Scott Stream could run without paying attention, indeed he did his best contemplating while running. If that where less the case then the wire on the trail would not have tripped him, and his hand would not have grounded the high voltage which paralyzed his body in mind-scrambling agony, with that all-over body contraction that can only be known by experiencing it.
Ironically it was this event, waiting in the future, that had always made Scott extra cautious with electricity as an electrician’s assistant. Not everybody is intuitively privy to the manner of their own demise, just a handful with a certain smearing in their awareness across time and possibility. Scott was exceptional among those folks in that he had done a minimum amount of awareness extension and had achieved enough detachment so that he could look up through the experience of his own death and see the figure standing over him, a figure that seemed to grow out of the black point that the world was collapsing into, a figure reaching down for him.
From the place outside his body, terrified beyond reason, Scott leaped up at the figure, a lifetime of aggressive response overloading even the convulsive clench of high voltage alternating current. His hands locked on the neck of the figure, their foreheads touched. Its hands clenched his own stiffened neck and a cold flow of sensation pulsed through his agonized muscles. This death figure wrenched him to the right and he stepped with it and wrenched it just as violently to his left. The two locked figures spun up and away, or the world spun away, in any case Scott found himself looking at the figure in a new place.
The figure was now a pale orb, like moonlight, yet still tangible. The place was as black as the figure had been, yet it was a place that felt thick, voluptuous with substance. The figure that had been his adversary became his anchor and sole point of reference. When he looked down at himself he perceived light, a rich amber orb like the yoke of an egg lit up from inside. It shook him. He could see spurts of his color flowing into the pale figure. He could feel the entities cold glow seeping into him.
Some part of him willed energy to flow faster from the entity; he pulled at the creature like a calf on its first teat. The creature seemed to deflate; its early strength seemed spent, as if it had just the one good attack in it. An entity that had been waiting in ambush for a moment of weakness that now proved insufficient. An entity that Scott’s seeking into the unknown had attracted. The creature was a native in this strange place.
With its energy Scott gained its awareness, he new this place for what it was, he saw his life from the watching perspective of this entity, felt its hunger, its need to feel the life spool unreel in order to experience a real life vicariously. The place they where in was simply unreality. The answer to the age old question, where is the square root of negative one?
He also new the secret, energy here was awareness, willing something was action, but speaking here, speaking in this place where men brushed the unknown with dreams acted as a command. He could depart from this place to anywhere, his life force, augmented with that of the entity was a pass-card to anyplace he could imagine.
A Priest would visit Heaven or Hell, a Monk would disappear into Nirvana. But Scott, he had spent his attention on Fantasy, so when he commanded, when he made his wish, it was “Take me to the Forgotten Realms as imagined and recorded in my mind and the collective minds of those that share it, make me a Sorcerer in that place so I can wield the magic of the Weave!”
The creature became a tunnel that swallowed him….
Scott looked down at his body, he was in his running clothing, black silky shorts white T-Shirt and running shoes, he wore his wedding band and his National Guard ring. He was unburned and his breathing came in short gasps. His skin was slick with sweat and steam rose from him into the cool air.
He felt a strange burning like a trapped firefly darting around inside himself warming where it moved causing muscles to twitch and nerves to itch as it bounced around. This distraction prevented him from seeing the arrival of the woman.
Her feet were not on the ground and she cast no shadow, instead she was alight from within, and with no perspective cues Scott could not determine whether she was a giant a kilometer away or fairy hovering in front of his face. He got a very strong feeling of disapproval from her and dared not try to touch her to verify her distance. She seemed to be waiting for some sort of recognition or reaction and gave the impression of toe tapping impatience and her mouth twisted in slight petulance when he just struggled to ignore the darting bug inside and somehow failed at whatever test she was giving him. She reminded him of his wife angry at some failure that she was too dignified to point out.
“What can I do for you ma’am?” Scott asked finally.
“If you are not going to offer a Goddess proper respect, then you can at least plead for your life, as a thief you could at least show some sort of embarrassment.” The divine manifestation replied.
“I did say ma’am!” Scott said.
“When you ripped a portion of my essence and locked me into allowing you landfall inside my world I reacted to intercept your infiltration, I am not obliged to make your arrival comfortable and I look forward to your death returning to me the spark of Sorcerery you usurped. I just wanted to give you a chance to explain yourself.” She went on.
“Not very sporting for a Goddess on the side of goodness, I would expect you to offer me some lifelong task so I can earn redemption.” Scott said.
“Your mind is closed, though you have stolen a sign from me, impossible as that is, until you come to be inside the Weave, inside me, I will not know you, and once you are there you will be able to draw on me through your stolen sign. I cannot risk what you might become. So I have done what I could, altering your sign by narrowing it to one specific school of magic. I will also be deflecting you to a very inhospitable place, I hope your shorts are warmer then they look, the Spine of the World in Uktar1 is pretty cold.”
“That is hardly fair, why not make a deal?”
“I assume you are planning to accumulate power and then return to your world of origin, so the more powerful you become, the greater my loss, regardless of any service you render in the meantime you will eventually be leaving with the spoons, unless you are willing to accept me as your Goddess and thus return to me after your mortality catches up with you.” She offered
“Come on! Faith coerced is impossible, it is merely self interest, also since you are clearly here, I cannot possible take your presence or interest on faith.”
“And since you are aware of that little issue you doom yourself, just clever enough to talk me into not trusting you.” She countered.
“Wait… tossing me into the alligator pit by myself is contrary to the Spirit of the Weave, allow me companions to face adversity with, a party of Heroes and I could perform some deeds to offset the loss of whatever power I accumulate before death takes me, you must allow me to join in a pattern of party heroism if that is what I seek, I claim sanctuary in the rules that bind even you…”
“Very well you will choose companions from your own world, not local champions about whom you likely know far too much.” She replied.
“I cannot trap friends from home here! You must allow us a chance to make it back.” He countered.
“Very well, choose six other companions, upon each I will bestow a sign to give them access to one school of magic, only a wish from a soul attuned to every school of magic will return you all home. If you manage that trick it should take you long enough that you may accomplish something useful to me. If not your souls will remain trapped in the weave and your bodies will likely feed some worthy scavengers.”
“You’re sure I can’t hang with Storm Silverhand?”
“I will not spare you baby sitters.” She snorted “Now quickly name your companions, I run low of patience.”
“James Bryant… Thomas Schminke…Brian Wilcox… Thomas Stead… Jason Willemborg… and Derek Remund. Do I need to help you find them?” He offered hoping to win some points for politeness.
“They are already here…” She said vanishing as a circle of familiar faces formed around him.
A disembodied voice said “You have been called by your friend Scott to play a game, you can return home only by mastery of all the facets of magic, each of you knows one portion, if one of you kills another then that other’s facet will pass into his killer, so the fastest route home is for you to be the last man standing, however the alternative is for you to all survive and reach a level of power and cooperation that will allow you to act as one at the highest level of magical power. Welcome to Toril2 and Faerun3 enjoy your stay…”
Before the others had a chance to reply or to ask any questions the world began to race up towards them. Through cloud and mist and finally into storm they passed to land in the sudden shock of numbing cold on the highest peak of a ridge of mountains in howling wind with a storm streaming through passes on either side while the wind tore it too shreds over their heads, leaving the occasional gap for a shaft blinding light on the dazzling snow.
Cold on a Mountainside
The seven men looked at each other quizzically. The wind tore at them; Scott was instantly covered with ice where he had been marked with sweat.
Thom Stead a lean young man in casual attire and topping out at six three shouted over the gale “We have about five minutes to find shelter before we die!”
The others nodded putting away questions and angry comments immediately in a crisis. Scott had not called out the names of men without both sense and skill. Thom was a skilled climber and James had endured extensive alpine training in a special Marine school.
“Huddle around Scott!” Thomas Schminke shouted. Then to Tom Stead he asked “Where do we go to get out of the wind?
“Down on the back side!”
James began calling “Step.. .Heel… Step …Heel… Step” and the rest took it up as they shuffled down the slope huddled for warmth. Derek’s and Thom Stead’s contact lenses began sticking and freezing with each blink. Thin clothing whipped about the group, without so much as a single stocking cap or winter coat the icy grip of real pain bit down within fifty feet.
“Fight it!” Thom yelled.
Even as the cold clamped down the others where going through what Scott already had, with the firefly of magical power buzzing around inside them. So while they were freezing there was a tiny spark of hope and magic kindled as well. Thom’s cry caused Derek to seize hold of the firefly inside and suddenly it swelled to monstrous size in his vision, elaborately shaped and stylized it seemed to be a symbol, like a hieroglyph or geometric puzzle. In an instant a magical barrier formed that trapped his heat inside and blocked the teeth of the wind from his skin.
“Wait!” Derek yelled as the storm lost its bite. He threw down his overnight bag, which he had luckily been carrying when snatched, and jerked out a pair of pants and long sleeved shirt. Scott scrambled to put them on, but found that they hung up about mid cheek on his buttock. Freezing and humiliated by the pants Scott felt a shrinking of hope inside himself.
Then he seized his own sign and that shrinking became real, not only did he suddenly find the pants slipping on, his friends seemed to swell to the size of giants. He was less then three foot high when he and his clothing stopped. When he was done he weighed about thirty five pounds.
“Look inside for your powers! See if you have anything to help!” Schminke called out. Even as he did so he created a barrier identical to the one protecting Derek. That is until Derek called up a protection that was stronger still, one that made him completely comfortable.
Thom Stead made a flare of dazzling light that scattered the huddle and lead to a few dazed moments while the party shook off the stunning effect but was frustrated to find nothing like the protective barriers in his repertoire of spells. Though they did not make the same mistake and cast a spell without purpose, James, Brian and Jason found nothing useful.
“You made yourself smaller! Can you make Derek bigger?” Schminke yelled.
“I should have thought of that!” Scott replied and suddenly Derek, who took the time to drop his duffle and his backpack full of school books suddenly swelled to nearly twelve feet tall, with a body mass of nearly fifteen hundred pounds. Scott used his power to shrink on himself again, realizing that the duration of the spells was short. The group huddled around Derek as he carried and led them down a swift kilometer of slope and several hundred meters of elevation. The group found a huge outcrop with fans of snow coated with thick layers of ice on both sides, and a growing overhang above creating a shelter from the wind. Derek lost his mass even as the group piled up with backs against the rock with a couple feet of ice and snow beneath them.
James plunged his hands into the snow and in seconds a fan of liquid water gushed down the slope spreading a deep and wide groove that exposed bare earth. “Stand back!” He called and hollowed out a concave hole with a series of blasts that left him as spent as Scott was from his five spells of size changing.
The group was down into the storm proper now and the cold and wet was becoming impossible to endure. Jason called to Derek “Can you cast your protection on us?
Derek nodded sheepishly and laid the protective spell on Jason, Thom, James and Brian. He then realized that he too was out of gas for the potent casting.
Jason closed his eyes in relief and used a power he discovered inside to cause ghostly servants to begin shaping the snow around them into a true shelter. With a back more then fifteen feet wide and ceiling ten foot high the servants used sheets of ice from the top of drifted snow to make hard walls and braces according to a design Jason quickly set up.
Thom Stead was able to use minor flares of heat while James provided several biting rays of cold to weld pieces of ice and together and the storm continued to pile up the snow for the roof and sides.
Within half an hour Jason positioned his servants to act as plugs to keep a door and air hole open while keeping the wind out. As the room darkened Thom Stead seemed to pull a light-bulb out of his pocket and screw it into the ceiling. With a theatrical tug the light came on and the noise of the storm dampened.
“Good job men! Against all odds we are alive, we have shelter, and we are imbued with supernatural gifts. I for one just want to know what the hell is going on now that I have moment to ask.” Thomas Schminke wondered.
Brian said “I for myself would like to know who the hell everybody is, I know Scott and I know you Captain Schminke, and I recognize James from Scott’s descriptions, but you three youngsters are new to me. Nice light spell by the way!” Brian complimented Thom.
Schminke sighed and said “Lets take things in order, one at a time, Scott first since he seems to both have the most information and the most blame in our current predicament.”
“Who put you in charge?” Thom Stead asked.
“This is ‘Captain’ Schminke, Sergeant Stead…” Jason reminded his long time friend.
“Fine for now ‘Sergeant’ Willemborg, but we will have to decide who we want to lead this goat rope eventually and it may have nothing to do with our military ranks.” Thom replied.
“It won’t be the guy who thought ‘Color Spray’ was going to be helpful while we were freezing to death.” James commented.
“It felt energetic… I really did not know what it did… how could I know?” Thom defended.
Thomas Schminke headed the argument off and said “Scott, what the hell is going on?”
Cold and exhausted Scott explained his experience, and how when faced with certain death he had pleaded for companions, and then been forced to choose them from his home. “I did not choose just anybody, you are all familiar with the Dungeons and Dragons magic system and the behavior of the rules, and you all have military training and many have combat experience. Some of us are old and out of shape but that is the least of our worries, we all know that ninety days of clean living will see us as fit as we can be at our age, and even that can change here.
From what I have observed, I would say that Derek has been given access to Abjuration spells, spells that send things away or disrupt them. James is clearly using Evocation, the power of sudden release and violent disruption. Thom is using Illusion, and I am using Transmutation. Those unseen servants make Jason a Conjurer, and that leaves Enchantment, Divination or Necromancy for Thomas and Brian.
Can you tell Thomas, from inner knowledge, what your spells do? Scott asked.
“The spell that tells where to put a weapon, where a person is going to be in the next moment, is that a Divination?” Thomas asked.
“True Strike” James and Scott said at the same time, then Scott went on “yes and I will bet you that Brian is an Enchanter, Mystra dislikes Necromancy and we are one Sorcerer short of a full eight.
Derek, who had both been instrumental in their survival up to now spoke up with clear anger “I am sure you thought it was going to be great fun to frolic in imaginary worlds instead of coping with the real one, but I have a job that pays me a hundred K this year and a new wife, I did not sign up for a mountain vacation and I sure as hell do not know most of you. Whatever got shoved into me that let me stop the cold is nice, but if I have to shoot the rest of you to go home I will.”
“Think it through Derek,” Scott said “we are in a different universe, when we return we will return to the same space time coordinates we departed from, no harm no foul.”
“You hope.” Derek noted.
Then Thomas spoke up “You have a gun? That will be more then helpful, you seem almost as if you packed for this little excursion.”
“I was on my way to visit my wife’s family. I only have one spare magazine, God I am tired…” he said with a huge yawn.
“Me too…” Scott said echoing the yawn.
“Scott, can we expect there be to monsters out in this weather?” Thomas asked.
“Yeti… white dragons… ice worms, common sense says that there is not going to be much in the way of predation going on in a place like this at this time, but there are lots of creatures that would enjoy this weather.”
“Then we will need to sleep in shifts and I think I better take that gun for the watch, Brian will you stay the watch with me?”
Brain shrugged “I am fine, these guys are shagged from the spells they cast.” Indeed the four spent sorcerers where half dozed already. The pressing need for sleep pushed aside other considerations. The ground was cold but dry, Derek put down some of his spare clothes and lay in the middle of the ten foot square of dry rock. Then Scott, James, Jason and Thom all slid into the huddle.
All electronics and food and jewelry where secured in Derek’s bag after Scott cast a mending spell that caused a small tear in the nylon to be repaired as if it had never happened. Derek’s extra socks were harvested by Thom and Brian who had been in deck shoes.
Within minutes Schminke and Brian Wilcox where alone with dim light and snores. The temperature in the room was hovering around freezing, but only Scott and Thomas lacked the protection of Derek’s spell, Thomas was able to throw up the lesser resistance spell too keep moving.
Brian got restless and said “Thomas, didn’t you arrive in a swivel chair?”
“Yes, it is up the hill a bit I think.”
“I am going to get it while I am protected by this spell.”
“Take the gun and watch for horrid nasties, don’t get lost.”
“I can follow the trail we made and I will be able to follow my own well enough.” Brian said as he left.
Thomas looked around and picked up a heavy rock with a sigh, then he called to mind the spell that would detect the approach of enemies and the one that would tell him how to strike them with lethal force. The wind howled and the snores went on.
Schminke considered the situation and thought on what he could do to make things more survivable. It looked like they had low level powers at a rate of about six a day, while the more potent spells where in fives. That spell against weather was an awesome godsend, why couldn’t two of them have it? Scott looked pretty cold without it. Their food included one large bag of Combos, a six pack of diet Dr Pepper, which made him giggle, counting calories here would soon end, and a small sack of road jerky that James had in his pocket. Water would not be a problem, though eating snow would cost them important warmth so he would have to try to make some kind of melting cup, and see who had spells that could heat it.
