Sunday, February 17, 2013

THE DWARF LORDS

The sun rose over the mountain stronghold of Umbria. Oxholm and Drumtone, the Maegar Dwarf brothers, labored to finish the settlement of their people. They had achieved much since the defeat of Guardon, the Gorgon King, and the tyrannical despotism of the dragons Thoth and Tiamat. Flowers grew among the crags and precipices of their clandestine mountain valley and fresh cascades plummeted from the snow-capped peaks far above.

Oxholm addressed his brother as they chopped wood to cover the roof of a freshly hewed longhouse. The sturdy structure was one of many assembled by their people since their return to the Plane of Gaea.

“At last I am at peace, Drumtone. All is well with Taliesin and the Liege Lords in the regions to the west. Word has spread that the goblin and orc hordes have not attacked the trolls and others there since their repulsion. I must not become too restful, however, for none of us know if or when the Stalactite Forces may regroup and attempt to conquer this fair valley as they have in the recent past.”

“Aye, brother,” replied the red-bearded warrior. “Although our recent victory is heart-warming the Dwarves need to remain vigilant if they hope to establish a lasting presence in these Arkadian mountains. Let us finish our task here as quickly as possible. I wish to meet with our newly founded Dwarf Council and verify the security measures we have recently put into action are running their due course.”

The brothers marched to the ad hoc council hall of the Dwarven tribes. There they met with a gathering of elders who had been nominated to their positions by democratic means. Each of the elders was known for his or her battle prowess, tactical cunning and loyalty to his or her respective Thane.

The Thanes were druid-like spiritual advisers who counseled the Dwarves in a variety of matters ranging from marriage to the conduct of commerce and funeral arrangements.

The elders bellowed a hearty greeting at the entrance of the renowned warriors. The leaders of the Dwarves hearkened from various tribes. These included the Maegar, Duergar, Norgar, Urdar and Ausgar. Other Dwarves were the advocates of independent constituents although these “rogue” elders represented a minority on the council.

“Thank you for visiting us, Oxholm and Drumtone,” said a red-bearded Dwarf who sat at the head of an oval-shaped table. “You heroes would be welcome additions to this council. It has puzzled many of us why neither of you have chosen to run for election.”

“You flatter us, Hrothgar,” answered Drumtone.

The younger Dwarf stroked his beard in contemplation.

“You and your fellow elders are the duly elected leaders of this representative council. My brother and I have much work to do although we wish we had the time to dally in politics.

“We are just stopping by to check on the progress of the settlement in Umbria. How go things, here?”

“Things go as good as could be expected, Drumtone,” replied Hrothgar. “The mines and herds have passed a phase of initial development. Now time is what we need to pursue our interests. Our stronghold Minas Thanex has also undergone the placement of rudimentary foundations. It will take generations to complete our construction into the mountain face but our pace is quickening.”

“Very well, Hrothgar,” said Oxholm. “It appears that this council has all well in hand. We will take our exit and peruse the work on Minas Thanex.”

“Good luck to you both,” answered Hrothgar. “May The Fates be with you.”

The brothers left the council chamber and began the uphill trek to the foundation of what was planned to be the greatest stronghold known to Dwarves. They passed through several lesser hamlets and farms, pausing to exchange pleasantries with familiar faces. The grade of the mountainous turf continued to increase and pine trees soon overtook the tilled land of the hearty Dwarves. The sky was a bright blue and clouds were scarce.

Oxholm and Drumtone breathed the wild air deeply. They were not winded but their cheeks grew ruddy from the mild exertion of the brisk hike.

The beginning of what would be Minas Thanex stood before the brothers. The structure was a massive combination of excavation, mining and architecture. Ramps and scaffolding covered the mountainside. A steady train of wagons carried ore and rock from a number of exit points from the mines. Some stones would be combined and carved to resemble ominous renditions of ancient Thanes. These spiritual guardians would protect the stronghold for all the Dwarven tribes. Other stones were allotted to pave the halls and watchtowers of the subterranean superstructure.

Since the thwarting of the Harad-Ghul, the goblin and orc Guild of Assassins, the hostile humanoids had dispersed to parts unknown. Oxholm remembered the bitter melees that his people had entered to defend the Maegar. He hoped that his cousins and relatives would quickly construct defensive ramparts inside and outside the mines in the event of an organized attack by the remnants of the Harad-Ghul.

The central gate of Minas Thanex was vast. It had been fabricated over an existing crevasse in the mountainside. The tunnels ran deep.

Miners had hollowed out the groundwork for a massive underground city within the giant doors. So far the gate to the stronghold was protected by simple wooden barriers but when the Dwarves had smelted enough ore they would be replaced with portals of hardened iron.

Oxholm and Drumtone passed the trio of manned watchtowers that protected the entrance to the city. The soldiers on the multiple tiers cheered the passage of the heroic pair.

The brothers ventured within the opened gates and beheld the city of Minas Thanex. Roads were paved with cobblestones and they extended into the torchlit boroughs of the complex where Dwarves of various ethnicity bartered their services and wares and feasted in several taverns.

Horses and livestock were abundant but rarely ridden. They were preferred to be used as pack animals to carry extracted material from the mines and as food.

The warriors marched down the main street for some time and reached the nucleus of the burgeoning metropolis. It was a temple dedicated to Reorx the hammer-wielding founder of the race of Dwarves. Sconces burned incense around the temple's perimeter and numbers of clerics and priests walked in queues up the carved-stone steps to meditate through the colonnades.

Reorx' temple was rectangular in shape and was a testament to Dwarven craftsmanship. The pillared building was incomplete but was etched and chiseled in shifts by talented artisans. They covered the horizontal stone ceiling with incantations written in runes. Other artisans worked on sculptures of legendary Dwarven heroes renowned for their battle prowess and selflessness.

Oxholm and Drumtone moved past the crowded temple and followed the main street until they reached a bustling marketplace. Craftsmen and blacksmiths worked on refined metals taken from the ore in the fresh mines. They sold their goods to passersby who were mostly Dwarves. But, the Dwarf brothers hoped, the businesses would someday cater to visitors from throughout Gaea.

The warriors stopped at their tavern of choice. It was called Thunder Alley and sported a sign depicting a cloudy horizon with bolts of lightning descending from the sky.

The Dwarf siblings stepped inside and were recognized by a number of the patrons within. They waved in salute and sat on a pair of oak stools at the counter.

A grizened Dwarf with a sparkling, silver earring greeted the brothers.

“Oxholm, Drumtone! It's good to see you! How fare things for the Maegar in Umbria?”

He brought the warriors a pair of steins filled to the brim with foamy ale.

“Very well, Brent,” answered Drumtone. “We have returned to Minas Thanex from an envigorating hike through our new settlements. Our people are thriving in the peace left by Taliesin and the Lieges of the various regions on the surface of the land.”

