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On the Plains of Karana

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On the Plains of Karana

Post by Ronson on Mon Aug 09, 2010 12:25 pm

On the Plains of Karana - Part I


From the pen of Eylee Zephyrswell --

We knew that we had a hard road ahead of us, and that the only way to succeed would be to gain allies. Our search, however, met with few results. The men and women of the northlands were too embroiled in their own conflicts, and my own people, as well as the Koada'dal, had too much on their hands with the great migration that consumed them. The Teir'dal could possibly have lent might, if we trusted to work with them, or if Asharae were not considered a criminal and we her accomplices.


So it was, then, that we came then to the dwarves of Kaladim...


On the Plains of Karana - Part I


The Cloudskipper swayed back and forth in the light wind, tugging lightly at the ropes that tethered it to the upper branches of a very great old oak tree that reached into the sky with its gnarled branches. Professor Fiddlewiz waved to the departing group from his comfortable perch in a broadcloth hammock that had been strung up on deck. For his part, Twiddy had already managed to suspend himself within a small harness that dangled him at the side of the deck, where he sanded down a few uneven spots and spread resin where it had grown thin between boards. He managed a quick wave to his departing passengers before turning to his work as they took to the rocky trail that wound through the Butcherblock Mountains toward Kaladim. Kruzz also watched them go from the deck, insisting his staying behind on the boat would mean a piping hot dinner, or breakfast, or lunch � he would be ready for anything � on their return. The unspoken truth of it was that Kruzz was just as well off taking a bath in a river full of saber toothed piranha as he was walking into the heart of the dwarven kingdom; too many of the mountain men and women had lost loved ones in spars with the trolls.

Eylee adjusted the straps on her satchel, which had begun to bite into her neck already. It hung heavy with parchments upon which she had recorded the details of the companions' adventures -- crossing the plains of Karana with Illisia and Bayle, rousting void-touched trolls in the swamps of Innothule, spurring goblins in the Misty Thicket, fighting off the soldiers of Neriak as they made off with the struggling V'Nols, their trek to the northlands, and the subsequent flight from the warpaths of the bloodthirsty barbarians that had resulted. It was all there, on paper, in great detail, as well as a complete recording of the visions she'd been having.
In all practicality, she should have long since unloaded some of the pages into a safe corner of the Cloudskipper, but something inside her said she should keep them close � even closer than the locked boxes Twiddy and Fiddlewiz kept in their cabin. It wasn't, she hoped, vanity that motivated her; no, it was not simply a matter of this being her tale to tell, but rather a sense of great importance to the details of their journey. She even curled up with the bag at night, resting it snugly in the crook of her arm like a treasured doll. But it had grown cumbersome as their adventures increased in number, as they glimpsed new corners of the world every day from perspectives none but those born with wings had ever taken in.

The evergreen trees of Butcherblock rose around her, tall and imposing, with thick trunks made stout with burls and age, their limbs hanging heavy with bunchy green needles. They were scattered sparsely across the generally rocky face of the mountains, standing like lone sentinels keeping watch on behalf of the great dwarven city. Now and then, Eylee would catch the sound of bleating and glance to see a ram dash up the hillside spraying pebbles in its path and butting aside scrub with its great curled horns. Birds circled above their heads, the wide expanses of their wings casting shadows upon the party, and snakes wound through boulders to vanish into dark holes below their feet.

Eylee glanced from face to face. Bayle and Illisia walked close to one another at the head of the group, now and then speaking in hushed tones. She remembered with a slight smile that they had one time insisted on taking front and rear, but had gradually both drifted to the front of the marching order; whether that was from an increased desire to stand next to one another, or a decreased distrust of the rest of the group -- or possibly both -- Eylee wasn't certain. Now it seemed Nurgg had positioned himself solidly at the rear, and his heavy steps defined the end of their column. Asharae drifted in the center of the party, her cloak draped over the soft curves of her body and Scryona's pouch bouncing against her knee. Roadyle drifted a step or two behind her, speaking to her when he could manage to attract her attention about magical theory or some sight or the other on the horizon. Eylee peered in his direction, wondering whether the mage's interest was merely academic, or if his impulses had taken a turn for the unnatural-bordering-on-abominable. Asharae was beautiful, but hardly the elf a Koada'dal brought back to his austere mother and father.

Finally, her attention fell on Kaltuk, and she was drawn immediately to his side by the struggle she could see in his eyes. She didn't really need to see his expression to know that something was wrong. His complete silence during their trek had already told the tale. She cleared her throat and smiled at him, saying, �It can't be all that bad, can it? I mean, you miss your home, don't you?"

Surprise washed over Kaltuk's face and then vanished. He glowered and said, "What makes you think it's all so bad as that, missy?"

"Well," she said, "when the one who normally keeps the rest of us chuckling hasn't even cracked a smile... It must be dire."

Kaltuk scoffed but smiled. "I assure you, I'm not about ready to curl up and sob under a rock," he said, inclining his head to the side. "It is not an easy thing to return to a place that did not want you... no matter how you might have missed it."

Eylee nodded and said, �I'm sure they're ready to welcome you back. They must have forgiven you by now."

The dwarf barked a short, quick laugh. "Oh ho! I would not count on that, young one. A dwarf's about as stubborn and quick to forgive as a stone, and we've the whole of the council of Kaladim to contend with."

***


They had just begun to glimpse the facade of Kaladim, carved straight from the great face of the mountainside in a series of towering columns, when they were met with an escort. A pair of dwarves -- male and female, wearing earth toned leathers that helped them blend into their surroundings -- stepped from behind a copse of trees with axes and bows at the ready.

"What's your business, stranger?" asked the male, eying Bayle.

Bayle opened his mouth to speak, but Kaltuk stepped in front of him. The sentries reacted to the sight, the male taking one step back and the female grunting from behind a leather mask that covered most of her face.

