed it by fusing the dark, volcanic rocks together with their own resin-like secretions.
The halfling was surprised to see a gathering of Gaeans and Hive Builders at the base of the towering structure. The Lykanthros were nowhere to be seen. The wolf-beasts had an innate apprehension of the sturdy spider-creatures. A dozen of the massive Arachnoids patrolled the perimeter of their lair. They did not tolerate intrusion by the Lykanthros hordes.
Among the ex-residents of Mystic Down, Arborea, Coermantyr, the Ghastly Fens and Arkadia Bjorn recognized several familiar faces. He had a good memory and had spent many nights observing the varieties of visitors to Bard’s Inn.
The Arkadians were goblin defectors who had become weary of the despotic, tyrannical bullying of the Dire Queen. The halfling was also startled to see merfolk among the crowd. They were amphibious, possessing both lungs and gills. This allowed them to respirate in both terran and aquatic environments. The sea people were noted for their reclusion. They mingled with land-dwellers only in rare circumstances.
Bjorn introduced himself to the gathering of humanoids and Arachnoids. His voice piped sharply as he attempted to gain the attention of the murmuring group.
“Greetings, My Friends! I recognize many of you from your visits to Bard’s Inn in Mystic Down. It appears we are stuck here with our hive-building acquaintances. The magical experiments of Guardon and Ankharet have proven a nuisance to all the regions of Gaea. The Lykanthros destroyed many of the crops, fish and livestock that we depend on for food. My mercenary associates, Liege Lord Taliesin and the Baroness Sharon, succeeded in closing the spatial breach that the Dire Queen used to infiltrate our villages. It will only be a matter of time before they find a means with which to come to our aid and deliver us to our respective regions. The Spires of Guardon, the daemon, stand near us. What shall we do about it?”
The Dagonites were the first to respond.
A muscular, blue-skinned mertroll, whose vestigial tentacles and arms were garnered with brass bands addressed the gathering.
“I am Marlin. My region has been tormented by Ankharet’s conjurings. My fellow Captains and I were on our way to lead a fishing expedition when rifts surrounded us in the open sea. We could not help but fall victim to the erratic sorceries.
“Lord Dagon, my father, asked us to look for an orb. He called it the Orb of Paryphax. My companion, Anemone, found it in a salmon she caught. She said the fish was emanating an arcane force that resonated for miles in the water.”
“This is true,” the merwoman said. “The glass is strange. It hums with alien energy. I fear what harm may be done if it is tapped by the wrong people.”
“I was also compromised by random portals,” an armored wood troll said. “My name is Gnoll. Our Leader, the Wood Mage of Arborea, originally used the Orb of Paryphax. The Dire Queen’s Vizier murdered him and stole the orb. I was on my way to seek aid in Mystic Down when the woods became filled with magical openings.
“I am somewhat familiar with the workings of Anemone’s Orb. Its power focuses particularly on living things. The aged Wood Mage, Skjold, tapped the forces held within the orb to monitor and enhance the growth and dispersion of the trees in Arborea. The oaks, spruce, ash and pines function as the eyes and ears of the wood trolls.
“It was not enough, however, to stop the quick attack of the Lykanthros. The trees spoke to us with whispered urgency. I fought desperately at the base of our oak fortress to no avail. The wolf-beasts swamped my trolls and I, although not without having many of their number destroyed. Ankharet’s Vizier, Themistokles, stole Skjold’s Orb and vanished before he could be stopped.
“Although we would have mourned our fallen Leader in a proper burial, there was no time. We hastened to Mystic Down. The next thing I knew I was trapped by magic in this strange place.”
“Such was the case for us, also,” a hefty, merchant lich-troll said.
He stood among a closely-knit band of armed lich folk and trolls from Coermantyr, the Ghastly Fens and Mystic Down, respectively.
“My name is Reoren. I just met my friends from Coermantyr and Mystic Down at the Crossroads on the edge of the Ghastly Fens. We were also accosted by the maverick portals.
“We must unite with these great, spider-beings. They are intelligent and sympathetic to our cause. It is clear that their habitat is much harassed by the Lykanthros like our own. The power of Guardon and his daemon clan is considerable but not infinite. In aged carvings and legends the lich folk have recorded encounters with bizarre creatures and malevolent wizards. They were disposed of with the help of outsiders, of course.
“I move that we assemble what weapons and defensive resources we can muster. We should trek to Guardon’s enchanted fortress and eliminate the Daemon King and the Dire Queen permanently.”
Dweeble addressed the gathering of humanoids.
We Hive Builders are impressed by you two leggers resourcefulness and determination to secure your world. My cousins and I will carry you across the volcanic valley to the daemon’s fortress. The battle will be fierce but the time has come for us to do something about these wild wolf-creatures.
They are driven by an arcane force that emanates from sorceries maintained by the Dire Queen and her suitor. If we destroy them the Lykanthros will return to their natural hunting patterns. We must warn you that there are yet other Planes with chaotic forces even more tumultuous than those that the Summoners are tapping here. We must be careful not to open additional rifts in the spatial continuum. If not we may find the dark fortress occupied by a more devious Entity.
The Gaeans mounted their Arachnoid friends with Bjorn and Dweeble Dworx at the lead. They set forth on the downward slope into the valley of Guardon’s Spires.
* * * * *
Raven turned in her sleep. Her alarm clock rang out. It was time to go to Jefferson Community College again. She felt well-rested and would certainly return to the Realm of Gaea in her dreams. She grabbed her mathematics textbook and looked for a suitable outfit to face the day.
As she rode the bus she thought about her plans for the future. The young woman was a fan of fantasy and science fiction books. She was fond of all sorts of books but especially favored those with elaborate stories and unusual settings.
Raven hoped to transfer to a four-year university. The competition was fierce, however, and she had to remind herself to remain optimistic and enthusiastic. She looked at the trigonometry text on her lap. Her mathematics teacher, Mrs. Eggnog, was a serious person.
I wonder why the math and science curricula are associated with a stern and regimented environment, she thought.
The creative writing courses she took had felt more encouraging, as if there were a light at the end of the tunnel. She supposed these were traditional concepts of the opprobrium for the education of young people.
Raven remembered her father had told her about the American science race in the late 1950’s. The Soviets were the first to establish a small satellite into orbit around the Earth. He had said that the entire country was afraid of a missile-driven nuclear attack. The President and schools around the country applied themselves to a newfound focus on the sciences. It had been a national effort to ensure the safety of the United States.
She found respite in the characters in her dreams. Somehow they mirrored the troubles that the students confronted in the arduous process of making the grade. Raven felt that she could be somebody important, like a Leader or Congressional Representative. The young woman was concerned that perhaps Mrs. Eggnog didn’t think so.
The bus stopped and her friend, Michelle, got on. She walked down the narrow aisle and sat next to her.
“Hi, Rave. How goes it?”
“Okay, I guess. I’m really having trouble with these sine and cosine waves. I hope I can do well enough to get a passing grade,” Raven said.
Raven had been friends with Michelle since freshman year. She was more outgoing and was a flash at math and chemistry. The tall, dark-haired girl had helped her numerous times over lengthy visits and cell-phone chats.
Michelle had a hand-drawn copy of the periodic table of elements on the cover of her binder. She was a good friend to Raven and made sure that she got at least passing grades on her math exams.
“I appreciate your help, Michelle. You’re a godsend. Mrs. Eggnog is a challenging and fast-paced teacher. Your tutoring keeps me up with the pace of the class.”
The bus stopped and the students disembarked into the Jefferson College quadrant.
“I hope I see Sean, today,” Michelle said. “He gets off football practice at nine. I usually sit next to him in physics class.”
The friends went their separate ways. They both tried their best to give school the top priority.
* * * * *
Bjorn and Dweeble Dworx galloped across the valley in the Gorgon Plane. The Lykanthros rushed the entourage occasionally, but were no match for the mounted humanoids and numbers of Hive Builders. The crimson sky continued to shine its eerie light. There was no daybreak or sun to set.
The blue lightning emitted from Guardon’s fortress arced and split in a web-like perimeter in the sky around the ominous Spires.
“This structure is made of these volcanic stones,” Gnoll observed. “There are sure to be guardians at the entrance. We must prepare ourselves for a struggle once we near the stronghold.”
“I’ll stay in the back,” declared Anemone. “Skjold’s Orb must be kept safe from the Summoners. The merwoman had fastened a brass mount to the magical sphere. She wore it on a thin chain around her neck.”
At the great, stone base of Guardon’s Spires the Lykanthros made an ultimate attempt to stop the Gaeans. The wolf-creatures rushed the Arachnoids with reckless abandon. The Hive Builders were staunch fighters and withstood the slashing claws and fangs of the beasts adamantly. The eight-legged allies of the humanoids formed a tactical ring with Bjorn and his friends at the center. Several of the spider-creatures were struck severe injuries and lost the lower joints of some legs.
Reoren, the lich-troll uttered a warding spell to thwart the attackers.
“Grondos!”
The half-ghoul extended his hands and a noxious, green mist spewed forth. Reoren’s magic vapor rolled and pulsed through the air as if it had a life of its own. The substance wrapped itself around the throats of many of the Lykanthros. The beasts struggled to no avail as the mist forced itself down their mouths and nostrils. The eyes of the captured wolf-creatures rolled back in their heads, showing a morbid white. Their mouths foamed and their bodies shuddered in a hideous death rattle. Two dozen of the attacking creatures succumbed to the enchantment and fell lifeless to the red earth.
Dweeble’s kindred and their companions crossed the great platform. A pair of monolithic, obsidian statues guarded the gateway to the courtyard. They resembled winged griffons. Their eyes were glinting rubies.
“Those jewels resemble the amulet found in the cave of the murderous goblins,” said Bjorn. “Trade with alien Planes must have been going on longer than we previously thought.”
“The Baroness still carries the unique, ruby necklace in her travel pack. It only bolsters her concern for the welfare of her region,” added Bjorn.
Bjorn and the mercenaries passed between the giant statues, entering a wide, cobbled courtyard. The multiple spires of Guardon’s fortress towered hundreds of feet above.
A screeching voice cried out, “Halt! No one may intrude upon the Lair of the Gorgons!”
The ground shook with a deep, mechanical rumbling. The Hive Builders buzzed a tone of warning among themselves.
Bjorn piped, “Beware, My Friends! Some foul machinery is at work.”
A tall, iron gate at the left side of the courtyard creaked open. The sound of metal hinges emitted a grinding cacophony. The Gaeans were surprised to see a great, waddling battlemech. It was a forged machine with three hydraulic legs and two arms mounted on a swivel. A steam engine powered the device that belched white mist from a pair of pipes on its back. Housed in the massive head was a small humanoid. He wore black goggles and operated the gears with leather gloves.
“I am Gearzon, King of the Gnomes. State your business, if it be just, or be pummeled by my battlemech.”
The machine spun its arms. One held a spiked ball hung from a chain, the other a broad saber.
“We are Gaeans, like you,” said Bjorn. “The spatial rifts of the Dire Queen, Ankharet, caught us in this Plane. Join with us so that we may liberate our regions from this awful intrusion.”
“Nonsense! I was busy in my workshop when I was invited here. The white-haired troll woman and the daemon took my services into their employ for a marginal fee. They said that I should let no one into The Spires, and that includes you.”
Gearzon gripped the levers of his war machine, sending it forward in an attacking maneuver. A dozen of the Arachnoids surrounded the massive machine. They clawed at its armored legs and frame with their spindly legs. The gnome engineer spun the arms of his battlemech rapidly. Several of the Hive Builders were knocked out and rolled against the walls in curled knots. A few of the spider-creatures were slashed severely by the heavy saber, losing legs. They oozed purple fluid from their injuries.
Marlin and Anemone fired their darted crossbows. The bolts lodged in the machine’s armor. The steam compressor was punctured and leaked water vapor from multiple locations. Gearzon’s battlemech continued to operate. Reoren, the lich-troll, swung at the device with his longsword. The hull was gashed significantly but still the war machine attacked.
Bjorn pelted the device with stones hurled from his sling. He aimed at Gearzon and struck him squarely in the temple. The gnome fainted and his gloved hands fell lax at the levers. The Gaeans extricated him from the defunct machine and laid him on the cobbled pavement.
Anemone gasped, “The Orb of Paryphax! It shudders with strange force. Look, all of you.”
The blue-skinned merwoman pulled the chained, glass sphere from her bodice. The orb emitted a vibrant, green light. It yet contained the energy bestowed on it by Skjold over the years he’d used it to guide the growth of the Arborean Forest. Anemone held the orb in her cupped hands and brought it close to the unconscious gnome. He drew a deep breath and rolled his head from side to side.
“What happened?” Gearzon moaned.
“I nailed you with my sling. We’re on your side, Friend,” Bjorn said.
“The Daemon King and his mistress promised me a new workshop if I helped them. They said they intended to bring a new Age of Order to the regions. Who are you people?”
“We are Gaeans, like you, Foolish Gnome. The Summoners in this fortress are wreaking havoc on our lands. Your people will become enslaved with the rest of us if they are not stopped. Join with us and we shall bring a new Age of Freedom to the world,” Gnoll said.
“My machine is damaged. It will take time to fix it,” replied Gearzon.
“Nevermind that infernal contraption, Gearz. Ride on a Hive Builder as we scale this fortress. They are fast and agile climbers,” Marlin said.
“I’ll help you if I am able. Those wolf-creatures were kind of a nuisance to the projects of we gnomes. We haven’t seen you tall folks for some time. Why don’t you visit our great city, Tinkerburg?”
I”ve been there,” Bjorn said. “It’s the most disorganized town I’ve seen. Half the machines don’t even work and those that do are twice as complicated as they need to be.
“I was sleeping soundly by a fountain when I was nearly crushed by a collapsing catapult. Don’t ask me why there was a catapult. It wasn’t there when I dozed off,” the halfling grumbled.
“Let’s move on, My Friends,” Bjorn said. “I sense watchful eyes upon us from far above. We should deal with the Dire Queen as efficiently as possible.”
Gearzon, the gnome engineer, resigned himself to the recommendation of his newfound friends. He climbed aboard a crouching Hive Builder, pausing to hold his head in agony.
“That sling packs a nasty punch, My Halfling Cousin,” he complained.
The staunch Arachnoids carried their humanoid friends through a creaking, marble archway. They found themselves in a receiving chamber lit by mounted torches and decorated with long tapestries. The fabrics were aged and tattered. They depicted Lykanthros and daemons, similar in form to Guardon but without limbs or wings. The creatures appeared to hover or levitate by some preternatural force.
“Those must be renderings of gorgons,” said Reoren.
He drew his longsword.
“I don’t like the look of those things.”
“This place is strange, indeed,” said one of Gnoll’s wood troll companions. “Look at that staircase and those doorways. They don’t have any ramps or elevators leading to them. Whatever passes through those heights must not have need for walkways.”
“Perhaps Guardon built them for the passage of falcons or doves,” said a lich-troll.
He didn’t sound as if he believed this was the truth.
As if on cue, a half-dozen bizarre creatures floated through stone portals built in the ceiling and walls. Their oval-shaped bodies were covered with protruding, flexible antennae.
A bright, bronze illusion appeared in the air above the mercenaries. It was a manifestation of Guardon’s face.
His curled horns and eyes rolled back as he bellowed angrily.
“Intruders! You have fortitude to venture this far into my domain. My gorgon beholders will dispatch you without mercy if you do not turn back. Your regions are already lost to my betrothed, Ankharet and I. You must acquiesce if you wish to remain in good stead, as my servants. Flee now.”
“That is not an option, Guardon! I have your anklet and will not heed its warning. Beholders and goblins invaded our regions in ancient times. They were turned away as surely you will be,” answered Bjorn. “Leave the Realm of Gaea in peace or face the full brunt of my wrath. I too have powerful friends and none of us will tolerate your tyrannical usurpations.”
Bjorn held his sling at the ready. He flung a stone at the shimmering illusion. Guardon’s image remained, unaffected.
“I refuse, Stubborn Halfling. You have borrowed for the last time. My Love waits here with me. We are not afraid of you. Come to us if you will. This fortress holds many surprises and creatures beyond your knowledge. You have made it this far. Perhaps we shall meet face-to-face, although I doubt you will still be alive.”
The magical projection of the Gorgon King disappeared. The levitating beholders had waited for the signal to attack. They wailed with a combined magical energy. The six creatures incanted a musical charm spell. It was a permeating, bass-like rhythm that had a disabling effect on the Hive Builders. The Arachnoids shook, tossing their humanoid charges to the floor. They emitted a buzzing note of alarm.
Dweeble Dworx communicated to Bjorn.
The magic of the gorgons poisons us. We cannot hold here. The Hive Builders will wait outside The Spires. Our hopes are with you. If need be, retreat to our lair. We can hold council and return at a later time.
“Thank you, My Friend. Your clan has provided an invaluable service to us. Do not linger here. We will meet again.”
The halfling patted the purple Arachnoid’s knee. Dweeble buzzed a gathering tone and the Hive Builders departed from the fortress.
A pair of gorgons rushed at the fighters. Reoren was ready and uttered a defensive spell.
“Fensores!”
A sphere of energy surrounded the Gaeans. The oval-shaped beholders crashed into the magical field. They were strong and pressed hard into the barrier. As one beholder shoved his single eye through the matrix, the lich-troll thrust with his sword, blinding it. The legless creature howled in pain.
“Beware, My Friends,” Reoren cried. “My magic is not powerful enough to hold these vile gorgons.”
“Fear not, Ghoulish Friend,” Gnoll said. “We wood trolls are prepared.”
“As are we merfolk,” Marlin declared.
Reoren gasped from the strain as his arcane shield was compromised and dissolved. The Gaeans wielded their weapons and engaged the beholders in hand-to-hand combat.
One gorgon bit Gnoll’s armored fist. He yelled as he bashed it with his mace. The creature spun through the air erratically, disoriented by the hefty troll’s blow.
Marlin, Anemone and their merfolk companions fired their crossbows at the beholders. Several of the bolts hit their intended targets. The stone-colored beings oozed green blood from their wounds.
The mertrolls belted their crossbows and drew short, curved blades. They slashed at the gorgons in a circling attack pattern. Gearz battered at one with an adjustable wrench. The defected goblins used scimitars to parry and ward off the chomping, slavering creatures. Lesser Knights from Coermantyr lunged at the beasts with short lances. They succeeded in skewering one and pinning it lifeless to the cobblestones. Two helmeted trolls from Mystic Down destroyed another with hammering strikes from their hardened-steel blades. They sliced the beholder deeply, ripping it to pieces. The soldiers were covered in green blood and quivering gore.
The four gorgons that remained were enraged by the perseverance of the Gaeans.
“Tractos!” they cried.
They united their magic into a ribbon-like, blue cord. The air gusted with the heat of the scorching enchantment. A goblin screeched in pain as a tendril from the spell wrapped itself around his legs, burning through his leather armor.
Reoren and his lich-troll companions united their magic skills in a desperate attack.
“Nechros!” cried the half-ghouls.
Four, spiraling, blue blades appeared. The lich-trolls perspired with the strain of their incantation. They gestured with their hands, guiding the Ethereal, cutting weapons at the beholders. The outer pair of the united gorgons was run through by the whirling blades. They screamed in agony as the floor was showered with green blood and entrails. The evil beasts slumped to the ground, oozing fluids like rotten pumpkins.
The remaining pair of beholders howled with frustration. The blue spell vanished. The gorgons fled by flying to the portals in the ceiling. Their wails echoed down to the fighters as they ascended far into the heights of Guardon’s fortress.
“Nighthawk is injured,” a goblin soldier said. “He was burned badly by those creatures.”
The wounded goblin lay on the ground, surrounded by his fellows. They smeared his burns with a white lotion poured from a gourd flask. It didn’t provide much relief, however.
Anemone rushed to the group of goblins. She again pulled the Orb of Paryphax from her bodice.
“Let me have a look at him,” the merwoman said.
She held the glass sphere in her folded hands. Rays of green light lit from between her fingers. Marlin’s girlfriend held her hands close to the goblin’s legs. The light focused on the wounds and gradually brought the tissue together over them. Nighthawk’s lamentations halted. He looked at the merwoman with clear eyes.
“Thank you, Sea Woman. I can walk again. Your healing magic is powerful. I regret the years that our races have warred with one another.”
The goblin soldier helped his Sergeant to his feet.
“He’ll bear scars, but he will no longer slow us down on our mission,” Anemone said.
“You have an uncanny connection with Skjold’s magic,” Gnoll said. “While he lived he healed many wood trolls but never with such completion or ease as you have demonstrated. Perhaps he yet watches us from the heavens.”
“We have done well, here, My Friends,” said Bjorn. “It is clear that Guardon’s magic and that of the creatures he and Ankharet have summoned is not limitless. The Gorgon King can be defeated as long as we continue to stand united and utilize each of our talents to the best of our ability. Let us march further into this mysterious fortress. The safety of all our regions depends on our victory, here.”
The Gaeans set forth up the only stairway with their weapons drawn. They could only guess as to who or what awaited them within.
* * * * *
“Awaken, Assassin. You have been compromised by the troll folk,” a scratchy voice hissed.
