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Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies

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Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies

Post by Ronson on Mon Aug 09, 2010 12:21 pm

Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies - Part I

From the pen of Eylee Zephyrswell --
Finally, we all came together, and that was when things began to become truly dangerous.



The sensation of being taller than so many people put Eylee ill at ease. She had always been petite for a Fier'dal, and in the plainsmen's settlements she had been forced to crane her head up to look at some of her taller companions. Here in Rivervale, however, she felt as though she were a giant. At one point she had caught her reflection in a window and despite being surrounded by a crowd of bustling individuals, not a one of them had even been able to reach her shoulders. She'd caught herself staring at the oddity and practically came to a stop, causing the bustling halfling behind her to bump his head square into her back.
"Sorry," she had muttered, flushing as she spoke. The cheerful little man simply tipped his hat to her and politely quickened his step so he could overtake and then pass her.
She glanced over at Kaltuk and wondered if he was feeling the same thing. Though he was shorter than her, he still, with no irony intended, dwarfed the halflings. The old priest, however, simply trundled along with an easy smile and an open ale skin, which he occasionally passed to the mountainous Nurgg at his side. There was no questioning how Nurgg must be feeling, but then, being the tallest person in his vicinity was nothing new for him. Now, if they managed to keep company in which the tall-even-for-an-ogre felt short, that would be a sight to see.
The city was a sea of color and sound; red buildings with yellow rooftops, blue buildings with purple trimming, green buildings with orange rooftops and indigo trimming -- and all of them filled with people eager to pop off with a quick witted joke or friendly greeting. The air smelled of freshly baked bread and cinnamon sugar pastries and jumjum. Their band, Eylee noted, were not the town's only visitors. In particular, the streets were peppered with Koada'dal and Feir'dal, no doubt displaced masses from the dying Elddar Forest. She examined each of them closely, waiting to stumble head long into someone she had known from her childhood, but all of the faces were unfamiliar. Still, she shrunk back and away from any of those searching elven eyes, not quite comfortable with their scrutiny and the company she was keeping.
Eylee jumped to the side as in front of her Bayle came to a stop. He swung around, blue eyes flashing beneath strands of auburn hair. She flushed again as his eyes passed over her and then smiled. Illisia turned beside him and took a markedly defensive stance, keen eyes surveying the crowd in all directions. Eylee marveled at her suspicious nature. Even among such a good natured folk, Illisia still felt the need to watch their backs. The muscles of the Halasian's shoulders seemed to relax as she finished her inspection, but Eylee noted that her hands were always moving, sometimes landing on the hilts of her twin long swords, and at other times toying with the strap of her quiver. A shudder passed down Eylee's back, and she glanced back. Kruzz had come to a stop just behind her, and she could smell his breath, which had the odor of rotting vegetation - musty and sour. His eyes darted up and down her person, evidence of the fact he was constantly watching her. She took a small step toward Bayle and Illisia then turned, sticking her chin up and meeting his gaze. The troll averted his eyes and tapped his fingertips together nervously.
"We should stop here and resupply," Bayle said. "If it were closer to dusk, I'd say we should take the opportunity to sleep in a bed, but whether or not they could actually accommodate us, or whether they would want to..." His eyes strayed over the party, lingering on the faces of Kruzz, Asharae, and Nurgg the longest. "... I think it's best if we keep traveling."
"Perhaps it would have been best if some of us had not entered the city at all, as I suggested," said Asharae. Her eyebrow raised and her lips pursed as she spoke.
"Like I said then," began Bayle, "we shouldn't --"
Suddenly, Eylee's head was filled with a dizzying sensation. Crying out, she cut off Bayle's words and began to fall back, groping desperately and catching Illisia's hand as she did. Though Eylee could barely catch the tracker's movements, the woman stepped behind her before she could hit the ground, catching her and lowering her gently.
"Eylee?" asked Bayle. "What's the matter?"
It was a boat, but not quite a boat, the most curious contraption one might ever lay eyes on. It swam, but in the air, like a bird with no grace. At its helm, a halfling bellowed orders, and behind him a small gnome worked at the gears.
As her vision cleared, she said, "A boat that flies!"
"What?" asked Kaltuk, blinking. "Did I just hear you say a boat that flies?"
"A boat that flies?" an unfamiliar voice chimed in. Eylee stood wobbly, Illisia guiding her. She drew away from the barbarian once she was to her feet, and then glanced at the source of the question. A few Rivervalians had stopped to watch and wonder at the girl's sudden collapse, whispering amongst themselves with concern, and from amongst them emerged an older halfling with long brown hair graying at the roots.
Eylee looked at her companions and then said to the halfling woman, "I sometimes see odd things, I'm sorry if I disturbed you."
The halfling looked at her skeptically. "So you haven't ever heard one thing of Twiddy Bobbick, then? Nor his flying ship?"
The companions once again exchanged glances. "No," said Bayle, stepping in, "we haven't."
"Well," said the halfling with a shrug, "he's been at work on it for years. Crashed one a few years back and then he and his odd little friend --"
"A gnome?" piped Eylee.
The halfling gave her a boggled look. "Yes, a gnome, Fiddlewiz by name," continued the halfling. "The two of them vanished into the Thicket to keep at work at it. They come into town for supplies now and then, but the poor fellows haven't managed yet to fly anything again."
Bayle and Illisia exchanged a look. Kaltuk leaned to the side and muttered under his breath to Nurgg. Eylee glanced around. Her eyes landed first on Asharae, but the Teir'dal was stuck in her standard pose -- arms crossed over her chest and eyes refusing to meet those of the rest of the party. She moved on and found only Kruzz left to confer with. He looked at her blankly and then seemed as if he were trying to say something, but his face twisted into something like a grin crossed with a snarl, and it was so unnerving that Eylee looked right back at the halfling woman.
"Perhaps you could tell us where we could find them?" she asked.
The halfling woman chuckled and then said, "I am Twiddy's own mother, and I can't tell you exactly. But I am sure if you follow the tracks of Fiddlewiz's wheeled horse, you might find them."
"Thank you, ah..." said Bayle.
"Mrs. Bobbick," said the halfling with a neat little nod, "Twiddy Bobbick is the name of my son."
"Mrs. Bobbick," said Bayle, tipping his head to her. "We just might go looking for him."
"If you beg my pardon..." A tall Koada'dal stepped up in front of the group. "I could lead you to the halfling and his ship if you wished." His eyes trained over the assembled group, ending at Asharae. "Though I must say I've never seen such a... diverse... company as this one." The word diverse was cut with a cruel humor.
Eylee examined the newcomer closely. He wore robes of a very fine, light weight red silk banded with blue, white, and gold dressings. His features were smooth and untroubled, giving him a youthful look despite the intellectual affectation to his voice. He was hooded, but beneath the edge of it, dark brown eyes peered at them.
Asharae spat, but before she could say anything, Bayle stepped in.
Bayle glared at her before answering, "If you know exactly where these two can be found, then we wouldn't lose much time stopping to take a look. I believe it's worth the sidetrack."
"Aye, I agree," said Kaltuk, "and unless anyone feels the very strong need to argue it, let's get it to it right away!"
The high elf bowed before them and said, "I am Roadyle Yerethe Tol, and I will be your guide."