"Prior Kaltuk Ironstein," said Kaltuk, "once member of the Stormguard, and high priest of the Church of Ale, has found his way back to Kaladim, and he's brought some friends along with him. Perhaps I could trouble you to run on ahead and announce my visit to the council, to whom I'll be needing to speak to immediately on matters important to all the dwarves of Norrath. Dark creatures have come to Norrath. They might be at your very step already. We've come to speak about fighting them back."

The sentries glanced at one another and the male stepped forward again and said, "One of us will go on ahead, but the other will be sticking close. I remember your name, Kaltuk Ironstein, but you're no Prior of Kaladim. Not anymore. Not for some time."

Kaltuk examined the sentry closely with a look so sharp that it seemed it could strip bark from a tree, and the younger dwarf shrank back a little again. �I was a Prior for more years than you've been on Norrath, sonny," said Kaltuk, �and I'll not be taking any guff from the likes of --"

"Father," said the female sentry. She removed her helm and a pair of blond braids fell down her back. Though homely, she was pleasant enough looking for a dwarf, with eyes the same robin shell blue as her father's.

"Cora," said Kaltuk, his voice ringing with a sharp note of pain.

She nodded to him and her expression was impassive. "Listen to Braldan," she said."He may be your junior in years, but he's still senior to you in Kaladim." She nodded to the other sentry, who seemed to straighten up under her praise. "Go on ahead, Braldan. I'll keep a close eye on our visitors."

�Don't you think --" began Braldan.

"That's an order." Her voice cut him off and provoked him to begin jogging immediately in the direction of the mountain face. Kaltuk straightened a little, beaming with an obvious pride. The glance Cora shot her father next caused the pride wither away. Asharae must have noticed, because she laughed softly to herself. Kaltuk scowled at the Teir'dal.

Cora swept her gaze along the whole of the group. "You've a time ahead of you explaining why such a band as this has been brought to Kaladim," she said, "but as a once citizen, you've the right to try. The ogre..." She looked Nurgg up and down with a distrustful gaze. "... should probably stay behind."

Nurgg grunted, planted himself beside Kaltuk, and leveled his gaze at her.

Cora raised an eyebrow with curiosity. "Well then, he'll at least need to be bound."

Kaltuk glanced to Nurgg with a raised eyebrow. The ogre paused only for a moment and then nodded. Cora came forward and wrapped his hands in a series of intricate knots.

"No weapons?" she asked Nurgg as she finished. He smiled and raised his fists. "Ah, well, then I'm glad I used a good knot." She swept a hand toward the other adventurers and gestured them forward.

Kaltuk nodded and began to follow in his daughter's shadow, the rest of the party falling into step some distance behind. �It's good to see you, lass," he said in a low voice, which Eylee only caught because she followed him as near as she dare. "You've done quite well for yourself. Makes an old dwarf proud to see it."

Cora stared ahead and made a low noise in the back of her throat. "You should spend your time thinking about what you're going to say to the council and not waste your breath with empty compliments."

Eylee felt a stab of sadness in her heart as Kaltuk's face fell, but the dwarf nodded and followed his daughter quietly toward the entrance to the vast network of mines that formed the veins of dwarven civilization: Kaladim, the city in the mountain.


***


She could see her friend's eyes searching the crowds, intent upon finding someone specific. As they had obviously already found at least one of Kaltuk's children -- or perhaps only, Kaltuk had never spoken much about his past -- she had to assume he was most likely on the look out for his wife. There was a look of strain, perhaps even pain, as he did so. Though it did not seem he had found who he was searching for by the time they came to a stop outside of the great stone doors of the meeting hall, his face had met with a number of startled recognitions, and where he walked, a chorus of hushed whispers followed. He had been famous as one of the most recognizable clerics of the Stormguard, but he had been infamous as the dwarf who turned his back on Brell. His expression was unreadable as the group stood and awaited their audience with King Aldus Stormhammer and the great council of Kaladim, but Eylee reached out and touched his shoulder gently. He glanced back at her with a look of surprise, and pain flooded the corners of his eyes, but then as he saw who it was and the look of gentle assurance on her face, his expression melted to a smile and he nodded to her, reaching over to pat the wood elf's hand with one of his own.

There was a scraping of stone against stone as a pair of burly dwarven guards, arms roped with muscles, drew them open and gestured the group forward. Braldan fell into step beside the group, making a point of keeping close. Bayle stepped forward to take point on reflex, then paused, smiled, and with a half-bow, let Kaltuk trundle in front of him. The dwarf raised an eyebrow and pointed beside him, so that the plainsmen stuck close to his side, and the pair entered the room at the same time. Illisia shadowed Bayle, and then the rest followed. Eylee was a bit surprised Nurgg did not follow closely behind Kaltuk, and her expression must have said so, for as she glanced at the ogre, he responded with:

"This is not the place for my friendship."

Eylee nodded, knowing the statement was two fold. It would neither help Kaltuk's acceptance by his one time people to advertise his friendship with an ogre, nor would it benefit Kaltuk as an individual to be supported by his giant friend when everything he needed for this would have to be found in his very own self.

When they entered the room, it had been like jumping into a sea of voices. The chamber was full of great stone benches for spectators in a bowl shape that stretched up from around the central table at which the council sat before the throne of the ruler of the dwarven people. She imagined these benches were not often full, but it seemed the whole the mountain had turned out to see their curious visitors and the returned exile. A ring of dwarven men and women sat at the central table, some dressed in well-polished armor, others in finely spun linen and wool clothing, and still others in robes affixed with the symbol of Brell. Behind them, a proud looking dwarven man sat in the throne, head leaning against one hand, elbow propped against the arm of the chair. She took this to be Aldus Stormhammer, king of the dwarves and a son in the long Stormhammer line. His dark brown hair was braided into a single long braid that fell across his shoulders, and his beard was similarly fashioned into a thick central braid and four smaller braids fanning out two at each side, with gold and silver rings, as well as blue and green gems, woven in.

The band of adventurers was led to a slightly raised platform in the back center of the room, and Braldan took a position near them. As Kaltuk came to stand before the council with Bayle at his side, that cacophony of voices quieted, and all eyes were fixed on them intently.