The air was thin, he was breathing fast and shallow, so they where a long way up. He was just puzzling on what time it might be when his detection spell warned him that Brian was coming in.
Brian had the swivel chair and wore a grin that flashed his chemically blackened teeth. He propped up the chair and plopped into it facing the opening with the pistol. Brian was by far the smallest of the party, five foot seven with a slight build of lean muscle, kept fit by years as a wrestling coach and active father to boys. He was agile and competent and Thomas felt a deep feeling of fellowship for him.
“You didn’t see a pan out there anywhere did you?” Thomas asked.
“Afraid not, you want to melt water I assume. We could use cloth if we are careful, then Brian pointed at the Dr Pepper and laughed, we have six cans right there!”
Thomas shook his head at that, amused at his oversight. “We need to keep each other sharp, let’s split a Dr Pepper and then start melting snow.”
Brian pulled out a coffee cup that said ‘#1 Coach’ and pored off half a can of soda. Then he winked at Thomas over the cup, another adequate container. “How long do you think this storm will last?”
“I have no way of knowing, we are pretty close to the coast and far north, so lots of cold and lots of moisture, write your own ending. We can hold out here for maybe a week if we have to, then we will need to move no matter what. We should be able to follow the slope down, but we may have to circle the whole mountain to find a way off it.”
The days stretched on in a cycle of starvation and sleep, Derek slept more since he was called on to cast his twenty four hour protection over and over and kept most of them covered for most of the time. James was able to make hot soup each day out of snow, jerky and combos, one can split seven ways. He boiled water as needed. Unseen servants extended their entryway and made them a down-slope latrine that allowed them to do their business inside shelter. It was less and less a problem as they dehydrated and starved. When someone could not sleep on schedule Brian would toss a pinch of dust at them and they would be out like a switch. Nobody else questioned that Captain Schminke was the natural leader and since they amounted to a squad sized element they hardly needed more authority formalized. The storm howled on as if it would never stop.
On the fifth day while Derek and James where on watch a large white head thrust into the entryway and let out a growling yelp and a blast of icy air that carried all the way into the sleeping chamber. When its head was in view James hit it with a magic missile that broke its jaw. The long twist in the passage had protected them from the breath blasts worst effects, but the cold was as harsh with protection in place as it had been without it in the teeth of the storm.
Derek and James fired again crushing the skull of creature and sending it to a surprised death. The rest of the party, awake now began to assess the situation. Thom Stead, who was the odd man without protection from the elements, was shaking uncontrollably. His skin was a purplish blue. James pushed a hot can of water to his lips and the rest of them rubbed him vigorously. Thom was the leanest of the tall fellows without a scrap of body fat to provide insulation or to sustain him. He was suffering more before, now he was critical.
“Get the skin off that wolf Scott, you too Brian, see if the flesh is edible,” he cast a spell and said “there are no more of them outside, it was a loner.” Luckily several of them carried knives when they arrived.
Thin acid conjured by Jason and mixed with water soon rough cured the skin from the wolf’s hide; the eight foot by ten foot hide was then wrapped around Thom. The huge skull became a water basin and the jawbones, ribs and legs where to be serviceable clubs. The flesh proved pungent but edible, and probably saved Thom’s life in the form of a chopped dog stew which James called kaygogi. His lungs where increasingly full of fluid though and his breathing sounded dangerously labored.
Brian came back from scouting to report a superior site about two kilometers around the mountain. It was almost five hundred meters lower and it had a fallen stone slab that was acting as a lean-too. It could be accessed by a narrow gap in a snowdrift along a sheer rock face. Thomas had sent Brian scouting for the simple reason that he could fit lots of extra clothing on him. By the time he returned from the hunt for a lower base camp they were preparing to look for him.
The group had realized that the elevation was killing Thom as his pneumonia attacked him with fluid, fever and chills. It did not help that all of them where pained by caffeine withdrawal and Thom in particular was literally dying for a cigarette. If he could have had a last smoke he would have given up the last of his lung capacity for it.
“Scott, Jason, Brian and Jimmy, you need to go and prep and secure the site with whatever you can find, Derek and I will get Thom ready to travel and get our meat ready for transport. (“Pun intended”) Scott can send me a message on the wind when you are ready for us to head down, two of you can walk back and meet us halfway. My spells will identify you as friend or foe so don’t worry about a signal but keep your eyes open as you work, we may not be the only creatures about.
“It is like Vietnam here.” Jimmy commented “I hope we get a break someday.”
“Stay alert to stay alive.” Jason commented. He hefted a jawbone with jagged teeth and a cloth handle.
The rest of them snorted at the cliché then went out in the ongoing storm and retraced Brian’s path to the lower area.
As they descended around the mountain into the teeth of the storm, they felt the sting of the wind-blown ice even though they were protected from the cold. The path ended at a short sharp drop to a snowdrift melted about two feet back from the wall of the drop-off. The brief winter days could heat the exposed rock enough to allow it to melt the snow back. The snow had refilled too about three feet deep in the groove, which led to the three foot thick slab of rock that had fallen in such a convenient position forming a ten foot high lean-to of stone to an unknown depth with a ten foot wide base.
Brian leaped to the drift below and slid into the grove with leg bone in hand. Scott and Jason followed while Jimmy scowled at the fall. His five day untrimmed beard and gaunt bloodshot eyes full of caked ice made his scowl world class. He watched as three hungry wolves bounded out of the cave at his surprised friends. Scott hit the first one with a rock-in-a-sock throwing it off line and staggering it. Brian used the leg-bone to block the bite of his wolf but its front claws dug and clawed at his face and chest. Jason suddenly was encased from head to toe in shimmering energy as Scott’s wolf came close. He leaped on it calling up acid while trying to grip it tight. Undaunted the last wolf leaped for Scott’s throat before he could bring his rock back up to spin. A flash of energy slashed into its face spinning it end for end in mid air and the bulky form of James plunged down from above onto the back of Brian’s wolf. The back of the bitch was broken just in front of her rear legs. Her growls turned to yelps of pain.
The magic protection Jason had summoned was as strong as chain-mail and gave him the time he needed to sear the face, one eye and the tongue of the bitch that had jumped him. Jimmy groaned and propped himself up, pointing one arm at the bitch he had peeled off Scott’s face. A second bolt of energy lashed out and finished the creature off. Brian was clubbing the face of his wolf repeatedly and Scott smashed his spinning sock into the maddened wolf in Jason’s grip. Its sharp teeth tore Jason’s forearms. Jason swung the jawbone, ironically once belonging to the pack leader of these three much smaller bitches, repeatedly against the creatures muzzle and skull. Blind and disoriented the wolf went down beneath the two pounding men.
The four men stood panting amidst the blood and scorched hair. Jimmy limped towards the cave while Scott pushed Jason’s skin back in place and wrapped his forearm tight enough to slow the bleeding.
The fight left him exhilarated and seemed to have the same effect on his friends, but that wound, which might fester or cost Jason some dexterity in that hand was his fault, Scott felt a crushing weight of responsibility that was not lessened by Thomas being in charge. With a sigh he turned to the cave and went inside.
The cave went back twenty feet, and was filled with scat, hair and loose dirt. Jason summoned a servant to clear the debris while Brian went at the wolf carcasses with his folding knife. Jimmy made a path around the back of the lean-to and up the slope for the group yet-to-descend. Scott began to shape snow into an igloo entryway. The group worked fast, finishing with a blast of fire from James into the stone to heat the living chamber. The stone steamed and hissed. Jason plopped down exhausted, and James joined him. Scott and Brian made the trek back up to the first camp after sending the message that all was clear.
Halfway they met Derek and Thomas dragging Thom with all the loose gear piled on top of him, Derek took point with the pistol and Brian and Scott each grabbed a handhold and assisted in the hauling. It took perhaps another hour to get Thom inside the new pelt lined lair. James had dozed off after cooking an entire wolf carcass and searing a pile of guts on a hot flat rock. All of them knew the nutritional value of liver, brains and assorted organs, intestines where cleaned and strung to be braided as gut rope, the stomachs and bladders were ready to be filled with warm water and worn under shirts.
They where careful to burry loose bloody scraps in snow pits to hide from predators but they where not too worried so long as the storm raged on. Thom’s breathing was a bit better; they kept him propped up even as he rested. The rest suffered from various disabilities Derek nursed a weak ankle that had not yet fully healed from his deployment; Schminke was favoring a separated shoulder. All of them felt like fifty year old men covered with grime and far hairier then they normally were. They settled into the depressing routine of waiting and watching.
To pass time several of them were discussing the philosophy of consciousness and computer intelligence theories while James and Brian stood the watch.
Thom, who had improved in the last three days was making naked pictures of various women appear in the air, spoke up “Remund you need to drop a couple of rounds into a secure pouch so we do not burn them all, we will need to find a way to duplicate them if we can find a place to make copies of the Glock.”
“Wow, is that a long way down the road.” Derek replied.
“But it is a good thought; we need to ration the ammo if we do not want to have to reinvent the stuff from scratch. We still have the casings you fired, but we need active primers and powder if we are going to make more.”
Derek nodded and fed two rounds from his spare magazine into a small side pouch in his backpack.
“Storm is breaking!” James called and the group went outside to see the late morning sun. The clear cold wind bit into the group and Thomas had to make a decision fast. On one hand he wanted to get their spell coverage a bit better set up for the trek downward, but on the other, they all needed to get off this mountainside and down lower.
“Get it all packed we go ASAP.” Thomas called.
Skins where rolled, spells cast on those that where near loosing coverage and projects, food and water were all stowed before noon. Thom was concerned about the dazzle and the chance for avalanche, but the cold was fierce and the sun felt good. It was worth the risk. If they could hit the gentle lower slope they could reach the tree filled valley by nightfall. Wood opened up a whole new world of tool use that they were all slavering to achieve.
After Derek went face down and turned his ankle the group finally made it down the promising face and found that a short drop they had been expecting was really a three hundred foot escarpment to the boulder field below. Roped together with short foot long leads made with torn clothes and braided gut, the group moved in close step. In the end Thomas called for a retreat from the edge but as they all stepped of together the vibration triggered a collapse of the overhang. The party tumbled in a mass with Scott on the end.
Scott triggered his feather fall power, and slowed the group fractionally; in the seconds that followed he triggered it twice more slowing the groups fall by slowing Thom and Jason. With the ground racing up the group landed on a disk of floating force that cushioned them for the last fifty feet to the ground, except for Schminke who had been in the lead. He slid over the edge and hung by a wrist clutched by Jason.
James caused the disk to be as strong as he could make it, Scott got off two more feather falls with the additional time and James laid down three more disks to support the rest of the weight. Mere feet off the boulder field the system of disks stabilized enough to arrest the fall, breaking Thomas’ ankle in sharp crack at the bottom.
Jason and Derek dragged Thomas up on the deck while James struggled with the new task of mentally coordinating four disks full of a weird mass distribution as they coasted over the boulders. “Hang on!” He growled.
The feather fall spells failed and the weight of the party tipped the disks downward. However the slope was still steep, the disks carried them over a mile down the slope before making contact. They where well into the pines by then. They spun to rest against a pile of trees, snow and rock that had accumulated a dozen rock falls over the eons.
Jason’s arm was bleeding again and Thomas winced in agony as he tested his ankle with his good hand. Thom Stead coughed a gurgling desperate hack and James and Scott and Derek moved out of the pile like broken old men. Brian sat up and said “Well, so much for the frying pan, let’s go find the fire.”
“Pun intended…” Schminke replied.
Predators and Prey
They had a short afternoon to make a camp for the night. The high valley would be in the twilight of the shadow of the Wolf Mountain as they had named the arrival point. The pile of boulders and trees was the obvious place to start.
On the down-slope side there were six trees tipped downward with a wall of brush and spilled stone. The trunks of the trees where at least five feet thick, the debris scattered about where as large as three foot in diameter, while most of the rocks where head sized or smaller.
Brian enlisted Scott and James while Jason summoned up his unseen servants to clear a space and encircle it with rocks and logs. Fallen evergreen boughs became a screen while a roaring fire inside a stone circle with reflectors melted away snow and dried the camp area. The process of moving round the backside of pile and making the camp seemed to take forever.
The group took turns that night keeping the watch and keeping the fire burning. Scott and James slept longest and where on the last watch. Schminke was feeling useless and miserable with the two throbbing fractures in his wrist and ankle pounding counterpoint. The heat of the fire and the steam in the air had eased some of Thom’s suffering. The Captain just hoped that luck would hold out till dawn and no large predator would come calling.
Brian, Scott and James, the groups least beat up members left at first light to scout out a better location further down the valley while Jason and Thom whittled crutches and spears and dried wolf meat on a makeshift rack.
Schminke kept his detection spell refreshed to keep watch. Thom tended the fire while Derek kept his pistol handy as he worked, ready for something to kill for food or security. Jason with his servants was getting the most done.
Two hours later the scouts where into the deciduous forest that started at the bottom of the northern slope. The snow was heavy and hard going and the three men discussed the ways and means of making snow shoes or skis to make these forays easier in the future. Occasionally they heard birds twittering and the steady drip and fall of snowmelt and ice fall. For now the wind was light and from the east, which was why Scott was so surprised by the stag and three large does that surged toward them from the west.
It virtually amounted to an attack, the great mule-deer was startling in both its size and the fact that it turned and charged the trio to protect his harem. Scott leveled a sharpened pole and set himself for the charge, James smashed the creature between the eyes with a blast of magical force. The trio of doe fled to the east spurred on by the flash, but the buck, both angered and pained lowered its horns and snorted a challenge. Brian splashed a purple beam that crushed the wounded creature to its knees. Scott leaped forward and plunged the spear at the throat of the creature and missed by a finger width as the proud stag thrashed. James put another magic missile into it, putting it down for good.
While they worked the kill and strung it to be carried, the reason for the deer’s flight was winging north drawn by the scent of roast meat on the wind. Even though they had spooked a group of deer at a great distance they knew that cooking meant men, who would not make them fly all day on the hunt. They knew how to handle men, climb high and rain down tail spikes on them until they started to flee, then run them down and drag them back to the lair.
Brian and Scott carried the heavy buck between them knowing full well that they would be trekking a long time, burdened and walking up hill, they hoped to make it back by nightfall. James with his remaining missiles was the point man.
“Damn good hunt for a first time out.” Scott commented. “What the hell did you hit that big bastard with?”
“Weakness, it is a nasty spell I found on my keychain and it worked better then I expected.” Brian replied.
“Yeah, we all have a set of blank keys that we can use to unlock powers, this key felt different then my others, like it was made of ice.”
“Ray of Enfeeblement is a Necromancy spell; I guess that there are just not that many typical Enchantments of the first level, you must have picked up a bit of Necromancy on the way here to fill in the blanks.”
“Can’t wait to see what is next…” Brian said.
James pointed to a snow covered stump and said “That thing has an arm!”
They cautiously set the still draining buck down and moved to examine the form. It turned out to be a fully clothed and armed dwarf turned to stone. The figure was posed in mid rush with a defiant roar on its lips. So the question was, petrified dwarf or statue? Off hand the detail and the positioning in the middle of the woods suggested petrifaction.
James found a second statue toppled and pieces of a third under a layer of snow and leaves. Then they where startled by the sound of a distant gunshot. The party broke off speculation and snatched up the kill. Then they began to work their way southwards up the valley slope towards the camp.
Thomas felt the sharp intrusion of an enemy before the attack; He called out “Incoming!” without knowing how accurately his prediction would prove. Jason reacted by calling up armor and looking for something to hit with his spear. Then iron spikes began to rain down.
One transfixed Schminke’s outer thigh on his right leg, a second pierced the thick hide Thom was wrapped in near the fire and poked an inch deep hole in his left pectoral but luckily lacked the speed to pierce the ribs. Derek dove into the brush-pile despite his sprain. Jason had his unseen servant’s pull the two Thoms to cover while he counted on his mage armor to protect him.
Thom Stead was furious and frustrated, “Where the hell is it?”
“Airborne” Schminke yelled.
A spike pierced Jason’s shoulder proving to him that his armor spell was not impenetrable. In anger he mustered the last of his power to call into being a horse of mist and light. He jumped onto the magical creature and bellowed. “What else you got!?” at the sky.