“That is good to hear,” replied the tavern-keeper. “Things are going as good as can be expected here, in our great city, too. There are reports, however, of a skirmish with goblins in the outer mines.”

“Goblins?” asked Oxholm. “Was it serious?”

“I'm not sure,” said Brent. “I know the city guards are on the alert. I haven't heard whether any miners were hurt. They dug into a cave where the goblins were living. The Dwarves defended themselves as best as they could and fled to the nearest shaft. If you're interested in the details you should speak with Captain Rygar. He is the head of security for Minas Thanex.”

The Dwarf brothers took a moment to quaff their ale and then pounded a couple of silver coins on the counter.

“Thanks for the update, Brent,” bellowed Oxholm. “We'll talk to Rygar immediately. The safety of the Dwarves is all of our concern and is foremost on our minds.”

The siblings marched out of Thunder Alley and headed to the security headquarters. It was located on the innermost edge of the city and was the last structure before the gate to the network of mines.

Oxholm and Drumtone chatted briefly with the armed guards at the entrance and ventured inside. A husky, blond Dwarf with a metal badge sat at a desk stuffed with notes and scrolls.

“You must be Rygar,” observed Drumtone.

The warriors shook hands.

“And you must be Oxholm and Drumtone,” the Captain replied. “Your reputation precedes you, staunch heroes. How can I help you today?”

“We received word of an encounter with goblins in one of the new tunnels. Are our people secure?”

“Yes,” answered Rygar. “The natural caves and crevasses in the under earth are vast, as you know, and their outermost reaches have yet to be mapped by our most experienced spelunkers.

“I had gotten reports of mysterious thumps and sounds emanating through the walls of some of our preliminary excavation sites. It wasn't until yesterday that a team of our leading miners broke through a section of what they had thought to be solid rock.

“The Dwarf miners discovered a new cave, occupied by some hungry goblins. The denizens of this Arkadian Mountain Range were small in stature and clearly malnourished. They attacked the Dwarves, probably more starved than angry, and were quickly repelled by the elite team's mining tools.

“The Dwarves took the opportunity to flee the freshly-cut rock and report to the nearest way-station. Word of the conflict soon reached this office and I ordered a military patrol to set up watch over the breach, which, by the time of their arrival, was abandoned.”

“Thank you for your information, Captain,” said Oxholm. “With your permission, my brother and I would like to inspect this breach. We are miners at heart and can fend for ourselves in the tunnels. All we ask for is is a map to guide us.”

“By all means, Oxholm,” replied Brent.

The Captain reached into his desk and withdrew a freshly-penned map.

Oxholm took the map and scanned it briefly. He rolled it into a tight scroll and stored it in his travel pack.

The brothers bade Rygar farewell and departed from the security headquarters. They headed to the gate to the mines. The soldiers at the wooden doors greeted the reputable fighters and turned a crank which opened the tunnel.

The initial passage was wide and well-paved. Runes and torches lined the walls. It was broad enough to allow a pony and loaded cart to pass in either direction at once.

A few miners passed the warriors as they drove wagons loaded with ore toward Minas Thanex. The siblings nodded in greeting as they moved deeper into the network.

Several perpendicular intersections crossed the main tunnel to extend miles into the mountain. Oxholm checked his map and said, “We are on the right path, Drumtone. These alternate routes are intact. Let us march onward to the newly-cut territory.

It took several hours of walking and the brothers paused to rest, drink water and commiserate with other miners at a number of brightly-lit way-stations carved out of the stone.

It was clear to Drumtone that these way-stations would soon be enlarged to become settlements. Commerce was increasing in the mines under the encouragement of the Thanes and Dwarf Council.

At times waterfalls and brooks flowed through the rock face. The walls of the tunnel were no longer decorated and paved and the jagged stone showed signs of being recently hewed by advance teams of miners. In places wooden pillars and braces had been put into place to support the ceiling and prevent a collapse.

Drumtone reached into his travel pack and took out a torch which he lit with his tinder box. This provided needed illumination in the narrowing passage. They had reached the heart of the ore mines. Neighboring shafts had been equipped with elevators that raised and lowered loads of rock to multiple levels above and below the central tunnel. These mobile platforms were hoisted by a system of interlocking cogs, wheels and chains pulled by ponies. The sound of pick axes and hammered chisels echoed through the mine shafts. The Dwarves were hard at work and carried on with the tasks at hand despite the encounter with the goblins.

After another mile the carved-stone of the tunnel terminated altogether. What remained was a natural crevasse that met with the planned excavation route of the miners. A group of torches had been lit around the nearest bend. Oxholm checked his axe and Drumtone his hammer. The lights demarcated the base for the military patrol delegated by Captain Rygar.

A dozen finely-armored soldiers chatted tersely among themselves as they raised their vision to meet the sounds of the approaching fighters. They soon recognized the pair and greeted them amiably. They shook hands with the group.

“Welcome, Oxholm and Drumtone,” said a Dwarf Sergeant. “I am Baldur of the Urdar Tribe. It is clear that you have come to investigate the breach where the goblins were found. Is all well with Captain Rygar and Minas Thanex?”

“Indeed, Baldur,” answered Drumtone. “All is well with our great city and so far this is the only location where the fierce humanoids have been located.”

“My brother and I have come on our own volition. We, like you, are always concerned with the safety of the Dwarf Tribes. Has there been any sign of goblins since your arrival?”

“No,” answered the Sergeant. “But we did not venture far into the breach to pursue them. Our orders were to stay here and prevent anymore skirmishes with the regular miners in the area.”

“Good, Baldur. You are a dutiful soldier,” said Oxholm. “We will be so bold as to enter the opening in the rock. We will be careful but see it fit to conduct some reconnaissance on our neighbors, as it were. Is the tunnel ahead the location in question?”

“Yes, Oxholm. May The Fates be with you. If you have need of support we will be here and will come to your aid if you have not traveled too far into the depths.”

“Thank you, Baldur. We will return as soon as we can and will be careful,” Drumtone stated.

The siblings moved past the group of soldiers and their path was soon lit solely by Drumtone's torch.

The air grew chilled and there was a mild breeze. The crevasse became erratic at points, spanning wide, beyond the design of the planned tunnel and then narrowing, forcing the Dwarves to turn sideways in order to pass.

At last they reached a wall with a hole in it. All was quiet and the brothers took care to mask their steps as they approached the breach. Hammers and chisels were strewn about the orifice and several of them were marked with green, goblin blood.

These Drumtone viewed with growing concern.

How many of them are there? How deep do these neighboring caves extend? What magic supports these strange goblins despite their recent defeat?

The warriors entered the breach holding their weapons at the ready. The smell of an extinguished cook-fire permeated the air. Rags and bones of small cave-dwelling animals had been tossed about in the scuffle. There was an opening in the cave at the opposite end from the breach and must have been the avenue of the startled goblins retreat.

Oxholm and Drumtone were not afraid. They walked to the round opening and found that they did not need to hunch over to pass through it. This they did and discovered another tunnel, not nearly as well-excavated as those of the adept Dwarves but sufficient for exploration.

