Saturday, November 27, 2010

ORDER & CHAOS - 108,000 words - Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Lykanthros Invasion

The welcoming lights of Bard’s Inn brought visitors from throughout the region of Mystic Down. Bjorn Roundtree enjoyed relaxing in a quiet corner of the bustling tavern. Short in stature, the enterprising halfling waited for the jovial travelers and wayward villagers to become immersed and distracted in mirthful conversation and tankards of ale. It was at times like these that potentially valuable items found themselves in Bjorn’s travel pack.
When Bors, the Proprietor, closed up for the night, Bjorn slipped out the front door and prepared to retire for the evening. As he walked below the side window he was startled by a commotion at the hitching post of the inn. A tall, gaunt lich-troll, dressed in fine attire was berating Bors about something.
“There’s no way I could’ve misplaced it. I’m a new visitor here and pay for all my supplies with honest coins. One of you townsfolk has purloined my orb!”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I have no idea of what you speak. This is an honest establishment and my reputation reaches far in this territory. If you have truly lost this item I cannot guess as to it’s whereabouts.”
“I am very put out. Inform your patrons that I shall return and expect information regarding my missing property.”
The mysterious lich-troll glowered at the barkeep with an intimidating visage.
Bjorn was intrigued. He had not expected anything interesting to happen after the inn closed for the night. Although planning to retire for the evening, he was curious about this strange visitor to Wood’s End and decided to follow him undetected. Bjorn paused to ensure that the contents of his travel pack were in order. He had only a few baubles that had been discarded throughout the village that day.
Among the wood and pewter figurines, whittling tools and spectacles he noticed a dark, glass ball. It was cool to the touch and small enough to fit easily into his pudgy hand. Bjorn had noticed it lain among some ale mugs and empty plates on a table under which he’d been resting. The tall stranger had been sitting there. He’d seemed lost in thought, contemplating his mug of ale. The enterprising halfling thought it unnecessary to disturb the ghoul-troll.
Bjorn followed the lich-troll beyond the outskirts of Wood’s End.
That’s unusual, he thought. If travelers don’t stay in rooms at Bard’s Inn they normally find lodging in one of the many livery stables around town.
The gaunt fellow walked another mile into the woods before arriving at a clearing in the trees. A fire ring was prepared and a black, Arkadian Stallion fed on mashed oats while tethered nearby. The enigmatic traveler rummaged through the pockets of his lavish cloak and struck flint with steel to start a crackling fire. As the flames rose he tossed in a handful of glittering powder that he drew from a pouch fastened to his belt.
Bjorn watched in awe as a preternatural, blue mist gathered over the flames.
“Your servant awaits your counsel, My Queen.”
The tall troll genuflected before the spiraling flames as the heated mist condensed into the likeness of the Dire Queen, Ankharet. Her hair had turned white prematurely from the strain of her magical experiments.
“Well done, Themistokles. Your reward awaits your return to the Abyssal Cairn. I have maintained correspondence with Guardon, the Gorgon King through my scrying glass. He will continue to send his Lykanthros through the planar gateway but demands the Orb of Paryphax. He must unlock it’s energy in the Gorgon Plane in order to appease the ever-hungry Spirits of Chaos. Where is the orb, Themistokles?”
“I regret to inform you that it has become misplaced, My Queen. I took it from the decrepit Wood Mage with little resistance. His sorcery has faded and I liquidated him with minimal difficulty. Unfortunately, somewhere along my journey here the orb simply disappeared. I have no idea how or when. There must be some impeding enchantment afoot. If this is the case it is a magic I have not yet encountered. These accursed woods are a menace.”
“There is little time for such inconveniences! You must find the Orb of Paryphax without hesitation if you wish to extricate yourself from my displeasure.”
Ankharet was furious and let her rage be known to her sometime liaison.
“Do not fail in your task, Themistokles, or you shall not only reckon with me, but with Guardon, as well.”
“I understand, My Dire Queen. I will find your orb and deliver it to you with the utmost haste.”
The wavering representation of Ankharet dissolved.
Rather than go to sleep for the night, the Dire Queen’s Vizier focused on the task of preparing an arcane summoning.
“Alas, I have not the time to hire bumbling stone trolls or impoverished orcs,” the thin lich-troll declared aloud.
As Bjorn watched from a cluster of dense underbrush, the Vizier once again tossed a handful of shimmering powder into his fire. This substance he drew from a different pouch from the first. As the flames swirled into a bright, crimson pyre, Themistokles uttered an incantation from a spell book.
“Flotsam, Jetsam, Mayhem come forth. I take upon myself the burden of your chaos. If your bonds are broken, I shall be banished to the Gorgon Plane in your place.”
Bjorn marveled as the crimson pyre condensed and intensified. Three Ephemeral Entities were pulled through the rift opened by the conniving Vizier’s magic. In the dark of the moonless night the trio of freshly-summoned creatures glowed with an arcane light.
“What is your bidding? We await your direction,” the largest specter, Flotsam hissed.
It had a rough, humanoid shape but was entirely translucent, as were the other two. They all levitated with impatient buoyancy.
“I seek an object of great value to me. I have already claimed it once this day and it carries my signature. You will perceive its proximity for it is a mark made of the same magic that binds you to this Realm. By no mistake of mine it has clearly been taken. I want you to find it and return it to me immediately,” the tall mage commanded.
“What shall we do with the current owners?” asked Mayhem, a smaller specter that bore an especially sinister expression.
“It is none of my concern. Deal with the pickpockets, as you will. Just make sure they never steal again,” Themistokles answered.
The scene in the forest fascinated Bjorn. He figured he would tell his uncle, Ben Frostberry, what he had seen and heard. The agile halfling was familiar with the woods of Mystic Down and knew of animal trails and dried riverbeds that escaped detection by large lich-trolls and orcs. He traversed narrow tunnels worn through the thick underbrush by badgers and foxes. Some distance behind him he heard whispering voices wafting among the treetops.