"Speak, Kaltuk Ironstein," said King Stormhammer. "I'm curious to know what has brought you back, and why you've arrived with such an assembly of companions." His voice was rough and echoed like boots on gravel in the massive hall.

"My thanks, King Stormhammer," said Kaltuk, bowing stiffly to the dwarven ruler. "I once knew you as prince, and am sad to hear your father has passed on, but I am sure you are as great a ruler as your father was." The king did not seem to react to the flattery, but he nodded in acknowledgment of it. Kaltuk turned so as to address more of the crowd. "Most of you know me, but for those who don't, I'm Kaltuk Ironstein, once a Prior of the Stormguard."

"Cast out for unrelenting blasphemy to Brell's name," interjected one of the councilmen. "And a refusal to rehabilitate." He wore the robes of a priest and had a long white hair that fell freely down his back. Though he did not have a beard, he did sport a thick white mustache that curled on either side.

Kaltuk did not attempt to hide a look of contempt and anger as he glanced at the priest. "As High Prior Graniteaxe has made clear, I have not been welcome here for some time, but our purpose here is far more important than your grievance with me. I will let my friend Bayle speak, and hopefully you can listen to him without being clouded by the same prejudice you would me."

Kaltuk gestured Bayle forward, who smiled to him and took his place before the assembly. Graniteaxe settled back against his throne, looking completely unconvinced; however, he was one of few in the room who did not at least look curious as to their purpose. Eylee glanced from side to side, noting she had come to settle between Nurgg and Roadyle. The moment her eyes hit Roadyle, he glanced at her, and smiled. She found herself wondering if there were any spell in his arsenal that could help their purpose, but then dismissed it, knowing their mission could not be shrouded by something so unethical.

Bayle cleared his throat and opened his arms toward the dwarves. "We've come to speak with you about a threat to all of Norrath," he began. He gestured Illisia over, and she stepped in behind him, unstrapping the Staff of Theer and laying it in his hands. He smiled to her, and she at him, as she stepped back behind him, casting a critical eye on the crowd. "Portals have been opening to a place beyond our own � the Void. The creatures that come from there are twisted visions of darkness, and they seem to be capable of filling individuals from Norrath with the same dark energy and corrupting them. This staff is linked to those portals, and it lets us close them, cutting off their passageways to our world. The longer this goes on, however, the more of those monsters there seem to be. We are a capable band of individuals, but not able to take them on by ourselves. We need allies. Our journey has taken us here, because dwarves are known to be capable and valiant fighters." There was a general murmur of approval from the crowd. "We would rest easier knowing you were in this fight with us."

Bayle's voice fell to a hush and when it was clear he had made his case, conversation sprang up around the room. The members of the council all huddled together; some with bright, encouraging eyes, but just as many others looked dark and suspicious toward the group. Chief amongst the dissenters was Graniteaxe, who shook his head as a female dwarf whispered to him from his left, eyes locked on Kaltuk.

"What exactly are you asking for?" asked another dwarf, leaning forward and clasping his hands in front of him. He wore shining plate armor that was dressed with medals and had a look of keen authority. Eylee noted that when he spoke, Kaltuk's expression softened, and something like a smile passed between the two of them.

Bayle nodded to the dwarf, acknowledging the question. He cleared his throat, clasping his hands behind his back. "Of course, we would expect you to focus most of your energy here on Faydwer, but we would also ask that you focus not only within your own borders. Send patrols to scour the continent and fight off whatever of these creatures you might find. If you come across a portal, fortify the position, do not let the creatures spread, and send word to us of its location. In time, if there is a true front established, we might call on you to send legions to help us in the fight. Unfortunately, we only have one small ship to travel by, so you would have to move yourselves."

The dwarf who had asked the question nodded and settled back, then the discussions began anew between the council members. Finally, the well-decorated, armored dwarf stood, as did Graniteaxe, and they walked up to the dais on which King Aldus sat. Eylee's eyes were fixed on the King, who thus far showed no bias either way. His expression was impassive. He had, however, sat up straight and leaned in while Bayle had spoken, listening intently. At least their case had not bored him.

Braldan leaned back toward them and whispered, "I believe you have an enemy and an ally heading up there. General Basaltheart was once a friend of Kaltuk's, and one of his few supporters during his trial. During your leader's speech, he was rapt in attention. The High Prior was against you from the start, though."


"I imagine he was a rival," said Roadyle. "They are of the same profession."

Braldan nodded. "Your friend's smart," he said. "Ironstein might have been High Prior if not for... well, what happened. He and Graniteaxe had been rivals since they were young." Braldan glanced to the audience. Eylee searched the crowd in that direction, and her eyes landed on where Cora Ironstein sat beside an older dwarven woman with gray hair spun with white strands. The matron had an uncommon beauty for a dwarf, striking even next to the much younger Cora. "When Ironstein was dismissed, his marriage was made void, and after that, Graniteaxe married his wife, Meen. I don't believe Graniteaxe married her for any reason but to have everything that had been Kaltuk's. He always envied Ironstein's popularity." Braldan chuckled. "Some of us still sing his song, 'Raise a glass for him, boys!', though not within earshot of Graniteaxe."

Eylee nodded to him and said, "Poor Kaltuk..."

Eylee did her best to disguise her reaction to the dogma, but Nurgg did not. He grunted and peered down at the dwarf, who shrank slightly beneath the ogre's gaze. "Your Duke was not there for him. Why should he give him praises?"

Braldan shrugged and examined the ground silently. At that moment, Graniteaxe and the general came back to the table. Aldus watched them go and then fixed his gaze on Kaltuk with a look of mild curiosity - or what might have been considered extreme curiosity for a dwarf. Everyone in the room waited, with bated breath, to hear what the King's representatives had to say.



