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I present to you a short story based off of an idea that Jens (aka "the Stalker") and I had... oh, probably several years ago. I've been building off of those ideas for a while now, but want to give credit where it's due. Anyway, this little story has been kicking around in my head for quite some time, and I thought I'd finally put pen to paper and share it with you.
The Other Doomsday Deviceby John Calvin
Character Cast (Major and Minor)
Kanabraxas - Alphatian Baron who comes up with the idea for the Alphatian Doomsday Device.
Teljinaes - Kanabraxas' younger brother and zzonga addict.
Zandor - Once Prince of Alphatia, now the mad Emperor of the shattered empire.
Cateris - Fedonious's young aide.
Eusebius Torion - The emperor of Thyatis. His father has just died and he is trying to hold the Empire together (under his rule).
Fedonious - An aging Thyatian admiral experiencing the twilight of his career. Still loyal to Eusebius.
Justus Decentius - A soldier in the Thyatian army. He served in the wrath war and still serves. His home town and everyone he knew was destroyed by an asteroid from the sky.
Olrik - A Hinterlander in the Thyatian legions.
Vanionus - An upstart officer in the Thyatian navy, who may be under the control of the Senate.
Arcane - A mysterious blue giant, sent to Glantri to reveal to them the secrets of space travel.
Armondo - A Belcadiz elf and newest member of the Brotherhood of Rad.
Tenor Maris - A soldier on the northern frontier and sometime merchant.
Kagwarf Rocksbane - The oldest Rocksbane brother, and leader of the minor Rockhome Clan of Rocksbane.
Redface Gredak - Kagwarf Rocksbane's trusted councillor.
Rudhalf - A scout in Steddan's outfit.
Steddan Rocksbane - The younger Rocksbane brother. Sent to the Isle of Dawn to explore mineral deposits left in the wake of a recent meteor crash.
Turic - Steddan Rocksbane's cousin and right hand dwarf.
Cerywan - One of Gyllendri's operatives. Formerly stationed with the Vyalia, but now an expert on Thyatis. Loyal, but always testing to see if her commander is worthy of respect.
Darafellyn - Radiant Shaman of the shadow elves. Received visions from Rafiel about travelling to the stars.
Frythilin - One of Gyllendri's operatives. Maintains watch over the NACE and the Alphatian Sea. Monotonous and pedantic.
Gyllendri - Leader of a shadow elf commando squad that operates in the Known World and other surface nations. Believes that shadow elves are fulfilling their destiny by reclaiming the surface. Also known as Gallafyn.
Heffenet - Attendant of the Radiant Shaman.
Jaemor - One of Gyllendri's operatives. Maintains watch over the Sea of Dread and the nations there. Minor mage and expert of disguises.
Merlyl - Attendant of the Radiant Shaman.
Vanyr - One of Gyllendri's operatives and a mage. Believes that shadow elves should stay beneath the surface, and away from the light of day. Also known as Vyndell.
The Other Doomsday Device
Prologue - Alphatia
Kanabraxas was in a foul mood. The Empire was in dire straits, and soon the Duke would be calling upon him to fulfil his duties as Baron and go to war against Thyatis. That would put a dampener on all of his magical research, that much was for certain. Kanabraxas couldn't let that happen. The trouble was he didn't know how to stop it.
A crash from the study broke the irate mage from his reveries. "In the name of the Empress, what was that!" he shouted at no one in particular. Not seconds later did a white haired servant stick his head into the room, "Your brother has returned, Sire," he muttered.
Blast. Well, this was a problem that Kanabraxas did know how to handle. He was in the study as fast as his legs could take him there. What he found did not surprise him in the least. A dishevelled, stinking, filthy creature in what were once fine garments, thrashed about the room, laughing hysterically. "This isn't my chamber!" More laughter erupted from the figure until he turned around to see Kanabraxas. Stumbling backwards he gasped, "Brother, what are you doing here?"
"You are no longer in the Zzonga den, fool," Kanabraxas sneered. "You are in the study." To punctuate this statement, a porcelain bust of Tyrion II came crashing down from the pedestal it once stood upon. "I swear Teljinaes, if I have to clean up any more of your messes, it will be the last one you make. I do not need this right now, I have problems enough on my own."
Feigning concern Teljinaes asked, "What problems, brother dear?" before knocking over yet another bookshelf.
"Blasted fool! How long have you been in your stupor? Have you heard nothing?" The blank look on his brother's face told him the truth of it. "Sundsvall was destroyed yesterday. The Glantrians have some sort of doomsday weapon, and they used it upon us." Teljinaes shrugged. "Yes, be as blasé about it as you want. You'll change your tune when the Empire impresses you into the army." Finally some blood rushed back into his brother's face. The Zzonga haze lifted for a few brief moments as understanding set in.
"And you as well, brother."
"Yes," Kanabraxas nodded, "and I as well. But there must be some way to prevent that. I have too many things to do here."
"Why not just build our own doomsday weapon then?"
"Sure. Just build our own. Fling rocks down from the sky for all I care. If the immortals know what, can fling them at Darokin, surely we can fling them at Glantri."
