Two of a Kind
“Scott, better get up or Mrs. Hippogriff will throw it to the pigs.” James said.
Scott rolled to his feet and startled Dreamguard who had been resting his head in his meditating master’s lap. “Ironfounder is using one of the new coal fired generators to power a stick welding rig under his warehouse.” Scott reported from the dream-walk search he had conducted.
“He is a hardcase; he is one of the newcomers, refugees from the fall of Darkhold, a black eyed knuckle dragging pile of hair, gristle and scar tissue.” Jimmy recalled.
“So it is the usual.”
“Pretty much, except this guy is connected and he will be expecting us.”
“So how do we do this?”
“We cannot knock on the door but we can start lurking around the edges, let him lure us into a trap outside the city and then kill him and his crew. He is a hands-on kind of killer.”
“So who do we squeeze?”
“Let’s go look over some of his welded armor and grumble over it in the market, there is a refurbished armor shop Ironfounder sells too. Let’s go buy something he has repaired and look menacing doing it…”
The plot came at them so directly that they almost missed it. A slender human woman taking pains to looks young and fresh with a long coil of blonde hair and corset that had to be cutting her lung capacity sixty percent ostentatiously approached the bartender and questioned him, then offered him a coin from a small ladies purse. He shrugged and pointed at the pair of men in their preferred booth.
The woman gave an artful little start at the big dogs under the table, her first mistake since a real noble would have had dogs underfoot all her life. “By the goddess are they safe?”
“Sure lady, we protect them.” James replied with a grin.
Lady mated with unwashed dwarf today, blood scalp hair tear under pile of braids, poison smell in bag and on left sleeve, metal smell there as well, she is afraid and excited…” Dream growled, with an affirming woof from Anvil.
Placed on guard the pair fell into their roles as shady players, James let his shadow infused armor conceal his features in a sinister manner, Scott leered openly and gestured for her to pull a chair near and speak.
The hum of conversation and the boisterous arguing at the bar covered her whispered statement that she was in need of help. Her fiancé, a noble from Waterdeep had been taken on the road and the men responsible had sent her a ransom demand and a location to meet outside the city at the sight of a ruined watch tower in the forest to the north. Her retainer who was to ride out with the ransom, five thousand coins of platinum in a bag of holding had betrayed her and stolen the money. So the thieves had given her instructions to take her personal jewelry to the men and hope they were enough. Her family could not afford to raise another such fortune.
However, by good fortune she had learned that one of the intermittent moongate portals in the city opened into a cellar under the old tower. If they could only surprise the highwaymen and rescue her man, they could collect her jewels in place of the thieves she no longer trusted. She had become convinced that her guard had been one of them and set the whole thing in motion, after this he would know she was tapped out and most likely kill the captive.
Scott said “Well lady what are we waiting for then?”
With his gauntlets of communication Scott called on Thomas on the way to the stable. “Thomas I have a woman here who is leading us into a trap, I would like you to locate it for us in her mind…”
“It is five miles up-river on the south side, a foundation of an old light-house surrounded by uprooted trees and silt.” The reply came as he prepped his horse.
“Good we should be able to reach it in a long run on the north-east road, we will send the dwarf a message and then meet him there or on the road.
At the portal when the lady came near to show them how a small flaming brand could activate the portal after sundown, James sent a finger of flame into the archway and Scott pushed the lady through casting a gaseous form on her at the last instant.
Then the two would-be marks set out for the city gate with the dogs loping beside the horses.
They passed the open gate at a distance eating gallop, the road was lined with farms, orchards and trees for miles beyond the city, so they passed frequent pools of light, sound and the rich scent of cook-fires and horse droppings. The harvest was in and the farm folk were making snug their homes for the long winter. Along the way the two of them felt the sudden pressure of scrying as their ankle rings turned prying eyes away. Derek had gifted them with the nondetection runes months before and scrupulously recharged them weekly. The two men growled strategy at each other in dog, an excellent tactical language and continued into the night.
The dwarf stood on a disk of force next to his wizard ally. Calling the man’s mark in had cost him, but the pair had proven to be a resourceful and ruthlessly efficient team in the past, he patted his own Hammer of Gond shotgun with a chuckle and made sure his orog mercenaries were in position around the great pile of debris. The wizard’s quaist familiar alerted him that the portal was active, but instead of men emerging they came forth in gaseous form! The men would escape the trap by simply flying away over the river!
The wizard sent a small spark arcing through the air and then through his quaist triggered a magical dispel. The gaseous form collapsed back into solidity even as the fireball burst in the air incinerating the rogue female into a barely recognizable husk.
The dwarf eagerly ordered his mercenaries to drag the body out, but he let out a scream of berserk furry when he identified his long time partner and sometimes lover as the corpse.
“Find them! Where are they?” He demanded of his wizard, and the fellow obliged by calling up a flame in his hand and gazing into it.
“They have not left the city, I cannot see them so they must still be under the Mythal and apparently they spotted your ploy.”
“You lot stay here and watch in case they come through the portal. Lets fly this thing over the river and back home; I want to find out where they are and kill them personally…”
The two black armored men reached a group of farms where an old ferry used to cross to service the river beacon. They could see the smoke across the river in the light of the risen moon and they caught the smell of char. Anvil sneezed abruptly and reported the presence of demon scent on the wind.
Scott and James moved against the tall stone fence of the farming compound and listened intently. They did not need to wait long, the imp sized unclean horned monstrosity flew with bat-like agility out over them and darted back towards the river, no doubt to alert its master. James scorched its spell shielded tail with empowered missiles that sent it careening out into the water, blasting the shield in the process.
The wizard and the dwarf circled back to the road to engage them and the two men enlarged, hasted and flew into the air to meet them.
The wizard let the dwarf dive at the two giant men like a living missile; the dwarf triggered both barrels of the shotgun as he flew, but James was quicker, he plugged the barrels with a mage hand and the barrels split and shattered. As the Dwarf hit the ground and charged Scott left the ground and flew up to the level of the disk. A purple lightning bolt lashed at his giant form and clawed at his body and soul.
James met the dwarf axe to axe on the road, taking deep cuts to his thigh and calf while delivering a blow that some shield absorbed. The dwarf went mad with bloodlust as he attacked and did not even notice the two horse sized hounds until his arms were clenched in jaws.
James drew his pistol and fired eleven rounds into the hyper-extended dwarf in the next ten seconds, the last one punched through the dwarf’s magical shield, beard and neck.
Scott concentrated on closing with the wizard and angling under him. The space beneath the floating disk was opaque too the wizard’s spells and the only cover he could find in the air. This move frustrated the wizard momentarily but he soon sent his familiar winging toward his foe. The quaist would touch Scott with a vampiric spell that would drain him to helplessness.
As the quaist raced in, Scott sent a living spool of rope out that entangled the creature and then spun it upward into a magical extra-dimensional space. Then Scott slammed shut the entrance and removed the rope, hurling it over the disk at the wizard.
The wizard panicked and activated his teleport escape, tearing the quaist along with to a secret lair in the hills. The wizard roundly cursed his error and did not think to scry the scene for several minutes.
Once he did, he saw a rain of fireballs crashing from the sky on the company of orogs that his ally had barrowed from him.
From the air the two men, now reduced in size to about two foot tall, rained six of James’ fireballs onto the hiding mercenaries. Then they tossed the dwarf’s body into the burning brush pile. His rounds began to cook off as he went up in flames while the two men picked off six orogs that made it out of the conflagration. They used enfeebling rays and missiles. When the sparks from the flames triggered the portal the two men made a hasty retreat through it even as the entire area was reduced by a meteor swarm attack from the returning wizard.
The wizard did not pursue them; instead he sought for their familiars and was again frustrated by some spell shield. The dogs had the reins of the horses clenched tight in jaws inside a farmer’s nearby barn.
He snarled in frustration and returned to the sight of the devastated security force, he recovered a few choice magic items from his dead ally and disintegrated the body to make sure it was not recovered or questioned.
His quaist was urging him to acts a violence and vengeance, however his own nature, which was cruel but cowardly, cautioned him. He had expended his most powerful spell in frustration and put on a garish display that was certainly being reported by the locals to the City Spellguard. He needed to return to his lair and recover his spells, and the expensive components that he would need to stop these men. They had pierced the stoneskin he cast to protect his ally and disposed of his familiar with casual ease. He would secure his avenue of retreat and strike through mundane proxy to gain a better measure of these foes, then and only then he would tailor their death.
Scott and James rolled out of the portal as gouts of fire emerged and overloaded it. The two men laughed and looked about to see if they were being watched. The moongate portals of the city triggered the alertness of the Mythal but it could not stop travelers. It did check the travelers for attunement and generally let them pass if they were not strange. James and Scott triggered their Mythal granted levitation power and used the last of the fly spell to make it to the nearest high walkway. It was a short jog to a gnome cooperative factory treetop where they were admitted without question.
The cooperative leader brought them some leftover chicken and a pitcher of ale as they scrubbed in a pair of porcelain baths. The two men had quaffed healing potions as soon as they arrived; both had been badly hurt by the encounter. They washed off blood and soot and tossed buckets of water back and forth. Once clean of battle grime they climbed out to get at the food and a playful gnome blasted them with a gust of wind. Some giggling told them that the wicker screens hid some gnome ladies who were hiding to protect the strange human modesty impulse.
“So you boys ran into a scrap tonight?” The headgnome asked.
“Ironfounder Enterprise went belly up tonight.” Scott noted.
Then James asked “What do we know about a mage, capable of throwing a meteor swarm in a snit with a quaist as a familiar and a liver full of milk?”
“A quaist? He cannot be a city mage then, evil outsiders are banished by the Mythal. A familiar would be anchored but the mage he was linked with would feel a head-full of fire. There are plenty of wizards that work the area around, getting access to city resources through proxies.”
“What is that my husband? Half pixie half doxie..?” Asked the leaders wife as she came in with mended clothing.
The gnome chuckled and popped in a cigarette, and took a long drag, then he blew out a cloud of lavender smoke. “Orogs are a signature in a way. There is only one band of those in the region. They do mercenary work under the leadership of a Captain named Bronze. He does not come into the city either, but those that have dealings with him say he is a large man with dark skin.”
“An orog? Maybe like one quarter?” Scott asked.
“He has been seen flying, and using gaseous form.”
“Sorcerer or potions maybe” James suggested.
“He also exhibits extraordinary strength and once froze a wyvern solid to protect his boss.”
“Ogre Mage.” Scott and James said on top of each other.
“It fits the facts. I have long suspected it, and as such his true nature would be revealed and blocked by the Mythal as well.”
Scott pauses in dressing and said “James, Dreamguard is bringing our mounts back, why don’t you have Anvil backtrack the orogs and find their base camp. If I know this wizard he is going to want to have lots of hired and conjured muscle to make him feel safe as he plots our demise.”
“That lightning he hit you with was wicked stuff, what did it feel like?”
“I don’t have the words, I felt like I was pain, like that was all that was left of me.” Scott answered seriously. “Master Deilbetrobin, this wizard had a stoneskin on the dwarf, a shield spell on the quaist, a fire-shield and stoneskin on himself, a contingent teleport, a long duration flying disk, assorted fireballs and a meteor-swarm all on hand for an ambush. The only weakness I saw was a lack of emotional control both in panic and in anger. What would you advise?”
“Gather your friends, find where he lairs and root him out.”
“He will retreat, and return to plague us again.”
“Then you must either find his fall back position or prevent his escape.
At dawn James and Scott had purchased four scrolls, and Anvil had eyes on an old stone granary that somehow seemed to house a dozen orogs. They prepared their rings of spell storing with the four scrolls and left the city on new horses with Dreamguard on point. This time they departed from a southern gate below the river and moved through the most productive farmland in the region. They wore oilskin dusters and leather caps that concealed their armor and weapons from prying eyes and they rode at a trot rather then a gallop to keep from drawing too much attention. The road to the south was by far the most heavily traveled so there was plenty of traffic to blend in with.
The granary and farmhouse that housed the enemy were on a flat hilltop surrounded by trees, an area too rough to farm, so instead it had an old wind powered mill. However the mill was no longer running and the house had fallen into disrepair. Both buildings were clearly abandoned leaving only the old round grain silo intact. Anvil was already in the tree-line, concealed from prying eyes, however the men would have to cover the ground from the road to the trees without being seen by the lookout. James and Scott circled up-wind on the road and begged leave to stay the night in a farmer’s barn for a few coins of silver. Then after a good meal they retreated to the hayloft and Scott cast gaseous form on both of them. The wind from the southwest swept them over their objective and into the rickety mill where they became corporeal again. With the two dogs in the trees upwind they had a pretty clear picture of where the guards were.
Scott conjured a mage hand and delivered a reduce person spell with it on the nearest orog lookout. He then used another spell to jump thirty feet onto the chest of the orog. While formidable as fighters the orog’s whole fighting style depended on his size and strength with the genetic legacy of ogre and orc. When he was suddenly three feet tall instead of eight and a half, his formidable capability departed. Scott’s blade found his throat and then his heart in seconds.
James took out the other lookout with mage-hand charged with enough electricity to start a freight train. He fried the big oaf between the eyes until he could get close enough to cut his head cleanly from his shoulders with a single axe stroke. Luckily the wind was howling over the hill and creaking the house and mill to cover the odd thumps and bumps.
Scott had anticipated wards, but the nondetection spell they wore was proof against all but the most powerful spells. Still they moved swiftly to the granary door and slipped inside, speed was security.
They found themselves in a dark circular room with five more wooden doors spaced evenly around the circle with the entrance making six. Mage sight showed one door was warded and wizard locked and another showed traces of magic but no specific spell. The remaining three were the immediate concern. The two dogs moved into the granary and reported two orogs scents behind one, and eight behind another, the third was empty. Scott cast his haste and cat’s grace on himself, and an enlarge and bull strength on James, then they split up, the dogs with James, one unnaturally swift, and the other massive and powerful thanks to the spell sharing property of the familiar link. The three were attacking eight while Scott alone was attacking two.
Scott found his two mercenaries in their racks, the room was a long extra-dimensional bunkhouse with eight large beds and considerable equipment hung and scattered. The two half-breed mercenaries were at the far end so Scott was forced to dance through the dim room into the space between their beds. His spell of dexterity made this simple while his spell of haste let him kill both before they awoke. He turned and was on his way back out in the granary where he could hear muffled shouts grunts and growls inside the room James had taken. He shifted his vision to Dreamguard and saw that four of the orogs were down, two too James and one to each hound, but the other four were fighting for their lives with everything from spears to mattresses.
James took a glancing sword cut to his chain-mail in order to enact a ray of enfeeblement on an attacker, then giant sized Anvil broke the weakened mercenary’s neck like a terrier with a rat. Dreamguard spun one of the orogs into the open where James could slice his arm off and batter him in the face but the remaining orogs fought on like cornered rats.
One drove a boar spear into James thigh completely through to the crosspiece while the other pounded on Anvil’s shoulder and face with an improvised wooden club. Scott strained his senses to detect anyone coming from the other doors and winced at the muffled cries and shouts.
James dropped his axe and drove forward pressing the last two orc ogre hybrid’s back and taking a knife wound and blow from the club for his trouble, but his concentration held and he triggered his shocking grasp over and over until the last two were dead and smoking. The hounds had finished off the fallen during the electrocution while Scott waited until all was quiet to open the door. He used his enchanted blade to cut and extract the spear from James’ thigh, and James went back to normal size to drink a potion to cure his wounds. Then they moved to the door touched by faint traces of magic, they forced it open and were treated to a sight from hell.
James, swollen again, shoved the door open and the heat moved outward like a wave. What was worse to the keen senses of the hounds and their masters were the twin odors of agony and despair coming from the chained men and women on the walls. Naked and badly injured they were cast in stark shadow and red light by a central forge fire with several red hot instruments around its rim. Beyond the room through a curtain of animal hide, animalistic grunts could be heard in time with the rhythmic creaking of springs and moans of pain from another kind of victim.
“He’ll be protected.” Scott growled in dog at James.
James nodded and drew his Glock and swept aside the curtain.
Scott crouched and fired as the private chamber was revealed; the ogre mage was in the form of great ape snarling into the face of sobbing middle aged woman he was raping on a pile of animal hides. Swift as the ape reacted to the intrusion Scott’s haste spell made him seem stuck in slow motion. The gun fired like a burst from an automatic weapon, but the bullets scattered from a shield on the creature. Bullets killed the woman on the bed and tore holes in various containers in the room as a result of the frustrated attack. Scott rectified the situation by dropping his magazine and enchanting the next one.
James’ enlarged weapon went off like cannon, overwhelming the missile shield only to glance off stoneskin. The ogre mage sat up and began to cast a cone of cold that would suck the heat and life out of the intruders.
Scott’s enchanted rounds hit first, unimpeded by the deflection spell thanks to their magic they tore the stone-skin down enough so that the following rounds from James clipped the torturer rapist with three slugs six times as massive as a 9mm.
The creature lost his spell but still rolled and leaped across the room at them, its wounds sealing up as it came. James and Scott put ten more rounds into the creature before it collapsed, and then Scott levitated it and James hurled it into the torture room onto the fire.