On the Plains of Karana - Part II



"King Stormhammer has decreed that we will consider your proposal on one condition," said Graniteaxe, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms in front of his barrel chest. "We need to know your friend Ironstein has made right his relationship with Brell. We cannot go forward on this without his blessing. Kaltuk needs to admit what happened on that battlefield was due to his own failing, and no fault of the Duke of Below."

The room went quiet, so quiet Eylee thought she could hear the heavy beating of Kaltuk's heart. She watched a bleak desperation wash over the dwarf's face, but he stepped in front of Bayle with surprising composure. The entire group watched him, on edge; even Illisia, normally so austere, seemed to be entreating him with her eyes.

He cleared his throat and swept his eyes over the room. "I was the only one on that battlefield so many years ago," he said, "and I was the only one who saw what it was that happened there. I have stuck by... a particular interpretation of what happened there, for many years." He paused, and his eyes searched the ground. Eylee noted him glance to the side, and followed his gaze to where his daughter and former wife sat. Meen wore and expression of clear disapproval. Cora, however, looked noncommittal, but Eylee hoped for her father's sake, she might crack a smile.

Graniteaxe seemed to notice Kaltuk's gaze as well and cleared his throat, saying, "Focus on the subject, Ironstein, and not my wife. She's no concern of yours."

The crowd went completely silent. Kaltuk's eyes and nostrils flared. Eylee felt her breath catch in her throat and she whispered, "Oh no."

Kaltuk lowered his head and then raised it again, eyes fixed on Graniteaxe. "I have stuck by it because I can see no other explanation. Maybe Brell didn't abandon us all. Maybe he only abandoned me, but he wasn't there. By my beard, I swear it. None of you can say you know the whole tale, none of you can say what exactly happened, because I'm the only one left of the second company of the Stormguard." The crowd began to mutter and murmur, at first softly but at a steadily increasing volume. "As they died one by one, I called to Brell, but Brell didn't seem to think it was worth his time." The murmurs had risen to angry shouts.

"So I'll admit no fault - Brell failed me that day, perhaps Cazic Thule had him by the beard somewhere - and it will be up to you to decide whether to put aside your grievance with me." Bayle's head dropped to his chest, as Kaltuk's words were drowned out by the angry roar of the crowd. The council was on their feet, arguing both with each other and shouting at Kaltuk, who, for his part, was on the offensive, shouting back at the lot of them as if it weren't him versus the whole of Kaladim. Only General Basaltheart remained seated, but he looked at the ground, sighing and shaking his head. Eylee saw her own disappointment mirrored on the faces of the other adventurers. Even Asharae didn't seem to be taking any joy in Kaltuk's failure. The Teir'dal's expression was as sour as any other as she stood and began reacting to the hubbub.

"I believe we are very close to outstaying our welcome," she said, striding back behind Bayle and then looking back toward Nurgg. "Perhaps it best you hoist our stony faced friend over your shoulder and forcibly remove him."

Bayle only nodded. Eylee felt Nurgg's hands on her shoulders. "Cut them," he said, glancing at Braldan with a look that warned him of all the great pain that would come to him if he interfered. The wood elf fumbled with the small knife she kept tucked in her boot and began sawing at the ropes. She glanced up at the ogre and noted a curious expression on the ogre's face. It seemed the hurt that now lay hidden beneath Kaltuk's anger was reflected in Nurgg's eyes. He squeezed her shoulder once the bonds had been loosened and then pushed his way through the rest of the party, unceremoniously lifting Kaltuk to his shoulder, though the dwarf shouted and kicked against him. Asharae hurried after them as they went, shooting glares at the dwarves that she had no doubt been suppressing since the moment they entered Kaladim, and then followed Bayle and, at his heels, Illisia, until finally Eylee glanced up at Roadyle, who smiled at her and shrugged.

"Never trust the future of the world to the temper of a dwarf, I suppose," said Roadyle, and then gestured her forward. Eylee sighed and nodded, hurrying after him. As she stole a final glance back, she noticed Cora standing quietly within the crowd, watching the direction her father had gone. Eylee wished she could capture the image somehow and record it, showing it later to Kaltuk, for there was a genuine sadness to the dwarf's daughter's expression that said perhaps the woman was not so cold to her father as she would have had him believe. There may have only been one dwarf in Kaladim who cared for him, but at least there was the one.

