Preparations for War
Two days later Scott was riding through the gap down to the new halfling valley. He was thinking as he rode, his mission was to check on the old goblin warren. The sorcerers had ordered them stocked with provisions and fodder for the halflings to retreat to in the event of an attack. Scott’s eye automatically checked high and low. His nose and that of Dreamguard were open for the faintest scent of danger.
He opened his gauntlet and said ‘Schminke’ to bring up an image of the man in a bright hallway of leafy green vines hanging with pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. It took him a moment to get Schminke’s attention but then he saw the image hold up a hand and Scott said “I am worried about something.”
“What? The halflings should be able to spot any trouble well down on the valley floor before it can beat them to the mines.” Schminke noted
“Not that. Tell me Schminke are we still human?”
“Why worry about it?”
“Anything other then human is less then human.” Scott quoted.
“Maybe, so why raise the issue?”
“Whatever Derek did to us, and from what I have seen it is profound, it left us with basic human traits. Our DNA is cleaned and tightened, it is arranged in mobius strips instead of open helixes and we have an organelle in place of mitochondria that works better and seems to act to check all of the self destructive tendencies of the body. Our bodies do not over store fat, the muscle tone stays high and our sleep cycle is accelerated. We regenerate without scarring and we have lost our aging. Yet none of that made me feel inhuman.” Scott explained.
“It should not, we discussed it, we are all still mortal even if our minds are faster and more alert and our bodies are more durable, the map of who we were before was followed. Like a car with every part replaced by a space age alloy, we are still in the image of man, of God if you like.” Schminke reminded him.
“Right, but now I do not feel like myself anymore, I feel like we are part of each other. If I wanted to I could let James’ or Derek’s current situation wash over me and be lost in it. So am I still a man?”
“I admit we are in a different state of being, the energy of the sign, the power of the information, and the sense of connection that comes from the lich reborn as a dream entity all stretches the meaning of human. I also admit that the fact that we can take it underlines the deference in our capabilities since Derek did what he did to us. But we are still between animal and angel, we do not live without lust and pleasure, we do not know the will of God and bend to it in all things so we still have freedom of maneuver in this life. We still have choice, so we are still men.” Schminke assured him.
“I guess I just need to stretch my definition of what a man is a bit.”
“Good idea.” Schminke replied. “Maybe we are runic distortions of men.”
Stead was enjoying his new freedoms. As a great eagle he soared over the falls and swooped down into the valley below. In a half hour he covered more ground then a man on horseback could in two days. His flight took him over the town of Meeksburg. It was looking prosperous, the walls were taller and fuller, it looked as if a good number of souls had decided to winter their in spite of the fact that the orc threat loomed so near the town.
Stead flew invisibly into the open loft of a stable barn and turned back into his human form. It was a good afternoon for a drink and a song with the common folk. He was greeted with a hug by the town sheriff who turned out to be their old companion Gwendolyn.
“I see that you have made something of yourself, though you are still way too pretty.” She noted.
“It is hard to be taken seriously with this beauty.” Thom admitted.
A man in leather armor and a bear skin cloak came in and shouted, “Sheriff there is a man come with a tale to tell.”
“Take me too him, Thom you coming?”
The man proved to be runner from the towns to the south and east. “Meeksburg needs to know, an army of giants is coming up from the hills.”
“This is frost giant country, giants do not come up from the hills they come down from the mountains, and they do not care about a small town like this.” She argued.
“These come from the south and they say they have permission to raid, our spies say they speak of Meeksburg as a place to stock up on food for what they plan to do. They talk of taking the upstarts out of Shilearein Vale and looting the mine there.”
“How many of them?” she asked.
“Two hundred, with ogres, wolves and goblins, it is an army that we feared might attack our city but they just passed us. They are perhaps two days from here.
Stead looked at her with grim concern “How many are in the town now?”
“Eight hundred and some few,” She noted “Not enough to make much of a stand against giants that want inside the walls.”
“It they are counting on provisioning here, we can stop them by loading up everything we can, and burning the rest, you can lead everyone up the river to our valley.”
She was swayed as much by his dazzling looks as his strategy, but she nodded and went off to speak to the town folk. Stead went to make a call on his gauntlet.
Brain felt the pulse on his gauntlet as he surfaced from under the ice. More and more he loved to swim for exercises. His magic protected him from cold and pressure. It also gave him the power to shatter ice into slush as he surfaced, he propelled himself with a wind gust upward slashed out of a slush pool and did a front flip onto the surface of the ice, he skated to a stop and held up his hand. “Go ahead Thom.”
“Doesn’t anyone wear their gauntlet?” Thom complained.
“I am out in the lake, so I have to be dressed, the rest of them are inside working or whatever.” Brian explained.
“I am in Meeksburg; a courier just showed up with word that an army of giants and ogres is coming this way. I have ordered all the people to evacuate and head up to the valley. There are going to be about eight hundred of them.”
“Are there any problems in the group? Is Gwendolyn with them still?”
“She is the sheriff.” Thom said.
“So any chance we could help the town and meet the giants there?” Brian asked, while using the last of the wind spell to blow-dry himself.
“There are a couple hundred hill giants coming, I do not think we want to face them even here with all the people underfoot.”
“Do we want to face them here with all the riff raff underfoot?” Brian wondered.
“Well if we want to save them we need to move them, plus the giants are planning to use the whole town as provender for the army, so it will deny them supplies.” Stead noted.
“Good plan, I guess we will need to strip the fields bare so to speak. I will go tell the rest to make accommodations available; we could bring maybe a hundred into the house. The dwarves and the rest could double up and take maybe three hundred more. I guess the rest we can pack into the goblin mines.”
“About two hundred of them have enough warrior skills to stand with us in the field. As for the rest we will find space for them, remember they are human though, goblin space is going to be tight. I will have them take as many tents as I can.”
“Good ideas I will go find Schminke.”
Brian found Schminke in the alchemy lab with a group of three gnomes enchanting vials of potions for the folk of the valley. The gnomes made the base and Thomas could simply cast the spell vial by vial in order to complete the potion. As soon as he knew what Stead had planned he said “When you leave here I want you to tell James and Scott to go destroy Meeksburg, I will go get Derek and we will alert the valley to the coming danger. You and Jason need to go down into the halfling valley and build a shelter big enough for several hundred people out of ice and snow.
“An ice-palace? That is a cool idea, we can do it.” Brain promised.
“Cool idea…wow did you soak up the wrong sense of humor from the link!”
Scott and James arrived in the form of eagles on the wall of Meeksburg. Stead had just returned from scouting down river invisibly and also in eagle form.
Stead spotted the two as they landed. He noted that the stream of townsfolk was trailing off and a guard force was forming in the rear. In the north people knew how to dress warm and the people had much to keep them busy with livestock as well as children to tend. The road up to the High Valley, at least as far as the falls was a wagon path. A new trail was blazed recently through the wild ridges that climbed into the new halfling vale, but it was little more then the cart path. It would be a difficult trek for the townsfolk and if Thom was right they would still be about halfway when the giants arrived at Meeksburg, if they pushed after the townsfolk giants could catch them before they reached safety. That meant Schminke would expect them to slow the giants down, in waist deep snow in mountains in midwinter. Schminke would no doubt coordinate from his drawing room in front of a fire.
“Jimmy, Scott, what brings you to the humble town of Meeksburg?”
“Looks like the people left behind full granaries and cellars full of barrels of food, not to mention lots of shelter and material. Schminke wants this place leveled; we are here to level it.” James said in an offhand manner.
“Wait, I could mask it with illusions, make it look ruined…”
“Only if you stay here and keep up appearances.” Scott argued.
“I would rather not destroy the town, it is all they have.” Stead said.
“Don’t worry, we can handle it…” James promised. Then he climbed down and began to walk building to building. Scott scribed runes that would intensify fire on each building. Stead continued to argue but James finally told him “Listen, Schminke said to do a Stalingrad defense on this baby, as far as I am concerned that ends the discussion.”
Scott said “The townsfolk will be safer closer to us anyway. We will rebuild them something suitable.
“You guys just want to destroy the town and watch it burn…” Stead accused.
“Of course…Heh heh” James admitted.
“Well why don’t we see if we can make it count, rune the place up, we turn whatever wine or ale we can find into pure alcohol, we pulverize grain into powder and scatter in with wind, we let the giants come in and then we torch the place and kill as many as we can. Of course we will have to close the gate on them, use illusion to make them think that they took the hamlet by surprise…”
Scott grinned “Oh baby I like it… it does the job and it thins the ranks of our enemies.” However if we are going to let them think they took us by surprise it means we do not get to harass them down in the canyon or they will know to expect resistance here. We need to be sure that we do enough damage to make it worth the trade.”
Stead said “I can show them sheep and cattle and swine, I can make the chimneys smoke, it will be my masterpiece.”
“Then I will expand the rune nets, make them denser and lay spells in them that will wait and link up. We need to get to work though.”
“I still get to light the fuse!” James insisted.