"You're a mad fool!" Kanabraxas could see the Zzonga haze glaze back over his brother's eyes. The rage built up within him until everything he saw was red. "Worse than that, you're utterly useless!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, grabbing the lightning wand from his belt holster.
Kanabraxas shook his head in disbelief. He was almost glad that he had restrained himself from destroying his fool of a brother. Almost. Could the zzonga head actually be onto something? Kanabraxas wondered for a brief moment if the drug induced stupor brought on brief fits of genius.
"Send these messages out immediately," he said, shoving a handful of scrolls into the old servant's hands. "And see that my brother sobers up. I have a job for him to do."
The itching. The itching wouldn't stop. It was all Teljinaes could do to keep from scratching himself bloody. "What am I doing here?"
"Just pay attention, bloody fool." Teljinaes could tell that his brother was loosing his patience with him rather quickly, but he didn't care. His head hurt too much. "Prince Zandor will see us soon. It's important to impress him with this idea, or you and I may be shipped off to the front... or worse..."
"Yes, but why do I have to be here? Couldn't you handle this by yourself?"
Kanabraxas smiled. A long thin smile. His face seemed to distort for a moment, almost stretch from one end of the room to the other. A cold sweat trickled down Teljinaes' forehead as his brother came back into focus with a 'pop'. The zzonga flashbacks were getting worse. He needed a hit badly, but his brother had put a stop to that. "I could do this myself, but then where would you be? Huh? Yes, just where you were last night. Destined for the front. If we do this together, then we may both escape that fate."
His brother's reasoning had a certain amount of logic to it. Sighing deeply he relented. "Very well," he said. "What is it you want me to do?"
"Nothing fool! Haven't you been listening? Just stand there and look like you know what you're doing. I'll take care of everything." Teljinaes didn't like the sound of that, but he didn't have much of a choice in the matter either.
"Well, get on with it! Do not presume to waste our time!"
Teljinaes was petrified. It felt like thousands of prickly bugs were crawling around inside of his skin. He wondered if the feeling was caused by the zzonga, or by the Prince Zandor's cold hard stare. What was Kanabraxas doing? He was supposed to be doing all of the talking. Where did he go?
Sweat began to trickle visibly down Teljinaes' brow. Zandor's stare did not soften. What was he going to do? He had to do something. Risking Zandor's ire Teljinaes ventured a brief glance over his shoulder. Kanabraxas was there behind him, fumbling through a bag full of scrolls. "Brother!" he hissed.
"Sorry brother," Kanabraxas stuttered. "Your majesty, I beg your forgiveness." Pulling a single scroll from the sack he raised it above his head and exclaimed, "Here it is!"
Kanabraxas rushed past his brother apologising profusely. He laid out the scroll on the small carved wood table standing between his brother and the prince. Mumbling some arcane words, he invoked several arcane symbols over the scroll with his hands.
Zandor's jaw was clenching now. That was the last thing that Teljinaes saw before the lights in the room grew dim, and an illusionary depiction of the solar system sprung up from the scroll before him. To Teljinaes' surprise a voice accompanied the illusion.
"Behold the Tears of Asterius!" The voice boomed. Something was funny about it. Something Teljinaes couldn't quite put his finger on. "From here the Alphatian Empire will breed a weapon so powerful, that all of our enemies will be crushed beneath us." The narrated illusion began to describe an undertaking of titanic proportions. With a handful of skyships and several of the right mages, the Alphatians would essentially build a gigantic catapult in space. Once complete it could rain fiery death upon the planet below, essentially destroying any target the Alphatians chose. The only dangerous phase was after construction, during which time the device would be calibrated. Several test shots at the planet might alert foreign powers to the device before it was fully functional, but the illusory voice proclaimed that to be an acceptable risk. What was it about the voice that was so strange? Teljinaes still could not figure it out.
Finally the illusion came to an end and the rooms normal lighting once again took effect. Was Zandor pleased or displeased. Teljinaes allowed his eyes to adjust to the rooms ambient light. The prince still stood before him, the same stern look on his face. Teljinaes' mouth was dry. He tried to swallow, but ended up coughing instead. The prince took a step toward him, reaching a hand toward his neck. This is it, thought Teljinaes! He looked around for Kanabraxas, but his brother was nowhere to be seen. "Sire, I can explain!" he quivered, the sound nearly not enough to escape his mouth. The sound... the voice...
Teljinaes tensed as the Zandor gave him a hardy clap on his shoulder. "It is because of mages like you that we will finally win this war, crushing the barbarians beneath us!" Zandor was nearly foaming at the mouth. He wasn't angry, Teljinaes finally realised... he was ecstatic. And he thought the plan was all Teljinaes' doing. The voice... The voice hadn't been that of his brother's like Teljinaes had expected, but that of his own! Zandor ushered Teljinaes through an ornate door to a side chamber. "We have much to discuss, you and I. But there is no time. You will have what you need to complete this project. Prepare to leave in the morning..."
"Leave Sire? Leave for where?"
Zandor chuckled. "Of course we can't trust this operation to anyone but the best. And who better than the architect? You are going to the Tears of Asterius!"
