Thursday, April 30, 2020
NPC - Elakera the Necromancer's Apprentice - Spinecastle
Elakera is the senior apprentice of the necromancer Glipkerio Kistomerces. Soon she will show her knowledge of the necromantic arts and begin her travels as a journeyman for seasoning in the outerworld before returning for more instruction. As an apprentice she traveled with a journeyman during one of their many trips and expeditions to aid Glipkerio. Soon she will be taking one of the apprentices and joining a small band of mercenaries in the employ of a half-orc warchief with plans to raid human lands to the south.
She has shown great talent and has been a favorite of Glipkerio. He has gifted her with an enchanted staff that provides immunity to the paralyzation abilities of some undead as well as allowing her to paralyze most humans, demi-humans and humanoids thrice per day.
She is very fond of creating potions and has a recipe for animating fresh corpses as zombies. She normally carries several bottles and will animate such dead to serve her at the first opportunity. She currently ha 6 fresh zombies ready to defend her and carry her luggage.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
NPC - Glipkerio Kistomerces of Spinecastle - Necromancer
Spinecastle is a city of the dead. Today it has a population of monsters and slaves but the dead far outnumber the living. Ghosts and ghouls haunt the ruined buildings and the dried and desiccated corpses of the unhallowed slain lie beneath the broken stone and collapsed buildings through-out the city. Perhaps no better place exists in the Flanaess for a Necromancer to practice their art or to begin a school dedicated to this unsavory dweomencraft.
Glipkerio Kistomerces is truly of the haggard corpse that is Spinecastle. His past and his origins are unknown. His face, slowly rotting from his body, is not even his own but he is recognized as a force and a power within the city.
He has settled in the ruins of a bastion tower along the cities east wall and from the nearby collapsed barracks of the city guard has raised a plenitude of servants and subjects both human and monstrous.
With two journeymen and five apprentices Glipkerio has formed a rudimentary necromantic school of sorts and his reputation in his dark field of study is continually growing.
Sunday, April 26, 2020
Nation - Mulwarian Warriors Ranber and Veerz
Only the most adventurous and far sailing explorers from Zeif have reached the distant land of Mulwar and returned. The last expedition by the Necromancer/Warrior Akl, captain of the ezma-barque Ancient Dawn, brought with him two warriors of that far off land, Ranber and Veerz.
Mulwar is a land of exotic spices and clothes, strange magic and Gods, unknown animals and monsters unheard of, but for the most part it is a land of war. It is a conquered land where the Changol Empire rules over a divided Mulwar and the Nation-States of Jahind seek to aid the exiled Mulwar Royality and stop the advance of the Changol legions.
Ranber and Veerz are Mulwar rebels and escaped the port-city of Zhinged aboard the Ancient Dawn with the Changol Imperials hard on their heels.
Ranber and Veerz are both former members of the Mulwar Royal Guard and their armor is a vestige of their former position. Both have retained the helm-masks that knights of Mulwar always adorned with Ranber still retaining the chain-cloth that would obscure the lower portion. This chain is enchanted to provide protection from smoke and fire, even allowing breathing underwater or in an airless room.
Both knights carry spiked war shields that are both weapon and defense. These shields are also enchanted to provide protection from normal missile weapons such as arrows, knives and darts.
Ranber is a middle-aged but highly skilled knight while Veerz is a warrior priest of the Goddess Yalaz, she of love and death.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - 2020 - End
"Telenstil, Derue, both of you come with me," said Gytha. She held up a torch freshly lit from the small fire and ran toward the center of the hall.
"I will cut you free," Telenstil said to Derue. "Please do not make me regret my action."
Derue remained silent but he bowed his head deeply as Telenstil passed his dagger's blade through the rope. The razor-edge split the cord as if it were made of straw.
They found them together, Gytha and Ghibelline, he seemed to breathe easier but she had not called upon her Saint to heal him yet. His shirt was off, his side was black, the color stretching from his armpit over all his ribs on the one side and a handbreadth below them. The skin around the elf's chest and stomach were a brownish yellow, painful just to see.
Gytha glanced up as Telenstil approached.
"It looks worse than it is," she said.
"It feels worse than you can imagine," Ghibelline complained.
"I can more than imagine," said Telenstil kindly, "I have been injured so myself, I can sympathize."
"Thank you, but sympathy does not lessen the pain," replied Ghibelline carefully. Just breathing made his ribs ache.
"No bones are broken," said Gytha, "I will wrap your chest tightly, you will hurt but it will fade." The people of her own lands, the wildland of hills and mountains that looked down upon the lowlands of Geoff, endured the pain of such small injuries with no complaint and little note. She felt for Ghibelline but saved the powers granted to her by the Saint for greater wounds.
"We came through intact then," said Telenstil. "Good."
"Why did the ground shake?" Gytha asked as she cut a hide shirt into long strips. With skilled hands she took the lengths of skin and wrapped them around Ghibelline's chest and sides. His arms were raised to shoulder height and they quivered from the strain. Old scars and wounds recently healed by Gytha's prayers crisscrossed the elf's back like a crude map, purple welts on pale fair skin.
* * *
The corridor was no shorter on their return, to the young mage it seemed that at least half of forever passed before they reached the ramp back up to the pillared hall. Harold rode on the bigger Harald's shoulder, the halfling happy as a child. Ivo sat upon one of the ranger's arms with his own arms folded across his chest, trying to retain a little dignity while the halfling laughed and joked. Talberth led them, he was eager to reach Telenstil, tell the elven mage of what he'd found and return to the rooms beyond the mist-filled portals. He walked fast and Harald jounced behind him to keep up.
"Stop that!" Harald yelled at the halfling.
"I'll fall off," the halfling complained, "I need a saddle up here."
"Well stop pulling my hair, it's not a set of reins," grumbled the ranger. He slowed and the sharp tugging at his hair stopped.
"Put me down," Ivo said firmly. "I've had enough of this."
"I won't go so fast," Harald reassured the gnome.
Talberth halted but he didn't look back. "We are almost there. See," he pointed, "there, that is the way back up. I'll go on ahead."
"Talberth," Harald snapped. "Hey!"
"Let him go," said Ivo. "And put me down. He's right, let him go."
* * *
"I can barely breath," Ghibelline winced as he spoke. He had both hands on his ribs and inhaled through clenched teeth.
"But does it still hurt?" asked Gytha.
"Yes, well not as much," he admitted.
"Telenstil," Gytha called to the mage, "we have come through this, but what of the others?"
"They've gone exploring, and to find Talberth," Telenstil answered quietly. "I have led our expedition badly, too many years I have spent accompanied by friends and companions of a hundred fights. We are all too independent and not yet attuned to each other, and I have been too lax."
"Telenstil you must lead us, you must not waver," Gytha told him firmly.
"I will," Telenstil said, "do not worry. Forgive my worries and lessening of resolve. I would that all of us were here, that our mounts and supplies had not been lost and that our mission was done. Instead we have paid for the wounds we have inflicted with wounds of our own. We may have to pay a greater price."
"Whatever the price," Gytha said, "I will pay back Nosnra and his kin for what he has done to mine."
There was a tap on Telenstil's shoulder and a gentle tug at his sleeve, Derue pointed across the chamber and cupped his hand to his ear.
"Shh..." Telenstil hushed the others. "Yes, I hear it."
"What?" whispered Gytha.
"I hear it," Ghibelline said, "footsteps."
Derue disappeared behind a pillar, Ghibelline reached for a sword that wasn't there, he'd left it by the packs and Gytha held her torch like a club, prepared to fight. Only Telenstil did not reach for a weapon or draw back. He listened and a smile crossed his lips.
"I know the sound of those feet," he told the others. "It sounds like Talberth in a hurry."
"You have good ears," said Gytha.
The footsteps came hurrying across the floor, clapping on the tiles in a quick uneven cadence. Even Gytha could hear them, but to her surprise they seemed to pass them by.
* * *
"Talberth!" Telenstil called and the footsteps came to a sudden halt.
"There you are," the young mage called back.
They could see the light from his amulet shining between the pillars as he approached. "What happened here?"
"One of the golems began to come alive," Telenstil explained. "It would not obey my command."
"You destroyed it?" Talberth asked with respect tinged with regret. He shined the light of his amulet up into the hollowed pillar where the golem's upper body had been, then higher up to the ceiling. The roof was fractured like a window of thick glass that had been struck by a rock.
"More that it destroyed itself," said Telenstil. "Is Ivo not with you, and the others?"
"They are almost here," Talberth approached and gave a start as Derue stepped from the shadows.
"What is he doing loose?
"Derue has rejoined us," Telenstil nodded toward the man and he nodded back, "Gytha has freed him of the curse, and I detect no more evil within him."
Talberth rolled his eyes in doubt but said nothing.
"I am glad to see you safe," said Telenstil, "but it seems some ancient ward has been woken. It was that which tried to revive a golem. I am worried that the trap which captured you may have set something in motion throughout this ruin."
"Someone approaches," said Ghibelline. "He can hear it too," the elf pointed to Derue.
The scout nodded and casually pointed to the side of the hall.
"Is that singing?" asked Ghibelline.
"It is," said Telenstil with a smile. "Harold at least seems to be returning."
They did not have to wait long, the singing wavered and was replaced with a deep grumbling voice whose wordless complaints almost drowned out the much higher and lighter replies. Ivo led them, walking a few paces in front, Harald still carried the halfling who sat behind his head and the young orc who was slung ungraciously over the ranger's shoulder.
"...get down and keep quiet," Harald said to the halfling.
"Ivo!" Telenstil went over to the gnome, reached down and clasped his shoulder. "Glad, very glad to see you and the others safe."
"We had our troubles," said Ivo. "It seems Talberth found his own way out, but we still had to drag him away."
Beside them Harald lowered Little Rat gently to the floor after reaching back with one hand and pulling down the thief. He caught a handful of the halfling's shirt and lowered him to the ground like a puppy clutched in its mother's mouth.
"Gytha," Harald said, "here, this one needs your help."
"He sleeps," she said examining the wounds on his head. "Not good," Gytha rolled back the orc's eyelids. "Harald, hold that light closer. Yes keep it above my head, but close."
"How is he?" Harold asked, concerned.
"He will need the Saint's grace. I will call for his aid," said Gytha.
"Do what you can," said Harold, "please."
"I will, do not worry," Gytha told him.
"Let her pray," said the ranger. He drew the halfling back and they joined the rest of the company where they had gathered near the shattered pillar. Man, elf, halfling and gnome sat or crouched on the ground in a rough circle. Nearby Gytha prayed for the gift of healing to be bestowed on the young orc. Telenstil smiled at the sight.
* * *
"Leaving!" Talberth cried. "We can't, there is too much here."
"Talberth, the danger outweighs the reward," Telenstil explained calmly. "We have rested, somewhat at least, now it is time for us to move on."
"We can't," Talberth waved his hand about trying to summon up the words that would convince them but he could find none, "I can't."
"Will you abandon us?" asked Telenstil.
"No, no," Talberth replied. "Of course not." The mage squared his shoulders. "But here, this place, it may contain magics that would destroy the giants completely."
"There is power here, yes," said Telenstil,"and I do not know. You could be right, but look around, the power is not ours to control."
"If we spent the time we could control the power," Talberth slapped his fist, "I know it."
"I am sorry Talberth," said Telenstil, "I do not agree. We will gather our packs and go. Come everyone, I wish that there had been more time for us to rest but we need to leave here now."
"It will still be dark out," Harald said.
"Better to be outside in the dark than in here any longer," Telenstil replied.
"I'll go see what it is like out there," the ranger volunteered.
"No," Telenstil shook his head. "No, we go together."
"Telenstil, a little scouting won't hurt." said Harald.
"It will no doubt help," said Telenstil, "it has helped, but not so far ahead. We will face what lies in wait for us together. Our strength is greatest only when we are not divided."