“I sense the orb. It is in this forest. Someone bears it away from our master.”
“Yes, it is true. We must pursue.”
Bjorn supposed the specters were talking about the glass ball he’d found in Bard’s Inn earlier that evening. It didn’t seem very special to him. He thought he might use it to augment a necklace or pendant.
“It sure will be good to see old Ben again. I wonder if he has any of his strawberry pie.”
To Bjorn Roundtree’s relief his longtime companion’s house was just as he remembered. Even more enticing was the aroma of freshly-baked strawberry pie that drifted from the kitchen window. The morning sun was dawning. Bjorn was amazed that he had traveled through the uncharted woods all night long.
“Hello, Ben! It’s me, your nephew, Bjorn!”
The outgoing halfling took it upon himself to open his uncle’s unlocked front door and step inside.
“What a pleasant surprise, Bjorn!”
The older halfling was lifting the last of his batch of pies from the hearth.
“I didn’t expect to see you here today. What brings you to this neck of the woods?” Ben Frostberry queried.
“It’s a good thing you should ask. I wish I could say it was your strawberry pie. Unfortunately I seem to be in a bit of a pickle. I picked up a few trinkets from here and there and happened upon this glass marble.”
Bjorn showed the object in question to his uncle.
“It seems there are a few specters that are determined to find it at any cost. I was thinking I might dispose of it by sticking it into a smidgen of your pie and leaving it for a badger.”
“Well, you come bearing unusual news, Nephew. I think I have a better solution to your dilemma.”
The gray-haired halfling rubbed his chin whiskers in contemplation.
“I happen to know of a stream nearby where I catch delicious salmon. The young fish swim down the current to the sea where they pursue their own romantic encounters. Let us make haste to my fishing spot, place your marble in a piece of my pie and feed it to the hearty fish.”
It took the fleet-footed halflings a few minutes to reach the bank of the stream. Bjorn followed his experienced uncle’s advice and placed the Orb of Paryphax into a narrow wedge of Ben’s strawberry pie. He tossed it into the water with a splash. Both humanoids were surprised at how quickly the fins of a strong, young salmon grazed the surface of the river as it gulped the tasty morsel. It was a large fish and would certainly venture downstream soon in search of a prospective mate.
The two halflings shook hands over their ingenious collaboration and walked home for a savory breakfast of their own.
* * * * *
Even before the advent of recorded history, Mystic Down was home to many species of creatures. Laden with magic and the etchings of ancient battles between Titans, whose names are long forgotten, the Down has become a crossroads of sorts. It is here that lich folk and stone trolls struggle for a viable existence with werebeasts and multitudes of entities.
As groups of species united in their perpetual, feudal conflicts, Liege Lords soon rose to lead and defend their clans. One such Liege is Lord Taliesin. He is a troll who bears the telltale markings of his race. His eyes are a dark hazel. They reflect the color of the trees of the wold that grow perpetually and, some say, move on their own cognizance.
Taliesin is an ambitious troll, craving both power and recognition. He admires these characteristics in his relationships as well. Thus, the Liege Lord has experienced limited success with the fairer sex. Although Taliesin courted her for several months, Sharon ultimately shunned the Lord.
She opted for the placid countenance of her Key Mage, Gilead. She too is an independent-minded, willful warrior, not lacking in courage or craving for power. Although a Liege Lord’s noble bearing is cause for esteem and provides an opportunity for leadership, true notoriety for any Lord or Lady of Gaea is determined in the battlefield after arduous and dangerous campaigns.
Mystic Down is a chaotic and untamed region. Taliesin’s homeland is beset with ongoing invasions and terrors. Of late the Dire Queen, Ankharet, poses an intrusive threat. She has caused a palpable disturbance in the spatial continuity of the Down. Her evil, experimental sorceries have summoned creatures from Planes untapped for centuries.
The Dire Queen plans to crush the Denizens of Gaea and claim it as her own. This has never been done. She understands the magical gambit that must be played. The Spirits of Gaea are not easily swayed under any mortal’s influence.
If she is to be victorious Ankharet must either destroy Taliesin and his brother and sister Lieges or obtain their acquiescence, a feat that will not be done without bloodshed and travesty.
Lord Taliesin is aware of the spatial disturbance in his region. His dreams have been filled with the cries of the wild things deep in the uncharted woods. He is bonded to them in preternatural ways. The Down is in his blood. They are of the same magic.
The howling of the wolves in the kennels of Lord Taliesin’s Tower reflected his solemn melancholy. Ever since his rejection by Sharon he felt out of sorts. He prided himself on his abilities to persuade and cajole even the most impervious of visitors to his domain.
The Baroness of Coermantyr was an aggravating exception. She’d arrived in the Down the previous fortnight, seeking his counsel as Liege Lord of the trolls in his region. The conflict with the Summoners had become a serious problem in the Realm of Gaea.
“Taliesin, we must do something. Mystic Down is alight from this spatial imbalance. My wizards have reported Summoners and Illusionaries as far as Deep Tree. They have placed watching eyes on the borders and urge me that more of the Dire Queen’s strange creatures are migrating here. We must ally ourselves with the other Liege Lords and penetrate the picket line of Arkadia.”
The Baroness wore her usual colors of dark, silky blue and a shimmering cape lined with burgundy. Her bright, blue eyes glowered with an uncanny expression of determination and vehemence.
“I intend to assist you,” Taliesin said. “We must make an account of our resources. The Dire Queen has proven to be a formidable adversary. The spatial balance of the Down is indeed askew. I have had troublesome dreams of late. My minions are anxious and prowl this region with increased discontent. I would not like to initiate a direct conflict with the Dire Queen, Ankharet, but her recent activities demand further investigation. We should gather a party of travelers and infiltrate her borders without detection.”