“It’s coming!” Thomas said. “Derek…the gun ready? Here is a spell that will tell you where and when to strike. Derek felt the precognition fall on him, but the manticore was too high for a decent shot. Thom gestured and a meteor slashed from the ground a distance away, cutting the air near the manticore and causing it to lose a hundred feet of altitude as it veered and then pancaked its wings at the last moment above the trees. The huge spike-covered beast let out a paralyzing roar and hurled a third barrage of iron projectiles into the brush pile to keep heads down as it sought altitude again.
Remund fired a single shot into a scar under the natural collar of iron spikes that formed a lion-like mane to guard the creature’s neck. The bullet punched through flesh and into the heart of the creature, shattering the thousand pound winged feline’s heart into four black pieces.
The wings folded and the creature pitched to the ground near the fire with a sound like an ironworks collapsing. The growls of the manticore turned to gurgles and Jason rode over to check the beast.
From the forest floor a roar of grief and madness came along with the crashing of the male’s mate towards the camp. Thom cast his truestrike on Jason and said “Slow it down!” Derek cast a shield spell and Thom threw a color spray that caused the stunned beast to pull up short giving Jason one perfect opportunity to hit it with a lance.
Jason had a moment of perfect clarity as he charged, the phantom steed had no trouble with footing in the snow, the magical protection was no encumbrance at all, instead he drove the tip of the spear precisely into the roaring mouth of the beast, burying it two feet down the throat and neck. The impact punched the manticore back and shocked it, it clawed at its own face and neck as Jason instinctively drove himself airborne in a leap over the thrashing monster.
In its death throes it was still too dangerous to approach, it managed to extract the lance and sprint away to the north-west for a time, with black blood gushing from its mouth and filling its lungs.
Derek acted as first responder, doing what he could with the imbedded spikes. Each one bled profusely when extracted. In his toilet kit he had a tube of Neosporin that he used liberally as he sacrificed precious cloth to make pressure dressings that he tied in place with strips of hide. He was just finishing with Jason when Thomas called out, incoming friend!” Derek looked down at the pistol that had leaped into his hand and realized just how high strung he was becoming in this madhouse.
Scott, Brian and Jimmy ran into camp hauling a deer, and looking on in awe at the fallen carcass. “There is another one about two hundred yards away.” Scott informed Thomas. “How bad are the injuries?”
“Everybody is stung, everybody lost blood, nice to see you got lucky.” Derek answered. The trio hung the deer on a rack set up for that purpose and turned to help.
Schminke turned to Scott and said “Go back out and get the other Manticore.”
“You want me to dress it tonight? Is it even edible?”
“Not by the color of its blood and the smell, but it is covered with defensive spikes made out of iron, we just skipped the stone and bronze ages and went strait to the iron age. We cannot afford to waste a source of tools and weapons.”
In the end Scott enlarged himself and Jimmy and hauled the thing back at a run. That evening they feasted on venison and burned the carcasses of the great cats a distance away after pulling out every iron spike in both beasts and cutting huge sheets of leather from their wings. They rehashed both the hunt and the attack over and over until Brian pointed out that the deer might have been fleeing the manticore, and that the wounded female might have been trying to head home. Big predators do not hide; they mark territory, so the chances where good that the party could find the lair of the big cats off to the northwest.
It was decided that Jason would go with Brian and James in the morning to backtrack the beasts and find the lair and see if it would be suitable for a campsite. Jason racked out early feeling a swelling of confidence along with the aches and pains of his heroics.4
Derek awoke feeling strange, he was depressed yet he felt agitated as if there was something he had to do. Scott was hauling in firewood, Jason, James and Brian where preparing to travel on Jason’s phantom steeds in search of the manticore lair, Thom and Thomas where on the invalid list. It would be a miracle if the two of them did not die from sepsis or pneumonia.
He lay there puzzling over magic, how it seemed that the spells could be shaped in the mind and then released, some of the men used spells that required spoken words, others went so far as to throw some of this or that to act as a focal point for the spell, but he tended to just interact directly with the energies around him and tell them what to do. It was a heady ability that left him feeling stained. He was a good Christian, a married man, and a scientist. He missed his wife and home and job, but he also felt the need and desire to grasp the world around him with his new powers and bend it to his will.
This was the seduction of the Dark Side if he ever heard of it, and it was just the beginning, how was he to master these powers if they had such command over his soul? He needed to see his wife’s face. So he rolled over to the duffle with his computer in it. Nearly ten thousand dollars worth of the most sophisticated Mac ever put together with software that his programming magic made work together more efficiently then was commercially possible. This bastard blend of functioning power and elegance was the second great love of his life, yet it was useless. While the men had been protected by his magic from the worst of the cold until fire was possible, his slim laptop and its components were as moisture penetrated and ice corrupted as if it had been buried for a century on the tundra.
In disgust Derek nearly drove an iron spike into the thing. Then a new power tingled in his hands, he recognized it as the power Scott had used to patch up all the incidental rips and even to reassemble clothing from rags, mending. With this new power his mind fell into the spell and leaped through the computer. He mended the various portions like a master tailor weaving a suit, and then his powerful elemental protection surged through the device expelling all moisture. Excited, Derek was ignorant of the departure of his friends. He started the computer only to get the dead battery warning and have it go dark.
The spare battery was in a charger in his car back on the real world. But James had a spell that shot electricity from his hands… still that would be at least a hundred thousand volts, maybe he could figure out a way to moderate the power surge, a capacitor array or something…
As he held the dead battery in hand a new power occurred to him and in a split second a static charge of magic surged into the battery, even though the magic would pass in a couple of minutes, it would leave behind it a device in perfect working order, just as it would leave a sword clean and unblemished so it left the battery fully charged.
Elated he popped the battery into place and booted up the Mac, magic from the battery put a bit more of his influence into the machine, it opened up file after file without instruction, putting him through a swirling display of his wife and family with some of his favorite music as a score. Then the machine settled into obedient and perfect functioning. Eagerly he scrounged through the rest of the electronics, six cell phones, a PDA, three iPods and his own external drives. It could all be made to work with magic, and reshaped into tools that might save them all.
Scott finished with the wood and made cheerful conversation with Thomas who was waving his hands and mumbling about something as if in conversation with the invisible. Thom Stead was making shapes appear in the fire and causing them to behave in very erotic ways. “Magic porn!” Scott said.
“If Derek actually gets his webcam to work we can make some kick ass movies with me as the director.” Thom noted.
“That is a big if.” Scott replied.
“You would be surprised.” Derek mumbled cryptically and went back to his study of the electronics.
“Should I keep watch Thomas?” Scott asked.
“I am watching, I have tied a new spell alarm with my detection spell, it will give a whistle if anything hostile approaches.” Thomas replied.
Thus freed from duty Scott turned to the spoils of battle from the night before. He gnawed on a dry steak of venison and looked over the huge sheets of leathern wings the Manticore had sported. The iron spikes where beyond his ability to shape, he could not get the fire hot enough to melt iron and he had nothing that could pound it. That left him the four ten foot wings and the thin strong bones inside them.
With Stead’s knife he carefully began to slice the skin from the bone. Then he tested whether he could cause two cut edged of the stuff to merge with a mending spell. He could! The slices disappeared as if they had never existed leaving a smooth weld. Like a leatherworker sent to heaven he could cut and repair the stuff over and over with no mistake being irreparable. By noon he had it down to an art, the supple half inch leather sheets became first one set of black leather breastplates and finally four, made to fit the men in the camp, trimmed with wolf hide capes. Thom helped him by whittling wooden shin guards with another blade that Scott enchanted with a new spell that came to him while Scott reinforced the forearms of the armor suits with sections of short shiny black wing bone welded to the leather.
Finally he used the last of the leather scraps to make three pairs of boots, moccasin style with double thick heels. One sized for himself, one that would do for Jason or Thom and one that would fit Jimmy, Thomas or Derek. Brian would have to wait for later. The only thing had needed to do to the materiel was char and buff the bones, the acidic nature of the manticore blood had cured the hide on the bone, its blood must have dissolved and carried incredible amounts of iron to be able to literally grow spikes of the stuff. Scott ran out of spell power well before he ran out of ideas and things to do. Like Derek he had found a project that engrossed him.
Derek, Thom and the Captain had been discussing computers long and loud while listening to music most of the afternoon. Scott finally sat down to join them, Thom with his partly whittled wood blocks and Schminke with a slab of meat on an iron spike.
Thomas said “I hope the scouts come back with word of a secure lair, we need to get warm and dry without magic, and we need time and space to get sorted out.”
“I just hope we can get rid of the smell of cat piss.” Scott commented as he tore sliced a chunk from the haunch and spiked it over the fire to sizzle.
Derek surprised Scott by pulling up a picture of his wife and daughter that he had forwarded to him back home. It held him captive for a few minutes of speechlessness, then he said “Thanks for keeping that picture man.”
The three scouts went out in good spirits; James and Brian were uninjured, well fed and warmly dressed. Jason had a well wrapped shoulder, but the pain could not match the excitement he felt as he thought about getting his hands on his first treasure horde. He considered to himself what the odds were of a person killing their first manticore like a knight on horseback before they made love to a woman. It would have to be close to nine billion to one. The thought made him chuckle and drew a laugh from Brian as he explained it.
There was not that much to prepare, the mounts he could conjure would last two hours, less if they had to do any crazy stuff like fly or water walk, but the mounts would carry them through the woods thirty miles in that time if they needed to go that far.
It fascinated Jason to feel his magic take form in autonomous creatures. He had always felt a frustrated desire to lead; now he commanded troops as intimate to him as extra hands. The mounts cost him dearly in magic; he would be able to do three more if his growing feeling of power meant what he thought it did. That meant no suits of armor for protection on this foray. Brian was sure however that there could not be that many big predators in this valley. It looked barely twenty miles long as it swept around to the southwest, maybe ten miles wide if one was generous with what one called part of the valley. A pair of flying killing machines could range over all of that and still leave some game, the more pressed they had been the sparser the population of large prey like the deer. So the valley was not preyed on by too many more supernatural predators. After all they had seen deer the day before. Moreover competing predators most likely stayed out of each others territories.
James was ready with his own brand of mayhem which should handle wolves or big cats, so they moved out with some confidence. Schminke had put Jason in charge of the foray, even though he was wounded. That vote of confidence from the big German Mick made Jason feel invincible.
The ride in the icy chill was so smooth it could hardly be called riding. The mist horses dampened vibration and where easy on the ass. Still James, still carrying eighty extra pounds was soon less enthusiastic about the trip.
One hour later and near the far end of the valley where the woods grew thick and the floor dropped too the shores of a long narrow frozen lake Brian called a halt. They had been passing many trees marked with deep scores but now they could see broken tree tops and cleared spaces for landing. They found fresh tracks in the snow and followed them up a steep frozen creek to a natural pool perhaps fifty meters around. It was fed by a crack in a stone wall that rose fifteen feet on the high south side of the pool. On the shelf above, three huge trees, gnarled and massive punched roots into soil and limestone. The rock before them was broken in layers that resembled a natural stairway down into the thick tangled roots of the great trees. A pungent reek came from the hole that led to a reeking domed chamber.
James called dancing lights to lead the way and Jason and Brian followed him into the nest. The chamber was large, thirty feet in diameter and fifteen feet high with a roof overhead made of hard packed dirt held in a web of intertwined roots. The walls were scraped from the hard wood of the tree trunks, and a floor was a flat rock slab. It was clearly a place made with care by something that was not a savage iron spiked beast. The floor was littered with bones and excrement, and many more spikes, all showing teeth marks as if they where favorite chew toys.
Tucked into one of several alcoves made by roots was a pile of loot. Coins of gold and tarnished copper were piled with animal teeth, horns and antlers. Some humanlike skulls that seemed strangely shaped lay among the coin and a belt with a pouch contained a purse of gems and two bottles.
Lastly Jason discovered a pair of fine gold glasses with an enchantment on the crystal lenses. When he wore them his vision narrowed and was magnified if he paused to stare for any length of time. They also perfectly corrected his vision5.
So engrossed was the group in the loot that they did not hear the wing beats until the last second. A dragon, the size of cheetah and white as snow swooped into the room and filled it with a numbing blast of blinding cold.
Brian reacted with his purple ray of strength leeching energy, James let fly with an area filling cone of fire. The two spells disoriented and hurt the dragon badly enough that it crashed into the depths of the chamber and struggled to reorient itself and come back at the group.
Stiff with cold Jason lunged at the diminutive dragon with his iron tipped spear staff. The cat quick dragon slipped the thrust like water but it paused and shook its head as if to clear it when Brian tried a sleep charm on it. James hit the dragon with a magic missile that cracked the ribs of the wyrmling and changed its mind about claiming the treasure of the fallen manticore. It snarled and flew out towards the entrance. Jason whirled and threw his spear at the fleeing creature and put the iron spike into the back of the dragon as it veered upward to escape.
Desperate now the dragon whirled at bay and began to hiss out another blast of cold, but James was quicker, a magic missile into the flared crest of the raging dragon rendered it unconscious on its feet. Brian rushed the disoriented reptile and beat its brains in with a spiked club.
“Dragon’s Bane!” Brian stated as he displayed the blood and brain covered club.
The other two chuckled at that. Jason said “Damn thing must have known we killed the manticore and wanted to claim their treasure.”
The group packed up the potions and the gems, picked up the hundreds of pieces of gold and hid them in a cache buried nearby in case another dragon came while they where gone. They hung the dead dragon in the chamber hoping it would scare off invaders. James cut its throat and drained the blood into one of his water bladders just in case they found some use for the stuff.
The ride back was as smooth as the ride in, bringing them back just before true nightfall. As the party came in and let the horses vanish the first thing they noted was the good cheer around the fire. They where soon telling their story: the highpoint was when Brian spoke of Jason’s spear-cast taking the dragon on the wing.
Captain Schminke looked over the potions and cast a pair of identify spells on them and said, “This one will cure my injuries if I drink it and the other is meant to heal magical injuries to the mind and spirit. I am afraid it will not cure your pneumonia Thom.”
Thom coughed a hock of phlegm into the fire and nodded, then said “drink it man.”
The rest of them agreed, Jason saying “Thom and I have wounds, but we need you to be mobile.
“Take off them panties first!” Brian insisted, he wanted to see the healing process. Curious as well Thomas took off his pants. Then with the hot purple skin of his thigh exposed and the ankle swollen to double normal size on display he opened the bottle of healing drought and said “Cheers.” A pair of gulps later, the group watched as the puss oozed from the wound and it closed, the ankle shrank to normal size and even blisters on his feet healed and shrank!
Jason wanted one of those things so bad he could taste it. “Why can’t one of you be a cleric?” He queried the group half seriously.
“How does it feel?” Scott asked.
“I cannot describe it; there is no pain in my body anywhere. I feel like I am ten years younger. I will keep watch tonight. You have watched over me. Jason you showed your mettle today like the leader I knew you where. Tomorrow we move to the new camp at dawn. Jason and James can go on phantom steeds with most of our food and gear while Brian guides us, Scott and I will carry Thom in a litter and Derek can use the gun to keep point guard.”
Thom protested “You cannot cover fifteen miles with me in a litter in a day, I can stay on one of those horses, and the trip will be shorter for me that way.”
Scott nodded in agreement. Schminke thought about it and agreed, and then he added that James should use the floating disk spell to carry Thom if he could not stay in the saddle.
The next morning Derek gave Thom an endure elements to travel on and the rest of them set out in the wake of the disappearing horseman.
At nightfall when the party arrived exhausted and starved they found the vault much changed. A fire drove out the worst of the chill and flat rocks filled and narrowed the entryway. Piles of refuse from inside where heaped behind the trees while antlers and horn and dragon and coin where sorted into piles on the cleaned floor. The trio who had ridden had already recovered the gold and it gleamed in the firelight bright as flame, soft as butter and heavy as a lead. More important to survival was the considerable pile of iron spikes and pieces that where also piled up.