Shadow Elves - Merlyl and Heffenet
The two acolytes gave each other questioning looks. Their mistress had been communing inside the Chamber of the Spheres for nearly a full cycle. Neither dared speak. They knew their duty too well for that, but something would need to be done soon. It was never... healthy to stay inside of the Chamber overly long.
Cold hard stone covered the entrance to the Chamber of the Spheres. Over the centuries the Shadow Elf shaman had carved the walls, the ceilings, and even the floors, full with runes. Yet neither of the acolytes could distinguish any of them. The room was cold as well as dark, and the entire room was nothing more than a grey blur to their eyes. When the Chamber opened however, light flooded the room... a brilliant white light.
Darafellyn stumbled out of the chamber. Merlyl and Heffenet caught her as she came crashing to the ground. Her facial markings were bright red and swollen. Vicious red welts ran all the way from her neck, down her arms, and further down the small of her back.
"Mistress!" the two cried in unison.
"I have seen them! I have seen them!" Darafellyn's eyes were wide and filled with the fires of Rafiel. She struggled to maintain her own balance, but could not quite succeed without her two acolytes help.
"What have you seen, mistress?" Heffenet asked. He held her steady as Merlyl slipped around behind her and placed her hands on the shaman's temples. Heffenet could feel the power of Rafiel flow forth from her and into their mistress. "Mistress, what did you see?" he pleaded.
Merlyl's work was already taking effect though. The nasty red welts along Darafellyn's body grew smaller, and her facial markings returned to a more natural shade of purple. Her eyelids grew heavy, but she gripped Heffenet with a strength that seemed well beyond her power. "I saw..."
"What did you see," he said a final time, his voice a barely audible whisper.
"I saw... the stars," she said. "I saw the stars!"
Thyatis - Eusebius
The Emperor sat stiffly in his thrown. The throne room was a morass of human flesh, but the silence spoke volumes. The royal family, senators, courtesans, high ups in several of the most notable merchant houses, imperial guards, and even several wizards from Sclaras were standing motionless in the vast palace room. All eyes were on one figure. A lone man, stooped and wrinkled, stood in the centre of the room. Braziers encircled him spewing out gouts of incense bred smoke.
Eusebius was equally as riveted on the old man. He was their last hope. No one had been able to explain the horrors that rained down from the sky, destroying several small towns on the Isle of Dawn, as well as a few villages in mainland Thyatis. The Sclaran wizards had been trying for weeks to come up with an answer, but as yet they had failed.
It seemed as if the immortals themselves had planned these attacks - perhaps as some form of punishment, although Eusebius knew not for what. They would find out now if that was the case, for the old cleric had finished performing his rituals. They would find out, that is, if the immortals would not blast them from the planet.
The cleric stood up straight. As the brazier flames were snuffed of their life, the figure in the centre of the throne room took on a giantish form. Its mere presence lit the room, as flames came forth from its eyes. When it spoke, it was not with the cleric's voice.
"Behold!" it boomed. "The heavens themselves seek vengeance. Their fury will strike the godless from this earth, washing them away in star fire. Heed this warning, lest you share their fate!"
As suddenly as the apparition had appeared, it vanished. The old cleric was left in its place, crumbled to the ground.
"Attend to him." Esubius commanded. The throne room broke into a flurry of action. The silence of the spell was broken, and the Thyatians hurriedly murmured to one another.
"Silence!" The emperor glared at his subjects and they complied in an instant. "Does he yet live?"
"Yes, your majesty. He is weakened, but lives yet." Several of the attending acolytes helped their patriarch to his feet. They bore his weight, and began to lead him from the throne room.
The old cleric turned to the emperor, regaining a portion of his strength. "Your majesty," his hoarse voice cracked, "you heard the will of the immortals?" Eusebius nodded. "Then we must take heed." He shrugged off the support of the acolytes. "We must repent our ways, and regain the favour of the immortals." At this several of the senators raised their voices in assent. "I will lead our people back to the right path, lest Thyatis itself is consumed in flame!"
"No." Eusebius rose from his throne. He had to suppress a smile. The cleric was old, but he still kept his wits about him. He made a mental note to watch this one more closely in the future. "Your concern for the empire is noted, and much appreciated. You have served your people well. But I am emperor. The responsibility is mine. I will go to the temple this very instant to make offerings to the immortals. You will attend me."
His personal guard formed around him as he left the throne room. All in attendance followed the emperor to the temple.
Rockhome - Kagwarf
Kagwarf Rocksbane wiped his gritty forehead with the back of his arm as he sat down at his desk. A minor tremor shook the room but he took no notice. Grabbing a grimy rag from the corner of his desk he proceeded to wipe his hands but ended up getting more dirt on them than off.
Several parchments sat haphazardly upon his desk. He grabbed one and broke the seal. Another tremor shook the room and dirt and pebbles fell from the ceiling to cover Kagwarf, his desk, and the parchment sitting there, but he paid it no mind.
"Minor collapse in shaft 3," announced one of the foremen as he stuck his head into Kagwarf's office. Kagwarf grunted an acknowledgment without lifting his eyes. "The mines are playing out."
"Then you best find some fresh veins."