As the room filled with choking smoke the men waited in tense anticipation for what was coming. If they were correct then…
Yes the dog’s caught the scent of the invisible quaist suddenly in the room, the creature was there to report on the disturbance and probably deal with the lot of them with a fireball.
Scott fired at eddies left by the creatures flapping wings and cut through its invisibility while Jason used a prepared ray to weaken it and bring it down for a leaping Dreamguard to snatch like a pheasant on the wing.
Scott pulled a special bag from his hip, a bag of holding prepared with an arcane mark, and forced the struggling creature inside. Leaving the chained victims and the burning ogre mage the four raced to the enchanted door and shoved the squirming sack against it, thus disabling the wards and allowing the two men to batter the door down with a double kick.
The room beyond was a spacious living area with a fireplace to the left, bookshelves to the right and a stairway leading upward to a balcony and door on the wall ahead. Across the room was a short hall leading to a kitchen and high overhead the chamber was lit with a crystal chandelier.
Four versions of the mage emerged from the upstairs bedroom door and looked down at the men and the dogs crowding his living space. Coldly he spoke “Release my demon and I will allow you to depart, I have your measure and I assure you I am prepared to kill you both before spell, sword or bullet can hope to reach me.”
James invoked the big spell on his ring a split second after Scott activated the Spell to recall the bag to a pantry in their gnome ally’s cooperative home. An instant later the Mythal’s energies began to torment the creature and through it the wizard. Scott fired a round at each of the Wizards, causing three to vanish.
James triggered his second stored spell, a greater dispel magic, at the last remaining wizard and was rewarded by the sight of the bastard trying to fly off the balcony and instead crashing to the floor. The wizard drew and leveled a wand even as his mind burned with pain. Scott triggered his second stored spell, another greater dispel magic, and stole the fire-shield spell from the foe.
This time it was James who took the blast of lightning, slamming hard against the back wall and writhing in agony, the two dogs fearlessly leapt upon the fallen wizard and shook the wand loose, stressing the wizards final protective spells to the limit with iron taunt jaws.
Scott leapt at the man with sword in one hand and pistol in the other and watched as the wizards eyes widened with fear. The panicked man triggered his new escape spell and vanished. In a distant cave, a pile of cubed meat, bone and clothing arrived inside a circle of protection. The baleful teleport James had cast into the room when he first entered had done its work. The magic in the remains, including a pair of shattered wands detonated with the force of a munitions dump, causing a farmer to lose an acre of turnips and a pig. However he later discovered a magic ring in the crater that he sold for enough money to by a piece of bottom ground he had long had his eye on.
In Silverymoon the quaist was thrust into the lower planes by the death of its master, however it was comforted by the arrival of the wizard’s soul a short time later. In the granary Scott turned to James and began CPR while pouring his two potions into the man. James came around in a few minutes and was even able to stagger to his feet. Grounded in metal armor he had gotten it worse then Scott had the night before, and his head still felt split by blinding pain. Scott helped him to a comfortable leather chair and then set the hounds to guard him.
Scott returned to the torture chamber and located the keys, then helped the five surviving men and women into the wizard’s apartment.
Exhausted from their success, Scott and James put in the call to Jason and Brian. The pair arrived at the mill early the next day with a cleric and ranger to see to the tortured. Then the four sorcerers looted the lair finding a good supply of diamonds as well as excellent and valuable reference material. Within the week an extended family of halflings were cleaning, clearing and securing the mill for the church of Gond, they were able to live quite comfortably as they did their repairs even in the winter within the extra dimensional chambers in the granary. So some good came of the evil wizard’s work.
The tower rang with the sound of pounding on the ground floor door. Brian briefly considered going out on the balcony and killing the idiot doing the banging, but the noise would bring the watch, their would be paperwork.
Jason was in the study trying to enforce parsimony on some gnomish designs so he would not even notice, this time of morning he was in his own world. The gnome staff and the halfling valet would not arrive until sunrise so it fell to Brian.
He checked the wards over the door and noted that the people outside strongly desired bad things to happen to those in residence. No reason to be rude though he decided. Brian expected them to surge forward to attack him when he opened the door, but some perversity made him do it anyway.
Instead of warriors in armor he faced four peasant folk with hats in hand and a plucky peasant child spokesman. The girl in boys clothing with the artful smudges on her face pulled off her hat. “Sir we have need of a dragon hunting hero to end the scourge on our village.”
Brian rolled his eyes and yelled “Jason, it’s for you!”
“Are you not the warrior ranger who wears armor of dragon skin?” The innocent little face asked.
“Oh that? It is actually albino alligator, an easy mistake to make.”
Jason came down the stairs in his green dragon scale giving the lie to Brian’s claim. “What’s up?”
“Do you sleep in that thing too?”
“What my armor?”
“Never mind, it is too late. They have seen you for the noble dragon slayer they want to impose on.” Brian said.
As the two put on their gear the staff kept the riffraff in the foyer where the only valuables were the bicycles and their winter dusters. It took them some time to get breakfast down and their equipment prepared.
“So what do we think this bunch really wants?” Jason asked.
“Us, I think they are after us.” Brian noted. “This is a con, what do you have in the ring?”
“Haste, cat’s grace, true strike, magic weapon and fly” Jason listed.
“Been hanging out with Scott much? I am loaded up on my own stuff and that acid breath you gave me.” Brian noted.
“How are your rune marks… still hot?” Jason asked.
“All good…with cold resistance on the armor, you?”
“Acid resistance and everything else is hot for forty-eight hours.”
“I am rested up, how bout you?”
“Could be worse, I had to summon some help earlier but otherwise…”
“Do you even wipe your own ass anymore? I mean unseen servants are great but…”
“We have a bidet now, thanks to me and that roof tank.” Jason pointed out.
“Never mind lets go put our feet in the leg-hold trap.” Brian said as he scooped up his bow.
The raggedy group met the pair as they left the tower, Jason accepted cheek pinching from his gnome housekeeper and Brian accepted a wallet full of food from his valet. Then the two joined the skipping girl and trudging men on the road to the North Gate.
It was a beautiful winter day with crisp air, Brian’s snowy owl winged silently overhead and Jason assured the gate guard that they would be fine, no need to wait on a patrol.
Then a few miles to the north the group, walking with growing confidence through bright snow pack gave the pair their first surprise. Seven ogres turned to stone and placed in a ring encircled a patch of clear earth with an altar of piled stones at the center. One of the ‘peasants’ poured a horn of amber liquid into the stone basin and cast a blessing on the altar. For a moment the ogres seemed to dance and the wind howled, ears popped to accustom the two to an increase in altitude and the sun shifted a few degrees to the west.
“Northeast about three hundred miles” Jason said in English.
“Nice, these guys do not seem quite so simple all of a sudden.” Brian replied warily.
From the trees around the new circle, six soldiers in metal studded uniforms marked with the symbol of the cult of the dragon leveled crossbows and waited for their people to get clear. The pair of sorcerers cast spells immediately, Jason condensed a cloud of fog while palming his Glock and snapping a shot at the spell caster who had brought them by blessing the altar. Amazingly the bullet caught the fellow as he was diving for cover. The bullet punched under his arm and split his heart. His attempted roll turned into a flop.
Brian used his owl’s eyes to pierce the fog and target the slight female who had pulled out a stiletto and was stalking him from behind. He cast a ray into her crouched form that froze her in place and then he shoved her blade up under her ribcage and pushed her forward onto it. He and Jason beat feet after the three ‘peasant’ escorts who seemed to know where to find cover. The men spun around and shouted when they heard the two in close pursuit, they crouched and drew weapons and tried to see through the fog. Jason did not; he trusted to armor, enchantment and muscle and bulled the three over in a wave of rags and belligerence.
Brian, operating on instinct but instinct so well honed that it looked like genius, silenced the three with a trio of rapidly fired silent arrows instead of bullets. A volley of crossbow bolts sliced through the air behind them and Brian offered Jason a hand. Jason popped up and the two men ran out to flank the crossbow line.
“Druid! Get rid of this cursed fog and change into something that can track them!” One of the guards shouted.
“Not going to happen.” Jason whispered to Brian.
“I am going to get us one of them, so move away and dispel the fog.”
Brian shed his armor and pulled on his coat, then his features ran like wax and he took on the appearance of the dead druid peasant. “Leave some fog around the body.”
Jason nodded and rolled the fog away from the six soldiers, Brian had his owl fly to the ground behind the ogre he was crouching under then he made a flash of light and stepped out showing tattoos and scraggly hair with a scruff of beard.
“You don’t give me orders.” Brian said in the dead druid’s soft voice.
“They killed Umbra and the three geeks.” The warrior noted.
“I will seek them with spell and scent.” Brian added casting a surreptitious charm person on the loud mouth leader.
The spell took hold and the warrior shook himself and then called out “You heard the druid, we hunt!
“Stay with me.” Brian told the leader, casting another charm.
This one worked just as well as the first but not without detection. One of the crossbowmen smelled a rat and looked Brian over suspiciously.
Brian modulated his voice with the magic of his suggestion power and said “They must have been tipped off by one of you, someone is a traitor…”
His two soldiers leveled crossbows at the other four, who in turn looked at the three and each other with suspicion.
“Captain that isn’t the Scalemaster…” the suspicious guard accused.
The captain responded with a bolt from his crossbow, and an exchange of fire followed. Brian let the Captain shield him as he was hit by two bolts and fired two more, Brian’s second meat shield took one in the forehead and went down in the first volley.
Two of the ‘treasonous guards’ remained so Brian cast a sleep spell on the younger and hoped for the best. The other turned to flee and the captain picked him off with a beautiful long shot to the heart. The Captain looked up and smiled with bloodstained lips and said “That takes care of the traitors, can you fix me up?”
Brian nodded and pulled his own Glock and shot the Captain in the heart and head.
Jason walked out of the fog and said “Are you done messing with these guys yet?”
Brian shrugged and retrieved his flask from his assault pack. Then he forced fed the six ounces of alcohol to the sleeping cultist. Jason occupied himself by collecting and searching bodies and cataloging his findings.
The guard struggled in vain until he became drunk, then Brian hit him with another charm person that took hold.
“So who are you people and what it the plan here?” Brian asked his new best friend.
“We bring warriors to feed the dragon, fighters with magic items or dragon trophies or others who it might please the great one to kill. We live in the mounds nearby where we fled after the last rage and the fall of the High Master.”
“So you serve a Dragon Lich?” Jason asked.
“No the great one is a noble red, he has his lair near one of the old ogre dance circles in the mountains, he has several groups like us that sacrifice to him and alert him when they have a prize.”
“How? Is it a spell?”
“Blood in the basin and any magic tells him we have a prize for him.”
“And the dragon returns to his lair how?”
“He flies, in a different direction each time. Sometimes the Druid takes loot to him though, I know not how.”
Jason nodded and he and Brian settled to plan and rest.
Brian held up a vial of quicksilver that he found on the dead priest. “What do you want to bet this is for reaching the Dragon’s Circle?”
“That is pretty thin, what if it is the component to some spell?” Jason argued.
“Maybe but our pet cultist seemed less then certain about how the treasure was delivered to the dragon, he only said the druid took it.”
“So we could bring the dragon to us with some blood, or we could go to him and maybe catch him by surprise.” Jason noted.
“Or we could have the guy’s in Silverymoon send us a company of knights, we trigger the blood call, and then we go to the lair of the dragon and wait for the injured dragon to come back after killing all of them.” Brian suggested.
“That is sick.”
“I was afraid you would think that. Okay we rest up and then we power up, send a blood call to bring the dragon to his circle and then pop in on him with all our defenses on full blast and spells at the ready.”
“Now you are talking.”
It was near midnight when they prepared the battle field. Jason summoned up an elemental from the earth in the node and Brian poured a palm full of his own blood into the basin to call the dragon forth at the far end and triggered his spells, Jason dumped the full load from his ring into himself, while Brian added heroism for each of them. Then he poured in the mercury.
The ogre’s danced in the moonlight and the air turned colder and thinner. They were in a desolate bowl without vegetation or pass, a fold in the Earth littered with cracks. The ogre dance was on a shelf near to a cave mouth in the side of the valley wall from which a growing glow was emerging. As the dragon issued forth Jason launched into the air and ordered the elemental forward. The magnificent red beast was slightly larger then the green Jason had acquired his armor from, so it was likely the same age. It hit the elemental with a its fire breath and for a ten count the stone creature took it before being blasted apart. In that time Brian was waiting to cast his daze spell to disorient the creature, while Jason started loading and firing the enchanted bolts from his rail-bow with hasted speed. The fire ended and the daze hit and Jason put six arrows into the monster. But the beast was hardly injured; it shook off its daze and made a leap skyward to pursue Jason. Brian hit it with a pair of rays of enfeeblement that slowed its efforts and Jason put two more enchanted bolts into its hide.
Brian summoned a spectral hand to deliver his touch of idiocy spell on the monster, while Jason played a dangerous card, he let the dragon climb closer, trailing fire, and then sent forth a gout of acid straight into the face of the monster. The idiocy spell acted on the creature for only a moment, leaving it only rage to guide it. It blasted at Jason with fire and the sorcerer raced the column of flame upward and twisted hard in a right turn getting singed in the process but creating space. Brian touched Jason with his enchanted hand giving him a new truestrike spell as the dragon turned. Jason used it to put a bolt into the throat of the beast and then shot almost as well on his own with two more darts. Brian darted for the cave mouth and from the entrance cast another enfeebling ray.
The dragon saw where the ray came from and raced downward in wrath to strike the bold thief. For the moment it ignored the stings from the flying archer and concentrated on killing the sorcerer on the ground so close to its treasure. Brian saw death coming close but he found the courage to cast his truestrike and fire his own bow twice blinding the beast in one eye with the perfectly placed true shot. Then he ran, the beast filled the tunnel with fire and Brian leaped a pit, and then slid into a crevice in the wall as the flames seared him and sucked the air from the tunnel. His hair burned away, his skin blistered and blackened in places and the one of his eyes was seared shut. The fire stole everything but his stubborn consciousness from him.
Still with unnatural grace, speed, heroism and flight Jason emptied his quiver into the hind portions of the dragon and managed to regain its attention. The dragon turned and Jason drew his sword, Brian delivered his last truestrike to Jason via the spectral hand and then he was at a loss. In the ring were only a handful of spells, the rest of his daily inventory was gone. Jason saved the truestrike in his sword hand, choosing to empty his Glock’s magazine into the turning dragons flank. Then the beast tore at him with fang and claw. He surged backward with his fly in full retreat and the wounded dragon followed sluggishly, like a punch drunk fighter determined to go the distance. The dragon flopped forward to sucker Jason near. Jason held off, sending an acid arrow that stung the beast and burned a hole in one wing.
The weakness was terrible for the dragon but he recovered enough to use his breath again, Jason would not escape, the last attack had brought them too close. Suddenly the dragon felt a surge of magic power that twisted through its body from Brian’s ring via the spectral touch. The dragon sent forth its breath but what came out instead of fire was a stream of acid.
Jason’s green dragon-hide and acid resistance spells shed the droplets that splashed around him like duck feathers turning water. Jason charged through the spray and drove his acid stained enchanted bastard sword into the neck of the beast. The dragon slashed him with a fore-claw and grabbed him to crush and drag him to its mouth but acid on the clothing and armor seared its mouth and its nostrils causing it to release Jason all too close to its breast. The magically keen blade cut again and this time the dragon was done. Its body crashed down and Jason rolled out from under it. His seared rune marks had blurred and his spells began to collapse, he lost flight and heroism and even his endure elements spells as he staggered to the cave mouth and out of the cold. He pulled out sealed bottles of healing potion and called out to Brian. Brian’s owl flew a potion to him over the jagged rock pit since Jason was in no condition to attempt to jump it.
“That might have been biting off more then we could chew.” Jason noted
“You think? Bet you wish we would have fed the bastard the Silver Guard first.”
“It does sound like a better idea now.”
“What do you have left?”
“Give me a minute.” Jason replied and conjured a phantom steed to carry him over to Brian. Then the two heard distant growls in the lair along with angry shouts.
“Damn it, this dragon kept a staff on hand, we are in no shape to face them, lets get home and call for reinforcements!”
“They better be quick, I want that treasure.” Brian said clinging to Jason as the ghost horse slid through the night to the ogre dance.
A flask of mead sent the creatures into a reel that took them back to their temporary camp. Brian’s new friend brought them food and blankets and firewood while they called for a company of Knight’s and the help of Derek and Thomas to lead the Knights to the first circle, and too bring along mercury for another trip. It was a shame the treasure would have to be divided now Brian thought as his mind drifted into exhaustion and oblivion.
Jason woke him up in the morning. “The dancers are exhausted for the day, we need to wait several hours to make the trip to the lair.”
“Good, I need the recovery time. Did Thomas bring potions?”
“Several.” Jason said passing Brian two of them. Each one did its work, restoring his vision and giving him new pink skin. It would require a major mending spell to fix his armor and both he and Jason had ruined their rune gear. Jason had no bolts left and Brian’s enchanted bow had been seared to ruin in the dragon’s breath.
“At least we will get our spells back.,” Jason noted cheerfully.
“Hooray!” Brian said with a scowl.
Derek and Thomas had their heads together for a time arguing until Derek finally gave in and came to Jason.