“Yours is a simple soul.” Stead noted.
“It makes happiness easier to come by.”
The snow at the head of the halfling valley was over twenty feet deep and piled back for a thousand meters. From it Jason and Brian were able to move huge blocks of pack ice into position to build with. Schminke expected a number of ice barns but Jason scoffed at that notion, he built a giant geodesic igloo large enough to hold half a thousand people. It was roughly the size of a college field house. They strengthened the outer surface with massive clouds of fog that froze in the cold in glittering layers of ice. They too marked down runes too keep the walls chilled drawing the heat from them into the chamber, drawing moisture from the ground into the ice.
When Schminke came through the pass to check on the evacuation of the halfling farms he couldn’t help but grin at what Jason had done. “I am genuinely sincerely impressed. Maybe we can keep it up?”
Jason smiled “I like ice as a building material but unfortunately even this snow-pack melts. I do like the ease with which I can shape it and melt it, maybe we can rune-mark a dome of clear ice and make it last all summer.”
“That would be a wonder. Scott and Stead are cooking up something in Meeksburg and the gnomes have cannon at the falls, I suspect we will face the giants in the scrub and pine at the foot of this valley. Finish up here and join the rest of us we need to ride out to the refugees and bring them in, we also need to delay the giants after Meeksburg and cause as much attrition as we can between there and here.”
“What are the dwarves doing?” Jason asked
“They are girded up for war, as are the gnomes and a surprising number of halflings.”
“So we will have maybe three hundred small folk, and a couple hundred men, our spells and guards against whatever giants make the foot of the valley?” Jason reasoned.
“Giants, goblins and ogres…” Schminke corrected.
“So they will match us in numbers and overmatch us in raw power.”
“We will see.” Schminke promised.
The giants were strung out over five miles with lean and hungry ogres carrying large packs and moving in groups of two to five between giants with goblins being kicked along and scurrying about underfoot. Half of the goblins were already paste on the back-trail, a paste that more then a few ogres had munched along the way.
The march, secretly paid for by the most politically powerful giant in the Spine of the World, had so far gone unopposed. The giants drove the goblins at a run, striding along in silent grim determination themselves amidst the growls of the ogres. The army was trailed by Wargs who scavenged the fallen. The giants had groped together at the Giant Theater near a place in the foothills, received their pay and gathered their allies and slaves for the attack.
Giants in the mountains move swiftly. Far more swiftly then men can march, so they trusted that so long as they did not stop and plunder before the last outpost before the target valley they would outrun news of their march.
Only one female traveled with them, an iron hard Annis, black as coal and steeped in dark magic. The Annis1 was secretly the eyes and ears of Gertie, the Queen of the Frost Giants. She carried giant made items of magic that Gertie had provided in case the sorcerers proved trickier then expected. Each rest she cast the bones for the chiefs and promised victory.
The army pushed through the night and came upon the walled city in the thick fog at dawn. The giants could see over the worst of it and noted the tranquil homes inside the false security of stone walls. They heard the occasional grunts of swine and the calls of many a rooster. The ogres were literally drooling with hunger as they listened. The goblins spread out in the open valley and collapsed, gaining a brief rest for themselves while the giants and ogres conferred. Two dozen giants grabbed up boulders while the ogres formed up in front of them. Twenty four boulders smashed the gate as if it were made of paper, creating a path for the ogres to race into the town.
The giants picked up clubs to join in the fun and charged after the ogres, the first twenty four were the boulder throwers. Followed by about fifty more who were interested in a little violence. Most of the rest just leaned on clubs and grinned.
Almost immediately their came a sense that something was not right, the animals stayed out of reach, there were no screams of fear or alarms inside the walls. The giants following the first wave already feared the town was abandoned. Then the real gates closed, and illusionary gates that had been shattered vanished. Fire erupted everywhere at once, fed by wind the flames swept the area and granaries broke open filling the air with flammable dust that turned the area inside the walls into a literal fire storm. Cellars full of oil and alcohol exploded houses into burning fragments. Then the circle formed by the walls was washed in power, and a town sized rune structure sucked all the heat and flame into lines of dense fire.
“Wow, that worked better then I expected.” Scott noted.
“Wait for it…” Stead called out.
Suddenly the summons was answered, a fire elemental came into being that towered over the town, so powerful that its presence began to melt the stones in the city.
“So won’t it come for us? They are supposed to be hostile and that one is certainly more then we can control.” James said in awe.
“That is the beauty of the trap, the city walls are the summoning circle, so it is constrained. Still it seems to be finding plenty to lash out at inside its reach.” Scott explained.
They watched as the walls turned red and burning giants and ogres climbed over them trailing greasy smoke and being lashed with whips of flame. As the elemental consumed the fuel and life force of the invaders it changed into a whirling column of black smoke and red fire that towered a thousand feet high.
“Time to bolt!” Scott admitted and the other two were quick to take wing with him. Cloaked in invisibility they left the burning city behind as the furious elemental broke its circle and spread out to continue its rampage.
Steam arose from snow and ice melt, choking the elemental but still it scalded countless goblins to death and burned giants that never went into the town at all. Many of the ogres that managed to survive the jump from the wall boiled alive. The elemental sensed the mind of its summoner moving away, and had to decide whether to lash at him at the cost of its substance and power, stretching through air and mist, or continue to lash at the combustible living creatures that surrounded it.
The fire elemental enjoyed its size too much to lose it in the pursuit of the fleeing spell caster. Instead it lashed at the giants in the field and poured across the snow and ice to find flesh and bone.
All good things end however, the steam blotted out the elemental and the Annis sent forth a dark dismissal that ruptured the creature’s awareness and turned the form into mere flame. In a flash the field was covered by smoke and steam that rose up over groaning forms and writhing bodies.
Over the gantlet Schminke said “That was impressive we can see the smoke from here; meet us on the trail we need to slow the march of the giants so that the people make the valley. You have got to see the igloo Brian and Jason constructed.”
Hill giant chieftains gathered to assess damage. Their supplies were largely secure, having been dropped by the ogres in heaps outside the city before the rush. Fifty giants of the two hundred on the march were dead. Surviving goblins were securing the gold and gems carried by each dead giant as payment for the attack. The chiefs would see it divided up amongst the surviving giants. The hardest loss was the ogres. Fewer then a hundred of them remained to drive the goblins and they were maddened with pain and hunger. The giants ordered the ogres to feast on their fallen fellows, and gave them supplies belonging too the fallen giants, after all the dead giants would not need them.
Hours later the army moved into the scorched ring of the city, still surprisingly warm, and the ogres feasted and glutted themselves on giant provender while goblins snuck a mouthful of charred flesh here and there. Wargs arrived to report that the people and flocks of the town had fled toward the high valley. The giants almost turned back at that moment. Cowardly at heart, bullies who banded together to earn sure payment from a grateful Frost Giant Queen, they had not been told to expect this kind of opposition. How had the townsfolk been warned? How had the magic been cast? These were the questions that had to be answered.
The Annis cast her bones and called to her liege for information. However all Gertie could tell her was that a messenger brought word from the south and that the magic that consumed the town was laid down in secret. “Tell the Hill Giants that such magic takes time to prepare, if they hurry after the townsfolk they will catch them unprepared on the trail and can take revenge.”
“I will tell them, it may take a day or two to get them moving, they will squabble over the loot and the ogres will sleep long and wake listless after such gorging.”
“Speak to the Warg chief and have him choose out goblin riders, attack the townsfolk on the trail with what you can get moving this night. Perhaps it will force them to abandon their stock and goods and flee; perhaps they will encamp and defend, either way the army will be able to feed itself.”
“Of course mistress I will send them forth at once.”
“Make sure the Chieftains post guards on the camp, we do not want them to receive any further blows to their egos.”
The chosen goblins raced up the trail after the fleeing townsfolk on wargs. A hundred strong and loping along in a collective patter of heavy paws the patrol trailed steam and slaver as it raced the trail. It met the refugees knotted at the foot of the lower valley trying to move upward into the safety above but making slow progress. The sorcerers were at the head of the group, organizing and preparing the valley for the giant assault leaving the rear defended by the town militiamen.
The wargs hit the animals and men with vicious precision, the bulk of the security force was tangled up keeping sheep and pigs separate. The creatures attacked to wound, tearing at flesh and tendons to create panic. The goblins though hurled makeshift balls of spikes tainted with smeared feces. Animals bolted for the trees and the men turned and shouted out war cries to get organized. Some pulled barbs out of flesh but most brought spear and shield into play.
The wargs were the harder foe, but the goblins were able to attack from a distance, paired off they made a dangerous raiding force. Up the hill the sorcerers fell into trances to check the area through the link with the lich’s mind. It took them seconds to see the situation below. Still they needed to be where they were, keeping order in the front.
So Brian summoned a dimension door to the valley below and the rest enlarged their familiars. Mariah flew through with a wand out trailed by a giant cat, a wolf sized fox, a giant owl and a pair of horse sized hounds.