Sounds of chanting and growling goblin speech emerged from the darkness beyond.

They must be having a meeting, thought Drumtone.

He gestured to Oxholm for silence and to move forward. They reached a bend in the path and cautiously looked around the corner.

The two Dwarves saw a large cave, filled with goblins who faced a podium where an orc shaman was in the process of conducting a ceremony of some kind. He was accompanied by a pair of beholder beasts and a Duergar mercenary.

“Now is the time to act, goblin conscripts,” declared the orc shaman. “The Dwarves are soon to detect the proportions of our stronghold in the Arkadian Mountains. They have already intruded on your cousins and slew several of them in cold blood. The magic of the ember stones is ours to wield and we need not share it with the others. There is power here and we need but the time to construct the tools to harness it.

“It is clear that not all ore contains ember. It rests only in the deep veins and ancient cores of the mountains where the pressure of eons was greatest.”

I need not remind you that there are entities not present here that would be grateful for contributions to their dwindling hordes. If we play our cards properly we can buy the allegiance of powerful allies in a future siege against Minas Thanex and the villages of Umbria.

“Yes, Ordryx. Your counsel is sound,” said a beholder. “Our associates, who wish to remain nameless at this time, would bestow great rewards on those who kept knowledge of the magical ember from the Dwarves. They have already ventured too deeply into the Arkadian Mountain Range and are sure to covet the multi-faceted power of the ember for their own designs if they learn of it's existence. They have long sought to obliterate the goblins and orcs and would only use the ember to attempt such genocide.”

“That is true, Solyx,” declared the other beholder. “You are a wise Gorgon and serve our master well. We are also indebted to our Duergar guide, who was fortunate to secretly dig deep into the rock ahead of his kin.”

Drumtone gestured to Oxholm to move back from the corner of the cave. The brothers withdrew from the meeting place of the goblins and others and made their way back to the breach and Sergeant Baldur's entourage.

Oxholm spoke as they returned through the miner's breach.

“I've heard enough, Drumtone. We must speak with the soldiers here and let them know of the goings on in our midst.”

“That is prudent. If anything should happen to us the Dwarves of Umbria would be left in the dark. We must divulge our intelligence to Baldur so that he can send the message to Captain Rygar at the security headquarters.”

The group of Dwarf soldiers had heard the sounds of the warriors approach and looked to them attentively.

“Oxholm, Drumtone, you have come back to us in little time. What have you discovered?”

The experienced fighters reported the information they overheard from the goblins' meeting. All of the Dwarves present were shocked to learn that there was a Dwarf among the goblins.

Sergeant Baldur quickly delegated a pair of soldiers to hurry the information to Minas Thanex.

The group of Dwarves wielded their weapons and prepared for battle. They lit a bunch of torches and distributed them among their number.

The team of fighters entered the breach once more and hastened to the cave where the brothers had stood. The meeting hall was empty and there was no sign of the goblins or the ominous beholder beasts that had gathered there just minutes before.

“We must be hot on the trail of these devious agents of conspiracy,” said Baldur. “Let us infiltrate this alien network of mines and see what we can find.”

“Oxholm and Drumtone's description of this so-called ember is mysterious. Whatever it is the substance should be identified and analyzed by trained smiths and jewel-crafters. To leave such a potent magical force in the hands of the goblins and a twisted Duergar mercenary does no good for the settlers of Minas Thanex and beyond.”

“We agree, Baldur,” replied Drumtone. “Let us move on and be ready for a fight. The individuals here will not willingly let the secret of their quarry escape them.”

The group of Dwarves rounded one more corner and were met by a group of armed goblins and a beholder beast.

An intense battle ensued. Oxholm wielded his axe and Drumtone his hammer. All of the Dwarves unleashed a booming war cry and engaged their opponents.

Baldur swung a short sword and slew two goblins in one strike. His weapon was sharp and had been forged by master Dwarven smiths. It cut through the goblins' defenses with ease and struck both targets fiercely.

The other Dwarves contended with the beholder beast. It released scalding, ephemeral ribbons of red into the air but the soldiers were quick. They rolled apart to evade the attack then regrouped. The fighters ran the gorgon through at multiple locations. The spherical beast slumped to the ground and died.

This gave the warriors the opportunity to focus on the remaining goblins. The hostile humanoids rendered a flurry of blows on their enemies. The weapons and armor of the Dwarves were resilient, though, and the counterattack did no damage. Baldur and his companions hastened to surround the goblins and commenced to assert the coup de grace, knocking the remainder of them out of consciousness.

“We are victorious!” breathed Drumtone. “Let us move on through these mines, my friends. We must secure the ember for the Thanes. They will determine what should be done with it.”

The Dwarves nodded their agreement and continued into the complex of tunnels deep under the Arkadian Mountain Range. Their torches continued to burn brightly and created eerie, dancing shadows in the nooks and angles of hastily carved rock.

All was quiet but for the squeak of the occasional rodent and dripping of water from the ceiling.

Perpendicular passages, similar in architecture to those in the mines of Minas Thanex intersected with the chosen route of the Dwarves.

“Ah,” said Baldur. “This method of cross-cutting is Dwarven in nature. It must be present here due to the influence of the Duergar mercenary you brothers reported of seeing. We are deep in the Under Earth and it is not the place for the endeavors of casual rock-finders and amateur geologists. This Duergar knows his business. Upon our return to the city we must consult with the Duergar Thanes. They may know of him.”

As the Dwarf warriors continued on they noticed strange minerals glittering in the surface of the stone. None of them had seen the substance before. It consisted of purple and red crystals which sparkled in the torchlight. At times these crystals grew large enough to extract with chisels.

Oxholm paused briefly to take a handful of the mysterious minerals. As he placed the crystals into a leather carrying pouch he spoke.

“This must be the ember we heard about. I will take these samples to the Thanes. I sense unknown power within this material. I don't think it is lawful or chaotic. It must simply enhance the designs of the bearer whatever they may be. Perhaps this ember can be used as a psychic magnifier. It could certainly serve as a fine addition to my axe or your hammer, Oxholm.”

The fighters moved on through the hall until they reached a chamber partially immersed in water. Stalactites and stalagmites extended from the ceiling and floor. A cascade fell from several hundred feet above to fill the pool. The Dwarves navigated around the rippling lake and headed to an arched gate at the opposite end of the naturally-formed cavern.

There was no sign of the other beholder or the goblin shaman and his followers.

The warriors took a moment to drink water from their flasks and check their weapons of choice. They drew near the gate and stayed on the alert.

Once through the gaping portal they beheld a complex network of tunnels extending into the rock vertically and horizontally. There were no miners in sight and it was clear to the battle party that the workers had been warned of their approach.

Similar in fashion to the elevators of the Dwarves were lifts with chain harnesses to be pulled by beasts of burden. They too were vacant and there was no sound of hammers or chisels over the mild, subterranean breeze.