“Schminke thinks we need to recharge the system and go fetch the treasure, so I am going to use a quantity of rune-stone that I have a dozen better things in mind for. I have it pulverized and in suspension so it should charge the system in a crude manner. We put the patrol and ourselves into the circle, add mercury and make the jump. We will need to be ready shortly.”
“Would you mend my armor and Brian’s before we go?” Jason asked.
The basin soaked up the rune stone suspension along with a generalized enchantment spell, with the mercury Schminke went forward and said, “This is a lot of guesswork but here goes.”
The giants danced and in the cold cloudy light of day the party band stood in the circle in the high valley. The fallen body of the dragon was surrounded by chanting cultist.
“At ‘em boys.” Schminke called to the knights.
More then thirty cultist’s with the dragon’s personal hell hound court turned on the party and charged. Twelve knights and four sorcerers lashed out with spell and sword, two knights were wounded in that first rush by the volley of crossbow bolts from the cultists. The priest trying to create a zombie with the body of the dragon cast a wave of dark energy to steal the will of the group. Then the hounds leapt through the gaps between the ogres and things got truly desperate.
Knights burned in the hellfire breath of the hounds, and rays of strength stealing magic lashed out from the circle into the cleric along with a volley of yard long shafts. Schminke and the other three sorcerers dew guns and fell back, shooting at the circling hounds. Each of the six hounds, black as soot and tall as a man, blasted fire at the desperate defenders, searing hair and flesh from half elves, men and elves. The knights fought flames while the sorcerers killed two of the hounds and wounded another. Then the cultists hit the circle and melee was joined.
The hounds lept upon the sorcerers, tearing at them with iron hard teeth, Schminke drove a spell guided sword into the belly of one, fatally gutting it. Jason blasted another with spray of acid breath, while Brian stunned another into paralysis and blasted it between the eyes with a round from his pistol.
Derek was desperate, burned with crushing jaws grinding into his elbow he threw his energy into a spell barrier against evil that drove the last hellhound back.
The cleric was running for the cave mouth while the cultist lost ground to the knights. Starting with a point blank volley of arrows and following up with the finest close fighting skills in the north the knights killed eleven cultists while losing only one man.
Derek shouted in fury and put five enchanted rounds into the last hound with a marksman’s precision.
“Bloody hell!” Schminke yelled. Then he invoked a spell from his ring that sent a blast of fire over the dragon’s body to explode at the entrance. The blast hurled the cleric back but did not burn him, his devotion to a red dragon had taught him long before to keep a fire protection in place.
The cultists got their licks in as well, they still outnumbered the patrol two to one and they were on sacred ground. They fell to flashing mithril steel, and struck with iron and black bone morningstars. It was brutal with three sorcerers picking off cultists from inside, and the fourth trading spells with the cleric. Brian was blasting him with rays and spells to lock him place or steal his vitality.
The desperate moment passed, with six remaining dragon guards facing an equal number of knights, the sorcerers all shifted focus to the cleric crouched behind the dragon carcass. Schminke shot the cleric in the face at extreme range after casting a true strike, Jason greased the ground under him and Derek hit the cleric with a targeted dispel. Brian finally snuck a touch through the failed defenses and locked the cleric’s thoughts into the level of an idiot.
The cleric was useless, after Brian’s spell all he did was laugh and say “It will never be yours it will never be yours…”
“We must take him into custody.” The Captain of the knight’s said.
“Do what you must, and see to the men, we will see to the lair within.” Thomas ordered.
“Get the skin off that beast as well.” Jason requested.
“Schminke needs a new pair of shoes.” Brian quipped.
The circling owl and dragon golem came down from above the fight and the lynx slinked out of a safe crevice. All three preceded the four sorcerers into the lair, they passed a wooden gate that Jason burned a hole in with acid, then a second pit, and a wide common area with months of supplies, weapons and a kennel for the hell hounds. Finally they came to an underground precipice, perhaps a hundred feet wide and descending beyond sight. The crevice stretched beyond reason, and in the distance Derek’s dragon reported an iron platform suspended across the rift. The structure was creaking ominously.
Derek took the sight in and instantly recognized the problem. He looked wide eyed at Jason who nodded.
“The heat of the dragon expanded the platform, as it cools it is pulling away from the walls, the whole thing is going to drop into the canyon floor.” Jason explained for Schminke and Brian.
“Can Glock make a set of runes on the platform to capture the heat of some spells? I have a fireball left.” Schminke asked.
“Yes he can but we will need more heat, we need to bring wood down from the supplies and keep it coming, also we should inspect the area beneath the platform for a weight trigger, if so we need to keep the weight of treasure balanced with what we bring down there.
“We will need phantom steeds to carry us and whatever else we need. Jason, you inspect the bottom. Derek please see too the runes, I will inspect the treasure. Brian, you gather what you can above for us to bring down.” Schminke ordered.
The group went to work, but not without a touch of envy at Schminke who was soon walking across the creaking plate amidst stacks of coin, ornate coffers that were precious in themselves, scattered gems and a number of magical items, including a small empty gilded cage. Schminke saw that the dragon had a taste for items of fire, not unexpected since a wand of fireballs would be useless as harsh words against a red dragon. Thomas was still in awe of Jason and Brian for taking the creature down at all. It was just insane; he made a mental note to make sure Stead did the battle justice in song and image.
The cage registered as magical so Thom picked it up, it was about two foot tall and a foot and a half in diameter across the bottom. The metal mesh was fine but the entire thing was surprisingly heavy. Suddenly a something invisible jabbed through his hand, a miniature replica rapier appeared as Thomas hurled the thing from himself and it went over the edge. Schminke cursed and heard a curse below as the cage hit Jason as well by some freak of chance.
Derek looked up in amusement and said “Are any of those wands for making fire?”
“Indeed, sorry, this is a wand of fireballs. And that is a rod for maximizing intensity of fire spells.”
“That will do nicely.” Derek noted.
Jason caught the cage that had crashed into him. Inside a small nude female figure crouched with a tiny rapier and broken translucent wings. She was clearly injured, sick and now unconscious. He kicked his horse upward and the phantom steed responded as always taking him up to the platform.
“Guys take a look at this. It is a fairy of some sort.”
The creature tilted its head up and said “She! Not it, and I am a fairy, not some pixie, nixie, or gods help me brownie, or any other country cousin of the fey races. I am a lady of the court of Tir-na-Nog beyond the vale of dream…cough…cough.”
The cage and the lock frustrated them with complexity and magic, even though Derek could cancel the magic for a time, none of them had the skill to pick the lock. “We can pour a healing potion into the feeder.” He offered
“That would be a nice start you clumsy clowns, since you cannot seem to find the key.”
“You might give us a hint…” Jason stated flatly.
“It is gold.”
Thomas barked a laugh out loud gesturing helplessly at the piles of gold and Derek put his head in his hands. Jason shook his head and told the other two what he had found below, a spring triggered releases and contraction slippage. The golem-dragon finished the rune net prompting another outburst from the fairy.
“What is all that scraping about? Why is the baby dragon flopping around? She asked.
“It is not a baby dragon, it is preparing this platform so we can save it from falling, it has already cooled considerably and if it cools too far it will plummet.”
Derek triggered the wand into the rune circle and they all felt the heat of the magic suck into the platform, four more times Derek hit the runes until they glowed with a cherry red light, and the floor stopped its creaking.
The fairy fainted, even the potion was not enough to keep her from suffering from malnourishment, lack of light, and the foul vapor she had been exposed too. Jason told Derek to cancel the magic on the cage again, and then with a slash of his sword he cut the top off the cage and fished the fairy out. Inside he saw the tiny remains of two more tiny fey, like the bones of sparrows. He tried to imagine what it must have been like to live with the corpses of two of her friends, totally hopeless to amuse a foul unclean beast.
He gently scooped the tiny blonde creature out, and she stirred in his hand. She looked up at him, ten inches tall and about a half-pound of flesh. “I am sorry, you tried but you men are too late, I have a sickness in me from breathing poison for too long, my guards died long ago from it, fairy’s are fragile. Just get me outside, I want to die in clean air.”
“We can get you to a priest, or a druid, one that we haven’t killed yet hopefully.”
“You are a handsome brute, but I have about an hour now, the cage was enchanted to keep me alive as well as in prison, some hellish dragon trick.”
“I am sorry, if I would have known…”
“You wouldn’t have set me free.”
“What is your name lady, Jason asked with a tear running down his face.”
Jason took the lady outside riding the phantom steed the distance out of the entrance and up to the dragons corpse. She laughed so hard she cried, in relief and joy at the sight of the dead monster and his stacked minions and skinned dogs.
Jason rode to the circle and the fairy coughed a tiny spot of blood onto his hand. “Damn it, hang on” Jason drew his flask and spiked the basin. The ogres danced and Jason found himself under a mid afternoon summer sun in a rich hardwood forest.
“Lady you are home.” Jason said hopefully.
“You are a dear, but I have no idea were we are, you must have used the wrong liquid.”
“Fairy blood” Jason noted.
“Oh…sorry, it is nice, rustic and primal; I am more familiar with the Unseelie Court then the forest but this is a good place to die, the forest will receive my spirit.” She said with a small sob. “God’s I hoped I would be brave.”
“Jason… I do not want to die…”
Jason felt anxious and panicked, angry and frustrated beyond anything he had ever felt. He cradled the tiny sobbing woman gently while rage burned inside. In another lifetime the violence would have found its way to twisting his gut. Now his power seized the rage and his sign swelled with his passion. He fully expected to find more powers with the death of the dragon, it seemed to happen that way, but this huge flare of his sign was over and beyond his expectations.
“What are you doing…Jason…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… oh gods was that the big O?
Jason felt a huge wave of alien awareness wash over him and then he went down like a pole-axed steer.
Eight hours later he came too with a tiny concerned face looking in one eye and the full moon shining in the other.
“You big oaf, you bonded a fairy as a familiar, do you know how cheeky that is!”
“It saved your life it seems.” Jason noted with a grin.
“You bond a cat or an owl or a chicken if you want but if you bond something more intelligent, a dog or pig say, you get a whole bunch of baggage.”
“Two of my friends are bonded too dogs.” Jason observed.
“I imagine they have changed a bit since them.”
“Well they seem to favor black and are almost compulsive hunters now but I had not noticed until you mentioned it.”
“Well as a natural immortal I have hundreds of years of experience and probably twice your intellect, a metabolism like a hummingbird and spells of my own. If you were a bit less powerful you would be my familiar! As it is we are partners, more intimate then lovers and married as surely as ever a man and woman were. You changed my sign you overbearing lout!”
Suddenly he was three feet tall, then after a pause she was two and a half feet tall astride him. She got him half way out of his clothes when he started to expand again. “Oh no you don’t” she said with some determination. He returned to his diminished size and she finished getting him clear of clothing. Then he had the consummate experience of making love when he could feel every single sensation and feeling she was experiencing and vice versa.
“No I was wrong, that was the big O!” She said as their sizes returned to normal.
“Okay honey, how do we get back to Silverymoon?”
“You need to cast arcane mark on each of the ogres in the dance to power them up and then quicksilver will take us to the dragon lair.”
“I am fresh out.”
“We could try semen and see where that takes us. I am suddenly a bit overfull.”
“Too much information…”
“Hmm, you do not have a book of spells on you? I am no great shakes as a wizard but I could cast a teleport from a book or scroll.”
Jason pulled on his gauntlet and said “Schminke what is the situation?”
“We have been screwed without fresh steeds to haul up the treasure, what happened to you?”
“Fairy magic…saved the girl…got married.”
“Okay can you get back?”
“I got a ring of ogres here and I am not afraid to use them.”
“Use your mead.”
“I got thirsty,”
Mariah flew to his shoulder and looked at the image exchange. “Wow that is swank, who made it?”
“Derek did.” Jason said.
“Did I hear you say mead? I can fetch us some if you like.” She promised.
“Knock knock anybody home, bees…forest…make honey, I am a fairy after all.”
“I will call you in a bit. Meet me at the second ring with some quicksilver so I can go back with you.”
“What if the system needs recharged, we are out of rune-stone.”
“You can charge it up with a wizard mark on each ogre.”
“Good too know. See you in a bit.
Mariah proved to be good to her word, though Jason did get stung a few times in the process. Once she had a good sized honeycomb she changed it into wine with a small spell. Then they used the ogres dance to bounce from summer back to winter, perhaps across worlds. Mariah was eating a honey comb like corn on the cob when Schminke and Brian arrived. Brian used his wizard marks this time, charging the bridge, and some quicksilver took them back to the dragon lair.”
“Thomas, Brian, this is Mariah, my partner who will be joining us.”
“Bachelor life is over.” Brian noted.
The fairy watched in curiosity as the third man in this group of rescuers proved he was a sorcerer by casting seven wizard marks. Then she said “I will try not to cramp your style, or does my man live with the cat person?”
“Nope, the night owl.” Brian replied as his owl flew to his wrist for the transfer.
“I like birds…” Mariah said with smile.
It took them two more days to bring the treasure to the city, by then Scott and James had a dozen wagons waiting with close mouthed dwarves and gnomes to drive, the city watch nodded them through and one cart full of precious metal was escorted to the palace to pay the tax on the rest. After paying death benefits to families, a tithe to the church of Gond and splitting the remaining loot into seven parts, they each had eighteen thousand more gold pieces in credit. The magic items they began to catalogue and sort out with the rest, trying not to break their training up too much as the group added the ogre dance to the areas of research they needed to study. Life also got a lot more exciting with a fairy in the tower.
Out on a Lark
Thomas Stead woke two hours after going to sleep, a normal night’s sleep for him since the transformation. He looked around the room and saw it was littered with women. Five this time, all human for a change, who had come back with him from his latest show.
He grabbed his cigarette case and his fox came out from under the bed to follow him to the bath hall. He spent some time under the waterfall and the moved out into the pool to float and clear his head. Back in Illinois he had read accounts of meditative discipline that took years to achieve. Sad for them, all he needed to do was embrace his sign and wham, he was one with the universe. Fifteen minutes in that state and he was energized. Story of his life these days, sleep off a hangover in two hours, charge the batteries in fifteen minutes and step out into a world of adoring fans.
The others thought he was being fundamentally dishonest with his art. However in the tradition of Bowie he had billed himself as the man from another world with music and stories from that far away land. Some thought this a brilliant marketing ploy, but that did not make him dishonest, it merely made them wrong.
As for his latest amusement, using the techniques he had honed on party nights in the mountains to bring to life movies for the jaded Silverymoon crowd, it was a technical achievement in spell casting that few could match. True the nine week serial of Lord of the Rings had netted him eight thousand gold, and the following three week fantasy drama Titanic had earned him another three thousand all after spending lavishly on the theater and hiring musicians and voice actors to help augment his illusions and sound manipulations. If he wished he could do two gigs in a day and bring in five hundred gold to burn, but why work that hard.
The hard part was dealing with his fellow travelers. The city mages had scolded him for his depiction and description of the magical One Ring as being an invitation to the ambitious but unimaginative, they preferred such pure fantasy as Titanic which had already influenced the wealthy in the city with its sophisticated clothing. Tuxedo parties were all the rage and coming to his shows in a tux or a Victorian style ensemble was the height of cool.
His own latest attire was a magnificent combination of elegance and function. A supple tailored jacket of red dragon hide that bunched at his waist, and flared and split for movement below the belt and stopped at his knees, the whole had an oriental look with wide golden seams that buttoned across and bore intricate runes in mithril thread in a continuous circuit up the front, around his neck and across the back at the hem.
The stuff was tougher then steel and still light enough to wear as a jacket. He still wore his black leather bottoms most of the time. With the functional steel anklets and bracelets that extended his spell protections at need. Schminke was sporting a pair of knee high dragon hide boots and a different cut, like a trench coat, of dragon hide. The fab four had gifted Scott and James with hell hound hide cloaks to wear with their black chain. Thom assumed they were enchanted to protect from flames as his jacket was, but they just made the two look more sinister and barbaric.
Brian, now that guy had a sense of style. Poor Jason had found himself a girlfriend that he could not have sex with, but that seemed to add to his cool factor about town. The fey respected the diminutive fairy as a noblewoman of some foreign court and Jason always saw to it that she was dressed in spider silk and gems. He was covering her outrageous tuition at the Conservatory as well. Still she was an overall good influence on him, she could learn spells, turn invisible at will and put a full grown ogre to sleep with a pinch of dust. Jason had gained the same powers but it seemed that it was more likely for her to be getting a massage using one of his unseen servants.
She called the group her ‘Court in Exile’ and Thom her court bard, an amusing title to him. She was amusing as well though Thomas told him she had been little more then a lady in waiting for one of the duchesses of the fey court. Still a lady though, and that was what mattered.
However what really mattered to Thom was that today he was taking delivery on his new sword. A beautiful basket hilted rapier with a rune scribed blade of mithril steel, rune-stone and magic. The first hot blade from the new mine, and for some reason he had dibs. It had a rune structure that would keep it in its scabbard unless he touched it. The fops all used rapier and poniard combat styles that really were deadly in man on man duels. Silverymoon absolutely forbade such fighting inside the city, claiming such violence was better directed against the enemies of the city, but duels did happen in the countryside. Thom had one modification of the normal style that he considered a major improvement; he used a 9 mm in his off hand. It meant that he never dueled very long. Parry thrust bang…it was a good bit that never got old.