Rauros moaned. His head throbbed from the magical blasts of the Key Mage and his red-haired friend. The Goblin Master opened his creased eyes and saw the translucent face of the specter, Jetsam.
“What happened?” asked the Leader of the Harad Ghul.
“The half-ghoul killed our master, releasing us from his bonds. Our cousin, Mayhem, was destroyed but we fled in time.”
“We yet live as well, Leader. Drink some of this black root tea. It will help you regain your strength.”
Rauros sat up as his comrade, Dakros, pressed a steaming cup to his lips. The tan goblin murmured thankfully as he sipped the bitter liquid. His vision cleared and feeling returned in his legs.
Another of the Harad Ghul, Loki, had captured rabbits in a makeshift trap. He’d skinned them and placed them in a small stew pot. Rauros smelled the gamy meat simmering and realized he was hungry.
“How long was I out?” he asked.
“Two days, Leader. The others of our band fell valiantly. We suspect the Abyssal Cairn is compromised. If this is the case Ankharet is either dead or sealed in the Spatial Plane of her daemon host. The wolf hordes are gone. The woods have been quiet for the last day. The rift hewn by the Dire Queen is broken,” Loki said.
He handed his commander a serving of stewed rabbit.
“We should attempt to locate the Orb of Paryphax. We can use it to strengthen the goblin army once more. Let us observe the troll folk from a distance. We shall travel to Mystic Down and learn what we can. An object that is said to possess such magical energy is easily found and readily transferred from ocean to land. The Dagonites have been longtime traders with the troll people. If they find the orb, which I believe they shall, they will deliver it to Lord Taliesin and his companions with the intention of establishing a new Wood Mage in Arborea. Come with me, Loki and Dakros. Let us find horses and rebuild the Harad Ghul. Arkadia belongs to the goblins once again!”
* * * * *
Liege Lord Taliesin and Gilead, Key Mage of Coermantyr, rode side-by-side on the road to the Ghastly Fens. The winter was fast approaching and their faces were stung with droplets of rain propelled by the billowing wind.
“If this weather remains I may be forced to grow out my beard. I’m sure it will be none to Lady Sharon’s liking,” said the sometime Innkeeper. “I hope Siegemunde will help us. I have Restadicus’ letter of request. I wish I knew more about the ways of the lich folk. In honesty I’ve never dealt with one as closely as I have with Leif. He seems to be a respectable fellow, although a bit withdrawn. I suppose we will be forced to exercise a degree of patience when dealing with the natives of his region.”
The Baroness rode up next to the two trolls, “Any sign of goblins afoot?”
“Not yet, My Love,” Gilead said. “I expect they will appear as we are traveling into the wilder sections of Coermantyr. The Crossroads are an unruly place. Even in prosperous times it is wise to venture there with armed guards.”
The band of mercenaries reached the edge of the Coermantyr Forest at dusk. Bors and Rodnik tethered the horses and fed them grain. The trees grew shorter and the earth was damp and moldy. The fog thickened and rolled over the soil like smoke. Cattails and ferns grew in patches along the roadside.
Crows and owls cried in the damp atmosphere. The mercenaries saw gatherings of ancient, stone buildings long abandoned. The scattered blocks resembled silent guardians in the mist. Many of them bore etchings of runes, the preferred alphabet of the lich folk.
“This is the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens. It was here that my clan gained freedom from the despotic stone trolls centuries ago. An ancient wizard, in desperate need, bonded ghoul with troll, creating the lich folk. We are an honorable and industrious people. Magical knowledge is researched studiously in the Martial Academy. We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to insure the security of our region. Follow me, My Friends. These are dangerous swamps. Many a curious traveler has vanished into the quick mud, never to be seen again,” said Leif.
The Sentinel magic user drew his rune-stitched robe about him as he guided his horse to the head of the convoy. Leif flung back his hood and uttered a guiding spell.
“Lumus, luminares!”
A wide ring of blue light encircled his head. It created a shimmering halo in the condensing fog.
“The Ethereal Light will mark the safe road. Do not stray far. There are many underground lakes here that are filled with binding reeds.”
Rodnik saw salamanders and eels squirming in the shallow pools. He held his hatchet at the ready as the mercenaries traversed the Ghastly Fens. The sounds of owls and birds of prey became more intense as night fell.
“Stop, Gaeans! This is not your home.”
A lumbering stone troll emerged from a straw-covered shack on a hilltop. He was immense, at least twice the height of Taliesin. He carried a rusty, iron club that left a line of turned earth where it dragged on the ground.
A female stone troll emerged from the dimly-lit home. She held a lantern. The stone troll woman called out with a scratchy voice.
“Show them the risk of venturing to the Ghastly Fens, Fangoz!”
Befitting his name the shaggy stone troll’s lower jaw stuck out with two, spiky teeth curving outward over his upper lip. His whiskers were braided and descended to his chest. He bellowed with a voice that echoed over the Fens.
“Flee now, Intruders. This is our swamp and we have no need for trade with other clans.”
Fangoz rushed at Leif and swung a blow with his club that made a humming noise as it passed through the air. The Sentinel’s dappled mare was trained to evade such an attack. It bucked quickly, striking at the massive weapon with its steel-shod hooves. Leif was thrown from his horse. He rolled with agility on the soaked moss. His blue halo flickered but was not extinguished.
The towering troll next swung at Taliesin. The Lord deflected the attack with his hardened, steel sword. He then swung his weapon horizontally; cutting the large troll’s ribs a painful gash. Fangoz howled in agony and clutched his side with one hand. The stone troll wielded his club single-handedly, whirling it over his head like a flail.
Bors and Lady Sharon contended with their massive opponent.
“Be careful, My Love,” yelled the female stone troll.
The Baroness swung her sword, which Fangoz blocked. This left the distracted troll vulnerable to Bors’ mace. He hurled it through the back of his left knee. The massive troll’s legs buckled and he fell to his knees. Leif drew a thin dagger and held it to the fanged troll’s neck.
“Surrender, Fangoz, or you shall never see your beloved again.”
“Alas!” the stocky troll cried. “I am vanquished. I surrender to you tricky swordsmen. I have not fought a group of such valiant fighters. I commend you.”
“You may rise, Stone Troll,” Leif said. “We shall tend to your injury. Our band can use your help if you care to assist us.”
“Not before having a spot of tea and some muffins. Enough of your exercises, all of you. Come inside and let’s get down to business,” the female stone troll declared.
“My name is Cara,” the large troll woman said.
The mercenaries took her up on her invitation to take a break before trekking further into the swamp. The straw-covered shack was warm. A cast-iron stove puttered in the corner. Leif and Rodnik used strips of cloth to bind Fangoz’ barrel chest. He sat on a large, wicker bench.
The Baroness of Coermantyr sipped tea on a tall stool. She spoke with Cara as she brought a tray of giant, carrot muffins to the Gaeans.
“We seek the Martial Academy. Siegemunde, the Director there, can help us to rescue our trapped friend. A spatial breach that existed until recently was sealed with him on the other side.”
“Yes, the wolf creatures have vanished. We thought they’d come from an alien place. There hasn’t been an invasion like that here for generations. Approach the lich folk if you so wish. They are a reclusive people but will assist you if they can. None of the residents of the Ghastly Fens benefited from the marauding Lykanthros. They disrupted the cycles of living here as they have throughout Gaea. The Dire Queen, Ankharet, was an insensitive tyrant,” said Cara.
“Fangoz will go with you to the Martial Academy. There are yet goblins running free in the Ghastly Fens. The eels and owls carry messages to those that have the patience to hearken them. They whisper of goblins moving over the moors. My husband is experienced with the tricks of the swamp and will protect you from ambush.”
“We’ll need biscuits, Cara. I don’t know if I’ll be able to lead them straight to Lich Town. Brigands and thieves are abounding. We may be days on the trail. Let us all get a night’s rest here and depart through the Fens, first thing in the morning,” said Fangoz.
He exhaled deeply and laid his head on a pillow at the edge of the bench.
“It is wise advice, Stone Troll,” Leif said. “I have been months from my home region and sense changes to the air since I departed. We will benefit from the extra protection. I don’t envy anyone who finds himself blocking your path.”
The lich-troll wrapped himself in his robes and rested in a corner of the straw shack.
Fangoz consented to join the mercenaries the next morning. He accompanied the mounted travelers on foot. His long legs allowed him to keep up with the trotting horses.
“We are passing through the Greater Fens,” said Leif.
Lady Redthorne observed lich folk who fished in the murky pools with nets. The half-ghouls dressed in dark colors and were constantly on the lookout for marauding goblins.
“These people can use a defensive garrison,” the Baroness observed. “Are there not enough trolls in Lich Town to provide protection for these ghoul-trolls?”
“Regretfully not, My Lady,” Leif answered. “The Fens are an expansive region, wider than Coermantyr and Mystic Down combined. My people depend on fish and wild game for sustenance. Imported goods and food are bartered at Lich Town but the Martial Academy is young. Most adepts leave the area entirely, seeking employment as Viziers for spice caravans and couriers.”
“I help when I can,” Fangoz said. “There are too many unguarded areas, unfortunately.”
The travelers discerned a worn road through the shaggy moss. The reeds and grasses grew tall, meeting the horses’ shoulders.
A band of tiger-women ambushed the fighters. Several held bows with shafts at the ready. They blocked the trail at the front and rear of the group.
“What banditry is this?” Fangoz yelled. “I thought I taught you cats a lesson.”
One orange-furred amazon shot an arrow at the stone troll. It lodged in the center of his rusty club.
“Those were our cousins,” she said. “We’ve been watching you trolls for two days now. No one passes through here without surrendering their weapons and armor to us.”
“That’s not likely, Tigress,” Sharon said. “We have business up ahead and have no time to tarry here. Let us pass or contend with our wrath.”
“So be it,” the orange cat-woman replied. “Show them we mean business, My Sisters!”
The vengeful tiger-women shot their arrows at the mercenaries. Some of the shafts hit the armored riders and were deflected. Leif and Sharon both drew longbows of their own. They fired a volley of shafts at the tigresses, wounding three of them. The rest of the enthusiastic humanoids rushed the horses from front and back. Rodnik swung at them with his hatchet, injuring two more. One cat-woman clawed a gash on the rear thigh of Bors’ Clydesdale before he spun around and struck her shoulder with his mace.
Fangoz attacked the amazons in a fit of rage. He bellowed as he struck two of them with his club. They were knocked down, gasping for breath. The remaining four cat-women fled into the tall reeds.
“We shall return!” yelled one of them, “And seek revenge for our fallen brethren, as well. You haven’t seen the last of the Bengal Clan.”
“Many races thrive on the resources of the fecund Fens, My Comrades,” said the towering stone troll. “The bonding of ghoul with troll was not the only magic that befell the Fens over the ages. Rogue sorcerers and banished conjurers found sanctuary here in the masking depths of the moors.”
That night Taliesin’s band camped atop a dry hill. The fog rolled endlessly over the mossy earth. Gray clouds filtered the light of Gaea’s moons. The bright haze spread into silver rings. Bors and Rodnik made sure to pile the reeds and driftwood thick atop the fire. The cries of owls and crickets filled the night.
“The tiger-women have returned,” Leif declared.
The Sentinel lich-troll was prepared and uttered a warding spell.
“Protex!”
A luminescent, red ring surrounded the mercenaries. The feline eyes of the amazons reflected the light of the pyre as they approached the Gaeans.
“We are the Bengal Clan. You and your stone troll companion have injured our cousins. You shall pay for your folly. The Ghastly Fens belong to the anthromorphs and no one else. We will take your arms by surrender or force if necessary.”
The speaker was a tall tiger-woman whose orange and black-striped fur rippled as her muscles flexed. She wore plate armor and a leather skirt adorned with steel brads.
“My name is Jalhi. Our family cares not for intrusion by wolf-beasts or scavenging lich folk. En guarde!”
A pair of wyverns accompanied the amazons. The young dragons flapped above Jalhi’s shoulders. Screeching loudly, the gold-scaled creatures spat a volley of smoldering fireballs at the mercenaries. Leif’s protective barrier absorbed some of the missiles. The remaining few struck Taliesin and Sharon’s hardened armor. The flaming energy splashed and dissipated in the air.
The tiger-women drew curved daggers. They wielded one of the dangerous-looking blades in each paw. Jalhi and her furry cousins rushed the mercenaries. A few of them were hindered by the Sentinel’s magic shield, but only briefly.
Jalhi cried a tiger attack spell.
“Pranath!”
The dozen amazons were individually covered with aquamarine shields. The scrambling tigresses breached Leif’s barrier. The red ring wavered and then dissolved entirely. Lord Taliesin and Bors stepped forward to meet the anthromorphs. The aquamarine-lit amazons tumbled and rolled at the feet of the fighters, simultaneously thrusting their blades up at the legs and abdomens of their opponents. Taliesin and Gilead sidestepped the attack and swung parrying thrusts with their swords, knocking two of the tiger-women unconscious. Bors was able to move away in time but was stabbed a shallow wound in the stomach.
“Arghh! That smarts!” he yelled.
The burly Burgomeister swung his mace wildly at the slashing anthromorph. He successfully bludgeoned her side, taking her breath away. The gray-furred tigress gasped on the moss in the fetal position.
The wyverns attacked Fangoz at close range. They clawed at his head and shoulders with their razor-like talons. Leif yelled a charm dragon spell.
“Dracos!”
The dragonlings dozed, flapping gently in the air above the stone troll.
“Alas, you are valiant fighters,” said Jalhi.
She signaled to her cousins to sheath their daggers.
“The Ghastly Fens have been a tumultuous place since the invasion of the Lykanthros. We received rumors that Summoners and Illusionaries were building a goblin army in Arkadia.”
The Leader of the Bengal Clan stood before the Baroness. She knelt in acquiescence before the armored Lady.
“There has been much bloodshed between our rival clans. The invasions of the ruthless wolf-creatures have set us all on edge. You foreigners are valiant fighters and remind us of the peace that existed among the regions of Gaea in past ages. We can help you gain safe passage to Lich Town. There are paths known to our amazon clan that we will share with you. Our only request is that you aid us in the event of future alien intrusion.”
“Thank you for your offer of assistance, Jalhi,” the Baroness answered. “We mercenaries have also been on our guard of late. The preternatural experiments of the Dire Queen have threatened the tranquility of affairs for all Gaeans. I apologize for the injuries of your cousins. They are intrepid and valiant warriors. Please help our lich-troll Sentinel navigate us through the moors and fog. The dangerous quagmires have claimed many an unsuspecting adventurer. The Director of the Martial Academy in the chief city of the ghoul-trolls has agreed to assist us in rescuing our halfling friend, Bjorn Roundtree, from the Gorgon Plane.”
“A more ambitious hope of ours is to dispatch Ankharet and her daemon acquaintance once and for all.”
The tigresses purred their agreement with the peace offering of their Leader. Fangoz patted the furry heads of several of the cat-women amiably.
“I’m sorry about your cousins, too. My wife and I have seen you people running through the mist on many nights. Let us carry on from here in friendship.
“We must ensure the safety of our regions. At this time we know not whether the Summoners will return to our Plane to invade again. Let us march onward for the sake of our lands,” the stone troll rumbled.
Lord Taliesin’s mercenaries traveled through the night, guided by the light of Leif’s halo and the direction of the amazons. Cries of toads and owls reverberated over the mossy hills. The horses ambled cautiously over the damp earth.
Early the next morning a band of armed lich-trolls stood on a crest of hills in the traveler’s path.
“Halt and state your business!” said a gaunt lich-troll.
The half-trolls bore crossbows. They were dressed in flowing, black robes similar to those worn by Leif but without the cryptic runes indicating his training as a Sentinel.
“I am Thorgrym, Captain of the Watch. No one without ghoulish blood may enter Lich Town. The Ghastly Fens are a sacred region and will not tolerate defilement by mercenaries and cutpurses.”
“We are here on legitimate business, Thorgrym,” Leif bellowed. “It has been many months since we shared mushroom brew in Lich Town. Perhaps you don’t remember me. I was the first of the delegates sent by Siegemunde to eliminate the arcane source of the invading wolf-beasts. My name is Leif, of the Sentinel Order.”
The ghoul-troll Captain struck flint to a gray crystal mounted on an ebony staff. The torch ignited, causing Taliesin’s entourage to cast elongated shadows on the surrounding knolls.
“Ah, Leif, I recognize you now. You must forgive our reticence.”
“The Lykanthros have vanished but the Fens are yet replete with hostile anthromorphs and other creatures,” Thorgrym continued. “I see that you have amazons and a stone troll in your company. How is it that you gained their allegiance?”
“We did not win it freely, My Friend,” the Sentinel attested. “Our stone troll companion was the first to meet us in the Fens. We convinced him of the seriousness of our intentions to permeate the moors. My comrades and I might not have turned the accosting tiger-women without his help.”
The mounted lich-troll turned to his lumbering ally.
“Thanks again, Fangoz.”
“It was nothing,” the stone troll answered.
The orange and black-striped tigress, Jalhi, addressed Thorgrym.
“We have decided to assist the cause of you reclusive lich folk. The Lykanthros hordes proved a detrimental force to our hunting parties. We anthromorphs will soon unite to bring a new Era of Freedom to the Ghastly Fens. Allow us entrance to your Ghoul City, Captain. You will not regret our help in securing the breaches formed by the Arkadian Summoners.”
“Beware, Tigress. We have battled with your cousins for many years. If we allow you entrance into Lich Town do not doubt our archers will keep you in their sights,” the lich-troll Captain replied.
Thorgrym consulted briefly with his armed soldiers.
“Alas,” he sighed. “We will escort you into Lich Town. Keep in mind that we do not tolerate theft or violence in our peace-loving city. Although our ancestors were pulled from the grave after gruesome battles they have ordained that this haven remain sacrosanct and separate from the feuds that wash over the regions of Gaea.”
“You have our gratitude, Staunch Captain,” said the Baroness. “I’m sure that Siegemunde will reward your prudent judgment in this matter. The fate of all our lands lies on the success of our mission.”
Bors, Rodnik and Alex were the first to reach the top of the hills where the lich-trolls stood. They shook hands.
“These are disorienting and confusing moors, Ghoul Trolls. You have chosen a dark and mysterious place to build your city,” said Alex. “I never before traveled beyond the borders of Coermantyr. The memories I’ve collected on this journey will surely last a lifetime.”
Fangoz and Jalhi’s clan strode after the mounted warriors as they marched over the fern-covered crest into a shallow valley. They beheld Lich Town, the city of Leif’s formation and training. The entire settlement was protected by a tall, wicker wall. Around this barrier was a succession of moats and sharpened poles. These traps had been placed as a deterrent for any would-be pillagers. Many of the homes and storage buildings were constructed on top of fired-clay pylons so that they may remain dry above the soaked soil.
“Let us remain quiet and reserved among these people, My Friends,” Gilead said. “They are not accustomed to the appearance of troll folk from the southern regions. We must keep in mind that we look as strange to them as Leif did to us when we first met.”
The Key Mage of Coermantyr drew his wool cloak about his head and shoulders, covering his beard and face.
In accordance with Gilead’s warning the residents of Lich Town kept a respectable distance from the warhorses of the mercenaries. Lich-trolls and troll women who conducted business in the central marketplace grouped together. The ghoul-trolls spoke to each other in hushed tones. Their black within black eyes stared at the travelers with apprehension and uncertainty.
“Don’t be afraid, My Kindred. We are here on official business. My friends helped me to seal the breach from which the Lykanthros invaders emerged. Our mission is to seek Siegemunde and eliminate the usurping Summoners permanently,” Leif yelled.
The villagers did not respond. Several of the shopkeepers lowered the awnings of their stores, closing early for the day.
The warriors neared the raised platforms of the Martial Academy. It consisted of a series of structures connected by swinging bridges and crank-powered elevators. Rows of oil-burning lamps illuminated the multi-leveled decks of the Academy. Their smoky light created golden rings in the creeping mist.
The main elevator was large enough to lift the band’s horses. It took a second trip to hoist Fangoz, whose rusty club alone weighed more than a large troll.
“Leif, I haven’t seen you for months. The wolf-creatures have gone. Has Ankharet been defeated?”
A lich-woman addressed the Sentinel. Her cloak was also stitched with the runes indicative of those educated by Siegemunde. Her dark eyes and gaunt face gazed at the magic user with an expression of recognition.
“Sigrid, greetings.”
Leif clutched the lich-woman’s arms in a hearty embrace. It has been a while since we last spoke. How go the affairs of our people?”
“As good as can be expected. The anthromorphs continue to prove hostile and marauding. I don’t suppose your tiger companions have an explanation for this.”
The female ghoul-troll glared accusingly at Jalhi and her clan.
“The Ghastly Fens are ours. The goods that are moved through the Crossroads belong to us as much as they do to you lich folk. Now that the Lykanthros are gone We must come to a truce. I take responsibility for the actions of my cousins. We were tired of scavenging along the margins of the moors,” the tigress growled in apology.
She bared her feline fangs and flicked her tail in a posture of frustration.