"There's a HighBox here for you." That got Kagwarf's attention. A thin gnome dressed all in finery walked into the office and placed an ornate metal box in front of the surly dwarf. He hardly seemed to notice all of the filth falling around him. Highforge gnomes were well trained to ignore such things, especially the ones who travelled through Rockhome.
Kagwarf liked the Highforge gnomes, and their HighBoxes. They both came in very useful. The dwarf studied the ornate box placed before him and quickly sent his foreman away. The box itself was a foot long and half as wide and deep. Its outer panels were lacquered a shiny green and had golden runes intertwining about it. The locking mechanism was a large circular protrusion that jutted from the HighBox's forward facing panel. The lock was mechanical and supposedly could foil any unauthorised attempt to open the box. Only the proper key could open the box, and that hung safely around Kagwarf's thick neck at all times.
He reached his grimy hand down the front of his shirt and pulled out a circular golden medallion. Slowly he aligned up the knobs and protrusions from his key to the corresponding nooks and crevices of the lock. "Do you possess the key?" the seemingly disinterested gnome intoned.
"I do," said Kagwarf, knowing full well that the gnome was anything but disinterested. He was also part of the HighBox package. Perhaps he was a wizard, or a highly trained assassin. It didn't matter. No matter what the gnome's preferred trade was, if Kagwarf did not provide the precisely worded response to his question he would be slain in an instant. "Access is granted from the forge on high," and with that he slipped the key into place and turned it effortlessly.
Inside the velvety confines of the box were two items, a gnarled and unworked piece of metal, and a cracked piece of parchment. Kagwarf removed the scroll with a surprising delicacy. Gently he unrolled the parchment. It had only one word inscribed on it.
Kagwarf moved the parchment aside and brought out the metal fragment. He gripped it, stroked it. He brought it up close to his head so that he could smell it. He tasted it, felt its strength between his teeth.
"I want to send a reply message."
"Of course," the gnome had seated himself on one corner of the desk. "To whom will it be addressed?"
"To my brother..." Kagwarf groped through his desk drawers to find quill and parchment. Furiously he scratched out his message on the soiled page before him. "To Steddan. To my brother, Steddan..."
The gnomes of Highforge provide a valuable service to those that can afford it. For a price, they will guarantee that any message, or small item, will be delivered to the specified recipient. Messages and packages are placed in magical strongboxes called HighBoxes and delivered directly by a Highforge gnome.
Several mechanisms protect the integrity of HighBoxes.
• HighBoxes are protected by complex mechanical locking mechanisms. The recipient's key will open the high box. Otherwise the lock has a DC of 30.
• HighBoxes are protected by magical locks and wards. The recipient's key is the only thing that can deactivate the magical wards. Opening the box without first deactivating the wards will cause a 15d6 fireball to explode, centred on the box.
• Finally HighBoxes are protected by their gnomish deliverers. The recipients are questioned with a pass-phrase before the box is delivered and they must answer with the proper response. Those that do not answer, or that answer incorrectly must face the gnome who bears the box, who is either a battlemage or assassin of the highest quality.
Shadow Elves - Gyllendri
No tales that Gyllendri had ever heard had prepared her for what she saw before her now. How could they? Always the sun was described as bright... so bright you dared not look at it. What did they know? The sheer power of the sun was awe-inspiring. No words could describe it. And it did burn. It hurt Gyllendri's eyes to stare at is so, but she could not take them from the sight. She watched for several more minutes as the bright orange orb hid itself behind the eastern horizon.
"Had your fill yet?" the mage called up to her.
"Does one ever have their fill of such beauty?"
"If one is wise." Gyllendri closed here eyes. They burnt so bad it felt like hot pokers were scorching the insides of her eyelids. She gripped the branches of the twisted and gnarled tree that she had climbed to see her view. The bark felt cold...not an unpleasant feeling, it felt much like stone in the earth. Slowly the burning sensation receded and she made her way down to the base of the tree where the rest of her team was waiting.
"The City of Stars is one of the most wondrous things I have ever seen, but surely it doesn't hold a candle's flame to the setting sun."
Vanyr made a disdainful grunt.
"Truly our people were made to behold such wonders."
Vanyr harrumphed again. "Truly the sun must have blinded you already. Our people were made to walk in the dark. This lighting is much more suitable to my eyes at least."
"So long we have fought for our birthright. To walk underneath the trees, with the light of the stars..." Vanyr grumbled something under his breath but Gyllendri would not be distracted, "and the light of the sun to shine upon our faces." She didn't need to see the look on Vanyr's face to tell what he thought of that idea.
She would have to watch that one. Much of her core team had come with her from beneath the earth, but nearly half of the group standing before her were strangers. They had all been called from postings across the Old World, including Vanyr. She needed them, needed their expertise just as much as she needed to have loyal followers around her. "Give me the latest reports."
Jaemor stepped forward from the group of shadow elves surrounding her. "More fire has fallen from the sky. This time it struck in the Sea of Dread. Several Minrothaddan ships were sunk by the tidal waves that the impact produced, but the vessel with our operative on board managed to survive. The islanders suffered heavy casualties when their shores were eaten by the waves, as did those in the shires, in Karameikos, and in Thyatis, though not as drastically.