Over a meal of fast dwindling venison Schminke spoke to them all “This is a good place, it has water and a reputation, and here we have a chance to get fit enough to handle ourselves. We need to tend to the wounded, I do not understand why we can mend computers and clothing but not living flesh, but it seems to be so. Scott I want you to continue what you started with the native clothing and armor. We need to build a furnace that can melt iron, and for that we need to search the area for clay, coal and anything else that might be useful. We will need to keep watch all the time, with eyes and spells. On the way here I discovered that I could use my detection spells to find edible and medicinal plants, so we will look for roots or fungi or whatever to cure our friend Thom. I want knives, spears, bows and arrows, swords and armor before we face another battle and we will need to hunt and kill enough meat to sustain us. Maybe we can fish in the lake, we will see. This is the heart of winter. Our days will be short and our labor will be long but we have so much magic and so many skills to help us I have to think that we can pull together and make of this place something that we can be proud of.
Scott spoke next saying “I brought you here because I trust you all and know you to be the best of men, I hope you know I will do everything in my power to reach that ultimate goal of getting home. In the meantime I think I can do something small with that dragon-hide, maybe armor for Brian. We need fur and meat, so bring in those varmints like beaver and mink and rabbits, I will make us cloaks, gloves and moccasins to match our armor.
James said “I want to work the iron.”
Jason added “And I will lay out this area and design a kiln and forge and smelter for our smith.
Brian cheerfully offered to start a trap line and scout for clay and minerals and to make a map. Finally Derek promised to keep track of the events and chronicle each day in his computer while pitching in wherever he was needed.
For his part Thom Stead promised to live to smoke again just to spite the god’s of this wasteland, and to make dirty pictures for them once a week.
That night, chilled and exhausted but warm enough and well fed enough the band of sorcerers kindled the fire of ambition again. Ambition fed by magic and gold in firelight kept them warm.
To Make a Hammer
The first day in the new tree cave was a long shakeout. The first thing Schminke wanted done was for an ample supply of water to be brought up, then a latrine dug and finally he wanted firewood. Scott solved the last two problems with a combination of enlarge and reduce spells. He enlarged himself and used Derek’s folding knife to swiftly score and break four reduced and uprooted pine trees into short pieces. The hole left by the largest became the latrine and James summoned floating disks for them to load and haul the wood away. By noon Brian could get free to hunt, while Jason stacked stone in the entryway and plugged some suspicious looking holes inside the lair with the help of his unseen servants. Derek was tasked with looking after Thom, who was feverish and calling out in delirium.
Captain Schminke was using his detection powers on area plants until he hit upon one that detected as specifically good at curing a respiratory infection. As he searched he also had separate detection spells to tell him when he passed edible plants and those just generally useful to promote healing.
The presence of so many useful plants in the nearby area gave Thomas the first clue that this was a formerly cultivated spot. One he began to suspect must have been sacred to Druids. Without many leaves, apart from pine needles that he knew from military training could be boiled for vitamin C, he was forced to bring back stems and roots that he would brew for a general cocktail for Thom. Once he brewed it, he would need to check it to see if it was toxic with a detect poison and if so, he would fiddle with the preparation, taking notes as he went. Without civilization his records where going to be the only medicine besides trial and error available, so he needed to start putting on his herbology hat. Thanks to the miracle of Derek’s computer he could record and even photograph the plants and check the computer database for clues as to what might be useful. Derek had whole survival manuals filed away on hard drive.
That first evening Schminke gave Thom a dose of a powerful brew, one that Derek was thoughtful enough to enhance with a dose of generalized magic power, and he had some hope that it might be effective in breaking the mounting fever and curing the infection in his lungs.
At midnight while they where all taking turns melting ice into a t-shirt and mopping Thom with it and dripping bits of water into his parched lips, the fever broke and Thom collapsed into a restless sleep.
Thomas gave out marching orders that night. They were all gathered around the snapping fire of pine, letting the cedar smoke clear the stink of manticore from their new home, while sitting on makeshift log chairs. Thomas of course sat in the swivel chair from his desk back in Kansas City.
“I need to break us up into two groups to do the big jobs that I want done. Scott, you will be in charge of the Base Camp Group while Jason will lead the Scout Group. The Scout mission will be to recon the whole valley for game, for terrain features, for resources and for edibles. Until Thom recovers fully I will roll with the scouts to keep the numbers even. I will be your troop on patrol Jason not the one in charge.
Brian you will come with us, you are the best in the bush and you are the lightest for me to carry if I have to hump you back.” The group laughed at that. “Scott you and James and Derek need to get cracking on our list of improvements. You know what we need to do better then I do, plus you and Jimmy have shown a knack for using your powers domestically, Derek is to keep an eye on Thom until he recovers and lend you a hand as needed. I will be using my spells for security; if you hear a referee style whistle blow it means that something wicked this way comes. I do not want to risk anybody outside alone at any time. Get your business done in the latrine pit before nightfall. We will be doing what we can with the weapons we have but I want better ones as soon as possible. One man will be on wood duty, one on water duty and one on supper duty each day. I have a roster posted so look it over. Brian you are firewood in the morning, James you are water and Scott you have supper tomorrow.”
After some grumbling and jokes the six men went to sleep with the hope of a better tomorrow.
“What is first Jimmy?” Scott asked.
“You are in charge, but I want to try to get a forge up and running, we heed to make some tools.”
Derek came back from the latrine just then and put in “We have iron, but it melts at very high temperatures, we will need clay bricks and pots to melt it in.”
“So we need a kiln, and maybe a throwing wheel, possibly pedal powered if we can make one with the tools we have, see if you can design one while you watch Thom, Derek. I will look around nearby for some clay; I think I noticed a likely spot nearby on the way in.”
Sure enough just a hundred meters down the hill below the pond, runoff cut the topsoil revealing a thick layer of grey clay that ended in rich red bottom clay. The red clay continued all the way down to the bank of the stream where rocks filled the frozen cut.
Further down, just before the lake Scott and James found a frozen but exposed sand bank that they would be able to use as well. By the end of the day James had magically fired a clay cook-stove. The clay was full of cracks from the rapid drying so Scott mended and resealed it inside the lair. They crafted a nine brick mold that they could pour wet clay into. With James’s fire spells they where counting on being able to quick heat the bricks and fix the inevitable flaws in the first batch with mending spells. Derek and Thom where whittling the wheels and pegs and peddles that would become the gears of a turning wheel for throwing cups and plates and urns. James cheated by making a floating disk spin, he had time to throw four plates with scrap grey clay before the patrol made it back.
They returned with some good sized chunks of flint, a bundle of roots Thomas said could be eaten for starch like potatoes and sore feet from having to walk the last mile in. Jason had miscalculated the staying power of his second trio of phantom steeds.
“Ran out of gas on your first patrol!” Thom ragged him as they gathered round the sparse meal Scott could manage.
Before winding down for the night, Scott cleaned and cut up the roots by guess work and threw them in the shallow wood basin that was the closest they had to a bowl. Jason and Thomas gave Derek the details of the patrol to input into a graphic, including a game trails, types of trees, minerals, and any wildlife they could remember.
Scott and James were asleep from exhaustion long before they got done.
Thom Stead was well enough to be able to tend the fire and type some notes with headphones on the next day. That freed Derek to help with the back breaking labor of building piles of red and grey clay hacked from the frozen embankment. Once they had enough clay they started loading piles of clean white sand from the lake shore. Scott broke rock inside the lair to make a mixing pit. They filled and stirred until they had four batches of red bricks shaped and a three foot pile of soft grey to turn on the wheel.
It was a day of frustration since they ran out of carrying magic by noon, but without magic they finished making the throwing wheel and chinking up the holes in the entryway. The place was a bit snugger and several of the pots where firing in the hearth when the patrol came back.
The patrol had managed to bring down a pair of rabbits and a partridge. Brian worked the game over with a flake of flint, hooping the rabbit skins and plucking the partridge. All the entrails that where edible ended up in that nights stew with one of the rabbits.
They were all familiar with feeling cold, hungry and exhausted, but at least they where getting used to it. That night the fire had red bricks baking in it.
By day five the kiln and the smelter where complete, at least in theory. They needed bellows and intense heat to actually melt anything. The kiln worked well enough, they where feeding it steadily, plates, bowls, and big urns for water. The clay was thrown by the recovering Thom.
A shallow stone pit under the forge let them keep steady heat on the plate above, and a simple knockout would let them drain melted metal into fine grey clay molds. They even had their first run, melting copper coins from the horde into a long copper rod. The problem was that they could not liquefy iron yet.
The scouts had found signs of wild pigs, and more deer trails to the west. They had explored all the way to where the escarpment merged into a canyon and waterfall that stood frozen dropping two hundred feet to a white water river and ravine below. They had scouted perhaps one sixth of the valley and had already fallen in love with the rich ancient forest’s stark beauty. The return route along the shore of the stream that drained the lake had revealed plenty of signs of game. Thomas began the structuring of a plan to use the terrain to herd some game into their larders.
It started snowing again the next day, so the whole group worked under Scott’s direction, Jason called up an unseen servant to work a set of bellows, Thom carved the negative space of a hammerhead and the all important and expensive (in terms of iron) anvil. The rest of them built a wood-stand set in the earth that would hold the anvil. Derek used two precious magic enhancement spells to send the forge fire from cherry red to blinding white for minutes at a time. Scott then did the same. When they cracked the molds open the next morning, they had a hammerhead for blacksmithing and an anvil.
The next three days where a blur for the home group, woodworking tools and daggers where the first priority for the forge, followed closely by more metalworking tools, like tongs and a beaked hammer for punching holes, James and Derek worked tirelessly while Thom continued to improve and started pitching in.
Scott now had an axe to cut fire wood and to notch logs to build a log-cabin shed around the latrine, and a cabin around the front door, smithy, and the kiln house. Then he built an attached smokehouse waiting for the day that the patrol came back with a deer.
They managed to keep fed on small game, but it was a tight stomached business. Not one of the group turned a hair when they saw a grub in a felled tree-stump, they just collected the little fat buggers and tossed them in the stew. With his ability to turn himself into a giant, Scott could get more rough work done on construction then the others combined, so the rest focused on pottery and metalwork and he built crude shelters that where soon chinked with mud and roofed in sheets of bark woven with sticks and covered with leaves and dirt.
The home team built a chimney of stone and a stovepipe of clay for the cook stove. James hauled clay and sand on disks of force until it occurred to Derek to use magically enhanced fire to melt some sand swiftly into glass. They poured the liquid out on a hasty force disk and when the patrol came back that night they found the cabin entryway to the lair to be decorated with a window. Thomas was literally struck speechless. It was not until after they finished their stew of ground-squirrel and beetle grubs that he remembered to tell them that they had actually found an exposed seam of coal.
“It has been mined into before, but that just will make it easier to get at, whoever mined it was careful to expose it and cut a trail that is not too steep. They cleared away a good piece of timber too, off to the east.”
“Those petrified dwarves we found!” James blurted.
“That is what I think too.” Brian confirmed. “It would sure be nice if we could find some friends.”
“We have not seen any tracks, so if they were here maybe they leave in the winter, or maybe they where all killed.” Jason speculated
“By something that can petrify a man.” Brian chimed in.
“Basilisk, medusa, cockatrice, gorgon, and beholder and a very different situation for each, that leaves out the possibility of a wizard or evil priest of some sort of course.” Scott listed.
“We need to hash out strategies and tactics for each, Schminke said with a sigh. We are going to have to start practicing attack and defense plans.
Iron chisels let them work the soft limestone into better steps and to shape shelves and even benches and stone lintels for the windows. The place was much like a mountain man’s cabin. The three outriders came in on the evening of their ninth day to the smell of roasting fish. Their trip had been without game, even his true strike spell and a hasty stone throw had failed Thomas when he tried to hit the one game bird they had spotted.
When asked how they had managed to collect the fish, James proudly described how he used a floating disk spell to stir the bottom of the lake and then used the copper rod to conduct his shocking grasp into the water. The disk then collected a dozen huge stunned trout.
Thomas announced “Tomorrow marks the end of the first week in our new digs, so it is only appropriate that we mark it with a few surprises. First Thom, no more goop, you are recovered enough to come back on full duty. Second, wow! This place came round more in a week then I would have expected it to in a month. We have our expectations shaped by a world where we cannot do all these amazing magic tricks. So all I can say is wow. Third, tomorrow we all coordinate in a hunt.”
Thomas laid out one of Derek’s notebooks and showed the plan.
Tomorrow, before dawn, alpha team will move too the west on conjured steeds. You will cross the frozen lake and make landfall at the end of the valley. Bravo team will move on foot to this spur. The gap here between the lake and the high outcrop is about a quarter mile. We will use whatever we can, magic weapons, missiles and rays to kill as much game as we can as it passes the choke point. Alpha team will use spells and their presence to drive the game. Starting at dawn we will stock the larders the way the Mongols did it.”
Derek looked around and smiled “Does anybody else have a hard-on?”
The group laughed. James spoke up “So you want me on the line?”
“Jason, Thom and Derek will be the beaters. Scott, James and Brian will be with me on the line. Hopefully we can take a handful of deer but just in case we spook something nasty stay alert.”
Scott spoke up “I have been able to horde enough of my mending spells to finish up Brian’s new suit, white dragon-hide breastplate, dragon bone greaves, and dragon-hide moccasins. Add half the winter wolf-hide now that Thom is out of it and you have the White Ranger.”
“Black manticore-hide armor for Scott, Derek, Thom and James, white dragon for Brian, and myself and Jason in deer hide and wolf-skin. This first hunt will be critical; our diet needs more calories and even James’ neat trick with the fish will not keep up with the five mega calories we are burning a day. How much weight have you dropped Jimmy?”
“Maybe twenty pounds.”
“Which is not bad if you got it too lose, but Stead has lost that much too. Not good.”
“Everybody on the line will have a weapon, Scott, take the dagger, James, use the hammer, I will have the spear and Brian will have his sling and Derek’s blade.”
“I have a flint dagger I can use, it is sharper.” Brian replied.
Thom spoke up “Finally something I can do effectively with my spells.”
“I thought you would enjoy it.” The Captain noted.
“Can I set trees on fire?”
The Day of the Hunt
The cold forest that Brian led the four of them through was illuminated by the twin moons of Toril; Luna looked much as the moon does from Earth, though its face was less scared, more truly silver then the moon of Earth. Selune6 was about half the size and bluish in tint with a swarm of silver asteroids trailing behind spinning fast like sparkling tears trailing behind it. The double shadows the moons cast where confusing but beautiful in the icy cold clear air.
Scott and James had spent much less time in the quite forest but were soon enchanted by it. The hard trek and the cold struck a balance so that the four men afoot were able to keep warm without overheating at the fast walk they where using to eat up the distance. Both Scott and James were chaffed and uncomfortable in their armor, too optimistic in the gut and thigh measures when made, the suits constricted and gave reluctantly in the chill. It would indeed be a long march. For two hours before dawn they traveled until Brian brought them to the very point of a spur that jutted like the prow of a ship out into the lower forest. There at the tip Thomas ordered Scott to take cover and hold. Then a hundred meters away James took up a position. Schminke dropped himself third and sent Brian on to anchor the line to the lake. Then they waited.
An hour after the foot patrol set out Jason finished conjuring their rides. Soon the trio was racing the grey light of dawn across the face of the frozen lake; the misty horses tread so lightly that thin ice was not a worry. Thom felt gloriously into the hunt. His brush with death made him take joy from this moment as he had few times before in his life.
Within the hour they swung round to the south and began acting the fool, Thom created blasts of traffic noise, Jason sang and beat a hollow tube of wood with a stick, Derek had his laptop blaring out random predator calls, from lion roars to dolphin clicking. The speakers where set up over his shoulders.
They jumped a fox almost immediately. When it jumped, along with a pair of hares it had been stalking, Thom expended a color spray that lit up the forest for hundreds of meters and stunned all three. Thom leaped off with his club and broke the neck of each with a single blow, and loaded them in his game bag.
Not to be outdone, Jason let out a strange call that was answered by a creature that seemed to step out of a rift in the air. The creature was a dog sized badger that ran ahead on Jason’s command, chattering, and scolding, snarling and growling. It was gone after about half a minute but it did a great deal of trashing about in that short time.
They had to move back and forth, north and south quickly as they moved to the east in general in order to prevent too many creatures from slipping behind them. Their sweeps widened as the area to the south deepened for a time, then they where able to swing north and east and put on speed barking and howling like mad.
As they galloped the horses, in the distance they spied six deer leaping away towards the gap. The speeding horses stayed even with the deer and suddenly one young buck turned on the trio. Derek sent a surge of magic into a hand sized rock he was carrying and threw it full into the forehead of the buck; the magic gave it enough extra impetus that the creature was staggered. Jason lowered his spear into position to skewer the dazed creature but his spike glanced off as the creature danced sideways. Thom saw his own opening and stabbed the creatures flank as his mist horse trampled it. However it was Derek that dismounted and faced the creature with his spiked bat and put the spike into the sweet spot between the ears.