“So be it, Amazon. The mists speak to all of us of changing times. Let us see Siegemunde and bring an end to the conflict that has bespoiled our regions if at all possible.”
Sigrid took Leif by the hand and led the mercenaries to the Council Chamber of the Martial Academy.
The room was built at the top of the platforms. It held translucent windows and numerous shelves of books. The library was smaller than the one in Coermantyr Castle but many of the tomes and scrolls glistened with a sheen that bespoke of recent research and experimentation.
Siegemunde sat at a candlelit desk at the floor of the Council Forum. A single, silver earring on his left lobe twinkled as it reflected the light. His bald head was creased from years of reading and record-keeping. The Director of the Martial Academy smiled as the sizeable band of warriors descended the steps to his desk.
“Ah, Leif. I’ve been expecting you. Thorgrym’s Guards gave word of your approach during the night. I hope they received you peacefully.”
The wizard smiled and rose to greet his alumnus.
“They were an unusual and motley band to say the least, Director. We were armed and ready in case the anthromorphs and stone troll planned some trickery. They seem to be peaceful enough.”
The Captain of the Lich Town Guards still eyed the amazons with an air of suspicion.
“Very well, Thorgrym. I’m sure you will maintain our safety if the situation arises,” chuckled Siegemunde.
“Tell me, Baroness Sharon, do you have the scrying glass which Restadicus told me of after your arrival in Coermantyr?”
“Yes, Director. Our halfling friend, Bjorn, was caught in the Gorgon Plane when Leif was about to destroy the Dire Queen. She and Guardon escaped through the portal it generated. Please open the gateway once more so that we may come to his aid and dispatch the Summoners permanently,” Sharon asked.
The Baroness of Coermantyr beckoned to the Burgomeister of Bard’s Inn.
“Bors, come here. Open our travel pack and deliver Ankharet’s shard to Siegemunde.”
“As you wish, My Lady,” the Innkeeper said.
He lifted the cumbersome, leather pack from his shoulder and opened it. The burly troll placed the glinting shard on a wooden stand which Siegemunde had ready. The Director of the Martial Academy donned a pair of wire-framed spectacles. He laid his fingers over the jagged glass and hummed with interest.
“This glass has indeed been used for more than simple communication with distant regions of Gaea. It vibrates still with the echoes of dangerous and alien magic. I fear that Ankharet herself does not understand the risk in opening rifts to other Planes. Her folly is that she can maintain control over magic of this nature. I will create a rift with this device but should destroy it upon your return. There are daemons and beings far more powerful that have been awakened by the erratic energies harnessed by this glass. Prepare yourselves, My Friends, for once you are placed in close proximity to the Summoners you will certainly be confronted by diabolical and malevolent Entities in their own element. They will have no restraint upon their base energies.”
“We are ready, Siegemunde,” said Lord Taliesin. “This battle has been long in the making and must be brought to an end for the good of all our lands.”
The husky troll drew his broadsword and held it at the ready. The other mercenaries and anthromorphs wielded their weapons in turn.
The Director uttered a harnessing incantation.
“Spiros!”
The scrying glass shook visibly as it ignited with red light. The arcane rays passed through Siegemunde’s outstretched fingers, forming eerie beams in the smoky air.
“Curses, it burns,” the wizard cried.
His hairless head became dotted with perspiration from the degree of his concentration.
The crimson energy intensified and focused on a point in front of the troll’s desk.
“I will hold for you, My Friends. The breach is forming. Deal with the Summoners as you must. My students will assist me in keeping the gateway open until you return.”
The magic of the scrying glass condensed into a bright sphere. This focal point expanded, forming a doorway. It looked upon the valley of Guardon’s Spires. A gathering of Arachnoids waited patiently outside its walls. The mercenaries did not hesitate and marched in single file through the portal.
“Farewell, Troll Wizard,” said Fangoz.
He was the last to enter the rift. The lumbering stone troll stooped to fit, dragging his metallic club behind him.
“May The Fates be with us,” Siegemunde murmured.
“My Students, hasten to the Council Chambers. I have need of your assistance!”
The Director of the Martial Academy yelled up the stairs with a voice that boomed over the Fens.
* * * * *
Flotsam and Jetsam hovered behind a cluster of bushes. They watched the gathering of farmers and merchants crowd into Bard’s Inn, the unofficial community center of Wood’s End. The glowing specters dimmed their luminosity, making their appearance as shadow-like as possible. As they passed the hitching post the tethered horses remained docile. A pair of the steeds shook their manes as a chilling breeze wafted across their backs.
Jetsam whispered to his companion as they crouched below an iron-framed window.
“Let’s watch and wait. Now that Themistokles is gone we are free to bring others into this plane. The Gorgon King is but a pawn of the Dire Queen. If we succeed we shall gain control of his Plane and ours. The Drystyx Monks serve only Thoth. With the Orb of Paryphax we can break the Gong Seal at the heart of Guardon’s Spires. The Monks of Chaos will once again be free to move through the Gorgon Plane and eventually take hold of Gaea itself.
Torvald had taken over his father’s capacity as Innkeeper. He made sure that the ale kegs were fresh and the patrons served hearty platters of mutton and roasted potatoes. The swarthy, bearded troll addressed the diners, unaware of the listening specters outside.
“The Lykanthros have been banished, My Friends. Our Lieges travel now to the Ghastly Fens to open a breach to the Gorgon Plane. The halfling, Bjorn Roundtree, will soon be rescued and the Summoners eliminated permanently. An Era of Peace is dawning. Let’s toast our victory!”
The trolls and troll women cheered and quaffed draughts of brew from their steins.
“The orb has been moved,” said Jetsam.
The taller of the two specters gazed into the dark woods of Mystic Down as he contemplated the course of events. The dimly lit, azure specter turned to his brother.
“Let’s return to the Abyssal Cairn. Rauros and the Harad Ghul have completed their reconnaissance of Coermantyr and await us there. He is in the process of reuniting the goblin forces. Now that we are free of Themistokles’ bonds we can visit the Gorgon Plane as we wish. I suspect the Orb of Paryphax has found its way there. Perhaps we shall lead our own garrison of goblins to conquer The Spires in the volcanic Plane on the behalf of the specters and the Drystyx Monks. Thoth is sure to be pleased.”
The Ephemeral Beings chuckled as they sped off into the thick forest outside of Wood’s End.
* * * * *
Rauros sat on the obsidian Throne at the heart of the Abyssal Cairn in Arkadia. A massive army of goblins and orcs gathered in the spacious Audience Chamber.
The wrinkled Goblin Master addressed his two assistants who stood at his side.
“Loki and Dakros, you have done well to rouse our cousins and relatives from their subterranean lairs. Ankharet had no comprehension of our numbers residing deep in the Under Earth. The hidden lakes and secret goatherds have brought prosperity to our Kingdom. Arkadia belongs to the goblins and their kin once again!”
The army of goblins and orcs cheered a bellowing roar that reverberated up to the vaulted ceiling. The torches that limned the colonnades flickered with renewed reservoirs of orcish oil.
“Dakros, select a trio of goblins. Loki, choose two. We will return the octet of the Harad Ghul to its original size,” Rauros ordered.
“We have made our selections,” answered Dakros.
A group of five, hulking goblins stepped forward. They hearkened from the Stalactite Tribe. Their pale skin was a distinguishing characteristic of their population. Most Stalactite Goblins and Orcs lived out their lives in clandestine cities built miles within the interconnected caves of the Under Earth. The branching tunnels formed a labyrinthine network of caverns whose full reaches were memorized by only the eldest of pale, goblin navigators.
“Rauros,” Loki asked, “We request that the Harad Ghul be strengthened from its original eight to a group of twelve. We have selected four of our orc cousins to assist us. Their tribes have remained hidden since the bloodshed of the war with the trolls. These assassins hail from the orc lairs in the Arkadian Mountain Range. They have long rejected their troll heritage and wish to be welcomed into the fold of the goblin army.”
The orc soldiers were taller than their goblin kindred. They were muscular and carried jagged broadswords and longbows.
“My name is Blueblood. We offer our allegiance to the Harad Ghul. Each of us is a Captain of the orc tribes in Crow Mountain. We have succeeded in rebuilding our cities since the campaign against the stone trolls and troll folk. Our echelon is prepared to demonstrate the strength of Arkadia to the other regions of Gaea.”
“Very well, Blueblood. I welcome you and your soldiers into our army.”
Rauros rose and embraced each of the four, orc assassins in acceptance. He beckoned for the ceremonial, red paint that he donned on his new recruits.
The pair of specters, Flotsam and Jetsam, glided above the waiting army to face Rauros. Flotsam addressed the Leader of the Harad Ghul.
“Goblin Master, the signature of the Orb of Paryphax, left by Themistokles, has vanished from this Plane. We searched far into Mystic Down and flew past Coermantyr as well. It has been taken to the Gorgon Plane. We offer our assistance to open a breach to Guardon’s Spires. This newly formed goblin and orc army is operational. If we act now we can claim the orb and its battery of energy for our own uses. The future dominance of the Arkadians will be ensured.”
“Your advice is advantageous, Specters,” Rauros said. “Generate a spatial portal for us. We are weary of the despotism of the Dire Queen’s meddling. We shall dispatch her and convince Guardon to support our cause or be destroyed.”
“Very well, Scrupulous Assassin,” Jetsam answered. “We will yet avenge our lost brother, Mayhem, and acquire the necessary power to create a permanent rift between the planes.”
The Ephemeral Specters hovered before the line of red-marked soldiers. The heavily armed Captains stood in front of Rauros’ obsidian Throne. They faced the goblin and orc army who waited at attention in disciplined regiments below the proscenium.
The ghostly Entities flared brightly as they condensed their energy into a spell, warping space.
“Levrond!” they cried.
An arcane wind blasted over the great Audience Chamber of the Abyssal Cairn. The braids and cloaks of the Harad Ghul flapped and twirled in the powerful gusts. A wave of heat washed over the vaulted room as a bright, red sphere appeared over the proscenium.
Flotsam and Jetsam gestured with their azure claws in a spreading motion. The crimson sphere enlarged and became an oval of arcane energy. The specters trembled as they focused their maximum effort on the spatial portal. It continued to spread as a horizontal oval, dwarfing the dimensions of the original breach formed by Ankharet in her magical experimentation. The specters gasped and shied away from their creation.
“It is done,” Jetsam said. “We are spent. The portal will hold for a goodly time. Rauros, lead your army into our breach and contend with the Summoners as you will. We will also pass through because we have business of our own to attend to. Once we are in the Gorgon Plane our energy reserves will be replenished and we will once again assist your cause with full capacities.”
“Thank you, Strong Specters,” said Rauros. “You have provided us with an invaluable service and shall be rewarded accordingly upon our victory.”
The sun-tanned Leader of the Harad Ghul rose from his black, glass Dais and lofted his scimitar above the goblin and orc army. He addressed his regiments in a scratching timbre.
“My Kindred, our time is at hand. Our forefathers have long contended with the oppressive borders and picket lines of the troll folk of Gaea. We have the resources now to bring an end to their marginalization of our clans and tribes. The orcs have prospered in Mount Crow since the war with the stone trolls. The goblin tribes in the Deep Forests of Arkadia have also rallied upon our summons. They will follow their goblin and orc Captains with a greater degree of loyalty than they did the troll woman imposter and her winged courtesan. March with us, now, through the gateway honed by the blue specters. As you can see, the portal is large enough for all of us to pass. The Council Chamber of the Daemon King is exposed on the other side. Let us rush into his Throne Room and convince him to support us or die!”
The legions of armed goblins raised their brazed, iron weapons in support. They hollered a booming war cry that echoed through the colonnades of the Abyssal Cairn. Side-by-side the orc and goblin cousins marched through the breach. As the last regiment passed the Harad Ghul followed in silence.
Guardon had little warning of the attack on his Throne Room. He warned Ankharet and his gorgon attendants as the crimson sphere appeared before his stone Dais.
“Beware, My Friends. There is a breach forming here. An attack is eminent. Prepare yourselves!”
The single-eyed beholders growled in disdain. They vibrated with agitation.
“What treachery is this? I ordered no one to accompany me to these Spires,” screeched the female Summoner.
Ankharet’s white locks extended outward as she levitated. The troll woman’s eyes rolled white. The Dire Queen condensed her defensive energy in preparation.
A band of goblins and orcs strode through the widened, red oval into the Throne Room. Several gorgons reacted immediately and howled as they incanted a charm person spell.
The atmosphere was filled with an eerie, atonal melody. Many of the goblins stumbled and stooped in a hypnotic haze. They had fallen under the influence of the beholder’s magic and gazed vacantly into the air. The soldiers forgot their assignments. The gorgons holding the incantation zoomed close to the affected soldiers. The irises of the stone-hued creatures dilated and changed color as they mesmerized their victims.
Successive regiments of Stalactite Orcs marched into the room. Many of them stumbled over their captured companions. They wielded their weapons and yelled in outrage. Two dozen of the goblins swarmed at the beholders. Their numbers were too great for the creatures and they fell quickly under the spinning attacks of the scimitars and axes.
More gorgons flew into the Chamber from circular openings in the brick walls. The arcane creatures flexed their antennae, which emitted scald and rot spells. Red and green serpentine tendrils were fired from the tips of the appendages. A handful of goblins screeched as the burning sorcery compromised their steel armor. Others rolled in agony as their gloved hands and arms became infected with the curse of the decay spell. Again the Arkadian soldiers were pushed forward from behind as additional troops marched through the spatial breach. The fallen and injured orcs were dragged and pulled to the sides of the Council Chamber as the fresh soldiers contended with the attacking beholders.
The battle grew fierce and the cinderblock masonry reverberated with cries of pain and anguish. Guardon’s attendants continued their magic volleys and engaged the goblins with their razor-sharp mandibles. At last Rauros and the Harad Ghul waded through the carnage.
Ankharet screamed in recognition of her onetime liaison.
“Rauros, how dare you? I did not order you to march on these Spires. Return to Gaea while you still live. I do not require the services of you or your scavenging cousins here.”
“Your power over the goblins in Arkadia is terminated, Dire Queen. Too many of my Harad Ghul fell in your stead. You must reconcile your debt to the clans of Arkadia and convince Guardon to join us. The only other option is death.”
Rauros, Dakros and Loki drew their scimitars and slashed at the nearest gorgons. The Harad Ghul began their approach to the levitating troll woman.
“I’ll never bow to you, Old Assassin. This is an outrage. Ventas!”
The Dire Queen generated an opaque shield around Guardon and herself.
Flotsam and Jetsam glided through the spatial breach and attacked Ankharet at once.
“Electros!” cried the azure specters.
They gesticulated rhythmically, guiding a barrage of sparkling spikes through the shield of the Summoners. The Daemon King and his troll woman accomplice were both smitten by the high-velocity bolts. The thick-skinned daemon gasped at the annoying stingers and brushed them from his chest and arms.
The Dire Queen was injured significantly and fell to the floor. The bolts continued to sparkle and her body shuddered convulsively. A pool of green blood formed around her white hair.
“Alas, I am beaten. I curse you specters. I never should have had Themistokles bring you to Gaea. Nevertheless, the Orb of Paryphax is worth the risk. Guardon will yet retrieve it and gain dominance of his Plane and mine. I bid you all farewell.”
Ankharet’s eyes closed and her head lolled to the left as she expired.
The Daemon King was angered by the defeat of his beloved.
He yelled, “I will take vengeance for your aggression, Chaotic Specters. My gorgons, eliminate this army of intruders!”
Guardon entered the fray, swinging at the goblins and orcs with his massive, clawed arms.
“Struxis!” he cried.
His teeth and claws flared red with the energy of the lacerating spell. He maimed several of the goblins in his berserker attack. A wave of pale-skinned orcs leaped over their vanquished comrades and slashed at the daemon wholeheartedly with their single-edged blades. The Leader of the Gorgons was cut gashes on his arms and shoulders. The steel-armored goblins were splattered with the daemon’s acidic, green blood. It steamed and pockmarked their armor.
Flotsam and Jetsam again uttered their electric missile attack.
“Electros!”
The sparkling bolts pierced the bronze skin of the Gorgon King. Rivulets of blood dripped from the entrance wounds. The hulking daemon was angered further and rallied his attendants with a harnessing sorcery.
“Gorgax!”
Red energy extended from his claws and wrapped around the beholders. As he continued to assail the bludgeoning goblins he lashed at them with the chains of gorgons. Each creature chomped viciously at the Arkadians as it whipped past them. A number of the Stalactite Orcs were wounded. Rauros and the Harad Ghul gained ground close to the creatures. They slayed several of the beasts but a multitude remained. The red-painted assassins had the great daemon surrounded. Guardon tossed back his head. His curled horns reflected the crimson light of his sorcery. His eyes squinted with the exertion of the struggle. The daemon flapped his leathery wings and lofted his massive girth above the goblins. At least three dozen of the orcs and their kin pummeled the daemon and his attendants from below.
The majority of the remaining beholders were destroyed. They were hacked to pieces, unable to maneuver out of Guardon’s binding spell. The rest of the battered gorgons spun in the air erratically and retreated through their tunnels.
Flotsam and Jetsam attacked the daemon at close range, clawing at his tough hide with their blue claws. The Harad Ghul, goblins and orcs bashed at him.
At last the mighty Summoner landed on the brick floor. He knelt in a defensive posture as he continued to be struck from every possible angle.
“Enough!” he cried. “This is foolishness. Make your demands for I’ve had enough of this harassment.”
“Halt, My Soldiers!” said Rauros. “You have done well this day. Give us some room so that I may parlay with Guardon.”
The members of the goblin army did as they were ordered and backed away from the bronze daemon. They formed a ring of open space at the center of the crowded Council Chamber.
“I relinquish my claim to Gaea. Ankharet has proven to be a challenge for all of us, I’m sure. Let my Spires remain in peace and I give my word never to venture to your Plane again.”
“Very well, Guardon,” Rauros answered. “You have demonstrated your valiance in combat to us. We are willing to give you a second chance. Leave our region free of invasion and we will consent to a truce.”
“So be it, Goblin Leader. We have an understanding. I regret that the other residents of your Plane will not be so easily assuaged.”
The Gorgon King rose to his feet and lumbered to his Throne. He sat down and rested his head on his fist, pensively.
“Return with your army through the gateway, Assassin King,” Flotsam hissed. “We will remain here, where our power is at its peak. Perhaps we will yet recover the Orb of Paryphax after all.”
“Very well, Specters,” Rauros answered. “We thank you for your aid in dispatching the Dire Queen. You have our support and appreciation.”
The Leader of the Harad Ghul guided his forces through the crimson gateway.
* * * * *
Lord Taliesin and Gilead, the Key Mage, scanned the horizon beyond the foundation of Guardon’s Spires. They saw a group of spider-creatures standing outside the main gate.
There were scattered groups of Lykanthros who were connected with the rhythmic patterns emitted by the electric, blue lightning field. The electricity pulsed from the multitude of steeples and flying buttresses atop the massive fortress. The wolf-creatures did not interfere with the Arachnoids. The Lykanthros had an innate apprehension of the sturdy beings.
“These must be the same spider-creatures we saw through the portal in the Abyssal Cairn,” Gilead said. “They are opponents of the Lykanthros. Let us approach them and communicate if possible.”
The band of Gaean mercenaries marched forward to the tall gateway of The Spires. Dweeble Dworx saw the travelers drawing near and skittered up to meet them. He hummed a greeting to them using mindsong.
Welcome, Humanoids. Your halfling friend and others from your Plane battle inside the daemon’s fortress. We intended to help them but were thwarted by the charm spells of the gorgons. Venture within and assist their efforts. We will hold here and provide transportation for you if the need arises.
“Thank you, Arachnoid Friend. We saw your giant Hive as we approached. You creatures are adept and resourceful engineers. We Gaeans will travel onward but thank you for your offer,” said the Baroness.
The band of fighters passed through the walls outside the courtyard of the towering Spires. They marveled at the pair of guardian colossi that stood at the sides. Sharon gazed at the red-jeweled eyes of the ominous stone griffons.
“The rubies in those statues are the same as the one in the amulet found in the cave of the goblin bandits. It is evident that there has been trade and commerce between the Planes for some time,” observed the Liege Lady.
“We amazons also perceived unusual vibrations in the Ghastly Fens before the arrival of the Lykanthros invaders. The Dire Queen clearly sought both power and wealth through the spatial portals she created. It is good that she was interrupted from her agenda of magical manipulation. The fabric of the space-time continuum is not something to be toyed with for personal gain,” Jalhi said.
Gilead led the group of troll folk and anthromorphs into the structure of Guardon’s Spires. Bjorn Roundtree and his newfound friends were just completing their battle with the gorgons. They were helping Nighthawk to his feet after Anemone healed his injuries. The halfling turned to the arching doorway and recognized his friends.
“Taliesin, Gilead, Sharon, Leif! It’s good to see all of you. I’m enthralled that you are in good health. I take it that you sealed the portal in the Abyssal Cairn?”
The spritely halfling scampered to his friends and hugged them around the waist in greeting.
“We are equally heartened to find you in one piece, Mischievous Friend,” Leif said. “Our merry band was concerned for your welfare after you were dragged by Guardon into this Gorgon Plane.”