* * *

Eylee walked beside Kaltuk and Nurgg through the deep grass of the Misty Thicket. As she passed under a pine tree, Nurgg's head brushed some of the bowed branches and sent a rain of pine needles down on her head. The smell was almost worth the mild pain that accompanied the pricking of needles on her skin. It was fresh and tart and made her wistful for home. It might not have been her destiny to stay amongst the Feir'dal, but it had not been all bad.
Nurgg bent over and with his large fingers, plucked a needle from her hair. "I am sorry," he said in his slow, deep voice.
"No need to apologize," she said, smiling. "I'm used to having tree bits in my hair."
Beside her, Kaltuk grunted and then chuckled good-naturedly, shaking a finger at Nurgg. "The lass is kinder than she should be," he said. "If I end up picking those things from my beard for a week, you'll get some far harsher words, I promise you."
Before Kaltuk could react, Nurgg had snatched a handful of pine and sprinkled it all over his face. Eylee stifled a giggle as the dwarf roared and stumbled back. When the rest of the party finally noticed that the trio had lagged behind them, Kaltuk was up on Nurgg's head, swatting him with a branch as the ogre stumbled around trying to snatch him off. Eylee was just watching it all with a mixture of astonishment and amusement, trying to do her best to stop them between bouts of laughter.
"You would almost think the world wasn't in danger of invasion from a hostile plane," said Illisia as she sauntered up to stand beside the spectacle. A smile played on her lips, but her words were serious.
Kaltuk and Nurgg stopped immediately, and Eylee put her hands behind her back, shoulders sinking down. It was true. They had no right acting so foolish in the face of so much, but then, it had felt so good to laugh.
Nurgg dropped to his knee so Kaltuk could roll off his back. On the way down, he landed one last swat square on Nurgg's nose. The dwarf brushed needles from his bright blue mantle, and then looked up at the ogre with a self-satisfied smirk.
Bayle swung his eyes over them and said, "Illisia is right. We don't have time for games." There was no smile on Bayle's face.
"Hold on now," said Kaltuk, stepping forward and putting his hands on his hips. "I do believe if the pair of you added together the years you've seen on this world and multiplied them five times over you still wouldn't have my years, so I'll not be letting you lecture me on proper behavior."
"So the world is not in grave danger, then?" asked Bayle, stepping up so that he loomed above Kaltuk. "Because the last that I checked, it was."
"Oh, the world is always in grave danger," said Kaltuk with a snort, wagging his finger at the much younger man, "and if the world isn't, then at least every one of us is, but you know why we fight it? Why we don't just curl up in a corner weeping over the mistakes we've made and the danger we're in? Because of games, and because of laughing, and if the world you live in is one where no one smiles, then what's the point of bothering to fight for it?"
Bayle and Kaltuk stared at one another. Bayle narrowed his eyes, Kaltuk stuck out his chest. Eylee stole a glance around. Asharae was looking at Kaltuk with a quizzical expression, but Kruzz, Nurgg, and even Illisia all seemed to be showing agreement in their own way. Kruzz had his hands up to his mouth, covering one of his overly wide and unsettling grins; Nurgg was chuckling softly; and Illisia nodded to herself slightly. Roadyle hung some distance back and simply watched the proceedings, hands folded in front of him. When he caught Eylee's eyes on him, he smiled and nodded to her. Her eyes trained back to Bayle. He seemed to have noted the other reactions, and looked rebuffed.
He spun on his heel and began walking toward Roadyle. "Let's go," he said. Kaltuk mimed the young man's steps, walking heavily and looking very grave, before laughing and picking up his usual gait.
As they drew away, Illisia passed by Kaltuk and ever so casually, the bottom of her bow knocked him on the back of his head. "Hey!" he muttered, rubbing the spot.
Illisia looked back at him as she walked and said, "When you carry the burden he does, then you can mock him. Not before."