Since they where dangerously knotted together, Thom galloped south and detonated another color spray that kept things moving in the right direction. He was surprised when the light illuminated the distant hindquarters of a very irritated grizzly bear.
“Shit.” He said and turned back to Jason. “Hey old son there is a bear up there!”
“I’ll send a message!” Jason called back and paused to do so, sending “Bear coming fast two minutes!”
When the five deer tried to drive between Thomas and James the pair of men moved swiftly towards each other. Schminke cast his divination and hurled his axe. The deer and the axe came together is a splash of blood and the lead doe went down with the axe buried in its neck. James fired first one and then a second magic missile on the run, felling two more does, but he was too slow to get off his third missile and the young wide eyed buck that remained hit him like Buick sending his two hundred and forty pound bulk flying back into a tree. With nothing more then the wind knocked out of him and some bruised ribs James coughed and chuckled wryly as the deer got away. He went forward with Thomas to finish off the fallen animals with his hammer.
A flash to the north and a purple flare told him Brian was active and Thom was coming up. He caught a glimpse of a coyote sized fox and took it out with his last magic missile even as Thomas yelled, “Shit! Scott there is a bear headed this way, close in!”
The bear had turned south away from all the spells and noise and blood, it loped along at a deceptively fast pace knowing that just around the rocks ahead it could turn up into the rocks and caves in the mountainside. Straight in front of it the bear watched a small figure rise and all its frustration and confusion turned into rage. It bore down to crush the foe.
A long claw of metal gleamed in the black creature’s hand and it sent a pulse of magic into the blade just forged the day before.
The bear could smell magic like blood on the wind, but it was too angry to care. Before it hit, the man creature magically swelled to tower over the grizzly and the bear instinctively reared up for greater height. The bear’s hugging grasp failed to topple his foe, but he managed to sink teeth into the swollen arm even through the thickened black hide of the now monstrous thing. Then the bear felt the bite of the enlarged magic blade in its guts.
The creature thrashed Scott about, foiling his next two attempts to stab it and further tearing his arm in the process. Finally, Scott managed to focus long enough to unleash a spell and the bear shrank in his giant grasp to the size of a dog. To the bear it seemed that the foe had just doubled in size again, the last thought the bear had was that it somehow seemed unfair, and then a gigantic knife found its heart.
Spent, Scott shrank back and his injuries shrank as well, indeed he seemed to have fared better then he thought, leaving him with a nasty set of punctures through his armor but not the bone deep cuts he expected. Some element of healing or reallocation in the shape-change at work he supposed gratefully.
Brian called for help as the beaters came up, by luck he had taken a brace of hares while getting into position, waiting for them to come together in their snow dance he clobbered them both with magic meant to weaken a charging rhino. The weakness was great enough to stop both their hearts. Then as the beaters closed in he saw a bull moose running along the shore. His first thought was “How the hell did that get up here? The second was to cast weakness and hope for the best. The big creature staggered and went to its knees, tripping out onto the ice. It weighed over fourteen-hundred pounds and the ice began to crack with loud popping echoing reports.
Brian reached down to a bare patch of bank and pinched some sand, with a toss at the struggling creatures face, he caused its thrashing to cease, for it to momentarily slump. Taking the opportunity Brain leaped forward and drove his flint into the throat of the beast.
Several things happened at once. The creature threw off his sleep charm and surged to its feet with a rush of adrenalin, thrashing about with its antlers and clubbing Brian as if by a well swung two-by-four. The great bull also broke a slab of ice free and thrashed for a moment until it could pull itself out of the lake, loosing blood as it struggled.
Brian ran back into the trees wanting no more of the brute until it had bled itself to death, and that was when Thom rode in and offered him an arm. The two pursued the now fleeing beast for two miles before the bull finally bled out and went down. Fortunately within a short drag of the lair because the phantom steed gave out just as Thom pulled the carcass into the familiar courtyard of home.
By noon all the carcasses where being meticulously gutted, skinned and hung. They singed the fur off deer hide and Jason created acid to mix with water in urn pots to cure the hides. Over the next three days hides became rope, gloves, clothing and door hinges just to name a few. Sinew and gut where cleaned and twisted until they had decent bowstrings to work with, and the meat, including tongue and heart and a number of unfamiliar organs all found itself hung, stewed or smoked.
The bear hide became Scott’s bed, and with the fatty bear meat they made grease to fry the lean dear and hare. The foxes were dressed out solely for its fur under some protest, but Thom ended up with a stylish cap and Jimmy a fine cape and hood.
The moose, like an offering from the gods was dressed out to seven hundred pounds of venison, thick hide and fur for two beds with a huge liver that was supper that very night. The seven men worked around the clock and made sure every scrap of food they could stow was stowed in either a cold building or sealed urn, or hung in the suddenly overcrowded smoke house or the lair. Then Thomas spun his web of alarms and they fell into an exhausted but sated slumber.
Coyotes and wolves probed the camp over the next couple of days, following blood trails and seeking the source of meat scent, but a sleet storm two days after the hunt destroyed the trail, and then turned into two days of snow.
One wolf however, took the location of the camp through a winding ravine that lead downward into a valley behind the one occupied by the lost sorcerers. This wolf told its Warg master of the small camp and easy meat. The Warg reported to its goblin allies and the goblins considered their meager food stores and made the decision to prepare for a raid. Only ten of the tribe had Wargs to ride, but more then a hundred would go, after all, humans could be tricky. So the pace would be set by those on foot. The neighboring valley had long been home to cruel dwarves and hostile monsters, but if men could make houses there, then the monsters and dwarves must have killed each other. The tribe would add the valley to their hunting grounds.
After three days of processing meat, hide, fur and bone, the whole group began another three day process of mining and hauling four tons of coal from the seam to the west. Three miles away through the woods, the seam was soon the sight of considerable activity. The coal was easy enough to break loose, the mining team was soon well ahead of the hauling team. Phantom steeds, floating disks and giant sized workers could only accomplish so much, two loads a day had to be humped by sweat and labor alone.
In three days of work they moved the four tons they had set as the goal. Derek declared a laundry and bath day in the camp after hacking the ice off the pond for a hole and casting endure elements on everybody but himself. The swim turned into a discussion on exercise.
“We have so much protein now; we should design workouts and contests to push us into better fitness.” Stead suggested. “I think the trees will make a solid climbing wall with some rope climb and swings, we can practice grappling, knife throwing, sword fighting, archery, and work up stretching routines.” He continued.
“Hey we still have three fourths of the valley to map, and plenty of hard labor to keep us busy.” James protested.
“If we do this on a regular schedule it should include some meditation, I think I can guide us through some helpful mental exercises.” Scott offered.
The group put their heads together and created a routine that included stretching and calisthenics in the morning, afternoon stretching, and then an evening challenge for chore exemptions. In order to encourage continued focus on daily tasks and innovation Thomas also instituted a best achievement of the day award, a second chore exemption.
It meant that they where finally being worked with military rigor, but it seemed to
them that they where barrowing pain in a world that was painful enough. The first deer had dressed out to nearly a hundred pounds of meat, and the group had devoured it in a few days of catching up on ten days of hunger and cold, now with plenty of food paradoxically they where on strict rations. Both Thomas and Brian where wrestling coaches and James and Scott where former wrestlers and distance runners. Those four knew how to train and get into shape, however they where also the oldest and could not train as hard as Jason and Thom. That is with the exception of Brian who could out-train any of them still. Derek had never been an elite athlete, but he had plenty of determination and once a schedule was set he had an almost pathological need to follow it.
Moose hide reinforced less suitable clothing and made James a work apron and everyone sturdy gloves. Deer hide became pants and shirts for every day. James worked steadily through his supply of iron, making first spearheads and daggers and then serviceable roman style short swords. The entire band took turns at the forge, Thom Stead and Jason and Scott all showed aptitude. Brian liked working in wood and antler, making handles for daggers and carving pieces to be mended together into shin guards and neck guards. They made furry caps with ear flaps that fit snug, and they formed several glass basins to hold water for cooking and cleaning.
Schminke now spent much of his time around or in the lair working on notes. He also discovered that Derek had PDF files of the entire Dungeons and Dragons and Forgotten Realms rulebooks on his hard drive. Thomas laughed with delight when he discovered them. Ironically they had been a convenience for playing in Iraq when Scott deployed. One he had shared with Derek and his other friends. Amazingly it contained biographies, maps and spell lists that would prove invaluable should they ever get sufficient mobility and freedom. They also could preview the spell powers that lay ahead as they progressed.
It was after they started applying their fitness training knowledge to the schedule that Scott began taking James aside for guided meditation at the end of the day. He and James where still working together at home with Derek. Derek had youth on his side, they were working with two strikes against them, being both heavy and middle aged. Scott modified his former practice of visualizing a point of light in motion by having James call up his sign with him, but do nothing with it except move it around inside his body. For an hour before bed they called on their magic to speed healing, strengthen sore muscles and guide their bodies to burn fat instead of needed muscle. The two noticed a marked increase in energy and a reduction in need for sleep that became an overall increase in metabolism and weight loss. Scott went further and guided James into lucid dreaming which he discovered now became as simple as calling up his sign as he drifted into sleep and commanding that he become aware when he began to dream.
This power was entirely too important, so Scott presented the discovery, the fact that he and James could arrange to meet for exploration in a world of dreams and the fact that things they found there where subsequently found in the waking world told them that they had in actuality discovered another means of scouting.
After that the whole party began to meditate and lucid dream in twos and threes and they all enjoyed a boost in energy and morale. At first Scott and James resented the youngsters joining in, after all they were now just as far behind as when they started competing against all that youthful regeneration and wind. However over the next twenty days it stopped mattering as much. The magic had an effect on metabolism similar to cocaine, elevating mood, creating a slight tendency to paranoia and hyper-activating the metabolism.
James lost fifteen more pounds and Scott and Derek where down twenty five each. Schminke had lost twenty and Jason ten, while Thom was putting weight back on. Scott and James wore full beards cut about three inches long. Jason and Thom where hard pressed to grow more then scruff, Thomas had a mustache while Derek wore a full curly red beard that made him look vaguely like a leprechaun.
The days got shorter and it stayed cold and grey. The sun did not seem much interested in the valley, peeking over Wolf Mountain for only a few hours a day. Still the patrols made progress searching the valley. They discovered a shelf of rock that widened and thinned above the valley in a ribbon to the southeast. It became a ledge along the escarpment that the party had so memorably plunged down and ended in the south east corner of the valley in a wide flat area with a hundred foot drop-off on one side and a sheer cliff above.
The group also noticed that as they swung around the lake to the northeast they began to see signs of something big and violent. Occasional stone wildlife, charred trees and hoof and claw marks all made the group sure that they where not alone in the vale.
Still the patrols where unmolested, they ranged around the east end of the lake and up onto the northern shore. They crisscrossed the frozen lake as the shortest route to and from the homestead, several times in ice polishing winds that would have killed a normal horse. Then near the northwest corner of the valley they discovered a winding path up the slope that seemed to cut around and through the mountains beyond and descend in a zigzagging natural stair. They found trail marks on scrub trees along the path. The also found that their valley funneled air into the gap making it howl like a banshee, but it also kept it clear of snow making it a possible route to descend from the valley. Below there was a lower valley that would likely descend down and meet the canyon cut by the violent mountain stream the falls from the lake poured into.
Thomas was torn. They had adequate supplies, but civilization was below. If they could brave the winter, take the path into the unknown valley below, they might eventually reach the flatlands north of Silverymoon.
To help make the decision he asked Scott to partner with him that night in a lucid dreaming scouting mission. The two of them bedded down early and set up their state of mind, and then Brian gently laid a sleep spell over the pair to send them into sleep at the same time. Shortly Scott found himself standing outside on the frozen pond, the most common dream meeting place. Thomas emerged from under the ice which had the texture and temperature of Styrofoam packaging, “Showing off I see.” Scott noted.
“I wanted to look around on the bottom of the pond.” Thomas admitted.
“Shall we run?” Scott asked, and when Thomas nodded they took off racing in the moonlit forest. A timeless time later the were out on the ice of the lake, where the temptation to play became too strong and they did every figure skating move they could think of from triple jumps to leaping splits. Laughing they skated to the far shore and continued to the pass.
In the world of dreams the pass had a dark aspect. Suddenly the two where wary as they raced up and through the winding pass, they remembered to ignore the several blind turns and descended into the valley below.
It turned out to be low dark and maybe two miles wide. The trees were small and shrub like. On the on the far side well back up the valley they found an series of caves stacked like a layer cake with ladders to the various levels and cave mouths. The caves where low and round barely four feet high, and inside they found a hive of tunnels filled with dark hairy goblins.
Worst of all they found a deep cave where scores of goblins in leather joined prowling Wargs circling a fire, the gathered light glowing from their eyes. The leader exhorted the gathered and pointed to the south towards the party homestead. Schminke enacted a spell that brought him the words of the goblins in clear English.
“We go and take meat! We go and take gold! We go and make the high valley our hunting ground again! Spike Cats dead! Triple Beast is gone! Dwarves Gone! Only men there now! We will swarm on them on the dark moon and feast on their flesh when the moon returns!”
“Let’s get back Scott.” Thomas ordered.
Without speaking the pair raced upward into the night and away homewards.
“We have a problem.” Thomas told the group that night. “In three days we will have company in the form of an unknown number of goblins and Wargs who intend to despoil us and add us to their winter stock of food.”
“Can we delay them? Trap them in the pass?” Derek asked.
“I do not think so, they know it better then we do and it is too wide and steep to favor us over them. These creatures may be weak by local standards, but so are we. I would not want to fight them with odds greater then even once our spells are spent.”
“We have three days to prepare for them; we need to kill enough of them that they give up right?” Thom asked.
“We need to kill so many of them that they never dream of doing this again.” Jason stated.
“We should kill them all and then go into their home caves and wipe them out to the last one.” James said with finality.
“That’s the spirit!” Derek called out.
Thomas laid out his thoughts “We need to consider carefully their numbers and composition and anticipate their probable moves and prepare for them. I estimate we face fewer then two hundred and more then sixty, I counted about a dozen Wargs and I expect the tribe will bring along a Shaman or a Sorcerer. We can expect any wounds we take from these creatures to fester and rot. We can expect them to be too stupid to retreat from a course they are set on. For them this is a win/win situation, either they get more food or fewer mouths to feed. Only if we inflict a catastrophe on them will we gain a victory.”
Scott nodded and said “I put the numbers at near a hundred, but we should anticipate more, some might join the raid after tonight’s party. We can realistically expect to kill ten with our spells each day. Then it is hack and slash, which we may be better at then them, but their numbers give them the edge.”
“We will not be mixing it up with them, we will need to use fire and maneuver to drag the fight out for as many days as we can. Kill and move, break contact when we run out of spells.”
“If they come straight over the lake they will reach us in one day.” Jason noted.
Derek smiled and said “I think we can discourage them from coming out on the water if Thom and I put our heads together.”
“We will need to hit and run that first night, if we turn them they will come round the lake cautiously, fearing whatever the creature is living down at the eastern end. They also are not at their best in daylight, we could gain maybe two days and kill thirty of them.” Thomas calculated.
“Then almost a hundred of them hit us here no matter what we do.” James noted.
“We can set traps, wear them down, we have food and our spells will keep coming back.” Scott offered hopefully.
“We will need to mount a real defense, and prepare a way to retreat, we will move all of our supplies and goods to a cache sight and then fight from there. If we can stay alive for a week we can win.” Derek stated.
“We don’t need to take all the supplies.” Jimmy said thoughtfully. “After all we won’t be gone for long…”
Campaign against the Goblins
The small goblins swarmed forth in the dark of night. The piercing cold sharpened their hunger, quickening their movements and left all living creatures stark and bright in their infravision. The humans could not hide behind a tree or rock without creating a bright trailing plume of heat in the sight of the goblins.
A bright fire billowed in a recently cleared area ahead. The Wargs, faster and always frightened but fascinated by fire raced ahead with goblin riders to encircle the encampment. Their keen sense of smell told them the humans where near. However the clearing was empty. The goblins gave the Wargs their heads, letting the reigns hang loose, so the creatures could home in on the man scent. The Wargs circled around the clearing. There in the trees around the back of the clearing the great wolves found themselves snapping at a clothesline full of overused laundry.