The animals tackled wolves and goblins. They were protected by shared spell defenses and could deliver a spell that dropped trios of goblins and wargs at each pass. Claws, teeth and darts from the fairy’s wand lashed the raiders. In the woods where the goblins pursued the fleeing stock the familiars could move as fast and frenzied as the wargs. In minutes the tide was turned and the wargs were in full retreat. They left panicked and wounded beasts and men behind and dragged away livestock with them to eat on the way back.
Suddenly the weak and frail goblins no longer looked comical. It was sobering to realize that this was a trivial assault compared to what the giants were prepared to bring.
The raid forced the men to set up triage and bring troop strength down from the valley above to help with the wounded. The group turned the operation over to the dwarf teams and mounted phantom steeds. Then they rode onto the wagon trail in swift silence to take a look at the giant force.
The Battle of Giant Falls
“They have a spell weaver with them to find magical traps along the way,” Scott said. “A hag as black as polished ebony, an Annis who dissipated my elemental”
“If she can see magic we can hang some cheap magic for her to worry over.” Stead suggested, “I will magic aura some rocks to make her sweat, then we can set one that looks like just another aura, until it blows up.”
Derek grinned “We can rig an IED with a collapsing magic circuit. Dynamite rigged to blow when magic is dispelled.”
“That will be the fourth one, then the next two; we will slow her to a crawl at least. Those giants will need an extra day to clear the way.” Schminke promised cheerfully.
“What if they just run goblins or ogres ahead of them? I would not count on too much delay for certain.” Scott cautioned.
“We should do it anyway, along with pressure detonated mines that do not show up as magic at all.” Jason suggested.
So they moved to the first planned ambush point and started work. It was a property of the link and long association that they split the chore into easy pieces without any further talk. Scott and James took up watch positions while the familiars circled. Jason and his fairy located the best place for the spell trap. Brian dug a hole and Schminke and Derek made a seemingly impromptu rune network. It was a long night of work but by morning they were riding back to a position behind their lines with a trail full of traps behind them.
The morning started with the sick and wounded townsfolk being cared for by gnome and dwarf priests, the bulk of them were moved back into the igloo while the rest were escorted to various billets in the adjacent valley.
The goblin mines were a good fit for the halflings to move too. They were already stocked with supplies and the traps that halflings can set are no less diabolic then those of goblins. If things went bad the halflings would be at least as secure as the dwarves.
Jason set up survey equipment and had Brian running around with a two meter rod to get distance and declination too stone markers the dwarves could spot and identify from a click away. Schminke checked the inventory of scrolls that were stashed in a halfling home that was the new forward command post. James and Jason were working swiftly with dwarves to emplace mortar launchers in the hills behind the first of two lines. A hundred dwarves can dig a trench with remarkable efficiency or build a wall with a bit of magical aid. About eleven in the morning the first of the explosions echoed back to the workers letting the army know approximately where the giants were. Schminke was tied to a scrying pool making sure he knew exactly when they could expect company.
Three giants were dead, killed when a keg of ball bearings and dynamite exploded under their feet, but all the Annis knew was that she was going insane trying to figure out traps that were clever fakes then letting her allies stumble into real lethal traps that did not detect as magical at all. She noted that the wargs were whining not only from the blast but from the acrid after scent of the blast.
“Can you smell these traps out?” She demanded of the lead warg.
“Yes, now that I know the scent, but I cannot see the magic ones.”
“I will seek magic, you and your kind spread out and smell for the alchemy. Check the steep slopes above the road as well, they are sure to try to slow us with an avalanche.
One of the giant chiefs asked “How do they move through the snow without leaving tracks?”
“These men are demons.” She snarled.
On a snow capped peek made flat by frost giant hands ages ago, Gertie stood before a sphere of pure ice as tall as man. The Heart of the Glacier was an artifact anchored to this place by runes learned on the plane of Jotenheim by ancient ancestors of all the frost giants on Toril. She watched the progress of the army she had crafted and brought to the Spine of the World to circumvent the will of Obould Many-arrows. That she was reduced to machinations such as this to have her way in her homeland filled her with a feeling of frustrated fury.
Her nature-derived power was unable to show her visions of anything within the boundaries of the vale. That also infuriated her. The upstarts were measured and weighed. They had power within limits the scope of which she had discovered. Yet this power to block her vision was too large. It must have its source in the cursed dwarf mine beneath what everyone now called the Mountain of the Wolf.
Her giants were being slowed, the men had trapped the road and the giants had lost too much with the devastation of that worthless hamlet. Still they would reach the foot of the valley by nightfall and in the light of the dawn they would end the upstart presence once and for all.
With a slow smile she drew out a scroll with a ritual of great power scribed on it. Slowly she began the incantations that would allow her to send forth a storm with the dawn to hamper and efforts of men and dwarves against her hill giant mercenaries. She would bring in mist and driving sleet and wind. Then from the storm even over the distance she would call lightning to crush whatever defense was erected to slow her army, the Annis would be her eyes once her giants were inside the barrier.
In Silverymoon the lady Alustriel was caught with a spoonful of ice-cream half way to her mouth. Abruptly silver fire leaped from her eyes, incidentally melting the ice-cream and the spoon, and formed runes that told her “Go to the Vale of the Sorcerers and bear witness to what is to come.”
“As you command Lady” Alustriel said and immediately she began gathering items she felt she would need. The command was for her to bear witness, so she was to travel inconspicuously, she would need her ring of improved invisibility. Still it was a fool who did not prepare for battle in the wilds of the Spine of the World.
By morning she would have a nice place overlooking the valley and a pair of opera glasses that would record every moment. The last time she had been called to place merely to bear witness it had been a dramatic turning point indeed, the death of King Azoun of Cormyr. She hoped this time it was not such a traumatic event, but she did not hold out much hope. Something was happening tomorrow that might well change the world.
Obould many arrows looked across the miles to where a town had been consumed in fire. There he saw the blackened bones of giants and ogres scattered and gnawed where his orcs had left a town because it was not worth sacking. It was at the edge of his area of influence, but that did not mean his ambition did not reach that far. In the mountains above the town he saw the force of hill giants and realized their target. His blood ally Captain Schminke and his company of wonder workers was there at the top of the trail.
His vision also gave him a view of another set of prying eyes. His will raced back along the scrying line and from above the mountains he could see Gertie on a distant peak watching the giants with excitement in her eyes.
A terrible anger filled him at the sight of the Giantess seeking to thwart his will. It was time for her to have another lesson in what her place was in the new order. He lifted his spear and sliced a long door into the fabric of the world. He stepped through to the base of Gertie’s mountain and began the long climb to the top.
In the halfling living room Mariah cast ironguard on each of the men from a stock of scrolls purchased from Silverymoon. The men put on their armor with care, placing each of the new mithril-runestone cuffs and locking them in place to extend the spells that they would need to the entire day. Each wove a protective shell of mage armor and stone skin over the ironguard. Then the sorcerers went out into the cold grey dawn and watched the sun as it sliced under the clouds for a brief moment.
The vision power to view anything within the great circle that they gained from the link showed them the giants at the foot of the valley. As each giant passed her a black hag touched them with a wand and spoke a word, encasing them in mage armor as they went by, she had two such wands in stock for just this moment. The giants would be protected as if encased in chain mail. The ogres were already coming up the hill ahead of the giants with goblins on wargs and on foot in a loose formation about them.
The last group of giants was composed of six chieftains that clustered in the back with the Annis. The whole army was spaced out about a thousand meters, and it was five thousand meters down the slope from the front line of defenders.
A voice rang out over the valley, carried on the wind to every ear. “Here me invaders, I am Schminke, I speak for the Seven. You will turn back now, or this day you will die!”
Predictably this started the army below into a bellow of mocking laughter, then a steady rising and falling chant in cadence with the slow tread of the giants. A message spell came back on the wind just for Schminke and his group “Gertie sends you her answer to the insults against her frost giants!”
Scott asked “Did I bring this upon us?”
“Screw that.” James said.
The rest of the men fastened newly fashioned collars around their necks. The fairy departed via a teleport scroll and announced to Jason that she was in position with the rest of the familiars. They were waiting at the heart of the power in the valley, in the symbol of their respective sorcerers at the heart of the dream node. They would rest there at the center of the power to speed the link and eliminate distractions. It was a move calculated to augment power at the cost of having the familiars on site.
“Two thousand meters sir!” a lookout shouted.
The men fell to spell casting, cats grace, bull strength, fly, and globe of invulnerability. Then Jason called out “Mortars prepare to fire!”
Stead called to the line “Crossbows ready, second rank crank, re-loaders secure your shotguns and prepare to reload crossbows”
The wargs and goblins passed into crossbow range and the dwarves let loose a barrage of bolts to greet them. Then they continued to charge and die. The ogres had timed their spacing so that the tattered remains of the goblins were at the trench climbing over as they entered into bow shot. However they had not anticipated the withering effect of a barrage of shotgun blasts at point blank range on the goblins and wargs. More then half of the crossbowmen were free to continue shooting at the ogres despite the well timed spacing.