* * *

They heard them before they saw them. The far off sound of metal clanking and wood cracking was audible through the wood. As the party made their way through trees and into a clearing, Eylee started. There it was standing before her, the flying ship from her vision. Suspended from thick ropes that were wound around the wide trunks of the trees lining one end of the clearing was what looked like a boat attached to a giant balloon. She took a few steps forward, wading through knee-high grass, gawking at the sight. The girl glanced back and saw her companions all standing around similarly, eyes fixed on what was before them with an awed expression. Only Roadyle watched the proceedings with no hint of fascination or wonderment, only cool acceptance.
"If I hadn't seen it myself, I'd have refused to believe it," said Asharae with a slight scoff. Eylee glanced with mild annoyance at the Teir'dal, feeling a bit of satisfaction when she noted that the young woman's skeptical tone contrasted with the amazement in her eyes, but then returned to gazing at the ship.
All of the sudden, a small head popped from above one of the wooden sides of the boat. "Ho now, who's there?" called a voice. Squinting, Eylee could make out the face of a halfling, obviously in the middle years of his life but still on the youthful side of them.
Roadyle stepped forward and called back, "Roadyle Yerethe Tol. I came through here a week ago and complimented your work!"
"Well, if you are an appreciator of my craft, then I'm sure you're welcome!" The head of what Eylee assumed to be Twiddy Bobbick vanished, only to reappear attached to a body that shimmied down a rope ladder suspended below the belly of the ship. A second figure appeared on deck, heavily padded with layers of clothing but presumably the gnome, Fiddlewiz.
Twiddy approached the group at a slow jog and the gnome settled against the side of the boat, a curl of smoke rising from a pipe sticking out of the side of his mouth. "To what do I owe this --" The halfling paused and fully took in the group, his eyes widening slightly. "-- visit."
"Your boat flies," blurted Kruzz. Everyone peered back at him. Twiddy paled slightly at being addressed by the troll. Kruzz, catching their stares, glowered and kicked at the ground below him.
"As he said," said Bayle, "we came because we heard you've been at work on some kind of... Well, that!" He gestured toward the ship.
The color returned to Twiddy's face and he perked up, nodding furiously. "Yes," he said. "That would be the Cloudskipper, the sister to the Mudskipper, our first craft, which sadly only made it in the air for a few glorious minutes, and my friend up there, Professor A.M. Fiddlewiz --" At the mention of his name, the gnome waved down at them, " -- thinks we may be ready to fly her." He leaned in toward them, eyes sparkling. "Care to watch?"
"Yes," said the plainsman, smiling, "and if she manages to fly, we might be interested in talking about a ride. We're involved in something very important at the moment, and we believe this ship might be a part of the piece of a puzzle."
"Very important?" asked Twiddy, examining them curiously.
"Yes," said Bayle, taking in a deep breath, "important to the fate of all of Norrath. It's going to be very dangerous, but if we manage to do what we set out to, you would be called a hero for your part in it."
"A hero?" The halfling's eyes twinkled. "And Cloudskipper involved in it all?" Twiddy shoved his hands in his pockets and skipped slightly, saying, "Then what are we waiting for? Fiddlewiz, throw some fuel into her bellows! And the rest of you, if you wouldn't mind grabbing hold of those ropes, this will go much more quickly. I had planned on releasing the last one and making a mad dash for the ladder, but this should lead to much less certain failure!"



Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies - Part II


Eylee had been excited, and then nervous, but somewhere into the fourth hour of watching the gnome and halfling dash around the deck of the ship embroiled in "last minute" preparations, she had grown bored and her mind began drifting. Fortunately, she was distracted shortly after by a curt exchange between Asharae and Roadyle.

"If you wish to die a very painful death, feel free to touch it," said Asharae, "but I suggest not."

Eylee caught the dangerous tone in the young woman's voice right away and her ears had perked up. Glancing to her side, she saw Asharae clutching the Scryona to her tightly and Roadyle standing above, watching her. Asharae's patience had been much shorter than Eylee's and she had settled at the edge of the clearing to examine the globe soon after the halfling's preparations began. Eylee shifted uncomfortably, still not quite at ease with being so near a Teir'dal. To think it was her own vision that had convinced the party Asharae could be trusted!

The wood elf had to admit, Asharae had yet to wrong any member of the group any further than being nasty to them. The dark elf did little but study the Scryona, trying to unlock its secrets. All that Asharae knew was what she had observed in the V'Nols' studies; that it would start glowing when they neared a tear between this dimension and another, and that somehow it both destroyed and drew power from Void energies. The high elf seemed to be offering to help her discover more, but she doubted Asharae would take him up on the offer.

"You would kill me in front of your friends?" asked Roadyle with a quirk of his eyebrow. "It seems they already only barely tolerate your presence. I doubt that would do much to change that."

"They aren't my friends," snapped Asharae, "and I am the one doing the tolerating. They need me more than I need them."

"How altruistic," said Roadyle. "Somehow, that doesn't strike me as your nature."

Asharae glared. "I don't have to wish you dead for the Scryona to kill you," she said, "just having your unworthy high elf blood."

Roadyle nodded. "So it's cursed," he said, "very interesting. Well, if you change your mind, I know more than just a thing or two about magics of all kinds, and I am sure I could help you learn about it without needing to touch it. That is, if you are willing to accept my help." He bowed and drew away from her. Asharae caught Eylee gazing at her and made a face.

Eylee looked down and then up again, saying, "Maybe he could help."

"Well I don't need his help," muttered Asharae. Her fingers trailed over the surface of the orb. Eylee found herself caught by its glow, and the two young women gazed at it silently.

Eylee ripped her eyes away and tried to recall the vision. It had been more feelings then images, and words of power. They drifted nebulously in a fogged part of her mind, but through it all she had the overpowering sensation that this young woman was going to give everything she had to save a great deal of people. Her gaze softened as she stared at the Teir'dal, and though the sensation unnerved her, she was filled with pity and gratitude for a woman she knew she should have loathed. Asharae's eyes flicked up at her. The single lock of white in her dark black hair played over her violet eyes and casually she blew it out of her face. Eylee swallowed heavily and said, "Thank you for tolerating us."

Asharae looked away and nodded. "Well," she said, "it will no doubt teach me much about using the Scryona, and when we're done, I'll have exactly what I need to draw on its power for my own means." Eylee nodded, but the dangerous tone in the Teir'dal's voice fell flat, and the wood elf felt a smile twitch at the side of her lips.