In the midst of the horde coming out of the pass the grand shaman of the goblin tribe stood with the leader. He watched with excitement as the Warg-chosen raced ahead to the fire where the humans would stand and fight. Clever men, to build a great bon-fire to fight around, but even the fighters of these north lands with their giant size and axes would not prevail against so many of the brethren.
Buried in the snow James, Jason and Brian awakened from the dream. They erupted and sent spells into the nearby shaman and chief. Jason brought around three magic mounts preconjured for this moment. The trio leapt upon them as goblins surged forward. The men rode through the goblins sending forth spells the whole time. Jason drove his lance into the weakness staggered shaman and Brian put the gladius7, new-forged for his hand, to good use, shoving it into the face of the flare blinded and wounded chieftain. Then the trio rode through.
The distracted Warg riders where too late to intercept them, instead they set off in pursuit.
The humans had hidden in ambush after all, somehow surviving in the snow itself and concealing the giant horse creatures from the eyes of the brethren. The chase went over several miles to the great ice covered lake that split two thirds of the valley. The horses raced fearlessly out onto the ice, but the Wargs paused. They knew the danger of crossing such ice, hidden thin spots and possibility of an entire section of ice flipping over and closing atop one like a lid where very real. However the man creatures raced over the ice fearlessly, so they, with a lighter burden and softer feet could do no less.
The ten Warg riders spread out across the water in a wide pursuit line. Suddenly in front of the very center, ice erupted and the dome of a great spherical head broke through the ice. The creature had an enormous central eye with four eye-stalks on top of its head. The central eye flashed and with a loud crack a Wargs skull was split. The thrown rider slid forward into the maw of the creature even as an eye stalk flashed and three of the riders where stunned and dazed by the eruption of power. Bang, bang, bang, and three more Wargs where slain by the deadly central eye. The Warg riders pulled up sharp, hurling spears that fell harmlessly, deflected by yet another eye power while another Warg was snatched by an enormous tentacle and dragged backwards into a magic opening in the ice. In seconds fear overcame the rest and they spun about on the ice, but not before three more fell to that deadly central eye. Stunned goblins where snatched and thrust under the ice. Only two Wargs and four goblins reached the shore to race back to the army. Of them one Warg rider, a chief-son was shocked to find that both the fierce goblin chief and the shaman where dead from an ambush.
He saw that it was his chance to take over leadership of the tribe. “We make men pay for our blood-chief!”
When the horde started to go toward the lake the new goblin in charge and his fellow former riders let out such a cry of protest that the rest where filled with dread. An unknown creature of magic and hunger lurked in the lake, the tribe would go around. First however a new war leader had to be crowned and the flesh of the old chief and shaman had to be shared with the tribe to keep the strength in the brethren. Fires where built and bodies where cooked. Flesh was eaten and shelters went up as dawn came. The new chief would ride this attack to glory and return as the greatest war chief the tribe had ever known. His main competition, the remaining Warg rider, would scout ahead tomorrow night, while the new war chief stayed in the center of his most loyal fighters.
Thom, Derek and Scott crawled out of the hole in the ice at their shore. Schminke told them that Brian, James and Jason had performed perfectly as well. The goblins where in the process of anointing a new leader and where delayed for the night, they would not cross the lake and their spell-caster was dead. Time for them to sleep in preparation for the next phase.
The goblins lost ten in a swift daylight raid. A giant and an archer on horseback with other men who sent flashes of light and streaking missiles into a group of outer tents destroyed the warriors and then fled back into the woods. After that lesson the goblin ordered that camps would be ringed with a thicket of logs and branches and alert guards.
That night they set out to go around the lake and the leader sent the last Warg rider out with a party of four goblin runners, only one of the runners returned.
He decided it was too important to keep his numbers, once the human hold was reached and the humans were dead he could send out scouts, for now the horde would travel as one.
His tactics proved effective the next day, an attack by the humans in daylight was repelled and it only cost him four warriors, his guards claimed to have killed two of the men. That night as they rounded the end of the lake, a terrible badger came into the horde and killed twelve of the brethren before it succumbed to its wounds. Many had seen the creature mortally stricken only to return to strike again.
Determined to end his losses the war-leader drove his goblins through the short cloudy day in a wide hunting line. Here and there goblins fell to the wily traps of the humans, but the stink of men on them alerted most of his goblins before they fell into the worst of them.
As night fell, the goblins remaining raced into the cleared trees and trampled area that marked the human occupation. Darts of light lashed at them, rays of weakness staggered them and spells of sleep felled them in groups of six or more, these where not men like the wild tribes of the north, they where more like the clever elves with spells of light and fear. Those elves too had fallen to hordes of the brethren. The goblins pressed in on the humans in minutes, the weakened and unconscious left behind, and then a trio of giants rushed out and began to slash about with blades while stomping on the fallen. Momentarily the goblins retreated from the fury of the trio and many fell to their assault. But all too soon they reverted to human size, showing the weakness of their magic, the horde chased the men back into the compound and began to fill the trees and batter the door of the great wood lodge, the men now trapped inside where doomed! The goblins were preparing firewood to burn the men out when the door burst open from inside and a storm of horses raced out carrying six men. Dozens of spears where hurled and men grunted as they took hits. They lashed about themselves in fury as the horses carried them away to the southeast. The last one clutched a sack to that was torn in the attack. From the small hole dripped fat gold coins that the war-leader knew must fill the sack to bursting. The men where fleeing with the gold!
Warriors bursting into the cabin found that it had a secret door in the back that led to a great chamber filled with meat and many good things, cups and bowls, a stove and great piles of sucam root cleaned and stored. Chairs, benches and tables where scattered about and firewood was at the ready. The hungry horde could not be kept to the hunt this night; the victory was too sweet so the war-leader let his army feast on the stores of the cowardly men this night. They could hunt the gold with full bellies in the morning.
Of the one hundred and twenty his father had set out with he now had sixty five, but to his limited thinking that number was still ‘many’ while the humans where now ‘few’ and running before the hunters.
In the daylight many of his goblins began to suffer cramps from the big meal they had devoured. A goblin can eat rotting garbage without ill effect and thrive on water acidic enough to make batteries, so the discomfort they felt came as a particularly unfamiliar assault. The cramps and blasts of diarrhea caught his force off guard and pinned them to their new base camp at the human cabin for the night. The men counter attacked in the night with their giants and darts and his men where sluggish to respond. The war leader lost fifteen more of his men before dawn.
The goblin metabolism is nothing if not resilient and though his warriors kept eating the treated meat they lost the symptoms of illness the next day. In fact they never associated the illness with the food at all, thinking instead that it was a symptom of overeating.
With his Warg to track, the goblin leader pursued the retreating humans that night, bent on claiming the golden treasure they had stolen from him.
The men had retreated to the first defensive position in the mountainside, the goblins; more cautious now in pursuit came to the head of the trail that would become the long ledge over the valley. The men triggered a rock fall that only managed to catch a couple of goblins off guard. Then they faced the charge of the goblins.
The goblins gained the ledge losing individuals to thrown rocks, magic darts and arrows, then the men retreated along the trail. At a point a great boulder blocked the path and the goblins where forced to stop to drag it away. A second and third boulder occupied them until they where mad with frustration and tackling the obstacles with reckless haste. The forth boulder when forced off the trail dropped a rain of boulders the heads of the goblin workers.
The war-leader drove his remaining troops on in the cold light of dawn and followed the scent and blood trail the men where leaving. He knew the men were trapped ahead on the ledge, the goblins new this valley well from tribal legend. At last the horde reached the widened ledge and the war-leader charged with his remaining horde against the six men, the war-leader himself led the charge, drawing sword and leveling it at the cringing humans holding his gold. Two dozen goblins all hit the grease spell that Jason had prepared and plunged helplessly over the edge. The real party arose from below the ledge on floating disks and the dozen remaining goblins fled with the men in pursuit.
Two days later the two survivors of the all-conquering-horde made it through the gap with the humans harrying them with spell and arrow. Then Schminke turned his tired and bloodied men back to the task of cleaning two days of goblin diarrhea off the base camp.
“Goblin shit, goblin guts and goblin blood.” Scott said as they surveyed the damage to their home. He and James, the two worst wounded in the fights where stuck cleaning up while the rest of the group looted the dead. The goblins tended to keep coins in their loin cloths and make weapons and armor from uncured hides and flint, so searching was a nasty process. What little iron they had was second hand and in poor condition, but it could be retrieved and melted. The lair was also much snugger with the addition of a carpet of Warg hide.
Thomas had coated all their cuts with bear grease mixed with the chopped roots of a plant he had dug up. It felt like fire ants in the cuts which Derek had then sewn shut with deer sinew.
Jason returned with the loot from the fallen leader. A couple swords, a pouch of gold and by some sort of miracle a magical ring of spell storing. It was filled with ten levels of clerical spells; three of second level healing spells one of an antidote to poison and three that made food and water.
Schminke used the ring’s healing on Scott and James. Saving one spell for an emergency, he also dropped the food and water spells, not even wanting to see what a goblin deity provides for common fare. That left him seven spell slots which he had all of them load. Scott with an enlarge, Jason with mage armor, James with two magic missile spells and Derek with an magic enhancement his own true strike and Brian’s charm person, from then on he wore the ring at all times.
It was an impressive magic item in a less then impressive pile of treasure; they counted out five hundred and eighty four silver coins and forty of gold. Not even the chief’s sword had an enchantment. James found enough daggers, armor, mail and swords to restock the metal works and start on some of the projects that they where behind on and luckily nobody found where they had buried their tools.
The most interesting find was a fermented drink that almost every goblin had at least one and some as many as three skins of. Scott suspected its origin, female goblin milk and was correct. This disgusted the others but did not daunt them. The stuff was about as strong as hard cider, perhaps elven percent alcohol. But they immediately saw that with a bit of magic and some specialized containers it could be made better.
The first thing they did was simply to let the stuff freeze, draining off unfrozen liquid in the pouches one by one into a glass liquor basin. Then the liquid was transferred into a clean urn where it was heated to a very specific point and the hot alcohol vapor was rapidly cooled in an iced jug. A tube of copper previously rolled by Scott proved its worth as a means to transport the vapor and to cool it. They kept it cold enough to drip the final product into the chilled jug. The entire project netted out five gallons of shine from fifty gallons of goblin beer.
After the war they had a memorable discussion. James started it “Why aren’t we going to finish the goblins, they may have more treasure and they sure as hell will replace their numbers soon.”
“If we finish them what do we gain?” Schminke asked.
“Experience, gold, possibly magic and definitely security.” James listed.
“I think going after them would be a mistake.” Scott countered, “We go crawling in their caves and they will own us. It isn’t worth it, they have to come here to get us and here we have the home field advantage.”
“I am not sure I am up for genocide anyway.” Jason said.
The argument went on for some time but the upshot was that they started laying out plans for better defenses, and decided to continue training. In a way the fact that they were sorcerers meant that they got their magic for free. They could pursue their martial training and not subtract a jot from when their magic increased. In the days that followed the fight they found that indeed their magic had grown a bit stronger, not with new spells but with the number of times they could cast them. Jason could now do seven steeds per day and they all found the same increase in their lower level powers as well. It was an amazingly useful thing to be able to do one for each of whatever needed doing.
Food stores where short again but before they worried about that Schminke laid on them a whole new set of puzzles and concerns. First was the speech of the dead goblin chief. A triple beast had been mentioned as well as dwarves. So the question that plagued him was what and where were these things.
A search through the monster manual turned up a likely solution, a chimera. A chimera with its three heads was a triple beast if there ever was one and variations with gorgon as well as dragon heads seemed common enough. If the dragon was a fire breather its inactivity in the cold seemed reasonable. So they needed to locate its lair which most likely lay in the north east corner of the valley.
Jason and Thom Stead found the dwarves, or at least where they had been. The trail along the cliff face ended in a blank wall, but the rocks below where they had recovered the loot from the broken goblins were mine scrap. The gravel was too jagged and hard to be common rock fall. So they had an additional puzzle of how to locate and penetrate the dwarven mine that must be there.
“We scout, we dream and I will divine what answers I can. In the meantime we get our home clean, we fish and hunt, and we discuss what we learn and above all else we prepare for the next thing.
James found the cave lair in a dream walk, high on the southeast peak and around behind the mountain, outside the valley proper, he found a series of three deepening caves that ended in a great sleeping beast on a mound of bones and treasure. Stone statues of warriors and dwarves decorated the room haphazardly while in one corner it seemed the creature was fastidious enough to burn away its own waste. As he circled the beast he saw that the middle head was indeed a red scaled dragon, and the left was that of metal bull, a gorgon. What amazed him was that the third, instead of being the requisite goat, was a black furred and horned unicorn head with its fanged muzzle resting on a human skull. If James had suffered from greater curiosity or the failure of overconfidence he might have lingered and impinged on the arcane creature’s senses but instead with the discovery of the nature of the beast he fled to carry the information home.
The news was not good. “If it has the unicorn’s power to teleport inside its claimed territory then it can literally show up anywhere. We cannot outrun it, we cannot hide from it. It could literally strike us anywhere at any time.” Thom Stead pointed out.
“Maybe not one place.” Scott said, “We know exactly where the dwarf mine entrance must be, yet no amount of dreaming or searching has penetrated it. It must have protection against scrying and likely against dimensional travel.”
“Well since we cannot get into it either that is about a useless piece of information.” Thom went on.
“The creature must have been inactive for a time, the dwarves mined here after all and the manticore were here.” Derek pointed out.
Thomas lectured “The last few years have been hard on dragons, a prolonged period of madness and rage drove many out to pillage indiscriminately while others used spells or escaped to other planes to wait it out.”
“So you think the creature wore itself out?”
“As likely as anything else I can think of. It is one-third dragon.”
“Or” Scott stepped in “it had enough magic to make itself hibernate through the upheaval. That might account for a few years of absence.”
“We have seen signs that the creature was active as recently as this past autumn, the dwarves we found petrified had one years leaves on them, no more.” Brian pointed out.
“So it slept a few years while the dwarves worked, then it woke up hungry and noticed them, waited for them to head to the lowland for the winter with their gold and pounced on them.” Derek outlined
“The dwarves gave enough of a fight or enough of a meal that the thing took the gold and went back to sleep it off for the winter. We can assume this thing is going to be all over us come Spring.” Jason finished.
“Sooner if we dream ourselves into its lair again.” Schminke warned “James you did exactly right getting out of there fast. I suspect that this location facilitates our ability to dream, I am pretty sure we are nested on an Earth node, a location of natural magical power. Pools and water are known to facilitate dreaming and divination powers. It is likely the node here even gives us some protection, some defense against prying eyes. But I would not get too cocky about it.”
“So we need to kill this thing before it wakes up, or be gone before it becomes active again.” Scott summed up with a sigh.
“I am willing to hear any plans.” Schminke offered.
The ten days after the end of the goblin war the group was still not sure what they where going to do. They had focused that week on upgrading armor and ranged weapons. Crossbows came off the manufacturing line for James, Thomas, Derek and Thom. Scott, Brian and Jason made re-curve longbows and iron tipped arrows.
They practiced with them an hour a day, then with quarter-staffs, short wooden practice blades, daggers and grappling.
Scott and James lost five more pounds as judged by the balance scale, and Thom’s strength was coming back rapidly. Brian and Schminke had driven things up a notch, now they trained a solid two hours a day and stretched in the morning.
James spent one night over a game trail in a blind and managed to nail another deer. When he came back in the cold grey dawn light he was the hero for the day.
Derek was facing a crisis as well, with just twelve rounds left after his masquerade as an eye of the deep he was experimenting with available materials to try to come up with viable gunpowder.
At the end of the week without having created a plan they were once more acted on. The goblin-pass alarm was triggered. What came out was not a goblin gang however. Instead it was three gigantic bears laden with great sacks of plunder and a trio of hill giants.
The giant’s set up in the very clearing where the party had baited the Wargs and broke great trees to make three lean-to shelters and to keep a huge fire burning. The bears broke ice in the lake and rooted around happily for dormant frogs, turtles and muskrats.
Thomas ordered that they stop all smith-craft and not build a fire for fear of being spotted. It was a cold meeting that night about how to or even if they could deal with the giants.
“I am not sure we can handle them, one of them I would say lets do it, but the three will kill one of us in every attack and that is without the bears.” Thomas said.