"The Nace lands are just now starting to recover from the hit they suffered thirteen months ago. The air is still choked with dust and ash, but Alphatian wizards are devising ways to counteract those problems. Whether or not they'll be able to grow enough crops to sustain themselves has yet to be seen."
"And the other nations? How do they react?"
Another elf stepped to the forefront. Her name was Cerywan, a former operative among the Vyalia. "Thyatis continues to hold most of the Isle of Dawn. That holding may be tenuous, though it is hard to say with all of the turmoil in those lands. On the mainland there is unrest. There have been riots, but mostly the people flock to their temples and shrines. The emperor even leads them in their prayers." She cocked her head, waiting for a reply from her commander.
"But you believe that there is more going on there than simple worship?" Gyllendri asked.
"Yes commander. It is always so in Thyatis. The waters appear to be choppy and frothing, but I sense that beneath the surface they are calm. Thyatis plans something, though I cannot say what."
Gyllendri nodded. Cerywan was replaced by a tall lanky elf named Frythilin. "Nace is in turmoil, as we expected," he droned in a monotonous voice. "The military commanders holding portions of the Isle of Dawn fear that the wizards of Bellisarria will soon usurp their control. The wizards in turn fear that the military commanders will soon rebel, or worse yet declare for Thyatis. And of course all of them fear what the Thothians might do."
That is well, she thought. We couldn't have done a better job destabilising the area if we planned it ourselves. Not that the Alphatians were much of a bother to her people, but it was nice to know they wouldn't become such a threat anytime soon.
She listened to the rest of her lieutenants report. Rockhome was quiet. The dwarves no doubt contented themselves with delving farther into the earth. Karameikos, the Shires, Ierendi, and Minrothad were all busy repairing damages caused by the recent storms and tsunamis. The Ylari played in their desert, and the Ethengari on their fields of grass. None of those nations concerned her. There were others though.
Oenkmarian humanoids were expanding their territories just to the north of Aengmor. They had begun to assimilate native tribes of humanoids in earnest. The disturbing news was that Darokin did not seem to mind these actions. Some reports even hinted that they were supporting the humanoids.
Then there were the Glantrians. She didn't trust them as far as she could throw one of the twisted, leafless trees around her. They were quiet for now, but Gyllendri suspected they wouldn't be for long. The shaman had told her as much. "Seek out the wizards above. They will show you the way." Rafiel himself had given them this knowledge. She permitted herself a slight smile as she told her group that Glantri was exactly where they were heading.
Thyatis - Justus
Black ash continued to fall on the blasted landscape. There was nothing alive as far as the eye could see. Scrub was burned away, trees scorched and broken. No animal made a sound, if ever animals had populated this place. There was nothing here. There had been two months ago, just before a giant ball of stone and fire fell from the stars and slammed into Isle of Dawn. Now all that remained was dead ground, toppled buildings, and the small camp of Thyatian soldiers that had been stationed here to assess damages and regain order in the area.
"Nothing could have survived this." The big red head, a Hinterlander, continued removing rubble from the doorway of a broken ruin.
Justus Decentius drove his spade into the ground and adjusted the cloth he wore around his face to keep the ash out of his lungs. As far as he could tell, it did little good. "No," he called back to Olrik. Justus had been in East Portage fighting against the Thothians when the meteor hit. The shock of the blast sent waves of heat across the land that singed most of Justus' hair and knocked him and everyone else on the battle field flat on the ground. "That doesn't mean we won't have a welcoming committee." He supposed that the look his friend gave him from behind his own cloth mask was one of mild confusion. "Flarius Regino and his squad ran into a couple of ghouls trapped in a homestead on the north ridge. They tore one of the poor sods apart before anyone had a chance to react. Just be ready for anything."
The Hinterlander's eyes grew wide and he loosened the sword in his scabbard. Suffering and death such as this could sometimes create the living dead. Olrik quickly made a sign to ward off evil.
Justus grunted as he cleared away the final few stones blocking his path and kicked in the ruined doorway. "Come on. You know the routine."
They didn't find any ghouls inside. Just the charred remains of what must have been the former occupants, all huddled together in a corner. A fully grown male and female, and three small children. This house was just like all of the others they had searched.
Both soldiers began digging shallow graves without saying a word. It was something they had done dozens of times already in this immortals forsaken land. Digging graves and reopening roads. That was all Justus was good for these days, or so it seemed to him.
"It could be worse," he commented to Olrik when they had finished their task.
"Yeah, how so?" The giant ran a thick fingered hand through his hair.
"We could still be fighting the Thothians..."
Both of the soldiers shuddered. The fighting was over for now, but the Thothians and Alphatians were still on the Isle of Dawn, and Justus had no idea how long their tenuous truce would last.
Rockhome - Kagwarf
It was the same metal. There was no doubt in Kagwarf's mind. When Redface Gredak returned he simply confirmed Kagwarf's suspicions.
The old dwarf's ruddy features were only amplified by the torchlight in the cramped mine shaft. Gredak waited for several miners to squeeze past before saying anything to his chief. "Tried everything. Can't even bend the stuff."
"There's a way."
Gredak didn't seem convinced. "Nothing short of dragon fire would even soften that metal... got any dragons lying about Kag?"
"Or? Or what?"