Taliesin recalled the meeting well. He did not doubt it foreshadowed approaching tribulations. He had asked the Baroness to take his hand in the Rites of Matrimony but she had refused. The Troll Lord had thought it a suitable match. The Baroness was not a troll woman to be easily persuaded of influenced. She had a wily, independent mind and would not be willingly beholden to him.
“Sharon, if you will not have me, let us embark to the core of the woods. We must investigate the source of the turmoil that winds itself around the hearts of the creatures of the Down. Our lands must be restored to their harmonious state. I will not be remembered as the son who let his father’s land turn to magical disarray.”
The Liege of Mystic Down addressed the Baroness who stood before his gargoyle-etched dais. A hooded troll stood behind each of her shoulders, cloaked in the same, blue motif.
“If you insist, Taliesin, my trolls and I will join you on your quest. The beasts and villagers of Coermantyr are also ill at ease with this new disturbance. The trees have changed. When I look out the window of my stronghold, the wilderness is not what I knew. There is a foul blackness that permeates the land. I feel it in my bones.”
“I have been petitioned by the people to restore the sunlight,” the Baroness continued. “They are desperate for their crops to grow once again. My mages have seen strange creatures through their scrying glasses. They warn me that cattle and fish have disappeared where they once prospered. I will seal this alliance with you although I will not take your hand. You are a respectable Liege Lord and merit the responsibilities inherent to this undertaking.”
Taliesin and Sharon readied themselves for their journey. Their entourage included several packhorses, the Liege Lady’s Sergeant-at-Arms, Rodnik, and two mages of the Baroness’ Castle, Gilead and Alex. They departed over the Tower’s drawbridge the next morning, despite the chilling rain.
Magical phenomena soon became evident along the road that led toward the deep woods. Indications of banditry and foul play were abundant. Along the roadside, wagons lay ransacked and overturned. The traveling party found deceased horses and oxen that eerily had not putrefied. Drained of their fluids, the carcasses possessed large puncture wounds at arterial locations.
“Something awful has happened here,” remarked Alex. “There are ill spirits adrift.”
“I concur,” murmured Sharon. “I fear for the safety of the villagers in this region. Let us seek the counsel of the Burgomeister and take shelter for the night. I am loath to camp here. These woods are ominous.”
Lord Taliesin and his party reached the outskirts of the village of Wood’s End as dusk began to fall. The sporadic wails of rogue wolves echoed over the shanties and cleared land. Few trolls were visible and those that lingered outdoors hurried to bring their last loads of firewood into their homes. The windows were boarded and the doors of the shacks steadfastly barred. As the riders approached the town’s square, church bells rang out, announcing the impending nightfall.
Bard’s Inn was the town’s center. Through the ornate, close-framed windows the light of its glowing lamps and hearth fires created ghostly rays in the passing fog. The riders eagerly stationed their warhorses to the hitching post and proceeded inward.
About two-dozen trolls and troll women filled the tables of the main room of the inn. They ate simple meals of pot roast, carrots and potatoes. Several of the villagers quaffed mugs of ale freshly tapped from the inn’s rotund barrels. The din of their conversation was subdued. They did not appear to take much notice of the travelers’ fine clothing.
The troll woman was the first to wend her way through the tables to the counter. She caught the attention of the barkeep.
“I am Sharon Redthorne, Baroness of Coermantyr. I am looking for the Burgomeister of this village.”
“That’s me,” answered the barkeep.
He was a stout troll with a coarse, brown beard and oval face.
“My name is Bors. It’s a good thing you folks showed up. We were about to send a committee to Lord Taliesin’s Tower. Wood’s End has been under a curse for the last fortnight. Strange, feral creatures have felled many of our oxen and steeds. No doubt it is Ankharet’s doing. Since her minions built her cairn in the heart of the Arkadian Forest, evil beasts have roamed the land, killing at leisure. They are not spawned from this Plane. Alien magic constitutes them. We call them Lykanthros. They have no other name.”
“You seem to know quite a bit about them. Is there any chance you or these other trolls would consider joining us?” asked the Baroness.
“We certainly need the extra manpower. We can compensate you and your family.”
Sharon set a jingling pouch of coins upon the counter.
“Salutations, Lady Redthorne and Friends. I’ll join you on another quest,” bellowed a cowled lich-troll.
He pulled back his hood to display his familiar face.
“It is I, Leif.”
His skin was drawn deathly thin and his eyes were coal black pools which simply absorbed the light. He was a lich-troll, spawned from the union of troll and ghoul. His cloak was stitched with cryptic runes indicative of the class of mages known as the Sentinels.
“There’s no point in waiting here, for death to take us from behind, Comrades. As you are aware, I studied spellcraft and archery at the Martial Academy in the Ghastly Fens. In tough situations I can prove to be a helpful ally. We needn’t try tilling fields or raising beef with these nocturnal predators afoot.”
“Well said, Friend Leif. We will find you a suitable mount and armor. Your assistance is a blessing.”
Lord Taliesin grabbed the lich-troll’s shoulder and clutched his hand.
Bors distributed a free round of beverages for the patrons that remained.
“I have dreamt of this day for some weeks. My sons are grown and can manage the inn on my behalf. I will join your band. I can cook and handle myself in a fight.”
The sturdy barkeep ceremoniously loosened his apron and tossed it under the counter.
“Well, Sharon, it appears we have collected a substantial band to aid us on our mission,” Taliesin boasted.
“It won’t surprise me if we encounter additional, prospective allies as we traverse the woods. There are bound to be many residents of Mystic Down who are weary of the antagonism of the Lykanthros.”