“If Scott makes me giant sized with the pistol, and if you give me the divination spells I can assassinate one of them, maybe two. Then it would just be bears.” Derek offered.
“Sneaking past the bear’s senses and the giant’s brute force is a tall order.”
“They have tons of supplies looted from the lowlands. They are just sitting over there swilling ale and eating cow like its chicken. Plus you know they are packing magic items and gold in those bags.” Stead observed.
“We could use the lake against them; the bears cannot come out on the water.” Jason pointed out.”
“They can throw boulders further then we can throw spells.” Schminke stated.
“If we use illusions on the water we can keep them busy.” Thom countered.
“Or you could take a jug of white lightning over and make yourself look like a female giant and let them ass rape you tell they all pass out from exhaustion and liquor. Do not underestimate the power of those bears to pierce a disguise and hear any sneaking we might want to do.”
“Maybe we can negotiate with them, live and let live.” Brian said with a straight face, but then he spoiled it by cracking himself up.
The rest joined him in a belly laugh, which gave Stead an idea “I could use my naked wife to bait them into a trap…”
Al, Ric and Han where feeling well content. The had looted in the lowlands and killed many farmers, the great bears they were partnered with had carried tons of goods from the houses, feather mattresses to use as pillows, live animals squirming in sacks and hundreds of jars of preserves and milled grain.
They had fed the bears well and the great beasts had watered in the nearby lake. The giants had broken dozens of trees to make a lean-to and dozens more to make a great fire. The valley was quiet and ideal as a winter hideout from the lowland hunters who would not dare to risk the high passes.
They had just started pouring out apple brandy from a keg, when a strange slender hair-clad giantess boldly burst into camp as if she had become lost and found herself nude in their midst. The bears reacted to the stranger with aggressive growls and started forward. The three giants moved to restrain their companions, but by the time they had scolded the bears the girl had squealed and fled.
The giants glanced at each other and then leaped to pursue. The beautiful female darted through the woods and raced to the edge of the lake with the giant well behind. With a coy glance and a bold smile to her pursuers she darted onto the ice and ran straight for the other side. The giants found the ice strong enough to carry them, so they climbed up past the wallow made by the bear. Then they gave chase across lake with rising whoops of lust.
The giantess slowed down as she neared the shore then with a bound she was away into the tick brush on the far side. Han was panting from the four mile run. He fell a bit behind the other two as the shore drew near. Suddenly the ice broke under his fellows and dropped them into deep off-shore waters. Puzzled but not concerned Han reached forward to drag Al out of the water. A canopy at the edge of the woods dropped revealing a band of well clad giant warriors. The men seemed extremely angry at the pursuit of one of their females. Six deadly spears drove into Han crippling and staggering him before he could form an apology.
His companions began to swim towards the shore when the water clamped on their limbs in a powerful surge of painful energy. Before the submerged giants could recover one of the giants played a life draining power over Al and another giant pointed an enormous hand cannon at Ric and blasted a chunk out of his skull.
Han had seen gunnes of Gond before but this one was giant sized, strange in design but deadly in accuracy. The giants smoothly raised crossbows and longbows and sent a volley into Han dropping him to his knees. He watched as another surge of power jolted into his friends and drove them wild with pain. Then the ruthless one blasted two more gaping wounds into Ric, Han shouted out their surrender, pleaded for mercy but the white one poured more life stealing power into Al and so weakened him that he could no longer even keep himself afloat.
Han struggled upward with blood frothing from his lips. His vision was halved as the bolt from the crag faced giant took him full in the eye. Then his consciousness faded with the strange recollection of the look in the eye of a farmer he had eaten a few days before, a look of hopelessness at a situation that was totally unfair.
Ric dove forward and under the ice breaking free great chunks of ice and hurling them desperately at the mighty foes. Ric followed up by driving to shore to kill the white one. Yet his thrown ice chunks glanced off magical barriers around his foes and his wounds slowed him long enough for the giants in black to draw swords and lash at him. He took cuts from two foes as he reeled but his own club came up to lay one of them low. A tall one stepped in close and drove a spear upward into the flesh under his chin and within a split second up and out through the top of his head.
Al struggled to the surface with time before he bled to death to watch the giants shrivel into puny men. In then the cold and trauma from the bullets stole his consciousness and his life.
The trio of bears heard the noise and smelled the blood of their companions’ demise. The three rushed around to the right along the lake hoping to circle round it, but instead they came to the end of the valley and there found the falls. Desperately two of them veered out across the thick ice, too impatient to circle around miles the other way. The two lopping bears made it a few hundred yards and then shattered the ice, flipping over a huge wedge and plunging into the water. The wave of water broke loose the ice dike at the falls and along with half a foot of water across the whole lake plunged the bears two hundred feet into a great pile of ice below.
The last bear returned to the camp and vented its rage on several sacks and a hog that broke loose and tried to flee. The bear swatted it and broke its back, then began eating it. In its mind all these goods were now its responsibility to secure. Through the long night it growled and prowled about, agitated by the fate of all its companions.
Then the dawn brought with it the smell of men, food scent. On horses that had no scent, with the brittle smell of magic. The men began to lash at the great bear with stinging bolts of energy, rays that stole its strength, arrows filled with magic and guided to the most vulnerable spots and bolts that punched through hide into bone. The bear reared, only to collapse under the pressure of weakness and pain. One of the men rode in with a spear lowered and drove it into the bears shoulder. Two dismounted and came forward with weapons. The bear surged forward and managed to weakly slash one of them aside; the other swelled to the size of the bear’s former companions and thrust a now massive iron sword through its ribs leaving the weapon in place to further slow it. Then the one in white strode forward and fired an arrow point blank into its eye. The mauled one rose to his feet and drove a foot of iron into its neck and it knew no more.
Scott noticed an indescribable surge in his meditation, his bright firefly of power had swollen to marble size and he fumbled through his ‘keychain’ as Brian called it. The power surged and the pain in his crossed knees eased. In seconds he realized he was floating in the air. He had the power to levitate. It was what they had all hoped for and feared, the next magnitude of spells.
The rest of the party where engaged in sorting the treasure from the giants loot. It would take days to figure out what the wand, potions and scrolls did but Thomas had already determined that the magic ring enabled one to jump thirty feet into the air and land unharmed. Thomas gave the thing into Thom Stead’s hand and turned to the bear-scattered goods all about. A suit of fine leather tested positive for magic, he offered to Jason who took it gladly.
It looked as if the giants had looted a village and just taken everything. There where casks of hogshead sized barrels, sacks of flour and meal, and many frozen carcasses and live fowl. Thomas made an inventory while the group reassembled the goods and to dress out the monster bear. Without the coins, magic items and odd gemstones they made this list.
While they reordered the spoils Thomas called on Thom, Scott and James. “You three need to take this rope and go recover the two fallen dire bears from the valley below, I figure with your jump ring and Scott’s new levitate power and James’ floating disks you can recover the bodies and we need to do that quickly.
“Won’t this load need my disks to haul?” James wanted to know.
“We have material here to rig some kind of sled and Jason to call up horses. I want those magnificent beasts recovered and I want them before the crows eat them. Thom you have the skill with climbing, I want you in charge of this mission.”
“Grab the rope and follow me men.” Thom ordered.
Scott was on his knees checking the heavy rope inch by inch, Thom had instructed he and Jimmy to go over the rope while he scouted the climb, Scott tisked at a frayed spot and absently mended it with a spell. It took them thirty minutes to go over the rope and then Scott linked the two ropes together with another mending, making a single three hundred meter rope as Thom had recommended.
When Thom came back he said. “Gents here is the plan. We tie off up here on that up-thrust boulder, Scott you shrink us all. James you make a disk. We will float down feeding the rope out. The rope will reach the bottom and we will angle off to the right and tie the rope off for security. The two bears are piled up on that side about half a mile from the falls. We load them up, carry them to the rope on disks.”
“Too heavy” James stated.
“We will butcher and skin them out and bring them up in pieces.” Thom explained.
“Let’s get it done.” Scott recommended.
Scott ended up working through the night with James napping and Thom on watch. They had run low on disks and Scott was worried about the blood in the air. The bodies had been shattered in the fall, much of the meat was spoiled but the cold had saved plenty. The skins where mended and Thom had decided to post the bear and giant heads in the goblin pass as a warning to the tribes, so the two hundred pound heads had made up individual trips.
Thom threw out chunks of spoiled meat to some scavenging foxes to avoid any noise and frenzy. The small fellows did not seem bothered by his hat, so if they where not going to hold a grudge he could at least help them through the winter.
James awoke before dawn with spells ready. They rode his five disks to the top with Scott nervously prepared to activate his feather fall or levitate. The reason for the rope became clear as James used it to guide them through the darkness. On the last trip they rolled the rope back up on the ride reaching the top just as the sun came up.
A short time later Jason arrived on horseback with a pot full of beef stew and two loaves of bread. James offered him his heart in holy matrimony for the kind deed but Jason settled for a cold flask of wine and some chow. Breakfast was like ambrosia.
Later, with sleds, the meat and hides were brought to the camp. Then ‘Project Scarecrow’ went out with the heads of the fallen. Scott racked out for the morning but he was soon awakened for word on the next mission.
“The axe we found is Dwarven in origin, and it has a permanent enhancement that is better then what we can place on an item so in game terms it is ‘+2’ but there is more to it then that says. It stays clean no matter what, it retains an edge, and it seems to be light in my hand. It is yours James.” Schminke offered.
I have also figured out what this scroll has on it. Spells of shielding from magical detection, dispelling a magic that is in effect, and one that causes a full body paralysis, I have checked the rule books and they call them nondetection, hold person, and dispel magic. So the plan is that we go back to where we went after the giant fight8 and finally locate that mine entrance. We know it is concealed with magic and we cannot find our way past it, so we force our way through it.
“You believe in that mine entrance the way my little girl believes in Santa.” Scott pointed out.
“I just hope it is there. We make our best guess tomorrow and Derek throws the big spell, it is in his bailiwick.” Derek nodded, Thomas went on “If we breach the cover of the mine we go in and see what there is to see.
Schminke sent Jason with Derek, Scott, Thom and James on the breaching team. He did not intend to leave the homestead unguarded so he and Brian were the team to mind the store. Scott might be needed if a forced breach was needed, his enlarge power was unbeatable for that. Derek had the scroll, Jason had the phantom donkeys and James had the firepower to handle the vicissitudes of fate, and Thom was the climbing expert.
The results from the mission to retrieve the bear proved one thing to Thomas; he could trust Thom with the lead, so he had a tough choice in this one. Then he decided to give Derek the nod, just to give him a chance to shine. So with Derek in command, the party of five went forth to batter down the door.
It was noon by the time the five made it to the platform without encountering anything more threatening then a chattering squirrel; they had passed the time discussing the new powers that they had found over the past couple of days.
James said “So what is new in your spells Scott.”
“I think I have cat grace and bull strength I look forward to seeing the effect they have when cast.”
“Wow, with enlarge that could make you a monster.”
“For four minutes,” Scott noted.
“What’s new with you Derek?” Scott expanded the discussion.
“They are hard to describe, another inertial dampening spell with a larger area, capable of deflecting objects, a spell that stops powerful energy attacks as well and ironically a spell that seals a door, lid or cover with magical bindings.”
Thom said “I do not know if I got any new spells, just the ability to make more impressive illusions. I can make my color spray hang in the air and pulse and twist so that it really looks cool. I also found out I can turn invisible.”
“That will be handy.” Jason replied. “I seem to be able to shape my acid conjuration into a missile and send it a good distance, and summon up a larger monster if I need one, a giant eagle, or I can call up three of my old badgers at once. Oh and I can call up a cloud of fog that is thick as pea soup.”
“Pretty handy spells as well.” James noted.
“What about you?”
“Oh I forgot about me… I have a ray of light that burns whatever I point it at, a spell that causes flames that never go out, and a spell to shatter anything brittle from tea cups to stone.”
“I worry about this wild and rapid proliferation in our powers.” Scott said.
“Why? The more we can do the better chance we will survive.” Thom pointed out.
“It is like wealth; too much too fast can prove to be very unhealthy. We need to really focus on self discipline and get on top of these powers, think of ways that they can interact with each other. I was really proud of our tactics with the goblins and what we managed against the giants, it showed we had our powers well controlled, from my remembering that we needed to hold our weapons while we enlarged to Thom’s perfection at imitating his wife. I just feel like we will fall in love with our new stronger powers and use them when we could think a bit and manage with our old powers.
Derek said “Thanks to our greater facility with large spells I have found that I can make small spells do new things. It tires one to do it, like using the higher powered spell, but they become very versatile.”
“For instance?” Jason wanted to know.
“Well I was going through the Giant’s stuff and one bundle was full of what must have been dirty laundry that had mildewed and been torn about. It was such a mess that I felt like throwing it out, but I tried to push more power through my mending spell and the result repaired the lot, cleaned them and even pressed them. I was astonished.”
Thom nodded and said “I can probably use my spell that makes little noises come from all around to make music play if I can stretch its power. We should set up experiments and figure out things each other can do.”
Jason chimed in “We need to dismount now; the path is too narrow for us on the horses.”
“Dismount lads!” Derek ordered.
The group passed the narrow stretch and in shadow of the mountain and the escarpment they moved invisibly to eyes below. Then they way widened and the where on the platform before the smooth rock face that they where sure had a mine entrance in it.
“The more accurate my casting the more effective.” Derek noted “So any idea on the exact location of the opening?”
Stead said “See if you track me on this, if the cave mouth is concealed by magic it must conceal magic right?”
James nodded “I see where you are going with this…”
“I can cast magic aura all over this face, where it does not work, there you dispel magic.”
“Let’s do it.” Derek ordered.
Derek opened the scroll with trembling hands. The spell he was about to cast was far more powerful then anything he could do, so the pleasure of grasping the world would be two magnitudes greater. Derek used the sign within his essence, the symbol that accessed the weave and acted to attune him too it. The symbol triggered a cascade of information in the scroll, turning the scroll into a phonetic map. Derek recited the phrase in his mind and then aloud, swallowing a wave energy that then surged outward under his direction. He felt filled to bursting, stretched to the very edge of tearing. His spell encountered a whirling cascade of magic and he spun his power in the reverse direction expending the energy of both. He had the feeling that with more time and finesse he could have broken the spell by plucking a single element of it and making it fall apart, but he lacked the time and control to do so. So it was brute force against brute spell.
The others watched as a hole appeared, recessed in the face of the escarpment, six foot high and perfectly round except for the flattened bottom. Derek noticed that the inside of the hole was marked in a series of large fine crafted symbols. Jason cast his mage armor on Scott and James and the two men stepped into the tunnel and onto the double rails that must be guides for a cart system.
James dove to the side and cried out in warning. Scott took the cart full in the chest and was catapulted out of the tunnel and over the cliff. He struggled against the pain as he fell, seizing his sign in his agony and activating his feather fall. He had bone sticking out of shins and black spots in front of his eyes threatening to merge into general blackness. Scott settled into the grasping limbs of a tattered pine and was forced to cast his new levitation spell to reach the ground, first pushing off so he could descend.
Scott realized that the others might be able to reach him, but they could do little to save him. He called out in a message to Schminke, “I am at the foot of the cliff under the tunnel dying, come!”
Scott came around with James and Derek over him, Jason was riding swiftly to meet Thomas and bring him, Derek was giving him first aid, at least the cold was gone so Derek had protected him from elements. His bleeding was controlled but things were not going well otherwise. The sound of bone grating on bone was being transmitted through his body and his heart was pounding in his ears. He noticed that his nose was bleeding as well.
Derek and James joked around with him but they were fading from his awareness as Thomas arrived, Scott reached for his sign to anchor his consciousness and opened his eyes, Thomas looked down on him and said “Wait just a moment.”
Scott pushed him back and said “No, not yet…” With his power called up, he triggered his power to reduce himself to the size of a child. Thomas nodded to James and Derek and Scott felt his legs abruptly straightened. Then he blacked out.
When the world returned Scott was normal sized and could not find any pain in his body. “It worked then?” Scott asked.
“Yep, your shrinking gave the spell a small enough target to heal you entirely, then when you reverted you where fine. Except for the blood you lost and shock you should be like new.” Derek said.
“Where is everybody? We did not lose the entryway did we?”
“No Thom stayed up there to secure the door. The cart was the only trap. Thomas is up there now looking things over.” Derek offered his hand and Scott stood up and tested his legs. All seemed to work well enough.