Still it takes more then a single bolt to fell an ogre, sometimes ten is not enough. The goblin problem was at an end but the ogre problem was fast approaching.
Jason called to the positions behind the line “nine-pounders fire your grape!”
Cannon roared and tore a great swath of charging ogres to tatters. The last of them hit the line, enraged and bleeding to clash with the defenders of the vale.
The Giants shifted into a lope that would carry them across the distance in moments. They cupped rocks for hurling and raced to get into range. Below the group of chieftains in the rear with the Annis lifted gourds to their mouths and chewed and swallowed them whole. In seconds they swelled to twenty feet tall.
“Fire mortars at will!” Jason called out. This of course caused one dwarven wag to shout, “Which one is Will?”
“It is time!” Schminke ordered.
The sorcerers concentrated on their spells and suddenly they shifted into a selection of chromatic dragons. Scott and James each changed into black dragons, they would use the acid breath spell in that form as naturally as breathing. With the armor of the red dragon already, Schminke and Stead turned into horse sized reds. Fireballs and the collars would provide them with the natural tools to be convincing dragons. The collars were able to twist the breath spell into whatever the dragon form was suited too. Jason became a green and Brian became a white each to match their armor. Finally Derek took the form of a blue, supported by the power of lightning bolts from spells and his knowledge of electricity and anatomy to deliver especially deadly electric attacks with pinpoint precision.
Once the transformations were complete the group enlarged with an empowered version of the spell. In seconds they were the size of mature adult dragons, as big as giants. Then with the power of Stead’s mirror image spell seven became twenty eight, and a vast colorful swarm of dragons took flight at the line of the giants.
The powerful brutes were already staggering under a barrage of mortar fire when they saw the dragons falling on them.
At first the seven attacked with spell and breath from the air, using the confusion of all the flying beasts to give them the advantage. Soon though, as boulders began to fly and spells in the rings were depleted, the group swooped to attack with tooth and claw.
The giants tipped on the brink of being routed in that moment. The Annis brought a piece of rune marked ice to her eye and shouted, “There are but seven of them! The rest are illusions. Chieftains strike them with boulders and they will vanish!”
The shrapnel from the mortars was iron so it passed without harm through the wards and flesh of the ironguard protected sorcerers. For the giants it was less pleasant. Still protected as they were from impact by the mage armor and tough hide, the giants were able to fight on.
On the line, gnome illusionists conjured false targets and dazzling lights to confuse the ogres, while dwarf clerics chanted blessings on the defenders. It was a fight now to protect those in the warrens behind. But also a fight to keep the mortar teams secure and raining death on the giants.
The time was stretched. Stead swooped down on a pair of giants and let them have a blast of fire. While they were still blind he clobbered one with his tail and tore the face off the other. For the first time in dragon form he tasted blood and realized the terrible joy that Scott had warned them of. He fell into frenzy of feeding and killing.
Schminke targeted a group of three giants, dodged a barrage of boulders to get close and struck with an empowered fireball. A massive boulder hurled by a chieftain crashed into him and nearly sent him to the ground, only the fly spell allowed him to get his wings back under him. Even through his stoneskin that one hurt.
Brian was smaller then the others, but his collar was also special, it used the ice and snow around him, the cold air itself, to augment the chill of his breath. He hit a giant with a blast of cold and then shattered it with a stroke of his tail. His natural camouflage made him harder to hit, and the steam, smoke and fog in the valley all made him increasingly a ghost. He had his owl’s way of flying silently, and his own way of picking the edges of the battle for targets.
Scott and James flanked Jason and the trio took out the center of the giant line. They spread a cloud of acid across a dozen giants that left them blind and choking, then they fell on them with tooth and claw. The close fighting meant they took blows, but while clubs are not iron, even driven by giant strength the worst was turned by stoneskin and enchanted dragonhide armor.
Derek soared above, as Gertie’s storm began to rain sleet on the field of battle she tried to hurl lightning down on the mortar positions. Instead the charge fell into the blue dragon and its lightning collar. High above the attacking force Derek was able to drive stroke after stroke of lightning at the Annis and the Chieftains.
After an advantage that lasted minutes the dragons were revealed by attacks against their illusions. The Chieftains moved forward to support their troops and swallowed a second set of gourds to give them the speed as well as massive size. The battle descended into a melee of spells and hurled boulders amidst the steady pounding of the mortars.
The presence of the dragons forced the giants to concentrate their force in the lower valley. That was exactly the wrong thing to do under the rain of artillery. The hag realized this even as her own iron hard skin turned more iron hard shrapnel. “Ignore the dragons, race for the men and their Gond Gunnes, and then we will deal with the tricksters!”
The men on the line did as they were trained too. They had beaten the ogres, but the giants were to be engaged only as a last resort. The giant Chieftains towering over the field of battle were coming. Gamely the fierce sorcerers pursued them, striking from behind while exposing themselves to the vengeful attacks of the main force. This only slowed the giant, the mortar teams did not have time to move the tubes back in the orderly manner they had drilled, they simply were swept along with the rest back to the secondary fighting positions even as the giant chieftains strode over the first defensive trench and paused to smash the still hot launchers into the frozen ground.
Then as the dragons re-formed in the air and renewed their confusing image spells the giants caught their chiefs who had outpaced them with their enlarged strides and hurled boulders at the defenders of the secondary wall. The second barrier was a fifteen foot high wall of ice and stone. Once within boulder range the six pound cannons on the walls cut loose with rune scribed iron. Ten shots and six hits against the chieftains themselves staggered the attackers. The icy rain driven by high winds made the cannons tricky to reload and threatened to ruin the powder charges. Gnome and dwarf teams supported each other with magic as the men from the trenches took up pikes and crossbows to defend the walls. The giants smashed against the barrier like a wave.
The dragons swept down on them from behind.
Derek, supercharged by the ionized clouds sent a leaping bolt of energy down the line of giants. Unfortunately it ended in a stroke that took out a cannon and the crew around it. “No!” He roared.
“Fight on! You fight through that shit!” Schminke bellowed.
The fire wyrms had to concern themselves with the danger of melting the wall or igniting powder just as the acid wyrms had to worry about injuring their own men with acid spray. Brian however swept the other side of the line with a furious blast of cold that only hardened the wall. He was using ice-storm spells driven to tornado force by the collar.
As the dragons crashed into the giants, and the last of the giants reached the area around the wall, a lone pike-man with a potion of truestrike in his belly drove his steel blade into a chieftain’s heart. Thrown hammers, bolts and more cannon fire drove home against the giants. Then the hag struck back with power. She sent forth an insidious spell of mass enervation at the center of the wall; she stole the life energy of thirty defenders and collapsed the center of the defense. Three giant chiefs saw the weakness and drove straight through the wall with clubs as large as rams.
Derek turned his power against the hag. By the time he reached her she too had swallowed a potion of giant growth. The two crashed into the hill and began tearing and hurling power at one another in frenzy akin to two tomcats in a burlap bag.
“Leave her to him, Brian hold the gap in the wall, the rest of us have a chieftain apiece to handle!” Schminke roared.
Scott tackled an evil looking hunchback creature that probably suffered from some verbeeg2 ancestry. The creature gulped yet another potion with an unnaturally swift action and still met Scott’s onslaught with a pair of devastating blows.
For his part Scott faked a breath as a faint then he opened a dimension door below the giant, the creature fell to one knee as its leg disappeared into the hole, then Scott, with stars flashing before his eyes from powerful strikes canceled the door and sliced the leg off above the knee.
Thom and Schminke closed swiftly and used flame at point blank range taking powerful blows in exchange for the attack whose secondary intent was to blind the giants for the follow up melee.
Only James paused before pouncing, he dodged a hurled boulder and enacted heroism and rage on himself then he struck his chosen target and overbore him to the ground. After struggling against the mad dragon for a handful of seconds the giant was literally torn in two as rear claws raked and fore-claws rent its massive form.
Jason made a beckoning gesture with one claw and a towering elemental surged from the earth and snow to grasp his chieftain in a full nelson. The dragon closed to the struggling giant and in a grotesque parody of a kiss bellowed acid directly into the mouth and eyes of the grappled creature. The giant convulsed and snapped the arm off the elemental freeing his arm, a massive punching spike over its fist drove straight into Jason’s guts and shot a load wyvern toxin into them.
Jason’s scream was the scream of a dragon and the scream of a man. It tore through stone and ice. In the heart of the land it was echoed in the scream of a fairy noble.
With so much of the leadership broken or worse, dozens of giants in the rear retreated in long loping strides down the hill. Still thirty-seven remained to attack the wall and as they climbed over it to avoid the gap now filled with the rage of the ice drake and they hurled down a like number of defenders. Desperate dwarves sallied out of concealed ports to strike at the groins, knees and feet of stomping giants and a broken salvo of cannon shattered eight more of them as the wall shuddered from their weight and their pounding.