“I was captivated by his anklet,” Bjorn replied. “It has an intriguing latticework. I can’t speculate as to who made it. The delicate band was not fabricated by the clumsy daemon. It is a lingering mystery that I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of eventually.”
The halfling pulled the sparkling trinket from his travel pack and briefly displayed its shiny composition to his friends.
“Let us seek the Leader of the Gorgons and his troll woman accomplice in these Spires. We Gaeans, stuck here in this Plane, are just as concerned for the future safety and welfare of our respective regions as you mercenaries are.”
“That is wise advice, Bjorn. We should divide ourselves into groups. The levels of this fortress are sure to hold unseen creatures and items beyond our ken. All of us have battle experience, now. Whatever challenges await us in this great stronghold will meet us with keen hands and fresh minds,” Taliesin said.
The fighters climbed the central stairway of the fortress and came upon a hallway that ended with three wooden doors.
“My wyverns and amazons will travel with Fangoz, Leif, Sigrid and Thorgrym through the left door,” said Jalhi. “We will hold our own and return to this hall once we have thoroughly explored the chambers within.”
“Gilead, Taliesin, Bors, Rodnik, Alex and I will take the central passage. If our suspicions are correct we will confront the daemon and the Dire Queen and eliminate them,” declared Lady Sharon.
“I will go with Nighthawk and his goblins, Reoren and the wood trolls, Gearzon, the Knights of Coermantyr and Mystic Down as well as the merfolk. We will explore the right path,” said Bjorn. “Our team will also return to this place once we have completed our reconnaissance within. May good fortune and victory be with all of you. We have the fate of Gaea resting on our shoulders.”
The enthusiastic halfling shook hands with each member of the group. The fighters and magic-users strapped their travel packs and held their blades and bows at the ready. They each opened their respective doors. The portals were not locked and swung open once pulled by brass handles attached to their centers.
* * * * *
Lady Redthorne, Baroness of Coermantyr, and her companions stood before a spiraling stairway. The carved stone steps were lit with torches. The stairway curled around a great, central pillar that reached up and down into the darkness of Guardon’s Spires. Additional lamps swung in the black void at altering heights, descending from iron chains attached to the invisible ceiling hundreds of yards above.
“There are surely Lykanthros and unfriendly Denizens of the Under Earth down there,” said the amber-haired troll woman. “The Gorgon Plane is permeated with untamed magic. I wish we had the resources to fully explore the depths of this fortress. I wouldn’t be surprised if the misguided creatures that inhabit this Plane could be convinced of the peaceful intentions of the Gaeans and one day author a truce.”
“I agree, My Lady,” offered Alex. “The tampering of the Summoners in Arkadia has brought a new age upon us. We are destined to experience more contact throughout the Mandala of the Planes, as Restadicus called it, whatever the outcome of our current mission.”
The mercenaries began a careful march up the precipitous stairway, holding their swords and bows at the ready. Without warning a flock of vampire bats plummeted down from the shadows above.
One of the winged mammals attached its claws to Bors’ shoulder when Alex obliterated it with his green, wooden staff. The crushed body of the creature wailed as it spun erratically into the depths of the fortress.
Three more of the bats remained. Sharon wielded Xenon, her father’s sword, and divided one of them as it swooped at her in an attack maneuver.
Alex uttered a flame spell.
“Incenze!”
The top of his staff emitted a cone-shaped flame that scorched one of the circling vampire bats. It’s fur and wings ignited and the mammal flew outward until it crashed into the stone wall beyond the hanging chains. The smoldering creature fell into the void.
The last of the bats lunged at Rodnik. The sturdy troll held his hatchet in his hands and bashed it squarely. The vampire bat was squashed by the impact and dropped lifeless onto the stone steps.
“Let us move on, My Friends,” yelled the Sergeant-at-Arms. “The Summoners await us above and must be dealt with.”
The flickering of the torches and creaking of the chains were the only noises in the central stairway of Guardon’s Spires. Taliesin and his acquaintances ascended the steps in silence for a while. An arching, stone bridge met with the great column. It bore a line of torches that reached to the outer wall of the cylindrical void.
“Shall we venture upward or follow this walkway?” asked Gilead.
“Let us traverse this bridge and divulge what awaits us at its terminus,” replied the Liege of Mystic Down.
The mercenaries marched along the bridge. They discovered that it was also an aqueduct. A shallow causeway carried a trickling stream of water from a pipeline bored through the stair column and extended through the doorway in the outside wall. The warriors strode through the opening and found themselves in a study room. Half-a-dozen oak tables were lined in two rows. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. It bore a multitude of brightly burning candles mounted on concentric rings. Shelves of leather-bound books covered all four walls.
An iron door stood closed at the opposite end. Gilead, the Key Mage of Coermantyr, pulled down his woolen hood. He knelt against the surface of it, pressing his ear to the metal.
“It is quiet within,” he said. “Let us take a moment to look over these tomes. They may provide us with clues as to the origin and motivation of the Summoners.”
Taliesin placed his foot on one of the oak benches and opened a book on the table while he held his sword at the ready.
“This book tells of a Plane of Chaos. It is said to be controlled by Thoth, a Demigod who thrives there. It also speaks of a group of Drystyx Monks who aid him. I can’t imagine who wrote this,” declared the Liege of Mystic Down. “It is authored by The Watcher.”
A sound of claws scratching on steel rasped from the door. The band of mercenaries wielded their weapons in preparation.
“Open the door, Gilead,” said the Baroness. “We shall learn who beckons us from within.”
The Key Mage of Coermantyr did as he was asked and flung open the unlocked, metal portal. He jumped clear of it, giving his friends space to contend with whoever lurked beyond.
“Please, harm me not.”
A gaunt, aged halfling cowered in the doorway.
“Long trapped in these Spires am I. In eons past troll mages sealed the Gorgon King here. Young then I was and watched as they blocked the rift to the Plane of Chaos with the great Gong Seal. Greedy I was and covetous of alien jewels. Many have I found since I snuck through the gateway of the troll wizards. The Daemon King was enraged at first, when separated from his master. Resigned he has become to live here and command his wolf-beast soldiers. In this modest library Guardon consented to let me keep records. Lower your weapons, please.”
The huddled halfling knelt in supplication before the Gaeans.
“Long ago I forgot my name. Call me Watcher, if you will. For the many years I’ve patrolled these Spires that is what I’ve done.”
“So be it, Watcher,” Lord Taliesin answered. “Lead us to Guardon’s Chamber, if you recall its location. You are a Gaean, like us. We welcome you to return with us to our Home Realm if our mission succeeds.”
“Thank you, Great Warriors. I can see that you are here because of the recent experiments of Guardon and the Dire Queen. Saddened I was to see the hordes of Lykanthros swarm through their rift. Perhaps I will see Mystic Down again, after all.”
The Watcher smiled. Several of his teeth were missing.
“Lead you I will to the Audience Chamber of the Daemon King. Perilous, the route is, however. To reach him directly, only the beholders are able. The network of vertical tunnels they use, which run throughout these Spires. Follow me, Fellow Gaeans. A way to the top I know of, but beware of the minions of Guardon and Thoth. Throughout these chambers they hunt and lurk. To defeat the monsters and the winged architect of this edifice reach, take it will all of our martial resources.”
The gray halfling scurried through the iron door of his library. He beckoned to Lord Taliesin and Gilead for their party of warriors to follow. The Watcher drew an oak shaft and wrapped the head in strips of cloth he carried in his modest waist pack. He opened a small, pewter box and blew onto the smoldering embers it contained. The glowing fibers flared red. The ancient halfling touched the top of his makeshift torch to the tinderbox. It ignited and cast light onto the darkened hallway. The Gaean mercenaries stood close to him and their shadows formed eerie, writhing shapes on the cinderblock columns.
“Follow me,” said the decrepit humanoid. “Bonded I am with these Spires and over the years have come to know them well.”
He scurried deeper into the passage and gasped. A gathering of kobolds and beholders arose from their encampment. The single-eyed creatures addressed Lord Taliesin and his companions.
“Venture not into this fortress. It is a possession of the gorgons and their allies.”
“Yes,” another beholder said, “We act on the bidding of Thoth to serve Guardon. Refrain from dallying here.”
“Flee now, while you yet live,” declared a Kobold Sergeant.
The wiry-framed being was armed with a short lance, as were his kindred. His spiky, black hair was shaved close at the temples and cast a jagged, porcupine-like shadow on the ceiling behind him.
“We will not turn, Kobold Sergeant,” Sharon answered. “The Knights of Coermantyr have long grappled with the devious machinations of the Arkadian Summoners. My father fell in battle with the goblins. I wield his blade now and yet seek vengeance for his untimely death.”
The armored Baroness stepped forward and swung her sword, Xenon, downward. It struck the Leader of the Kobolds on the collarbone. The hook-nosed lancer was knocked off balance and fell backward, under the beholders.
The eyes of the stone-colored creatures reflected the light of The Watcher’s torch in various hues as the sinews of their large irises dilated with anger. As the gorgons rushed toward Taliesin he hefted his broadsword in a reverse grip. The sturdy troll lifted his arms above his head and thrust the point of his blade through the eye of the nearest creature. It screamed in agony as the Liege Lord continued his charge, pumping his knees high into the spherical beast. At last he brought his arms down, running the creature through entirely and pinning it to the brick floor. The burly Troll Paladin stomped one foot on the nailed beholder, making a gross, crunching sound. He gave his down-turned blade a final twist and pulled it free.
The standing kobolds and gorgons attacked the Gaeans en masse. Gilead, the Key Mage of Coermantyr, spoke a harnessing spell.
“Tractos!”
A blue ribbon of energy extended from his outstretched hands. He guided the Ethereal Cord like a lariat and trapped the kobolds in its viscous energy. As the humanoids struggled, stunned by his incantation, Gilead drew a thin dagger and slew three of them.
The remaining beholders gnashed at Rodnik and Bors with their needle-like fangs. One of the creatures spat a fireball at the Sergeant-at-Arms. The blond troll batted it away with his rondache.
The Gaeans attacked in unison, quickly destroying the last of their opponents. The gaping maw of the unguarded passage lay before them.
“Carry on, we must,” said The Watcher. “Sure to know of our whereabouts the Daemon Lord is. Among themselves the gorgons communicate telepathically as well.”
The path that extended before the mercenaries was marked on both sides by numerous doors. They opted to continue down the main hall and explore the secondary chambers at a later time.
The walls of the hall widened and opened upon a spacious Conference Room. The Gaean travelers were surprised to see a gathering of sturdy humanoids clustered around a Throne. At the perimeter of the room stood a number of doorways that extended downward into the Under Earth of the Gorgon Plane.
“I haven’t seen folk of this type before,” Lady Sharon offered. “They resemble the dwarves of legend, written of in the tomes of Coermantyr. I wonder if they found a spatial rift in their diggings in the Arkadian Mountains and chose to migrate here in search of alien jewels.”
“Let us approach them and discern whether they will assist us or otherwise give us passage into the upper levels of this fortress,” said Gilead. “I recognize the braided beards and whiskers of these people from aged renderings kept by Restadicus in Coermantyr Castle. If memory serves the dwarves aided the troll folk in their struggles with Summoners and Illusionaries in eons past. It wouldn’t surprise me if we can convince them to grant us passage into this system of tunnels.”
Lady Sharon’s Key Mage stepped forward into the Chamber. As the light of the standing torches shone on his woolen garb the dwarves turned to face him. They gasped in a rumbling tone. A pair of the short, bearded warriors strode to the tall troll and introduced themselves.
“Salutations, we are the Maegar. It is clear that you are from Gaea, like us. My name is Drumtone,” a red-bearded dwarf declared. “My brother here is Oxholm.”
The blond dwarf nodded his head in greeting.
“Our people mined the ore and metal veins in the Arkadian Mountain Range for many generations. We decided to leave, however. The lairs of the pale, Stalactite Orcs and Goblins in Mount Crow have proliferated since the subjugation of the stone trolls and maverick wizards. It has become impossible to raise sheep or youngsters amid their perpetual invasions.”
“We have not been pleased with the rampant experimentation of the Dire Queen and her daemon companion.”
“Neither have we,” the Key Mage offered. “I am Gilead, Key Mage of Coermantyr.”
The troll shook hands with the two dwarves.
Perhaps we can convince your Leader that we Gaeans have a common cause and should unite. The power of the Summoners is limited beyond this Realm. If we can incapacitate or destroy them peace will once again return to our regions.”
“Very well, Troll Magician,” said Oxholm. “Your friends are welcome to enter our Council Chamber. Let us march together to the Throne of our Maegar Chieftain, Grumbold. He will be heartened to see the arrival of experienced fighters and magic-users. Our Leader has grown weary of the constant harassment of the daemon’s gorgon advisors.”
Gilead gestured for Taliesin and his companions to join him in the Main Hall of the Arkadian Dwarves. The mercenaries readily emerged from the shadowy passage and strode with the Key Mage and his newfound friends through the sizeable gathering of male and female dwarves. They formed a semicircle before Grumbold’s Throne. The mature dwarf’s gray beard and mustache were braided and hung to his chest. His wrinkled brow bore a golden circlet, indicating his leadership of the Maegar Clan.
“Welcome, Fellow Gaeans,” the Dwarf King rumbled. “Our spies have brought news of your approach for some hours now. We found residence here in an attempt to acquire a haphazard existence away from the haranguing orcs and goblins. There was a time when my people roamed free through the Arkadian Mountains. The segregation of the stone trolls has caused a military imbalance in the mountains. The goblins now run free over our hills, making mining and farming impossible. As you can see we sealed our tunnels and passed through a spatial portal deep in the Under Earth for the safety of our offspring. Can you aid us in bringing an end to the sacrifices we must leave for the harassing beholders?”
“We can, Maegar King,” said Taliesin. “Grant us the aid of some of your elite warriors and we will concentrate our efforts to gain liberty for all the regions of Gaea.”
“Very well,” Grumbold replied. “Drumtone and Oxholm, venture into the upper tunnels with these troll warriors. Parlay with the Chaotic Summoners or destroy them if they will not consent to peace. I give you my blessing.”
“You have our thanks, Maegar Chieftain,” said Lady Sharon. “Your loyalty will be noted in the annals of the Lore Masters in Coermantyr. Be assured that civility will one day be restored to the mines in Arkadia.”
The blond and red-haired dwarf warriors joined Taliesin and his band. They marched through one of the few portals that inclined upward rather than downward. Grumbold’s dwarves beat their tribal drums and bellowed a war song as they exited their Council Chamber.
As the fighters marched along the serpentine passage they passed many cracks and roughly hewn doorways. The cries of kobolds and beholders emanated from deep in the stone walls.
“Let us not dally here,” said Drumtone. “We must conserve our energy to contend with the creatures that guard the passages ahead. These beasts are engaged in their own affairs and will not hinder us if undisturbed.”
The trickling of subterranean streams rushed through the air. At times the atmosphere was damp, indicating the proximity of hidden brooks.
The Watcher’s torch continued to burn a slow, steady flame. Many of the rocks sparkled with metallic fragments.
“Strange stones there are in this Plane. Subjected to titanic pressures the Under Earth was eons ago. Enough jewels to last several lifetimes have I found in these tunnels. Alas, trade them all I would for safe passage to Mystic Down and my halfling kindred.”
“Aye, Halfling, the Maegar have also found many precious stones. It is a shame that this Plane is dominated by such aggressive rulers. We have forged many fine tools and weapons since our arrival here. We dwarves wish more than all else to adequately distribute the arms into the proper hands so that the orcs may be driven from our mountain villages.”
“These tunnels are circuitous and confusing. We are blessed to have your guidance, Maegar Dwarves,” said Lady Sharon.
“We have mined the veins of copper in this ore-laden granite. The pressurized rock of this Plane is indeed replete with jewels,” offered Oxholm.
Alex uttered a spell of incandescence.
“Ignis!”
The top of his green, wood staff became alight with a golden halo. It allowed the Gaeans to gaze farther into the network of interconnected mine shafts.
“You dwarves are capable spelunkers. Many of these rocks appear freshly hewn,” said the apprentice wizard.
The band of mercenaries marched for another hour. Frequently the trail curled back on itself, giving the illusion of walking in a circle. Lord Taliesin perceived that the path was spiraling upward continuously.
The fighters reached a spacious cavern that was nearly filled by a lake. Several cascades gushed into the chamber from openings in the rocks above. Sharon paused to kneel at the lake’s edge. She cupped her hand in the shimmering pool and brought the water to her lips.
“Its fresh,” she declared. “I wonder if Guardon’s Spires were formed from an ancient mountain range. I suspect that there is a high water table. It wouldn’t surprise me if our dwarf friends have divulged secrets in these mines unknown to the Daemon Lord himself.”
The warriors paused to fill their leather and gourd flasks with the mountain water. They had hardly strapped their canisters and flagons to their belts when a group of gorgons and Lykanthros emerged from an opening at the far end of the lake’s shore.
The wolf-beasts howled. Their feral cries echoed over the stalagmites and stalactites that permeated the surface of the water.
“Grr! This chamber belongs to Guardon,” said a large Lykanthros. “The wolf pack is weary of the gathering Hive Builders. The Daemon Lord has brought order to our dens. We fight in his name, now, and that of the Dire Queen, Ankharet.”
“So do we, Gaeans,” bellowed a large, red beholder. “I am Sordryx. We have also grown weary of the intrusion of you dwarves. The jewel offerings we received did not include unlimited exploration of these corridors.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Sordryx,” said Taliesin. “We are here on legitimate business. Our regions have been upturned and thrown into disarray by the invading Lykanthros. They have slain our livestock unnecessarily and destroyed our crops. Guardon and Ankharet must bring a halt to their tampering with the spatial portals. We are here to convince them of that at all costs.”
Alex and Gilead combined their abilities to generate a ring of shielding.
“Fensores!” yelled the Mages of Coermantyr.
An opaque sphere surrounded the group of Gaeans.
“Fear this day have I,” said The Watcher. “Long have I avoided the great beholders and their wolf pets. Now inevitable the conflict is.”
The Lykanthros charged to the shield and grappled with it. They clawed at the wall of energy with their claws and fangs. Bors and Rodnik did not hesitate and swung their weapons through the energy field, bludgeoning a pair of the attackers.
Sordryx and the lesser gorgons united to emit a charm person spell. Their single eyes focused on the Gaeans as they vibrated their antennae, creating an eerie, subdued harmony.
The Watcher swooned under the effect of the spell.
“Sleepy I feel. Rest I must.”
The rickety, old halfling lay on the rocky shore of the lake. His lips flapped as he began to snore.
Gilead released a barrage of electric pulses. He directed the missiles at the Lykanthros as he repeatedly cried the charging spell.
“Solus!”
Half a dozen of the wolf-beasts were scorched severely and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the lake to extinguish their blazing fur. The remaining Lykanthros slashed desperately at the translucent barrier. Their leader struck it hard and broke through the mage’s shield.
Sharon had her bow ready and fired a pair of shots at the aggressors. Both bolts struck their marks and brought the creatures down. The remaining wolf-creatures and lesser beholders attacked the mercenaries at close range.
Taliesin swung his weapon in arching strokes, slicing and maiming at will. Several of the stone-colored beasts spat fireballs at the armored Paladin. His armor was resilient, however, and deflected the blasts completely.
Rodnik and Bors destroyed the last of the Lykanthros and turned their attention to the levitating gorgons. The sphere-shaped beings fought fiercely with the tough, Gaean warriors. They were no match for their sturdy arms and hammering weapons.
Gilead and Alex united their energies once again to create a ring of ice.
“Crystalix!”
The attacking beholders were frozen into blue shards. They dropped to the rocky floor and shattered into a myriad of pieces.
The fighters next turned their attention to Sordryx, who hovered over the center of the subterranean lake.
The giant, red gorgon incanted a forceful, charm person spell. Its massive, crimson antennae protruded over the deep water as it pointed them at the troll folk.
The Baroness was entranced by the atonal melody. She gasped and knelt on the rocks at the lake’s edge.
“Carry on, My Friends. I am overcome by this alien magic.”
Gilead and Alex fired successive volleys of electric missiles at the giant creature.
“Trentak!”
The fast-flying blasts of energy struck Sordryx. The girth of the being was at least eighteen yards in diameter. The spherical creature wobbled off kilter from the impact. The gorgon moaned and dipped into the water until halfway submerged.
Lord Taliesin, Bors and Rodnik lofted their weapons in preparation. Drumtone and Oxholm did the same.
The beholder was enraged by the attack and rose, dripping wet from the frigid lake. It charged the troll folk, creating a cresting wake in the surface of the lake as it blew over. Sordryx smashed into the fighters, knocking them off their feet. They regained their balance quickly and lunged at the giant creature, burying their weapons into its thick body to the hilt.
The being rose from the lakeshore with the fighters still clinging to their weapons lodged in its perimeter. The weight of their armored bodies was too great, however. Their swords and axes ripped through the beast. Gravity pulled them down as Sordryx ascended. The mercenaries’ weapons came together at the bottom of the hulking body. Their bodies collided and they fell several feet to the ground, weapons in hand.