* * *


A strong wind blew through the Misty Thicket, rustling the tree branches and picking up tufts of white down from the heads of dandelions and carrying them toward the suspended craft and those who worked on her. Twiddy was standing at the bow of the Cloudskipper, gesturing toward the scattered party below him.

"On my count!" he said. "Release the ties!"

Eylee glanced from face to face. The halfling had assured them all that once the ship was going, he and Fiddlewiz would be able to stop it long enough for the group to climb in with them, but with the way the wind was blowing, she wasn't so sure. The craft already strained against the ropes binding it in place, as if struggling to get free, causing the trunks to which it was bound to creak and crack.

Twiddy had positioned himself on the bow of the ship, gripping one of the lines tightly that bound the large, banded balloon to the hull of the craft. "Fiddlewiz, are you ready?"

A short and somewhat muffled voice responded with, "Get 'er going, Twiddy!"

Twiddy gazed down at the people below and held out his hand. "Count of 5! 1... 2..." The wind howled and rushed past them, almost snapping the rope from Eylee's grip. "3...4... 5!" The assembled group unwound the knots in the ropes they had been assigned to. Their relative strength and speed made the ropes drop at different moments, and the ship lurched from side to side as tension gave way to release. The rope slipped through Eylee's hand, burning her skin ever so slightly as she released her grip. There was a shouting from across the clearing. Kruzz muttered and stomped, jumping in place.

"No release! Stupid rope! Stupid, stupid rope!" He screamed and pounded his fist against the tree as the ship strained to be free of his, the final, rope, and the tree that it was attached to began to bow, a cracking sound filling the area. This caused Kruzz to panic further as he lashed his hands out against it. Fortunately, Bayle had been stationed at the next tree over. The plainsman closed the distance between he and the troll in only a few steps, pulling a knife from his boot as he did. He rapidly sawed the rope and the fibers popped one by one before the line snapped and the ship lurched away from the trees, pulled in the direction of the now roaring wind. The craft's wings began to flap, but their effort looked futile as the ship lurched forward chaotically, at the mercy of the elements.

Eylee waited for a moment, uncertain of what to do next. Then Twiddy's voice came through on the wind, shouting, "Catch up! Hurry! If you truly want on this thing, you had best move your feet because I don't think we're going to be able to stop!" As he yelled, he released a pair of rope ladders that managed to dangle just low enough to be reached.

One by one they began moving and running for the ladders. Eylee made for the same ladder as Kaltuk, Nurgg, and Asharae. She noticed with panic that the dwarf was not nearly tall enough to reach the bottom of the rope. He ran very close to his ogre friend, however, and said, "Nurgg, though I'll be asking you not to tell this story later, please, if you could, give me a boost!"

The pair of them reached the ladder first, running beside it as it was swept along beneath the boat. The ogre leaned down and managed to stumble only slightly as he lifted up his friend and launched him upward. Kaltuk began climbing the ladder, nimbly for one as stout as him. Asharae reached it next and Nurgg gave her a small boost.

She cried out, "Watch your hands, ogre!" as he pushed her up by the bottom. By the time Eylee reached him, she noticed that his gait had slowed and his chest was heaving.

"Come, little one!" he barked at her. She let him hoist her up and reached desperately for the ladder, fingers entwining with its rough fibers. Step by step, she climb toward the ship, struggling to keep her balance as the wind pushed it one way and the climbing of those above her caused the ropes to shake and shimmy.

She looked down to Nurgg, her heart leaping as she noticed he'd fallen behind. "Nurgg!" she called.

His run had become a lope and every moment, the distance widened between him and the ladder. They were also, she noticed, swiftly running out of clearing. The thickly wooded Misty Thicket approached swiftly. Eylee felt an upwelling inside of her as she stared at her friend. Opening her mouth, she began to steadily chant an old canto about a tireless wanderer. Suddenly, Nurgg sped up, overtaking the ladder in moments.

His eyes were wide as he looked up at her and muttered, "Clever bard!"

The ladder lurched downward as he grabbed hold, and for a moment, she was terrified it would break. Then she noticed Roadyle beside her, not clutching any of the ropes but rather levitating in the air. He was glowing softly and chanting. With a wave of his arm, the ladder slackened, as if nothing at all were weighing it down.

"Hurry," said Roadyle. "Especially you, ogre. The spell will only last so long!" At that moment, the ship tipped upward and began gaining altitude as its wings beat furiously. For a moment she lost her bearings as the ladder reoriented itself, but then she was able to begin climbing again.

As Eylee ascended, she looked over to the other half of the team and was relieved to find Illisia, Kruzz, and finally Bayle making their way up it to the deck of the Cloudskipper. She returned to her upward trek, watching as Kaltuk disappeared onto the deck, then Asharae, and finally it was her own turn to drag herself off the rope and onto the mahogany of the deck. Kaltuk was standing there, ready to take her by the arm and help her regain her balance.

The dwarf glanced around suspiciously as he eased Eylee up, taking in the length of the boat. "I don't like this at all," he muttered. "Dwarves are not meant to be in the sky. We are meant to be in the earth."

"Well," said Twiddy, stepping up behind them and clapping a hand on the dwarf's back, "you can now boast that you're the first flying dwarf."

Kaltuk made a noise that said he was not impressed and began leaning over to help Nurgg up. Eylee drifted over to where Illisia and Bayle stood at the side of the boat, coming to a stop beside Bayle.

"Amazing," said Bayle. His voice was breathless with wonderment as they gazed at the tops of the trees roll by below them. Illisia nodded wordlessly, but her eyes were rich with emotion. Below them, the Thicket was spread out like a great sea of green that shifted constantly in the wind. Eylee let out a long sigh of contentment and then smiled, thinking of all the places this ship could take them next.