He went out the alley stair and up into the cold morning light. It was good to feel the cool air and smell the city. His fox scurried out excited by its normal morning frolic. Fox was little more then a bundle of impulses and skittishness that kept Thom alert. The down side was that as the moved into the streets level and tunnel workshops of the dwarves, the banging and clanging played merry hell with his nerves.
The master smith himself was on hand to give him the blade and the scabbard of steel ornately etched with dragon blood. No jewels to mar the functionality of the sword, it was simply deadly metal, with a fine curved basket that looked organic in its fine detail and seamless design. The guard became the crosspiece and the hilt in such a smooth line that it could not possibly be an assembled thing. The blade was keen with a permanent edge sustained by magic, with an additional property of holding and feeding spells cast on the blade. Thomas Stead grasped it with something like awe, something like love.
“It was a rare treat to make something like this, many would turn to elven craftsman for a thin-blade and end up with self propelled gem studded monstrosity.”
Stead shook his head “It is a tool for cutting things, especially living things. They say that the butchers are better surgeons then the doctors because they know their tools. This is my meat cleaver, my bone filet knife. I do not put rubies in my tools.”
“Sensible, you have a wise old head.” The master smith replied with a respectful twinkle in his eye.
Stead walked through the market looking for breakfast at his favorite pie vendor. He saw three Waterdevian nobles in fine furs near one of the bubbling fountains. It was a quiet morning so Stead moved over to chat.
“Gentlemen, I trust the day finds you well, I am Thomas Stead.”
“Oslo of House Thorpe.”
“Arrobas of House Snome.”
“Laszlo of House Nesher.”
“So what brings you to the Market so early?” Stead asked the young men.
“Business and pleasure” the one called Oslo said “We arrived three days ago from Waterdeep and just last night disposed of our business and purchased cargo for a spring caravan. So we are checking the scene here before catching a gateway back in a couple hours.
“I have yet to visit the City of Splendors.” Stead said wistfully.
“You are the Bard Stead are you not? Even with our noses in our books and warehouses we heard about your shows. Why not pack a bag and a purse and join us? You can stay with us in our flat, we are itching for a little adventure back home and our fathers cannot help but give us some free time after bringing the caravan in through trolls and dragons and wild orcs.” Arrobas invited.
Stead smiled “Sounds fair, I have a new blade here that is as yet untried, I understand Waterdeep has monster filled dungeons that are like amusement park rides where tavern owners control entryway’s and charge admission.”
Laszlo looked into the fountain for a time and then he came to some sort of decision. He took a cigar Thom offered and sniffed it, and then he said “Undermountain is an anthill of magic and monsters thanks to the power of the Mad Archmage, but we have another axe to grind. Undermountain is contained by the lords and more power too them if it keeps a lid on the Underdark and the powers therein. However Waterdeep has no Mythal to keep the riffraff out. We found out that a house our fathers have dealings with is really a front for a murdering dragon.”
“Do Tell.” Stead urged and the young man continued.
“My older sister broke her engagement a few years back, she fell in love with a banker from the Calim desert, a refugee from the political troubles there. Then eighteen months ago my sister died a violent death in the home of this Wahl Healet. A sealed investigation by the lords showed that this southerner did it ‘Under the influence of magical compulsion’ my family received a very large payment to gag my father and the matter was dropped.”
Arrobas took up the story, “I was the one engaged to Marissa, so the break-up hit me hard, we were really more friends then lovers anyway, our folks arranged the marriage and we just went along until she met the sheik. He even talked to me, gave me a goodly sum of money and a sent me a gift, a pouch of diamonds. I took to the sea, sailed the coast and out to the Moonshea Isles and came back with a little perspective. I also gained a gem of true sight.
One day recently we gathered together, and I had occasion to use the gem to take a better look at Healet. Imagine my shock when I saw that he is in reality a dragon, dark brass in color, old and terrible with a great fire in his heart. Then I knew what this dark magic was that excused his crime, the Rage…”
Thom said “Wow, that is a lot to lay on an acquaintance. Unless you have a point to make too me?”
“We heard you take breakfast early, unlike most bards, except the elves who never seem to take a decent night sleep. We hoped to catch you here and see if you might join us or at least make a tale of the story so people know why we did what we are going to try to do.” Arrobas finished.
Thomas Stead gave a chuckle “Hey you have a perfect vendetta defense, plus any being with that much power and experience who covets a woman might as well be raping her for all the chance she has to resist his will. I would like to go with you and join you in whatever mischief you are up too.”
The men solemnly agreed, taking him at his word and gave him an address for a meeting place.
The townhouse that the trio of nobles occupied was high up the slopes of Mount Waterdeep looking down over the harbor full of vessels wintering or braving the waters to fish or sail south to the warmer seas. The men had access to considerable magic, wealth and privilege made that certain. Amulets to protect from dragon fire, scrolls to teleport the group into the compound of the rich sheik, spells to locate him in his treasury. Thom looked it over and had to admit the men were good tacticians. Then he said “You will all die, there is no way that you can pull this man down.”
“We can make it.” Arrobas insisted.
“You cannot, you have tools to counter everything you could think of, but you did not think of everything.”
“What did we miss?” Oslo demanded.
“I have no idea, something, that is for certain.” Then he continued “My friends and I have taken three dragons, and I tell you this, we never tried to fight one except where it was unprepared. It is a dragon; it has centuries of thinking defense to counter your offensive plans.”
“So you are not going to help us, I warn you we…” Oslo started.
Thom laid his rapier blade on the man’s shoulder in a fluid fast draw and said “Do not finish that thought.” Then he put the blade away and continued “Why is the dragon here?”
“To make money for its treasure pile.” Laszlo offered.
“There is ample gold in the south; my research shows that the brass dragon is most comfortable in a desert region. This one came north because of ‘political upheaval’ I think that means it has a rival, and that means another dragon.”
“So our friend is hiding?”
“Perhaps, but he is also looking for a way to beat his adversary once and for all, you can bet on that.” Stead noted.
“So you think it is feasible?” Stead asked Derek.
“Sure, if you had a sphere of metal hoops intersecting at right angles, then you put a second one inside the first and a third inside of that you could make a rune net that would absorb magic from heat, electricity, acid, force or even extreme cold, five rings to convert and grab the manifestation and leach it, one to convert it to a useful medium and three to store it at the core.”
“Can you do it?”
“Not yet, I would need a material with the right properties of resilience, I would need the runes, to fine tune the description and transformation and the device itself would have to protect itself and the bearer from the initial exposure to warm the runes up.”
“Can you make me a half assed version, use draconic runes and make it as believable as possible, give it a rune stone core and make it look cool?”
Remund grinned “oh yes, I think I smell a scam brewing, tell Derek what is cooking and I will give you a working prototype that will hold up for a time and might even function for a bit if it needs too.”
“You will need bags of holding, you needed to consider the possibility of success in your original plan in which case the all important issue of looting the dragon horde comes up.” Stead directed his friends. “Also timing is everything. The gate to Silverymoon is periodic and the next one in a useful timeslot is in twenty days. That is our escape hatch…”
The city of Waterdeep soon was buzzing with the performances of Thom of Silverymoon. Shows full of illusion and music, this time the theme was called the Masters of the Orb (Instead if ‘The Lord of the Rings’), a vision of the fictional quest for the Orb of Tiamat. The group, searching in the desert of ruins of Netheral finds the orb and uses its power to fight off a great blue dragon, turning its fearsome breath back on it as pure force in concussive blast after blast. The group learns that it has the same effect on all elemental attacks on the road home, defeating a succession of dragons seeking to recover the orb in a quest to reach their home city and turn the device over to the wise mages therein. The third act had the heroes caught between rival factions of wizards in the city fighting mercenaries and spell casters and finally turning the orb over to the one leader noble enough to be trusted to use it for the good of all.
In the parlors of the best houses Thom made dates to bed daughters and wives and admitted that the story of the orb was one that was actually based on fact. He had it from a band of heroes that the orb itself had been sold for a great sum to a consortium of young upstarts in Waterdeep, noble sons of great families seeking to make a mark. He could not say who had it but they would almost certainly put the device up for public auction.
Thom ran into several fights with swaggering blades, kept busy with the local bards and entertainers and accepted regular visits from the other sorcerers in order to replenish spells and keep up appearances as a man with mysterious connections. Then a consortium set a day for the unveiling and auction of the orb. Spells traps were laid and the young men waited for the opportune moment.
As the crowd grew in the climate controlled auction house, so too did the sense of excitement. The orb, visible inside a crystal cube was splendid in grey and smoky metal with runes that showed golden on its surface. The draconic writing was authentic to the Netherese period and used a unique intersecting rune matrix that had those with some magical training buzzing. At the core a black gem gave off a purple radiance that seemed to twist they eye while also levitating the device and causing its five spheres to revolve independently. Hired guards in black armor with barbaric cloaks made from the hides of hell hounds loomed on either side.
Then the auctioneer finally took up the gavel and called for order. Thom with the gem of true sight was given his first shock; the room had no fewer then six dragons in human form, in ones and twos. Copper, silver, gold and of course the brass dragon impersonating the sheik, the game was truly going to get interesting.
Thom triggered the first display, an apparent pulse of energy from the orb rolled across the crowd. Thom used it to cover his triggering of a stored spell of restoration that he had purchased, the spell went into the prepared rune circle on the floor and under the cover of a second flare, the dragons in the room where suddenly all in their true forms, looming monstrously in the vaulted hall, jostling each other, and causing the crowd to go into instant mad panic. Thom’s next illusion was so simple that even the keen perceptions of the dragons were fooled. His spell turned Sheik Wahl Healet red, altering his appearance slightly to conform to the typical red anatomy.
Scott and James started the action in the right direction by directing spells of lightning and force at the red which led to half the nobility of Waterdeep and three hasty dragons doing the same. For his part the wounded and confused dragon responded with a blast of flame and a greedy snatch at the orb. Pumping wings, lashing tails and blasting powers soon cracked the auction house like an eggshell. The underwriters would need to pay House Thorpe a tidy sum for the insurance policy they had taken out last month.
Thom had already sent a message to Derek who told the noble sons of vengeance to go. They were deep inside the mansion and seeking the treasure of the sheik even as the creature took wing and triggered all manner of defensive and healing spells. Still not for nothing is Waterdeep called the ‘City of Magic’. The dragon, with its cover blown was too busy to note its own appearance as yet, it was more interested in escape, but Masker Wands himself enacted the dimension lock that sealed the area and allowed another round of spells to pound home in the misidentified dragon. Further, the other dragons were taking stinging hits from uncertain citizens with wands and rings and they could hear the residual magic resonating in the Orb of Tiamat like feedback from a sound system.
The dragons chose to back off rather then risk the destruction of so many small folk, so they were not able to aid or identify the brass for what it was. They tore a great rent into the far wall and departed one by one to wing off in different directions.
One pair of copper dragons realized swiftly the significance of the sheik being an evil dragon and flew in a bee line for his manor to score some ill gotten loot. The dragons blundered into a series of spells that drew defensive golems, trained monsters and summoned air elementals out of the house to engage them. The relief of the thieves inside was immense as the way to the treasury was cleared of all but a few spells and a significant door. An anti-magic shell disrupted the spells, and too a dragon’s reasoning ended the chance of breaking the vault, since nobody without magic could break the door. However dynamite worked as well inside the magic free zone as it did outside.
The battling red cleared a space around itself with fire and then shape shifted into the form of a man, and tried to flee. He ran down street and alley until he could get airborne as a hawk and fly exhausted to a rocky island off the coast. The illusion no longer masked its metallic nature but the damage was done. The gates of its house were open and rioters were being injured and killed by out of control golems, his defenses had badly injured a pair of good dragons and blasts could be heard from inside its home.
By dawn the Paladin Lords had restored order and taken possession of the Orb of Tiamat, locking it away in a vault under the city. The home of the great brass stood open and looted by mob, dragon, mage and noble hero. The brass himself began to form in its mind a terrible feeling of persecution that the lords interpreted as a lack of control. Since the dragon was on probation already it was banished from the city when it made its lawful appeal to recover its possessions. Several noble families stepped in and acquired the dragon’s holdings and its businesses for silver on the gold piece.
The battered heroes exited Waterdeep without a ripple via the Silverymoon gateway in a hidden byway of Undermountain. A fifth of the ill gotten treasure was transferred to the group and split among them while the rest was laundered in Silverymoon by the consortium of Snome Thorpe and Nesher and came back to Waterdeep in the form of a second very profitable cargo of magic items, lumber, mithril goods and elven spirits. If the Lords of Waterdeep smelled a rat they just held their noses. Schminke considered changing the name of the group to the Dragon Molesters and threatened to do so if the group harassed one more.
Who Wants it More?
His name died with him. His god died thereafter, leaving him powerless to recover his spells. A mortal slew Murkul and became god of death and lies. Then a dead man stole the mantle of death. It was a Time of Troubles for everyone.
A lich can become undead through arcane or divine spell power. It is a process that infuses dead tissue with immortal demonic essence. This lich had been a master of necromancy as a priest of death. It carried the lore of alchemy, history and death magic of all kinds in its twisted mind. Useless now without the spells to give vent to its frustrated hunger, the priest of a dead god self cursed to immortal impotence.
The lich walked for a time, sloughing off flesh without care, taking clothes when it thought of such things, never sleeping and ever yearning. It came to a conclusion one starry night. It would begin to study arcane magic. A lich can continue to learn and grow in power after its rebirth into undeath. So the creature stole spell books, captured a traveling mageling or three and though they tended to die from fright and shock if he touched them he was able to learn that his struggle would be long even for an immortal. A lifelong high level priest has much to overcome if he is to learn the basics of arcane magic.
It poked around old ruins and secret vaults under the earth, fearing neither death nor discomfort, needing no food or water nor rest the creature found many lost secrets. Patient now by nature, the lich traveled near to Everska and the burial vaults of the great elf families. It sought elven kira that might be corrupted to its use. Kira that contained the secret to elven family spells stored for a dozen human generations. Elves are buried in sacred ground however and while the lich learned a great deal he was frustrated in his quest without any powerful crypt breaking magic.
From time to time he was able to destroy some priest of another god, stealing scrolls or magic items that it could use, flexing its dormant meta-magical influence on minor spells to make greater effects. But these creatures were the most dangerous prey to an undead monster, often either able to destroy him or enslave him through the influence of some active divine player. In time it acquired a respectable cache of wands and weapons to use in emergencies but its lust was infinitely greater.
Its frustration gave way to a kind of brilliant insight. It could not acquire mastery of spells as a mage, it could not bring itself to the worship of some upstart deity who might prove as mortal as the last, but some men came by magic as naturally as if breathing. Sorcerery was still an option. However such beings are born not made.
A device of magic gave the lich the seeming of an old man so that the lich could seek out refuge and resources in the Cult of the Dragon. In only a few short years the lich earned a high place in the cult, making the phylacteries and potions that were part of the process of changing a dragon into a draco-lich. In that role the creature hid, avoiding the powerful arcanist and hiding its nature from priests and dragons until the cult made its bid for supreme power, and fell. In the confusion the lich was able to loot the things it needed most, scrolls of soul trapping, precious stones, and tools for gem cutting and necromancy all to seek what it had desired all along. It kept track of the doings of other former cultist in the aftermath of the ruin of all Sammasster’s great plans while dwelling at a power juncture in the earth beneficial to necromancy and death magic. There it crafted its Ioun Stones of Life Trapping, nine stones to hold the lives of beings of power and chain that power to the soul phylactery of the lich.
Its first success was a unicorn, the young stallion was drawn into one of the stones and from the creature the lich gained a number of interesting abilities, including the power to move instantly within the vast northern forest lands and alien powers of healing along with a constant searing pain from the orbiting gem. Using the power and its knowledge of the underground labyrinth beneath the forestlands the lich collected in rapid succession a displacer beast, a rust monster, a basilisk and finally a gyno-sphinx with powers that amazed and delighted him. The lich released the unicorn in order to end the torment of holding that pure soul so close. The lich was frustrated in its attempt to crush the beast as it fled, a minor setback but one that forced it to move deep into the Spine of the World. There to its delight the creature took its first real sorcerer, a kobold with innate powers that made it a shaman among its people a trio of cantrips and single first level spell. Later the lich was terribly injured when it tried to take the life force of a beholder in the depth of the Underdark and that failure eventually brought it back to the surface.
It checked in on the various old cult cells and noted that at least some of them were using an old fey gate system called the ogre dance to serve one of the few remaining cult dragons, the lich watched them lure in warriors and minor wizards to feed the dragons ego and treasure, then in shock the lich had its vision obscured by a scrying shield only to return and show the dragon slain by spell and steel. In the aftermath of the battle the two who destroyed the dragon were revealed for a brief time when their scrying shield was destroyed. Two succulent sorcerers who had even more sorcerers as allies, the lich began to watch patiently for its opportunity, stalking and seeking information about these men. It would take them, then on the foundation of their power it would build its own arcane might to heights his divine favor had never reached. The creature had never wanted something so badly in life or death before.