That did not, unfortunately, improve their current situation.


~~~

Eylee lifted her spoon and watched as thick globules of porridge clung to the tip of the utensil. She'd had thick porridge before, but what was far more unsettling was the chunk of gamy meat sticking from the cornmeal. She glanced up at Kruzz, who watched her nervously, chewing on his fingertips. The elf managed a weak smile before putting it in her mouth and closing her lips around the food nervously. The odd mixture of sweet and salty dissolved on her tongue and she chewed the chunk of meat - which she hoped, with all her might, was deer or boar, and not possum, or rat, or anything else she feared would give her as much in the way of disease as sustenance.

"Is good?" asked Kruzz. Eylee sat for a moment, trying to decide what she thought of it. It was not unpleasant, but she had a hard time getting over the strangeness of it. Still, considering the first meal that the troll cook had ever served them involved the various intestinal bits of vermin served in a soup with nothing for flavor but a root that when boiled smelled of rotten eggs, it was a vast improvement.

"It's... good," she said, nodding. The troll leaped up from his crouched position and danced around the deck of the ship, hissing with glee. She smiled despite herself, and then noted where Kruzz had the lock of her hair he'd taken braided and bound to a lucky stone suspended from a leather thong. Uneasiness washed over her. She couldn't shake the terror she'd felt when she'd woken up to see the troll crouched above her with a knife, but it had been all but dulled by the sympathy she felt when Nurgg knocked him across a clearing, and they had then found a lock of her hair clasped between his fingers. It seemed that in the troll's profound superstition, he'd taken her visions as evidence that she was blessed and hoped a token of it would ward off his own ill fortunes. Since then, she'd tried to be kinder to him than she had been previously, and part of that involved taste testing his attempts at making food that anyone in the party but he and Nurgg could stand to ingest; the ogre's tolerance owing only to his long imprisonment at the hands of the trolls of Guk.

She sat cross-legged on the side of the Cloudskipper, cradling the wooden bowl full of meaty porridge in her lap and surveying their surroundings. She had chosen the spot to sit and work at a canto that had been writing itself in her brain all night when she should have been sleeping. As soon as the sun came up, she'd emerged to take advantage of the light and scratched out the verses that had been cycling through her head until she had been recruited as a taste tester.

The ship was tethered above a vast grassland outside of a plainsman village on the Plains of Karana. The sun had emerged from over the hills probably an hour before, and now rose steadily into the sky, light creeping further across the land as it did. It had rained the previous night, so they had spread rucksacks from below on the slick wood where they decided to sit. Illisia moved through the deep grass below them, returning from an early morning scouting mission. The others had begun stirring about on the deck. Nurgg had been awake for as long as Eylee had, and Illisia up even earlier than the ogre. Kruzz had woken up reluctantly when the ogre shoved his foot into the troll's side and said one word: "Breakfast."

Kruzz now echoed that as he cried, "BREAKFAST!" in his high, screechy voice, attempting to rouse the remaining crew.

Eylee looked over as Kaltuk clambered up from below. The further they had flown from Kaladim, the more the dwarf had seemed to regain his usual disposition. Still, everyone was disappointed in what had happened with the dwarves, and it wore on him. They had only retreated just outside of the council room, and waited there as the anger inside the room died down. Eventually, General Basaltheart emerged and spoke to the group, telling them that though Kaladim would defend Faydwer against the threat of the monsters, they would not be dealing directly with the group, nor leaving their own continent. The High Prior thought it would cast a shadow of ill-luck upon them to deal with Ironstein and had convinced the King that it was the case. His tone had been apologetic, and as he delivered the news that they would need to leave Kaladim immediately, he turned to Kaltuk and without any inhibition, embraced him.

"I'm sorry, my friend," he'd said in closing, "I wish it could have been different."

Ironstein nodded to him and asked, "Is it true? Meen? Did she...?"

Basaltheart bowed his head and then said, "Married Graniteaxe after he gave her half the wealth of his clan in gifts. It was hard for her, but she had to close her heart to you."

Kaltuk nodded to him, eyes blank.

"Cora has never called him father," said Basaltheart, a smile playing on his lips, "though he wants her to. You'd be proud to see the time she's been giving him."

Kaltuk had smiled with a genuine look of happiness and clapped his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thank you, you're as true a brother as I ever had."

"Good luck to you and your friends on your mission," said Basaltheart with a nod, disappearing back into the hall.

Kruzz met the dwarf at the top of the ladder, shoving a bowl of porridge in his face excitedly. Kaltuk eyed it with suspicion and then looked up at Kruzz and said, "That almost doesn't look terrible. What've you done to it?"

Kruzz grinned with a mouth full of sharp, discolored teeth and said, "Filled it full of die-licious meat stuffs."

"I didn't think porridge called for meat," said Kaltuk, dubiously.

"It's not so bad a combination," interjected Eylee, "at least, not so bad as you might think."

"I'll believe it when I don't vomit it up," said Asharae, emerging from below Kaltuk, accepting a bowl from Kruzz. "Remind me why the troll was chosen to be the cook?"

"He had the experience," said Twiddy, stretching as he emerged from his cabin at the bow of the ship. "And he actually wanted the job." Fiddlewiz was at his heels, surprisingly free of the cap and scarf that usually covered his head. His wire thin hair stuck out at odd angles, and his purple veins were difficult to tear one's eyes from. Though Eylee felt terrible admitting it to herself, she understood why he made the decision to disguise himself. The gnome caught her watching him and nodded with a thin smile, grabbing a bowl from Kruzz before vanishing back into his cabin.

Asharae stirred her spoon in the bowl and shook her head saying, "Even a slave in Neriak eats better than this. On feast days, it was even better. We would drink the remains of the bloodwyne and steal legs of candied boar."

"That we could all reminisce on our lovely days in servitude," said Roadyle, who had recently emerged from below. Asharae shot him a venomous look. Their relationship had soured completely on the journey between Kaladim and the Plains of Karana. Previously, Asharae had tolerated his working with her on studying the Scryona at Bayle's insistence.

"Two minds are better than one," Bayle had argued, "and you may be a talented mage, but Roadyle has studied much more broadly than you."

Though her surrender had not been conducted with anything that could be called grace, Asharae had tolerated him analyzing its magic with her, but then something had happened. They both told it differently. Asharae claimed that he had somehow magically reached within it and begun drawing its power out; coaxing it with whispers in a language she didn't understand. At first she had tolerated it, but then a hunger had come into his eyes and she had cut him off, snapping the Scryona from his line of sight.