More dwarves came up the long passage and squeezed between the two. Shouts could be heard in the distance, and the clanging of hammers and picks. Kagwarf helped one of the miners along his way with a sturdy shove to the back. "A clan forge."
Old Redface's eyes widened. "So you have seen this stuff before. I knew it."
Kagwarf pulled a wide dagger from an ornate sheath at his belt and handed it to Redface hilt first. The metal was a dark grey in colour and didn't hold any shine to it, but the blade was sharp. Sharper and stronger than anything that Kagwarf had seen in his lifetime. "Sted and me, we found a small pocket of this ore a few years back in the broken lands. It was just after Darokin got smashed from the sky. Me, Sted, and some of our cousins went poking around the great creator that got pushed up on Darokin's northern border. We figured the way the earth got smashed like that, it must have open up some new veins. Well, we were right and this is what we found. Stuff is damned hard to mine. We were able to get out just enough of the ore to forge this knife before the troubles started."
"No, damned shadow elves. Bubbling up out of the earth like a festering boil. Some blasted fool of a kinsman of ours decided that he'd like to take him that city floating on the lava pool down there. Riled up those shadow elves like he was poking a stick down an ant hole."
"So Sted has managed to open the vein back up?" Redface nodded in approval.
Redface's red face pinched up in deep concentration. "He's found a new strike then." The old dwarf took Kagwarf's silence as confirmation. "He'll be sending us shipments of the ore then, but we'll be having our own problems."
"No place to forge the blasted metal." Kagwarf placed a hand on the greybeard's shoulder. "We need to ally ourselves with one of the major clans in this endeavour. That's the only way to get our hands on a clan forge to smelt this ore. This could be our golden strike!"
"Yes," nodded Redface in agreement. "The only problem in playing with the big clans is not getting stepped on during the game. You can't take the ore to the Buhrodar. Likely they'd claim it all in the name of Kagyar. Torkrest would be almost as bad."
"Everast and Syrklist are too large as well. Neither would allow us to retain any rights to the ore. So our options are limited."
"Which leaves only Wywarf and Skarrad. Not much of a choice in my opinion."
Kagwarf shrugged. "We have to get our hands on the ore first. No sense to fret over what to do with it till we're sure we can get it."
"Right," said Redface Gredak, tugging at his grey whiskers. "I'll make the arrangements."
Glantri - Armondo
"These are not random events." The blue giant's face showed no trace of emotion whatsoever. Where did he come by this information?
"Then you're saying that these are..."
"Attacks." The giant nodded. "Thoughtfully planned attacks...laid out by your enemies."
"And then you come along and offer to solve all of our problems. For a modest fee, of course. How convenient for you that we should be in so dire a need."
The blue skinned giant remained unmoved. "I never offered to solve your problems for you. What I am offering you is the means for you to solve them yourself."
"Even more convenient for you." Armondo gripped the jewelled pommel of the slender rapier hanging from his waist. It rasped and clicked as he slid it in and out of its scabbard.
"Of course I could take my business elsewhere."
"That won't be necessary." Armondo found this Arcane creature to be utterly infuriating. He had to gain control of his emotions before they ruined any chances of making this deal. The Brotherhood would pay just about any price to get their hands on what this Arcane was offering. They had been searching for a reliable method to traverse the void for several years now. "What price?"
At this the Arcane's lips did seem to twist into a thin smile. "75,000 gold ducats. Not so much for a powerful nation like Glantri, I think."
That was the problem though. Armondo didn't have Glantri's backing. He didn't want it. This was a private affair. The Brotherhood didn't want parliament to start asking questions. He would have to find a way to pay this monster's fees.
Rockhome - Steddan
Steddan gave his helmet a clank, making sure it rested securely on his head. Surveying the charred land around him he turned to his cousin Turic. The muffled sound of pickaxes was nearly drowned out by the constant chattering of several Serrainer gnomes huddled over some contraption near the crater wall. "Too damned familiar for my tastes."
Turic looked up from the ore fragment he was studying. "Huh?"
"The charred crater, ore dispersal pattern, it's just like the site we found a few years back."
"Yeah, Sted," Turic laughed, "but not too many elves around here."
"No," Steddan agreed, "but the air is just as still. Like the calm before the storm. Mark my words, there is trouble brewing."
Turic laughed again. "Yeah, these are troubled times, Sted. What'd you expect? The empires clash... and perhaps the immortals themselves, Alphatia sinks, there are half a dozen or more petty warlords running about the Island of Dawn trying to consolidate their power, fire falls from the sky destroying small villages, and here we sit in the middle of it all. It ain't no dance with the Klintest monster to be sure."
The setting sun turned everything a ruddy hue as Steddan squinted his eyes to peer at the horizon. "Think your message got through?" Turic asked.
Steddan shrugged. He had sent a HighBox. If you wanted to deliver a message there was no surer way to guarantee its arrival. Highforge gnomes were very reliable, which was more than Steddan could say about the group from Serraine that he was doing business with now. Well, there was no getting around it. Highforge gnomes were reliable, but they simply could not move the quantity of ore that Steddan would be producing. The Serrainers claimed that they could. If only they could agree as to how they were going to do it, Steddan might be able to work a few of the knots out of his stomach.