Their studies had given them a hopeful piece of information, Scott and James went out to the ogre dance with a supply of mead and goats milk to confirm it. At noon they used arcane marks to charge up the system and poured the milk into the basin. Anvil and Dreamguard were edgy, the smell of death from Jason and Brian’s battle here still lingered. Also the burial mounds nearby, which the group had explored, were still ominous in memory. James and Scott were both eager to be out in the wilderness on the hunt again. James had his six shot center fire double action revolver now. Scott thought it was an interesting affectation but he could not deny that he envied the greater stopping power that James gained with it. Soon the spring warmth would make their hell hound cloaks too warm for comfort in the daytime. They might just keep them and use magic to keep cool. Scott was excited by the remarkable increase in their magical ability. After two years in Silverymoon they finally gained an upsurge in power.
Scott could now enhance charisma with a spell, enchant the edge of a blade to make it shaper then any natural steel, and most amazing of all he could now change form and shape stone into any form he desired. That last skill set had made he and James a fine home out of a white and silver marble delivered in block slabs but shaped into thin sheets. Scott looked forward to trying some new beast shapes in the countryside.
James had found the power to summon great blasts of wind or call forth a standing wall of irresistible air pressure. He could also augment his voice to knock down doors, people or to shatter marble into gravel. He too looked forward to testing his new strength in the wilderness. One of his new powers was so violent, a tornado of icy air and swirling hail, that he had not yet tried it. It was nice that his nature lent itself to destruction because his spells certainly gave him few other options. Along with the new spells he had soaked up many new skills, learning grew in him every day.
Anvil and Dreamguard had developed an ability not only to talk to them; they could now translate what other dogs were saying and control them very well. Scott and James were thinking seriously about breeding a few more pups for the two familiars to train. In the mountains and on ice a team of sled dogs could make all the difference in survival and comfort.
This trip was to recon a valley not to far from the high vale they had arrived in. The ogre ring they were seeking was only twenty miles due north of there in a wild upland glacial valley. The men were just going to jump, trek to the gold and rune-stone mine and trek back to the ring, gaining a feel for the best path and marking stone for shaping or blasting as needed to make a cart path.
A careful check of the sun after the ogre dance told them that they had indeed reached the place they had hoped for. Two hours later they crossed a rocky stream and rode up a bald hill to get a better view. Unfortunately that led them into a patrol of orcs who were also using the hill for the view. On the upside James was able to use his ice-storm.
After escaping the valley and burning a small orc fort along the way the rest of the journey was pleasant. They made it to the foot of the falls and caught the gnome elevator there to the guard tower. It was a pleasant shock and a slight pain to see how much clearing and building had taken place. The gold mine was now the growing hall of a new and vigorous dwarf clan, Dalton had a wife and a new child, and the rune-stone works were at last complete and the careful mining and refining of that substance was just rising to the level of industrial rather then mere tabletop alchemy.
Scott cautioned the dwarves about dumping and clear cutting, things their gnome allies already were enforcing and then he went to the node of dreams and checked on the progress of the rambling three story villa that was under construction. The halfling crew was using gnome made lumber milled from dwarf cut logs to build the structure around the great trees of the dream node without disturbing its power. It was already framed and roofed in clay tiles.
On the return trip they discovered that the orcs has added frost giants to their defenses. The four slipped past as mist on the wind, taking note of the new defenses as they passed over. Then they made their way across the stream and up to the ogre dance. Within a minute they had the stones primed and added the mead as a key.
The ogres danced and with some relief the four arrived back one jump from Silverymoon. The dogs growled and Scott felt his own hackles rise. Something was not right. James readied a spell while Scott swelled to giant size and prepared his magic blade with a keen edge spell. The two looked about with a detection spell and saw only the residual magic on the ogres. So they moved toward the mound to strike with typical violence against whatever they were sensing. In an instant as the two passed between ogres they noted some new marks and then the world went away. When Scott came too he was in a grey mist on some hard surface. Dreamguard was with him but the featureless world around offered little comfort beyond that. His power, his sign itself seemed inaccessible to him. All he could do was pick a direction and start walking. It would not have offered him any comfort to know that James was in identical circumstances trying to decide if he was dead or not.
The power was intoxicating. The inventory included spells of destruction, transformation and such a toolbox of utility spells that the lich very nearly danced a capering jig. A week of watching and waiting was nothing to the creature. However the lucky break was that the pair of powerful sorcerers had come after him with such straight forward aggression. A more subtle approach might well have avoided the stun symbols that he had drawn with the power of the gyno-sphinx.
The lich walked into the ogre dance and poured into the basin a flask of vinegar and was whisked across the land to a distant hilltop near the great desert. From there he walked down the hill to a massive stone jutting from the earth from an unknown depth upward thirty feet overhead like a great bent stone finger. The lich grasped the power to shape stone from the transformer sorcerer and empowered it over and over until he could release it as a spell much more powerful, the magic surged into the great stone and the rock ran liquid upward and shaped itself into a two hundred foot high tower of black rock in a rough circle ending in a great nine pointed crown. The lich walked up the broad stair and into the new formed archway, grateful to the bard whose vivid descriptions of the tower were on the tongues of every traveler to come from Silverymoon of late.
The band of knights reached the ogre dance a day after the last report from James and Scott. Jason and Brian accompanied them and were the first to discover the traces of the gate key substance. Spoiled wine had been spilled on the altar.
It was not a difficult item to discover in the traveling kits of the knights. Several of them liked vinegar as a condiment. Grimly the two formed the knights up and triggered the portal to follow their friends. They arrived on a high hill only too look up at a pretty good imitation of the Tower of Orthanc looming over them.
The tower had an unfinished look but from a balcony midway up was a figure shrouded in rags and cloaked in shadow. Jason cast a spell that created a door to the balcony and a squad of knights raced through behind Brian’s lead. Brian cast as he went, giving himself skill and violence beyond his level of power. The figure ahead on the balcony was still watching the spectacle below as the knights surged out to take him. Brian noted the swarm of gems about the creature and could feel the cold coming from it. His owl had an instinctive horror of the creature that Brian grasped instantly. The knights raced forward and lashed at the creature, however it was not where it seemed to be. It was standing in the air with its image displaced. Suddenly the arms and armor of the knights crumbled like moldy cheese. Then the lich laughed and filled the room with lightning.
Jason arrived with one of his new wands in hand, while Brian grasped a rod that would empower spells and hurled his spell to command undead. The lich paused for the first time and struggled. Jason lashed it with empowered and maximized magic missiles, staggering the creature as the knights writhed all over the entryway to the balcony. The lich dropped downward and struggled against the sorcerers command. The force missiles pursued it and hammered home cracking bone and tearing at the tatters of the lich’s dignity.
These two were even better then the first pair, coming with allies, immediately attacking with the spells and powers that were the natural points of weakness for a lich. The creature was not subject to pain, its admiration was tinged with covetousness. From the sorcerers he had taken the lich grabbed the power to manifest a spectral hand, from its own ability it filled the hands with all consuming negative life energy. Then it waited for, yes, the warrior in green reached the balcony to stitch him with more missiles.
The lich struck and the sorcerer lost a third of his life force in a split second. Jason staggered back and Brian made a tactical decision to retreat, he triggered the haste spell in his ring and raced to snatch Jason.
Brian charged for the dimension door. At the last second a bony spectral hand came out of the door and grasped his face. It tore at his soul and staggered him to one knee. Then a jewel pressed against his forehead and he vanished under Jason.
Jason rolled under the hand and out through the dimension door. He hit the ogre dance and began to conjure a blast of acid for the lich now descending in a swoop from the sky. The lich revealed its face with a swift gesture and Jason beheld the symbol of stun on the forehead. Perhaps if he had not already been weakened he could have made a better fight of it, but unconsciousness slammed home despite his courage and determination.
Then like Brian he found himself in a grey prison that deprived him of his senses and his magic. Unlike Brian he did not have any company because at that moment his familiar was in the council room in Silverymoon suddenly telling Alustriel that they had a disaster to avert. After landing on Alustriel’s head, Mariah activated a teleport spell that carried both of them half a mile up above where the lich was gloating.
It would take time for the two sorcerers wounded souls to mend, and until then the lich would be limited to their lesser spells. A matter of concern since the sorcerer with the dimensional travel had lost the power for the moment. Then the lich felt and looked up to see one of the Chosen of Mystra falling toward him like a comet trailing silver hair. Silver Fire would utterly undo him, it was the one magic instantly fatal to all undead. So the lich hurled a vial of troll blood into the basin and was taken to another place.
The Lady Mage of Silverymoon was impressed by the tower. “It looks familiar, from that show the Bard Tomas made a couple of seasons ago.”
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Mariah noted.
The Lady guided their landing to the balcony where a squad of her knights was in desperate need. Thanks to the healing properties of Silver Fire she restored them all in short order and received a report. Then she said, “I will need to know how serious this problem has become. Mariah, have your Sorcerer’s allies meet me here. I intend to fortify this tower for the return of the enemy and so I will remain here for a time.”
Mariah checked her ring of spell storing and was pleased to find a new teleport in it from Alustriel. So she used it to pop into the classroom of Thomas Schminke. The man was so rapt in his lecture that he did not hear or see her during her teleport dazzle. However he did notice his student’s laughter as his lynx pounced from its perch on a podium and almost snatched her. She gave a squeal and hit the Lynx with a fistful of pixie dust, causing it a moment’s daze and then leaving it unnaturally stiff and asleep on the table.
In English the fairy laid the situation out to Thomas, the need for the others to come and the location of the meeting and the desperation of the situation for those captured.
“I am afraid I am summoned by the Lady Mage,” Schminke told his class “I expect you to drink and have meaningless sex in place of homework in my absence.” . He was a well respected teacher.
Hours later wearing his protective armor and jacket with the inner lining loaded with expensive wands, Schminke left the city for the ogre dance. Mariah led the way and Derek and Stead followed grimly after. Derek was lean from his training regime, a daily routine with elf blooded students who appreciated the opportunity to teach the teacher. Precision shooting, balance beam and gymnastics, rope climbing and blade work had honed his light frame to a ropey leanness that would have seemed unhealthy except for the glow of vitality his skin radiated. Stead had always been lean but his face was now more lined and rich in character, sensuality and animation. Schminke looked large and grim. His shoulders and arms massively broad, he was an obvious powerhouse. Terrible in wrath, Schminke often had spellcasters reaching for spells just on his intimidating presence. If they saw him now they would be reaching for the escape pockets or hiking up robes abandoning dignity and running. Bears would shy from that face.
The three made the ogres dance and arrived at a pretty good version of the tower of Orthanc surrounded by Spellguard knights. Wordlessly they were lead into the tower and up to an ornately decorated audience room. Mariah looked around and whistled, “You sure can furnish a building fast.”
“A spell worth knowing, though each wizard has her own idea of comfort” Alustriel stated with grim humor.
“As you commanded Lady so we have come.” Schminke said.
“I just debriefed a unicorn who told me a bit about the lich who has your friends. I can tell you that they are not dead; the lich in question has them as a spell source. That is the good news; the bad news is that the lich was a high priest of Murkul, a dead god. The worst part of it is that he has spell potential too the eighth order perhaps the ninth, so whatever your friends carry as spells he can use his mastery of magical manipulation to cast those spells at much higher power. I want to know how bad this situation is. What spells do your friends know?” Alustriel asked.
“That is a level of trust I am not sure we have reached yet.” Schminke stated flatly.
“The lich will need to ‘acquire’ his spells at least, not have your friends cast them for it. It is as if your friends are a substitute for his dead god. This being is at large in the Silver Marches. It could ally itself with my enemies and your arrogance is responsible. You and your friends were so cocksure in your power because you did not have to do a damn thing to gain them. Swaggering about with your toys and your power and your natural charisma, you have pulled my knights into fights that have cost lives. This entity could gain little more then a few spells from a wizard with his traps. It was able to extract a power or two from trapped beings with innate abilities. But your friends give him a solid foundation of magic and I want to know how broad that foundation is.
Schminke nodded thoughtfully but Derek spoke up. “Why do you wizards all study for years yet end up with the same spells?”
“They are the spells that are stable, they have to be crafted just so to function, a wizard learns to cast them by learning the formula that are passed down from wizards who have discovered them in the past.” Alustriel stated in a lecturing tone.
“Stable why? These spells are discrete because they are encoded in the weave of magic. You and the teachers and practitioners of magic are accessing the weave in a clumsy ham-handed way when the spells are there already. You have access to the silver fire, a power to override spells and write your own commands in the world around you.”
“A power gifted to me by Mystra for a lifetime of discipline.”
“A power denied to everyone who fails to jump through hoops. The weave is a dam holding back infinite possibilities and letting a handful trickle through. Only you are allowed access to that water.”
“Are you saying that everyone should be allowed to wield the power of chaos?”
“Not at all, but the idea that some arbitrary inventory of spells can only be legitimately accessed by clumsy hand waving and rote chants that take half a lifetime to learn instead of just reaching out and taking hold of what is there is ludicrous. We are not pulling pure chaos into the world; we are just accessing the weave without a diploma.
“And now through your friends that thing can as well.” Alustriel said. “Now what can we expect face?”
Schminke handed her a list:
Ray of Frost
Ray of Enfeeblement
Gust of Wind
Touch of Idiocy
Touch of Fatigue
Ray of Enfeeblement
Summon Monster IV
Monster Summoning II
Summon Monster III
Summon Monster I
Alustriel looked at the list and said “From the lesser powers this list of powers will allow the creature to do virtually anything. Dimension door becomes teleport, lightning bolt becomes chain lightning, it has few abjurations, divinations and illusions but enough necromancy that I suspect it will be able to build a full compliment for itself. Now let me guess, you Stead are Illusion, Derek is Abjuration and Schminke you are Divination?”
“An interesting symmetry if so,” Schminke noted.
“I do not know what force placed you together but that thing out there has the bulk of you, and if I am right it has the most potent powers in a spell battle.”
“We can use the tools we have and get the job done.” Thom claimed.
Derek said “We have given you a list, now we need one from you, I need to know what wild cards we are up against, what powers he has from other beings and what he could do with the powers he has. We also need to know his psychology, what motivates a lich priest of a dead god of death?”
“You can stay here and we can discuss these things.” The Lady Mage said.
Schminke nodded “Mariah can give you a list of what we need; I expect she is more palatable to you then we are and she has lost her man to this creature.”
“I will have rooms prepared.” Alustriel said with a curt nod of acquiescence.
In their rooms the three men rolled out paper and pens and started to lay plans while the fairy paced back and forth across the table, smoking with a tiny cigarette holder.
“We need to inventory our own spells, Derek are we safe from scrying?” Schminke asked.
“For now, but you might want to have your cat, the dragon and the fox look around for spies.”
“Do it men, our friends are captive and their rightful powers are being raped from them. What are we going to do about it?”
Let’s look at our spells and play to our strengths. We can supplement with what we can buy.
Protection frm Energy
Protection fm Arrows
Touch of Fatigue
Circle of Protection
Protection From (any)
Touch of Fatigue
“The lich can jack any of the spells he has over the limit of that globe of invulnerability. It is likely we can make a hell of a fight of it, flying, attacking the creature physically and rapidly with great deal of spell pressure. Derek can keep up a barrage of dispels and the rest of us can shoot it full of enchanted bullets.” Stead said.
“It will certainly use Jason’s spells to conjure a large contingent of monstrous body guards and Brian’s to recruit allies. We have to assume we will face an army that will deplete us long before we reach our goal.” Schminke noted.
“Then we locate the lich and we go now before he recruits an army.” Stead insisted.
“That might work, but I am not inclined to keep using the same strategy that has failed twice. We go with a plan that is certain because it does not leave elements to chance. We get information that we need and we take this thing down, our friends are imprisoned.” Schminke noted.
Derek said “We are as likely to end up in gems of our own if we make a frontal assault this second.”
Schminke looked thoughtfully at the fairy pacing back and forth on the table sucking on a cigarette. Then he said “Okay here is where we start, we need information from Alustriel, we need an army of our own that is small potent, mobile and heavily armed, we need powerful spells in our rings tailored to a final battle, we need a plan for losing that battle without losing everything.
Over the days that followed, Derek returned with Mariah to Silverymoon and started work modifying a long term project to fit the needs of the moment. He was in a chamber under the new Temple of Gond, a seven sided room. Glass sheets plated with wizard marks were photo flashed one by one onto the walls into rune circles of his design laid down by Glock. His concentration was absolute, no error was tolerable in this rune net. Even the crystals had to be diamond, the rune stone alloy cast in perfect polyhedrons. The spells they needed were checked and double checked for accuracy and for difficulty. The only one the party could trust to cast the spells was the fairy so all the spells had to be within her capabilities.
The company that Thomas recruited was infantry, dwarves, men and even a pair of half-orcs. They had a week to drill together, with new equipment, standardized packs and weaponry. Whatever they could not live without they had to carry in addition.
Thomas led ten Spellguard cavalry under a loose arrangement that put their own sergeant in charge but let him act as advisor. It took purchasing wands for each of them to buy them from Alustriel. She claimed that the Silver Marches was going to utilize the ogre dance and the new tower to stabilize some more land to the east, she was busy. However she was not too busy to locate the lich. Contrary to form the entity was not laired up, he was mobile and he was doing disastrous things. He created a dam of granite that formed a massive upland lake. The orcs were using the dam to power a massive sawmill and stone cutting machine. The lich constructed a keep for the frost giants and one for the orcs. It was also quite possible the creature had started tunneling an underground highway. All this in a couple of weeks, it was possible to push pins in a map and follow the various improvements and good faith deeds for orc tribes.