It was Harald's turn to shake his head, but he did not press his objections further.
* * *
"How is he?" Harold asked.
The halfling knelt beside Little Rat and watched the slow rise and fall of the orc's chest.
"Healed. Sleeping now," smiled Gytha.
"I brought your pack," said Harold, "you heard?"
"I heard," she yawned. "This one will need to rest, we will need someone to carry him. Where are the others?"
The halfling looked at her with a quizzical expression. His eyes widened and he slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. "The orcs!"
"Could they have escaped?" Gytha asked.
"I'd better go find Telenstil," Harold rose quickly, he scanned the room trying to decide where the elf had gone.
"Ask Harald to come here," Gytha called after him as the halfling took off at a run, "he needs to carry..." but Harold was already out of sight. Gytha busied herself with her pack, it contained little enough. With her horse and main supplies destroyed by the giants, the small bag she had brought with her on the raid of the steading was all that she had left. she would need to call upon the Saint's bounty for mere sustenance if they could not manage to supply themselves and this Gytha hated to do.
They'd taken hide pelts from the giants' hall and made crude sacks and cloaks from them. Beef cut from the body of giant cows, a herd slaughtered by magic bolts, filled some of the hide bags. The meat, blackened by fire, was wrapped in uncured leather, but it would not last. Already it had begun to decay, in a day the green rot would take hold if they could not spare the time to cook or cure the meat and then they would be left only with the crumbs of hard rations in the bottoms of their packs.
The smell from the hide sack she carried made Gytha wrinkle her nose and beside her Little Rat did the same. His eyes opened and he pushed himself up on his elbows. A long tongue licked thin lips and he yawned.
"Hungry," the young orc said. "What smell good?"
* * *
They looked like balls of fur, no sign of head, or legs, or even life. The gibberlings carpeted the floor of the passage, they were mere pups, but they would claw and bite if even the tiniest spark of life remained. Light was the only thing they feared. A torch would make them cower and run, and brighter light would freeze them in their tracks, drop them into motionless huddled shapes that would not move to save their lives.
Ivo and Telenstil were the last to leave. The elven mage had sent the others ahead to wait by the opening that had been clawed through the ceiling by the pack of gibberling adults. There had been forceful words spoken to Talberth, the young wizard hemmed and hawed and dragged his feet, not wanting to leave his friends, but desiring to stay and explore the ancient ruin. At the last Talberth turned his back on the chamber of pillars and monstrous golems then marched sullenly away.
"Look at them, the wee beasts," said Ivo.
"Amazing," nodded Telenstil in agreement. "At a different time I would stay here with Talberth and explore."
"I'd send for my cousins back home and look through this place properly," Ivo chuckled. "The things you find when you can't do anything about them. It reminds me of when I was young, long time ago now," He held a torch in his hand and lowered it to a pile of sticks and rags as he spoke. The flame leapt and danced among the tinder bursting into a blaze then dying low. "That should hold them," said Ivo. He left the torch atop the fire and retrieved a magic stone from the floor. "Don't want to leave this behind."
"We had best join the others," Telenstil said wistfully.
As Ivo put the magic stone away, placing it back within a metal sphere that he snapped shut with a loud click, the hall dimmed. Instantly the gibberling young began to move. Those furthest from the fire were partially hidden from its light. Some disappeared back into the pillared hall, most shifted but the flickering light from the fire was enough to hold them still. Ivo and Telenstil beat a hasty retreat down the passage and rejoined the rest of their companions. The fire would burn for some time, more than long enough for all of them to escape back to the forested hills above.
* * *
"There you are!" Ghibelline was the first to see their approach.
"Is everyone ready?" Telenstil asked.
"As we will ever be," answered Gytha. "Harald has been arguing with his little twin the whole time. We are going to abandon the orcs?"
"It is too late for them, as I said," Talberth spoke sharply.
"But did you see them..." Gytha went on.
"They wouldn't have survived, I wouldn't have either if I hadn't known the words to say and the language to say them in," Talberth replied. "They're gone."
"Let us be off then," said Telenstil. "Harald, can you climb up, is the rope in place?"
"I told you," the ranger said. He seemed to speak to all the others at once. "I can climb it, but I've been waiting here. Gytha insisted."
"She was right," Telenstil said quickly before Gytha could reply. The elf felt the tension which radiated from one to another. They had not found rest within the ancient ruins, and leaving it seemed to have brought out the strain that their flight from the giants' hall had set upon them. "I want us to stay together and not to break off into smaller groups or disappear one by one," he looked at each of them. "Harald you are our scout, but more caution is needed, and that means lesser distance."
"A scout is best left on his own," said Harald. "What good can I do if we all walk into a trap together?"
"Any warning will be of a help," Telenstil replied. "We will face any traps together, and our strength combined will overcome them. If a trap takes you, as this place almost did, then you will not be able to help us. I know you are used to scouting for your wildland patrols, but this is different, we are not scouts or soldiers, and we do not wish to lose you even to save ourselves."
"Do we still run, or are we turning back to the steading?" asked Harald.
The ranger stood at the end of the gully with Ivo and Telenstil beside him. The elf did not miss the displeasure in Harald's voice.
"We will turn back, but not yet," said Telenstil. "For now, yes we run, and still we need to find a place to rest, gather supplies and make plans."
"I thought that was why we went down that cursed hole," Harald nodded back toward the passage and the shaft down to the ruin.
"It was," said Ivo, "and since we didn't find any, we need to look again."
"Then we had best start looking now," said Harald gruffly.
"Lead us away from here," Telenstil told him. The elf put his hand on the ranger's arm. "I know you want to find a safe way for us to travel, but stay close."
Harald nodded, accepting Telenstil's command but grudgingly. "Have Ghibelline up at the front while I am scouting, he knows the woods as well as I."
"Ahead," said Telenstil, "not far."
"I know, I know," muttered Harald. "I know."
The ranger set off, disappearing into the woods that surrounded the crevice. He made his way to the north and west, away from the swath of devastation left by the gibberlings, toward the mountains and the lands untraveled by man.
* * *
The sky was purple, like a drop of ink swirled into a cup of water. Even the humans could make out dim shapes in the pre-dawn light. The ranger had no trouble with the dark, he moved quiet and sure as a hunting cat, seeming to meld into the brush and brambles.
The small company trekked along all morning. Their pace was slow, the old gnome, the halfling, the small orc, even Talberth the young mage held the others back. The elves, Telenstil and Ghibelline, moved through the woods with the ranger's skill.
Gytha had been born and raised among the hills and wildlands of her home, and Derue, though silent, seemed tireless and moved with a strange grace. At mid-morning they rested. Hours of travel but they had gone only a handful of miles.
The way had been rough, the forest thick and filled with thorn bushes, the ground rising and uneven with no real path to follow. Harald found an old deer trail a little after dawn and the narrow track had led them to a spring. The water was cold, flowing down from the mountain ice high above. A small pool collected in a hollowed shelf of rock, the shallow basin formed by countless years of the water's ceaseless flow.
The ranger had disappeared after leading them to the spring, he returned suddenly, stepping from a hidden path and out into the bare space of rock around the pool. "Telenstil," Harald said. "You will want to see this."
"What have you found?" asked the mage.
"We've climbed higher than I thought," the ranger wiped the back of his hand across his brow. "There's a cliff nearby, it looks back on the way we've come."
"Any sign of pursuit?" Telenstil asked him. The elf crossed around the pool and followed the ranger into the woods,
"Nothing," answered Harald.
"I will come as well," said Ivo.
"Why not rest while you can?" Harald asked him.
The gnome looked at the others. His companions were lying about the small clearing, some asleep with their packs pillowed beneath their heads. "Talberth is resting enough for both of us," he nodded to the mage whose breath whistled out in sharp snores.
* * *
The land dropped away suddenly, the wood ran to the edge of the cliff, trees jutting at angles, roots sticking from the steep side. Far below, the ravine that held the entrance to the ruin could not be seen but a wide bare strip of land pointed to it as if it were a city gate. Gibberlings had flowed like a river from the ravine, annihilating everything in their path, leaving only a large tree here and there amid the desolation that had survived the stream of claws.
The monster's nails grew quickly and never stopped. They worked them down on stone or wood, scratching away even at metal. They ate most things, leaf and fruit, root and bark, but they preferred flesh and bone. They stripped the forest bare even churning the ground in their passing. Harald stood behind Telenstil and Ivo, looking over their heads at the scene spread out below them.
"It goes on for miles," said Telenstil peering at the dark path of destruction left by the gibberlings.
"I wish it went through Nosnra's steading," Ivo said.
"No chance of that," Harald told him. "Goes too far to the east and the north. Probably go downhill first chance they get."
"Yes," Telenstil agreed, "unless something distracts them. Any giants out searching would draw them."
"No chance of that, they set out before we did," said Harald thinking about the tracks he'd seen. "They were streaming from that pit before we'd left the steading."
"What woke them?" wondered Telenstil.
"Not us," said Ivo. "That shaft up through the stone. That took time, even for those beasts, but fate had a hand in it I do not doubt. Some purpose... that was a close thing, if we'd been in their path..."
"We'd be dead," concluded Harald. "Wait...back, back, I see something."
A wolf the size of a pony appeared on the dark trail below them. It came from the south as they had, its head toward the ground. Harald could picture its nose snuffling as it found their scent and its actions seemed to match his thoughts. It stood and raised its head. The cry came to them, drifting up like a cloud of smoke, a long drawn out wail. Then it stuttered into a handful of barks. The answer came both from the south and the east, though the cries from the east were very near, while the call from the south was distant and faint.
"That's done it," said Harald.
"They have not found us yet," said Telenstil.
"They are on our trail," Harald nodded toward the wolf. "And they are close."
"We are better off higher up then," said Ivo. "I don't mean some cave, they'll starve us out or block us in. We'll have to fight them off."
"We will talk as we move," Telenstil held his arm out inviting them to rejoin the others at the spring.
"This place is no good," said Ivo. "There are cliffs above us, they'll roll boulders down and squash us like melons."
Harald looked toward the steep rise above them. A series of ridges like huge steps cut into the side of the mountain.
"More than a hill isn't it," said Ivo.
"A tall hill," Harald admitted.
"Or a small mountain," countered Ivo.
Ghibelline met them as they returned. "What is wrong?" he asked reading their expressions.
"Wolves on our trail, not wild ones either, the giant's pets and hounds," Harald said to him.
"Come, everyone up," Telenstil called to the others, "We must be going."
Derue was sitting with his legs folded ankles atop knees. He rose in a single fluid motion. While they were gone he had found himself a length of wood and with a borrowed knife had cut away the branches. Now he had a staff, a help to walk with and in his hands a weapon to be feared.
"Someone wake up Talberth," laughed Ivo.
* * *
"Sleep...let me sleep," Talberth groaned as Ivo prodded him in the shoulder.
"Company's coming lad," said the old gnome. "Guests for supper, maybe lunch if we don't get moving."
"I'm awake," Talberth pushed himself up. The mage's eyes were red and thick with sleep. He crawled to the edge of the pool and dunked his head in the chill water. "Yi!" Talberth gave a cry.
"Quiet there," Ivo chided him. He left the young mage shaking out his wet hair and shivering.
Talberth was the last, the others stood about the spring, prepared to go, some calm as was Derue, others impatient, all more angry than afraid.
"Ivo what of magic?" asked Gytha. "Can we hide from them, Talberth and Telenstil, can they not strike down those that follow us?"
"Illusion is good for fooling the eye, there are magics that can fool the other senses," the old gnome told her, "I can weave such around us that these beasts will think us stones or trees. Spells that will sow disorder among them or send their worst fears hounding after them."
"And I can strike some down," spoke up Telenstil. "But more will come. These giants are tenacious, their strength is vast, as will be the numbers that gather here by Nosnra's command. We will hide or fight as we must but we came to do more than just strike a blow against a score of giants."