Crystals of ember continued to sparkle in the torchlight. The raw, magical power of the substance was evident to all in the group. This only heightened their concern that it be wrought by proper hands.

The travelers followed the central tunnel which now was wide and reinforced with wooden pillars and frames.

Oxholm saw piles of barrels and chests that had been flung open and emptied of their contents. He did not doubt that it had been done to keep endeavors secret from the Dwarves of Minas Thanex.

The stout fighters marched through the colonnades of the central hall and came upon a massive cavern. It contained a substantial goblin settlement. The walls of the opening in the rock were illuminated with ember and luminescent fungus.

The wiry humanoids were notoriously small in stature and they went about their business, paying the cautious Dwarves no notice as they gazed upon the buildings from the edge of the chamber.

Drumtone whispered to Baldur.

“My Urdar friend, I fear we have met our match, here. This is an immense goblin hive. They have worked at the construction of this settlement for years. “If we are to gain additional intelligence on this mission I suggest we cloak ourselves, covering our armor, weapons and Dwarven features. If we do this we may succeed in circumnavigating the main structure and enter one of the side tunnels.”

“I concur,” replied Baldur. “If we are to learn more about the goblins and the ember in this place we must infiltrate this location undetected.”

The adept Dwarf Sergeant signaled his soldiers to don their war cloaks. The garments were a dark, matted gray in hue and melded well with the shadows and obscure zones of the goblin hive.

Oxholm and Drumtone put on similar guises and the group moved on through the perimeter of the ominous goblin stronghold.

As they passed the temples and markets of the strange humanoids the Dwarves saw several shamans and beholder beasts conducting mysterious commiserations among the gnarled stone pillars and stalagmites.

Many of the humanoids conducted transactions with sparkling ember. They used it as currency. Other goblins took large stores of the ember to the shamans who stored it in the deep reaches of their temples.

Drumtone glanced briefly at the heart of the goblin hive and was sure that he glimpsed Harad-Ghul. They were taller, orc conscripts of the infamous Guild of Assassins.

The Dwarves hastened on, desperate to avoid detection by the xenophobic horde. They continued along the edge of the conical cavern and ultimately reached an unguarded entrance to a subordinate tunnel.

This they rushed into with sighs of relief. Despite their collective battle prowess they would feign to test their skills in such a reckless fashion.

Oxholm, Drumtone, Baldur and the others of their group marched into the tunnel heading deep into the unknown of the Under Earth.

Fungus and mushrooms grew large and many of them emitted light of their own. The tunnel wavered in green and purple light along with the illumination of the torches of the Dwarves.

Magic is abounding in this place, thought Oxholm. The ember is but a part of an arcane ecosystem growing in these crevasses for eons.

Glowing centipedes coiled around the stalks of several mushrooms in a mysterious symbiosis. Stalagmites and stalactites glistened with freely flowing mineral deposits. The breeze grew strong and carried the scent of unseen masses of water and life.

“This is another world, brother,” observed Drumtone. “We had no idea of the expansive reaches of the crags and chambers within the Arkadian Mountain Range. There are pockets of life here unknown to the surface-dwelling races.

If only there were time to document these new species, thought Oxholm. A Dwarf biologist could spend his career researching the interrelationships of this wildlife. Creatures thrive in the rock. They depend on the ember and the magical forces within these mountains for sustenance. We must be careful of what entities and forces we awaken by our passage. Reorx save us from the sleeping wyrms!

The battle group winded through the masses of fungus and mushrooms with the intention of finding a turning point. The centipedes and millipedes they saw were not aggressive and the Dwarves took care to avoid stepping on them.

The passage was no longer etched by chisels and pickaxes. It was natural and had been formed by centuries of dripping water and the moving of layers of granite, slate and limestone under titanic pressure.

“Maybe we shouldn't have come here,” muttered Baldur. “I haven't seen any sign of goblins, orcs or gorgons for some time. This is a naturally-formed system of passages. There is unseen power here. Perhaps it is better left undisturbed.”

“Don't forget our mission, Sergeant,” answered Oxholm. “We are here to gain knowledge of the ember that the Duergar mercenary has found. It has already been secured in a substantial quantity by the goblin mining process. If we have any hope of balancing the pendulum of arcane force in Gaea we must push on to the mother lode. These paltry crystals and sparkling gems are but an indication of the force that sleeps deeper within the rock. It is our destiny to unlock it before our competitors use it to destroy us.”

A deep, bass rumbling shook the tunnel. Clusters of stone were knocked loose from the ceiling and walls. The Dwarven fighters hoisted their shields over their heads to protect themselves from the barrage. As the earth shook they stumbled and pressed themselves against the walls to maintain their balance. Cracks and fissures opened up in the floor and steam jetted into the tunnel.

“This route is not stable,” Baldur declared. “We must be on our guard.”

The Dwarves moved on cautiously and the passage twisted and turned in a haphazard fashion. They were determined to stay their course, however, and did not falter.

The zephyrs and breeze grew hot and fluctuated as if forced back and forth by a massive billows. Lava oozed and dripped from openings in the ceiling. The glowing, red liquid was clearly scalding to the touch and the Dwarves took care to avoid contact with it.

At last the ceiling fell just before the battle party. Showers of boulders and glittering stones fell into a lower pocket in the mountain's core. They were forced to wait as the cascade lasted for several minutes, barring the path beyond.

Tons of ore and stone fell from far above and the earth shook like never before. When the cascade of rock finished the air had become filled with dust and ash.

The tunnel opened into a glowing red, chamber. The Dwarves grew near to the edge and looked into the crimson-lit chamber. It was a vast, cylindrical chasm, covered at multiple locations with cascades of lava falling from far above. Immense crystals of ember floated at various levels, hovering of their own volition. The purple and red minerals rotated and sparkled in the hot wind of the volcanic space.

Baldur was the first to gaze down, over the edge of the tunnel from which his party stared. The cylinder dropped hundreds of feet to the mountain's heart. Coils of steam and ash spiraled like snakes as they moved through numerous, thermal phases of hot and cold air.

Baldur saw other breaches into the cylinder where goblin tunnels had fallen away in the rock slide. At the very bottom was a radiant, lake of fire.

A colossal, ephemeral, magma wyrm rested on a bed of volcanic rock in the center of the lake. It looked up and laughed.

“Hah, I've been waiting for you, Dwarves. I am Fafnir!

“The magic of the ember stones is but a token of the power that these mountains possess. Be careful what you seek.

“Ages ago these tunnels were tapped for their wealth and metal by goblins and Dwarves alike. They are gone now for good reason.

“It was I who thwarted their designs. The forces that reside in the etherium and ephemium do not lend themselves to mortal desire. They are food for wyrms.