James was berserk in a body that fed on frenzy, he was barely able to separate friend from foe as his wrath turned from the fallen chief to the choking one with Jason’s blood on its fist. That creature managed a lightning swift strike that punched out James’ right eye, but that was its last act as black claws tore its head from its body.
Scott’s giant grabbed another potion to stop the swift loss of blood from the stump of its leg that was sure to end its life in moments. Scott spit acid onto the gourd and destroyed the potion and then with a spell of keenness on his claws he sliced the throat of the giant too the backbone. He noted the type of gourd that the giant had tried to use to heal himself and prayed it was significant. He tore three like it off the giant’s belt and forced Jason to chew and swallow them as he spread his wings over both of them lashing his tail defensively. Ice and boulders fell on him but through the pain he focused only on the job of feeding the potions to Jason one after another.
Stead and Schminke took the fight to the lesser giants and in the minutes that followed killed six. James took down four more himself before he was beaten senseless by desperate giants. It was the crippling attacks of the dwarven sortie that turned the tide. The dwarves diverted the attack from the walls and the sorcerers so that another fusillade of cannon-blasts could hammer home crippling or killing nine more giants and tipping the advantage to the defenders.
Eleven giants still able to stand and fight threw down weapons and held up hands to beg for mercy. Schminke ordered them to cluster together and kneel, then he had cannon and weapons trained on them from the wall above. After checking the others and issuing some orders he took wing to see what had become of Derek.
Down below the first trench he found his answer. The hag was broken and seared on the claws of the dragon but the dragon was petrified into a great statue of stone over her broken body. Thomas was taken by the majesty of what looked like an artistic piece.
“Too bad we cannot keep you this way Derek; it would make a fine warning to the next band of invaders.” Schminke said aloud. Then he pulled forth a precious potion of restoration and poured it over his friend.
Brian and Thom flew after the fleeing giants and landed before them. “The Captain of the valley makes you this offer for your lives. You will return to the wall above and join those that have surrendered, you will serve us here for five years as laborers and guards for food and shelter alone, or you will be killed in whatever creative ways we can come up with while you try to flee homeward. If you actually reach home we will kill your wives and children and leave no stone atop another until all that remains is a memory of a better time.”
One by one the giants dropped clubs and bent knee. Over the days to come dwarves would forge collars of iron that would hold spells to charm monsters into unthinking obedience and lay upon them a geas to keep their word. Each of the thirty-five giants still living would receive one. The rebuilding and reshaping of the valley would proceed apace in the coming years.
On a high mountain Gertie let out a cry of pure rage as her quarry escaped her grasp. Her eyes in the valley in the form of her Annis were closed. She was cut off but she did not need to be able to see to know that the sorcerers had won. She had seen giants fleeing the battle even as the vision in her servant faded to black.
A shadow loomed behind her and she turned in surprise. Obould Many-arrows had completed his growth as the result of a potion he had carried on the long trek up the mountain.
“My Allies must have frustrated your attempt at revenge Gertie to make you wear that face. However that does not excuse your treachery.”
The giantess crouched and drew a massive bronze dagger to defend with “I do not answer to you…you puffed up savage!”
“I need you to shape giant kind so I do not have to make war on them while I consolidate my hold. I showed you my power once, now I think a new demonstration is in order.” Obould cracked her wrist with a blow too fast to see, sending her dagger flying over the edge. He planted his spear and backhanded the giantess so hard she collapsed and sobbed. He snatched her to her feet by her long blonde hair and clutched the white gown guarding her pale blue skin. With a slash of his calloused hand her body was laid bare to him and steady pressure bore her to the flat rock.
“You dare not touch me!” She shouted.
“You do not seem to realize that I am the object of worship for my people, I am Obould but I am also Grumish, because I still wear my mortal size most of the time you feel smug in your superiority, yet with fewer then three hundred frost giants in the mountains I would need only a fraction of the orcs at my command to exterminate your race from the Spine of the World, I am King here! You exist at my pleasure and now you exist for my pleasure. Pray that you please me well…for sake of you kindred…”
Her protests met with mocking laughter and more stinging slaps that left her almost unconscious again. Then too her horror he poured a healing drought between her lips, “You will remain with me, it would be a shame for you to miss the lesson.” For a moment a face with a single eye seemed superimposed on the face of her tormentor and for the first time in her life she knew fear. Humiliation followed. When the orc resumed his normal stature he turned his back on her in complete confidence, she dared not lash at him. Instead she crushed the tattered remains of her simple dress to her front and stared at the blood stains spattered on it. She spoke the words of a spell then, not to strike at the disappearing orc king, the spell mended her dress and removed the stain of her maiden blood, the power of which had added much strength to her magic. She would have to find a new source of virgin blood to empower her magic now.
“Leave my allies to me.” Obould warned. “The next time you loose more.”
Alustriel looked down on the aftermath of the battle. “Tell me Mystra, is this what we can expect? Art wielded with such cunning…artifice as keen as magic in the hands of common soldiers? What am I to do here?”
“You will remember and you will bear witness to your sisters and my Chosen. Nothing more is required of you.”
“The raiders in the lowlands will be depleted for years thanks to this days work. I see no evil in these men even now, yet they kill with such ruthless efficiency and grim demeanor I cannot help but think that gibbering madness or capering evil would be better. They remind me of Khelben…”
“Like him, they may serve me yet.” Mystra ended with a wink.
The aftermath of the battle was as difficult to manage as the fight itself. The geodesic became a temporary detention center while halfling farms became field hospitals. James glowered evilly at the giants under his watch with a black patch over his empty socket it would be months before the eye regenerated. Jason still suffered from damaged organs and could keep nothing more complex then broth down for days. He had to be moved to the main house.
There were solemn observances as the fallen were laid out in rows and a mound of stone was piled atop them, and the dwarves carried back many wounded heroes to their winter halls to recuperate under the care of their own clerics.
Derek was fanatical with the natives about sterile conditions, non-magical folk cures and other health issues. With MD parents he could not have failed to pick up a trick or two.
The winter came down on the high vale with fury; many of the people began to eye the quantities of food going to the giants with jealous intensity. Some from Meeksburg actually braved the road home to return with a report of unbelievable ruin, and an orc tribe occupation inside the charred walls.
Shortly after, the seven sorcerers recovered and began to consider how they would order the new valley with the human population included, their new powers began to manifest.
For Brian it was a small power to swim more swiftly first. Then a minor spell to frighten foes that drew on necromancy. Then more intense powers of vampiric touch and confusion and finally powers more potent then any he had previously held to utterly demolish the ego with a feeblemind or to totally dominate the will of another. The others kidded him that he could play a pretty convincing vampire if he needed to
Thomas Stead gained a power that would allow him to focus the simple gesture of a cough into a shattering blow and another that showed any person he met another of their kind and sex, a clever little spell that would create a delay in a silence area spell on an object. He also could create permanent walls of illusion and spin images that would last without any attention, be they guards on a wall or a window into a tropical paradise. The last power he gained allowed him to cloak up to five people with whatever image he desired to show.
Schminke learned a little spell that made doors swing quietly shut and another that would tell him where nodes of power like the dream node could be found. His detection spells for finding metals and minerals became much greater and he gained the power to look ahead through a portal and see what was waiting. His great new powers were the abilities to form telepathic bonds, and to send out a half dozen scouting eyes to view the surrounding terrain or explore a labyrinth ahead of him.
Derek learned to send a crossbow bolt from his hands as if from a bow. Then he mastered a trick that sealed up access to an earth node to just those he permitted. His shield against arrows could now be shaped to send them back at the archers; he could shatter curses, make private any area as sanctum against scrying wizards and send extra-planer beings home with a simple dismissal.
Scott’s powers were soon demonstrable as well, the ability to give himself low light vision, to move with unnaturally long strides, and to give a mace or hammer a magical impact power for a time that turned them into deadly skull crushing weapons. His power to enlarge now came in the family sized version that could make a dozen warriors giant sized. For his new powers of the fifth order he could shape metal with nothing but will and magic, or transmute rock to mud or mud into solid rock. He was soon considering the possible applications in construction.
James gained a small spell for sending a jolt of charge into a target, and another that would generate a thunderous clap. He gained an evocation that acted as a ram of pure force for smashing down gates or foes, and a spell to send half a dozen balls of force in every direction. His new powers of highest level were the power to make an impenetrable wall out of pure invisible force and the power to stabilize powers and make them permanent. Like enchantments on blades or spells on rings, he could make the spells have limitless duration. With that power the masterworks of the dwarves and gnomes could receive spells that would multiply the value by a factor of ten or a hundred. It was a spell that needed energy to draw on, and it took this energy from the caster unless he could take it from somewhere else.
Jason as he recovered from his weakness showed new powers as well. He could put to objects together and stick them permanently even if they were not alike. This was different from the old repair spell of mending. He could conjure a symbol that would bond to skin as a tattoo that could hold a spell until it was needed. This power was useable on each of the limbs and the head once, so a person could carry five spells waiting for a word or touch to trigger. He had a heavy duty version of mage armor that was stronger, hard as plate mail, and would be stronger still as his power grew. Finally he gained the next level of conjuring allies and the power to step from one place to another in an instant teleportation.