* * *


The Cloudskipper drifted through the early morning air, which hung heavy with fog through which shafts of dawn penetrated in glowing patches. As the morning moved toward day, the mist slowly thinned and separated until the air swirled with tendrils of smoky white water vapor. Eylee unwrapped herself from her cloak and yawned, the muscles of her arms and back crying out from the night spent in a less than comfortable nook of the flying machine's deck. Her vision was blurry, but it took her only a moment to figure out why she had woken. Nurgg was shaking her. She could vaguely remember having falling asleep against his side as they watched the treetops roll by and wondered at how it was they'd ended up so high.

"Nurgg?" she asked, voice slurred. "What's happening?"

"It is glowing," said Nurgg, pointing toward Asharae. Against a far wall of the deck, far from everyone else, Asharae was curled up tightly and clutched within her fingers was a thin silken bag. Even from within the nest of silk, the Scryona was glowing strongly enough to create a bright orange halo against the mauve embroidery of the purse.

Eylee turned to tell Nurgg to wake Bayle, but he was already moving across the deck. She hadn't even noticed that he had gone, but the ogre was light enough on his feet that he had managed to stand up and cross half the deck without making much more than a patter. She went next to Illisia. The woman's eyes opened the moment Eylee stepped within a few feet of her, and the ranger rolled up onto her knees, hand immediately on her bow nearby.

"What's wrong?" asked Illisia. "What's happened?"

Eylee shook her head and said, "Nothing's wrong, but look!" She pointed to the Scryona. Illisia stood wordlessly and nodded, moving to Kaltuk. Eylee glanced around. All over the deck, figures were stirring. It seemed the chain had moved far enough along that everyone had either had someone to wake them or been woken by the commotion. Only Asharae was still asleep. Eylee knelt beside her, wondering how well the Teir'dal was trained to sleep through anything, snatching sleep wherever and whenever she was actually beyond the demands of her master and mistress.

"Asharae," she said, at first quietly and then louder. Finally, she reached out and touched the dark elf on the shoulder. Asharae's eyes flew open and she sat up, clutching the bag more closely to her chest and breathing heavily. The young elf's eyes searched her face with confusion.

"Look." Behind her, the others had assembled, and Twiddy, who had no idea what was going on, pointed toward her bag. "What's in there?"

Just then, an arrow pierced the wood of the side of the Cloudskipper with a thunk, landing just below where Kruzz was standing.

"Back!" shouted Kruzz, rambling off something longer in Trollish as he scrambled back and dropped down. After the moment necessary for everyone to register what had just happened, the whole of the group hit the deck. Not a moment too soon, as the air filled with small arrows decorated with colorful feathers that buried themselves in the wood of the ship. Twiddy crawled across the deck toward the helm, where Fiddlewiz was inside trying to work the gears of the ship to get them going again while remaining low and out of arrow range. Roadyle bowed his head and began chanting. When the next volley of arrows came at the Cloudskipper, heading directly for the balloon, a large red rune of warding flared in the air, and most of the arrows clattered off of it harmlessly.

"Who's firing at us?" asked Asharae, still clutching the Scryona to her breast. Eylee could feel her own fear reflected in the Teir'dal's eyes. Her pulse raced and her breathing was rapid.

"Those arrows look goblish," said Nurgg, grunting with displeasure as he eyed the closest shaft.

"Yes," said Illisia, eyes darting between them. "I caught a glance of one of the archers as we dropped. Definitely a goblin." As if on cue, a series of high shrieks filled the air from below them.

"I had hoped the mist might obscure us," said Bayle, "but it had to evaporate at some point." Below them, they could pick out piercing commands screamed from what must have been the goblins' leader.

"Even with the mist, we'd be fooling ourselves if we thought we were easy to miss," muttered Kaltuk, peering suspiciously around the boat.

"And then we'd have no chance of spotting them," said Illisia. As she spoke, she rose, pivoting on the balls of her feet as she unstrapped her bow and let loose three arrows in rapid succession, which were met with three corresponding cries of pain. She hit the deck again just as arrows flew past where she had stood moments before.

Kaltuk blinked, his jaw dangling. "Remind me to stand behind you in a scrape, lass," he said.

Illisia just nodded to him. Her expression was serious and set. Eylee had seen her in action once before, when Illisia and Bayle had saved her from the thugs at Harmon's Tavern, but Illisia had fought casually and without any care then. Now the Feir'dal understood how she had earned her nickname, the Hound of Zek, as the seasoned hunter assessed their situation and plotted the best way to get them all through it alive. Bayle gestured everyone in close to him.
"Only Illisia's of any use up here," he said in a soft voice. "The rest of us are just targets waiting to be shot. Besides, the Scryona is glowing, so there must be a tear near here. We need a plan to get down there and close it." He touched his hand to the staff that was strapped across his claymore. Eylee gazed at the staff uneasily. The runes that lined its shaft were quiet now, but she could almost feel them pulse.

"I have an idea." They glanced over at Twiddy, who was crawling back on his hands and knees toward them. "Listen carefully, because I believe we only have one shot at it."



Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies - Part III

The winds had died down over the night, so the boat moved along slowly by the force of its wings alone. The forest was still and silent. Except for the occasional arrow in the side of the boat, one could almost think it was a perfectly peaceful afternoon. Glancing at an arrow that had just struck, Asharae said under her breath, "Goblins have no brains in their heads. They'd have a much better chance of killing us if they hid their position."

"Scare," said Kruzz from where he was huddled against the side of the boat. "They want to scare us. It is good to make your enemy afraid."

Arching a delicate eyebrow at the troll, Asharae said, "And sneaking up on your enemy to strike them in a vital spot is twice as useful."

Kruzz sneered at her and said, "Very much an elf way, small and weak."

"Weak?" asked Asharae, glaring at him. The troll shrunk back under the heat of it. "You're the most cowardly creature on this boat. I'd sooner send the girl --" She gestured at Eylee, who blinked. �-- then you to fight for me. You're a disgrace to what is already the most pathetic race on Norrath, which makes your opinion somewhere on the level of dirt to me."