“This is my horde. As it has been for millennia. Don't be afraid. The ember is here for all but you may not like the price. “Your ancestors and those of the humanoids you oppose chose poorly. They opted to take what they could without paying me tribute. Suffice it to say that is why this system of tunnels and wyrm-holes has been vacated by my fire.

“Speak, now, and answer for your Thanes. They have already detected my presence as have the populations of the various regions on the surface of Gaea. “The ethereal wyrms can choose to fight me, but I have slept here for far too long. They know that I will defend what is mine.

“It will do all in question good to think on my offer of control over the processing of the ember and ore. I will take a goodly share of the magical stuff but will keep these halls under my protection.”

“What choice do we have, Fafnir?” yelled Oxholm from far above.

“None, as far as I see it,”answered the magma wyrm.

The steaming beast chortled in waves.

“Take some time. Do not fear my fire, yet. Go to your people and give them my proposal. Half of the gold, silver and jewels, along with your manufactured weapons and armor are to be left here on this rock island with me.

“In return I will run off any other wyrms that attempt to conquer these mountains. Believe me when I tell you the Under Earth is vast and entities sleep that should not be awakened. But they will be.

“A new age is upon this Plane and the balance of Order and Chaos has fallen to the meddling of Hydro, Mara, Thoth and Tiamat.

“You stand on a way-point between worlds where magic is untamed by lawful and chaotic entities and is but a bargaining tool of those ancient beings formed at the dawn of the cosmos.”

“And what of Reorx? Doesn't he have a say in this gambit?

“Hah, Reorx! He is a tool-maker and molder of clay. I would beckon him to participate in the fabrication of treasure for my horde but he is strangely absent from the pantheon of spheres. Perhaps he has abandoned you.”

“Consider what I have said and go to your settlement. I will await the answer of your Thanes. Do not attempt to mine the ember beforehand.”

“What of the Harad-Ghul and the gorgons? Don't they pay tribute here?”

“Foolish, Dwarf. They tap but a smattering of ember and use it as currency. I know you Dwarves. You would take my horde entirely as your ancestors attempted. And that is not acceptable.”

“Very, well, Fafnir!” yelled Drumtone. “We will go and consult with our leaders. Await our answer and do not harm our miners in the meantime. Farewell.”

The battle party turned from the fiery breach in the heart of the Under Earth. They hastened back the way they came, no longer concerned with the possibility of interception by the goblins and gorgons.

Baldur had jotted a quick map of the routes they saw and his team of warriors was able to extrapolate an alternative path of return to the original meeting cave and the breach to the mines of Minas Thanex.

The Dwarves marched through Baldur's circuitous route for several hours without interception. They eventually reached the breach and the outer limits of the extensive mines of the Thanes.

After half of a day's time they met with the way-stations, sending word of their encounter throughout the secure tunnels.

Although fatigued from the forced march Oxholm, Drumtone and Baldur's entourage returned as quickly as was physically possible to Minas Thanex.

There a mass of Dwarves from the various tribes waited their arrival, having been notified of their exploratory venture by the delegated pair of runners Baldur sent to the city before his expedition departed.

Captain Rygar and several male and female council members stood at the front of the gathering. They cheered at the approach of the known heroes and were baffled by the expressions of concern on the faces of the battle party.

“Thank you all for greeting us,” declared Oxholm. “You do us honor to gather her before us in such a manner. We are glad to be in the bosom of Minas Thanex once again. All of the Dwarven tribes will benefit from the knowledge we have gained in the mines. We must, however, divulge our intelligence to the Dwarf Council and the Thanes.

“If you please, make way for us and let us pass to Reorx' Temple. We will rendezvous with the council members we see before us at that locale.”

The mass of curious Dwarves murmured their consent and maneuvered among themselves to clear a path for the returning warriors.

Several drummers beat a victorious rhythm on the rooftops of neighboring buildings. Other Dwarves applauded and cheered as the heroes proceeded into the city.

In a matter of moments the Dwarf brothers and Baldur's team reached the temple dedicated to Reorx. Several of the representative council members, including Hrothgar, were already present among the ceremonial coffers which burned incense.

Drumtone addressed the sizable group of tribal elders as they continued to amass among the carved-stone colonnades.

He recounted the events that took place in the alien mines, from the battle with the goblins and gorgon to their infiltration of the ember-laden city and encounter with Fafnir.

The Dwarves were dismayed to hear of the existence of the ominous ember and the magma dragon. They took some time to discuss the information among themselves then gestured to Hrothgar to make an address.

“We thank Reorx that you are among us, Oxholm and Drumtone. It may have been weeks before we learned of this magical ember and even longer of the goblin city and Fafnir's lair.

“You are adept spelunkers and your extended map will be copied for the good of all Dwarves. The Thanes have recommended that the Council of Dwarves reject Fafnir's proposal. He does not sound trustworthy to us. Clearly this will mean war for the Dwarves. Your description of the goblin city fills us with dread. We will put defensive measures into effect immediately.”

The Dwarven leaders scrambled from the temple. They spread word of the tyrant dragon throughout Minas Thanex. Blacksmiths threw coals on their fire-pits and powered the billows. They hastened to use their knowledge to arm their kin. The marketplaces of the subterranean city were met with a crush of warriors, desperate to equip themselves with the finest armor and weapons.

The city guard stepped in to keep bartering sessions from becoming hostile. Maegar Dwarves from the surface of Umbria brought in shipments of staffs to be turned into dragon-lances. Urdar from neighboring mountaintops and Norgar from conjoined mines brought ingots to form reinforced bars on Rygar's Gate.

Oxholm and Drumtone met with the Duergar Thanes but they had no knowledge of the identity of the Duergar engineer helping the goblins.

Miners became scouts, Druids became medics, farmers became carpenters and over all the blacksmiths hammered through the night.

The forges flared with crimson light as crucibles were filled with molten iron. Dies were cast and molds were shattered to quench glowing rods of steel in flaming oil.

The Dwarves were ready. The traps had been set and the mines locked down. The tribes were armed and prepared. They waited for Fafnir and his goblin forces.

They came at dawn. Dwarven scouts reported that the initial gates were demolished by a sea of goblins. The horde poured through the mountain.

It couldn't be determined if they were pushed forward or driven from behind. Then the wyrm broke through.

A series of temblors shook the rock from deep within. Next came a wave of beholder beasts. The bloodthirsty gorgons shrieked as they descended through vertical shafts carved by the goblins.

They engaged the vanguard at multiple locations. The single-eyed, spherical creatures extended their tentacles to emit charm spells.

The Dwarves were resilient and did not succumb to the arcane influence of the slavering carnivores. They countered with their short-swords and battle-axes. Many of the beholders fell in a swath of carnage only to be crushed from behind as the goblins rushed into the mines of Minas Thanex.

The fight was on and the vanguard was pushed back through the length of the tunnels. Goblins archers shot volleys of arrows into the mass of warriors. The Dwarves used their angular shields, however, and emerged unscathed.

Within the city many Dwarves moved to open the main gate to aid their kindred in the tunnels.