The giant beholder moaned from its pouring injuries and floated erratically over the lake. It sank slowly into the murky depths.
Sharon and The Watcher awoke from the charm spell.
“What happened?” asked the Baroness.
“The great beholder was strong, but we succeeded in sending it to the bottom of this subterranean lake,” Gilead replied. “Are you two alright?’
“Fine, I am. Simply a nap I needed.”
“Let us move through the opening at the far end of this beach. I’ll wager since many of Guardon’s Denizens are traveling through that place it must lead to his Throne Room,” said Lady Sharon.
The band of mercenaries did as the Baroness of Coermantyr suggested and marched across the stony beach without any sign of Sordryx or the lesser beholders. The light of Alex’s staff and The Watcher’s torch shone brightly in the drafty cavern.
The fighters entered a narrow passage carved through the stone of Guardon’s Spires.
“The Maegar Dwarves have not previously ventured this far,” Drumtone declared. “The mines of our people in the Arkadian Mountains extended more deeply. We haven’t had the time to enlarge our settlement in this Plane.”
“Often have I wondered about the juxtaposition of the Realms within the Mandala of the Planes,” said The Watcher. “The Planes that are known; earth, fire, wood, water, electricity, air, chaos and order by Gaeans are rarely contacted. Ironically our Realm, it seems, has become a hub of sorts, a terminus if you will. If Mystic Down and Coermantyr I reach, consult I will with Restadicus and the troll folk at Bard’s Inn. Upon us a new age burgeons. Make preparations for the impending battle the warriors of Gaea must. But a pawn in a larger power struggle amid arcane Entities is the Daemon Lord, Guardon.”
“I fear this is the case, Aged Halfling,” offered Gilead. “I have long researched the histories and records in the library of Coermantyr. They frequently spoke of this distribution of elemental forces within the Planar Mandala. I can only guess as to the fullest reaches of these Dharmic Segments.”
The tunnel curled upward for some time. The mercenaries continued to hear the trickling of underground water sources running through the rocks. Many of the stones sparkled with crystals and precious metals embedded in the metallic ore. The subterranean passage widened. Taliesin and his friends strode past circular portals hewn in the walls. They were created for the passage of the legless beholders. Gashes and strands of fur were left from the prowling of the Lykanthros hordes.
“We have traveled upward for some distance,” said Lady Redthorne. “We must be parallel with Guardon’s Council Chamber.”
The tunnel curled upward to the left once more. It ended abruptly at a steel door. It had no knob or keyhole.
“Quiet, we should remain,” whispered The Watcher. “This portal blocks the entrance to the Throne Room. You magic users must concert your energies to move it asunder.”
The fighters stood back as Alex and Gilead focused their attention at the door. They incanted a forceful heat spell.
“Plasmos!”
Waves of heat filled the stone passage. The steel door creaked and popped as it became super-heated from within. Glowing, molten metal pooled around the threshold. At last a hole appeared at the center of the door. It continued to melt. Alex stepped forward and used the base of his green, wood staff to slough away the last of the crimson paste.
The Gaeans marched through the doorway and found themselves in Guardon’s Council Chamber. The large daemon sat on his stone Dais. He gazed at the troll folk, dwarves and halfling as they entered his room.
“You are too late. Ankharet is dead. The Harad Ghul killed her with the help of those malevolent specters. I have relinquished my claim to the Gaean Plane. You have my word that the Lykanthros will leave your regions free of invasion.”
“So be it, Guardon,” replied Lord Taliesin. “Your wolf-creatures were creating a great nuisance to the welfare of our livestock and crops. It is unfortunate that the renegade troll woman could not be assuaged with peaceful means. If you agree to leave our lands free of harassment then we have no quarrel.”
“That does not include us, Humanoids.”
Flotsam and Jetsam flew into the chamber from a window overlooking the red hills.
“We act at the behest of Thoth. He brought Guardon here ages ago and wishes that the rift be re-opened to the Plane of Chaos.”
“Do not attempt that, Specters,” ordered the Daemon Lord. “Thoth fathered me in ancient times but is too unruly an Entity to be allowed access to Gaea or this Plane. Your intentions will bring the destruction of the Dharmic Equilibrium as we know it.”
“So be it. The Drystyx Monks have their own agenda. They will fill in the Ethereal Offices held by you and the troll folk. Clear the way, now, so that we may rupture the Gong Seal at your feet.”
“I refuse,” Guardon answered, “and I’m sure these Gaeans reflect my sentiments.”
“Verily, Daemon Lord,” Taliesin entoned.
The mercenaries wielded their weapons. Gilead, the Key Mage of Coermantyr, assailed the specters with a harnessing spell.
“Mezclix!”
A luminescent, red matrix appeared before the adept mage. He gestured toward the specters with his hands and the mesh hurled forward. It wrapped itself around the translucent beings, restraining their movement as they hovered over the Gong Seal.
“This is an outrage,” cried Jetsam. “I demand that you leave us. We will not be thwarted by your childish pranks.”
Guardon rose from his Throne and strode quickly to the struggling specters. He grabbed their restraining net and hurled the bundle against the wall. The blue of the Entities and the red of the matrix burst into a cloud of magical fragments. The Daemon Lord flung his arms through the Ephemeral Mist in an attempt to prevent the specters from reconstituting.
His plan did not work. The fragments that had been Flotsam and Jetsam swirled together in a homogenous mass. The blue energy condensed into an angular, drill shape. It spun rapidly as it descended, boring a large hole through the Gong Seal at the floor of the chamber. As the tip of the spiral broke through the other side of the barrier a vent of steam jetted into the room. Guardon and the Gaeans were thrown against the walls, losing their balance. A jagged crease ran across the diameter of the magic seal. It split in a thundering boom and was ripped downward into the Plane of Chaos.
Electric bolts writhed from the rift. A voice rumbled into the Throne Room.
“Your work is done, My Son. Return to our abode. My monks and I will secure this plane for our own purposes.”
A pair of gargantuan, clawed hands gripped the sides of the rift. A great, red, draconian head rose into the room. The air was permeated with an acrid, sulphuric odor.
“No, Father,” Guardon answered, “You are not meant to venture here. The Dharmic Equilibrium of the Mandala of the Planes exists to maintain a kharmic balance among the cosmic energies. You know this as well as I. I will prevent you from usurping these Higher Planes for they are neutral ground in the System of Worlds.”
The winged daemon flew over the rift and grappled his father’s massive head. He wrestled and twisted it. The manifestation of Thoth in dragon form howled with frustration. His red, horned head shook from side to side violently but Guardon would not release his grip.
Guardon addressed the Gaeans from his awkward position.
“Mercenaries, return to your Plane. You must regroup and return here. I will seal this breach but it will not last. My father is ambitious and won’t be turned easily from this opportunity.”
The bronze-skinned Leader of the Gorgons gestured into the Throne Room with a free hand. A spatial rift opened. On the other side stood the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens.
Guardon flapped his leathery wings forcefully and pushed Thoth down into the Plane of Chaos. Lord Taliesin and his friends heard the cries and howls of the titanic battle from above. Gusts of caustic flame and pummeled beholders were flung from the rift. A silver disc of magic appeared in the place where the Gong Seal had been. It congealed and became a plug of hardened, black clay. The cacophony of the feud between father and son was cut off.
The Gaeans looked at one another as they rose to their feet. Their breath and weapons were the only audible sounds.
“Alas, broken the Gong Seal is. Return to Gaea we should. Strong the Lore Masters are and Siegemunde too. Help us they can and prepare us they will for the coming War of the Planes,” The Watcher said.
He shook his head and lifted his modest travel pack for the return home.
“The halfling is correct,” observed the Baroness of Coermantyr. “Our ancestors waged campaigns of this nature. We must consult with the historic tomes and gain the advice of the Council of Mages. Bjorn Roundtree and the others will eventually arrive in this Chamber and return to the Crossroads. I will leave a note for them to return to our Home Plane and meet us in the Burial Ruins of the lich folk.”
Lady Redthorne scrawled her message on a sheet of parchment. She posted the letter at the head of Guardon’s Throne with a jeweled dagger.
“That is appropriate, Baroness. We all can use some rest and a solid meal before dealing with these Drystyx Monks. Let’s go, My Friends. There is yet much work to do,” said Lord Taliesin.
The mercenaries marched through Guardon’s spatial breach. They were relieved to set foot on Gaean soil. Alex and Oxholm gathered what dry wood they could find to build a campfire. The fighters gazed at the crimson-edged portal from time to time. It was impossible to conceal their concern for Bjorn and their other comrades yet to emerge from Guardon’s Spires.
* * * * *
Bjorn stood at the end of another long hallway. A sequence of torches burned brightly. Whoever lit them was nowhere to be seen. The halfling looked toward the end of the lengthy passage.
“This fortress is mysterious,” declared Reoren. “I have not previously encountered such a structure. Its builders surely intended to confuse and deflect any would-be invaders.”
A band of Stalactite Orcs and Lykanthros rushed through the doorway at the opposite end of the hall. A trio of large beholders accompanied them; each of the stone-colored beasts was at least ten feet in diameter.
The pale humanoids were short and quick. They carried curved lances and sprinted down the brightly-lit corridor. The orcs clashed with the armored Knights of Mystic Down and Coermantyr.
The sound of the ensuing melee echoed along the walls, making it seem louder than it already was. The Knights of Coermantyr parried the thrusting blades of the orcs tactfully and counter-attacked a number of them. A pair of the jagged-toothed creatures was stabbed severely and slumped to the floor, unconscious. The soldiers of Mystic Down opted for broadswords and swung at the Lykanthros aggressively. They lunged forward at the slavering wolf-creatures, dipping so far that a knee touched the floor. As the tips of their blades penetrated the hairy bodies of the Lykanthros they twisted their swords before turning and rendering a fatal blow to the head.
Marlin, Anemone and the blue-skinned merfolk ran in from the flanks. They employed their curved daggers to finish off the grappling wolf-beasts.
Reoren and Gearzon rushed at the giant beholders. The single-eyed creatures cast circular shadows on the walls and ceiling as they hovered to the warriors. The gnome engineer clutched weighty wrenches in his strong hands. He wasn’t tall enough to attack them face-to-face but swung his steel tools upward from below. The claws of his wrenches broke through the tough tissue of the beasts. When he pulled them free to swing again he was covered in a cascade of green blood. The beholder he was targeting howled in pain and rotated to identify its attacker. As soon as the giant eye was in range Gearzon struck it hard.
Bjorn assailed the spherical creatures with sharpened stones hurled from his sling. Several of the howling gorgons were gashed deep wounds by the missiles and slumped lifeless to the floor.
Gnoll and the strong wood trolls came to the aid of their gnome friend. They battled the beholders with the help of Nighthawk’s goblins and vanquished them. The fighters peered down the hallway in which they stood.
“The malevolence of this massive fortress is palpable,” said the Arborean Guard. “It represents a negative energy that is surely meant to drain Gaea of its resources. Our friends are moving through this stronghold in separate paths. They must converge at the Throne Room of the Gorgon King. Let’s move onward and learn what we can of the architecture of this mountainous structure.”
The friends marched on. They came upon a steel door. It had an ornate knob designed to resemble a gargoyle’s head. The halfling, Bjorn, beckoned to Reoren, the lich merchant, to approach.
“Give us some light, Ghoul-Troll. There is a mechanism in this knob which may be convinced to open the portal.”
“Certainly, Bjorn,” answered the tall trader.
The amateur magic-user incanted a spell of illumination.
“Lumus, luminares!”
The cloaked Gaean acquired a halo of golden light. It shone brightly and allowed the halfling to focus on the task at hand. Bjorn withdrew a small set of tools from his travel pack. He tinkered within the metal teeth of the gargoyle knob. The sound of twisting gears was followed by a loud snap as the bolts were thrown free of the cinderblock wall. The halfling gripped the knob in his pudgy hands and twisted it forcefully. It rotated in a semicircle and the door opened inward.
The fighters beheld a vast cavern. It reached far into the hewn rock of Guardon’s Spires. The limits of the rift in the Under Earth lay beyond the range of Reoren’s light. A myriad of stalagmites and stalactites penetrated the environment.
“It must have taken centuries for these mineral columns to form from the dripping water,” said Gearzon.
“There are similar structures in the Arkadian Mountains. I’m sure orcs and goblins would be as much at home here as they are in their native region,” Nighthawk observed.
“I sense a magical disturbance above us,” said Anemone. “The Orb of Paryphax hums from the conflict.”
The merwoman withdrew the glinting sphere from her bodice and dangled it from her webbed fingers. The crystalline orb shimmered with waves of undulating light. Its emanations ranged from deep crimson to bright green.
“Skjold’s Orb has always been highly responsive to flaring sorcery,” Gnoll entoned. “When he lived he frequently warned us of impending storms and blizzards days in advance.”
“I detect the struggle within the Planar Mandala as well, My Friends,” said Reoren.
The tall lich-troll directed his view upward as he attempted to focus on the source of the rippling energy.
“Lord Taliesin and Baroness Sharon have reached Guardon’s Throne Room. I’m sure of it,” declared Anemone. “There is a driving energy pushing at the Gong Seal far above us. Lord Dagon spoke of it many times as an ancient barrier between the Gorgon Plane and the Plane of Chaos. I fear that the magicians who sought the Orb of Paryphax took drastic measures to retrieve it. It may well have proven their undoing. I perceive untamed Entities that grind at the aged seal with their own volition and motives.”
A turbulent temblor shook through the walls and floor. Numbers of boulders and stalactites were dislodged from the stone ceiling and plummeted aimlessly to the distant ground. The agile Gaeans evaded the falling rock deftly. Chunks of ore and minerals shattered into chalky fragments when they collided with the chamber floor at high speed.
“The Seal has been breached!” cried Anemone.
Her merfolk supported her as she swooned from the shock of the rending of the Dharmic Equilibrium.
“I suspect this is the result of the tampering of the specters that Themistokles summoned in Mystic Down to retrieve the orb. They are not of this Plane or Gaea. The Entities must work at the bidding of Thoth and the Drystyx Monks who attend him,” said Bjorn.
“Our regions remain in jeopardy as long as the Planes are linked. At all else we should rendezvous with our friends and return to the Council Chamber of the Lore Masters. Restadicus can help us still and consult with his fellow mages to find a way to bring harmony to our lands.”
The earthquake stopped and the warriors marched forward into the spacious cavern. Bjorn noticed the terrain vaulted downward precipitously, forcing the travelers to take care not to lose their balance.
The stone outcroppings protruding from the pebbly soil became large and monolithic. Another wave of energy permeated the chamber with increased intensity. The Gaeans lost their footholds and struggled to grasp the great boulders in order to regain their balance. The rocks tilted inward.
“Beware, My Friends!” Gearzon yelled. “Stay away from these pillars lest you be crushed.”
The stones closed in upon the fighters unimpeded. Despite the warning of the gnome engineer they were unable to roll free. The boulders rose upward violently. A giant, granite face peered down at the mercenaries with glowing, amethyst eyes.
A booming, female voice laughed.
“I have you now, Fleshlings. Your raucous stumbling awakened me from my slumber. I am Petra. What business have you this deep in The Spires of the Gorgon King?”
“We are here to bring about an Era of Peace in our regions,” said Bjorn. “The random, spatial rifts that appeared throughout Gaea trapped us here. Our races have united with the intention of sealing the invasive breaches that Guardon and Ankharet have been using to usurp and harass our villages.”
“Release us from your grip, if you please, Stone Giant. We have business to attend to within this fortress and cannot linger here,” said Nighthawk.
“As you wish, Warriors. You seem harmless enough. Terranoids are cautious folk and have thrived within this mineral-laden earth for eons. The recent turbulence from the opened breach above has created a disharmony among us as I’m sure you have also detected,” Petra said.
She lowered her massive, rocky hands to the pebbly ground and allowed the many Knights and fighters to disembark.
“The power struggle within the Planar Mandala continues. There is sure to be a fight now that the Great Seal has been shattered. In ages past, Gaean wizards stood here as you do now with the same goals in mind. They succeeded in ending the invasions conducted by Thoth. Until recently his devious agenda has been sequestered to the Plane of Chaos. I regret that the meddling of the Summoners above has brought about this new challenge. You look like a collection of hardy and stalwart individuals. If anyone is up to the task of liberating the Planes surely it is you,” the stone giant declared.
The mountainous Terranoid addressed Anemone.
“Merwoman, I have a favor to ask of you. Please entrust me with the Orb of Paryphax. The rifts between the Planes have become numerous now and are certain to see the passage of opposing forces in the near future. I will secure the orb of the late Wood Mage in the Terranoid Midden. It will remain safe until such time as the wood trolls have established tranquility in Arborea. I promise to then return it to the tower of its creation.”
“That is a good idea, Petra. We have studied tablets describing the Terranoid race in our coral libraries. You are a trustworthy people and can help us to keep the orb out of the wrong hands.”
The blue-skinned Dagonite lifted the orb and chain from her neck and strode to the massive, stone hand of the giant woman. She climbed onto the granite palm and lay the orb there. Anemone returned to her companions.
“We will venture further into this cavern, Stone Giant,” declared Bjorn. “Our friends can use our help above and each of us misses home. We will consult with Restadicus and the Lore Masters of Coermantyr upon our return to Gaea. They will devise a plan of action to set things straight for all of us. You have our thanks.”
“Very well, Fleshlings. We will await your return,” Petra rumbled.
The subterranean chamber beyond Petra’s Midden widened further. The stalagmites and stalactites extending from the floor and ceiling achieved immense proportions. The minerals from which they had solidified contained multicolored shards of metal and silicon. As the light of Reoren’s magic halo flickered past the columns they sparkled with purple and green crystals.
“The solidity of this Realm is tangible,” said Nighthawk. “Whatever primordial forces created Gaea installed just as much energy into this Gorgon Plane and perhaps others as well.”
The goblin soldier’s expression reflected his amazement at the size of the great cavern.
“I wonder if Guardon’s Lykanthros and beholders had the courage to venture this deep into the structure of The Spires,” Bjorn pondered aloud. “Reoren, is there any chance you can intensify the light of your incantation? This morass is wide. I sense a draft and moisture in the air. A large body of water must be close.”
“I will do as you suggest, My Halfling Friend. I have reviewed my arcane manual since our arrival in this Plane.”
The skeletal lich-troll uttered a different sorcery.
“Luminex!”
His halo became a disk of light, much like the rings around planets he’d seen through Siegemunde’s spyglass. The mercenaries saw clearly to the outer limits of the cave. They were indeed at the edge of a mysterious, iridescent lake. The syrupy surface of the water reflected the light strangely. The ubiquitous breeze created ripples that shone red and blue to the naked eye.
“This pool radiates in an unusual manner,” Gnoll observed. “It may not be wise to drink of it.”
“I’ll test it,” Bjorn volunteered.
The spritely halfling strode across the pebbly beach to the edge of the natural reservoir. He dipped his furry toe into the meniscus. It generated a sequence of waves that reached across the surface. The ripples broadened and rebounded off the opposing shores. As the waves initiated by Bjorn returned to where the warriors stood they bubbled and coalesced.
“Be careful, My Allies,” Marlin warned. “This lake is not as it seems. There are living Entities at work here.”
In verification of the Dagonite Captain’s words, cylindrical columns rose from the body of water.
“Look at the ceiling!” Gearzon cried.
A second lake of equal magnitude pooled on the top of the immense cavern. Similar, gelatinous columns descended from the surface aloft. They met and intertwined with those on the bottom and formed a myriad of glowing pillars. The largest cylinders mingled at the center of the two reservoirs.
Reoren beckoned to the Knights of Coermantyr, Mystic Down and the Dagonites.
“Gather before me, Staunch Soldiers. We must prepare ourselves for a defensive maneuver if the need arises.”
The merchant lich-troll incanted a spell of shielding.
“Protex!”
A red ring of warding covered the perimeter of the sizeable party. The warriors drew and wielded their respective weapons.
A number of the pillars writhed across the water and stood on the shore. They hesitated for a moment, then assumed humanoid forms, much like the Gaeans. The composition of the magical Entities was simple. Each translucent figure was arbitrarily amorphous. They contained blue and red nuclei with nerve fibers under their skin-like outer membranes.
Reflecting the appearance of the fighters, the underground creatures positioned their nuclei within their head-like extensions, thus mimicking the eyes of the troll folk.
The largest of the beings hummed a bass vibration that resembled speech.
“We heard you vertebrates communicating and will attempt to meld our language with yours. We are Morphozoids. Our colony has sensed magical turbulence shaking through the boulders above. We have already discussed the ramifications of these signs among ourselves and expected the arrival of the forces that countermanded the machinations of the Gorgon King and his Summoner Mistress.”
“The aggressive wolf-creatures and spherical beholders have disturbed our rest and Council many times. The Principle Amoebids are glad you’re here. Call me Driptwist. I’ve been delegated to assist you in bringing an end to the disturbances that emanate above.”
“Very well, Morphozoid Driptwist,” Reoren answered. “Forgive our surprise at the emergence of you strange creatures.”
The gaunt lich-troll gestured casually, dissolving his precautionary barrier.