Schminke paced back and forth in the ‘War room’ and considered the implications. Mariah wore tiny spectacles and a silk shirt cut for a man and a tiny thong of red silk. Like a tiny little stripper she was amazingly distracting. To bring himself into focus Schminke said “The Lich has thrown himself in with the new orc nation. That is the worst fear of the Silver Marches leadership. They will not leave this in our hands for very much longer. Silver Fire will be brought to bear against our boy soon if he does not go into the Underdark, our expedition leaves as soon as you get Alustriel to put a pin in the map. The ogres dance will get us as close as is possible. We leave tonight.”
“I am going to travel to Silverymoon then, are you sure you are ready? You guys should get some sleep.” Mariah said.
“We will, two hours starting in about an hour.”
“Bring my man back…”
“With our shields or on them little tease…”
The group moved through the mountains with active seeking spells, strong security and stoneskin on every party member. They would have a four day march to the topmost ridge of the Spine of the World. This place was perpetually snowcapped above and the vastness made the well armed and protected party feel small. The divination placed the lich at the very top of the world at the end of the week. It was a straight line assault on a position in space time that would not exist for days. Such was the power of a Chosen of Mystra.
The ambush came at the foot of the last line of mountains, far from the predicted point and far in advance of the predicted time, so much for divination. The orcs came out of the earth, a hundred hidden in ten pits all around the party. However even the sudden eruption did not catch the sorcerers and their infantry flat footed. The infantry crouched and fired crossbows, the knights drew wands and spoke words of command.
From the pits swarms of giant bats and rats emerged to rush them and Stead wove a shield of shadow and substance to stop them. Schminke sought the lich and found him above, how the bastard had evaded the scrying suddenly came to mind. Displacement, displacement to the ninth level, gods alive…
Derek shattered the wizards lesser displacement and revealed the lich with a detection spell just as the spell the lich was working on hit. One hundred orcs became enraged and more dangerous by far.
At close range a wave of shot lashed out from eight gauge shotguns, then the orcs grew to the size of ogres.
Stoneskin protected the expedition as the orcs crashed home, many now missing limbs or sporting garish wounds.
The three sorcerers rose from the center of the formation on Derek’s floating disk and then raced up the mountainside to where the lich was actually standing atop a rock flattened by one of the powers he commanded with such finesse.
Derek simply negated the powers the lich called forth as fast as he could, each powerful evocation was like a bolder rolled down from a mountain. Blood was flowing from Derek’s nose and even his eyes as he stopped spell after spell.
The other two struck with steel and bullets. They struck and shattered bone and new respectable vestments; they lashed and howled as Derek finally failed to interdict an icestorm. When the ice hit their stoneskin held, the cold was another matter, though warded against the elements this ice was like a plunge into liquid nitrogen with a wetsuit.
Below with the lich in check, if only temporarily, the company stood valiantly and the knights killed an enlarged, enraged orc or a handful of giant vermin with each charge of their wands.
It was madness and ruin, screaming men and bellowing orcs, shrieking bats and whining rats and over it all the blast of shotguns leaving the smell of blood and brimstone. A devil would have felt at home.
Fox, dragon and lynx closed in to attack the lich, smaller and warded in the same manner as their sorcerers they three bore the cold and ice and delivered three disintegration spells from rings of spell storing, the lich endured suffering beyond anything it had ever conceived in life or death, and its body was utterly destroyed. One last spell was triggered, this one cast before the death of Murkul so long before that the lich itself had forgotten it. In an instant the lich stood whole again, undead yes, but with flesh as well as bone, its former body renewed, offering it long forgotten possibilities.
In that moment of triumph the lich enacted a savage attack, multiple hands of bone swarmed around it to attack the three sorcerers. All of them felt the bite of the negative energy within and the lich felt a monstrous surge of life force, as it knew it would if it was so desperate as to use this spell. The energy seared it to near blind agony. However the men fell like puppets with cut strings. Bony hands gathered the heroes to the rock and the spent undead creature opened a door to a distant place, leaving his troops to live or die as fate would have it.
These three had been the best the lich decided. It utilized three recently emptied stones to entrap them with a rising feeling of invincible completeness. Seven sorcerers, a displacer beast and a basilisk made slow orbits around the Underdark shrine of his phylactery.
Alustriel looked down at the devastation a sloppy divination had caused. Once the three had vanished the group was detectable by scrying. She was surprised that most of the company was alive, though none were unscathed. In a still twitching mass around them more then a hundred orcs and countless vermin lay smoking and bleeding. On the hill above the scars of magic had permanently twisted the area so that as Mystra commanded she was forced to expend a quantity of Silver Fire to mend the tear in the fabric of the Weave.
From one of the Spellguards she learned of the stunning return of the naked lich after his destruction. Her powers extended enough to show her the bizarre divine intervention in the battle, a lesser miracle cast many years before so that a hopeless creature could not even hope for destruction, as a lich it was a moot point anyway, it would have been restored in a week or so, but once gone she could have bent her will to locating its soul and grinding the thing to powder.
“Those sorcerers were damn good, they almost pulled it off but there is always something you did not expect.” She said with a heavy heart.
She called the troop of survivors near and transported them to her new tower where she would soon receive her sisters and perhaps Elminster to report on the gamble that had failed and likely given rise to a new terror.
If she was very lucky the thing would come to reclaim its earth node tower in arrogance at its new power.
In a cellar, warded from prying eyes and magic the fairy watched as a small sand glass counted down without a call from the men, her men. She calmly took a deep breath and turned over the big one and waited for it to drain. In the meantime she unrolled her scrolls and wiped her eyes to clear the tears. Her men were in pain out there, she had to wait for the opportune moment.
The damage it had done to its new acquisitions was apparent. However the lich could already feel a budding of new possibilities. Spells to open minds, twist magic or create fantastic forms with only magic for substance. As his weakness and pain faded into numbness again the lich slowly and meticulously built his spell list from the buffet line of possibilities. A little mustard on this one, a double helping of that, it was process that filled pleasant hours of its eternal existence.
It sat on its throne and spun webs into new vestments. It would soon shape new roads for orc and giant to move beneath the earth and act as a bridge between the haughty drow and the violent tribes above. It would be the hub of power in the region even as it was now the hub of this circle of captured magic.
Its destiny had given it all that it could have hoped for. In time it might gain such understanding and stature that its former god could be called back. An undead god of death would be a pleasant irony. As time passed it became aware that still more spells were unfolding like flowers in his enemies prison gems. The new ones were even better building blocks then the old. In excitement the lich began to discard spells and slide new ones into place. An umber hulk shambled into the chamber, breaking the thin stone door the lich had formed over the natural entryway and the lich absently let its gaze turn the creature to a statue blocking the passage.
It would make a better plug anyway. The lich had gathered its caches of treasure and magic together here to make its Underdark Hall of Shadows; it would need to secure them with spell and monster if it was to keep its horde growing…
The fairy slid the rods into the stone at the center of the chamber. Then she cast the spells, one of dream divination, one of spell sharing, and a last one of daylight. The spells were taken up by runes and amplified, twisted slightly around each other and then they infused the seven signs on the walls of the chamber with energy. Each sign grew to fill its panel and bled into the ones next to it, they touched rune lines on the floor and caused them to shine with opal light.
At last the runes on seven sides of the pedestal came alight as well and the circuit to the polyhedron at the heart of the room was complete, it pulsed in time with the cycle like a heart made of silver pumping light through veins of pearl.
The mark of a wizard is his identity. The sign of a sorcerer is even more-so it becomes who he is. Rune magic has at its core the key fact that the name of a spell will act on that spell. Wizards know that names will call forth and give mastery over entities of great power. They will also allow spells to strike home with certainty on other wizards.
In their prisons, seven sorcerers felt their signs awaken. Three, just recovering from the pain of battle, knew what this meant. Four only felt a surge of hope. Then for the first time they felt the crowded touching of their fellows and a wrenching of the prison grey into an open field of recently planted corn. They stood there without barriers between each other. In seconds Schminke silenced the welcoming babble and told them of this last contingency. In that moment with the entire repertoire of the band on hand for the whole group, they simultaneously cast shatter into each others prisons.
The lich watched in sudden concern when the soul gems of the sorcerers began to glow. It sought the source of the spell but it seemed to be coming from the gems themselves. Then the light arced between the stones for several seconds and made sparks in the direction of the phylactery they orbited. Could this be some treachery of Alustriel or one of the other Chosen? The lich sent out powerful spells to find and disrupt the source of the disturbance, costing it several more seconds. Then each stone fired a spell into the stone orbiting to its left and all seven exploded in a spray of crystal and magic.
The room was filled with men and beasts, and three spell rings unleashed a dimensional anchor, a disruption and a holy surge of energy. One of the men secured the phylactery while the rest fell on the lich with spell and steel.
The lich was able to get off one spell of cold that froze off extremities and literally liquefied the carbon dioxide out of the air. But after that its body was in pieces. The real trick was not stepping on each other as they undid its corporeal form.
James sent rays around the room to warm things up, and then the connection they had been enjoying faded away, leaving them with a longing emptiness.
“That was new.” Scott said to nobody in particular.
“Derek has been working on a joint spell matrix for some time. That was a prototype.” Schminke noted.
“It worked pretty well.” Brian said and then he moved across the room to examine some interesting magic items on stone slabs. “Is this stuff warded?”
“Not that I can see, but you might want to touch it with a stick to be sure.” Schminke replied.
They gingerly tested the tables and found them free of traps. Among the scrolls and amulets, wands and magic weapons they found a map to a prison with a gyno-sphinx inside looking hungry and depressed. They discovered copious notes on the disposition of the alliance of orcs and giants, as well as scrolls on the various networked locations and fluids usable in the ogre dance.
With care and guile the seven sorcerers and sphinx made it to the surface again after only a day of trekking the Underdark. There they gave the sphinx her choice of treasure and let her fly away with a necklace, an amulet and a shield. Glock ascertained their location by looking at the stars and they made their way to the ogre dancers that proved to be only an hour’s flight away. They rode to the closed north gate at Silverymoon in the pale light of dawn on phantom steeds out of a dramatic fog but were forced to wait until Old Thunderspells himself could be roused and brought forth to confirm that they were who they claimed to be.
“So it bit off more then it could chew, eh?”
“It is never good to swallow your prey whole.” Schminke noted.
“So you planned to lose all along?”
“We had a plan in case we lost that worked out.” Derek admitted.
“Why should I let you troublemakers back into my city?”
“We have treasure…” James said holding up a bag full of magical loot like a sack of groceries and shaking it so it clanked and jingled.
Old Thunderspells tossed back his head and laughed, then he turned from the gate and barked, “Let the crazy bastards in, at least we will know where they are while they are here.”
Scott turned to James and said “Let’s go spend some time at Stead’s place.”
“I could use the bath…” Jimmy noted with a sniff for each arm.
A small bundle of blonde hair and sheer fashion hovered within the gate and flew to Jason covering his face with tiny kisses. “You aren’t heading for the brothel are you?”
“I thought I would go to the apothecaries shop.” Jason admitted.
“Are you sick?” Mariah asked in concern.
“I thought we could invest in some potions of growth for you and diminution for me, say one hour each way?
“Oh goody that will give us fifty-seven minutes to cuddle!”
“I am afraid not… I plan to do it twenty times…”
Among the Orcs
Whatever else resulted, the cover of the party was blown. Schminke reluctantly ordered a pull-out. The group had spent over two years in the city since the long flight down from the hills and they had been the agents of some positive change. They also each had things that they would rather not leave behind.
In total the amount of wealth the group had accumulated was significant even in the large local economy. So rather then cash out, the group set up an oversight board and a Factor to manage holdings and keep the doors open.
Scott and James sold their flat for a tidy sum. Things like flush toilets and indoor plumbing were new to the house market. The pair tucked away their cloaks for the summer and gave up on the enforcer attitude in order to set out and enjoy the last few weeks of life in the cosmopolitan metropolis. Out in the countryside they talked to various breeders and purchased a hearty group of pups to found their own kennel on, and a good mix of horse and pony flesh to found a stable.
They wore open shirts of linen and canvas pants with custom made deck shoes, all products that would hit the local market soon from their factory concerns. They also found time and occasion to talk with many of the noble members of society that they had avoided. It was different for them to be thought of as fellow spell casters then just warrior enforcers. In fact many among the high social strata considered the long deception to be the height of suave.
For Stead, the rush of public acclaim was par for the course. At last people knew more or less what he was, but that did not diminish him in the eyes of his audience. In fact the city council reluctantly extended a long term invitation to the group just under pressure from those concerned about the city losing Thom.
It was even worse in his personal life. The halfling madam, who owned the establishment where he kept his flat sold it, emptied the contents into a magical storehouse and she and her girls stood ready to follow when he was packed and ready to depart. She gave a power of attorney to him for the liquidated value of her property and insisted she was going with. “No place in this world is safe, but where you are it is interesting.
Stead looked sheepishly at Schminke and said “Gee paw can I keep em?”
“They followed you home, you have to feed them.”
Derek’s students and assistants were in charge of a wagon train of goods that he was taking with. Derek was not too broken up about leaving. He really did not like to be debated and too many in this city thought they could.
Brian and Jason left with great reluctance. They had found many friends in the guard, three of whom retired to join the expedition and led the security detail. Mariah was a city girl, but she was the size of a Barbie doll, so even an extensive wardrobe for her amounted to a single trunk. Jason planned to add a fairy tree-house to one of the great oaks in their villa courtyard. The fairy was also becoming a bit more serious about things, taking her role and advisor to heart. Jason also made sure that important machine tools, a crane assembly, and a brace of cannons, balls and a powder magazine all were secured for the journey.
Schminke was touched when a number of his students expressed a desire to come with him. However he was not planning to teach any longer, instead he had them copy books for him until he was ready to depart with a well stocked supply of library materials for the mountain home.
The expedition was also a military operation. The arrival at the high mountain ogre dance could turn into an initial foothold assault that would secure the transit site for the wagons to come. Sorcerers were needed to keep the system charged so the order of march needed to be carefully considered. The gauntlets would feed back on-site intelligence to Schminke as he coordinated the departure section by section. Finally they might need to fight their way through an occupying force of orcs and giants. Frankly it was a fight Schminke knew they could win in this one rush, but he did not want to have to fight it every day from then on.
They would be building a road as they traveled, so it would be a slow journey even with the work being done by magic. So instead they would try Brian’s alternate plan and make a secret accommodation with a charmed local commander if they could pull it off. The best battle was the one you did not have to fight.
The six sorcerers arrived on the hillside above the wide river and a barrage of boulders smashed into them. Derek was on duty at the encampment keeping things in line while the scout party went to reconnoiter. The scrying crystal in the camp had warned of the ambush before the departure, so naturally the party arrived in gaseous form with illusions supplied by Thom Stead to take the fusillade of projectiles in place of the team.
The four frost giants were intimidating, the ogres were a nice touch, but two hundred orcs were overkill Schminke thought. Scott had a bit that he was dying to try so Schminke gave him the go ahead. Using the tree-line as cover the group reintegrated and Scott changed form with his powerful polymorph spell. He changed into a black dragon. Jason gave Scott an extra acid breath in his ring, giving him a pair to use to become more convincing. Then, already the size of young dragon the sorcerer cast his enlarge spell into his new mithril bracers and swelled to the size of a mature adult dragon.
Scott flew forth into the area over the ambush. The other sorcerers tossed spells on Scott as he drove forward but he did not wait for everyone to finish, the form and energy of the magic drove him to take action. The orcs and ogres scattered and the giants grimly gripped their rocks and hurled them to bring the dragon down.
Scott felt freedom, rage and joy as never before in his life, he spun through the rocks and used Schminke’s truestrike spell to guide claws and teeth that shredded one giant from throat to groin. His wings buffeted and his tail lashed over the great kill, then he turned and vented a massive blast of acid on a pair of giants to the right.
The forth frost giant lashed out with an ice blade that was ten feet long and weighed eighty pounds. The blade crashed down through mage armor into stoneskin and thick dragonhide. What was left of the massive overhand blow was about as bad as a shaving cut. Scott caused his claws to become razor sharp and pounced on the giant and rolled over and over with the brute lashing and digging in with his rear claws. Scott kicked out like a cat with his rear legs, shredding the femoral arteries in each thigh while the giant fought with its arms to protect its neck. Once the wounds were delivered Scott cast haste on himself and turned on the other two giants with tooth and claw and his last breath weapon. The other five sorcerers hit ogres and orcs with a volley of spells and missiles that turned the rush away. Then through the ruin of fire, ice, mist and smoke the five walked up on Scott eating the heart out of a giant. Then he looked back at them and with a sudden furtive shudder he spit the last of the chewy morsel out, paused a moment to resume human form, and waded out of the steaming pile of giant corpses with bloody hands feet and face.
Schminke looked him over and asked “Are you okay?”
“I feel so funky… guys you have got to try that transformation, it is better then sex, better then anything I have ever done.” Scott admitted. He looked around at the scattered orcs and ogres trying the regroup and figure out what the hell was going on. “I see the rest of you had some fun.”