Baldur and Captain Rygar had positioned their militia in the front of the crowd and convinced them to keep the doors closed and barred. Many fighters protested but were soon silent.

Many goblins fell in battle as they attempted to press through the vanguard. The sounds of battle emanated through the carved-stone halls and the Dwarves in the city grew anxious as the lights of first one way-station, then the next were extinguished.

It was then that Fafnir attacked. Spouts of flame flew through the mines, scorching goblins and Dwarves alike. The magma wyrm writhed and twisted through the halls, breaking pillars and frames as it muscled for purchase in the dark.

Those of the initial Dwarven resistance that remained hacked and bludgeoned the aggressive dragon from side tunnels. The glowing, rock of his flesh was hardly dented and many of the valiant fighters were forced to withdraw into neighboring chambers with melted blades. They watched as the dragon tore their carefully crafted passages into smithereens. They could but hope that their brethren behind the gates would do better to turn the dragon from his path of destruction.

Trapped goblins went berserk against the gate of Minas Thanex. They no longer cared about the Dwarves they were desperate to flee the weight and heat of Fafnir. Baldur and Rygar heard the screams of the goblins as they fell in another blast of fire released from the massive wyrm's arcane maw. The doors steamed and grew hot to the touch, but still they held strong.

Fafnir's head reached Minas Thanex and the Dwarves within bellowed a war cry as the magma dragon pounded his smoldering snout against the barred portals.

The odor of sulfur and ash gusted into the city chamber. The dragon thrust against the sealed gates and the bolts and bars flexed and bent from the pressure of the massive beast.

Many Dwarves hoisted their spears and dragon-lances against the doors in an attempt to stop Fafnir from infiltrating the city. The magma wyrm let out a hideous snarl and slammed his head against the barrier again. This time the bars broke and the locks shattered from the assault. The gates to Minas Thanex were flung wide and Baldur led his soldiers in a ruthless attack.

The spearheads of the fighters had been forged by master smiths, and these the defenders thrust into the dragons snout. Many of the burnished blades penetrated the rocky flesh of the beast, causing lava to ooze from the wyrm's wounds.

Fafnir countered with a blast of fire and the Dwarves were quick to raise their shields in defense.

The blast was hot and the warriors in the city streets were forced to hold their breath to prevent inhalation of the acrid sputum.

Once the blast ceased the Dwarves rolled apart to hack at the legs of neighboring water towers. The traps had been prepared some hours before and the scaffolding supporting the reservoirs fell quickly into the wyrm.

The cascade of frigid liquid covered the exposed section of the magma dragon. He was stunned by the shock of the cold and wrestled in the fluid to escape the uncomfortable substance.

Fafnir was committed in the gateway and could not easily withdraw. Jets of steam and chunks of rapidly cooled rock were flung from the dragon's body and head leaving vulnerable, glowing holes in his anatomy.

These wounds the Dwarves targeted with their weapons and they delivered the points of their swords and spears into the core of Fafnir's cylindrical form.

At this time Oxholm and Drumtone emerged from their hiding place in the roof of the city cavern. They held ripcords as they dove toward the floor of Minas Thanex several hundred feet below.

Their belts were attached to trap doors in the ceiling and they opened under the weight of the armored Dwarf brothers. Within a hidden cavity was a reserve of ore and sand loaded by miners over the previous weeks.

The tons of material dropped onto the suffering dragon's head, causing additional damage to his chilled and blistering flesh.

The citizens of Minas Thanex gave an all-out battle cry and surrounded the dragon. They hacked and slashed at Fafnir with full force, rending chunks of rocky flesh from his sizable, serpentine form.

The magma wyrm rolled in agony, toppling buildings and towers in a random, desperate attempt to avoid the assaults. Many Dwarves were battered and flung by the force of the twisting entity and numbers of them lost their lives.

Oxholm and Drumtone were enraged by the deaths of their kin and the infiltration of their hallowed sanctuary. The cut their ripcords from their belts and dropped to the spine of the wyrm, thrusting their weapons downward as they plummeted the remaining distance.

The blows of the adept warriors were severe and their armored boots became immersed in a sloppy mixture of lava, sand and Dwarven blood.

At last the hostile, giant beast acquiesced and bellowed.

“Enough! You accursed Dwarves are a nuisance to these mountains. Mark my words. You will regret this insult. You have not seen the last of Fafnir!”

The magma wyrm twisted awkwardly and writhed to gain purchase in a hasty retreat. This did not stop the population of male and female warriors from continuing their barrage of assaults on his body.

At last Fafnir was able to pull out of the damaged sections of Minas Thanex and squirm in retreat to the connected tunnels.

The Dwarves gave chase as quickly as their stout legs would allow and a number of them employed bows and bolt throwers to dissuade the beast from harassing their civilization.

Fafnir continued to slink and rolled quickly, however, despite his pierced and shivering condition. The hilts of spears and axes lodged in his flesh snapped off as he retreated through the extensive mines.

What remained of the vanguard in the deep tunnels had waited for the dragon to turn. And again they pummeled him as he made his move back to the goblin mines. The dragon took several moments to make his ultimate escape. Fafnir went about the business of nursing his wounds in the volcanic core of the Arkadian Mountain Range and would require much time to bathe and feed in the primordial fire of the Under Earth.

The Dwarves of the various tribes cheered their temporary repulsion of the their colossal adversary.

They embraced Oxholm, Drumtone, Rygar and Baldur at the defunct gates. The Thanes and Council Members neared the place of the battle and nodded their appreciation of the fearless tactics of their people.

Many Dwarves, goblins and gorgons had fallen or fled under the invasion of Fafnir. Much of what had been constructed since the peace of the Liege Lords on the surface had been razed to the ground.

Despite this pyrrhic expenditure of energy and life the Dwarves were surprisingly boosted emotionally. Much more could have been lost and they had succeeded in protecting their commitment and investment in the projects of a subterranean livelihood.

Drumtone addressed his fellow warriors.

“Congratulations! We Dwarves have done well this day and have succeed in putting into action the mandate of the Thanes and Dwarf Council. We will not bend to the coercive proposal of the dragon tyrant. He is responsible for the loss of our ancestors here and those that fell in today's struggle.

“Let us pause, now, and regroup so that we may pay homage to our fallen kindred and bury them with full military regalia in funeral pyres atop the mountains. There they will be welcomed into Reorx' forge from the proximity of their respective tribes.

“I imagine that the goblins and beholder beasts will not be quick to return to our territory as they, too, have suffered substantial losses to their number.

“You speak wisely, brother,” replied Oxholm. “Minas Thanex will be rebuilt and the dragon will not easily forget the infliction of our defensive tactics. We must not sit on our laurels under a false sense of security, though. Fafnir lives. As do the orc agents of the Harad-Ghul and those who would usurp the ember hidden in the depths of the rock for their own, selfish purposes.