"I came to kill Nosnra," said Harald firmly.
"Yes," said Telenstil, "and to find out who aids Nosnra or leads him. We have bought some time for those in lands below, for Geoff and Sterich and the Yeomanry, and beyond. I tell you what we have done so far is not enough."
"Telenstil take us back to the steading," Harald faced the wizard and though all heard what he had to say, his plea was directed at Telenstil alone. "Use the magic that has taken us to and from that place already, stop this running, we will never find a place of safety in these mountains. While we have strength let's use it, use it, kill Nosnra and as many of his kind as we can."
"Friends," Ghibelline came from the edge of trees. "We waste time here."
"Yes. Harald you speak from despair," said Telenstil. "The time is not yet, I hope it never comes, when we must trade our lives for Nosnra. We will bring him low and we will survive. Now lead us to a better place to fight if that is what we are forced to do. Up the mountain."
"I go, but I will speak of this again," the ranger set off and Ghibelline urged the others on.
"There is more of the track we took before," said Ghibelline as they started out. "Harald says it must be goats beyond the trees, up there," he pointed above them toward the rocky slopes, "this must be a mountain, nothing except stones. I've never seen a mountain before."
"Surely you have," said Gytha.
"Not up close, no," Ghibelline smiled. "Hill lands are different and I've lived most of my life among the trees."
"I've never seen the woods except looking down on them from the hills," said Gytha.
"I'd rather not see either," complained Harold. "The only stones I want are set in walls or paving the streets, the only trees should be floorboards and tables."
"Quiet down," Harald said in a sharp whisper. The ranger had circled back on them and stood on a short ledge that overlooked their path. "There is a camp up ahead. Empty now but giants were there this morning."
The mountainside was a wild, rocky place. As the summit grew nearer the trail steepened till they were all half-climbing, leaning into their staves or against each other for support. Harald had run up the path, quick and sure as a mountain goat despite his size and years. He ran back and now led them to the camp.
"How did they get here?" asked Ghibelline. "Not the way we just came."
"Over the top and down from the other side," said Harald. "It's the peak up there, beyond it's a range, not just a single mountain."
"How can you tell?" Harold asked.
"You can see more from the camp," said the ranger, "it's on a ledge that curves round the side."
"This trail, the stones have been carved away by water, haven't they?" Ghibelline ran his hand down the smooth side of the rock.
"Water," said Ivo, "water and time. The two will split a mountain."
"No sign of it now I suppose," said Harold loudly. "All this talk, it's getting me thirsty."
"Quiet there..." warned Harald. "There's a pond by the camp, though the giants and their wolves have been at it. Keep him away from the waterskins, he'll drain them dry."
"Hey..." Harold started to complain, but Ivo put his finger to his lips and hushed him.
They came up from the steep trail between a boulder to the east and dense brush to their left, the west side of the ledge.
"We've turned," whispered Ghibelline.
"Yea," that trail seemed straight enough didn't it," Harald agreed. "Loose an arrow down that path and you'd see the curve."
The wood elf and the ranger circled the clearing, one to either side as the others made their way up onto the wide ledge. There was a clearing before them, much like the little spring they had left below, but here the trees had been felled and the stumps either pulled up or turned into the legs of a bench and table of massive size. The center of the clearing was bare except for a large pit, the remains of a campfire still smouldering within the circle of stone. A roasting spit was left above the embers and on it the bones of a massive elk, bits of bloody flesh and gristle still clinging to the ribs and haunch.
The ranger came back to the group as they gathered by the firepit. He watched them for a moment, a tinge of resentment and anger at the limits set upon him by Telenstil, but a stronger sense of care for his companions overwhelmed such petty thoughts. He was angry because he could not protect them, the same way that he had failed to protect his homeland from the depredations of the giants. The memories of the dead came back to haunt him. They fled and each step that took them further from Nosnra and his steading ate into Harald's spirit, gnawing him down to his heart.
"Could we cook some food?" asked the halfling staring at the smouldering ashes in the pit.
"We should not stay that long," said Telenstil.
"This place is no better than the spring," said Harald. "Up there the trail is above us, and there is even less cover here."
"They've cut down all the trees," said Gytha. "Those stumps are old."
Harald nodded in agreement. "They've been using this as a camp for some time."
"Where did they go?" asked Talberth. "And why did they come here?"
"They went downhill," answered Harald. "The path they took is to the east, it goes down and up along that side of the mountain."
"More settlements lie to the east," said Telenstil. "Those messengers, they were headed in that direction, and those herdsmen they were coming from the east."
"These mountains and hills are thick with giants," Harald said grimly. "They infest this land."
"Well, other than giants we should not have any beasts or monsters to worry about," said Telenstil brightly.
"What of those wolves?" asked Harold. The halfing felt more and more lost out in the woods beyond the walls of cities and the comfort of paved streets and warm beds.
"They serve the giants," said Harald.
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Harold replied.
* * *
"What now?" asked Harold.
"I should have brought a sage along," said Telenstil. "Perhaps it would have been a good idea at that. We keep moving," he said to Harold and the others.
"Then we move," said Ghibelline firmly. He looked from one to the other of his companions till he had met each of their eyes, even that of the small orc who kept himself behind the halfling. "I tell you I cannot feel anything but hope about our actions. I was in a place equal to that of the very Hells. Death would have released me but not before much pain. Torture was my fate at the hands of those monsters, you freed me as you freed Jalal."
"I regret that he did not enjoy his freedom long," Telenstil said sadly.
"I wish that he had lived..." said Ghibelline.
"We all do," Gytha touched his arm. Ghibelline smiled.
"I can speak for him, escaping was enough, just one breath of freedom was enough. I never thought I'd see the sky or be among the trees again. Whatever happens I have had my freedom. All you have yours, before I was captured I didn't know, not till we stepped from Nosnra's hall, not till then..."
"We had better go," Telenstil told them. "But Ghibelline. Everyone. Ghibelline speaks true. We are here by our choice, free to go if that is how our fate takes us."
Harald shook his head but did not speak. The old ranger led them from the giants' camp, taking them along the eastern edge of the slope where a path had been cut through the boulders and the trees. Stones had simply been tossed aside or split and the fragments rolled down the hill. The giants had carved their trail long ago and kept it in use, no plants had taken root. During the spring the path ran like a city sewer, dark silt and mud pouring down, cutting deeper into the oerth till there was only bedrock paving the way.
This was a stark land, the hills turned quickly into mountains and the mountains seemed to go on forever, rising higher and higher as they climbed toward the west. The lower slopes were thick with green, and valleys were plentiful between serrated peaks. As the mountains grew taller, snow sat upon their shoulders like great white shawls, the tops rising above, too high for the frozen carpet, some so tall that they disappeared in the clouds. The view offered to the party as they stepped upon the giants trail was breathtaking. It forced a smile to the ranger's lips. The grandeur of Oerth, its vastness and beauty struck a chord at the center of his being. He felt comforted by the sight.
"This is the Oerth Mother's true temple," he said.
"The trees are pleasant, though it is a little sad to see them penned by those mountains," said Ghibelline.
"They are a might high," mused Ivo.
"The stones up among the peaks, they're old, it's said they make the howls that you hear on the wind," Harald told them. "They cry out as time wears them down and the cold splits them. That's why mountain dwarves are grim, living up among the ancient stones."
"We are truly in the middle of nowhere," complained Harold, but quietly.
They all stood for a moment, looking out from the ledge toward the north and west. The sound of the stones calling out seemed to be on the wind. It made the halfling shiver and brought the ranger back from his revery.
"Wolves!" he cursed. "Look down there." he pointed to the valley floor to their east. Half a dozen grey shapes moved along the bare path far below. They howled and their voices were not that of ancient rock or wind.
"They're above us too," warned Ghibelline.
The first call had come down to them from the mountaintop and the wolves below them cried out an answer to that call.
"Telenstil, can we fly from here?" asked Ivo.
"Not yet," he shook his head. "Not all of us, no. I have the power for a spell or two but not the ring. I've drawn upon it too much, it needs to rest and recover its strength."
"I will hide us then," said Ivo. "Do not leave the clearing, the spell is very powerful but it has its limits."
"Not invisibility," moaned Harold. "Last time I was nearly stepped on."
"Stop complaining," said the ranger, he gave the little halfling a small nudge with his boot.
"I will weave us into the spell and make this camp appear as if we were not here and had never even passed this way," Ivo explained. "Now to the edges of the camp, move if you have to but stay as still as possible."
"How long will this last?" asked Talberth.
"As long as I wish," Ivo murmured, forming the picture of the clearing in his mind.
The old gnome took a small crystal from his pack, uncut, its sides were rough and cloudy. He held it between both hands and rubbed it in his palms. There were words, but the others could not make out what he said, they came as if from far away like the echo of a voice heard faintly in a deep cavern. Ivo brought his hands up so that they were even with his eyes and still rubbing one against the other began to pull them apart. A glimmer of light appeared, he kept up the motion of his hands as if they were still one against the other but drew them away. The crystal had transformed, now it looked to be a glimmering cube, one corner pointing toward the oerth while it spun slowly like a top.
In a flashing burst of light the crystal was gone, the clearing took on a double image for a moment. All was the same but layered over one with another, the same camp but empty, a blank space where each companion stood. This double vision sent a sharp pain through the viewer's eyes till Ivo approached and tapped them on the arm or side, one by one.
"See what is true," he told them and the illusion disappeared. "Rest assured, the wolves and giants will see, smell and hear what I wish them to, all their senses will be deceived."
"They better be," whispered Harold.
* * *
The first of the wolves reached the campsite all too soon. It was a large beast the size of a pony. One ear had been split, and scars and missing fur dotted its head and muzzle. The beast strolled into the camp as if it owned the place, lifting its leg and marking a large tree stump with its scent. Rounding the edges of the clearing it passed by first one then another of the group, close enough so that its fur brushed Talberth's leg. The young mage froze in place, his knuckles white on the hilt of a dagger in his belt. The wolf stopped and scratched at the spot where its fur had been ruffled then bent its neck back and worried at it with bared teeth. It rolled over like a puppy then and with legs in the air squirmed back and forth in the dirt. Rising, it shook itself, spraying its unseen foes with a shower of pebbles. With a large red tongue lolling from the side of its mouth, the wolf strode to the fire-pit. Snapping jaws tore ribs from the carcase that had been left behind. It settled down on its stomach, holding up a grisly bone between two paws and gnawed, stripping away what little flesh was left then grinding noisely till the rib cracked beneath its teeth.
* * *
There was a clatter on the stony path, half a dozen wolves came gambling into the clearing. They turned from the trail and crashed together, gangly as puppies, yipping and yowling, biting and nipping at one another. A deep-throated growl from the grizzled pack leader sent the others slinking and whining. One small fellow rolled on his back so that his white-haired belly was up in the air while his tongue lolled from the side of his mouth. The older wolf walked over, proud and stately as any king and placed his paw on the younger wolf's belly then opened his jaws wide and yowled. The whole pack replied and an answering cry came from above. The small wolf gave forth a gurgling response but the paw on his stomach hampered his attempt. A nip from the pack leader as he took his paw away sent the small wolf scrambling to his feet. All seven of the wolves formed into a semi-circle that faced the path, the largest, the old pack leader, at the center.
More wolves came running down the path, but these turned gracefully and entered the clearing at a slow walk. These new arrivals were as black as soot and had eyes to match. None were bigger than the smallest of the grey-coated wolves, but there were a good deal more in number. Just one short of two dozen, the black-coated wolves filled the trail.
One small wolf, half the size of the old grey leader, walked slowly into the clearing and stood facing the seven larger wolves. The pack leader of the greys slowly approached the small black wolf, then stopped suddenly, its muzzle only inches from the other wolf's nose.