"Quiet the both of you," snapped Kaltuk.

"Listen to the dwarf," said Bayle, staring at them both hard, "we have other things to do right now than squabble."

Asharae glared one last time then looked back toward Twiddy and Fiddlewiz. They were adjusting the small, gnome-like bundle they had placed within a compartment atop a large single-wheeled contraption. Fiddlewiz lifted the goggles that covered his eyes and Eylee noted that they were heavy with sorrow. The gnome placed a hand on the wheel of the cycle and through the scarf that covered his mouth said, "If I don't see you again, good-bye."

Twiddy glanced at the others and said, "The Professor rode this all over Norrath before retiring it to work on the Cloudskipper. This is an emotional moment for him."

Fiddlewiz drew back, clasped his hands behind his back, crouched, and nodded. Twiddy gestured to the group to stand on the opposite side of the boat as the cycle. The halfling crawled to the helm and took the place of Roadyle, who had been steering while the other two worked out their plan. "As soon as I bring her down, Fiddlewiz will send the cycle in one direction. You all should go the other."

Fiddlewiz darted up from his crouched position to fiddle with the controls of the cycle one last time, jamming them in place and double-checking the positioning of the small rockets affixed to its back. The gnome stuck up his thumb and Twiddy steered the ship closer to the ground. "Now!" said Twiddy in a voice just above a whisper. Fiddlewiz lit the fuses on the rockets. Eylee held her breath as the fire ate its way down to the backs of the rockets and then in a burst, the cycle was propelled across to where Fiddlewiz had set up a small ramp to take it up and over the side of the craft. She could hear the crashing of branches and screaming of goblins as it continued careening off into the woods.

Bayle gestured for them to move, and Eylee stood up quickly, slipping off the opposite side of the ship. All but Fiddlewiz, Twiddy, and Roadyle did the same, with the mage staying on board to cast periodic glyphs of warding on the sensitive areas of the boat. As soon as the other seven had hit ground, the Cloudskipper retreated back up into the air, where they would be circling periodically, scanning for a signal that the party was ready to be retrieved.

As quietly as they could manage, the group slipped through the undergrowth. There were no games this time, nor any squabbling. Everyone held their tongues and kept a watchful eye about them. They could hear a distant commotion where goblins were no doubt contending with Fiddlewiz's fearsome cycle.

"Asharae," said Bayle, drawing in close to her, "can the Scryona give us a more specific location?"

Her expression look annoyed for a second and then she shrugged, pulling the orb from its sack, letting it come to rest on her palm where it glowed intensely. The young woman closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, tightening her lips and focusing in on it. Illisia paced around them, watching closely. Kaltuk said a small prayer, tracing a sigil in the air that flared up briefly before disappearing. Eylee began to chant to herself a story of strong heroes and battles won.

"There," Asharae said suddenly, and her arm shot up. Eylee traced the length of the Teir'dal's slender finger with her eyes, peering in the direction the young woman pointed. Far off through the trees, she thought she caught a glimpse of lightning and a touch of darkness. When Asharae opened her eyes, they glowed the same orange as Scryona, and she began walking directly toward the corrupt energy. A shiver passed down Eylee's back as she stared at the Teir'dal; she felt distinctly that there was little of Asharae in the figure that shambled ahead, and much of Scryona.

"Asharae, wait," said Bayle. He reached out to touch her shoulder, but she kept walking so that his hand passed uselessly through her hair. "Come on!" He gestured everyone forward with him.

Eylee gripped her drum in both hands. She'd never thought to use it as a weapon until their fight in Innothule Swamp with the void-touched trolls, but with its long, slender body, it had proven remarkably effective in bashing things. Kruzz walked near her, and she noted that he was gripping his meat cleaver so tightly that his knuckles had gone an almost white-yellow. Everyone else held their weapons at ready, except Nurgg, who simply wrapped strips of cloth around his fists as they walked. Bayle stuck close to Asharae, claymore raised and eyes constantly searching.

Suddenly, Illisia turned to Eylee. The young woman barely realized what had happened before the hunter had shoved her to the side and fired an arrow over her head. A goblin stumbled from the trees, dropping a short sword he'd been holding above his head. This face was stuck in a cruel death mask, a grin twisted by pain. One of Illisia's arrows was buried deep in his chest, right where the heart should be.

Then there was chaos. Goblins streamed out of the trees, screaming, dancing from side to side, and menacing them with a whole manner of crude weapons. Some jumped from above, one landing on Nurgg's shoulders and biting at his ears. The ogre ripped the goblin off of his back and roared, throwing the goblin against a tree with a sickening thud. Eylee began swinging her drum and chanting songs of bravery and luck, thinking all the while of all the things she might never do after that day. You can't think like that. Illisia doesn't think like that. I bet she thinks of what she'll be doing when this is over.

Eylee cried out and charged at one of the goblins that had come in at Kaltuk. To her surprise, the goblin next her snapped backward in tandem with her cry, howling and gripping its ears. There's so much I need to learn about this magic. She only gave herself the luxury of being surprised by what had happen for a brief moment, and then she pressed on, bringing her drum into the legs of Kaltuk's aggressor. The goblin tumbled into the ground and with a fluid motion Kaltuk brought the head of his hammer down onto the skull of the creature, where it landed with a satisfying crunch. Then he turned to smack another goblin in the jaw with the body of the censor that dangled from his other hand. The dwarf tipped his head to her, but his eyes were not Kaltuk's eyes. They were the eyes of a seasoned warrior, impassive to all but the motions of battle.