“When the time is right I advise us that we consult with the Thanes and Dwarf Council again. They will have ideas in regard to the creation of effective barriers to prevent such an invasion of our way-stations and settlements in the near future. Certainly we must focus on smelting the ore and refining the yields of iron into stronger gates, locks, barriers, pitfalls and traps.

“I was especially disturbed by the descent of the beholder beasts through the ventilation shafts that span to the surface of the mountains miles above us.

“We need air circulation in our civilization, but perhaps a system of spinning flaps and fans with spikes on them will better thwart the free passage of the levitating invaders.”

“That sounds like a good proposal, brother,” said Drumtone. “We should share it with our master engineers and talented spelunkers who are not afraid to scale the expansive heights of our ventilation and irrigation shafts.

“The future generations of Minas Thanex will be appreciative of us if we take care to leave them a social infrastructure that is efficient, safe and resistant against invasion and coup attempts.”

The Dwarf brothers gave each other a chivalric embrace, glad that both of them had escaped infliction of serious injury during the fight with Fafnir. They headed to Reorx' temple at the center of the besieged city to consult and assist the Thanes in their application of proper Dwarven burial rites for the fallen.

That night Oxholm was approached by a Duergar Captain. The soldier, like many of his tribe, had a black beard and wore a battle mask attached to the front of his helmet. This he lifted to reveal his face as he addressed the renowned fighter as he was meditating in Reorx' Temple.

“Oxholm, I'm sorry to bother you at this tense time. My name is Danzig. I hearken from the Duergar settlement on the northernmost Arkadian peaks. My Thanes have informed me that you encountered a Duergar mercenary when conducting reconnaissance in the goblin network.”

“That is true, Danzig,” answered Oxholm.

The Maegar Dwarf shook hands with the newcomer.

“I arrived at Minas Thanex just before the battle with the goblins and magma wyrm began. There was no time to speak or consult with my Duergar Thanes here in this settlement.

“Now that this place has been temporarily secured from attack I have had time to discuss the issue of the Duergar mercenary's identity.

“His name is Otto. He is a queer fellow and was expunged from our meager settlement some months ago for deviating from set mining strategies. He insisted on delving deep into the rock, claiming that a mysterious magical force was beckoning for him to do so.

“My people attempted at first, to accommodate his requests and dug some preliminary shafts deep into the granite and pumice of our mountain. It was not enough to assuage his drive to go deeper and deeper into the rock.

“Otto didn't seem concerned with normal mining, in the sense that we needed ore for iron and steel, gold and silver for trade and jewels for weapons and commerce. He insisted that he hearken the commands of the magical force that only he seemed to perceive.

“Things got worse when he attempted to delegate other Dwarves to use our limited resources to drill far into the Under Earth.

“Our Duergar Thanes ordered him to desist but Otto refused. Thus he was kicked out of our settlement, which is a painful thing for any Dwarf to do to his kin.

“When I heard of the architecture in the goblin mines that resembled cross-cutting and deep scaling that we Duergar have employed, I immediately suspected that Otto had defected to a position of command over a goblin mining team.”

“That sounds like a reasonable deduction, friend Danzig,” replied Oxholm. “We were baffled by his presence among the orc shamans and gorgons at the goblin meeting.

“It seems he has a particular sensitivity to the presence of ember. As does Fafnir himself. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he reached a bargain with the ancient dragon to mine and use the ember as currency in the goblin strongholds.

“Unfortunately I too have gotten close to clusters and lodes of ember. It is a powerful magical artifact that can channel the intentions of the bearer be they Chaotic or Lawful. This philosophy of magnification could easily be applied to weapons and armor used against our miners and citizens.

“It is good that you have come forward and approached me, Danzig. We should consult with the Thanes and Dwarf Council as soon as we can. They, too, will be glad to learn of the identity of Otto and will have the opportunity to prescribe a more educated plan for securing the magical substance in a way that does not empower those who would conquer us or enhance the energy and horde of the magma dragon below.”

Danzig smiled and nodded his acceptance of Oxholm's idea of talking with the Thanes of Minas Thanex.

Thunder Alley was one of the few edifices to survive Fafnir's destruction. The pair went there and shared a round of Brent's ale until it was time for the Thanes and Dwarf Council to commence their daily meeting.

Once the Thanes, Hrothgar and the other elders of Umbria and Minas Thanex proceeded into Reorx' Temple, Oxholm and Danzig marched inside.

The known warrior introduced the Duergar visitor and allowed him to reiterate his story of the rogue engineer. Like Oxholm, the Thanes and council were appreciative of the supplemental information. It explained much about the sturdy and masterful construction of the goblin mines.

The leaders of the community took some moments to convene in private then emerged into the main chamber of the temple. Hrothgar was the first to publicly respond to Otto's story.

“We are gladdened to learn of the identity of this elusive Dwarf. Although the Dwarves of Umbria and Minas Thanex have much reconstruction to do on the foundations of this settlement, we would all feel more secure if you, Oxholm, Drumtone, Baldur and Danzig were to seek out Otto in the goblin network.

“See if you can convince him to return to us and team-up with our advance engineers. We can offer him a house in Minas Thanex and a group of miners to assist him. At this juncture it would be useful to have a delegation that focuses on the depths. We have an extant interest in the ember and would be grateful for Otto's knowledge of the substance.

“Be careful, though, Oxholm,” said Hrothgar, “because Otto may still be bitter about his expulsion from his Duergar community and may yet feel unappreciated and misunderstood.

“Hence be on your guard when you approach him...if he is to be found at all.”

Oxholm and Danzig nodded their agreement with the assignment and marched from Reorx' Temple to contact Drumtone and Baldur.

This they did and the team of experienced fighters and spelunkers set out with full travel packs and weapons within an hour.

As they marched through the gates to the mines each of the warriors looked back at their city under construction. They hoped it would not be rendered into pieces again and wished to return to see it as it was intended to be in the minds of the Dwarves.

The tunnels were dark and had been laid waste by Fafnir's passage. Oxholm opened his travel pack and took out his tinder box. He ignited a bunch of torches and distributed them to his friends.

The pillars and braces were gone and the cobblestones were torn from the ground under the weight of the magma wyrm. Piles of rock partially blocked the main tunnel where the roof had given way. It would take weeks for the miners to restore the halls to their previous degree of sophistication.

The armored fighters moved on and their trek was arduous and slow-going. They made their way through cave-ins and rock slides. Oxholm and Drumtone were saddened to find the remains of the Dwarf vanguard among slaughtered gorgons and goblins.

“These soldiers fought valiantly,” said Baldur. “They bought us much needed time to prepare our defenses. They will be given full honor and laid to rest properly.”

“It would be wise to construct a mausoleum dedicated to our fallen comrades,” replied Drumtone.

“That sounds just,” Danzig stated. “I regret that I was not present at the time of this massive siege.”

After several hours the travelers reached the remnants of the first way-station. Additional bodies were strewn about, crushed in the wake of the angry dragon.