“You look just as weird to us, Friend,” Driptwist replied. “It will benefit you to know that I can direct you to a tunnel. It will take us upward, ultimately to the Throne Room of the Gorgon King himself.”
“This is good news,” answered Bjorn. “Let us venture onward and meet up with our friends.”
The band of Gaeans followed the gelatinous being along the edge of the lake housing the colony of amorphous creatures. They entered a narrow passage that spiraled upward.
The amicable Morphozoid led the fighters in a steady march for some time. At last they reached the place where Gilead and Alex brought down the steel door blocking Guardon’s Chamber. The number of warriors strode within and beheld the black, clay seal filling the space where the Gong Seal had been. The portal to the Ghastly Fens stood open over the proscenium.
“Alas, the Gong Seal is breached,” said Gnoll. “For ages it stood. There is bound to be a war now. The Gaean Mages did what they could to close the portal to the Plane of Chaos. Their barrier will not hold, for the forces that Skjold spoke of are desperate to tap the resources of the Orb of Paryphax and the Denizens of the Higher Realms.”
Nighthawk examined Guardon’s Dais.
“There is a note here, where Guardon sat,” said the Goblin Sergeant.
His fellow goblins accompanied him as he pulled Sharon’s jeweled dagger from the Throne. The pallid humanoids looked over the attached note and handed it to Bjorn.
“This message was written by the Baroness,” the halfling declared. “She, Gilead and the others from their party have passed through the portal which remains here. They await our return on the other side. I will enter a postscript of my own for Leif and Jalhi’s party when they arrive here. They will know to meet us at the encampment.”
Bjorn Roundtree reattached the note to the top of Guardon’s Throne.
The various fighters grouped together as they passed through the spatial portal to the Ghastly Fens.
* * * * *
Guardon grappled with his father as they plummeted into the Plane of Chaos. The spatial portal opened by the Ephemeral Specters hovered as a disk in the sky above the volcanic earth. The temple of the red dragon reached upward from a hundred yards below.
Thoth howled in frustration as he perceived the insertion of the blocking plug into the place where the Gong Seal had been.
“Do not hinder me, My Son. The time is at hand to deal with the Lesser Planes as we will.”
The monstrous, winged Demigod spewed acid flame from his maw. Guardon was familiar with this method of attack and boxed his father’s horned head aside, causing the spray of green fire to stream haphazardly into the violet clouds.
Flotsam and Jetsam raced ahead of the struggling pair and swooped into the Drystyx Temple through two of the windows in the highest echelon of the black, stone tower. The Council of Drystyx Monks waited at an oval-shaped table within. They had a scrying glass of their own. The sorcerers had concerted their arcane energies upon it to stay updated through the eyes of the pair of Entities summoned by Themistokles.
The monks wore black robes and represented a variety of races, some of whom were too large to sit at the table and crouched on the floor instead.
Flotsam addressed the Wizards of Chaos.
“Drystyx Monks! Make haste for Thoth struggles above with Guardon. The Gong Seal in the Gorgon Plane is breached. Let us act and claim the Lesser Planes for our own purposes. We have slain Ankharet, the Arkadian Summoner in her Abyssal Cairn. The fortress in the Gaean wilderness is now under the control of Rauros and the goblins of Mount Crow. Fly with us to the firmament above and come to the aid of our Demigod.”
Zolgnath, a firbolg, was the Leader of the Monks.
He addressed his companions in a booming voice.
“Now is the time for us to act, My Brethren. The Energies of Chaos, which all of us serve, are reaching the peak of their assertion. The accursed Gong Seal that has kept us separated from the other Planes is now eradicated. Let us leave this tower and take our place at the side of Thoth.”
The Drystyx Monks followed the advice of the specters and their Leader and raised themselves into the air using a levitation spell.
“Levtos!” cried the sorcerers.
The dark-robed wizards became immersed in clouds of green electricity. They hovered above the oval council table then turned and flew out the large windows of the tall tower. The Drystyx Monks left sparkling trails in the air behind them as they spiraled upward to the dueling pair.
Guardon and Thoth continued to fight each other. Both of their hides bore gashes and wounds from their lacerating claws. Zolgnath was the first to reach the dragon and daemon.
“Stop fighting!” yelled the large firbolg.
He uttered a harnessing spell.
“Gorgax!”
The other monks reached the height of the battle and focused their magic on the spell.
Zolgnath used his hands to direct a crimson tendril at the massive, red dragon. The cord of energy wrapped around the muscular arms and torso of the beast. He was no longer able to attack Guardon. The daemon flapped his wings in one position as he spoke to the Drystyx Monks.
“Greetings, Black Wizards. It has been eons since we last met. As I’m sure you’re aware the Gong Seal has been breached by these Entities.”
He nodded at Flotsam and Jetsam.
“My father responded quickly to their actions and attempted to enter my Plane. I succeeded in turning him back but must ask for your help to keep him away from the Lesser Planes.”
“We are not interested in your agenda of peace, Guardon. You have lost your taste for conquest since your spawning. It is no wonder that your sire had you sent to the Gorgon Plane,” answered the firy, glowing firbolg. “This is the dawning of a new era for the Hordes of Chaos. We will take the Plane of the Spider-Creatures and after that the whole of Gaea. Leave us to our affairs or be destroyed.”
“Don’t resist us, Guardon. You have kept watch over The Spires long enough. Join us now and witness our campaign to victory!” Thoth rumbled.
“I will not be a part of this, Father. The Dharmic Equilibrium is not something to be tampered with by sole forces within the Mandala. If these are your intentions then you can count me out. I will journey beyond the reach of your Drystyx Temple and live on my own. Do as you wish but do not underestimate the resources of the Gaean Mages or the Entities that sleep deep in the Under Earth of the Gorgon Plane. I bid you all farewell. Perhaps we will meet again under more diplomatic circumstances.”
The bronze-skinned daemon turned away from the hovering monks and the bound dragon. He flew fast and steady to the violet horizon. In a matter of moments he vanished into the hazy clouds.
“My son is stubborn,” the red dragon said. “He will do as he chooses but will regret his lack of support in this venture. Release me from this childish tether, Zolgnath. I will not pursue Guardon. We must contend with the barrier he created. It will not hold if we concert our forces upon it. Let us return to the Drystyx Temple and combine our legions for transport through the spatial portal. There is much work to be done in little time.”
* * * * *
Jalhi Bengal and her allies stood at the end of a long hallway. Her gold wyverns flapped above her shoulders. They growled impatiently.
“Easy, Starfling. Rest, Flamering,” said the tiger ranger. “We will be free of this confining fortress soon enough. First we must make sure that the Gorgon King and his accomplice will leave the Fens unharmed.”
“That is what I hope for also, Jalhi,” Fangoz offered. “Let us push onward and discover what secrets this stronghold has in store for us.”
The motley band of fighters collected torches posted along the walls of the passage. They used their tinderboxes to ignite them and illuminate their surroundings.
The warriors marched for a short while when they encountered a band of draconian soldiers. They ran toward the Gaeans in upright positions. The reptilian humanoids wielded swords and spears in their clawed hands.
Thorgrym, the Chief Guardian of Lich Town, uttered a warning to the creatures.
“Do not attack us, Lizard Trolls. We have business with Guardon and won’t be turned.”
The draconians did not respond and continued their charge. The sturdy ghoul-troll lifted his crossbow and pulled the trigger. The bolt flew straight to the nearest humanoid, striking him squarely in the chest. His plate armor was compromised and he fell dead to the side of the passage.
Leif and Sigrid combined their magical abilities to engage their opponents.
“Chronos!” they cried.
The thickening mist that appeared around them disoriented the lizard-trolls. They swung their blade-bearing weapons at the Gaeans but were delayed by the sticky clouds. Jalhi’s wyverns easily evaded the assailing blows and roasted two of the dragon-trolls with hot balls of fire.
The band of feline rangers entered the melee with their curved daggers. They utilized their greater numbers to swamp the attackers two to one. The dozen draconians flailed wildly at the anthromorph amazons but were no match for their speed and cunning. Fangoz and Thorgrym strode into the fight with their respective weapons. The strong warriors finished off the remaining reptilian humanoids with hammering strikes.
The Gaeans searched the armored bodies of the lizard-trolls and found a number of silver and copper coins among their trappings. They continued down the passage holding their torches aloft.
“This fortress is strangely quiet,” said Sigrid. “I wonder how our companions fare on their own routes.”
“I’m sure that our experienced friends can fend for themselves,” replied Leif. “For the time that I traveled with them they dispatched any accosting opponents with firm vigor.”
The cinderblock walls of the passageway were made of a fine, brick mixture. Ancient artisans had etched sets of eighteen and twenty-four blocks with bas-reliefs. A number of the renderings resembled gargoyles similar to Guardon, along with needle-toothed beholders and feral Lykanthros. The light of the Gaeans’ torches flickered over the carvings in the walls, giving them the illusion of motion and changing expressions.
The travelers reached an oak door that had a rusty keyhole below its steel handle.
“Let me have a look at the lock on this door,” Thorgrym said.
The sometime Guardian of the City of the Ghoul Trolls held his brightly-burning torch close to the metal lock. He reached to his cummerbund and withdrew a slender knife. The resourceful soldier inserted the tool into the keyhole and twisted it about for a few moments.
“Ah, I think I’ve got the cantilever,” declared Thorgrym.
He gave the handle of his small blade a final twist and the bolt flew free of the wall. The thick, oak door opened inward to the vertical stairway that Gilead and Taliesin reached. The same smoldering lanterns descended to various levels from chains lodged in the distant ceiling.
“We should venture upward with caution,” Fangoz offered.
The great, stone troll rested his heavy club on his shoulder as he looked at the hanging lamps.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the others reached this staircase before us. It gives the impression of being the central, vertical passage in Guardon’s Spires.”
“That is a good idea, Stone Troll,” Jalhi observed. “My amazon rangers will lead the way. If the Baroness and her acquaintances did traverse these steps then we are sure to encounter the full brunt of whatever sleeping Entities they awakened.”
In accordance with the feline anthromorph’s prediction, the warriors had only marched for a short while when they were interrupted by a gurgling voice.
“My pets have been destroyed by you mortals. They would have grown to full vampires if they had hunted more years. Now I am friendless.”
A looming shadow fell from its hanging place on one of the chains above the steps. A cloaked vampire glided out of its dive and landed before the cat women. As the light of the fighters’ torches shone on the undead troll they got a good look at his appearance. His face was emaciated and deathly pale. The vampire’s ancient eyes bore red irises that dilated to tiny, black dots once exposed to the light.
“I am Claude,” said the vampire. “I thirst.”
The spindly predator lurched for the nearest ranger, a gray-furred archer. Just as he sunk his sharp fangs into her neck Sigrid uttered a ward undead spell.
“Clarex!”
A bright, blue sphere of light appeared between her opened hands. Claude was startled by the mystic light and released his grip on the anthromorph.
“Leave me be,” he cried. “I only seek repayment for my lost kindred.”
“That is not acceptable,” answered the female Sentinel. “We are here on legitimate business. Do not hinder us again or you shall be destroyed.”
“Very well, Sturdy Sorceress,” Claude answered. “There was a time that the vampire clans roamed free throughout Mystic Down and Arkadia. The war with the hordes of goblins and renegade stone trolls reduced our numbers drastically. We were hunted without mercy during the daylight hours. The orcs and their kin sought to claim our castles for their own purposes. I fled from my fortress ages ago, casting aside my family name and possessions. In the night I fed on the occasional Lykanthros and goblin. Ultimately I was intercepted by a spatial portal, as I’m sure you also were.”
“That is the truth, Vampire Liege,” replied Leif. “The haphazard conjurings of Ankharet have proven to be more than a nuisance to the harmony of our regions. We journey now to convince Guardon to leave our Plane.”
“So be it, Ghoul-Troll. I wish you luck. Perhaps we will meet again in Gaea once the goblin marauders have been pacified,” said Claude.
The gaunt vampire addressed the gray-furred amazon he’d accosted.
“My apologies, Ranger. I’ve gone without feeding for some time.”
“Be careful, Vampire,” the anthromorph answered. “You never know when you might need the help of the Bengal Clan.”
The cloaked night-feeder lifted the edges of his cloak and leapt from the spiral stairway. The warriors heard scratchy laughter that descended into the darkness.
“I’ll wager that won’t be the last we see of that vampire. He certainly has his own agenda for the restructuring of Arkadia and the forest beyond,” Fangoz said. “My renegade cousins came at odds with the Vampire Lords in the past war. Both of our clans have diminished significantly in size since that internecine campaign. Let us continue our quest to the top of this stronghold, My Friends.”
The Gaean fighters joined the immense stone troll in the march up the cylindrical stairway. The warriors of various races traveled for some time. At last they reached the hallway leading to the dissolved door of Guardon’s Throne Room. Jalhi and her amazon relatives were the first to reach the threshold of the steel door that Gilead and Alex melted.
Sigrid gazed at the remnants of the door and the hovering portal within.
“It is clear that our companions have passed this point and returned to the Ghastly Fens,” the female Sentinel observed.
She noticed the jeweled dagger and note attached to the head of Guardon’s Dais. The thin ghoul-troll stepped onto the proscenium and extricated the message from its post. Sigrid read the memorandum quickly and addressed her friends.
“Our suspicions are correct. Both Lord Taliesin’s and Bjorn Roundtree’s battle parties reached this point ahead of us. The legendary Gong Seal below us has indeed been breached. Only this temporary, clay plug now bars the portal to the Plane of Chaos. Let us return to the Burial Ruins on the other side of the spatial breach standing before us.”
The warriors followed Sigrid’s advice and strode through the magical gate. They found themselves standing on the mossy earth by the aged stone columns and gravestones of the Ruins at the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens. Taliesin, Bjorn and the other Gaeans huddled by smoky campfires nearby.
“Greetings, Friends!” Leif cried. “We are glad to see that all of you emerged from the Gorgon Plane in one piece. As I’m sure you also discovered Guardon and Ankharet were nowhere to be seen. I imagine that the Ephemeral Specters summoned by Themistokles have something to do with this.”
“We must travel to Coermantyr and consult again with Restadicus and the Lore Masters,” said Baroness Sharon. “The events that transpired in Guardon’s Spires require the attention of the adept sorcerers therein. Before we move south let us concert our arcane resources to close this portal opened by the Daemon Lord when he battled his father. It will do no good to leave an additional breach to the Gorgon Plane here.”
“That is wise advice, My Lady,” Gilead responded. “Alex, Reoren, Leif and Sigrid let us focus our energies upon this gateway and close it.”
The Key Mage of Coermantyr incanted a spatial sorcery.
“Seros!”
The other magic-users gestured outward with their hands as they assisted Gilead. The portal hovering over the damp soil of the Ghastly Fens wavered for a moment then shrank to a point of white light before disappearing entirely.
The band of Gaeans set forth at a brisk pace to the City of Coermantyr. They hastened through the mist for the rest of the day and set a small camp at nightfall. The mercenaries marched again at first light. By evening they saw the brightly lit pinnacles of the matriarchal stronghold in Sharon’s region. As they approached the gates to the settlement the farmers and merchants again cheered the passage of their champions. The warriors marched at a steady pace into the castle. Courtesans and pages hurried the fighters inward.
“Make haste, Mercenaries,” a tall concierge said. “Restadicus awaits the latest word.”
The Gaeans entered the spacious Council Chamber of the Lore Masters. The hoary, bearded mage and a number of his subordinate associates sat at the broad, crescent-shaped, oak table with oil lamps burning intensely.
“Well, what news brings you from Siegemunde and the Gorgon Plane beyond?” the aged wizard boomed.
“The Gong Seal has been breached by Ephemeral Specters summoned by Ankharet’s Vizier from the Plane of Chaos,” Sharon said. “We rescued the halfling, Bjorn Roundtree, as you can see. The Dire Queen was killed. Now the Demigod, Thoth, seeks to assert his influence within the Gorgon Plane and Gaea as well. There is bound to be a conflict, Restadicus.”
“This does not bode well for the delicate balance of the Planar Mandala,” answered the Leader of the Lore Masters.
“I suggest we take some time to review the historic tomes documenting the war that motivated the initial forging of the Gong Seal,” offered Gilead. “The opposing kharmic forces within the Dharmic Equilibrium were brought to a lasting peace by our ancestors. There must be a way for us to compartmentalize the Planes once more.”
“That is wise advice, Key Mage,” answered a flaxen-haired Council Member. “Call me Wotan. Restadicus and I have discussed the ramifications of the Helix of Planes many times. It is possible that if there exist Planes of Elemental, Chaotic Energy, there may also be a Plane of Order, as it were.”
The blond wizard stroked his braided mustache and beard in contemplation.
“All of you look tired. You can use a good night’s sleep and a solid supper,” Restadicus declared. “Your actions and information are invaluable. The Lore Masters shall hold Council tonight while you recuperate from your mission. We will consult the ancient books and meet again tomorrow. By then we should have agreed as to the appropriate course of action.”
The fighters followed the advice of the Leader of the Coermantyr Wizards. They walked down the red-carpeted stairway from the Council Chamber to the dining hall below. The ambience was tangibly different from what it had been the last time the warriors ate there. There was plenty of food at the banquet table, but the minstrels and acrobats were noticeably absent.
“Rumors travel swifter than falcons in this castle,” Sharon whispered to her friends over her plate. “The people here are frequently the best source of the latest news. Eat with gusto, My Companions. We are sure to face more challenging tasks on the morn. Let us conserve our strength and rest while we still can.”
Bors was the only member of the party that seemed to be enjoying his meal. The robust Burgomeister of Wood’s End sat down with relish and dug into his second plate of roast beef, carrots and quiche.
“You have my thanks again for your splendid hospitality, Lady Sharon. I will never cease to savor your delicious board of fare,” the Innkeeper said.
The mercenaries retired to separate lodgings and slept well on the wolf-skin rugs.
The next morning Taliesin and his friends gathered again in the Council Chamber of the Lore Masters.
The entire group of adept mages, numbering over two-dozen, was present. Restadicus addressed the group of warriors.
“We wizards burned the midnight oil, so to speak,” the white-bearded mage said. “The observations of Wotan proved accurate. There are records of a variety of Planes, manifesting respective energies in the Latticework of the Planar Helix. Ergo there should be a Plane of Order to balance the Plane of Chaos. The historic tomes speak of Titanic Entities that clashed in the theater of battle that we refer to now as the Burial Ruins of the Ghastly Fens. Just as Thoth once rose to infiltrate the Gorgon Plane and Gaea, so appeared Knights of the Etherium. They emerged through spatial portals of their own to combat the Armies of Chaos. They are dubbed seraphim in the historic texts. Today we will focus our resources upon our scrying glass with the intention of channeling whatever forces or individuals who may linger within the Planar Mandala. Under the threat of invasion by the Legions of Thoth and his Drystyx Monks we cannot be worse off to gain updated knowledge in regard to the Entities that may or may not exist within the kharmic layers of the Dharmic Equilibrium. I’m sorry to disclose that the old books report little more than wave after successive wave of malevolent forces who marauded the Regions of Gaea, oppressing and destroying with rampant abandon.”
“This is profound information,” said Baroness Sharon. “Please proceed with your experiment. At this point any forces that may act in the favor of the native residents of Gaea will be a welcome asset for us in the impending battle.”
The Lore Masters rose from their seats at the crescent table. Restadicus placed his scrying glass on a tall, wooden stand at the center of the room. He stepped back from the crystal sphere and incanted a spell of searching with outstretched hands.
“Bindu!”
Shimmering tendrils of white light reached from the hands of each of the wizards. They met on the surface of the scrying glass. Restadicus gasped with wonder.
“So it is. The Helix of the Planar Mandala is as the ancient tomes suggest. Elemental energies beckon from all around us. I see many things. The Spherical Plane of Gaea is here, and below lies the Gorgon Plane and the Layers of Chaos. There is a gyroscopic network of axes, for outward from us lie other Planes. I sense them. There is earth, stone, air, fire, ash, plasma, iron, water, ice, wood, electricity, vacuum, oil and acid. Other Planes, similar to Gaea, exist as well. They don’t have names to our knowledge. I suppose that if our situation becomes desperate we may be forced to seek aid from them. These alternate Planes remind me of the far kingdoms to the east, south and west. They exude highly charged patterns of magical energy in comparison to Gaea. Perhaps this is why our lands have fallen victim to attacks in the past. I will focus our energies toward the Layers of Order.”
The Leader of the Lore Masters hummed with interest as he scanned the Ordered Plane.
“I perceive strong forces, certainly equal to those of Chaos. Let me focus within that Plane and attempt to contact one of the larger Entities hovering there.”
“Hello,” Restadicus said. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” a bass voice resonated. “It has been a long time since we had correspondence with anyone from Gaea. My name is Hydro. How are things going?”
“Not too well,” answered the white-haired wizard. “We are about to be attacked by Thoth and his Legions from the Plane of Chaos. Will you delegate some of your seraphim to help us turn them back, and perhaps forge a new seal in the breach that has been reopened of late?”