The two stared eye to eye for several moments while the wolves to either side swayed on their feet, some letting their tongues hang loose or turning their ears one way or another, but never moving from their place. Finally the black lowered its head and put its nose almost to the ground. The old grey put out its paw and almost seemed to tap, once, on the black wolf's head. The effect was like a thunderclap. The greys and blacks broke out into a jubilant cacophony of howls and barks. The two leaders sat back on their haunches while their packmates greeted each other head to tail then burst into races across the clearing.
Hidden from the senses of the wolves the companions grimaced and clenched the hilt of a weapon, or muttered a prayer, or cowered slightly, (Little Rat was not alone in this) or kept the components of a spell at hand. All unseen, unheard and unsmelt. But only Ivo paid the wolves no mind. The old gnome kept up a sub-vocal chant as he weaved his spell. His thoughts enrapt with what he wanted the spell to show and only vaguely aware of the wolves around him. The powerful illusion masked the humans, elves, halfling and orc, so much so that one wolf who skittered across the stones into the large ranger's legs, never even thought to look to see what it had hit.
The wolves played, though fights of a more serious nature broke out here and there, only to be met with growls and snapping teeth from one pack leader or the other. Then without warning they all became still and silence flowed back into the clearing from where it had been chased by the rambunctious wolves.
* * *
Voices could be heard raised in song. Deep and booming, they
echoed down the hill, across the valley floor and reverberated from the stony slopes of the neighboring heights.
"A snapping bow!" sang out a powerful voice.
"A burning flame!" came the response from a dozen throats.
"A grinning wolf!" the single voice sang back.
"A grunting boar!" the chorus of voices replied.
"A raucous crow!" "A rootless tree!"
"A breaking wave!" "A boiling kettle!"
"A flying arrow!" "An ebbing tide!"
"A coiled adder! "The ice of a night!"
Over the tops of trees and the edge of rock could be seen a
monstrous shaggy head. A giant with a mane of hair like a lion's and a beard that was long as any dwarve's, its end stuck in his belt. This giant was all red-brown and grey, his skin dusky like oerth dried in the sun and his teeth broad and yellow. He opened his mouth wide and a rumbling bass flowed out.
"A bride's bed-talk!" he sang.
More shaggy heads appeared behind him, though none as tall as their leader. Side by side in pairs they came, singing out a reply in chorus.
"A broad sword!" they chanted back.
"A bear's play!" the bass voice resonated through the air.
The black-coated wolves came forward and the grey's drew back. Their leader paced across the stones and his pack followed. They waited near the entrance to the trail for their masters to arrive.
A full dozen giants followed the tall elder warrior. He
carried an axe of blackened steel and iron, and swung it from
hand to hand as he walked, though its haft was the height of a man and the head heavy as an anvil.
Those that followed carried weapons in their hands. Axes like that of their chief, swords with blades longer than the haft of a spear, spears tall as trees and hammers that no man could hope to lift. On their shoulders were set the ends of poles, linking one giant with his brethren following behind, the two in tandem. Heavy sacks bowed these lengths of wood, but the giants did not seem to mind their burden. Their voices showed no strain as they chorused their response.
"A Chieftain's children!" the verse rang out, a dozen voices
"A witch's welcome!" "The wit of a slave!"
"A sick calf!" "A corpse still fresh!"
"A brother's killer!" "A hall half-burned!"
"A racing wolf who has wrenched a leg!" the giant chief bellowed into the clearing, as he stepped from the trail. "Are never safe."
"Let none trust them!" his dozen followers finished with a
"Konig!" the chieftain called to the black-coated wolves.
With slow and even strides, the packleader walked over to his master and lay down before the giant's feet.
"I see that some of Karnash's pups have met you here," the giant said to his wolf. "Big." he commented in a loud voice, then turned his head to the giants behind him, "But stupid."
* * *
"Ho! The camp! Hvedrung!" a voice boomed from the lower path. "Hvedrung!"
The grey wolf bounded toward the entrance of the trail, the rest of the grey pack yipped and howled, but did not move.
"What was that noise!" the deep, rough voice bellowed. "Fjolver! Is that you and your boys singing, or is that a moose caught in a trap?" a giant called, as he stepped into view from the lower trail.
"Hlebard!" yelled back the old giant, the master of the black wolves. "Your pups have been waiting for you. But no need to worry!" laughed Fjolver. "My wolves have been keeping them safe."
"Pups!" Hlebard laughed back in mock outrage. As he stepped from the trail a small group of giant warriors stepped up behind him. "You see the world upside down and backwards, Old One. Are those black-haired whelps of yours full grown?"
Fjolver just laughed in reply, his sides heaving and his face going red. "What brings you here?" he asked when his breath returned.
"Bad business," said Hlebard. His voice dropped to a growl and the laughter fled from him.
"We have just arrived," the older giant swept his hand back toward his followers to show them standing with their burdens still on their shoulders. "You are welcome to come within our camp."
"We offer our thanks," said Hlebard. "All blood-debt and hard words are left outside the ring of fire-light. Let they be forgotten in the dark."
"Let them be forgotten," Fjolver and all his warriors replied together.
The two leaders reached out and clasped forearms then Hlebard's warriors walked past the two and into the camp. The grey wolves ran to meet their masters. The giants kicked and swatted at them playfully as they went to greet their fellows from the west. Hlebard's and Fjolver's warriors showed no sign of any feud or ill-feelings that might have lain between them. Instead they seemed like old friends, meeting for the first time in several seasons. This was the way of the giants of the western hills and mountains. Campsites were sacred places. Only a renegade would bring or start a feud within the boundary of the fire's light.
"Hlebard, your news?" asked Fjolver, "Do you have time to first break the fast of the trail? We have food and drink to share."
"No," Hlebard shook his head. "We must first speak of these tidings."
Fjolver turned toward his warriors and called to a large, red-haired giant. "The fire is cold. Svarang, you are the fire's servant for this camp."
"Aye Fjolver," the giant bowed his head respectfully. He lowered the end of the huge pole that sat on his shoulder and as he did, the giant behind him shifted the ponderous weight off his own shoulder as well. The canvas sacks that were slung from the wooden pole smacked solidly against the stones and gave forth an audible grunt. Now the other giants began to drop their burdens as well, till they had piled them in several rows.
Svarang led two of his fellows off to the edge of the camp. They passed close to the gnome Ivo. One huge foot seemed about to trod upon the small wizard, but the power of the spell turned the giant’s tread and the foot came down to one side, while Ivo kept up the weaving of his spell.
Soon a fire blazed again within the pit at the center of the camp. The giants formed two half-circles about it, their arms outstretched to the sky. In their hard tongue they chanted together, calling for the fire to send forth its light.
At the edge of the camp Ivo felt the touch of power reach out and contest with his magic spell. Heavy and solid, the magic of the giants was crude but filled with strength. The witans of many halls, magician-priests like the cold Suel-barbarian skalds of the east, had cast many enchantments on this spot.
Fjolver, the old giant, was no doubt something of a witan himself, or so Ivo sensed. The power drawn from the chanting of the giants seemed to feed into Fjolver and out into the fire. The flames danced and roared as if in reply to the giants' words. It appeared to Ivo as if he could see the faces of many giants in the flames. A long wavering hand pointed toward him, reaching out as if to tear the illusion of his spell apart in its fiery grasp.
Old words, that came from the depths of the past and the oerth, came to Ivo's lips. The secret tongue of gnomish magic. Centuries of skill wove the soundless words into a shield, a net, a covering like the dirt that filled a grave, and the faces within the fire wailed and went out. Only the dim embers of the fuel were left at the bottom of the pit.
"Ahhhhh!!!!" moaned Fjolver and clasped his hands to the side of his head. The wolves lifted their voices and muzzles to the sky and howled.
* * *
Orc bones cracked within the hands of the Keeper. The undead giant had wormed his way through the small caverns that had been home to the rebellious orcs. In desperation a handful of those who had taken part in the Keeper's death had turned and struck at him. Gaping wounds were half-closed on his cold, unhallowed flesh. The blades of weak and frightened orcs had not saved them from the vengeance of the giant. All had died. Most within the depths of caves whose floors were traps of mire and unseen falls into the depths. Some had been eaten by the great blind lizards which dwelled near the fast subterranean stream that ran beneath the steading. The last, those too scared to run or a few brave enough to fight, had been torn to pieces, their bones snapped and crushed, their bodies shredded against the rough stones of the cave.
"Come...!" hissed Ardare in the giant's mind. "Come... stop your play. Vengeance! Vengeance!"
"Vengeance," the Keeper repeated the word, grasping at it with his spirit, feeling a fiery power flow into his chill body.
"To Kalfashow, to my brother," the red snake that filled his mind spat out. "Command, I command. To Kalfashow, the surface."
"Vengeance," growled the Keeper. "Kalfashow and our vengeance."
The Keeper began to pull stones away, still on his belly and crawling like a snake. A great fall of rock was between him and the passages beneath the steading. The undead giant worked with strength greater than he had possessed in life. He did not pause, but wormed his way forward, oblivious to pain, though more rock fell on top of him and shards of stone stabbed at his hands.
* * *
"Fjolver!" several giants cried out, seeing the pain that had overcome their leader. Those that had blades drew them, while the others turned this way and that, hands clenched into massive fists. But Hlebard glared at the embers of the fire, then looked slowly about the clearing with a knowing look in his eyes.
"Bolthorn," Hlebard said to one of his warriors, "take some of the wolves and have a walk around."
"Yes Hlebard," answered the giant, and he whistled. Several of the greys pricked up their ears, stopped their howl and trotted after Bolthorn.
"This fire-ring's been broken," moaned Fjolver.
"Hear my news then, Fjolver. Something killed our kin as they drove cows meant for Nosnra," said Hlebard. "Killed them with fire."
"Some beast?" asked one of Fjolver's band.
"A beast yes," said Hlebard. "Men or maybe elves."
Fjolver spat into the fire and the embers hissed. "Elves," he said as if the word were a curse. "They must be near. Magic-users, cursed spell-casters, dweomencrafters."
"Maybe," Hlebard glanced around the clearing again. "Maybe they cursed our camp, left us a trap."
"Maybe they are here," said Fjolver. As he raised his head a long red trail ran down his cheek. His eyes bled.
"If they are, then the wolves will find them," Hlebard said firmly.
"Bring wood! Bring wood!" Fjolver called to his kin. "Bring that dwarf. We will see if a sacrifice of one of the hairy swine will break this curse upon our fire."
"A dwarf?" asked Hlebard, looking toward the cloth sacks.
"Costly sacrifice that."
"This one is trouble," muttered Fjolver. "Cost Sokkmimir his hand and killed three wolves. Hjalm dropped him with a rock to the head. No smith this one, but a warrior."
Hlebard nodded agreement. "Best for the fire then. Why did you bring him?"
"Gift for Nosnra," said Fjolver shortly. "Where is that dwarf!"
Two giants of Fjolver's band had gone to the sacks and begun to empty them. They rolled the contents out upon the hard stone. Food, and cloth, and the clatter of weapons.
"Not that one!" reprimanded one giant. "It's the dwarf we want."
The giant, a young warrior barely past the rites of adulthood, tossed what was near at hand back into the sack he'd emptied.
"Leave it," said the other giant with disgust in his voice. "Find that dwarf. Who carried him? I know he wasn't in my baggage."
"Here," said the young giant with relief. He upended another sack and a dwarf fell free. "Got 'im."
"Ha!" snorted the older giant. "You got nothing. That's not him. They left the mail on that one so Nosnra could skin him. Well now we can cook him in it."
The dwarf fallen from the sack was bound and gagged. His long beard and hair were tangled with the ragged strips of cloth that the giants had used to tie him. Bruises covered his face, black and purple. He looked out toward the edge of the camp as if he could see beyond the magic veil of Ivo's deluding spell.