The Dwarves paused to line up the deceased and cover them with their cloaks. They laid the soldiers' weapons of choice on them and took some moments to meditate on their passage to the forge of Reorx.

The path grew continually difficult. Cascades of water, previously contained in sluice lines and aqueducts flowed randomly down elevator shafts and rifts in the Under Earth.

At times the piles of loose stone blocked the shredded tunnels entirely and the Dwarves were forced to use their pickaxes and shovels to clear a viable route.

The fighters passed the second way-station and entered the raw granite and shale of the advance mines. Drumtone saw pieces of rock-like flesh that had been shed by the wyrm as he rushed toward Minas Thanex.

Each of the warriors grew fatigued from their journey but they pushed on. They reached the breach accessing the goblin mines and entered cautiously.

There was no sign of the goblins in the initial caverns and Oxholm led his group deeper within.

The party of fighters again reached the chamber with the large waterfall and lake. It, too, was vacant. They entered the arched portal at the opposite end and began the march toward the goblin city.

Ember glittered everywhere as the Dwarves walked. They took care to don their travel cloaks and battle masks. None of them wished to engage their enemies of the recent past before parlaying.

After another hour's journey they reached the edge of the city of the goblin miners. Purple and blue towers shone several hundred feet within the vast cavern. Tree-sized mushrooms grew in several groves and in many dark places. They glowed along with the omnipresent fungus and lichen.

Oxholm and Drumtone stuck with their comrades to the outer wall of the settlement. None of them wanted to raise an alarm among the hostile humanoids.

Danzig, who had not been to the strange place before, whispered to his friends.

“This city is eerie. Clearly it has been constructed under the power and guidance of the ember stones. The magical material shines within the bricks and mortar of the towers that stand before us. We must seek Otto and determine the extent of the ember's potential.”

Danger was ubiquitous and the Dwarves took great precautions to keep their presence unknown to the goblins and Harad-Ghul. The travelers crept under a cluster of giant mushrooms and watched the commerce of the alien population for several minutes.

“Look, there, at that temple!” hissed Baldur.

The Dwarves turned their heads in the direction that their companion pointed. At the base of a violet and red temple a Duergar mercenary spoke with a group of Harad-Ghul orcs and goblin shamans.

Like Danzig he had a black beard and deep-set eyes. He spoke in hushed tones with a pair of Harad-Ghul assassins.

“Quickly, Dwarves,” said Oxholm. “Now is our chance to approach him!”

The party of warriors rose to their feet and emerged from their hiding place among the mushrooms. The walked quickly toward the temple in question, not giving random goblins time to identify their cloaked and masked forms.

At last they reached Otto and his suspicious companions. Danzig reached for his weapon but Drumtone gestured for him to be still.

“A word with you, friend Dwarf, if you please,” bellowed Oxholm.

Otto turned to the Dwarf's voice and his eyes widened as he recognized the Maegar fashion of Oxholm's battle mask.

“Dwarves? Here, in the Under Earth? No wonder Fafnir has been on the rampage!”

“Dwarves!” cried one of the Harad-Ghul.

The tall, red-cloaked orc drew his scimitar as did his companions. Neighboring goblins called out through the streets and hordes of them came armed and running to aid their apparent leaders. The orc shamans prepared defensive incantations.

“Please!” cried Oxholm. “We are not here to fight. We have come to parlay with you and petition your counsel, Duergar engineer.”

Otto signaled the Harad-Ghul and goblins to lower their weapons.

“With your permission, my friends, allow me to speak with my kin.”

The goblins and orcs growled with ancient hatred then, slowly, sheathed their blades.

“We understand that you have a special rapport with the ember that surrounds us, Otto” said Oxholm. “I am Oxholm of the Maegar tribe. This is my brother, Drumtone. Next to him stands Baldur of the Urdar tribe and Danzig of your Duergar tribe.

“We have come to petition your assistance in mining and processing this mysterious, magical substance. It clearly has great potential and is coveted by a number of entities in the Arkadian Mountian Range, not all of them tolerant of our settlements.

“I have been authorized by our Thanes and Dwarf Council to offer you a home in our great city of Minas Thanex. If you are willing to cooperate with us I'm sure that you will be greatly compensated.”

“I'm not interested, Oxholm,” replied Otto. “My people had their chance to partake of the ember that called to me. They turned me away into the wilderness, friendless and without protection. I owe them nothing. The ember is ours, now, and we are under the protection of Fafnir. If you wish to arrange a mining contract in the Under Earth you should speak with him. He is the force to be reckoned with in these parts.”

“We have dealt with Fafnir, Otto,” answered Drumtone. “The dragon will not emerge from his fiery lair for some time. He attacked our settlement after we turned him down. We wounded him severely in the battle that ensued. His offer to take half of our ember and artifacts was not acceptable.”

“Ah, well,” sighed Otto. “That is the cost of commerce it seems. The ember is indeed potent and is a suitable currency for us, here. Perhaps Fafnir holds a grudge against our race.”

“He certainly, does,” answered Danzig. “Otto, you know me. We didn't understand what you were getting at on our mountaintop. Your connection to the ember is a blessing. Accept the apology of the Duergar Thanes. We can help. It is clear that the ember is an essential element of the symbiotic ecosystem in the Under Earth. It must be managed and analyzed properly. Our Dwarven craftsmen and jewelers are capable of doing the job. Let us help. We beseech you.”

“Alright, Danzig,” grumbled Otto. “I'll think about it. This is hardly the place to make a deal with Dwarves, though, as you are well-aware.

“Fafnir sleeps. I sense that now. Perhaps he is greedy. I will visit your city. Await my arrival. I have business that I must take care of first. We will meet again.”

Otto shook hands with the visiting Dwarves and they parted company. The surrounding goblins and orcs cleared a path for the foreigners to exit. Many of them uttered oaths of animosity toward them but they fell on deaf ears.

Oxholm and his companions reached the tunnel returning to the breach in the rock. He let out a sigh of relief.

“That went better than I expected, fellows. More bloodshed would not have been welcomed by me after what our people just went through.”

“Yes, brother,” replied Drumtone. “Reorx smiles on us. Let us hasten to Minas Thanex and inform the Thanes and council of Otto's reply. They await our speedy return.”

The warriors traveled without rest for several hours. Their torches extinguished and they lit fresh ones.

Danzig marveled at the presence of the ember in the goblin mines. I regret our past rejection of Otto's plan. It is clear to me, now, that the ember will prove a valuable asset to all Dwarves. We are sure to benefit from Otto's experience with the luminescent crystals. Let us hope the Thanes aid us in welcoming him into our fold.”

The travelers hiked past chamber with the cascade and large lake. They soon reached the breach in the rock and began the return trip to Minas Thanex.

As the Dwarves made the return trip through the disheveled mines they were surprised to see that the bodies of the fallen had already been retrieved.
 
TO BE CONTINUED...

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