She scrambled on, checking in on each of her companions. They all seemed to be holding their own. Illisia was a blur of motion, her twin swords felling goblins as she whirled with such fluidity that it seemed she could be doing a dance. Nurgg brought his fist in to crush the skull of one attacker, and then picked up the limp body of the goblin he'd just killed to be used as a club against another of them. Asharae continued walking and Bayle fought goblins off from either side of her. Eylee started as one goblin stepped directly in front of the entranced Teir'dal, but without comment, Asharae lifted a hand and from her palm shot an orb of that same orange light. When the ball struck the goblin, he screamed and then scratched at his skin furiously. In moments, he had dissolved.

Then Eylee noticed something curious. Where that goblin had been, a cloud of purple and black smoke remained. The orange light that had struck the goblin lingered and then enveloped the black energy hungrily. Asharae then whispered a word and the now orange and black mixed energies flowed into Scryona in a quick stream. The Feir'dal didn't puzzle this long, there was no time to be distracted by such mysteries; as her eyes passed through the scene, however, she noticed flashes of similar black and purple clouds around all of the goblins.

They had to have been touched by the Void. "Be careful!" she screamed.

In that instant, she heard Kruzz scream. He was backed up against an embankment, two goblins menacing him. But what was worse was that one of the red-eyed Void beasts they had seen in Innothule was stalking toward him, snapping at the air with its pincers. Kruzz swung his butcher knife in front of him wildly but to little effect. Eylee glanced over at Nurgg, who had also noticed their green-skinned companion's problems. He nodded to her and the two of them ran toward the troll.

Eylee shouted as she approached the goblins and one of them fell to his knees, blood running from its ears and eyes. The other turned to her and she brought her drum into his neck, knocking him forward. One of Kruzz's wild swings finally struck true, the large, jagged blade cutting through the flesh of the remaining opponent's neck. The goblin stabbed downward as he fell, sword piercing the troll's foot. Kruzz let out a scream of pain and began hacking at the goblin's corpse furiously.

Though concerned for him, Eylee turned to check on Nurgg. The ogre had launched himself headlong at the large void beast and now had it in a grapple, pounding it with his fists. The beast swung its pincers this way and that, and let out high, eerie wails, but it couldn't manage to get its grip on the ogre, nor could it shake him off its back. She noted a gash above Nurgg's eyebrow, which was bleeding down into his eyes, but so far he seemed to be holding up. Still, she felt she had to do something.

Another shout lingered at the back of her throat, and she stepped toward the beast, letting it out. The creature look as if something had struck it and then went completely still, as if paralyzed, giving Nurgg the chance to reach down and tear out a number of its eyes. Chucking aside the dangling bits of gore, he reached in through one of the empty sockets and pulled out brain matter from inside.
It was done. The beast collapsed, letting out a series of short bellows until its body broke up into wisps and then nothingness. Eylee turned back to Kruzz. The troll had stopped panicking long enough to pull the sword from his foot and was busy retreating into the brush.

"Where are you going?" she called, but Kruzz vanished into some bushes. She shook her head and turned back to the fighting.

Bayle had seemed to decide Asharae was safe enough on her own, and had moved on toward what appeared to be the leader of their attackers. This particular goblin had been the source of the commands shrieked in Goblish and wore an elaborate headdress from which feathers and beads dangled, and he fought with a scythe-like sword that, even at a distance, Eylee could tell was stained with blood. Though Bayle's claymore was swift, the chieftain managed to dodge nimbly around every one of his swings. The goblin leader cackled every time Bayle's claymore fell to the side harmlessly.

Eylee watched as Bayle's strategy shifted. Instead of hacking at the goblin, he drew back, sword at the ready. The goblin glared at him and danced around, shouting, "Why you not attack?! Afraid of little goblin, are you?" The goblin bared his teeth and swung his sword around, trying to menace Bayle. Bayle didn't respond though, he simply circled.

Finally, the goblin screamed and charged at Bayle. The plainsman stepped out of the path of the sword and brought the claymore around, cutting deeply into the goblin's calves. He must not have severed the muscles, as the goblin raged through the pain, crying out and launching himself at Bayle, managing to slice deeply into his arm. Eylee's breath caught in her throat as blood welled up through the plainsman's torn shirt and Bayle stumbled back, one hand releasing the claymore and moving to cover the blood. Suddenly Kaltuk was by his side. The dwarf called out to the heavens, "Brell, you had best do this lad a fair turn!" The blood suddenly stopped flowing, and the dwarf smiled in satisfaction. The goblin cried out in frustration, charging at Kaltuk. As he passed by Bayle, though, the young man brought the claymore around, driving it through the goblin's torn leather jerkin, into his chest, and all the way out the other side. The chieftain hit the ground in two distinct halves, leaving behind the same dark cloud as all the others.

With that, the battle seemed to be well under control. The remaining goblins had moved to place themselves between the group and the Void portal, which the party had long since grown close enough to fully observe. Asharae threw orb after orb of orange light at the wall of goblins, eyes fixed toward the portal intently, and with every goblin that fell, Scryona fed further, sucking in that energy. Eylee looked at the portal more closely. A circle of inky black, it was surrounded by a concentration of the purple and blue storms they had seen in Innothule. Within its proximity, there was a gradually intensifying acrid smell that burned the thin membranes of the nose when one breathed in too deeply. From within its heart, the sounds of more of those beasts could be made out, and it was evident that they were getting closer.

Bayle seemed to have noticed this as well. "We need to close it, quickly!" he shouted.

Eylee ran forward with the others as they moved in, lending their physical attacks to Asharae's onslaught of magic. They grew closer and closer and just as Bayle managed to stand in front of the portal, more beasts became visible inside of the Void. The plainsman dropped his claymore and ripped the staff of Theer from the cords binding it to his back. Illisia stepped in beside him and brought down the few remaining goblins that tried to rush him, dispatching them with practiced blows.

Bayle rubbed the runes of the staff furiously until they began to glow and the staff leapt from his hands. It began to spin in front of the rift, and as it did, the edges of the portal seemed to become elastic, turning and curving and collapsing in on themselves. There were bellows of frustration from within the Void. One of the beasts managed to stick its arm through but Illisia quickly hacked it off. The edges of the portal continued collapsing inward until, with a rushing of air that had the quality of an inverted wind gust, the whole thing vanished.