* * *
Ghibelline stared at the face of the dwarf and muffled a cry of shock and recognition. He'd watched the approach of the giants with growing anger, tinged with fear and memories of pain. Two bright lights had he found in the darkness of Nosnra's dungeon. Two friends, Jalal, the old Baklunish sage who had survived only long enough to breathe free air again, and Ginnar, a captive dwarven warrior-smith who had been left behind. They had been closer than kindred to Ghibelline and it pained the elf to know that Ginnar was trapped in darkness while he had escaped into the light of day and open sky. This dwarf had the look of Ginnar, and at the first glance it seemed as if it was his friend that lay upon the stones at the giant's feet. But it was not so, and Ghibelline sighed, relieved and ashamed at his relief.
"Is this one him?" asked the younger giant. He pulled out another dwarf, his large fingers wound into a dark mass of hair, and lifted a short, squat, struggling figure from a cloth sack.
"Watch..." the older giant started to say. The dwarf was tied with thick rope. His arms wrapped tightly to his sides, but they had only bound his legs with a cord knotted about the dwarf's booted ankles. At some point, and through joint tearing twists and wriggles, the dwarf had slipped this cord, though not the rope around his arms and chest. His legs were free, and as the giant lifted him from the sack and bent to peer down into the dwarf's face, an iron-nailed boot-sole lashed out. Blood splashed out from the giant's nose, now broken, smashed like a ripe fruit falling from high onto a stone. The giant howled and dropped the dwarf, both hands held to his wounded face as if to protect his now ruined noise, but the damage had been done.
"Don't let him get away!" yelled the older giant, but blood was in the other's eyes and he was blind with more than pain. Iron nails snapped sharply against the stones. The dwarf hit the ground and ran. Giants were after him and his short strides had not taken him far before a hand was sweeping down to strike him aside.
Large as a barrel's lid, the giant's hand seemed like it could not miss, but the dwarf dropped and rolled to one side. The giant stumbled forward, and the dwarf was on his feet again. Wolves were running loose about the camp, and a call from several giants sent the pack leaping after the dwarf. The giants could be avoided, the dwarf had leapt between the legs of one that blocked his path, but the wolves would surely have him. Three of the quick, black-haired monsters were almost upon the dwarf. He'd nearly reached the edge of the camp, only a few strides before the place where Ghibelline watched from the hiding place created by the power of Ivo's spell.
Spinning round to face them, the dwarf braced himself, ready to die kicking out at the jaws of death that pursued him. The wolves were near, more were behind them, and the giants came on as well.
"Stop!" bellowed Fjolver. "Take him alive!" the giant ordered.
The wolves skidded to a halt and snarled. One snapped its teeth an inch before the dwarf's large nose. The other two circled to either side. The black-coated wolves were well trained and quick to obey. Ghibelline was not so quick. He heard the shout and saw the wolves obey, but he had rushed forward with his sword drawn and could not stop himself as he broke the weave of Ivo's magic spell.
As if he had pulled upon a dangling thread of an intricate and delicate tapestry Ghibelline's action unraveled the complex enchantment that Ivo had cast upon the camp. The spell dissipated like morning mist in the light of the rising sun. It took only a moment and then it was gone, lost from memory like a dream upon waking. The wolves and giants came to a halt, staring at the small group of the little people who had appeared in their midst.
Ivo's hands moved in surprising swiftness as he tried to catch the broken thread of his illusion, but the stuff of magic was gone and he found that he grasped only air. "What...?" he stuttered, his mind still forming pictures of how he wanted the camp to appear to the senses of the giants and the wolves.
"Oh Hells!" cursed Harold. The little thief's eyes went wide.
Ghibelline could not stop the swing of his sword. His blade slashed down and opened a long and wicked cut along the flank of one wolf. The beast yowled in pain and tried to leap away. Its cry broke the silence of the camp. Suddenly there was a yammer and howl of voices. The wounded wolf was struck again. Steel cut open its hind leg and removed its tail. Rolling, it sprayed out blood and its mouth frothed with bile and rage.
"Ghibelline!" yelled Gytha. She sprang toward him and shouted out a prayer that was also a cry of defiance. "Cuthbert! Your blessing upon us! Let your strength banish the strength of our foes!" Behind her the ranger raised his sword.
The claymore glowed with a silver light, perhaps a reflection from the sun off the burnished steel, but more likely a surge of power from the enchantments laid upon the blade.
"Wait!" Telenstil yelled beside him and grabbed the ranger's arm. "Kas-Va!" the mage exclaimed and tossed a handful of red dust at the surprised warrior. Harald grew, as did his clothes and gear, but his sword remained the same, the blade impervious to minor magics. Standing twice as tall as he had been only a moment before, no longer did the giants tower high above him.
"Hah!" grunted Harald in surprise, but he was pleased. He threw himself into the battle.
While Telenstil cast his spell and Gytha prayed, Talberth had drawn out his wand and sent a bolt of lightning into a crowd of giants. It burnt them and killed a black-coated wolf who charged unknowingly into the path of the deadly magic bolt. The giants were not greatly hurt, and now doubly enraged, they ran toward their hated foes. Derue moved like a cat. He pounced and drove both hands, knuckles striking like spears, into the stomach of a wolf. He struck only moments after Ghibelline's first blow and the third blow of his hands came as the elf cut his wolf the second time. The edge of Derue's hand whipped down on the prostrate wolf and with a crunch, crushed the monster's throat. He left it dying on the stones.
"Stay behind me," Harold said to Little Rat. The young orc had a knife in either hand. Harold glanced back and saw him licking the edge of the blades. "Stop that, it makes me nervous," he told him.
* * *
The dwarven warrior kicked at the snarling muzzle of a wolf. Jaws opened wide and the booted foot was caught within a trap of fangs. They both tugged. The dwarf, hopping on one foot, his balance in peril, could only weakly try to free himself from the wolf's mouth. The wolf bit down, but the boot was pushed too far in for the fangs to pierce the thick sole. It was a losing battle for the dwarf. One precarious hop at a time, he was dragged forward. Then a flash of silvered steel swept down. The trap was sprung and the dwarf fell, his foot suddenly set free. He landed hard on his back, his mail shirt clashed noisely against the stones. Sparks flew around his eyes and a blinding flash of blue-white light streaked by him, somewhere to his right. He blinked away the dazzle, but a purple nimbus stained his vision. Trying to stand, he nearly fell again. The wolf's head was still firmly locked to his right boot. Severed at the neck, the beast's eyes were dead but the grip of its jaws was tight as steel.
The ranger's blade hissed with steaming blood. Harald killed a wolf, taking off its head, then ran to meet another that had come rushing at him. It leapt, trying for his wrist, but Harald was the quicker and his blade passed through the middle of the wolf. Two twitching halves fell to the ground amid a gory flow from the entrails of the beast.
"Hold! Hold!" called out the voice of Telenstil. Harald did not hear the voice or did not heed its warning call. A giant faced him. The monster bore no weapons but for his hands. One fist came down as if to smash Harald into the stones, but the ranger's sword met it. Oerthy flesh, tough as the hills, met enchanted steel. Mimming, Harald's blade, sang with the voice of rocks splitting in the cold. Flesh parted, as did bone, and the sword passed through the giant's arm clear to the elbow. The monster howled, horribly maimed, and grabbed the halved forearm in his other hand. He tried to meld the sides together again. Harald's backstroke went high, took the flesh from shoulder, took off an ear and a length of scalp. The giant fell to his knees and the ranger mercifully ended the wailing cry, severing the huge head in a single blow.
Talberth intoned a spell, "Fotia-Ena!" he said and tossed a yellow brown pellet toward the giants and the wolves.
"Harald!" Telenstil yelled again.
"I sent it past him." Talberth said without looking toward Telenstil. The pellet turned into an orange glow, like the heart of a burning coal, and the flames expanded. Fist-sized, it streaked past Derue and Ghibelline, then large as a barrel, it struck far beyond and to the right of Harald. There was a thud and then a whump like a gust of wind filling a sail, then a roaring ball of flame. High as the tree-tops, it caught half the giants from behind, wrapping them in a wave of fire.
"Tuli-Pal!" cried Telenstil. The elven mage followed his former apprentice's lead. A second pellet streaked by and grew into a ball of fire. Giants who were still aflame were caught within this second burst of fire.
"We cannot stop the others this way." said Talberth. "Not without roasting Harald as well."
* * *
A knife the size of a sword was stuck in the headless giant's belt. Harald pulled it free from the leather sheath with his left hand. The enchanted blade in his right contrasted strongly with the plain steel, but the two were in a pleasing balance. The weight of the blades in either hand brought Harald a sense of peace that had been lost to him for a long, long time. He was utterly calm. The light of the sun was fair against his skin, the air smelled sharp with fire and the seared flesh of giants, and a taste of copper-salt was on his lips from blood not his own.
Two giants assailed him. One had a club, a mere cudgel to the giant, but big enough to batter down a human door. The other held a knife, twin to that which Harald carried in his left hand. Mimming took the end from the club, while Harald traded cuts with the knife wielder. The giant gave as good as he got and blood ran from both their arms. Harald was quicker than either giant and Mimming flashed again, this time opening a deep cut in the knife wielder's leg. A stump of wood, all that was left of the giant's cudgel, went flying past Harald's head. Then the giant leapt and tried to knock the ranger down. Magic steel was thrust out like a lance and deep went in the blade. Ribs were shorn and a bubbling foam pushed its way from the split flesh along the giant's side. Harald had opened a mighty wound as he stepped forward beyond the giant's path. The heavy body slammed hard onto the stony surface. But the knife-wielder had struck again. Sparks danced from the coat of steel worn by the ranger beneath his old and weatherbeaten tunic. The giant's blade had the force of a hammer as it beat redhot metal against an anvil. Harald could feel his ribs creak beneath the blow. Knife against knife clanged as Harald met the next sweep of the giant's blade. The giant's strength was like a fall of rock, mortal strength could not compare, and Harald was thrown back. His stumble saved his life.
A stone whizzed by, thrown by another giant. The knife-wielder jumped after Harald, but pulled himself back and bellowed at the one who'd thrown the rock. "Hey!" boomed out the deep voice. Harald nearly fell but his back touched something tall and sturdy as a tree. The smell of burning flesh was thick. Without looking Harald swept his enchanted blade around in a wide, turning arc. There was a thunk as if a tree was what he'd truly hit, but it was a giant's leg. Burnt black, flesh charred and hair gone to a greasy smudge, a giant faced him. It tried to scream through cracked and blistered lips, but no sound came out. It stepped and Harald pulled his blade free from the entrapping bone. Crack! High up on its thigh, the bone had split and the giant fell back, with a leg sword-split and broken.
The stones were sooty where Harald stood and all around him were the fire-touched bodies of giants. One or two had fallen, but most still lived. Twice struck by magic flame, some having been bathed in the lightning from Talberth's wand as well, these monsters would not die.
* * *
Mimming thrummed, the blade seemed happy and Harald let a tune whistle through his teeth. There were a half dozen giants to his right and almost twice that number to his left. They seemed to have forgotten his companions, their attention riveted on the man grown almost to their size and the glowing blade he wielded in one hand.
The wolves charged, they'd been near the edge of the camp where the company had been hidden. Derue, Ghibelline and Gytha fanned out to try and protect the mages, but it was all that they could do to protect themselves. Gytha ran to Ghibelline's side. He nearly took a swing at her, but turned his blade in time. Derue went to the left and brought down a wolf that was running toward the gnome. Three more went past, the last of the black-coated pack, their leader in the front. Ivo faced them alone. The old gnome made three quick passes with his hands and the words of power he used seemed to come from his mouth like smoke. In his mind he thought of molten rock cooling to solid stone and the wolves froze in place. There was a snap that Ivo heard and felt, but within, no sound that anyone else could ever hear. The lead wolf, Konig he was named by his master, had fought free of Ivo's spell. Leaving his packmates behind, he sprang at the small creature, hoping to rend it to pieces. A stone whizzed by and skimmed across the wolf's muzzle. Then a small shape flung itself atop the black-furred back, a pair of daggers stabbing into its side.