The Lord, Lady and their motley band of mercenaries set out on the forest road at the dawn. As they moved into the dense overgrowth, the looming pines and oaks virtually whispered of unseen nemeses. From time to time the travelers saw broken branches and gashed bark. Sections of the earthen path were mottled with the tracks of multitudes of large, feral paws.
The warhorses were anxious and proceeded only with coaxing encouragement from their riders.
“I sense alien sorceries in effect,” Leif proclaimed. “The trees are out of sorts. A spatial rift has been intentionally hewn in the magical Plane of Mystic Down. The sinister intentions that possess the Dire Queen to delve into these Chaotic Forces will be her undoing. There are many Planes known to sorcerers for centuries. They have been left unexplored for good reason.”
“You speak the truth, Friend Sentinel,” Alex replied. “Some arcane magic is not malleable. Forces exist which do not lend themselves to molding or coercion by mortal desires. I fear what Ankharet has done and intends to bring about.”
Bors proved his value to the group once the travelers were back on the road. He was a constant source of entertainment, frequently breaking into song or limerick. He had a seemingly endless supply of ballads about unruly sailors and wayward adventurers. He sang as he rode a steady Clydesdale Mount.

“Marching o’er hill and dale, the Knight, Geoffrey, searched true.
His Lady waited valleys yon, whilst her champion the dragon slew.
Numbered many were his tasks, with ne’er a squire to aid him.
Peasants counted on Geoffrey’s valor, as did the loyal maiden.
But fortune is a fickle muse, eluded by victory he was.
For the Stone Lord Tariz felled many with a heart callus.
Spurned by his love the stone troll roamed, wreaking havoc on his minions.
Deaf ears he turned to peaceful truce and diplomat’s opinions.
Geoffrey vowed to fell Tariz, and bring harmony to his land.
But the stone troll’s sword was forged of steel made by a Titan’s hand.
The two trolls clashed in full combat, which rang out o’er the vale.
And both warriors perished from their wounds and thus shall end this tale.”

When the journeyers camped that evening they had forded the great river, Oakfast, and were stationed at the outer limits of the forest primeval.
Taliesin addressed the band as Alex and Gilead practiced their incantations by igniting a small cook-fire for Bors to prepare a modest stew.
“At last we are nearing Deep Tree,” proclaimed the determined Lord. “Our ancestors waged battles against preternatural foes betwixt the roots of that ancient oak. We are sure to be harangued by the Dire Queen’s foul offspring this night. I fear that the Lykanthros are sensitive to the moons’ light more than any other celestial bodies. They have surely claimed this region of the wold and prowl the forest with growing abandon under the light of the full moons.”
“Verily, Friend Taliesin,” the Baroness concurred. “The villagers have reported the greatest movement of the beasts when the moons shine brightest. Both of our lands remain at risk until we find a means with which we may dispose of the feral beings. I carry Xenon, my father’s sword. With this enchanted blade he shattered many stone trolls during his reign. It will serve me well and dispatch these alien Lykanthros swiftly if the occasion arises.”
Sharon was adamant. She clearly intended to offer no quarter.
“We should set a rotating watch to assure that we will not be taken by surprise should trouble draw near.”
Leif addressed his companions as he fingered through a pair of compact, leather-bound tomes.
“I shall prepare some sorceries of my own device should your martial tactics prove inadequate.”
“I will take the first shift,” Bors proclaimed.
The burly Burgomeister cheerfully ladled steaming servings of his stew into porridge bowls for his friends.
“I regret that my trusty mace has no name. Perhaps I shall call it Wolf’s Bane for I expect that it shall be the bane of many wolf beasts tonight.”
Strange things twisted and howled in the shadows of the moonlit forest as Bors kept watch. He was sure that he spotted the crimson light of malevolent eyes watching his flickering fire. He hastily added bundles of wood to the flames and roused his acquaintances.
“The night creatures are abounding, My Friends. Prepare yourselves!”
“Arcane magic envelopes us,” Leif cried.
Silver light misted and gathered over the fire, forming the likeness of Ankharet. Her blanched hair billowed in the gusts her spell casting created. The feral howls and moans intensified.
“I have watched you through my scrying glass, Liege Lords. Your intentions are clear. Your insignificant band will not hinder my access of the Gorgon Plane. My pets will eliminate you and shall soon infiltrate and usurp your petty fiefdoms.”
The ghostly, Ephemeral Image waned and faded to a diminishing cackle.
Lord Taliesin moved quickly to take several, flaming brands from the fire and toss them in a hasty perimeter. The warhorses shied and whinnied, pulling against their tethers as the crimson eyes scrambled closer to the camp.
Sharon drew her blade and called out, “Come, Foul Creatures. My blade thirsts to taste your blood from the Nether Realms.”
A wily beast leapt from the shadows, clearing the arching flames that rose from the heart of the fire. Before the Lykanthros was able to charge Bors, Leif uttered an incantation of his Sentinel Order.
Bright, electric bolts lit from the cowled mage’s outstretched hands, capturing the large, wolf-creature in mid-attack. It howled in pain. The stench of seared fur and sinew permeated the air as the beast crumbled in ashes.
Bors spotted another of the Lykanthros as it rushed in from the woods. The slavering beast let out a hideous snarl as it leapt for the troll’s throat. He swung his studded mace deftly, striking the predator squarely in the cranium. It fell to the earth, never to rise again.
Alex and the Key Mage worked as a team. The ruddy-faced Alex grimaced as he summoned a vibrant sphere of green flame. At the same moment, Gilead issued forth an arcing, prehensile electric bolt that clutched and guided the scorching, green sphere directly in the path of three of the attacking Lykanthros. The creatures were scalded badly and made a hasty retreat.