She swore that in the moment she made the decision, the artifact had seemed to cry out in pain to her. Roadyle's account of it was that he had simply been using his own power to pick apart the subtleties of it, and that he believed she simply didn't want him to be privy to its secrets. He lodged the accusation that there were things the Teir'dal was obviously keeping from the group about the device and advised Bayle that she be watched closely. Her expression had smoldered with hatred as he spoke, building as he went, until finally she let out an angry cry, extending a finger toward him and releasing a white bolt of electricity in his direction. He'd taken it in the chest, and his eyes flared with anger. He shouted, and she was struck in the face with rainbow colored energies. She fell to the ground, whimpering that she was blind.

By then, the others had stepped in, holding the pair of them back from each other. There was no way to say who had been telling the truth, so it had ended at an impasse. The pair of them had kept a careful distance from one another from then on.

"Roadyle," said Illisia, pulling herself onto the deck from the ladder, "quiet your mouth. We don't need that." The barbarian woman took a bowl from Kruzz and, with only a slightly curious glance at the chunks of meat, immediately began to dig in.

The high elf shrugged and took his food to the stern of the ship, leaning on his elbows and eating his food quietly. Bayle emerged from below deck after a couple of minutes more. Eylee noted curiously that his eyes were rimmed with dark circles.

"Well?" asked Kaltuk, mouth full of food. "We where we need to be?"

Bayle nodded to him and accepted a bowl from Kruzz, looking at it without a hint of hunger. "We're a few miles walk from the village of Oceangreen. You can probably see their fires in the distance there. I thought it best we stopped here. They're simple people, and we wouldn't want to scare them with our... transportation."

Asharae made a snorting noise. "A show of our power cannot possibly hurt," she said. "Walking into town like any other dirty pack of travelers is hardly 'an entrance'."

Kaltuk shrugged, inclining his head to the side, "The dark elf has a point, as much as I may hate to admit it. We will make more of an impression jumping from a flying ship than pulling ourselves in by our boots."

There were general mutterings of assent. Even Fiddlewiz emerged, now wearing his cap and scarf, and chirped, "More than happy to take her back out."

Twiddy mused over the thought happily. "We've avoided it before now," he said, "but I can't say I wouldn't love to pull her over the awed masses." There was some chuckling and grinning as the assembled party pictured the reaction. Only Bayle seemed unmoved.

"So it's a matter of showing off?" snapped Bayle. He shook his head. "We should go on foot. We shouldn't play like we're gods descending from the heavens. We're not gods..." His voice wavered.

Glances were exchanged. From her perch on the handrail, Eylee drew her legs in to her chest, worrying at how personally Bayle was taking it, and how much against him everyone was. "A number of good points have been raised, lad," said Kaltuk, looking to him. "And we've not exactly been successful in our other approaches. Perhaps a change is needed."

"If I remember right," said Bayle, "Kaladim was lost because of your temper, Kaltuk, not because we didn't wow them with a flying boat."

Kaltuk drew back, looking as though he had been struck, and then glowered.

Roadyle stepped forward and said, "I believe we all agree with what the dwarf is saying. You can't dismiss the rest of us so easily. You may act as leader, but nothing gives you the right to make decisions that go against everyone's wishes but your own."

Bayle glanced from person to person, eyes lingering on Illisia. "Do you agree with them?"

Illisia looked down, and then back up at Bayle. "I think they make a good point," she said. "There is no worrying about whether people are afraid of what is going on here. People are afraid. They should be afraid. Knowing we have resources one can fear puts us on more of a level with our enemies."

"So everyone is against me on this," said Bayle. Those who had spoken didn't feel the need to reiterate, but he looked to Nurgg, who only nodded a single time, and then to Kruzz, who nodded vigorously. Finally, he looked to Eylee.

She swallowed heavily. "I think they're right," she said. "We're in this. We can't hide."

Bayle nodded in defeat and said, with a mild hint of sarcasm, "You're right. I'm sure you all are seeing something that I'm not. Very well. Let's pull off. Fiddlewiz, Twiddy, take us in slow and steady. If we're going to do this, let's make sure we do it well."

Twiddy nodded excitedly and said, "I have just the sail for the occasion."

Fiddlewiz let out a high laugh. Kaltuk glanced at him suspiciously. The gnome just shook his head and vanished inside of the stern, saying, "You'll see."



On the Plains of Karana - Part III



The denizens of Oceangreen had just begun their day when all preparation came to a stop. The villagers streamed into the streets, peering into the sky where a boat drifted through the clouds, sporting a bright yellow sail with the image of a creature that looked to some like a half dragon, half halfling, and to others, a halfling wearing a costume that made it look as though he was a dragon. Either way, it glared at them, impossible to notice and unlikely to be forgotten, disturbing their peaceful moment.

Bayle stood at the bow, watching the village approach with heavy eyes. Eylee stood nearby, everyone else having kept their distance, even Illisia - or particularly Illisia, since he'd taken her dissent the hardest.

"It was nothing to do with you," she said softly.

Bayle smiled weakly and said, "But it does have to do with my ability to lead. I guess none of you ever asked me to lead you, and maybe I shouldn't."

"No one ever asked you to," said Eylee, "but you have because you're best suited for it."

There was a sound of someone clearing their throat. Kaltuk stepped between the two of them, coming to rest against the side of the boat. For a moment, they sat in silence, watching the assembly of plainsfolk below as Fiddlewiz eased the ship down close enough that they could drop the ladders and descend.

"It's a funny thing, coming home, isn't it?" said Kaltuk. Eylee started and glanced at Bayle. The plainsman looked at him in surprise. "Ahh, don't think it wasn't obvious, lad. You've the look of someone needing to face something they've avoided. I have every reason to recognize that easily." He chuckled, and then glanced at Eylee. "I imagine we all know how it is. If we didn't, we wouldn't be out here together. We'd be at home, snug in our beds, surrounded by folks who didn't want us to leave." Eylee flushed and lowered her head, aware of the fact that she was one of the few, or perhaps the only, member of their band who left for no better reason than wanting to go.