The two of them made their way to the wall where Thomas had dropped a rope to the bottom. Scott cast his levitation on himself and Derek and the two of them pulled themselves to the top effortlessly and at a giddy pace.
Once there, they found James holding a continual flame dancing on the top of a spear waiting impatiently for them. Inside the tunnel they could see that the mineshaft had been worked into a living area. The tunnels had treated, lacquered wooden supports, each door was oak with a great iron lock. They all yielded sluttishly to the power of a well wielded mage hands once Scott arrived to cast them. The first room on the left beyond the carts turned out to be a great hall opening up nearly one hundred feet long and forty feet tall. The chamber had been mined and then finished with cut stone fit so tight it needed no mortar. Three sides of the room had an overhead balcony that one could reach by spiral staircases on either side of the entrance. A series of doors along the balcony resembled nothing so much as dorm rooms. On the ground floor a great table surrounded by sixteen chairs sat near the door and stretched half the length of the hall. On the far end a complex iron construct crouched, with a long pipe leading upward and another leading into the right side wall about seven feet overhead.
They half expected the thing to jump up and attack them but examination revealed that it was a coal fired combination water heater, space heater, cook stove, and smoke scrubber. It was made from black iron and marked with hundreds of dwarf runes.
The smaller chambers on the right formed a rectangle of rooms that proved to be a series of manufactories for breaking and smelting ore, a pair of large chambers to store goods and a fully stocked smithy with forge, metal stock and work benches. The heavy tables had fixed anvils and clamps built in.
Further down the main track on the left another large area was also finished with cut stones and contained an office with a great oak working desk and fireplace, a chapel to the dwarven god of secrets under mountains, a library with thirty books in two different languages, an air tight room with a disposal pit for dumping chamber pots, and an overhead seep that dripped a steady stream into a water storage tank.
Lastly still further back they found the entrance that led to the six mine shafts under work. Each one was spaced equally and followed a seemingly endless matrix of green black and gold metals and fractured crystal surrounded by hard grey stone. It was an eye opener for the group.
The search of the place took an entire day, they discovered a set of keys in the office and that the dorm rooms contained dwarf sized bunk beds. They found the clever air shafts that fed fresh air into the mines, they discovered many small personal effects of the dwarf cadre that had worked here and everywhere they found writing carved on walls and wood beams. Even anvils and dwarf machines where thus marked.
“There has to be some reason for all the runes.” Schminke noted.
“We need to figure out what they say.” Derek said thoughtfully.
“Before we do anything my friends I have a little project we need to undertake.”
James chimed in “Moving in!”
“More then that, I want a cold room constructed that will bring the winter chill into a meat locker, I want everything moved up here and then I want every trace of our presence in the lower valley erased.” Schminke outlined.
The men groaned but did not mutiny. This place was where they would prepare to make their stand and perhaps stage their assault on the chimera; there was no point in tipping their hand.
“Lets get back to the camp and get good nights sleep, and then we can start moving in.” Schminke ordered.
“Hey.” Scott called “Merry Christmas everybody!”
Labors of Love
The dwarven hall was wonderful but it had its shortcomings. The beds were a bit on the short side, the whole place was dark as sin and an uncomfortable fifty degrees. The seven sat down at a table too short, on stools too short to discuss things.
“So are we renting or buying?” Scott asked.
“Finders keepers.” Thom voted.
“We should treat the place with respect, we have no idea what kind of mojo is up and running here.” Derek pointed out.
“We need to get it running for us. That stove, the forge and all the grinding wheels and smelters. It is all amazing.” Scott rhapsodized.
“It is dark and it is depressing.” Brian complained. “Why do we need to come into a cave from a perfectly good cabin, are we regressing through human history?”
“It is depressing, James you can make everburning torches?” Schminke asked
“Five a day, but if we want to clear a new chamber, I should use my shatter spell to help move things along, even with Scott casting four hours of strength at a time it is going to be slow going to do a good job and not drop the ceiling on ourselves.”
“I do not just want ordinary torches anyway; we can do better, sheets of glass folded into rectangular tubes and caped in metal. I want lanterns; there is a lot of copper stock and white metals that can only be lead, tin, nickel and zinc. Let make lamps worth hanging.” Schminke suggested.
“What about the furnishings? You have the only chair that a man can ride.” Jason pointed out.
“Treat it all as scrap lumber, build with it, mend it, extend legs or whatever needs doing. I see no reason for us to not be comfortable.” Schminke noted.
Brian said “I see no reason for us to not set a reasonable schedule, we have a long winter ahead of us yet and I think every one of us can reach a fitness level that is as near perfect for us as we can get. However we need to make it a priority, I want a three month training schedule commitment from everybody and I think we can all be heartbreakers and life-takers by the end of whatever passes for March here.”
“Why not just go with eight hour work days?” Thom offered.
“With four days on and one off” Scott suggested.
“What constitutes work? If Derek spends the day making a new play-list for dinner music or cutting Star Trek episodes up to Monty Python songs for laughs, and I admit that shit is funny, is he off at five?” Brian wanted to know.
Thomas sighed, “Well I guess we will have to make a list of activities and split them into leisure and necessary.”
“And training” Brian added.
“Okay, we will start prioritizing chores and punching a clock.” Thomas said, watches by the numbers and all that. I suspect this is a topic we will visit over and over as needs and desires run into conflict but I will make every effort to make things fair.”
“We will tear into things in the morning, we have food, shelter and clothing the rest is refinement and comfort. Let’s put our noses to the grindstone and see what we can do in a week.”
That week was as hard as any the group had spent. They needed a secure cold storage vault before they could move any of their frozen meat, and the work was both dangerous and back breaking. From the Great Hall they began to shatter the stone and haul it away. James insisted that they check the stone as they went for ore and they found some, the entire area was impregnated with copper, silver and gold. It was not so much that they needed to stop and process it however; instead they stored the metal rich debris in the first processing chamber and cleared the rest.
They could clear the rock from five shatter spells in a few hours, and then it was enchanted picks and bull strength with unseen servants loading carts to be dumped by phantom steeds. Schminke used truestrike to indicate places where acid and magic missiles could be used to break away large stones. Day after day they toiled in the dim to build enough space to hang their giant harvested meat. Brian did hours of lonely guard duty looking after the swag. He kept the spell storing ring with a message for each hour and more vicious spells just in case. Before he went out each day Scott placed cat’s grace on him to improve his speed and precision with his bow. Brian felt guilty leaving the rest of them in the dark, but not too guilty.
They cleared forty cubic feet of rock a day in this manner, so that it took them a full nine days to make the cooler Thomas wanted, then they needed to make a grate and tube to bring in the cold. They found a long square rod that they drove upward and outward at a thirty degree angle keeping it enchanted and using unseen servants to twist it while a sorcerer drove it with bull strength and tough muscle behind a dwarf hammer.
The room chilled when the outside air started to suck into the hole, James went up and installed a cover over the outside hole. He masked it with mortar and melted it into place with his scorching ray spell. A clever ceramic tube used the draw from the fire to pull the floor level air up the chimney. The room swiftly dropped to the temperature of the great outdoors, with daily highs of zero.
With the meat locker ready the group shifted gears into moving. Here they could work with much greater speed, and in three days they left behind a shell. Then at Thomas’ further insistence they pulled the structures down and scattered the wood, hauled away the coal and the sand and filled in the latrine hole. By the time they were done the area was cleaner then when the manticore lived there.
The group fell into living indoors with all the relish of modern men. Thom Stead discovered that when he cast an illusion to hide the entryway it was monetarily snatched from his control by the runes around the door. Then it returned but it was stable and sustained by the runes so that it did not require renewal. Later Derek helped as James cleared out the soot from the big cooking and heating center in the great hall. After getting it stoked with some wood to light the damp coal, James fired a burning hands spell into it. Again the runes flared, snatching the spell, altering and amplifying it, in its new form it ignited the fire and then heated various areas of the metal to different temperatures. The water boiler boiled, the flat surface sizzled, the oven heated to four hundred degrees while the water heater kept water at one hundred twenty. Even allowing for clever design the stability and magical conduction and containment of heat was astonishing. All the fire places turned out to have runes that enhanced them. The coal smelter and forge where inside circular devices that had writing around the rims. These glowed and then used magic cast into the forge to make the heat more intense. Melting sand for glass was as easy as having James cast a fire spell on the forge. This meta-magic property of runes, the power to redefine or refine raw spells fascinated Derek. He knew Thomas was struggling to codify the dwarf phonetics and the meaning of the words in the various books, so to find the key to this property he threw his daily efforts into Thomas’ project. The two cut apart and mended pages and words and scanned the whole library into Derek’s character recognition software and repaired the books to new condition. They created ever improving conversion software and began building lessons for the rest of the group in pronunciation, usage, speaking and writing in dwarven and common. It was soon another hour every day that was required. In the end they all gained proficiency. However Derek was more interested in the alpha numeric properties of the runes which he then began to use to translate the various inscriptions on the walls, arches, doors and devices. Nobody ever pressed Derek to work harder, in fact at times Brian had to sneak up on him to put him to sleep. Scott picked up his kitchen chores, since he was by far the best cook. Even when Schminke had moved on to another project and had to use the computer for long hours, Derek was still to be seen making rubbings of runes and muttering. It was some time before he was able to lecture and bring the rest of them up to speed.
James chafed, Schminke insisted that he use the spells he had each day to make the lanterns, so he did not have the shatter spell he needed to mine gold. He was also periodically called upon to renew the magic in the stoves and smelters, which seemed to remain charged for about three days after his spell. Scott and James spent a lot of time together, Scott enhancing their strength to allow them to dig faster, then pushed carts of ore with him and helped pulverize them. It was a companionable way to pass the time and Scott was up for it two or three times a week. Jimmy however had to be required to take days off. He ignored and was perfectly willing to throw out silver and copper he mined by accident along with gold ore. Schminke put his foot down on that, insisting that he smelt out the silver and copper as well. It came to memorable wrestling match that Schminke won. Still as a result of James’ spell power the great-hall and all the rooms soon where alight with glass lanterns suspended from the ceiling and from under the walkways. Then each of the other rooms, except the freezer, was given fixtures installed by Thomas. Still, with James so grumpy and greedy it soon became clear that if any of them was to play the part of dwarf, it should be him.
Brian became a combination personal trainer and therapist. His charms and his ability to create a hypnotic state at will where incredibly effective teaching aids. He made it his personal goal to get every member of the group into the best condition of their lives by spring. To this end he created the great bear hide matt, a climbing rope and free weights that he required. He made a point of enforcing regular sleep on his class, scheduled weekly tournaments and daily workouts that included running the spiral stairs and the walkways, rope climbing and drill with the various weapons in the arsenal. Thom Stead and Jason became his best students, not because they had the most skill, but they took pure joy in the training. Scott and Thomas had been there and done it before, they approached it with cheerful resignation, but James and Derek required regular hypnosis, charm and coercion to keep them from their engrossing tasks. Still he watched happily as they progressed as well as anyone could expect. Brian still loved his days out in the wind. On the off days he and Jason and sometimes one other would go hunt or shock some fish. While they had plenty of meat and other food, the fresh fowl and fish was a welcome change.
Scott found himself continually busy. He enjoyed working with everyone and kept abreast of all the projects. This allowed him to help coordinate in many cases the projects. When James had silver and copper to spare he brought it to Jason and Thom to make reflectors for the lamp tops. He hunted with Brian, compiled with Thomas, worked equations with Derek and mined with James. His daily chore had become cooking and it was a tough one. He also had control of the stock of alcohol and tobacco. He cut and shaped pipes of bone for Stead and eventually for all so they could enjoy an occasional pipe. Once a week they got enough sauce in them to get silly, Thom would let himself be hypnotized by Brian, then his spells and sound control would turn the end of the hall into a theater. Scott organized the parties, prepared the food and set the menu. He also was the tailor and leather worker. With Jason’s armor as a template Scott was able to retool the leather armor he had made already up to local professional standards. He also needed to refit the group as shoulders widened and waists narrowed. With ample leather, even enough to make Brian’s leather pad for wrestling, Scott was able to make boots and gloves. Then he turned his hand to making shirts from the fine silk women’s dresses the giants and looted and from the linen that both the dwarves and the giants had possessed. Nice clothes also brought up grooming and in an executive order the group started to have weekly haircuts and shaves. Jason made straight razors and Thom carved combs. There was little need for clay work, the dwarves had an endless supply of crockery, but occasionally they needed a specific vessel and Scott spent some time on the wheel. It was a busy time pregnant with future possibilities and Scott took to it with cheerful energy. He never stopped his meditation routines and found that he could dream with great facility still. He never turned down anyone who wanted to attempt team dreaming and he kept watch on the valley in this manner. As a side effect of his discipline he needed about half as much sleep and soon found himself getting much more done.
Schminke had to look to the day when they faced the true master of the valley, and because of that he worked with grim focus. Whether he was reading one of the books in dwarvish or ordering James to use his spells to make lights instead digging for gold he gave the impression that one troubled him at peril. Scott of course broke in with his cheerful exuberance and chat at will, and Derek and he were often working on the same thing but he had barely time for a ‘good work’ to Jason and Thom as they single handedly took over remodeling. Brian he saw only to relinquish command in his workouts. The weekly shows and drinking bouts became his time to let the knots untie. He discovered that his wards where snatched by the runes of the mine and made to last for a week at a time, so he could lay multiple wards that detected various intrusions. With Thom’s illusion over the entrance there was little to fear except maybe James digging up a Balrog in the mine with his persistent gold seeking. Thomas compromised on the lanterns by helping James locate pockets of dense ore by using spells, making his work more efficient. He even found himself too busy to get up and check on everybody; at times he merely detected them all by their thoughts and checked up on them. This intrusion taught him much about his men. Thom’s secret fears, Jason’s deep homesickness, Brian’s restlessness, James’ gold fever, Scott’s infectious exuberance, and Derek’s insights clicking into place all became familiar to him. It made him feel a bit godlike to gather information at will. He also prepared lessons on language to make them all literate and actually bi-lingual in local terms. It would serve them well to have English, a language others could not follow, as a simple way to encode messages. Thom also did the math over and over on any encounter with the chimera and the best he could achieve was a win with forty percent losses. Once one of them was down they rest became more vulnerable. When Jason and Thom made steel he was greatly cheered but it was not until Derek told him what he though could be done with runes that he truly began to be hopeful.
Thom Stead worked hard on each project, cleaning and hanging tapestries, mounting and even making lamps and helping Jason reach his goal of crafting steel weapons. He was driven by demons, to be at some new task and finished each one given him with a stab of panic that there was nothing left to do. His brush with death and the subsequent battles had all left him craving activity, but his dreams were full of horror and longing. He found some release in a personal project, with several harps of dwarf manufacture to work with in the personal effects and foot lockers of the former occupants he was able to experiment at making guitar strings. Extruding and twisting wire into strings was very difficult but he could do much with the fibers available. It took him a month in secret, occasionally getting help with a various part of the project to shape his first guitar. It lasted two songs and had to be tuned three times, but it gave him a great cathartic release to make music with his hands. It was like spending his seed after a month without sex. The others who played, Jason and Derek began to give him time and energy to make the next set of instruments superior. They would have strings of silver and frets of steel, and laminated bodies. Thom began to write music in common and dwarvish as well as English and he could sing along with his spell-produced sounds to polish them. His movie night soon added a selection of familiar and new tunes he would sing along to, and eventually it included a second guitar and a bass. Scott, James and Thomas all had some experience with the trumpet and the dwarves had been fond of them as well. So they began to practice in their spare time to get music out of them. Thomas only did so to the extent that he could call meetings, signal specific individuals and blow an alert. Scott and James blew some scat from time to time, and Brian experimented with a drum set. Thom became a music coach and spent some effort trying to get the drums to sound right. Thom’s dreams were soon less frightening and he became steadier even when not working on his music.
Jason’s days were filled with fire and metal. He had to teach himself the various ways to melt and join metal and how to alloy and shape them. He had solid theory and the whole encyclopedia of knowledge in hand, plus much of the translated dwarven material was on this very subject. It was fascinating to him to shape and craft the stuff culminating in his using his conjured acid to etch metal partially protected by wax to put his wizard mark on his first bar of steel, demonstrating all his talents in one fell swoop. When Derek saw the marked bar he pulled Jason aside and told him about his idea that would put their new skills, talents and techniques to the test of fire.