Lord Taliesin and Rodnik, the Sergeant-at-Arms, advanced in unison toward five of the snarling beasts. The wolf-creatures had already hesitated when seeing the magical disposal of their companions. The remaining Lykanthros gave a courageous rally and clawed viciously at the two trolls. Both of the trolls were heavily armored and used the close proximity of their adversaries to run the beasts through with their hardened, steel weapons.
Although the band of travelers heard at least a dozen different howls and grunts from the moonlit trees, the feral cries receded into the perimeter, giving the strong impression that they would not return that night.
“We are victorious!” Bors cried. “I felled one of the accursed beasts with my mace and gave a solid wallop to two or three more.”
“As did I, friend Bors,” answered Sharon. “We all deserve praise for our courage and discipline. Each of us is a valuable team member in our quest to gain knowledge about the Dire Queen’s doings. I salute you all.”
The Baroness gave a chivalric embrace to the members of the band.
Indeed the group did not experience any more encounters with the Lykanthros that night. The only peculiarity that they noted at the dawn was a missing bowl of stew that no one attested to having eaten.
Mystic Down is an untamed wilderness. Even in the light of summer chill winds blow through the trees and crisp rains fall.
As the group traversed the forest road Sharon drew her cloak about her.
“This is a stinging breeze. I hope our warhorses fare well.”
“Never to fear, My Lady,” replied Rodnik, “These steeds have born harsher climes than this.”
As they rode, Leif pulled close to Bors and whispered.
“Don’t look but I believe we’re being followed.”
“Aye, Friend Wizard, I’m sure someone or something is responsible for my missing stew. I wager we’ll meet our shy companion when the time is right,” the barkeep chuckled.
The following afternoon, Taliesin’s entourage camped in the open field around Deep Tree. The massive branches of the archaic oak reached above the canopy of the surrounding woods. Falcons and birds of prey circled among the branches. In high boughs the birds nested, safe from the reach of landfaring predators.
As the group settled down for a modest dinner, they were quickly roused by the sound of clattering pans and Bors arguing with a small, impish voice.
“I beg your pardon, Sir. I was hoping I’d borrow a crust of bread.”
The speaker was a halfling with a spry, inquisitive demeanor. His right arm was caught by the cook’s meaty fist.
“I have no food for conniving halflings or any other vagabonds that happen upon this camp, so be gone!”
“Leave him be, Bors. This halfling may provide useful reconnaissance,” Lord Taliesin said.
The ominous Paladin addressed the sprite-like fellow.
“Well met, My Friend, Bjorn Roundtree. It is good to see you again. We are on a mission to gain knowledge about the troublesome machinations of the Dire Queen, Ankharet. Would you care to join us on our quest? There is food to spare, of course.”
“Yes, My Lord. I am at your service. I have a sling and will do my best to help you on your mission.”
“Excellent, Bjorn. I am sure our friend, Bors, will gladly serve you some of his renowned stew.”
“As you wish, Lord Taliesin,” the Burgomeister grumbled.
The band of travelers retired for the evening and rested without harassment from the denizens of the untamed woods. When the dawn arrived the massive tree silhouetted the lingering moons.
“This tree has seen the passage of many ages,” Leif marveled. “If it could speak it would tell us of numerous engagements fought by our forefathers. I perceive magic that remains here. It lies in the earth of this clearing and among the roots of Deep Tree. There is an ongoing struggle among the arcane spirits of the wold. It has been manifested in different forms through time. I suspect that the Dire Queen, Ankharet, is but a contemporary representation of an ancient, coercive Entity whose identity yet lies beyond our ken.”
“This is true, Sentinel,” Gilead said. “Deep Tree marks the border between Mystic Down and Arkadia. It is here that specters and wild ghosts patrol the picket line which separates the uncharted woods from us.”
Sharon’s Key Mage scratched his brown beard in a contemplative manner. He addressed his friend.
“Tell me, Alex, why do you think the finest horses are taken from Arkadia yet it is also the source of some of the foulest sorcery?”
“Perhaps the same turbulent spirit founds them both. In my mind wild magic is neutral in disposition. It is mortal desire that harnesses it to good or ill.”
The younger, red-haired mage smiled.
The appearance of the Arkadian Woods confirmed the wild reputation of the region. There was no real road beyond the clearing of Deep Tree. Rodnik and Bors gained passage for the traveling party by using hatchets to break boughs and clinging brambles. Well-trained, the warhorses did not falter on the cumbersome trail. The wind whistled and moaned through the tops of the oak and spruce trees.
No one doubted that menacing and malicious Entities were adrift. Among the shadows and dark places within the forest wild ghosts moved quickly in querulous, circular motions before fading, only to reappear in another section of the Arkadian Forest. The specters were fearless. Six of them flew through the paths of the warhorses, spiraling around their armored legs and their riders.
“Gilead, is there something you can do about these ghosts? They are a nuisance to our mounts,” Sharon said.
“Yes, My Lady.”
The Key Mage uttered an incantation.
A glittering cloud of gold light surrounded the group. When the specters breached the cloud, ripples attracted tiny motes of light toward the point of intrusion. They surrounded the specters and drove them back into the dark woods.
* * * * *
The Dire Queen sat impatiently on her Throne. Within her Abyssal Cairn the goblins whined and scurried among the torches and mirrors that lined the colonnades of her Throne Room. The ceiling was vaulted a hundred yards above and reflected the torchlight that flickered from the passage of the nervous goblins. Themistokles strode to the glossy, obsidian base of his Queen’s Throne. There he knelt in humble servitude.
“I can tell from your expression of angst that you still do not possess the Orb of Paryphax. How does it continue to elude you, Themistokles? I have little patience for this and Guardon none at all.”
“I offer my apology, My Queen. Magic forces intercepted me on my journey here from the old Wood Mage’s hermitage. The orb has been cast into the sea. A fish carries it. You must consult with the Dagonites. They may yet retrieve it to us.”