"Here comes Rudhalf," Turic grunted.
A squat figure could be seen running towards the camp. With amazing agility he wended his way through the rugged terrain of the crater shattered landscape. Rudhalf jumped to a halt mere inches from the other two dwarves. His tawny brown hair was plastered to his head by sweat. One hand held the straps of a small rucksack flung over his shoulders and the other tightly gripped the shaft of his war hammer.
"Thothians," he said between short gasps for air. "Small group. Maybe 50. Armed and armoured."
"Brigands?" Turic asked.
"Don't think so." Rudhalf was getting his breath back. "Look military to me. Probably an advanced scouting party. I think there's a larger force down south marching in this direction."
"Well, they can't be after us," Turic scoffed.
"No," said Stedden. He could feel several of those knots in his stomach start to tighten. "There was that encampment up north that we skirted around on the way down here. Thyatian maybe, or perhaps even Heldanners. More likely than not they mean to engage them."
"Let 'em," Turic shrugged. "It ain't no skin off our noses."
Steddan swore. "Rudhalf, pull another ten from the digging. Set up perimeter defences, post sentries, and then head back out to keep an eye on those Thothians." Turic shrugged again, pulling out his spiked mace to examine its head. Shaking his head Steddan turned to stare at the setting sun, "It's the Great Crater all over again."
Glantri - Armondo
Waving a hand the slight Belcadizan elf directed an unseen servant to stoke the fire. His study was small, but functional. A fireplace and mantle adorned one wall, while books lined two others. A desk made of Alfheim oak and a cushioned chair sat against the last.
Armondo shuffled through the papers on his desktop. Missives from his cousin Bernadice, updating him on the current state of the Belcadizan court in Glantri City. Messages from his agents in the Great School. Essays extracted from the Great Library on the ecology of several varieties of undead. None of these things were of any use to him. Armondo grabbed a fistful of the paper, crumpled it into a large wad, and tossed it onto the fire. The unseen servant made sure that no embers escaped to light blaze to the books nearby.
Nothing about the blue creatures could be found anywhere in the annuls of Mystaran history. Nearly nothing. There was however the Thothian reference. The Brotherhood was loathe to investigate that path even though it was the first good lead that Armondo had discovered. In fact, it was the only lead.
There it was staring at him from above the mantelpiece on a fragment of stone taken from a tomb near Trikelios. The scene depicted a large pyramid with several thousand slaves quarrying stones, and moulding them into shape. The Pharaoh stood near the top of the structure, accepting a glowing gift from a large blue man.
Waving his hand Armondo dismissed the unseen servant and pulled a bottle of port from a lower desk drawer. Pouring himself a glass he turned his attention to a narrow mahogany box sitting on the desk. Pulling a key from a chain around his neck, he touched it to the box, causing the lid to pop open. Within was a scroll parchment set on two wooden dowels.
"Perhaps there is news from the east..." Unrolling one end of the scroll, Armondo peered with anticipation, and was not disappointed. Strange pictograms filled out the parchment as he unrolled it.
Casting a minor spell allowing him to read the symbols, Armondo took a pull from his glass. The dark liquid flowed down his throat like fire.
I have found the site you are looking for.
A chill ran down Armondo's spine. His agent in Thothia was quite capable. Armondo even believed that he could be trusted, up to a point. He reached for a quill and dipping it in a nearby inkpot, vigorously began to write a reply. His agent had the twin of this magical scroll and would instantly see whatever Armondo wrote.
Secure the necessary supplies and await further instructions. I will come personally.
Even as he wrote it, Armondo was not certain that he would get the chance.
Thyatis - Justus
His tenuous peace hadn't lasted long enough for Justus. The Thothians had allied with some local brigands that still held loyalties for Alphatia. Now they were mustering for battle. Arrows screamed past his face, but Justus continued to press his foe. He was vaguely aware of Olrik somewhere behind him, grappling with a monstrosity that the Thothians had pulled from the grave. Justus' foe was of flesh and blood however.
Swords clanged together and Justus could feel the heat inside of him building up. This Thothian was nearly his equal, and he began to worry that he might not be able to get away from this encounter in one piece. Those thoughts fled with a second barrage of arrows. One caught the unlucky Thothian in the calf. The wound was trivial, but it gave Justus the opening he needed. He ended the Thothian with a quick stab to the ribs.
Olrik sidled up beside him, both of them diving hard into the muddy ash as yet another wave of arrows whizzed overhead. "Centurion is down!" Olrik yelled above the din of battle. "We have to retreat!"
Justus knew that was a bad idea. The countryside was flat and barren. They would never make it back to the fortifications. "We can't. They've got us pinned here!" Frantically he looked around for some way to turn the tide of this battle. "There," he pointed off to the east where the land rose and became a little jagged. "Higher ground. If we can reach it we might have a chance of holding."
Olrik nodded and began shouting, rallying others behind him. Justus followed suit, and broke for the high ground.
The position was better than Justus could have hoped. They were near Eckto, or what had recently been Eckto. Justus thought they were probably very near the site of impact that had caused all of the destruction around him. Not only did the impact create a crater and some high ground that the Thyatians could occupy, but it also dislodged some ancient ruins from beneath the earth. If he and his men could secure the ruins they would have a stronger position to fortify.