Bayle bent down to retrieve the staff, and they all turned to Asharae. The orange glow vanished from her eyes, then from Scryona, and as if released from a marionette's strings, she went limp and collapsed. Kaltuk rushed to her side and began tracing sigils over her. In a moment, she opened her eyes again.

"Water," she whispered.

"Ale," said the dwarf, with no hint of apology, as he opened his skein and dumped it down her throat.

She coughed and sputtered, sitting up and wiping liquid from her face. "Water does not equal ale," she said sharply.

Kaltuk chuckled as he rose. "She'll be alright," he said.

"What happened?" asked Bayle. "What did you feel?"

Asharae seemed to consider her words before saying, "It was as if... Scryona had spoken to me, and asked for permission to feed. I let it, and then I did exactly as I was told." She shook her head. "I have so much to ask Baron and
Baroness V'Nol." Her eyes gleamed in a way that worried Eylee.

"I see," said Bayle. His voice was impassive but his forehead creased with worry. He shook his head and said, "I wish we could have nothing to do with corrupt Teir'dal tinkering."

Asharae fixed her gaze on him and smiled almost sweetly. "But you must, mustn't you?" Her voice rang with a note of something like triumph.

Kaltuk looked at Asharae uneasily. "You may like to think you had the power there, lass," he said, "but it was the thing that did, not you. The more we know about it, and the less we have to use it, the better."

Illisia stepped up and glanced around, asking, "Where's Kruzz?"

"Hiding," said Nurgg, crossing his arms firmly across his chest. With that, there was a rustle in the brush as Kruzz appeared and limped toward them.

"Wounded," said the troll, voice full of pain. Not a single gaze, however, softened with pity at the sight of the troll's wounded foot.

"I could have fixed that," said Kaltuk, eyes narrowed at him, "but as you were too worried about your own hide to help the rest of us fight a few puny goblins, I believe you'll be stuck with the facilities of healing that the gods gave ya. You trolls patch up quickly, it shouldn't be too long." The troll glowered and limped back.

"Don't give me another reason to question why you're with us," said Bayle sharply. "I'm tempted to leave you here."

"Please do not," said Kruzz, falling on his knees in front of Bayle, "please do not. I promise to fight."

Bayle turned away, disgusted. "Very well," he said, shaking his head, "but this is your last chance."

"One more than you deserve," muttered Kaltuk.

"Illisia, would you...?" Bayle motioned to the staff and then to his back. The barbarian woman nodded and then reached out to touch the staff, brushing his hand. The two held eyes for a moment, and something washed through Eylee that was a mix of jealousy and wistfulness. It was doubtful anyone else had caught it; only the most curious observers, such as Eylee, would make as much of it as she had, but there was no question in her mind that something was growing there. It lasted only a moment, though, and then the barbarian woman glanced away and took the staff, strapping it onto the man's back and smoothing away the bunched cloth of his shirt. Bayle wiped his claymore in a patch of scrub and then sheathed it over top of the staff. "We'll send out a signal for the others," he said. "I doubt they have gotten far. Illisia, come with me. The rest of you, search them for anything that might be relevant."

"Or valuable," said Asharae with a smile.

Bayle stared at the young woman for a moment and then said, "Loot the bodies if you like. I won't stop you. But though they may only have been goblins, I will not be defiling their bodies that way."

The pair of warriors vanished into the thicket. Eylee found herself watching the paths of their hands, imagining that one might quietly take hold of the other. A voice interrupted her thoughts. "What are you staring at so dopey eyed?" asked Asharae, narrowing her eyes at the young woman.

"Nothing," said Eylee, doing her best to sound flippant.

Asharae followed her gaze, seeming to consider the implications. "Ah," she said. "I see. Well, I am sure they will make ugly, stubborn babies together one day. If they live. Which is doubtful."

Eylee glared at the Teir'dal. "Why do you have to say those kinds of things?" she asked. "Do you really not care if we live or die? If you live or die?"

Asharae seemed to consider her words. "No," she said, "not really," and turned to continue her work.

Eylee gazed at the Teir'dal, anger raging. Spinning away, she tried to drive off her anger by focusing on the task at hand: finding anything that might shed light on the nature of their battles and where they should go to next.

* * *


As night fell, they found themselves back on the Cloudskipper. With more time to settle in, they made themselves permanent bedding in corners of the ship, laying out bedrolls and fashioning pillows of burlap sacks below deck. Twiddy and Fiddlewiz had finally organized the contents of the messy cargo hold well enough to accommodate individuals larger than themselves. Nurgg made his spot above deck, preferring not to be cramped, as did Kruzz, because the rest of the party had yet to stop glaring at him. Asharae set up a place within the hold but very separate from the others, using her cloak to fashion a sort of tent between stacks of crates.

Eylee curled up on her bedroll, exhaustion consuming her. When sleep didn't come, she turned, finding herself staring at Kaltuk's back.

"Kaltuk?" she asked. "Have you managed to sleep yet?"

The dwarf grunted in response.

"You've done this many times... fought battles...?" she asked.

After a moment, he responded, sighing heavily, "Yes, I have, lass. I was a member of the Storm Guard of Kaladim, once."

"How do you shake away the looks... the looks your opponents give you when they die?"

He turned so that he was facing her, studying her with his pale blue eyes. Reaching, he swept a lock of hair out of her face. "You remember," he said, "that what you were doing was right." She considered his words and then nodded to him. "Sleep well, young one." He turned back the other way and within minutes, he was snoring loudly.

Eylee tried to do as he said, but a thousand thoughts weighed on her mind. Finally, she fell asleep, but her dreams were of beasts from a place outside of time, and she tossed all night in fear for Norrath.

Ronson

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