“Very well, Themistokles,” Ankharet answered.
“I have another task for you. I have been monitoring the movements of Taliesin and his party. They intend to intrude upon this Cairn and harass me. I want you to lead a garrison of my elite goblins, the Harad Ghul. They have been trained in subterfuge. The Harad Ghul will prove helpful on your mission to eliminate the Liege Lord and his motley band. Rise, Themistokles, and meet your octet of assassins.”
The eight goblins wore gray armor emblazoned with a red ankh on each shoulder and helmet. The Harad Ghul carried sheathed scimitars at their waists and compound bows at their backs. Their faces were wrinkled and tan from years of travel under sun and moons alike. The eyes of the Goblin Masters were deep set and glistened with discipline and determination.
“Rauros, step forward.”
The Dire Queen reached for the largest of the Harad Ghul.
“I await your command, My Queen.”
The Leader of the newly founded Guild of Assassins took Ankharet’s pale hand in his tawny one.
“Travel with Themistokles through the Arkadian Forest until you intercept Taliesin and his group of mercenaries. Convince them that Mystic Down and it’s neighboring regions, including Coermantyr, are now under my control. I must ready these lands for the exploitation of Guardon and his legions of Lykanthros. Go now, all of you. Your steeds are ready and waiting. I have other business to attend to.”
Themistokles and the Harad Ghul bowed and strode hastily out of the pillared Throne Room.
“Goblins, fetch my scrying glass!”
The nervous, cowled creatures whimpered as they pushed and dragged a swaying frame with a dark, crystalline shard mounted in iron at the center.
“Dagon, it is I, Ankharet. I have need of your assistance.”
The Throne Room of the Abyssal Cairn became awash in wavering, blue light emanating from the scrying glass.
“Ankharet, what drives you to disturb me? You have caused enough turmoil in your domain. Leave me be.”
The voice of Lord Dagon was deep and cautious.
“I have a favor to ask of you. An orb of mine has been cast into the belly of a fish. I want it back for my own purposes. Please have your Dagonites retrieve it for me.”
“I’m not sure why I should be concerned about your missing trophy, Ankharet. I am quite busy with the affairs of my people. The ocean is a chaotic place. There is nary a time when some whale pod or sirens are not intruding upon our colonies. What will my merfolk have to gain by retrieving this orb?”
“It is the Orb of Paryphax. Its owner was the Wood Mage of Arborea for the past several decades. My assistant has recently accumulated enough magical resources to defeat the dottering wizard and claim it for my comrade, Guardon, the Ruler of the Gorgon Plane. By tapping the orb’s power he will be able to establish a permanent, spatial breach between his Plane and ours. The great legions of Lykanthros and the Hive Builders will infiltrate and conquer Mystic Down and the neighboring regions. If you assist me, I will grant you sovereign control of the entire ocean that covers Gaea. What say you, Lord Dagon, Leader of the Dagonites?”
“My people will watch and wait. If this orb is found and brought to my attention, I will notify you. I must say, Ankharet, my region has not suffered under the Lieges of Mystic Down. I do not wish to become involved in your coup d’etat.”
“Do as you wish, Dagon. Just keep in mind your assistance will be rewarded by Guardon, as well. Neither of us know what leviathans of the deep he may release for us. He needs only the power to open a rift large enough.”
* * * * *
As the group of travelers moved onward the passage through the Arkadian Forest became increasingly difficult. The specters flew around them with the apparent intentions of intercepting and hindering the party. Gilead’s incantation was resilient, though, and prevented the ghosts from inhibiting the band of riders.
“We should push on to the Abyssal Cairn. It is clear that the situation in Mystic Down will not improve until we contend with Ankharet herself,” Taliesin said.
“I agree,” stated Sharon. “The townspeople of Coermantyr have remained beset by the hordes of Lykanthros for too long. We must delve through these woods to the source of their invasion. If we can we should close the portal from which they are emerging before any more of them arrive.”
* * * * *
Lord Dagon fretted as he sat on his coral Dais.
I am loath to trust Terrans, regardless of their moral preclusions. Ankharet is determined to find this Orb of Paryphax. Her quest for power through sorcery is endless.
The ocean world was perpetually turbulent. The turning of the Planet, Gaea, and its seasonal cycles caused disturbances in the tides of the deep. The Dagonites favored the sunlit shallows of seamounts.
It was not unusual for the colonies of the marine people to be uprooted and cast adrift by the current. The tides shifted with the seasons and the orbits of the moons. This caused the coral and marble balustrades of the merfolk to frequently become toppled and scattered. Such was the way of life of the Dagonites. They craved the bright shallows for they were sure to harbor the densest schools of fish and crustaceans. There were chains of reefs known to the amphibious trolls that sheltered generations of fish and edible creatures ripe for the hunting.
Narrow, finned, whalebone spears etched with sharpened tips were their weapons of choice. The merfolk also rolled and bound stringy sinews to arm darted crossbows and bolt-throwers. These hunting tools accurately hurled missiles through the water and were the means by which the Dagonites acquired their food.
The fish also migrated throughout Lord Dagon’s aquatic region. There was little time for his hunters and farmers to search for Ankharet’s lost orb.
Dagon was troubled and feared that he would not know peace any time soon. He had known for some time that magical combat was flaring on the land and sensed the strange rifts hewn by Ankharet’s experimental sorceries.
The Ruler of the Dagonites reached for his regal conch and pressed it to his blue lips. He blew forth a resonating vibration that traveled between the marble columns of his Throne Room to the city beyond. It was his established way of summoning Squidge, his advisor.
His counselor swam into the chamber and passed through several rays of sunlight that descended from the ocean’s surface far above.
He hummed a note of supplication before his Ruler.
“What news from the scrying glass, My Lord?”