Little Rat twisted one knife in the wolf, and pulled the other out to stab again. The wolf spun and bit at the creature who had hurt it so. A keen edge cut above one eye, clipped an ear, then Konig had the arm in its jaw and bit hard till bones snapped. "No!" yelled out Harold. The halfling had been running forward, his sling useless while Little Rat was tangled with the beast. He drew out a magic spike, with a word it would bury itself deep in wood or stone. Harold spoke the word as he slammed the spike against the wolf's head. It whirred and sank in past the bone and into the monster's brain. Jaws opened wide and Little Rats' torn and broken arm dropped from the mouth. Harold was tossed aside like a rag doll, and the wolf ran off into the rocks and scrub.
To the right of Talberth and Telenstil, as they faced toward the camp and the path beyond, the wolves had gathered in a large number. The two mages sent a hail of magic bolts into the pack, grey-coats, big, strong and many. The missiles only stung them and made them howl. They came on lusting for the kill.
"Fo-Tia-Tikos!" yelled Talberth as he flung a ball of tar and sulphur at the wolves.
"No!" shouted Telenstil but it was too late. A wall of fire sprang from the ground just before the rushing wolves. It curved from the side of a stone outcropping, enclosed Ghibelline and Gytha on the near side of the flames and Ivo and the others to the left of Talberth as well. "Harald is out there!" Telenstil said and his voice was an accusation.
"I know," Talberth replied.
"I will not abandon him," said Telenstil.
"The wolves are at our throats and the giants are behind them," Talberth pointed with one hand.
The burning wall set three wolves afire. They ran like living torches, sending out streams of flame behind them. The others pulled back in time, singed fur and noses, but no fatalities. Beyond the wall, Harald fought alone.
"Prepare yourselves!" Telenstil called out to the others. "Harald needs us, follow me." The elf ran to the edge of the fire. He could see nothing through the flames. "No-it-us Ol-la Men-Na!" he shouted.
The wall of fire melted. A section at least ten yards wide dissolved as the power of Telenstil's spell overcame Talberth's craft. Ghibelline and Gytha were at the mage's side, Talberth was behind him. Derue flowed across the ground, quick and smooth as water in the moonlight. The old gnome wizard came after him, slow, but moving quick as he could. Only the halfling stayed behind. Harold wrapped Little Rat's savaged arm in a bandage. The young orc lay senseless.
The ranger could feel the heat from the wall of fire that had burst into life behind him. Nothing could come at him from that direction, the thought flashed through his mind, but he could not stand against the giants. A boulder sailed through the air, then through the flames. Harald moved, he charged the giants. Another stone smashed down where he had been. The claymore in his right hand flashed. Stabbing high, the point sought a giant's throat, but cut across a shoulder instead. Three giants circled him. One pushed around the edge of the burning wall to get at his back, but Harald turned and jabbed the monster in the gut. The cloth of shirt and pants ignited as the giant stepped back away from the blade and into the wall of flame.
"Got ya!" barked out another giant.
A hand slapped hard against the side of Harald's skull. Stars exploded in his eyes and danced merrily around as he shook his head to clear his sight. Blindly he slashed with his knife but struck nothing. A huge hand reached out and caught him by his neck, thick fingers clamping hard about his throat, crushing tight.
Harald drew the edge of the giant's dagger, that he used as a short sword, across the fingers that were wrapped about his neck. The steel edge grated against bone, the awkward angle running against Harald's chin and cheek. Blood of man and giant mixed, the hand was snatched away, and Harald fell to his knees gasping for air. Something came at him from the side. Harald did not look but swung his sword and tried to stand. Mimming opened up a giant's leg from knee to heel, but it did not stop the kick. The foot struck Harald's side, mashing armor, breaking ribs, knocking the ranger from his feet. The giant stumbled back, but others surged forward. One stamped and caught the hand that held the giant dagger. Fingers snapped, caught between metal, stone and the giant's heel. Harald stabbed the giant in its thigh then ripped the blade out so that a deep open wound gaped across its upper leg. The foot lifted and Harald pulled his broken hand away, but left the dagger behind. His hand was bent and pierced with the sharp ends of bone stabbing out from within.
* * *
"There now," said Harold. "That's the best I can do." He finished wrapping the badly mauled arm. He bound it tight with two sticks to keep the bone in place. His hand went to his dagger. Harold turned with his blade at the ready. Footsteps clomped across the stones.
"Mmmmm!" the dwarf tried to shout. A rag had been stuffed in his mouth and another strip used to tie it in place. He'd managed to spit most of it out, but not enough to speak.
"You seem to be the giant's foe," said Harold. "I hope that means that you will be a friend to us." The halfling gestured for the dwarf to be still and walked behind him. He'd sharpened the dagger to a keen edge and it cut through the rope that bound the dwarf's hands in a single draw. Immediately the dwarf pulled away the strip of cloth and spat out the rest of the rag. He coughed and sputtered for a moment before turning around to clasp Harold by the shoulders.
"Be friend. Yes," said the dwarf. "I be Nyradir."
"Well Nyradir..." Harold began to say, but his words fell from him and were lost. The wall of fire gave a huff and disappeared. Harold could see into the camp beyond, his eyes widened in alarm.
* * *
The ranger swept his sword before him, more to keep the giants at bay than to strike any down. A long arm lashed out and a huge fist cracked hard against his skull. Blindly he swung a backhand blow and a giant grunted as the blade hit with a meaty thunk. Harald swayed, stars in his eyes and a ringing in his ear. A two-fisted blow hammered him into the ground, his face smacking solidly, his head giving a bounce, and Harald was still. Two kicks were all the giants had time to give before Telenstil stepped through the gap he'd made in the firewall. Ribs snapped and Harald was lifted up with each mule-strong blow. Words that echoed like thunder in the mountains stopped them, stopped all those in the camp.
"Ket-Jo Sal-Ma!" came the words of power from Telenstil. His voice was loud and filled with menace. In his hand he held a strip of fine white fur, a rod of crystal pinned inside with thirteen needles made of silver. The elven mage opened his fist and without any movement of his own the pins flew from his hand. The crystal blazed with light and the strip of fur was utterly consumed, not even a speck remained.
A bolt of lightning flew from Telenstil. It struck a giant just behind the three that kicked at the body of the ranger. White blazing, almost living, it wrapped itself for an eyeblink around a giant's head. Already burnt and badly hurt from the burst of fire sent by the two wizards, the giant screamed, and shook, and died. The lightning was past the collapsing body and jumped from giant to giant before the first one fell. Five, six, then a seventh were caught by the rebounding bolt. An eighth was struck, then back again it went, dashing among the shaking forms.
"You never taught me that spell," said Talberth, his tone hushed with respect.
* * *
Telenstil didn't answer, but instead drew out a black chain from which dangled a handful of amber stones. "I've never even seen that spell before." murmured Talberth to himself.
For a moment the camp was quiet, then the wall of fire gave a huff and disappeared. It broke the silence and set the wolves to howling.
"Stand back!" yelled Telenstil. His voice was loud and filled with command, but it lacked the eldritch quality that had rung out as he'd cast his spell of power. With a twist of his hand he snapped the largest of the amber stones from the chain and hurled it toward the giants.
Fire blossomed, rising in a twisting pillar. Arms and legs formed, and a grinning head. The fire-creature had a wicked face. Eyes black as coal, fangs and claws glowing white hot and hair like molten steel. It gave a shriek like steam escaping from a kettle and tore into the giants around it.
"Away, away," cried Telenstil.
"Fire Elemental," Ivo glanced at the elf. "Dangerous."
"It will not attack me, but the rest of you stand clear!" ordered Telenstil.
The giants fought, but stone went through the creature and did little harm. Hands smashed at it, but the flame-flesh burned the mere oerthly hide of the giants. Clubs and daggers fared better, but they struck nothing solid, only parted the substance of the elemental's body which reformed itself as the wood or metal passed through.
Claws of fire left blazing cuts and slashes. Just the nearness of the creature set beards, hair and clothes ablaze. The elemental twisted, danced and laughed, its voice a shrieking, evil wail. But not all the giants faced the elemental. Some were near to Telenstil and the others. Some near the far edge of the camp by the path. And the wolves set upon prey that did not burn. They had no liking for fire. The elemental was a deadly beast, but only a distraction for the giants, it would not hold them long.
Ivo slipped a tiny bottle from a wooden case. A small tube, only a sliver of glass, was at the center of the bottle, surrounded by a dirty, yellow liquid. Inside the tube was a pinch of dark powder. Thrown hard by the old gnome, the glass shattered on the ground amid the wolves. Smoke, grey-yellow and dense, billowed from the spot.
"Friend," the dwarf, Nyradir, said, but he looked toward the fight and not at Harold.
The halfing could hear the concern in the dwarf's voice.
"Friend, Galar!" Nyradir cried out in alarm.
Harold looked to see what the dwarf saw. Fire rose up among the giants. The elf Ghibelline stabbed one of the monsters while Gytha smashed it across the knee with her iron staff. A stream of motion was Derue. He glided between two giants, swaying back from the club strike of one and ducking beneath a sweeping blow of another. Talberth sent a flight of blue-glowing magic bolts into a wolf that charged him, and a cloud of sickly vapors swallowed the rest of the pack. But what had so alarmed the dwarf, Harold could not see.
* * *
"Talberth, help me. We must grab Harald and get him out of here," shouted Telenstil.
"We will never move him," Talberth said breathlessly. "Wolves!" he shouted in turn, his eyes flashing toward the smoke-cloud created by Ivo's spell.
A handful of the beasts jumped from the wafting edges, their hair lank and greasy with a shiny, yellow oil. More staggered from the cloud, some dropped and rolled in the dirt, others wiped at their muzzles with paws bitten by the magic smoke.
"You two get Harald," Ivo told the two wizards. "I'll take care of these." The old gnome held a white feather in his hand and waved it toward the wolves. He spoke words of gnomish magic beneath his breath and the feather disappeared. What the wolves saw even Ivo did not know. His spell sought out their greatest fear and made it real. There were growls and whines, one wolf leapt straight up into the air. None went back into the grey-yellow cloud, but all turned tail and ran.
Nyradir raced toward the giants. He had no weapon, but that daunted him not at all. Veering toward the left, he avoided the three who fought with Ghibelline, Gytha and Derue. Behind them the elemental skreeched and whirled. The sacks and bags of the giants lay unattended.
Galar lay bound among the litter. The dwarf was still, but his hands worked at the rope that tied them. Rough cord bit into his skin and slicked his wrists with blood. He'd just about freed one hand when Nyradir reached him.
"Galar!" cried Nyradir with relief. "You are still alive."
"Undo these knots!" snapped Galar.
"You've almost got this off yourself," Nyradir said, looking at the gouges in Galar's flesh. "How are the others." He glanced at the sacks that the giants had not upended.
"Dead," Galar said like a curse. "They put me in last.. owuch! What are you playing at!"
"Sorry, I've no knife and these knots are pulled tight," Apologized Nyradir. "They're dead. How do you know?" he asked in a low voice after a moment's pause.
"I was trussed up and put in last," said Galar. "I saw. They cut their throats and bled them like rabbits."
"Why not us," grunted Nyradir.
"They've other plans for us," said Galar. "There!" he pulled his arms free and grimaced when he saw the deep cuts on his wrists. "My pack, my hammer, they are in those sacks of the giants. Your axe as well, come, help me," Galar didn't wait for Nyradir's reply. The older dwarf kicked through the debris surrounding him and threw himself upon one of the large cloth sacks. He pulled at the cord and it came open in his hand. There was another sack beside him. Nyradir grabbed at it, but Galar slapped him on the shoulder. "Not that one," Galar said and shook his head.