Jimmy was grinning and Dreamguard jumped up on his chest licked blood from Scott’s face. Schminke looked around at all the fallen with a clairvoyance spell and snatched up a shammer and pulled it to it feet. The bulky orc had short bandy legs with a long muscled torso, but it made no move to fight as Schminke laid enchanted mithril steel next to his throat. In perfect orc Schminke said “Take us to your leader; we have much that we need to discuss.”
It was a strange expedition that returned to the basin where the orcs were encamped. The walls were stone and mortar and the gate was a vast wooden affair opened by ogres. The area inside was really more of a tent town then a camp. Many of the buildings inside were clay covered stone with pitched roofs. The leader was inside a great hall of cut and fitted stone with a flagstone floor. The leader was a surprise. He had a massive tattooed female frost giant on his right and a pair of ogres in fine attire. The leader of the orc town was pale for an orc with an expressive face that spoke too some mixed blood. He was clearly a fanatic of the orc god Grumish; he had blinded himself in one eye and carried an urgosh, a massive axe dangerous at each end, and filled a suit of fine plate-mail and sat on a throne decorated with the skulls of elves, men, dwarves and orcs.
Schminke looked the group in the great hall over and said “I admit that you have managed to impress us, I hope that we have impressed you, now do we want to start killing each other or would you rather discuss other options?”
“Kneel dog before the blood of Grumish!” An old orc covered with fetishes and patchy grey fur ordered.
“That will not be happening.” Schminke noted.
“My Shaman’s concerns must be eliminated if we are to move forward.” The king on the throne stated.
James palmed his hand cannon and fired a single shot that rang like thunder in stone chamber. The ancient one toppled to the ground in a heap of bad skin and bones with his one good eye blown out and the back of his head.
“Well now that his concerns are gone shall we sit down over some supper?” Schminke asked.
“Lord Gorgallian, these men are responsible for four fallen giants, this cannot be forgiven.” The giant female insisted.
The king looked up with a wry grin, at least he showed his tusks and said “I think they might eliminate your concerns for me if you feel you cannot withdrawal them.”
Brian looked at the orc lord and said “I think we are going to be able to do business with this fellow.”
The next two weeks proved them right. Without resorting to charming or lies the group outlined the problem they had, the high valley where they planned live was deep in the mountains and surrounded by hostile orcs with either tight or loose allegiance to the new Over-king Obould Many-arrows. This valley had a gate that could cut transportation to a fraction of the time, but securing the lowland valley in the face of the Over-king would bring down the wrath of the whole Spine of the World. Schminke put it to the orc king this way “We can spend the rest of our days killing each other and never have a thing to show for it, or we can help each other to live in some measure of prosperity.”
Gorgallian responded with “Let us say that I agree with the principle but I cannot see what can be gained. All the Silver Marches oppose Obould and the new orc lands. You are known as the destroyers of the lich who had the ear of the Over-king for a time, a creature who promised many great works to strengthen the orc tribes. What will you give us? Weapons…Gold…Horses? We live as we always have and for a time we have the cohesion to hold our ground. There is much mixed blood in orc-kind now; we have allies and new gifts from the gods to compliment our natural gifts of ferocity and numbers. So we have grown stronger but there is a limit to what that strength can do. Obould is frustrated to near madness because he is not being recognized as legitimate by the regional powers. I am not so ambitious, this valley is mine but what can I make of it? I am no builder of towns, I burn them. We have tried to make an imitation city but where does the filth go? Where does the food come from? What do you do with all the bodies?
“We can help you and you will be surprised how much help you can give us. Can you bring Obould here? I think we can help him as well.” Schminke said.
“It can be done but do not expect to assassinate him, he is the avatar of Grumish, he will not die except by choosing too.”
“He may make the orcs more dangerous, but to me he is the most interesting leader besides yourself I have encountered in these wild lands.”
The six spent ten days in the town and got a solid gut feeling for the nature of the place. Orcs were not difficult to understand or to fascinate. Stead found that the most basic tricks could create childlike awe. They were easy to manipulate with rhythm and light. They had a callous nature towards their young and females, and they had a sense of humor that was pure slapstick. It was not even funny until someone got an eye poked out. Still they found that orcs could be dealt with, word of their status as guests spread so they did not face more then a murder attempt a day…each, and they could just leave the bodies wherever they fell. Every single attack was straightforward after Schminke put the frost giantess on notice. Jason spent some time with Schminke and the king, but mostly the King and the Captain just wandered and talked until an army came up from the northwest.
Obould Many-arrows did not travel alone and his encampment when it was settled was more disciplined and more numerous then the native camp of the valley. In addition it traveled with a dozen more frost giants, and twenty hill giants. Truly a force to be reckoned with, Thomas admitted that this was a gamble that was fast growing as stakes piled up on the table. To make sure that they all came out of this alive the party shared out the best escape spells they had to make sure they could jump if the boss had to yell frog.
Into the first meeting they went with magic sight operating and with an eye to find any traps that were more then precautionary. Obould simply received his vassal king and promised to consider hearing the words of the king’s guest. The next day, after the giants learned of the loss of four of their kin they demanded the heads of those responsible. Instead the Over-king offered a counter proposal. He would judge the case for an audience as well as the petition of the giants in a contest of champions. Schminke chose to represent the group, and with a polymorph to reach hill giant stature and an enlarge to reach frost giant size to go with a bull strength to match the giants advantages he took the giants champion in a straight no holds barred fight to the finish.
The fight started with the two giants stripped to the waist. The blue frost giant was quick to lash out with fists and teeth, his powers were all too apparent as was his skill. Schminke tried to close with him again and again only to have the monster back away and circle, throwing short jabs and uppercuts. Schminke found the giants rhythm and used a half beat counterpoint to throw it off its stride. Then he was able to tackle the giant to the ground and start wearing the creature down. It was a long and brutal contest that might have ended in a draw except the giant made the mistake of punching upwards at Schminke three times in a row from its back. On the third punch Thomas moved through the stars dancing around his head and captured the arm in a bar that allowed him to swiftly break the bone at the elbow. From that point it was Thomas throwing the punches, turning to the injured side and attacking the knee and face with powerful pile-driver blows. At last with the giant out on his feet Schminke applied a classic rear naked choke and put the giant down. Then he broke the creature’s neck as custom required, but with some distaste.
After he shrank back he scolded Scott in front of the rest of the party “I did not think I would need to clean up your messes any more, do not let your spells carry you away again and trap us in corner.”
“King Obould, I have a proposition for you that’s going to sound like treason at first but hear me out and judge the plan I offer on its merits and possibilities, not just its face.”
“I am intrigued by one so bold as to suggest even a whiff of treason in my presence.”
“I propose that you quit your claim on this valley in favor of an independent King Gorgallian Half-Blood.”
“Okay, you have a few more seconds before I kill you, or he does for the insult of calling him a Breed.”
“That is a part of the ruse your Highness. My men and I will help him build you a city, a jewel that represents all you hope your people can achieve, a strongpoint and a trade center. You will leave the city in the care of your Royal Kinsman so that he can claim it is nothing of yours. We will create for him a status based on lineage where he will be an independent Prince with special rights to autonomy. Then your tribes can bring your cut timber, your furs and hides and your raw metals to the city. The market will be open to all the merchants of the north, with many half orc cities across Faerun to act as precedents. Your timber will not be so costly or hard to acquire as all the wood of elf protected forests are. You will find a ready market for fur and ore as well as cut stone. From the south men will bring to you the goods of civilization, barrels and clothing and even magic items and weapons. All this to the ‘independent trade city,’ you will snarl and snap at the merchant trains but so long as they are coming here you will allow them to pass to your kinsman under the treaty he ‘tricked’ out of you. All those goods will flow into the hands of your trappers, stone cutters and lumberjacks and into your kingdom. We will help the king with problems of water and sanitation and city design, we will spread the word of the treaty and we too will be buying goods there with gold coin, magic and trade.
“You would be independent as well then? You do this to secure your own vale against intrusion.”
“Of course, but we too will need wood and stone. We want a road to our vale that can be traveled easily and we need that route secured at both ends.”
“And if my kinsman feels that he is the better and gathers a host to smite me?”
“You will put him back in his place.”
“And if he chooses to test you instead?”
“We will put him back in his place.”
“It seems that he will be very tightly constrained indeed, by this new freedom he will receive. Many Half-orcs will come to such a rumor; your half orc city will be real in five years with trade flowing both ways. This is a worthy ruse, we will take some time to hack out the details, then you and I and the new Prince will seal our pact in blood. A city will be born from this meeting and we shall take a great leap forward to being a legitimate kingdom because of it.”
“You have shown more reason then many an educated man in Silverymoon. I can assure you that they will be made to know that this is all too real. You may visit us in our vale but you must leave the army here when you come. It is not a place they could find food and fodder in.”
“I look forward to it.” Obould said with a toothy grin.
In the days that followed Scott and James were sent with Jason and a crew of a hundred orcs to start construction on the road the group would need to reach the high vale. Scott could finesse the passes for the most part, where James could not just blast and clear. The orcs cleaned and shoveled and rolled rocks out of the way or into position and Jason did build two wooden bridges. At the final ridge line Scott sent the orcs back with Jason so that he and James could dig a secret tunnel into the valley. Scott turned himself into a giant purple worm and started boring straight through stone for the last mile through solid rock. James followed along and shored up the route. He also noted caves, crevasse and ore deposits for future reference. The two broke out on the valley floor at the base of Wolf Mountain not more then a hundred meters from the position of their first camp those long years ago. Then the two men backtracked down the tunnel and shaped stone bridges over gaps, and shored up weak areas with fresh shaped stone buttresses.
In the broad valley that was now to be the Principality of Gorgallian the remaining three spent much time with the leadership of the orcs. Brian, Schminke and Stead were good ambassadors as it turned out. Teaching freely, entertaining expertly and building a network of reliable contacts in the valley to build into an intelligence service down the road. Schminke and Obould were strange friends but one night the two chased the rest of the valley out of the big pavilion tent and spent the night singing orc songs and drinking. The next day the two were found at the foot of a tall embankment covered in mud with assorted broken bones that the omnipresent clerics of Grumish mended.
Schminke and the king underwent a ceremony that sealed the deal. He, Obould and Gorgallian all slashed their palms and locked hands while chanting in orcish for the gathered throng. The next morning the army of Obould moved out of the valley to reoccupy the massive stone pile that he called his new keep.
When Derek brought the caravan through the ogre dance they were almost awestruck by the grumbling ogres, war painted orcs and snarling giants all setting on their hands as they passed through.
“We will be in touch, keep cutting and hauling stones to the sight we chose and work those foundations down.” Schminke told Gorgallian as the wagons passed. “Jason will continue to refine your structures and we will come back to survey that aqueduct route.”
“We will look forward to another night of song. I will drive my orcs with whips and fire until the city stands tall.” Gorgallian promised.
“Whatever you think is best.” Schminke noted.
The movement through the mountains was stately with a copper dragon overhead, and a team of ready sorcerers and their guard, progress was slow but unmolested. Over days the caravan moved to the base of the Wolf Mountain. Then, as they traveled under the oppressive weight of stone the sorcerers left the path alight with crystals glowing with magical fire. Scott shaped the entry according to Derek’s design, making a hexagonal hole. Stead then covered the entrance with an illusion that would keep prying eyes from the path. It masked smell, sight and sound and would last for weeks on end.
As the carts rolled up the long path through the mountain James pointed out additional signs of gold, silver and copper, proving that the mine the dwarves had started was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. He also noted many very dramatic underground features that would need to be explored, a dozen caves that could lead to hundreds more and almost certainly to the bottomless pits of the Underdark. At long last the party emerged in the middle of the valley near the coal seam and rock fall and looked on the vale in summer.
Light turned the sparkling waters of the lake to silver and eagles circled overhead looking for the chance to steal a fish from a more industrious hawk. It was clear that some tree cutting had been going on, but the dwarves had also stabilized the slope of the valley with a series of terraces and gnomes and halflings had put in new plantings that would see the cut areas restored in a few decades. No time at all to a dwarf or gnome.
Mariah buzzed around Jason in the clear cool air and sang a little song in the fairy tongue. “A tended forest, free but not too free. It is just the right size…”
Of course James and Scott had seen the house and reported on it, but to see it for the first time was a major shock to the rest of the crew. Cellars had platforms built over them to simulate a ground floor area, then posts stretched upward forty feet to frame up three roomy stories of the rambling mansion. The whole was wrapped about the dream node with a wide courtyard for the great trees, cave, waterfall and pool to rest in a descending garden. Overhead the roof was finished in fine red tile guttered in silver that gathered rainwater into a stone cistern behind the house and a larger one underneath. A series of ponds were dug out, designed to handle and cleanse household waste before feeding it into the valley lake.
It was there at the unfinished frame that Dalton and his wife and close kin came, and it was there that the sorcerers met with the devout gnomes brothers of Gond who had braved the high vale for them. The halfling workers also gathered and with food and wine from the wagons, the vale rang with celebration.
There was much serious conversation undertaken as well as drink and dance. Stead’s brothel was having a giveaway but Stead was deep in discussion about the instrument works. Scott and James needed to establish horse and cattle in the meadows and were discussing the need to take the goblin vale below through the narrow pass and make it into a series of upland farms. Schminke could tell Dalton that the mountain held riches undreamed of, but he had a hard time convincing him that the orc city thirty miles away was anything but a disaster.
Most serious of all was Derek who, after two days of drinking called a group meeting, appropriately in the cave of dreams.
“I am tired of the rest of you dumping the whole load on me.” Derek stated.
“Huh?” Was the average reaction of the group.
“I have been striving to make a continuous rune matrix that would link our powers. I even managed a first run that allowed us to beat the lich. Scott, you are as smart as I am when you work the problems instead of chase your whims, Jason, Schminke, all of you could be helping me solve the conjoining problem so we could make a path to travel home. I have a wife I miss desperately; I have a life I loved. Scott you should be ashamed of the way you sport about. Stead, I cannot imagine what you think marriage means the way you carry on, Brian you as well. I need more help from you all now that I am ready to go from theory to reality on my next design and now that we have the rune-stone ore close at hand again.”
“We are here to work together and focus on our own issue, which is why we left the big city full of delightful distractions.” Schminke noted with a hurt tone.
“What is this new theory anyway?” James asked.
“I want to build a nested magic ring system that links us to our signs in the heart of linked octagons.” Derek said and he showed a page where a series of the designs formed a ring of eight sections.
“Last time I looked we were seven.” Brian said.
“We will use the phylactery of the Lich to fill the eighth ‘necromancy’ cell, you see immediately that this will allow a rapid ring of communication. But I want to do more. I am designing a rune matrix that cycle so fast that we will feel it as a continuous feed, it will link all of our spell powers and skills into an exchange based on a runic rendering of the familiar bond.” Derek continued.
“So you build this and power it up with rune-stone? What will we gain?” We can already call on the gauntlets and share spells out with the rings, why is this the most important thing on our plate? Stead demanded.
“Are you forgetting that the lich would then be linked to our powers again? You think that is acceptable?” James demanded.
“The double ring system will contain within it a classic containment circuit. The Lich will be trapped within, further it will be bound by both its own nature and lack of arcane magic and whatever geas we wish. The lich will make a formidable guardian of our place of power, one that never sleeps and one that is eternally vigilant. Further I am counting on its ability to distort spells in various useful ways to make this all worth while. Can you imagine what we might accomplish with ability to do what each of the others can do if we need too? Can you imagine if we set boundary stones around the vale being able to draw on the rune-stones to magnify our spell powers? We might even be able to make the leap home with such power!”
“We have discussed it Derek and you know that it will be well short of that potential, do not raise false hopes, but other then that I agree that this is to be our number one priority. Derek gets what he needs. The rest of us can pursue other interests at loose ends. However one thing Derek will admit to needing is a comfortable home to work in. To that end I want every effort starting this week to go into making this place comfortable. I want to look over the dwarf halls; I have a plan to apply some of the lunar farming theories to underground magically lit dwarven gardens…year round veggies. I also want security set up and everyone settled in. Derek, you are our Manhattan Project, but the rest of us still have to fight the day to day war. One thing I can tell you with certainty, we will be attacked here soon. The orcs will come in a year or so, the giants most likely this winter. Dragons might attack any time and who knows what else is out there watching and waiting. I spent two weeks learning the orc mind, we will have long term peace with the city but we must expect ‘injun uprisings’ periodically and we can anticipate that the leaders will plead innocence and complain of the uncontrolled high spirits of youth. That may actually account for most of it. But Gorgallian will not cry over spilled blood if he can take this vale and add it to his lands.
“Hey we will all buckle down Derek.” Scott promised “This is just a little blowing off steam before the work kicks up.”
James nodded and said “I am looking forward to the work actually; I like the dwarves and I cannot wait to see what they have accomplished.”
“We feel you brother,” Stead added “I miss my wife, but what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and more importantly they are not missing us, an hour or a century is only going to be an instant…”
“Derek I think you are going to have to think about loosening the old chastity belt. You need to be clear headed and less stressed to do your best work.” Brian pointed out.
Derek frowned and then said “You may be right, lets go wake the girls and give them one more day of debauchery before we buckle down…I am glad we are all in this together.”