Squidge’s vestigial tentacles puffed and billowed from his head and back. He treaded water with his webbed hands and feet.
“I’ve been petitioned by Ankharet, the Dire Queen of Arkadia, to retrieve a certain object for her. She calls it the Orb of Paryphax. Do you know of it, Squidge?”
“There are many orbs throughout the known universe, Lord Dagon. It is likely that the Dire Queen has sought this one for its reputation as a source of magical energy. The Orb of Paryphax is a battery of sorts. We know that she has meddled with rift-making and interdimensional portals of late. Such an orb would certainly allow her to tap into more Chaotic Planes without interruption or fatigue. It is clear that she intends to dominate the lands of Mystic Down and Coermantyr so that she may push on to weaker regions of Gaea.”
Squidge moved Dagon’s scrying glass to the side as he addressed his Lord.
“Although we have control of the sea, I fear what beasts she may be able to summon with this additional source of power. I suggest that we do not dedicate too many of our resources to finding the fish which carries this orb. Our hands are full in the pursuit of the great schools of albacore and yellowtail. We should inform our Captains of this orb and request that they deliver it to us in the event of its appearance. Otherwise we should bide our time.”
“I agree, Squidge,” Dagon sighed. “We have known of the existence of alien Planes for ages. It is wise to leave them undisturbed.”
* * * * *
As the group pressed on the brush and bracken of the Arkadian Woods became increasingly inhibiting. The malevolent specters maintained their attempt to stop the warhorses. Gilead’s protective incantation held, though, and they were unable to approach the mounts.
The Lykanthros returned in greater numbers. Gilead, Leif and Alex were prepared for such a contingency. They combined their resources to generate a strengthened, violet sphere around Taliesin’s band of mercenaries. The cell of energy was larger and more intense than the original shield. Its walls swirled and crackled with sparks of arcane force. The trio of magic-users bowed their heads in concentration.
“Let’s drive off these repugnant beasts once and for all,” grunted Gilead.
En masse the horde of Lykanthros scrambled at the group. Cord-like tendrils extended from the energy ball, spiraling around the legs and bodies of the nearest attackers. Many of the wolf creatures were turned away, but a handful of them remained, desperate to thwart the entourage. The Lykanthros clawed and gnawed at the violet barrier, making it waver and warp.
Lord Taliesin and Lady Sharon responded quickly by thrusting their glinting swords through the energy matrix, slaying a pair of the wolf-creatures.
“Beware, My Friends!” bellowed Bors. “I see goblins moving through the trees. They ride these creatures like horses.”
Several arrows flew at the mercenaries, narrowly missing the grappling Lykanthros. The bolts of the Harad Ghul struck Taliesin and Sharon. Their armor was steadfast and the arrows ricocheted in a shower of sparks.
“Taliesin, we cannot hold this shield any longer,” Leif said. “A Summoner is nearby and we must rally our abilities to confront him.”
The violet shield faded. Rodnik intercepted a pair of Lykanthros using his hatchet and a rondache, a small, circular shield. He struck them with short, glancing blows while avoiding their teeth and claws. Bors, the Burgomeister of Wood’s End, joined Rodnik in defeating the last of the attacking Lykanthros.
Themistokles and the Harad Ghul broke through the dense underbrush. The adept Summoner was immersed in bright, green energy that sparkled and trailed behind him and his Lykanthros mount. His subordinate specters, Flotsam, Jetsam and Mayhem wailed with expectation of the coming conflict.
Drawing their scimitars, the Harad Ghul charged Taliesin and his allies. The din of the ensuing clash reverberated through the Arkadian Woods. The Goblin Masters battled fiercely. They wielded their blades in a whirling, spinning attack pattern. In a practiced formation the saddled Lykanthros encircled the mercenaries. Rodnik and Bors engaged their opponents eagerly. Using parrying motions to hold the assassins at bay, Taliesin and Gilead swung at the legs of two of the mounted wolf beasts, bringing them down.
Gilead and Alex uttered the same incantation.
They gestured toward the clawed specters as they fired pulses of blue energy at them. Mayhem was struck squarely and dematerialized. Flotsam and Jetsam were also hit and wavered from the energy drain. The weakened Entities retreated into the woods.
Rodnik and Bors succeeded in tossing the remaining Harad Ghul from their saddles, flailing accurately at the legs and shoulders of the Lykanthros. The armored assassins engaged the mercenaries in direct, hand-to-hand combat. They fought fiercely, issuing glancing blows to the hardened armor of Taliesin and Sharon as well as Rodnik’s rondache and Bors’ mace. Their strategy was compromised, though, and the goblins fell among the confusion of the energy bolts of Alex and Gilead.
Leif contended with Themistokles.
He unleashed his practiced spell.
The Chief Wizard of the Dire Queen was covered in energy bolts. Themistokles issued forth a counter spell.
He surrounded himself in an opaque sphere that blocked the attack and spoke another incantation.
Sharon and Gilead were captured in cocoons of green energy.
Taliesin and Rodnik thrust their weapons at Themistokles but could not breach his opaque shield. Bjorn Roundtree pelted the barrier with stones from his sling, but his attempts were also in vain.
“Leif, you must do something!” yelled Taliesin.
The cloaked mage of the Sentinel Order pressed his hands together. His eyes flared with inner fire. He incanted a different sorcery.
A larger sphere surrounded Themistokles’ barrier. It had protruding spikes that extended inward. Leif’s sphere contracted, forcing the spikes through the Summoner’s shield, impaling him. The Vizier of the Dire Queen was dead. The cocoons surrounding Sharon and Gilead dissolved.
“There is no time to waste,” said Lord Taliesin. “We must push on to the Abyssal Cairn and deal with Ankharet. She is sure to summon more of these Lykanthros if she is able.”