The weather in the valley became chaotic. Flashes of heat caused small avalanches, fog followed rain and turned to ice. A tornado raced back and forth over the lake and then the ice shattered. Finally at the top of the Halfling Vale a geyser erupted and blew a continuous plume of scalding hot water out into the streams nearby.
It was Derek who thought one explanation might be something wrong with the link. So the sorcerers made their way down into the heart of the Dream Node and looked at the source of the trouble for themselves.
In the room of the sign, the metal was liquid and white hot, except for the symbols next to the lich phylactery and the design around that item, the whole thing was overloaded.
“Can we shut it down and let it cool off?” Schminke asked.
“No, I did not expect it to have all this heat.” Derek admitted.
“Where is it from?” Jason wondered.
“It could be that in forming a magical event horizon to block scrying we changed the information that cannot be transferred into the outside world into random photonic energy. I am not sure what effects magic has on quantum thermal dynamics as of yet, but if many people are trying to scry us, then this could be a result.” Derek speculated.
“I must be because of the new spells we have, the power of spell orders is exponential, these signs are not rated for that, have any of you tried any of the other’s new abilities?” Brian asked.
None of them had, enamored as they were of their own new powers they had spent what little time they had away from responsibilities indulging in them. Jason nodded and said “I think it could be several factors, this sign held up for six weeks, that is a hell of a lot more then the five minutes we got out of the first one. We need to power it down and rethink the concept before we have a meltdown.”
James grumbled “Back to the rings…”
“So much for version 2.0”
Brian held up his hand “Can we flood the chamber, circulate water from the lake in here and cool it down?”
“The effect might slow but right now the lich link is pulling chaotic magical energy into itself and spreading it across the entire area, the presence of water might make that harder, it might help a bit, there is not a 2.1 solution here, this is as far as we can push this type of link.” Derek explained. “We need to pull our balls out of those signs and extract the lich orb then let the thing collapse.”
So one by one they extended magic to take up the orbs. In a last moment of shared awareness and purpose the seven pulled out the crystal scrying links and the lich phylactery. Then the full force of the heat build up surged through the metal and soon had it popping and sparking in liquid fury.
“Shatter the floor James!” Derek called.
James did as directed and the symbols vanished into a random mix of metal and stone that lost all meaning. The link also vanished. With it went most of the ability to do meta-magic transformations that came from the lich, though each of the group did retain one piece of the lich’s capabilities as part of their own expanding virtuosity. The loss left an empty feeling inside, but it also came with a bit of relief, the link had never been comfortable. They had all felt like men walking around with a canteen of nitroglycerin at all times except when throwing around magic like drunks at a wedding.
Brian was the first to use power to chill the area, then James with powerful freezing spells. The metal froze in twisted chunks, the rock in broken gravel and tilted slabs.
Scott said “We cannot leave it like this.”
“Let’s go up to the house and get a drink and think about it, no point in rushing into anything we might have to undo.” Derek suggested.
“We all could use a drink.” Schminke agreed. “Grab your balls men lets go upstairs.”
“Orb Thomas, they are called orbs.” Derek said
In the great hall the men sat down to mixed vodka drinks, wine and in two cases frosty mugs of ale, all brought by bright eyed lasses of loose morals and fine looks. One of the first things Scott had done with Stead’s loyal groupie whores was to alter away any flaws. Superficially they were an array of stunning that would have made the cast of America’s Next Top Model, internally they had elven anatomy and physiology making them naturally more slender and long lived without the ears. Now without the lich or the link he would need a great deal of time to master the expanded art needed to polymorph another instead of just the self.
The conversation was slow and deliberate. They tossed around a few ideas, but finally sat in a sulk puffing on a gnomish tobacco blend and letting strong fingered lasses rub sore necks and heads. Once the pipes were going, the familiars, including Mariah, all bugged out to find beds. Impatient girls started nibbling ears and stroking chests to tease men into giving up on sulking and come to bed. Then suddenly Derek sat up.
“I have something!”
“So do I,” Brian noted “It is called a hard-on and I am planning to use it.”
“Amen!” James cheered. They all found extracting themselves from the fog a bit harder then usual.
“No listen,” Derek went on in English “We have called the node here the ‘Dream Node’ because that was how we used it, but more properly it is a node attuned to divination magic. Schminke’s magic really. The lich we fought had located his lair at a point beneficial to its necromantic energies. That is two points where we know power comes in a certain flavor we can use!”
Scott took it up “So we could build a link that is geographically spread out over miles at these node points, one beneficial to each of us. But how do we connect them up?”
Jason smiled “Gates, I can teleport now, James can cast a permanent link, and two places can be close in a higher dimension if we make a gate network like the ogre dance.”
“I have been looking into hacking into the ogre dance gate network; I think it would be easier by far building a set of gates from scratch rather then cracking another wizard’s work.” Derek admitted.
“We might need years to find one of every kind; we might need to clear out resident nasties at each as well.” Jason groaned.
“It will give us time to get it letter perfect.” Schminke noted. “It even seems as if our needs were anticipated by the types of new powers we acquired. Derek has his node lock, I have my node finder. We just happen to have a teleport and a permanency for all occasions. I almost feel as if we are being railroaded down this path.”
“It could just be a bit of our future needs spilling backwards in time.” Scott suggested with a shrug.
“Destiny…” Jason said.
Getting down to business Scott said “If we are going this route then it stands to reason that this first node is going to be Schminke’s.”
“So we re anchor our spells of surveillance with a link to Schminke’s sign, we convert the node into a focal point of divination power.” Scott suggested.
“Something simple,” Derek added “and foolproof, nothing fancy or complex, just a set of arcane eyes on the boundary stones with some scrying barriers and detectors in place, a permanent scrying in the chamber itself with links to mind reading options and messaging and telepathic communication all laid out.”
“Sounds complex” James said doubtfully.
“It is child’s play compared to what we had. It should serve us well so long as we remain alert.” Schminke explained.
“The lines will all be straight spokes, nothing fancy at all.” Derek assured them.
“We probably have some luxury of time, we have witnesses who saw us do things that we will be hard pressed to repeat for a while, so we will have a powerful bluff going for us. If we work our asses off we use this window to create security while we locate the nodes we need and figure out the dynamics of our gate network.” Schminke assured them.
“So let’s get the rest of the way drunk and line these girls up and knock ‘em down!” James suggested.
“Absolutely!” The motion passed to general acclaim.
Scott was in the cave at the heart of the node the very next morning. He let himself levitate over the rock at the heart of the room and then he turned the rock into mud. He followed up with a spell that tuned metal into liquid a room temperature and then he swirled the two together with his stone shape power. In a few minutes the floor had settled into a flat surface, polished as glass with thick and thin bands of random runestone-charged metal throughout. Magic and gold made the red gold blend of metals incorruptible by oxidation, now Scott restored the stone, shifting it into white marble. So the floor was pristine and ready for the marks that Derek would soon lay down on it with Schminke’s help. The magic of the node would be fed by that of the rune-stone and Schminke would have the net of magic to fill in gaps in alertness and coverage for the High Vale and the Halfling Vale.
Scott lay down on the warm marble slab and closed his eyes and then he let himself fall into a dream state and indulge in the freedom of the world of dreams. Here at least was a use that anyone could put the energies of this place too. Perhaps when he found a transmutation node, he would build his own house there…
It was just ten days later when the slab was arcane marked and rune linked to the great perimeter circle again. Schminke received an upsurge in his divination powers that he reported as a phantom spell level. To him it felt as if he could push his divinations one notch higher even though no such notch existed before. In fact it might have been the case all along, but so many of his powers had been with him only here, while others did not have any visibly measurable effect that it had gone overlooked.
To the south of the falls, above the gap leading into the halfling gorge there was a small mountain peak that the group chose to be the sight of the next link. It would be built under a circle of eight stones with slabs across the tops. Its simple structure would hide the spiraling stair down into the mountain that would hold the chamber where the power would link. This shrine was to overlook the new trade city at the foot of the Halfling Vale. A town to face the dawn with towers up to a hundred and fifty feet tall compressed inside a walled complex just one kilometer square. The city was to be oriented in the valley so that its corner pointed to the valley walls and its point faced outward. One corner would be a wedge for foes to break upon, while walls from the side corners extended up into the encircling arms of the mountains to protect the valley behind. The rear corner would connect the city to an aqueduct that would sweep down from above. Jason spent long hours on the design process, tweaking this and that system. The city would always need a limited population, but it would at least start with some elbow room.
The Long Labor of Love
For the next five years the bluff held. Obould proved to be more then an ally of convenience, he and Schminke continued to be friends who would meet at least seasonally in the town of Many-arrows, the city that Obould put in place at the ruin site of Meeksburg. With such visible support from the orc king and ongoing good terms with the Silver Marches, the anomaly of the High Vale was secure.