"My situation is a little different," said Bayle, gazing ahead of him. "I didn't leave because I had a righteous rivalry with a god who'd abandoned me, or because I saved a Prince and Princess from being executed for no greater crime than loving each other, or because I was tortured by my own parents." His eyes shifted down, studying the deck of the boat. "I left because innocent people died as the result of my foolishness, and my arrogance. My own mentor, the only man who believed in me, died because I ignored his warning to be careful with an ancient, powerful artifact I didn't understand."

"Ahh," said Kaltuk, nodding, "well that is a mighty heavy load, no doubt crushing for one so young as you."

Bayle scoffed. "So it's a part of getting old, huh? Making decisions that leads to the slaughter of innocent people?"

"For a great many people, yes," said Kaltuk. "A great many good people, mind you. We don't always know what our decisions can mean, and sometimes we do, but we know do it anyway because it's what has to happen. Any king who has led his people to war has brought about the slaughter of innocent people."

"That's different," said Bayle.

"Maybe," said Kaltuk, "but then maybe not. This is a war. I don't have to tell you that. And if you'd never seen what that staff could do, maybe many more innocent people would have died."

Bayle was quiet then. Eylee smiled despite the seriousness of the conversation, because it was almost as if she could see a great dark cloud in the young man's spirit thin just a little. "Thank you Kaltuk," he said.

The dwarf shrugged and patted the plainsman on the arm. "From one outcast to the other," he said.

Bayle straightened up as the dwarf walked off, and then glanced to Eylee. She noted a new gleam to his eye and couldn't help but perk up herself.

"Let's head down there," he said.

***

They tied off the boat in the center of the village and made the decision that for once, they would all go down. Twiddy was slightly nervous about leaving the boat, but Fizzlewiz reasoned with him, pointing out that it was highly doubtful anyone in the village could understand how to work the boat well enough to make off with it. The halfling was assuaged and followed the rest of the crew down the ladder and into the gathered throng.

Bayle had, naturally, been the first down the ladder, and so Eylee, as the last, lost him in the crowd. She came to a stop near Twiddy and Fiddlewiz, attempting to stand on her tip toes and look over the heads of the plainsfolk. Even with the little extra height it offered her, she was still to low to see anything. She glanced down at the gnome and the halfling.

Twiddy chuckled and said, "Well, at least you had a hope of seeing something. Fiddlewiz and I would need to stand atop one another's shoulders to even try." The gnome nodded his head, a muffled sound of agreement issuing from behind his scarf.

Eylee grinned. "Where's Bayle?" she asked.

Fiddlewiz pointed into a patch of crowd where a mess of voices obscured the particulars of the conversation happening there. "Seems he knew a few people here," said Twiddy.

"Apparently this is his home," said Eylee, eyebrows laced together with concern.

"Oh really?" said Twiddy. "Well, that's good then, isn't it?" Eylee didn't respond except to let out a long sigh. "Or not," said Twiddy, tugging at his collar.

"There he is," chirped Fiddlewiz.

The crowd parted and Bayle returned, a very large man with a coppery-red hair that had begun to go white on the temples walking beside him. The new plainsman nodded stiffly to the group, and Bayle gestured toward him saying,
"This is Urth, once of the Iceaxe clan, an elder of Oceangreen. He has generously agreed to hear our case."

Urth nodded to them and said, "We know the threat you fight against." The plainsman glanced at Bayle. "You were lucky to have landed here first. We believe the men of shadows you seek have already come to the Plains. We've fought against people we once knew as friends. While this wasn't anything to raise an eyebrow at in the northlands, as you may or may not know, we who migrated here came to find peace." Urth glanced around, squinting so that the wrinkles at his eyes deepened and he suddenly looked much older than he had before. "I've sent my boy to gather the rest of the elders. We will meet in the elders' chambers at the midday hour. Bayle can show you. He knows the place." The older man's eyes swept down Bayle, who visibly straightened. Urth nodded to him and said, "We'll speak privately. Come to the chambers a little earlier than your friends. Your crime hasn't been forgotten." Bayle lowered his head and nodded. "You've changed, though. I'm not blind to that." Urth gestured in farewell and vanished into the crowd.

Bayle stood before the group and said, "We've a couple of hours to do as we please. These are good people. I think it's safe to say we can put down our guard and enjoy ourselves until then." Bayle began to turn to go, alone. Eylee glanced toward Illisia, who seemed to deliberately be avoiding watching him go.

"Enjoy ourselves doing what?" asked Roadyle. "I believe I'll wait on board." He waved his hand and began levitating toward the Cloudskipper. That might have been a cue for others to do the same, but only the high elf seemed to think there wasn't something to be found below. Even Kruzz, as nervous as he looked, only glanced toward the ladder once and instead stayed on the ground.

Eylee looked up to see Illisia beside her. The barbarian woman returned the glance and said, "Perhaps you would walk with me."

Eylee smiled and nodded vigorously. It was a rare moment when Illisia took any company but Bayle's. Other groups had begun to form and break off. Nurgg and Kaltuk began walking in one direction. Twiddy and Fiddlewiz made in another, chatting in hushed tones about improvements they wished to make to the boat. Kruzz, oddly enough, had been surrounded by a group of children, who peered up at him in curiosity. The troll looked much more frightened of them than they were of him, but they gestured him to follow, and when the group of youngsters ran off, they pulled him along with them, Kruzz offering little resistance. Asharae was left alone and Eylee gestured toward her, looking up at Illisia. The barbarian woman made a bit of a face but then shrugged.

Eylee jogged up to the dark elf and said, "Perhaps you would like to join us?"

Asharae arched an eyebrow and said, "You're too kind."

Eylee smiled bashfully and said, "Well, you looked lonely."

"I meant that literally," said Asharae, narrowing her eyes. "You're too kind. Stop it. It's annoying."

Illisia stepped in behind Eylee and said, "If the Teir'dal wishes to be miserable, let her."

Asharae lowered her head and swept back a lock of hair that had fallen in front of her face. "No, I'll come," said Asharae softly. She smirked, full lips twisting playfully. "If Eylee will accept my apology."

Eylee nodded and said, "Accepted. But coming from you Asharae, I'll take it for the irony it almost certainly is, and not hold you to it."

Asharae tossed her head back and laughed, "Oh my dear, perhaps there is promise for you yet."

As the trio of women drifted out of the square, Eylee caught sight of Bayle exchanging words with a woman in her middle years. "So the Baker Caldman moved on? And his daughter...?"

"Went with him," said the woman, smiling apologetically, "not long after you... went. Perhaps a month or two."

"Thank you," said Bayle, nodding to her.

"Most welcome, young Bayle," said the woman, her tone was courteous but uncertain. "It's good to see you... in such good health."