At last the external buttresses of Ankharet’s fortress rose above the canopy of the oak forest. Crows and scavenger birds circled among the towers and immense, looming gargoyles. A generation of goblins had labored to build the massive structure.
Thorny, disheveled rose hedges lined the entrance to the Abyssal Cairn. The plants had grown wild and untended. They simply rooted in the clearing leveled by the goblins during their initial construction of Ankharet’s Abyssal Cairn. As Lord Taliesin and his allies cut their way through the overgrown roses they saw obsidian fountains and elaborate statues of gargoyles and Lykanthros. The structure had also become partially obscured by the spreading flowers.
“These blossoms are quite beautiful,” observed Sharon.
She brushed her gloved hand over a standing bouquet of white and red blooms. As the travelers neared the gateway to the cairn they saw the hobbling shapes of goblins. They stayed away from the group and made no attempt to impede them.
The portcullis was raised and the large, bronze doors were not barred. Bors and Rodnik pushed one of them inward with little difficulty. They tethered their warhorses to a row of brambles and proceeded within.
As the mercenaries scaled several, spiraling flights of stairs they remained cautious and ready for battle. There were indications of goblins everywhere. Pattering echoes of footsteps and whispered grumbling emanated from smaller, torch-lit passageways. The hall before Ankharet’s Audience Chamber was carpeted and lined with ornate facades depicting strange creatures and beings alien to Gaea. At last they passed through the final set of arching columns and entered the Throne Room of the Dire Queen.
Ankharet sat in her tall Dais. Her scrying glass radiated red light as it hung from its scaffolding at her side. Before her raised Throne stood a gaping, oval rift in the fabric of space. The planar portal revealed an expansive landscape, strewn with resilient bushes and trees. Among the rolling plains lay large, volcanic boulders. The hills of the alien world swarmed with packs of Lykanthros. They prowled among the dark stones in search of any herbivorous prey they could find. On a distant hilltop spindly Arachnoids carried the heavy, volcanic stones in their mandibles. They used the boulders to assemble a great, vented Hive. The Lykanthros packs made sure to stay clear of the Hive Builders as they hunted for food.
“At last you are here, Taliesin,” Ankharet said. “I watched your friends eliminate my Vizier and assassins through my scrying glass. You are valiant fighters and strategists. I commend you.”
“Ankharet, you must stop tapping foreign Planes. The creatures that you’ve released have killed many of our beasts of burden and are a nuisance to farmers and ranchers alike. Your position is untenable,” said Lord Taliesin.
“I defy you, Taliesin,” said the Dire Queen scornfully. “I claim Mystic Down and Coermantyr for my own. Soon all of Gaea will fall under my influence. You and Sharon must abdicate your regions now or suffer.”
“No, Ankharet!”
Taliesin drew his sword and pointed it at the Dire Queen.
“Close this foul portal and stop your invasions of our lands!”
The Dire Queen rose from her Throne, gathering her shimmering raiment in one hand while unleashing a spell with the other.
Eerie illusions flew about the Throne Room. Many of the images bore the likenesses of despotic Kings from the past. They baffled the mercenaries, although only briefly. Rodnik and Taliesin charged Ankharet as Gilead and Alex spoke their attacking spell.
The Dire Queen uttered the incantation of shielding.
Ankharet’s opaque shield deflected the pulses of energy emitted by Gilead and Alex. Rodnik and Taliesin swung at the Queen with their weapons but were unable to breach her defensive barrier.
Leif moved closer to issue the same spell he’d used to dispatch Themistokles.
A spike-laden sphere of energy surrounded the protected Queen.
As it contracted she called out, “Guardon, come forth! Lend me your aid!”
A clawed fist gripped the edge of the spatial portal. Then emerged a cloven-hoofed leg and shoulder that extended to a bowed wing. The bronze, scaled arm flexed and Guardon pulled himself into the Throne Room. His bullish head and chest glistened from the exertion of the task. His red eyes focused on Ankharet. Guardon reached through the two energy spheres and lifted Ankharet in his arms. He pulled her free and stepped toward the portal. Leif and the other mages fired bursts of energy at Guardon but he was not affected by their impact.
Taliesin, Bors, Sharon and Rodnik swung their weapons at the hulking daemon. Their blades glanced off Guardon’s bronze, scaled hide. The Ruler of the Gorgon Plane swung a hefty blow at the fighters, knocking them to the floor.
“Do not interfere with us. We will return to claim this Plane and its inhabitants,” Guardon said.
It was at this time that Bjorn noticed a sparkling anklet around Guardon’s left leg. He thought it would make an excellent souvenir of his adventure. The halfling reached for it as the large daemon lumbered toward the portal. The copper chain was fused together. Bjorn needed just a few licks with his metal file to break it loose. He had a firm grip on the anklet as Guardon passed through the portal to the Gorgon Plane.
The spatial rift dissipated and the stunned mercenaries rose to their feet.
“What happened?” Bors asked.
“Ankharet escaped. The portal is closed,” Taliesin said. “I expect that we won’t be bothered by creatures from that place any time soon.”
“Where’s Bjorn?” Bors queried of his friends.
“I’m afraid he stuck his fingers where he shouldn’t. He must have been pulled into the Gorgon Plane along with Guardon and Ankharet,” Leif said. “Our work here is done. We must travel to Coermantyr and meet with the Lore Masters if we wish to see our troublesome halfling friend again.”
Lord Taliesin collected Ankharet’s scrying glass.
“I’ll take this contraption to the Lore Masters. Perhaps they can find a constructive use for it.”
The journey to Mystic Down from the weakened region of Arkadia was uneventful. The Lykanthros were nowhere to be seen. The hostile specters of the woods also remained out of sight. The band of travelers took time to water and feed their horses. They slept on a rotating shift and hit the road early each morning.

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