That first hard winter gave way to a warm spring that saw the thirty-five giants working under dwarf and halfling supervision with nicknames like Tractor, Hauler and Trencher. They learned to sing dwarf work songs by wrote imitation. The dwarves guided the construction of three major features; a flat diamond of sewers, streets and foundations for the new town at the foot of the valley was the first. A double aqueduct to the top of the town that tapped the new and apparently permanent geyser at the head of the valley for hot mineral water and the springs for glacial melt, a very large hot and cold running water supply, was the second major project. The last one completed that summer was the clearing and terracing of the entire valley. From the walls of the future town the valley looked like a giant green stair up into the dark arms of the mountains.
Scott spent that summer as a construction supervisor and magical building device. It worked like this. Giants would fill forms with boulders and gravel until it mounded high and then Scott would turn the contents to mud, let it settle and then restore it to solid stone. Dwarves shaped the mud with deft swiftness, and cleaned the forms so that they could be swiftly pulled away after the spell was cancelled. Then Scott ran about with strength and enlarging spells on tap to keep the work moving. Occasionally when a boulder was too big or stubborn even for giant strength Scott would liquefy it a bit at a time. Schminke called him mud man all summer and would call to find him stripped to the waist in a pair of work pants and work boots with Dreamguard wandering about the various job sights. James was also with him about half the time with Jason in the same area as well to guide his vision for the town.
Brian made a fortune in gold from the dwarves by working with Derek and Thomas to wrangle a purple worm and use it to tunnel from the Wolf Mountain to the Dwarf city of Greycopper fifty miles to the south. The dwarves from both ends had to secure the secret road, search the caverns revealed and clean and shore up the path with occasional magical assistance over the next few years. It was one of several things that Schminke did not bother to tell his drinking buddy Obould. He spent his first year laying out a three dimensional map of vast mineral deposits in Wolf Mountain and the runestone rich Chimera Mount that when he shared it with Dalton turned the fellow literally purple. The Dwarves came to call the mountains of the High Vale the ‘Gift’ and in four years they had established a city of twelve thousand under the mountain, most moved in along the secret tunnel. With six active mine sites, eleven sites in reserves and a road out of the vale under the earth for their wealth to flow and for goods to flow back.
The sorcerers provided them with incredible numbers of permanent light spells and new designs for water storage and distribution as well as the basics of hydroponic gardening to make the mountain halls secure, pleasant and self sufficient.
With the gnomes and Mariah in charge of the area of the High Vale it was not surprising that it was sylvanized. Jason woke up one morning to find a unicorn in the garden. He chased it out with a broom.
The Gnomes talked the group into finishing the hack into the ogre dance so that after three years a ring of ogres in a hidden cranny was ready to respond to a flask of water from the Spring of Dreams. Once that was done the gnomes brought in Dryads, fairy dragons and pixies to live in woods and caves about the valley. Of course that meant that there were soon mischief makers in the home that took delight in tweaking the sorcerers. It became Mariah’s job to manage the pests. Queen of Nuisance Jason called her. The gnomes learned the hard way that pixie security was essential after some gunpowder related incidents. One household of leprechauns actually moved in and set up their own gypsy trailer park. Brian and Stead took turns stalking and catching them for sport. However none of the Sorcerers could complain about the most important thing, the beauty of the vale became almost painful to bask in. The group had to put up with ambassadors from Waterdeep and Silverymoon that lingered for months underfoot. Still on the positive side the group also had many visits from Harpell’s and other wizards who brought their own unique magic to the Vale, to learn and to teach and buy and sell.
The group made a great deal of gold from the sale of potions, especially in the orc city of Many-arrows and the half-orc city that Gorgallian built with their input, Flintstone. Brian delivered the name with a straight faced monologue about the how flint was the hardest and most useful type of rock. It was always good for a laugh. They stockpiled scrolls, charged up wands and enchanted rings with an innovative technique that allowed James to use refined runestone in substitution for his own life energy. It allowed them to make rings of invisibility, swimming, jumping, protection and various others that they sold to merchants in Silverymoon or gave as gifts.
Each year there was a great trade fair that had the various races of the valley competing with fine crafted items to receive enchantments from the seven. Hammers of Thunderbolts, swords of Keen Flame and enchanted armor all came to rest in the hands of leaders and craftsmen in the two valleys and under the two mountains.
The group’s Silverymoon and Waterdeep accounts bulged with cash and credit and they used it on frequent visits, especially during the long winter months. It was important that they make many items for sale in order to fill in gaps like the lack of an ironguard spell on the list or the purchase of an emergency wish scroll. Their businesses continued to do well but were soon swamped with imitators without the iron hard enforcement they had brought to the game when they were in charge of day to day enforcement. Profits came down to be in line with most manufacturing endeavors. That is to say about eight percent annually after costs.
Still having gold grow at eight percent in two cities is not a joke. The walls and watchtowers of the vale bristled with cannon and mortars. The seven hundred guardsmen that were the security force had bolt-action magazine-fed rifles very similar to the Springfield M-1. Every halfling was required to own a rifle, much lighter in caliber and train with it. Every dwarf had a shotgun. They came from various clans, so they came without the innate respect for the sorcerers, but they were pleased with the new toys they were issued on arrival.
Jason’s city concept for the men was met with skepticism at first. He laid out the town in chevrons around a grand marketplace at the lower point. The city floor was as level as a plane, and the first chevron set the tone with ten one-thousand square foot three story high-rise buildings that rose from thirty feet at the sides to almost forty at the peek. The next chevron had forty foot tall four story buildings that peeked near fifty feet and so on back to the last and tenth chevron of buildings that towered from a hundred and thirty feet at the edge all the way to a peek of one fifty. The architecture split the town into a sun side and shadow side that led naturally to open rooftops on one side and enclosed spaces on the other. It was also deceptive in a number of ways. The slope rose seventy feet in the two kilometers of the diagonal so that the city walls, fifty foot tall in the front blended back into the hillside as level roads. Also the towers in the back soaring from street level to a hundred and fifty feet overhead seemed to follow the contour of the land and be only six stories tall. Walkways spanned streets at every three stories to create a counter grid for walking traffic and every building was owned by the sorcerers with the space rented for copper pieces per square foot to divide them into living and business areas. Every building had plumbing, the city design included a bath hall for every six units3and boilers provided steam heat from bottom to top of every tower.
The materials of the construction were simple enough, concrete and rebar purchased in bulk from the orc nation, and where it was needed, rebar reinforced stone made with the rock to mud trick. The top floor of every chevron had large windows while the lower floors tended to have smaller. Most of the walkways were protected with twisted iron grates painted black and set in the concrete spans. All walkways and streets had lamps at the centers with magical lights. The streets were full of carts and bicycles but short on horses. Most of the stables for the city were located in the hills behind it. From the original disgruntled eight hundred refugees who lived in tents for over a year while the foundations of the new city were laid the town’s size and capacity grew to the point where it had space for nearly forty thousand souls. However logistics and the use of much of the space for warehousing, stores and things like the bath halls kept the capacity to a little less then half that with about fifteen thousand natives and from two to five thousand visitors at any given time. The business of the city was business. Merchants came to sell goods for magic items, fine dwarf and gnome devices weapons and armor, potions and distilled beverages and machine made cloth. Gold, silver and copper coins and precious artifacts flowed out of dwarf mines for items from the south and food from the halfling farms while the halfling farms grew to be full of fine items like clocks, wind mills for lifting water and magical lamps. Most halflings had silver spoons, crystal china cupboards and roll top desks in their homes as well as steel plows and mechanical seeders.
All the surplus food went to the town so the human’s acted as middlemen for the dwarves and the halflings. Also most of the orc trade from the south passed through on the way to Flintstone. Soon timber, iron and cut stones often spent a few days in local warehouses. The men started banks with ties to Silverymoon and Waterdeep and kept apartments for dignitaries and visiting guests who were important enough to rate special treatment but not personal friends. The city took its name from the double pun of the nearby falls from the high lake and the battle fought on the ground it was built over, Giant Falls. The city was never meant to be more then a cool exercise in the state of the art in construction and planning of a city, it was hoped that it would break even in cost. Instead the thing took off and ran on its own, wizards more powerful then the sorcerers moved into the city and set up businesses. Priests came and rented temple space and consecrated buildings. Moon elves came to see the city and many stayed as bards and artists to add color to the town. When the indenture of the giants ended fully half stayed on to take full time positions in the city watch. However there was one clear rule, you do not pass up into the valley without invitation on pain of getting a few weeks of hard labor to keep you busy.
City government was a weird blend of democracy and libertarian politics. The political units were square feet of space rented. The issues of waste management, security and transportation were contracted to companies that charged directly for services. The sorcerers set standards for minimum maintenance and enforced them by eviction if a tenant failed to pay to keep garbage from piling up, or keep light fixtures from being stolen.
The city was fresh and new, everyone wanted to make things work so the few who did not were easy to spot and could be dealt with. There was something of the spirit of Silverymoon there, something of Waterdeep but there was also a very alien element in how things were done.