"Secure the ruins!" he yelled to Olrik and several other men near him. "Secure the ruins and prepare for attack!" Something roared just overhead, like the growl of a dragon. Justus and the others flinched as a giant shadow passed over them. He steadied himself for the beast to return, but it never did. Good, let it feast on the Thothians then. He glanced at the men around him and could tell they were all thinking similar thoughts. "Get to it! Quickly, we have little time!"
It didn't take long for his warning to bear out. The men dug in furiously for several minutes, moving loose stones and other rubble to form makeshift barriers. It wasn't much, but it was enough to give them an edge against the shambling forms that emerged through the ashes.
Rockhome - Steddan
"It's the Great Crater all over again." The knots in Steddan's stomach were nearly enough to make him crumple over in pain. "Only this time we're a lot further from home."
"Yeah, but this time ain't none of those pointy eared buggers coming up out of the ground at us."
Turic was right, but Steddan had a feeling that his small band would have troubles of another sort, and soon. He ran his hand along the cool dry sandstone wall of the passageway they were standing in. This at least, was a bit of good luck. None of the dwarves had suspected that these man made catacombs would be here when they started digging. The construction was sturdy, especially for being made by men and not dwarves. The sandstone blocks were enormous. "How heavy do you think these are Turic?"
Stroking his beard with one hand and the stone with the other Turic pondered the question. "Most of these blocks weigh about one or two tons, or I'm beardless."
There was something else about these blocks, something magical, unless Steddan missed his guess. They were ancient and designed for some powerful purpose. The dwarves had ignored the stones when they first found them. There wasn't much ore in the area, and there was no sense wasting time cutting through the walls. There wouldn't have been ore on the other side of them either. Steddan took more interest in them when things topside started to get hotter. He had ordered some of his men to dig through them in hopes of finding some position they could relocate to. They had found just that.
"I want you to get the men and relocate base camp down here."
"And the gnomes and their flying death trap?"
"That can't be helped." Steddan clapped Turic on the back sending up gouts of dust and black ash. "Load the plane with as much ore as possible and have them be ready to take off at a moment's notice."
The clanging of steel on stone always soothed Steddan. He swung his pick rhythmically, chipping away at the stone and earth before him little by little. This was the way it was supposed to be, the way that Kagyar had meant it. Sweat dripping from his forehead, stinging his eyes, carrying the taste of dirt into his mouth. The ring of the pick in his hands, the shock of each blow travelling through his arms and into his shoulders and back.
Some called it the Tranquillity of Stone. It was the state of being that a dwarf entered when he was truly happy, when he was working at his chosen craft. For Steddan that was working the pick. He was always at his happiest prying ore from the strong grasp of the earth. His quarry this time was some of the hardest ore that he had ever mined. Pausing for a moment in mid swing he thought out loud, "I wonder what we'll call it?" He finished the swing with a big dumb grin splayed across his face. "Kagyar's Shite, the stuff is hard enough."
This time when he paused all of the knots came rushing back into his stomach. The sound he heard was unmistakable. Even through all of the twisted tunnels in the dwarf mine he could make out what sounded like seven or eight dragons grumbling over King Everast's hoard.
His pick forgotten he rushed through the cramped tunnels as fast as his legs could take him. Halfway to the surface he crashed into Turic. Without loosing a step the two made toward the exit at their best speed. Turic shouted behind him as they ran. "They're coming up ridge!"
"Thyatians? Or Thothians?"
"All of the bloody buggers!"
Steddan swore. He swore as many words in dwarven, old dwarven, orc, and goblin as he could think of. He made up a few more besides. "Is the ore secured on the airplane?" Turic shouted something in the affirmative as both of them burst from the mine shaft and back into the ashy daylight. At least they had been ready.
Hard of breath Turic fed him the details. "Blasted humans are bashing each other pretty good down there. Thyatians taking a pounding. Guess one of them had the good sense to find more defensible ground."
"And that's here." Steddan grimaced. It's what he would have done in the human's place.
His men tossed some last minute supplies into the airplane and the gnomes slowly brought the vessel around. The pilot looked to Steddan for some final confirmation. Steddan looked to Turic. "You have to go with them!" he shouted over the din of the gnomish contraption.
"What?" Turic was shaking his head vigorously. "No! No!"
"You have to! You have to make sure the ore gets back to Kagwarf!"
"You go!" Turic shouted back, but Steddan would not hear him. He shoved his friend to the plane. The gnomes inside were jumping up and down. For a moment Steddan was afraid that they would tip the plane over. One of them had the good sense to open the door, and Steddan shoved Turic in. The gnome who had opened the door and one of his fellows did their best to drag the protesting dwarf inside.
Steddan watched as the gnomish contraption sputtered down their makeshift runway, lifting off and bouncing back to the ground several times before finally taking fully to the air. The plane tilted one wing and came back perilously close to the ground trying to make a turn so that it could leave the crater to the west. Steddan mumbled a silent apology to his friend as the thing roared monstrously and passed overhead. With that he turned back to the mine shaft.