“Certainly,” Hydro intoned. “I will target the location of your communication module and send four of our best, Smithforge, Heartsing, Listhew and Glasslook. If you find yourself in need of more assistance feel welcome to contact us or any of the Peripheral Planes. There are quite a few of them down there, you know.”
“Thank you, Hydro. Will will see what we can do with the support of your seraphs. I’m sure we’ll speak again.”
Restadicus lowered his hands, as did the other Lore Masters. Their energy ribbons extinguished. As per Hydro’s message, four, big ovals of white light appeared in the council room. Out of these spatial portals stepped a quartet of large trolls dressed in shiny, steel plate and chain mail armor. They carried long, reflective shields at their backs and broadswords sheathed at their waists. Two of the seraph trolls were female and two were male.
A red-haired troll woman bowed and introduced herself.
“I am Listhew, at your service.”
Next a brown-haired seraph addressed Restadicus.
“Call me Glasslook.”
She shook the wizard’s hand in greeting.
“My name is Heartsing,” said a blond troll.
A swarthy, black-haired troll said, “I am Smithforge. We are glad to be here. Hydro informed us that a breach has been reopened in a neighboring Plane to the Plane of Chaos. I was present at the fabrication of the original seal that prevented Thoth from invading the Higher Realms. I’m sure that once our resources have been adequately accounted for we will succeed in returning a permanent seal to its rightful location.”
“Very well,” said Restadicus. “It heartens us all to be reassured of the existence of Balancing Entities at opposite ends of the Planar Mandala. We welcome you to join with us in an endeavor to establish a redoubt at the edge of the Plane of Chaos. It will take time to forge a new Gong Seal even with the fortitude-laden assistance of you seraphs. Join with us as the Lore Masters generate a new portal to the onetime Throne Room of the Daemon Lord. We will align our wizardries in a tiered line around the temporary plug in order to give Smithforge time to mold a new gong.”
“That is wise advice,” replied Lord Taliesin. “We have long awaited the moment of returned security for our regions. Generate the breach for us, Mages of Coermantyr, and we will sally forth into the Gorgon Plane.”
The two-dozen troll mages did not hesitate in their planned course of action and combined their caches of arcane energy to open a planar rift.
“Spiros!” they cried collectively.
A crimson gateway appeared in the center of Sharon’s Council Chamber. The steel-gilt seraphim led the charge into the world of the Arachnoids. Lord Taliesin and his mercenaries were quick to follow.
Hydro’s seraphs, hearkening from the Plane of Order, and Lord Taliesin’s acquaintances emerged through the spatial portal into the Throne Room of Guardon’s Spires. Thoth’s winged Hordes of Chaos and his Drystyx Monks had already rallied at the underside of the clay plug where the Gong Seal had been. The temporary, black barrier shuddered from the booms of the hammering assaults from the legions of gargoyles, firbolgs and Wizards of Chaos.
“Quickly, Gaeans, we must prepare a redoubt to turn these malevolent marauders,” said Listhew.
The red-haired Troll Paladin drew her shimmering broadsword and wielded it aloft with her muscular arms.
The battalion of soldiers from the various regions strode back from the resonating seal, forming a ring on the raised, obsidian proscenium of the Throne Room. The brightly armored seraphim held their ground, close to the edge of the burnished clay. They awaited the invasion of the Drystyx Monks and their Dragon Leader.
“This clay was shoddily hewn at best,” Smithforge observed. “I’m surprised that it resisted the forces of the desperate legions for this long. If we succeed in turning these invaders I will set myself to the task of forging a proper seal in this breach. The observations of Restadicus in Coermantyr Castle were accurate. The neighboring Realms, which occasionally orbit this one, possess resilience against the insertion of alien portals such as that which stands before us today.”
“Alas, tragic this moment is,” moaned The Watcher.
The nervous halfling clutched his face in his white-haired hands.
“The history of Guardon’s spawning and the schemes of his Demigod father long have I studied. Of the ruthlessness of the Drystyx Monks and the legions they command the collected tomes in the library below us tell. The separate energies of the neighboring planes they crave in their endless pursuit of power and influence. To think I falter what tasteless conjuring they conducted over the eons, instilling this insatiable thirst in them.”
An eerie ray of bright, green light pierced the blackened plug, creating a smoldering mark on the ceiling. A final series of blows struck the temporary barrier that Guardon created in the desperate attempt to thwart his father’s intentions. The clay shattered entirely and fell downward into the Plane of Chaos.
Thoth’s red, scaled head screeched upward through the large, disk-shaped opening in the floor of the Throne Room. He placed his massive, clawed arms on the edges of the gate and pulled his entire, sulphuric body inside. The dragon spread his wings, the tips of which reached out the windows of the Throne Room.
“Halt, Thoth,” yelled Heartsing. “You know as well as we that Hydro and the other great Entities of the Plane of Order do not tolerate hostile invasions between the Layers of the Mandala. Turn back now or face the full force of our wrath.”
“I refuse,” bellowed the dragon. “The energies of these Realms are ripe for the taking. It is folly of your Leaders that they do no attempt to reap the benefits of their magical resources while they can. Now I claim this Plane and those above it for the purposes of my legions. We have need for the power that resides here and will not be turned as before.”
Zolgnath and his fellow Drystyx Monks emerged through the spatial breach along with a number of screeching gargoyles, similar in form to Guardon. They attacked the seraphim immediately with their fangs and claws. The armored Knights of the Plane of Order deflected the assaults with their mirror-like shields and parried with their swords. A handful of the invaders were lanced by the mystic blades and howled from the painful inflictions.
The Drystyx Monks focused their attention on generating a noxious wave of poison gas.
“Smoldent!” they cried.
The black-cloaked sorcerers gestured with their hands as a dark cloud spilled through the air toward the Gaeans.
Gilead, Leif and Alex were prepared for such an attack and uttered a warding spell.
“Aeros!”
A potent gust of wind rushed through Guardon’s tower, dissipating the dangerous-looking cloud. A gathering of red firbolgs responded to the failed attempt of their wizards and rushed across the proscenium. The seraphs flailed at the diabolical creatures with their blades but succeeded in winging only a few of them. The rest of the monsters rushed past the four Paladins and engaged the Gaean mercenaries in hand-to-hand combat.
The Maegar Dwarves were the first to intercept the invaders. Oxholm and Drumtone yelled war cries as they swung their heavy battleaxes. The Weapons Masters deep in the mines of Mount Crow forged their blades. They struck the firbolgs hard with scythe-like motions, maiming a number of their hostile adversaries.
A swarm of bronze and green gargoyles joined the firbolgs in the fray. They met with Gnoll and the wood trolls, along with the Baroness and the Knights of Coermantyr. The daemons attacked the mercenaries with strong blows as Guardon did. Each of the fighters was accustomed to this method of attack and rolled free of the swooping claws.
The Knights of Mystic Down, Nighthawk and his goblins and the Dagonites came to the aid of their friends and assaulted the firbolgs and gargoyles with their various arms. The Minions of Chaos were smitten severely by the prepared warriors of the redoubt. Many gargoyles succumbed to their wounds and fell lifeless to the obsidian cobbles. The group of firbolgs screamed in frustration while a number of their more aggressive kindred fell victim to the keen swordsmanship of Sharon and Taliesin. Bors, Rodnik and Fangoz rendered additional berserker attacks, convincing the sharp-toothed firbolgs that their intentions to defend their Realm were serious.
Thoth sensed that things were not going as he’d planned. He drew in a deep breath to release a shower of caustic flame when Gearzon, Bjorn and The Watcher interrupted him. They pelted the dragon’s snout with a volley of stones flung smartly from their slings. The strong dragon wrested his body away from the slashing seraphs. He drove his shoulders through two stone columns bordering one of the windows. The cinderblock supports buckled against the massive pressure and the Demigod flew free of the confining fortress.
Dweeble Dworx and his Arachnoid relatives looked up from their post at the base of Guardon’s Spires. They communicated with mindsong among themselves as the dragon circled the mountainous Spires and spewed green flame.
Starfling and Flamering flew after Thoth but were no match for the adult dragon’s wingspan. The thick-scaled creature ignored the stinging fireballs of the wyverns and headed past the habitat of the Hive Builders into the red horizon. Vexed, the young dragons returned to help Jalhi and her anthromorph rangers.
The tigresses were absorbed in a vicious fight with the Drystyx Monks and their soldiers. The voices of additional creatures within the Plane of Chaos echoed upward through the spatial rift. Thorgrym came to the aid of the rangers using an ebony, studded mace. Sigrid entered the melee as she incanted a martial sorcery.
“Skuldoz!”
The lich-troll’s forearms and quarterstaff were covered in azure energy. The arcane spell enhanced the offensive impact of her flurried attack as she battered Zolgnath. The firbolg was taken by surprise by the Sentinel’s adept use of her weapon. He gasped in shock and covered his face in his robed arms.
“Retreat, My Legions!” yelled the Leader of the Drystyx Monks. “This harassment is intolerable. Thoth has claimed this Plane and scans it now for sources of energy. We will return and aid him with additional fervor.”
The firbolgs and gargoyles that still stood leapt with the black-cloaked wizards through the open gate. They spiraled downward to hold council in their tower.
“You have fought well, Mercenaries,” Glasslook said. “It is enough that Thoth was unable to bring his forces into this Plane at the time of his entrance. He will fly now, for some time. Let us make room for Smithforge so that he may begin the arduous task of smelting the ore necessary to hone a permanent seal here.”
The fighters moved away from the edge of the rift where they gazed at the retreating legions. The obsidian floor of Guardon’s onetime Throne Room was strewn with dead and dying firbolgs and gargoyles.
“Anemone, come here,” said Alex. “Bors is injured.”
“It’s just a scratch, really,” declared the hefty Burgomeister. “I will cook many meals for Lord Taliesin and you warriors after this campaign.”
The merwoman gazed at the Innkeeper’s ample midriff. He had been cut a series of wounds by a daemon. The female Captain laid her webbed hands over the injury.
“I will tap the energy of the ocean. It may help close your injuries.”
Anemone’s fingertips flared with aquamarine light. The bleeding from Bors’ cuts stopped. The Dagonite bound the Innkeeper’s torso with burlap.
Bors placed his hand on the amphibious Captain’s shoulder and rose to his feet.
“You have my thanks, Anemone. My legs are shaky but I can stand. I’ll have to stick to the perimeter if the Drystyx Monks return shortly.”
“Watcher, I understand that you have extensive familiarity with the corridors of this stronghold,” said Smithforge. “Will you lead me to a place where the earth is raw and unpaved? I must mine ore that bears iron and nickel for smelting.”
“To the depths of the Gorgon Plane lead you I will,” answered the ancient halfling. “Learned much have I over the decades of my imprisonment. Wise it will be to take an armed escort. We know not what hostile creatures yet prowl the lower caverns.”
“That is good advice, Halfling Historian,” offered Lord Taliesin. “I will accompany you downward. Would you care to join us, Leif?”
“Yes,” the ghoul-troll replied. “Sigrid and I will accompany you on your mission. You other seraphs and Gaean mercenaries should remain here in case the Drystyx Monks or Thoth return sooner than expected.”
“We wish you luck,” said Glasslook. “Our hopes are with you. All of us await your speedy return.”
* * * * *
Taliesin, Smithforge, Sigrid and Leif followed the light of The Watcher’s torch through a series of unfamiliar passageways. The Gaeans heard rivulets of water flowing through the rocks.
“Vigilant the beholders are, and the Lykanthros, too. Waited in these crags for hours I would when the Denizens of the Daemon Lord patrolled the lower tunnels,” The Watcher explained.
The halfling’s eyes glanced from side to side with apprehension. His pale face was a mass of sunken wrinkles due to age and exposure to the elements.
The warriors reached the chamber of the Terranoids. Petra was in the midst of a conversation with another of her species when they turned to face the light of The Watcher’s torch.
“Greetings, Gaean Fighters. I was just telling my friend, Volcan, about the diminishing movement of the beholders. We both agree that Guardon’s power over them has decreased. I still have the Orb of Paryphax. Would you like me to return it now?”
“No, thank you, Earth Elemental,” answered Lord Taliesin. “We are here in search of earth loose enough to mine iron-laden ore. Do you know of such a place nearby?”
“I think so,” said Petra. “What do you suggest, Volcan?”
The male stone giant was mountainous. His boulder-like body sparkled with crystals and spots of metal. The Terranoid hummed with a bass voice as he thought about a suitable location.
“It has been a long time since I saw anyone from a Plane other than this. All of us detected the disturbance in the Dharmic Equilibrium when the Gong Seal above was ruptured. I take it your elaborately armored companion is a Paladin from the Plane of Order,” Volcan observed.
“Your assumption is correct, Volcan,” Smithforge responded. “I am a metal craftsman and am here to assist in the restoration of harmony within the Mandala of the Planes. Where do you suggest I dig for iron and nickel?”
“Continue along your present course,” said Petra’s companion. “The minerals you seek have collected from the perpetual water deposits among the stalagmites. We wish you the best of luck in your endeavor and will keep Skjold’s Orb safe until such time as it can be restored to its proper place in the tree stronghold of the wood trolls.”
“Our thanks you have,” said The Watcher. “Dangerous these times are for the folk of these Realms. If successful our campaign is, sure we’ll be to return the orb to Arborea.”
The fighters marched beyond the Terranoid Midden. The pillars of stone grew large from their foundations in the ceiling and floor. Smithforge paid close attention to the constitution of the earth.
“This place is sufficient for my needs,” observed the seraphim. “Leif and Sigrid, you can help me to rend the rocks with a telekinetic spell. I will form a crucible and smelt the steel within.”
The Sentinels did as Smithforge suggested and gestured at the ground before them as they uttered a spell.
“Levtos!”
Bulky chunks of earth, several yards across rose from the floor of the cavern. The expeditious Paladin focused his Ethereal Energy at the ore, spinning and heating it much like a potter. The seraph held his hands at the sides of the swirling, glowing mass, causing it to form a great crucible. He then employed the following shipments of mineral-bearing earth to fill the metallic container to the brim with molten material.
“This will take some time to burn away the lesser minerals and leave us with a steel and nickel mixture,” declared Smithforge.
The Gaeans made a small cook fire and ate a spartan meal as they waited for the Paladin to complete his task. At times he folded and hammered the glowing metal with a mallet he carried from his belt.
“At last, it is finished,” cried the seraphim.
He poured water from his canteen over the smelting container, releasing a large cloud of steam. Smithforge then gestured with his arms again, using his Ethereal Magic to raise aloft a circle of steel. It was twice as thick as the original placed in Guardon’s Throne Room.
The mercenaries returned through the network of passages under the guidance of The Watcher. The fighters in the daemon’s Throne Room repelled a handful of firbolgs intending to enter the gateway on Thoth’s behalf.
“The red dragon has not returned,” said Listhew.
The red-haired seraph gazed out the windows of the tower.
“Install the new Gong Seal, Smithforge, while we still hold this Plane with a semblance of kharmic solvency.”
“That is a good idea,” replied the swarthy Paladin.
As he gestured with his arms to guide the shiny, metal plate into position the Drystyx Monks returned in full force.
“We are ready for you this time, Ethereal Meddlers!” yelled Zolgnath.
A number of the largest monks flew into the chamber with the red-skinned wizard. The black-robed sorcerers were fanged ogres and minotaurs. They hefted massive maces made of banded stone and rusty iron. Glasslook and Heartsing rushed forward to intercept the charged Magicians of Chaos. Each of the four seraphim parried the hammering blows of their opponents’ weapons with their shields and broadswords.
The strength of the powerful ogres was too much for them and they were knocked aside before Smithforge could fuse his barrier in its rightful place.
Lord Taliesin and his fellow Gaeans gasped at the subjugation of their Ethereal Allies and ran to their aid. The number of Knights from Arborea, Coermantyr, Mystic Down and the Ghastly Fens swarmed the invading warriors. To their vexation a legion of Chaotic Creatures crowded upward from the Plane below.
The Baroness yelled to her companions in the heat of battle.
“Retreat, My Friends. These foul beasts will prove the death of us if we hold here. Let us fall back while we still can and meet again with the spider creatures at the base of this stronghold. They will keep us informed of the red dragon’s return. All is not lost if we conserve our energy.”
The garrisons from the various regions of Gaea followed the order of the Baroness and moved away from the ogre wizards. The fighters marched side-by-side through the doorway of the Throne Room and sprinted down the subsequent tunnels.
Gilead heard guttural bellows of victory echoing from above as they retreated to the front courtyard of Guardon’s Spires. Dweeble Dworx and his Arachnoid kindred waited patiently among the volcanic rocks outside the ruby-eyed statues.
“Bjorn Roundtree, a red dragon has flown from the top of the fortress. My companions were concerned for the wellbeing of you and your two-legged friends when we saw the heat of his caustic fire. Are any of you injured?”
“Only one of us, and not severely,” answered the halfling. “We were forced to retreat despite the assistance of these Paladins from the Plane of Order. The Drystyx Monks and their aggressive legions were determined to establish an encampment in this Plane despite the redoubt we prepared. I suggest that you consult with your fellow Hive Builders and warn them that a war has begun between the Planes. They are sure to be confronted by the ogres and minotaurs in a matter of hours. You may be forced to build a new Hive a greater distance from this menacing fortress.”
“That is wise advice,” Dweeble hummed. “In past ages our ancestors left word that they faced troublesome Entities such as the ones you speak of today. I will lead my brethren to our Hive and hold council there with the elders who live at the heart of our labyrinth.”
“Very well, My Eight-legged Friend,” said Bjorn. “We will pass through a spatial portal of our own for now. Be assured that we will meet again with strengthened forces after consulting with Restadicus and Wotan.”
The Arachnoids bowed in farewell and skittered over the red hills to their Hive. Bjorn addressed his taller acquaintances.
“The Hive Builders are strong and resourceful. I expect they’ll last a goodly time despite the harassment of the Legions of Chaos. Gilead and Leif, Join with Alex and Reoren to generate a planar gate. We will only suffer unnecessary military casualties if we remain here.”
“This is the truth,” answered the Key Mage of Coermantyr.
The other wizards focused their arcane energy on a single location as they brought forth a planar rift.
“Spiros!”
A crimson sphere expanded into a doorway and the mass of Gaean mercenaries marched through it. They found themselves on the mossy hills of the Burial Ruins at the Crossroads of the Ghastly Fens.
The warriors did not pause to eat and marched at a fast pace across the marshy fields to the edge of the Forest of Coermantyr. By nightfall the pinnacles of Sharon’s Castle were within sight. A number of villagers and Knights of Coermantyr helped to guide oxen and sheep to the roadside. The residents of the region were aware of the urgency of the situation and did their best to hurry their champions along the way.
Restadicus and Wotan awaited the fighters in the central hall of the stronghold.
“Please, Warriors,” said the Leader of the Lore Masters. “Inform us as to the events that have recently occurred.”
“We were unable to turn Thoth and the Drystyx Monks from the breach,” Listhew declared. “Smithforge succeeded in creating a new Gong Seal but was thwarted from putting it in place by the ambitious Denizens of Chaos.”
“Restadicus, we have a Planar War on our hands,” said Glasslook. “You and the other Lore Masters must travel with us to the breach in the Gorgon Plane. If we do not get the new Gong Seal in place we will be forced to consult again with Hydro and possibly the neighboring planes. The red dragon flies now in the Realm of the Arachnoids and seeks passage into Gaea. It is only a matter of time before he succeeds.”
“Very well,” answered the magenta-cloaked sorcerer. “I regret that we have reached an impasse much like those listed in the ancient tomes. The mages of this Realm combined their resources with you seraphim before. It appears that this is our only option now, as well.”
The villagers of Coermantyr Castle brough fresh horses for the two-dozen wizards and the fighters of various races. They were laden with staples and water. The mercenaries set forth toward the Crossroads that same evening with torches ablaze.
Lord Taliesin and his allies reached the Burial Ruins of the Ghastly Fens under the light of the twin moons. One waxed and the other waned to a crescent.
The Gaeans tethered their steeds to clusters of cattails nearby. The male and female wizards of Coermantyr Castle grouped themselves in a circle within the standing pillars of the aging ruins.
Restadicus and Wotan generated a large spatial portal with hands extended outward.
“Spiros!”
A crimson sphere expanded into a broad gateway. The fighters and sorcerers marched through it and found themselves at the base of Guardon’s Spires.
“Ah!” cried Bjorn. “Dweeble and the other Hive Builders are nowhere to be seen. They have ventured onward prudently. It is not wise to remain near these marauding monks and daemons, let alone Thoth.”
“Very well, Halfling,” said Lord Taliesin. “Your strange acquaintances have demonstrated their willingness to assist us when possible. We wish them the best in this dire situation. Let us travel into Guardon’s stronghold. I’m sure we’ll encounter many creatures who claim it for their own.”
The Gaeans followed the advice of their Leader and entered the central courtyard of the Spires. The two, tall griffon statues yet glared down at the visitors with their eerie, ruby eyes.
“No matter how many times I see those creatures they give me the creeps,” Anemone confessed. “Whoever built them certainly didn’t mean to provide us with a warm welcome.”
The fighters entered the main reception chamber and were surprised to find it redecorated. The tapestries that bore the likenesses of Lykanthros and gorgons now included images of firbolgs, gargoyles and minotaurs with Thoth at their head.