Mages in the city would gather and discuss the mysterious sorcerers who produced so many magic items, who tamed orcs and giants and who could by all accounts summon a storm of dragons. It was daunting for them to think of seven who must be of near epic level all banded together. It was a reputation that kept the city safe and gave it time to grow strong.
Many merchants traveled the road up from Greycopper to Many-arrows, paying the token toll to take the high road and continue on to Giant Falls and the larger and sprawling Roman style city of Flintstone. It profited them greatly to buy orc iron and timber and stone. But orc numbers grow swiftly and that pressure and the new wealth of the orcs led to the second round of wars. As Schminke told Obould, whether you win more land or just loose many orcs, either way the problem is solved. Still, Obould did not fight to lose, and the Silver Marches cursed the Giant Falls and Valley Folk for their neutral stand. The orcs were more sophisticated and better equipped then ever before and the campaign was a desperate one.
Whether it was paid for by agents of the Silver marches or just the result of seeing opportunity in the losses sustained by the orc armies, Obould was taken in the rear by the army of Flintstone and decided to turn back and deal with that problem first. In the end the campaign netted him Flintstone and a handful of lowland towns and cost him half his army. A solid win in his books, trade was reopened when Obould ceded control of the high city to his son, but Obould soon had more troubles as ranger irregulars began to move throughout the mountains striking out at logging team, patrols and supply depots while Obould was undermanned.
Schminke met with this shadow group of mostly wood elf rangers, and told them that the high valley was off limits to them as a staging area for their war against the orcs. The elves called the group cowards and orc lovers. Schminke told them that they were asking for a breach of treaty. When they began to harass merchants on the high road, Schminke provided Obould with information that allowed him to take the band responsible out. The spasm passed away on the seventh year, but the reputation was not the same for the High Valley. Silverymoon ordered them to liquidate and move their assets out of the Silver Marches and even their own dwarves grumbled about it being time to go their own way.
The time of chaos after the campaign led to an assassination attempt on Obould and this time instead of warning him, Schminke moved in secret and with his six, waited until the king fought his way out of the trap and then they ambushed him. When Schminke expressed reluctance to finish the orc chief off, they traveled to the far north and there by the seashore Scott changed the Orc King into a killer whale and sent him into the sea. The orc kingdom disintegrated into a dozen warring tribes and the dwarves and gnomes got their chance to face orcs. The Silver Marches took Many-arrows and started to march on Flintstone only to find it occupied by the Dwarves of the Valley Alliance and the Guard of the Sorcerers.
Never again did the orcs trust the city, nor was there enough trade to bring in the volume of merchants that had peeked for the city of Giant Falls in the fifth year after the battle. It slipped into a slow steady trade largely dwarf controlled and became increasingly politically an extension of dwarf will. The sorcerers were isolated in their valley home, well supplied, rich and magically powerful. Perhaps still feared and respected but there was no gratitude. They did not advertise that they were the ones who took out Obould.
The other six came to Schminke who was in a deep depression about the way things had turned and they laughed and told him that it was far better to be out of control and still insulated by powerful allies then to need to pull every political string. Now they were at last autonomous again and they could turn to the projects of their own hearts. It took him days to come around but when he did he could finally look at the men and dwarf clan chiefs with a light heart. It was up to them to secure the city, search the mines for incursions from below and provide for all and sundry. They could do it and would do it perhaps even joining the Silver Marches in the process. He finally went to Dalton and ceded all rights to the city and mines in exchange for the whole of the High Valley basin telling the dwarf that politics had been taking up too much of his time and their was much he needed to be about.
In the words of James on that night “Fuck it, it isn’t fun anymore so why should we do it?” The rest agreed and pulled their private force back to the Vale and took a break from other people’s problems and dusted off their own.
Gertie walked up the bottom of the magnificent gorge along the hardened lava bottom. The uncomfortable heat was a high price to pay for her plan. The volcano shimmered with heat as she passed into the great crack in the side. To her left she saw a great hard lava bubble with a carpet of mounded gold and jewels. There was a long series of clicking bangs and she was looking into the face of a great red dragon with broken fangs and horns and a collar of iron hooked to a vast chain. The creature had unending malice in its eyes and a deep cunning. She lifted a heavy bag of coin and tossed it casually to the ancient beast. It reared up above her as if to strike and then seemed to deflate, it crouched and scoped the coin bag up and took it too the side, allowing Gertie to pass.
She made her way deeper into the hot cave and felt her protection from fire ring begin to take effect. Then she was in the great chamber of the true king of the mountains. He stood forty five feet tall when he was not lounging as now. He thought of hill giants as small folk and to his way of thinking polar bears were a nice snack food.
The Mountain Giant was slouched on a throne of obsidian that would have shredded even normal giant flesh with its many edges. “You are a pleasing little morsel lass, but you are not enough of a woman for me…”
“Perhaps with this,” she said and placed a ring on her finger. In a few moments she was twenty five feet tall, “and this” she said and swallowed a pumpkin full of giant growth potion. It took her all the way to forty feet high.
“Haa Haa Haa…” The giant laughed and the frost giantess moved to climb astride the gigantic brute.
The potion lasted long enough for her to satisfy the lust of the creature and then he playfully dandled her on his knee. “So what do you want from the King, some of my treasure? A special magic item, or do you just hope to bear a worthy frost giant heir with my seed?”
“There is a house I would like you to step on…” She began, musing that while virginity had its own magic, the magic of a woman using her body was stronger.
“These are the six nodes we need, one of each kind” Schminke pointed to the map. “The extra planer entity that I contacted was unfriendly but it was constrained by the language I insisted on, I asked in terms of longitude and latitude and elevation for each one.”
“Then we will be able to complete the new link, it will be important on the mission we need to undertake.” Derek explained. “There are rune structures we need, they allow wizards to not only share powers they let them add up their levels.”
“Where are they? James asked.
“Thay, they allow the wizards of Thay to pile up levels and cast spells as if they were the combined level of all the wizards in the circle.” Derek said pointing to a book that he had been perusing.
“So if we learn this rune structure, we can go home, how come we cannot already figure it out?” Brian said.
“I suspect it is heavy on the necromantic magic side. We just do not have enough of the right kind of spells.” Derek admitted.
“Why do we constantly run into that wall, damn it, do we need the linkage net before we go do this?”
“They are the best at magical defense of anybody in the world, we need all the power we can muster.”
Over the years of peace a great city rose up in the wasteland in the south when every great mage, the Chosen and many other powers besides came together to unmake the wasteland left over from the destruction of a great and powerful magic nation. Khelben Blackstaff gave his life-force to the working, building a spell so vast that it untwisted a portion of the weave thought lost forever. It was Woodstock for mages, but the Seven did not get a call.
The Wizards of the north thought they had the measure of the sorcerers and they were found wanting. The wizards came together and saw what they could accomplish, but it never occurred to them work together all the time. It was a once in a thousand year casting that created a veiled city of magic for those with invitations to come and share lore to build a better world. It was a response to the rise of Shade, the violence of the North and the return of the Demon Fey and Fearim to the world and even to the growing threat of Lolth through her drow. Mystra kindled hope, but the Sorcerer’s were not invited.
“Now I know how the Door’s felt.” Schminke complained.
“Nothing should care to interfere with us tapping into a few wild nodes; we will not show up on anyone’s radar.” Scott said “We move quickly, secure the lich node first and place the gate. Then we move to the other more difficult nodes and use that wish you wrote to create the linking and joining node on the hill. It is a slam dunk.”
“Whenever one seeks to gather power from the outside there is a backlash. I wish we could rearrange the elements in the valley to make the entire process in-house.” Derek warned.
“I am sure that there is a power at some point that allows one to create or move a node, once we have it we can move all the nodes into our sphere of influence if that is what we need to do.” Brian suggested.
“Of course we might just end up with another melt down if we do that.” James noted.
Scott said “Maybe we need to secure the nodes with habitats and then link the whole thing together with house gates. We use the sanctuary to link the powers and we use the house here to link to the locations, all on the down low.”
“That sounds best, so we stop worrying about what the neighbors think and we go about our business. Maybe in a few years we can go pound on the gates and they will let us into their club.” Jason added.
“I think we may let them pound on ours. Look at what we have done, nearly thirty thousand souls within a few miles of where their were none, the ground reshaped, a city that still makes every new visitor shake their head in wonder, a new type of dwarven underground city that supplies its own food, reclaims waste and uses as much magic as a city of elves. We have a house full of loyal friends. A solid guard force and the gnomes have taken the principles we have taught them and run away with them, did you know they have a generator? They made it and a Tesla coil to run an electric motor. I mean the thing is all gold and runes and gems and such but it works anyway, maybe we should parse it down for them and help them build one to get power from the falls.” Schminke said.
Brian said “I am ready for some action, we can train gnomes when we come back.” This was greeted with a circle of nods and raised drinks, time to go back out. The batteries were charged and the heroes would ride forth again.
THE END FOR NOW…