"This one? Annar and Sjar?" Nyradir asked.
Galar nodded to him silently. The muscles in Nyradir's hand tightened, his fingers went white with the strain, and the cloth bag tore down its side. When he had ripped it halfway, a curly head came into sight. Nyradir put his hand beneath and cradled the neck, as if the dwarf was merely sleeping.
"I have said prayers for them, said them for all of us," Galar told him. "Our gear is in this bag, say your prayers for them later, say it with your axe. Carve a prayer in some giant flesh."
The fighting raged around them.
* * *
"I had hoped to save these," murmured Telenstil.
He tore two more of the fiery stones from the black chain. A pair of elementals appeared, both identical to each other and to the first that had risen from the enchanted stone. They were half the size of their larger brethren, but just as wild with a vicious, blazing madness.
The mage had thrown the dweomered gems in haste and with an awkward cast. They landed between the giants, behind their backs, as most fought the first elemental and the rest tried to crush the humans and the elf. It was a lucky throw. One fire-beast hopped onto a giant's back. The monstrous warrior roared, and as it did, Ghibelline stabbed it with his blade, driving steel in till the hilt was pressed into the giant's belly. The elf nearly lost his grip as the giant writhed, but Ghibelline had lost one sword to Nosnra's kin already, he would not let another go.
The second of the fiery pair tore into the giants who attacked his larger kin. Molten talons of living fire ripped across the sides of two giants. Teeth that were hotter than the coals of a forge bit down into an arm and took away a chunk of flesh. The wound did not bleed, burnt-shut by the elemental's touch.
The club in the giant's hand lashed out, but the elemental was already gone, busy screeching in glee as it clawed and bit and blazed into another giant. The blow thocked hard into his neighbor's skull and brought the towering warrior down like a sapling felled with a single stroke of an axe.
Derue moved like a leaf fluttering from a tree. The smashing fists and lunging strikes of the giants came close, but it was as if the force of the attacks helped to push the scout just out of reach. The journey of the leaf is always to the ground, but it is the wind that guides its path. What guided Derue seemed like a wind, no effort could be seen in his motion, no force behind his hands and feet. Something beyond his mortal frame, always spare, but now with flesh stretched tightly across his bone, added a strength to his blows and a grace to his movements.
As a giant to his left brought a cask-sized fist smashing down, Derue extended his leg up to meet the giant's chin. The heel of the scout's foot met the bottom of the massive jaw and slammed it shut as if the giant had brought his head down atop a pillar of rock. There was a crack of breaking teeth and breaking bone. The giant's jaw hung at an angle and blood poured from its mouth. Derue spun, bringing his raised leg down and twisting his other leg horizontal till it met the giant's huge belly and sank ankle deep. The giant sprayed out blood and bits of teeth, then gasped for air, its face turning first red then blue. With both hands on its bruised stomach, the giant fell and landed heavily on its side, then rolled back and forth in pain. Each breath was a fight against injured muscles. It coughed out the blood that poured into its lungs from its ruined mouth. Derue faced only the one giant now.
A punch strong as a battering ram caught the scout a glancing blow. He let it send him flying through the air, but he was on his feet before the giant could strike again.
* * *
Human hands could do little against the giant's mighty bulk. Derue could shatter the bricks in a wall, crack stone and splinter wood, but the bones of the massive warrior that he fought were as thick as tree-trunks and wrapped in flesh, tougher than any man's. His feet were another matter and he used them to good effect. The giant tried to bat the scout aside with a backhand swipe.
Bending almost double, Derue ducked beneath the blow, but swung his arms up so that they hooked about the huge forearm as it passed. He was carried up into the air, his weight was nothing to the corded muscles of the giant's arm. As he rose, he slid, his own arms loosely circled around the giant's. Past the elbow he went, then letting go as he reached the bicep. Derue's arms went down to his sides and he spun, using his hips and his shoulders to torque his body. One leg pulled up, bending at the knee, his other extended heel first. He struck beneath the giant's upraised arm, the monster's own strength adding to the force of Derue's blow, as he spiraled his heel into the pit of the creature's arm.
A man would have been crippled, if not killed. The giant gave a grunt of pain, its arm spasmed, its clenched fist sprang open, fingers outstretched from the jabbing shock. The injured arm moved weak and slow, but the giant swept out with its other hand only to slash the air where Derue had been.
A few yards to the side, Ghibelline tore his sword free from a giant's belly. He staggered back, Gytha catching Ghibelline by the shoulder and keeping him from falling to the ground. Blazing talons had sunk into the giant's throat even as the elf's sword came free. The fire-beast still rode upon the huge warrior's back and reaching round sliced smoking cuts across the wide neck, setting beard and hair aflame. It was the giant's turn to stumble, but he had no one to keep him on his feet. Backwards he fell and buried the elemental beneath him.
A little further on found Ivo dragging at Harald's sword. The small gnome was half the size of the huge blade. Beside him, Talberth and Telenstil worked at moving the body of the ranger. Each mage pulled at a shoulder. Harald was human-sized again, but a mighty man, no less so in sleep, or death. A word from Talberth had taken away the spell that had transformed the ranger to almost giant-size. His weight was more than either mage could have hoped to budge alone, and together they still strained to drag him from the midst of battle.
The bodies of giants formed a waist high wall for the man and elf. A wall almost higher than Ivo's head as he passed the unmoving blackened, chest of a slain warrior. They had not gone far, no more than half a score of feet, when a voice groaned from the throat of a giant. Ivo looked over to see a pair of white eyes flash open amid a face charred black and lined with raw red cracks. Hairless, the fire had eaten all the skin of its head, burnt ears to stumps, nose to a lump of coal-like flesh and the giant's mouth scorched into a dark pit no longer ringed with lips.
"Lppphhh," came a voice like a deep moan of wind. A hand shot out with a shocking speed. Telenstil had half turned. He still held Harald's upper arm when the hand caught him by his neck and shoulders. Nailess fingers closed around him like bands of steel. Flakes of skin broke from the giant's hand, but the monster had passed the point of feeling pain. The giant pulled himself to his feet. Fjolver, strong among his people, but stronger in will and heart than even his own kind would have believed. With a casual flick of his hand, he tossed Telenstil behind him as he would toss a bone at mealtime to the floor.
* * *
"ome! usshhh!" moaned Fjolver. The giant had his eyes locked on Ivo but he lashed out and struck down Talberth as casually as a man would slap away a beggar's hand. The mage had dropped Harald's shoulder and fumbled for his lightning-wand. He'd not been able to draw it before the back of the Fjolver's hand cracked against his chest. Knocked aside, Talberth fell as he struggled for balance. He stumbled over a giant's lifeless arm, his own wrapped about his ribs, and crashed in a flurry of motion as he tried to brace himself for the fall. Ivo stood perfectly still as the giant reached for him. The monster's hand engulfed the old gnome and lifted him from the ground. Fjolver raised Ivo to his face, the burnt fingers of the giant's hand gripping him around the middle. Fjolver smiled, his huge, yellow teeth soot-stained, but silhouetted amid the horror of his face.
There was a broad, silver buckle on Ivo's belt. Its front embossed with a symbol of a moon over a hill. Ivo slid two small clasps aside with his hand and pulled the buckle free. A pair of silver needles were revealed, the buckle a square shaped hilt. The old gnome smiled back into the giant's face and jabbed the needles deep into Fjolver's wrist where the veins showed beneath the blackened skin. Fjolver opened his mouth to howl, but the giant froze in place, even his eyes were stopped and glazed. Opposite the symbol of moon and hill, a spider was carved into the silver of the buckle, the two needles were its fangs. The outline of the spider bulged. A head rose from the metal, bent down, pushed into the giant's wrist. One by one the legs pulled themselves free, then at last the bloated body. The metal liquefied and ran like quicksilver into the spider, then through the needle fangs into Fjolver's veins. In an eyeblink the metal was gone and then the silver spider followed, turning into a stream of metal venom, rushing through its own fangs till nothing was left but two dripping holes in the giant's wrist.
"Death take you!" hissed Ivo. The gnome looked old and grim. He drew a small dagger from his belt, one sided and razor sharp. Ivo climbed up the giant's arm and cut Fjolver's throat, then threw his knife away.
The giant's broke. They'd swept the first elemental apart with their blows, but the mad fire-beast had hurt them all. When a second appeared with a third behind it, the giant's said enough and peeled away.
A young warrior, his hair burnt down to a greasy smudge, was the first to run. Then an older giant with his fist and arm blistered all along its length. The last six, all warriors of Fjolver's band, turned and ran for the path, the elemental in hot pursuit. One living giant stood within the camp. His left arm was half-numbed, but he fought on with his right. Derue circled him, weaving closer in a spiraling dance that kept the giant pivoting, trying to keep its injured arm away from the human who struck with the power of a hammer behind his feet and hands.
* * *
"Cllaaannn-Gggeeddd-IN!" screamed Nyradir. The dwarf had found his axe, jumbled carelessly with the equipment of his slain companions, and now raced across the camp to attack the giants.
But they had fled, the last of them already on the trail and heading up, to escape the fire-beast that chased them. His head whipped round as he scanned the camp. Behind him one giant stood, the monstrous warrior facing an unarmed man. Galar gave a whistle, drawing Nyradir's attention, and pointed to the giant. The dwarf gave a shake of his head,
"Cursed priests," he muttered, then turned back to the man and the giant.
He expected to see the man dead, crushed beneath the giant's heel, or smashed by a huge fist. Instead, the giant backed away as the man came forward. The giant lunged, but half-heartedly, a weak, brush with his hand that the man easily avoided. There was a solid thump. Nyradir couldn't see what had happened, but the giant limped back, favoring one leg, and the man swirled aside and to the giant's left.
"Clangedin!" Nyradir shouted, then ran with his axe brought to one shoulder.
The giant kept shifting, trying to keep the man in his sight, and the man kept moving to the left. They had turned so that now the giant's back was toward Nyradir.
The dwarf smiled. The best way to attack a giant was from behind, or with a boulder dropped from a very high cliff. A dwarf had to strike at what he could and whittle an opponent down to size.
Nyradir brought his axe up from his shoulder and slashed open the back of the giant's knee. There was a gout of blood, shooting out as the giant stiffened, the monstrous body going straight as a board and tipping forward. Then the injured leg gave way and the huge warrior dropped to one side with a rumble like an avalanche. Nyradir chopped at the giant's neck as the man seemed to flow toward him and crush the barrel-sized throat with the heel of his foot.
"Well-met!" laughed Nyradir.
The man said nothing, but gave the dwarf a nod.
Nyradir's smile faded from his lips as he nodded back. "A grim one," he thought to himself.
There was a clap like thunder and a blinding flash of light. Something screeched, its voice fading off as if it fell into a deep, deep pit.
* * *
"That thing still lives," said Ghibelline. The elf pointed with his sword as he spoke to Gytha. From beneath the body of the giant it had killed, the fire-beast clawed itself free. It tossed the carcass of the huge warrior aside, the back of the giant had been burnt to the bone and almost hollowed out by the elemental it had lain upon.
"I don't think that it is on our side," Ghibelline said over his shoulder. He lunged and put the point of his blade through the creature's throat. He might as well have tried to stab a bonfire. The creature hissed, a bright red tongue, the color of a sword-blade fresh pulled from the forge, licked out.
It hurt the eyes just to look at the creature. The elemental rose, and Ghibelline's sword passed down through its body. Stepping forward it engulfed the blade up to the hilt and would have kept coming up the arm, till it could sink its white-hot, molten teeth into the elf's throat. Ghibelline pulled back, giant's blood sizzling on the edge of his sword, cooked by the body of the elemental. He ducked a slash from the fire-beast's claws, but they left three deep burns across his forearm.