“Magic works fast in these parts, it seems,” observed Wotan.
The blond wizard scratched his beard in contemplation.
“If there is time later it may be wise to consult with Siegemunde and gain his input on the recent events. He has dabbled in more experimental sorceries at his Martial Academy than we in Coermantyr.”
The mercenaries began their ascent of the curving steps to the upper chambers when gorgons and minotaurs accosted them. The spherical, single-eyed creatures descended from their stairless tunnels in the ceiling and walls. The bull-headed anthromorphs stomped forward from the top of the stairway. Each of the large, cloven-hoofed barbarians wielded a formidable war hammer.
Restadicus and the Lore Masters contended with the levitating beholders.
“Stasis!” they yelled.
The spherical beasts were incapsulated in silver nets of light. The beholders were completely immobilized as they fell victim to the bolts of the Dagonites’ crossbows, the slings of the halflings and the arrows of Sigrid and Sharon. The gorgons dripped green blood from their injuries and collapsed into mounds of pulsating, gray jelly.
Zolgnath’s minotaurs were not as susceptible to the inhibiting magic of the Lore Masters. They shirked the restraining nets with ease and engaged the fighters in a fierce melee.
Fangoz stood eye-to-eye with the tallest and exchanged blows with the snorting, horned bull troll. The other fighters dodged the hammering attacks of the red-eyed anthromorphs by rolling on the ground. Jalhi and her amazon rangers were much faster than the minotaur and slashed at the backs of the creature’s legs with their curved blades. Gnoll and his wood trolls parried the strikes of their attackers with their shields and counter-attacked with their broadswords. A number of the creatures were brought to their knees and vanquished by the Arboreans.
Starfling and Flamering spat fireballs at the bull trolls, blinding many of them. Reoren and the Knights of Coermantyr moved in with Lady Sharon at the lead. They lunged in at their opponents with their spears and swords. The anthromorphs from the Plane of Chaos were no match for the united barrage of the various races of Gaea. Many of them were defeated and those that lived fled rapidly up the stairway from which they emerged in search of supplemental forces.
“We have done well here,” said Rodnik. “Let us continue upward for the sake of all our regions.”
The burly Sergeant-at-Arms carried his hatchet with one hand and a burning torch with the other.
The Watcher led the Citizens of Coermantyr and the other warriors up the red-carpeted steps to the adjoining level of Guardon’s Spires. They stood before a hallway lit with torches burning brightly.
“Much wealth there lies within these neighboring rooms,” declared the grizened halfling. “Investigate within, if you so wish.”
“We can take a brief look at the goods along this path, Watcher,” offered Lord Taliesin. “Let us keep in mind the impending risk to our regions if we do not succeed. I miss the solitude of my Tower and the company of my troll villagers.”
The Soldiers of Mystic Down and Knights of Coermantyr opened the adjoining doors. Each of the locks was free. Nighthawk and the other goblins took a few moments to open a number of chests and boxes.
The defected Goblin Sergeant found a handsome dagger. Sharon’s Knights acquired a collection of chain mail gauntlets and tough, leather boots.
“Let’s move on,” said Restadicus. “We must do what we can to turn the Drystyx Monks and their legions.”
The mercenaries reached the end of the hall. They beheld the chamber with three portals passed earlier by the Gaeans.
“Traverse through the central door, we should,” declared The Watcher. “It will take us to the main stairway.”
The halfling gestured with his torch for the fighters to follow.
Reoren marveled at the lamps swaying in the mild breeze of the spacious, cylindrical chasm.
“This fortress intrigues me,” said the lich merchant. “It was constructed long ago and speaks of a lasting conflict between contending magics.”
The battalion of warriors traveled upward for a short while when their path was blocked by the shadowy vampire, Claude.
“Do not attack us again,” declared Jalhi Bengal. “You have been warned, Night Feeder.”
“Alas, I give my word that I shall not, Fierce Ranger. In the time that you soldiers were gone I fed on the rats and Lykanthros that meander throughout this stronghold. My hunger has been assuaged for a goodly time. The presence of you travelers of various alignments has piqued my curiosity. I have begun to wonder if I may yet return to the throne of my castle on Mount Crow.”
“That is a possibility, Ancient Vampire,” answered Wotan. “Your race brought a balance in the feud with the goblins and orcs long ago. During the past war with the stone trolls and servants of the Dire Queen your people were forced to escheat their rightful holdings. Now that the great swamp dwellers have returned to their own affairs we can assist you in returning to your lands in the Arkadian Mountain Range. I doubt that the stone trolls will again venture into the wooded regions.”
“That is true,” replied Fangoz. “My grandfather and his kin were bloodthirsty and ambitious. Since their single-minded sieges my race has adopted a contemplative lifestyle. Now that Ankharet has been destroyed the vampires may again partake of the trade routes in the highlands.”
“Very well, Mortals,” said Claude. “I will help you if I can. In turn I ask that you let me enter your magic gateway when the time is right.”
“We have a deal, Night-Feeder,” answered Jalhi. “I don’t trust you but will let you march among us if you behave yourself.”
The motley band of Gaeans continued onward. A consort of firbolgs and gargoyles again attacked them. The winged daemons forewent the stairs and glided downward in the dark shaft with outspread wings. Some of the green and bronze humanoids spat acrid balls of flame. The projectiles left trails of green and red fire between the iron chains.
Sigrid and Leif drew taught longbows and released a volley of arrows up at their attackers. Their shots were accurate. Several of the gargoyles plummeted from their positions with wings and bodies riddled with shafts.
The firbolgs rushed down the stairway. Their glowing, crimson bodies illuminated the central, stone column with an eerie hue. Claude was the first to enter the fray. He sunk his fangs into the closest creature. It howled and clawed at the cloaked vampire but could not break his grip.
Jalhi watched in awe as Claude’s eyes exuded fiery light from the luminescent blood of his prey. Lord Taliesin stepped to the night feeder’s side and dropped a hammering blow upon the nearest firbolg. Sharon and Fangoz were quick to follow and parried the slashing fangs of the Drystyx Legions. They circled like the anthromorph rangers, landing crushing blows to their adversaries’ legs and arms. Restadicus and the Lore Masters arrested many of the daemons with a holding spell.
“Stasis!” they cried.
The humanoids were encapsulated in nets of light. They struggled vehemently and several of them broke loose. Thorgrym, the Lich Town Guard, ran up the steps to meet the gargoyles. He held a short sword in one hand and a dirk in the other. The sturdy ghoul-troll unleashed a flurry of pivoting strikes to a green daemon, sending it to the void in a shower of blood.
Jalhi’s wyverns clung to her shoulder raiment and fired a series of missiles as she charged forward. The tiger women joined with the Dagonite Captains as they attacked the cluster of firbolgs. Marlin and Anemone fired their crossbows before drawing their curved blades.
Bjorn Roundtree and Gearzon flung sharpened stones from their slings at the farthest creatures. The glowing monsters held up their arms to protect themselves from the attack.
“Good going, Gnome Cousin,” said the halfling. “We may yet lead these fighters to victory.”
The four Paladins of Order strode up the stairs to the battle. They used their long arms to smite their enemies two rows deep.
Gilead, Sharon’s Key Mage, and Alex teamed up with Leif and Sigrid to incant a time warp spell.
“Chronos!”
An amber cloud emerged from the outstretched hands of the sorcerers. It was viscous and slowed the Drystyx Invaders as it landed on them from above.
The Lore Masters incanted a spell of their own.
“Frigidos!”
A huge beam of blue ice flew from the two-dozen wizards. They gestured with their hands, guiding it up the stairs in a sweeping motion. Three out of four firbolgs were frozen solid. Gnoll and his wood trolls marched into the fray, contending with the remaining firbolgs. As they struggled with the remaining creatures the icy beings were shattered into scattered shards.
Bors lingered at the rear, favoring his injured abdomen. The final pair of gargoyles descended in front of him. They swung at Bors with their claws but he sidestepped the assault in time. The rotund Burgomeister dispatched the humanoids with swift blows from his mace. The howling daemons fell into the darkness.
“Desperate, this fight has become,” declared The Watcher. “Careful we must remain lest our number is reduced. Awaiting our return the Drystyx Monks are. Press on we should.”
“That is wise advice, Old Halfling,” Restadicus replied.
The mercenaries continued their journey upward until they came upon the bridge leading to The Watcher’s library.
“Let us carry on with the path demarcated by The Watcher, My Friends,” said Taliesin. “We must attend to the breach to the Plane of Chaos while the opportunity remains.”
The warriors exited the chamber and followed the light of the aged halfling’s torch through the tunnels beyond.
Lord Taliesin noticed the bas-reliefs and facades carved into the stone and cinderblock walls had changed. They portrayed snorting minotaurs and steaming firbolgs. The renderings also depicted Thoth and his wizards in commanding positions over the Hordes of Chaos.
The fighters reached the topmost hall. A number of firbolgs and minotaurs sprinted from the opposite end. The Lore Masters were prepared and incanted a harnessing spell.
“Chronos!”
A baige cloud captured the hostile humanoids and anthromorphs. The united magic of the adept wizards was resilient. Their adversaries were unable to move despite their fierce intentions to attack the Gaeans.
“You visitors exhibit potent magic,” observed Driptwist. “It may yet occur that a separate peace is returned to our respective Realms.”
The Morphozoid eyed the encumbered minotaurs and firbolgs with apprehension.
The fighters and Council of Wizards reached the end of the carpeted hallway leading to Guardon’s escheated Throne Room. The red dragon had returned to his resting place between the broken pillars removed by his hasty exit. Zolgnath and his Drystyx Monks awaited the determined mercenaries with a sizable gathering of the Legions of Chaos regimented beside them.
“Gaeans, the final countdown has begun,” bellowed Thoth.
Noxious, acrid fumes wafted from his reptilian nostrils.
“The bargaining time is past, Thoth,” said Restadicus.
The magenta-cloaked wizard’s bushy eyebrows arched with ire.
“You know the history of the Dharmic Equilibrium as well as any of us. In past ages you and your monstrous kindred resisted the natural quality of the juxtaposition of kharmic energies. The residents of the various Realms and Planes united to oppose your intentions then and will do so again. Return to the Plane of Chaos from whence you were spawned or be obliterated by the full force of our wrath!”
“Never, Wizard. Now is the time of our victory for all battles thwarted!”
The red dragon’s ribcage expanded as he inhaled a great breath of air. Thoth opened his sharp-toothed maw and released a bolt of green flame. The Lore Masters were prepared for such a contingency and uttered a spell of shielding.
“Sentiex!” they cried.
A billowing, Ethereal Barrier covered the battalion of Gaean warriors. The acrid, green and yellow fire curved around the bubble, searing the obsidian and cinderblock surfaces of Guardon’s Throne Room with sizzling scorch marks. The red dragon howled at the mitigation of his attack. The great lizard’s crimson scales glistened in the light of The Watcher’s torch as he pumped his muscular wings to glide toward the Gaeans. Enraged, Thoth swung at the Paladins of Order with all four limbs as he hovered in the air of the Gorgon Plane.
Glasslook and Heartsing absorbed the brunt of the powerful strikes with their reflective shields. They parried the slashing claws and fangs of the dragon and countered with their broadswords. Simultaneous with the Chaotic Dragon’s assault the firbolgs and minotaurs rushed at the fighters.
Jalhi and the Bengal Clan met the legions with their curved daggers at the ready. The lumbering Denizens of Fire grabbed at the tiger-women awkwardly. The feline anthomorphs brought the heavy humanoids down with hooking kicks to their legs. The rangers finished them off with their razor sharp blades.
The minotaurs and Drystyx Monks were not as susceptible to the spry swamp dwellers. They sidestepped the whirling attack pattern of the anthromorph rangers and engaged Reoren, the merchant lich-troll, and the Knights of Coermantyr and Mystic Down. The strong bull-trolls and women wielded war hammers and axes in circular blows. A number of the troll soldiers were smitten by the swooping barrages of the horn-headed anthromorphs. Their chain and plate mail armor was finely crafted but became dented from the great weapons. A handful of Lord Taliesin’s Soldiers and Baroness Sharon’s Knights fell to their knees, gasping for breath.
Reoren parried the flurry of strikes from the minotaurs and counter-attacked with a studded mace, similar to the one Bors used. The cunning ghoul-troll used both ends of his mace to jab and bludgeon the taller invaders. He succeeded in vanquishing five of the Warriors of Chaos.
Driptwist employed its amorphous nature to trip several of the scrambling firbolgs with outstretched tentacles extended from its stumpy arms and legs. The merfolk Captains, Anemone and Marlin, skewered a pair of the minotaurs with high velocity bolts fired from their respective crossbows. Sigrid and Leif employed a frost spell of their own device that they directed at Zolgnath and the Drystyx Monks.
“Frigidos!”
Three of the cowled monks were taken off guard and were frozen entirely by the ray of ice unleashed by the adept Sentinels. The halflings were quick to monopolize on the vulnerability of their adversaries and fired a barrage of stones at the crystallized sorcerers, causing them to detonate in a shower of pulpy shards.
Livid from the deaths of their kindred, the Drystyx Monks incanted an arcane sorcery.
“Tauros!”
The minotaurs flared with coverings of green magic. The black-cloaked mages directed the raging anthromorphs toward Gearzon and Bjorn. Listhew and Smithforge stepped in their path and contended with the surging bull-trolls with their broadswords. The gnome and halfling flung sharpened stones from their slings at the minotaurs, striking several of them between the eyes. The invaders in question fell to the cobbled floor, unconscious from the impact of the whirling missiles.
Reoren and Bors attempted to intercept the attackers again with their blunt force weapons. The green magic surrounding them rendered the anthromorphs impervious to the attack.
Alex interceded on the behalf of the dejected fighters. He incanted a sorcery of binding.
“Captros!”
An orange cloud emanating from the young wizard’s outstretched hands hindered the charging male and female minotaurs. Their green armor remained and they were unaffected by the blows of the lich merchant and the Innkeeper.
Glasslook and Heartsing turned their attention to the efforts of the fighters at their flank. They utilized their resilient, sharpened swords to breach the arcane shields of the minotaurs. A handful of the firbolgs and Drystyx Monks contended with Starfling and Flamering. The fearless wyverns assailed the Denizens of Chaos with a volley of fireballs.
Despite the adamant intentions of the young dragons the Chaotic Wizards and their cohorts were unaffected. Zolgnath beckoned to the portal in the floor of the Throne Room. The legions of firbolgs and minotaurs levitating below surged upward. Thoth screeched with frustration at the resistance to his comeuppance. The immense, red dragon again released a spray of intense fire upon the Gaean mercenaries.
“Ah! We must harness the Demigod while the opportunity remains, My Brethren,” said Restadicus.
The aged, adept wizard addressed the Council of Lore Masters as their shield blocked the acid flame.
“Wotan and the rest of you, help me to contain this Demigod. The kharmic balance must be restored to the Dharmic Equilibrium as it is meant to be.”
“I am ready, Restadicus,” answered the subordinate Wizard of Coermantyr.
The entirety of the Gaean magic users, including the Sentinels, supported the supreme effort of their teacher to control the renegade lizard.
“Baniscent!” they incanted.
The protective barrier around the mercenaries expanded outward toward the Legions of Chaos, then contracted upon Thoth and the Drystyx Monks. Claude rushed forward at a blinding pace, draining the life juices of a variety of the invaders before they knew what struck them. Fangoz, Rodnik, Nighthawk and the Maegar Dwarves pummeled the usurpers that broke loose of their arcane snare, rendering them lifeless.
The floor of the Throne Room in Guardon’s Spires was covered with dead and dying firbolgs and minotaurs, strewn among the lingering remains of the earlier waves of gorgons and Lykanthros.
The energy field of the Gaeans thickened and condensed. It folded Thoth’s flexing wings to his glistening torso and rear. Zolgnath and his fellow monks gasped in dismay as the spell binding them became plastic and viscous. They wrestled with it to no avail as the Paladins of Order helped Restadicus to mold the jelly into a rotating funnel. The energy field emitted a golden light as it spiraled downward through the planar breach, taking the Demigod and his intrusive legions in a single package.
Smithforge acted quickly to bring his freshly hewn Gong from the hall outside. He gestured with his muscular arms to hurl the seal in place. The tall troll’s eyes flared with crimson radiance as he drew a huge coil of solder from his travel pack. With his left hand he tossed the binding metal into the air where it hovered under magical influence. With his right hand he guided steaming beams of red light from his eyes to the locus where his coil unraveled onto the edge of the nickel and steel piece. The Legions of Chaos already pounded on the fresh seal from below. Their efforts to return to the Gorgon Plane were in vain. The firbolgs’ blows only caused a series of reverberating crashes to rise from the Gong.
The adept engineer completed his soldering task and addressed his allies who still gasped from the exertion of the battle.
“This Seal will hold, My Friends. Always maintain your research of the magical schools for even Hydro and his kin have no idea when renegade Summoners may try again to contact the malevolent Entities below.”
“That is wise advice,” said Wotan. “The Watcher has collected a goodly store of information during his emprisonment here. We will spend many months reviewing the histories and techniques he observed from the nooks and crannies of this mountain stronghold.”
Anemone spoke to the group of mercenaries.
“My Friends, I think it wise to revisit the stone giants in the bowels of this stronghold. Now that the spatial breach is reasonably secured it will be just as well to retrieve the Orb of Paryphax from Petra’s Midden. We were all saddened to learn of Skjold’s untimely assassination by Themistokles. The Wood Mage of Arborea corresponded with Lord Dagon in our ocean region on many occasions.”
“That is prudent, Dagonite Captain,” Gnoll said. “Let us travel into the lower levels of The Spires while our strength remains.”
The expression of optimism in the faces of the wood trolls revealed their hope for a better future for Arborea and the neighboring regions.
The Watcher lumbered energetically from the Throne Room and led the sizable battalion of warriors down the central, cylindrical stairway to the network of caverns below. They soon reached the place where the stalagmites and stalactites grew strangely large. Petra and Volcan detected the approach of the various races via the vibrations of their myriad footfalls. The immense stone giants shirked a layer of shale and rubble from their shoulders as they rose from their slumber in the hollowed Midden under the floor of the sparkling cavern. Petra yawned a musical tone that caused pebbles to fall from the ceiling.
“Well, it’s good to see all of you brave fighters together in functioning health. We were concerned for your welfare during the struggle above. Volcan was just commenting that he hadn’t heard such a cacophony shake through the mountain in eons. The activities of the beholders and Lykanthros along with the marauding firbolgs, daemons and gargoyles were silenced in the last hour. The presence of your Paladin acquaintances must have something to do with this, I’m sure.”
Petra and Volcan smiled.
“You speak the truth, Stone Lady,” replied Restadicus. “My fellow wizards and I succeeded in contacting the Plane of Order in our time of need. One of the larger Entities therein, answering to the name of Hydro, sent these four, unique troll soldiers to assist us. They proved quite resourceful. We return to you now to ask for the Orb of Paryphax once more. A strengthened Gong Seal has been placed in the breach opened by the Ephemeral Specters, Flotsam and Jetsam. There is time to restore the powerful talisman to the Tower of the Wood Trolls in Arborea. They will employ it to revive and replenish the natural cycles of growth emanating from the deep forest.”
“Very well, White-bearded Mage,” declared Volcan. “Your proposition is reasonable. Take the orb from Petra. Like the rest of you we hope for a return of balance to the flaring Dharmic Equilibrium.”
Petra once again lowered her massive hand to the floor of the spacious cavern. She opened her fist, revealing the glinting orb at the center of her palm. Anemone quickly strode to the stone giant and donned the glass ball and its chain necklace.
“Our work here is done, Restadicus,” stated Glasslook. “We long for the open spaces and colonnades of our Plane. The Lore Masters have the knowledge to contact us if the need should arise.”
“Very well, Seraphim,” answered the Leader of the Wizards. “May you find good fortune and the peace we all seek.”
The four Knights of Order generated a spatial rift and strode through it. The gateway closed, leaving the Gaeans and their acquaintances in the Gorgon Plane.
“The beholders and wolf-beasts are bound to emerge from their hiding places now that the Denizens of Chaos have absconded their holding here,” Driptwist said. “The Principle Amoebids are familiar with the lurking tendencies of the predatorial creatures and will act to keep the lower caverns safe from their hunting patterns.”
“We Terranoids will also remain on the lookout, Shapeshifter,” Petra opined. “Things are bound to get wily for a time as the old balance returns between the residents within and without The Spires.”
“So be it,” said Restadicus. “Wotan, help me to establish a spatial portal to the Crossroads in the Ghastly Fens. From there, each of our brave warriors will be able to return to their families and friends.”
The magenta-cloaked wizard addressed the gathering of mercenaries from throughout the regions.
“All of you have our thanks. None of the battles won today would have been possible without your intrepid vigilance and cunning. You are welcome in the chambers of Coermantyr Castle anytime.”
The warriors cheered their approval as Wotan and Restadicus opened a portal to the Burial Ruins in the Ghastly Fens. All of them were glad to return to Gaea and marched through the red-limned gate expeditiously.

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