The warm summer sun bathed the young men, stripped naked and swimming in the waters of the dream garden. The last day hiatus ended in a morning swim after all the other participants crashed in exhaustion. The seven, who needed little sleep made good on their promise to get an early start by staying up the night through.
So how do we seal this baby up? Schminke asked.
“We don’t at first, we wanted it framed with platforms because we need to get the water and gas lines in for heat, cooking and plumbing.” Jason noted.
Stead continued “Lights will be done with magic lanterns.”
“So that is why we have a wagon full of copper tubing.” Derek noted. “I thought James was making a distillery.”
“That too.” Scott admitted.
It was a tedious job, bending, heating and joining the tubing according to the plans. The fuel oil tanks were buried and filled, Scott discovered to his delight that he could use his knowledge of the molecular structure of hydrocarbons to magically produce a barrel of oil at a time from a mixture of coal and water and a polymorph spell. So they would not need to constantly bring in fuel oil. Derek rune marked the boilers, smoke stacks, and radiators to make them more efficient and safe. Jason, James and Brian directed workmen and magical servants to make the bulk of the labor happen. Schminke toured and tutored in the Dwarf halls and faced a harsh review of his choices with the orcs. Somehow he spun it as, ‘I dealt with them so you do not have to’ and came out as a shrewd politician.
As the tubing and fixtures went up Scott and Stead worked with finishing crews, first Thom would create an illusion as a full scale blueprint of the area under construction then they would hash out the material requirements and go to work. Scott stone-shaped sheets that could then be mended together with spells creating thin marble walls. Then workmen filled the space between the double layers with a foot of an alchemical mixture that magically expanded and filled the space and hardened when it was poured. This areogel material was one of their major imports, making the structure light, strong and well insulated. Glass was supplied by the dwarves and cut to fit by gnome artisans. Woodwork for molding and flooring was done by halfling craftsman. The gnomes also made tiled baths, stone countertops and porcelain toilets.
Section by section and then room by room the construction proceeded so that Scott and Thom were always racing to stay ahead of the finishing crews and the plumbers were soon done and working with Derek on his project.
Once the house was walled up, Scott was not done; he went to the various existing structures to complete a list of chores that Jason threw at him, at the gnome hall on the waterfall he sealed up walls of stone that were leaking near the water wheels. In halfling homes he opened up spaces that were solid stone to give the earth homes more room under artificial hills. He also needed to put in stone bridges over streams and gorges between the dwarf Golden Halls and the Rune-stone mine.
It took him weeks to get to the guard posts and stone trails. While Scott was being put upon, Jason, Schminke and Derek were surveying the valley and installing obelisk style markers at twenty seven critical points to mark a circle of magic detection, containment and protection to keep the effects of spells in constant working order.
This left Stead, James and Brian to go into the adjacent valley and commit genocide on the goblin warren there. Of course each group had its helpers and volunteers, the dwarves with Stead, the Gnomes with Schminke and everyone with Scott. It was a good thing that so much work was being done, since a hundred more dwarves from Mirambar Mines arrived to swear to Dalton and an equal number of gnomes and halflings arrived just in time to partition out homesteads in the goblin valley. Supply trains from Silverymoon continued to be unmolested as they rolled in through the ogre dance and Schminke kept his word about returning to spend most of the summer getting his orc allies up to speed before winter. From the orcs came cut timber and a large supply of iron for tools, all paid for in gold and silver, the orcs also made a harsh mash wine of roots that they favored, Schminke bought it in quantity to distill into vodka. The orcs were also great collectors of smoking and chewing herbs that could be blended into a passable tobacco. When the merchant wagons from the south began to roll back out of the mountains with fine cut building stones, bringing up trade goods in exchange, the orcs nearly had a rapture of ecstasy. Trading rock for food! What fools these men were!
As busy as it was Scott did not see the progress on Derek’s great project until the first snow was flying. He came out of the mountain tunnel with a band of skilled gnomes with whom he had been setting up lights in a section of natural caverns, and found that the ground was covered in four inches of snow. He decided to part company with the crew and check the thermal integrity of the main house. For a change he found his entire group of companions in the hall waiting for him.
“Four years to the day since we arrived!” Stead announced.
“A slight improvement over a snow cave.” Schminke noted.
The group drank fruit juice and vodka and watched the snow through the large window at the end of the hall. It was idyllic, living in valley of lazy smoking chimneys and secret tapping hammers.
That day they all gathered in a large basement beneath the natural cavern at the node. Derek had excavated the area into the very heart of the dream node and created a great circle with markings aligned with the circle around the vale. Within were etched perfect linked octagons. One by one they each cast their largest wizard mark with stoneshape spells to make the marks into deep grooves. Derek would be pouring them with a mixture of gold, sliver, copper and rune-stone to empower the marks. For now the big step was enough, and they all felt as if they had somehow altered their relationship with the valley in this act of mystical graffiti.
“Now we get to enjoy six months of snow,” Brain said sardonically back in the manor.
“I am sure something will come up.” Jason replied.
The fairy flew over in her catholic school girl outfit and pretended to be offended by Brian peeking up her dress. She smirked at Jason stuck her tongue out at Schminke’s lynx. Then she dropped Jason’s ring into his hand and turned to Stead “Give me two phantasmal killers and a pair of sleep spells big boy.” When he looked reluctant she hastened to add “come on, none of you can scribe a scroll and I am laying in a supply of them. A girl likes to feel useful so load up your ring and I will build up the stash.”
Schminke said “I assume you have all you need of Jason’s spells.”
“You assume correctly Captain, I have unseen foot massage for the entire winter.”
“She is not kidding.” Jason noted.
“Do it Stead, then the rest of you as needs be, we will keep you in ink and paper. You should also scribe a spell book in case you gain the power to cast them yourself.”
“You think?” Mariah said pulling a book out that floated by her and then grew too normal size for a book.
“Good thing she can shrink things so well, eh Jason?” Scott asked slyly.
“It never works on him though; I guess it is a reflex whenever he hears the spell, parts of him just get bigger.” The fairy school girl said with feigned innocence.
“I drool every time I here a bell.” James noted
“You drool all the time.” Scott accused.
“At least I don’t lick my own balls.”
“Yeah but you keep nagging me for the spell.”
“Boys…” The fairy said and flew off with Thom Stead’s ring of spell storing.
Schminke sat in the comfort of his apartments. The steam radiator kept the room marvelously warm and moist with the cold and dry trapped outside. He wondered why people ever abandoned the use of steam heat. It just felt good. His familiar loved the snow and spent much of its time out the cat door and in the valley game preserve or running the boulders for fun. Thomas liked his pipe, and his vodka tonic. He also liked his books. He used his bed for sex and little else actually, since he preferred to take his reverie with a book in his lap on a recliner. Another little bit of invention fame for the company. This day as he let the swirling dreams claim him he found himself looking over and incomplete rune web exposed to the light of the noonday sun because the earth had been torn away like an aluminum beer can opened by a lineman. Outside he could see ruins. Smoke hung in the air and the smell of death was on the wind. His minds eye arose from the hole and saw the broken corpses of his friends, the ravaged bodies of those who followed him back to this vale. He looked down at his hands and saw that they were covered in blood.
A footfall behind him turned him about as Scott cleared his throat to catch his notice. “Dramatic isn’t it” He said.
“Overdone if you ask me, as portents go I give it a seven” Schminke admitted.
Scott sniffed the air as Dreamguard came around the ruins of the great oaks and noted “The air smells of giants. Any clues as to what we need to do to prevent this?”
Schminke looked at the rune net, “It is not finished, I think we need to finish it as soon as possible.”
“Could be the lich or the node messing about with us” Scott cautioned.
“I don’t think so, you and I need to start full time work with Derek on the processor, it may be enough to prevent this if we are lucky.” Schminke decided.
“So what are you working on today?” Schminke asked Derek.
“The same thing I have been working on for a month, the processor design. The geometry of the circuits gets impossible when I take the array to the forth dimension and I need to work it out to the eighth, since it will be sorting eight of us.” Derek explained.
Scott said “I hate to backtrack here but explain the problem to me, maybe I can help if I understand the issue.”
Derek sighed and replied “It can’t hurt, the lines I have drawn represent an empowered variant of the familiar bond, I color code them for easy comprehension. As you can see there are seven for each of us to some core processor. Now if I linked them all in a hard line to each other we would all end up like rats with our tails tied together, unable to function because of the overload. So I need to moderate the feed so that we do not have six extra sensory inputs, except for lich boy who I want paralyzed with information overload. I can rig it so one live line cuts another line, so I want to create a cascading geometry as a surge protector and a circuit design to allow each operator to find the spell or ability he needs to draw on.”
“Wow that is a huge tangle. Essentially you are designing a magic router.” Schminke noted.
“I am reaching the point where I think I need a rune powered mainframe.” Derek said. “Some of the circuit designs I have done are decades ahead of what we use back home, but I cannot compress the algorithm structure with runes like I could with a printed circuit. I am afraid we will need a forty ton behemoth to make the sorting work.”
Schminke puzzled on the problem for a time, “You are not just moving information in binary packets, you have the gestalt of each person coming across the wire. With that as the case I would say you are going to get overload each time you engage.”
“I am writing a filter software program for that issue.” Derek admitted.
Scott said “Pandemonium.”
Derek nodded “Yes Dennett’s weighed and weighted tendency to activate algorithms make a good starting point.”
“Why not shred the information at the source, break each of our traits into a single line instead of having it all pooled and sorted, then we could hard link with minor instead of major bonds, that saves your overload and your need for a detangle software.” Schminke noted.
“Yes but it creates a thousand times eight connections instead of eight.” Derek noted.
“How fast is the processor?” Scott asked.
“Information is moderated by the spell to neural conduction speeds but the processor is circuit speed, just under the speed of light that is.” Derek explained.
“Why untangle it at all then?” Scott asked.
“So we can access the ability we want when we need it.” Derek explained patiently.
“Design the processor to access one ability at a time, one one-thousandth of a personality, and shunt it to someone, then switch to another ability and another person in a cascade that is continuous. At neural speed it will seem like all the abilities are there for us all the time, so all we will need is a buffer program to select which one we want to let through.” Scott suggested
“That is a hell of a good idea actually…” Derek admitted “Incorporate the buffer/shredder into each of our linking octagrams and let it simplify the processor to a sorting program.”
“Still not a trivial issue.” Schminke said “We will be months making the thing.”
Derek looked thoughtful “Not if we do not sort them at all.” Then he laughed out loud in a eureka-moment.
“What do you mean?” Scott asked.
“If I just create a design to maximize entropy across the system, keep it all uniform, then create a random sorting algorithm…”
“Drunkards walk!” Schminke realized.
“Exactly, it will take a bit more time but at processor speeds the difference would not be noticeable to an organic mind by a couple orders of magnitude or more.”
Schminke then added “The buffers will need to learn like pandemonium, we need it to weigh certain abilities as more important then others based on the choices that are selected. It will learn to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of our various abilities.”
Scott summed up “So we create one program to buffer information but let negative and positive feedback from each user set preferences for that information. I am sure that your scrying spell must already do most of that Schminke.”
“Let’s look our spell-lists over and see what we can bend to fit with few rune distortions and let spells do most of the work.” Schminke suggested.
“I was going crazy trying to figure out the ideal material as well but now we can just use anything with a great deal of rune-stone folded in. Perhaps a layered arrangement of gold, rune-stone and silver to create a natural static magic charge…then a simple set of distortion nets for the buffer spells. If I can keep your help I think we can do this in two weeks or so!” Derek said excitedly.
“Good, I have a feeling we will need it.” Schminke noted.
The Midwinter Feast was past and it was the day of winter solstice. Derek walked ahead of the rest and into the natural cave of roots that had given them their first secure home on this world. Scott and James lifted the enormous slab covered the hole and stairway that descended into the darkness below. A magic lantern gave light enough to show a surprising distance down into the dark. Then they entered into the large chamber and took up positions over their own various signs. They were all surprised by the intense feeling of energy that then filled them inside their respective diagrams. Hair felt as if it was crawling up necks and their skin took on a blue nimbus of electric discharge. Derek called for them to all draw out the perfect amethyst spheres that the great geode chamber near the rune-stone mine had provided. Then they imbued the stones with stored scrying spells.
Schminke added another to a black phylactery that he held in a mage hand over the last empty octagram. Then as one, the crystals were all placed in sockets on the floor and all the spells were twisted into a precise and versatile shape. Then each of them called up their sign and let their consciousness merge with their magic.
James felt that he was on fire. He looked out and saw his friends each looking shocked, he suddenly realized that he was going to die. The power of the rune-stone in the design was so great that it was going to consume them all.
“Seek the link!” Derek called out activating an arcane eye from his ring and sending it into the crystal ball in the floor.
“We need to get out of here!” Brain yelled as his face streamed with sweat and his breath came out in heavy panting.
“No do as he says!” Schminke commanded.
So they each thrust out with an arcane eye that became a link that began to pour raw fire into their brains and bodies. Through the pain Schminke hit the lich phylactery with yet another arcane eye link. In that moment blessed cool began to flow over them all as the soul of the lich acted as an energy heat sink. The creature formed up into a ghostly shape and in the next moment they were all washed with strange inputs, like an acid trip with eight pairs of eyes.
“You must tune the chaos with your spells!” Derek ordered.
“My eyes! Which ones are mine?” James yelled.
“Cover them with your hands; they will be the ones that go dark!”
For a long time, a time that was made longer in the way that a dream can seem to span days in seconds, the seven men were held rapt in a vision of power that held them one and all. It was Derek who had some theoretical basis to anticipate the experience and a similar experience to draw on who found a way to isolate his own awareness from the gestalt and insulate it from the others. From his example Brian quickly learned the trick, and then Jason. Scott, Schminke and James followed after and found their centers.
They were all on the verge of exhaustion and faced with one unknown in the form of the entity that the lich had become. The entity had hours to struggle and figure out what was going on. The containment was perfect. The energy poring in from the spell web and the men was antithetical to the negative force of its being. It was left with a tiny thread of existence that contained its ego and a river of pain. It fought. It struggled like a fish in a mill race. Then when it realized the pain would never end it just let go.
Derek had anticipated that moment and built a series of charm and command spells from Brian’s repertoire to turn the tortured entity. It was imbued with a purpose and with a fealty to the group and with that yielding to the cause it gained access too power. Its awareness leaped across the miles to the stone obelisk ring and rebounded inward. It looked into caves beneath the earth and watched the stirring of larva beneath the snow and inside rotten logs. As a disembodied entity its perception rate was not limited to human perception speed, it could perceive with Schminke’s rune web of detection with godlike omniscience. Seconds unfolded with glacial slowness and the power that tormented it could be redirected into the world as perception. The loss of pain was akin to pleasure, a rewarding pleasure that was the first it had known since forsaking the flesh. Loyalty and pleasure and finally fascination, Derek had a final trap for the lich, Stead’s power to fascinate and trap awareness with detailed magic images. The greatest maze of all is reality, the continuous scrying of the vale and the surrounding area augmented by a spell of fascination locked the lich into a useful state.
In all that reality was the winter, the death of the world. The lich was death personified; as a soul shaped by worship of death it could now feel the flickering struggle of life in frozen earth, under thick ice, in the possibilities around the sorcerers. A door into the fugue plane beyond life for the aware and back into the cycle of life for what was not, the door was everywhere, the lich was everywhere. The sign of the eight was complete, life feeding death and death breaking the energy of life down to be remade.
The group found itself inside the world of a shared dream. They were on the ice of the lake, all seven of them and they could sense a presence standing behind them. They all felt it, but none of them could see it behind the others. It was behind them all, ready to strike at the first moment’s weakness. Some excitement welled up inside as they realized that they were now in a dance with death. A death as certain as breath was waiting for them all. It was at that moment that they became aware of something under the ice. A sign that was dark and trapped in the ice. Parts of it, resembling distortions of their wizard marks were glowing at certain distances from each other. The rest of the sign, vast and imposing was dark.
They awoke in the chamber standing in the lavender light of the orbs that now focused and concentrated the magic of the sign into their souls. Each of them could feel the spells and gifts of his fellows as a ‘back of the tongue’ sensation. It took them a moment to disengage from the circle. It had a tactile sensation of stickiness that pulled at their feet, however in time they found themselves facing a garden full of worried faces.
Mariah flew down and kissed her man, plastered with sweat and steaming in the courtyard, three days missing and he looked starved. Some of the human guards gave the men shoulders to lean on and lead them into the big kitchen. They sat at the island on stools and made pigs of themselves. Then they flopped into the great hall and looked out the windows at the snow falling. One by one they were able to find reverie, and unlike most times this one was a full eight hours long. Dreams remained too chaotic for perceptions to organize into a world, so sleep was deep.
Compiled List of Spell Powers Available via the Link
Globe of Invulnerability
Gust of Wind
Summon Monster 4
Ray of Frost
Leomond's Tiny Hut
Magic Circle Protection
Touch of Fatigue
Monster Summoning 2
Protection from Energy
Protection from Arrows
Summon Monster 3
Protection From (any)
Ray of Enfeeblement
Tasha's Hideous Laugh
Touch of Idiocy
Summon Monster 1
Tensor's Floating Disk