"Back to the flames beast!" commanded Gytha. The Cuthbertine priestess strode forward with her iron staff held in both hands. "By the strength of the holy Saint, send this fire-beast, this nameless elemental of fire, send it back to the place of its creation. It is not of this Oerth. O Saint, cast it out!" she screamed and brought her staff down on the creature's head.
* * *
There was a ringing in his ears. Nyradir opened his eyes and blinked them, but the purplish blotch was slow to fade. The dwarf lay on his back, looking up into the clear sky. A heavily bearded face bent over him and a hand slapped him lightly on his cheek.
"...stunned," said Galar.
"what?" Nyradir asked, but his voice sounded like a whisper. "WHAT!?!" he yelled.
A pained expression shot across Galar's face and he put his hand to his ear.
Nyradir opened his mouth to speak but Galar quickly placed his hand across the warrior's mouth before he could shout again.
"Quietly," said Galar. "Quietly. I can hear fine, it's you who are a bit wonky."
"mmpgrhmm," said Nyradir.
Galar took his hand away.
"What happened?" the dwarven warrior asked.
"Deific abjuration," Galar told him. The dwarven priest raised his eyes when he saw the blank look on Nyradir's face. "Human priestess make fire-elemental go away," he pointed behind him.
Nyradir looked about, propping himself up, but the body of a giant blocked his view. He reached out an arm and Galar helped pull him to his feet. The after-image from the flash of light had faded from his eyes. No more purple blotch. Nyradir scanned the camp, no giants moving about, only a cluster of humans a few dozen feet away.
"You must have hit your head," said Galar. "Strong rocks they have around here," he mused, "I'd'ave thought your head would be the one to put a dent in things, not the other way round."
"Very funny," Nyradir rubbed the back of his head and found a lump the size of a chicken's egg. He pulled his hand away as if he'd touched a burning coal and winced at the pain, his breath whistling through his teeth.
"Take a helm next time," Galar advised.
"Well I wouldn't wear one now," Nyradir answered him. "Not with this lump. Can't you do something?"
"Berronar's aid is for heroes," scolded Galar. "You've got a knock on the noggin. Teach you some sense, like wearing a helmet."
"You don't wear one!" snorted Nyradir.
"I'm a priest," said Galar, "besides, they make my hair sweaty."
"So what is going on?" asked the warrior.
"Picking up the injured. Collecting the dead," Galar shrugged. "I wasn't invited and we haven't been introduced. You're the one that speaks these lowland tongues, not me."
"You could have asked Berronar's aid for that," Nyradir reminded him.
"You are Truesilver's servant now?" asked Galar. "I don't go wasting Berronar's time when there are other means at hand."
"You mean me," said Nyradir.
"I mean you," Galar nodded in agreement.
"Any dwarves among them?" asked Nyradir.
"Not that I could see," said Galar. "There is an old gnome, an elf or two, a couple of humans."
"I saw a halfling," offered Nyradir.
"Good for you," Galar replied. "Now, times wasting, go find out who they are and see if they know anything."
"Maybe they can help." Nyradir said.
"They certainly saved our bacon," said Galar. "Our spirits as well, if I don't miss my guess."
* * *
"Is he dead?" Harold asked, fearing the answer would be yes. The halfling had made his way to the others, weaving around the bodies of the slain. Little Rat, he supported with great effort, the young orc's good arm over his shoulder.
"No," Ivo answered him. "Almost, but no. Talberth and Telenstil made it to him in time."
"Help me here, would you?" Harold asked
The two small companions stood just beyond the circle of their friends. Gytha knelt beside the body of Harald. The ranger did not move, did not even seem to breath. Nearby were Talberth and Telenstil. Ghibelline hovered over Gytha's shoulder and Derue had his back to the halfling and the gnome. With care, Ivo and Harold lowered Little Rat to the ground. They propped him up against the arm of a dead giant, but the young orc was in a daze, he might as well of had his head on the stones or in a fire.
"That arm looks bad," said Ivo.
The bandage that Harold had wrapped around the mangled forearm was soaked through and it was tight against the swelling flesh.
"I'll have to loosen it," Harold grimaced, "it's starting to swell, and it is still bleeding. Gytha!" the halfling yelled as he unwrapped the blood-slicked cloth. "Gytha!" he yelled again.
"I am here," the priestess said as she approached.
"How is Harald?" Ivo asked her. "Does he live?"
Harold did not turn his head, but his eyes shifted to the side.
"He lives. He sleeps, but he is grievously hurt still," said Gytha. "Do you need my aid?"
"Little Rat," Harold turned now and his face was streaked with tears, "this wound may kill him, take his arm at least, can you help him. Will you?"
Her touch was light but firm on the halfling's shoulder.
"You should know me by now. No need to ask. I will do what I can."
"Hrrmpphh!" came a deep growl. Nyradir had come up to them, the priest Galar standing just behind. Ghibelline had his eyes locked on the dwarven priest.
"You be Ginnar's kin?" he asked in a dwarven tongue.
"My brother! What do you know of him?" Galar spoke with a rising voice and great emotion.
"Slow, please," Ghibelline held up both his hand palm forward. "Little your tongue I know."
"Nyradir! Ask him. Ask him," said Galar excitedly.
"You speak trade-talk?" asked Nyradir.
"Ask him, curse you," interrupted Galar.
"I will, I will," Nyradir snapped back in dwarvish. "You know Ginnar, Galar's brother?" he nodded toward the priest. "I be Nyradir."
"I am Ghibelline," said the elf. "Ginnar was my friend, but I could not rescue him when I myself was rescued from the dungeon's of Nosnra."
Nyradir translated the words to Galar as quickly as he could and the priest responded with a long stream of questions. "He ask much," said Nyradir in common. "But this place look bad. Giant's run, run home, but they be back. Bring more kin."
"I agree," said Telenstil. The elven mage was bloodied and battered. One arm and shoulder he held stiff, and he winced with pain with every step he took. "We should be away, but where would we find shelter from the giants?"
"How would we get there?" asked Ivo. "You need healing if you are going on a trek," he said to Telenstil, "and Harald, and Little Rat, and Talberth, you look none to well."
"I'm fine," weezed the mage. He had both arms wrapped tightly round his chest.
"Galar help," offered Nyradir. "Berronar, healer, Galar serve Berronar." The warrior turned to the priest and spoke to him in their dialect of mountain dwarf. "These are friends Galar. Friends of your brother too. You can call on Berronar to help them can't you."
"You're quick. Enemies of giants doesn't mean friends to dwarves," said Galar. "But let Berronar judge the truth as he will. I'm not healing that orc, you can tell them that," the priest said firmly.
* * *
Day was coming to an end, and the ranger still slept. Harald had been carried away from the carnage and now the group, grown larger by two dwarves, had gathered themselves by the edge of camp that was furthest from the path. The bags of the giants had been plundered. Any loot that caught the eye was snatched up, but Nyradir and Galar took away only their own possessions, taken from them by the giants, and that of their slain companions. The bodies of Nyradir's warriors were carried away with reverence and solemnity by the two dwarves. It was a cheerless and grim circle, all were hurt or weary, save the halfling, and he had put himself on watch, a little distant from the others.
"We go, Nosnra's Hall," said Nyradir in broken common. "What news?"
"Can't you speak their tongue Ghibelline?" asked Talberth.
"Nyradir, he speaks better common than I speak dwarven." Ghibelline confessed.
"That is no dwarven tongue I have heard before," said Ivo. "I thought I knew them all well enough. And yet it is a little like all the languages of the dwarves I have learned or heard."
"We have been to Nosnra's hall," said Telenstil. "Ghibelline and one other we took from the dungeons, but we left behind two of our own. We saw no dwarves."
"They kept Ginnar chained to the forge, unless they had him out to work widening the tunnels and the chambers below the hall," added Ghibelline.
"You friend Ginnar?" asked Nyradir.
"Yes," said Ghibelline firmly. "I would call him friend, but he was a greater friend to another, and Jalal was like kin to me."
"Jalal?" Nyradir turned and spoke to Galar in their own tongue. The dwarven priest raised his hands and shrugged.
"A man," said Ghibelline, "not of war, but a braver spirit I have never known. Most of what I know of Ginnar comes from him, and he is why I live now." The elf lowered his eyes to the ground and Gytha put her arm about his shoulders.
The two clerics could barely sit without swaying. They had expended all their strength and the healing bounty of their gods on the injured. Gytha even more so than the dwarf. She smiled, a wan, tired smile. Her face was lined with care, and her flesh was shrinking, pulling tight across her muscles and her bones. The cadaverous look of Ghibelline nearly matched her. The two, as they sat leaning against each other, looked like male and female of some species that was neither man or elf.
Galar's eyes were red, but wide awake. Any news of his brother stirred up the fires within his spirit. He would not sleep or rest till he had heard all that there was to tell. Ghibelline spoke quickly of his capture, but little of his time within the dungeons, only telling what little he could of Ginnar. When he finished, the light of day was failing and twilight would soon be upon them.
"Time for talk be done," said Nyradir, looking at the sky. "We go Nosnra's hall. Any here go too?"
"I go," croaked out a voice. Harald had been set near to Gytha, his body was bruised and hurt. Fresh scars and even open cuts, that were beyond Gytha's present strength to heal, could be seen on his face and arms. Beneath his clothes the wounds were just as bad.
"You can't even walk!" snapped the little thief.
"Then I'll crawl," growled Harald. "But I won't run anymore."
"I will go as well," said Ghibelline. He released Gytha's hand, but she caught it again.
"I would go with Ghibelline, but I will abide by Telenstil's decision," she said. "I will not break my oath."
Telenstil sat for a moment. Everyone watched him silently. "All oaths are ended here," said Telenstil. His words at first came with a great pain and weariness, but as he spoke them, a weight dropped from his spirit and he smiled. "We have wrecked great havoc among the giants. My queen has been given the answers to many questions, and through her, those you have made your pledges to as well. We have done what we could. I would do more, and if I could have it so, I would have all of us strong and rested. I would have the giants scattered or asleep, or in their cups. But I see no rest for us now, and what strength we have is perhaps more than we will have a day from now."
"This is madness," said Talberth.
"No," Telenstil raised his hand, palm forward, to the mage. "This is best. Nosnra has seen us run, will receive word of our flight, of this..." he gestured to the camp filled with the bodies of giant dead. "He might suspect that we will return, but I doubt that he will know for certain. This is best, but each is free to make their own decision. Nyradir, I will go with you," Telenstil said, and his hand dropped to his side.
"Then I go with Ghibelline." said Gytha.
"What of Little Rat?" Harold objected. "I can't leave him here. I agree with Talberth, this is madness, but I'll go. But I'm not leaving him," he gestured to the young orc, "like we left those others back in that cursed cave."
"I will carry him if I have to," offered Ghibelline.
Gytha smiled. "Listen. He snores now, his arm is healed, though it may be a little weak. His feet should be fine."
Harold narrowed his eyes as he stared at the young orc. "Why that little..." said the halfling. He reached over to give Little Rat a shake.
"No don't wake him," said Gytha. "Let him sleep while he can."
"That leaves me," said Ivo. "No need to ask, I'll go."
Talberth gave a deep sigh. He cast a quick glance at Gytha but quickly looked away. "I should have stayed in that 'cursed cave'. I have given my word," he pulled his shoulders straight and gave a small wince, though the pain in his chest was only a memory. "I will go."
"Good," said Nyradir. "Good." he looked again toward the sky. "Rest little now, then go."
"Rest," said Talberth. "Maybe it will clear some heads," but he knew in his heart that they were bound once more for Nosnra's hall.
* * *
(The End For Now...To Be Continued in, The Frost Giant Jarl - Grugnur's Tale)