Bayle smiled weakly and nodded to her, pacing away. Eylee looked back to Asharae and Illisia. Neither of them seemed to have noticed, though the wood elf highly doubted that Illisia ever missed much at all. If the barbarian had caught the exchange, and taken it to mean what Eylee had, she probably would not want to comment on it. Any other woman, maybe, but the hardened scout was a person who kept every facet of her emotions bound up deeply inside of her, and was not likely to let it show.

Illisia glanced down at the younger woman and her face creased with a half smile. "I thought perhaps we could see the horses," she said. "That is the one thing about riding in a ship. I miss the horses."

Asharae snorted and gestured as she spoke, saying, "Well, I certainly don't. Saddle sores! Spending every morning rubbing away the stink just to smell of them all over by nightfall!" She glanced at the other two and shrugged, saying, "I suppose they are pretty beasts, though, if you don't have to ride them. I'll go."

"I've no objections," said Eylee.

Illisia nodded and the three very different women walked together to the horse stables of Oceangreen.

***

When they came together once again to stand before the assemblage of elders, they seemed ready for whatever would come. It had been good to see life in its most ordinary movements continuing, with no agenda except to enjoy it; the sights, smells, and sounds of the village reminded the travelers that the world had not been turned so sincerely on its head as it might have seemed from the deck of the Cloudskipper. However, there was a touch of something in it all that led Eylee to believe things were not quite right in the town of Oceangreen. Though hardly dressed for war, men and women wore weapons at their hips -- strange for a group who professed to be searching for peace -- and outside of town, she thought she saw signs that there had been a battle in their fields. It was obviously a couple of months old, as grass had grown over the scars left by whatever skirmish had happened there, but the gouges were still visible beneath that layer of veneer. The signs were not so much that they ruined her afternoon, but it did linger at the back of her mind, coloring the taste of the homemade bread they bought from a good wife and causing her voice to tremble just slightly when she appeased the request for a song from a group of children. It was the same children who had stolen away with Kruzz, and the troll sat with a child on either side of him, listening raptly to Eylee's song -- identical expression on both the monster's and the children's faces. None of these comforting moments could clear out the sense that there had been violence here, and the thought still hung over her as she assembled with the others in the elders' hall.

They had lined up in a straight line, and Eylee stood near one end between Twiddy and Kruzz. A group of seven plainsfolk sat before them, all wearing the rich dressings of the well respected. Urth sat in their center, arms folded in his lap.

"Please sit," said Urth.

Bayle nodded to him and took a seat on a pile of animal skins. The rest followed, stretching out or folding up in a way that was comfortable to them. "Have you become leader then, Urth?" asked Bayle.

Urth smiled and shrugged. "When we came here, it was with the intention of keeping a simple council. Naively, we believed the council would have no more important duties than supervising planting seasons and solving land disputes. Maybe we never truly believed it, only hoped. When it was clear that though we ran from warfare, it had followed us, the need for a leader became stronger. I can't say I will stay in this position, but it seemed to have chosen me for now."

"You are a wise man, Urth," said Bayle. "I'm certain you are well suited. Now, tell me, what has the fighting been?"

The elders exchanged glances. Urth cleared his throat and said, "At first, it was a simple matter of travelers not returning. We passed it off as ill luck, as the attacks of beasts, but then it happened more and more, until finally one man did not disappear, but stumbled into the village, bloodied and battered. Once he had rested long enough, he was able to tell us what had happened. He'd stopped into a settlement to the north to spend the night, but was set upon in his sleep. The man was dragged to a dark portal, similar in description to the one that opened here, and a shadow slipped from it, traveling across the ground slowly toward him. Fueled by terror, he fought his way free, and though injured, made his way here. Two days later we were attacked by a band of fellow humans from the north; humans with double shadows who fought alongside beasts similar to that which tore apart our own town. We were ready, though, and had prepared for the attack. A number of them fell into pits we had dug out on the perimeter of town, and others dropped after volleys of arrows and spears that our best fighters had at the ready. We lost a few of our people, but not nearly so many as they did." He was silent for a moment, studying ground. "The strangest, and most terrible, thing of all was that it wasn't just strong men and women who attacked us. There were children, and old folk, and they all fought with the same ferocity. It was like they had no mind left in them."

There were collective sounds of dismay from the travelers. Eylee felt herself gasp at the thought of cutting down a child.

"Bayle, you brought something terrible to this town," said Urth, "and many people died. But we believe now it was coming anyway. Do you still have that staff?"

Bayle nodded and unstrapped it, setting it on the ground before him. Everyone's eyes locked on it. "I've coaxed it to do what it did here many more times," said Bayle. "With just one difference, I've been using it to close portals, rather than open them. We have another artifact that helps us find the portals. Asharae?"

Asharae glanced at him, startled, and narrowed her eyes slightly. She untied the pouch and opened it slowly, removing the Scryona. Urth held out his hand, but Asharae smiled. It was a smile not without cruelty but, Eylee doubted, intentionally malicious. "You don't want to do that, elder," she said. "It stings. The dwarf can tell you. It's powerful, though, trust that." Kaltuk ruffled at the mention of his folly, no doubt recalling the excruciating pain he'd felt when simply touching it with a fingertip.

Urth nodded to her and said, "For all you can say about the Teir'dal, they do have powerful magic at their command. I trust you, lady elf, at least in this."

Asharae slipped the Scryona back into her pouch with a look of satisfaction and tied the lavender strings around it tightly, settling back against her hands, legs stretched out in front of her.

The elder stroked at his beard. "What do you want from us, Bayle?" he said. "You came here to enlist our aid, but what can we do for you? You have your strange ship, and what seems to be a capable band of fighters. I recognize you, Illisia Iceheart, Hound of Zek." He nodded his head to Illisia.

She colored slightly and said, "I'm not the Hound of Zek any more, Urth Iceaxe. I'm Illisia Marrsheart now, servant of Erollisi Marr. I left Princess Unna and Prince Erasmus in a village not far from here, but only after mending any wrong I had done to them."

Urth chuckled and said, "And I'm not Urth Iceaxe any longer, child. I didn't mean to accuse you, just to point out your reputation. Hound of Zek, or Daughter of Marr, having you by his side means Bayle has a great ally. And I'm sure the rest of you, though I don't know you, are just as capable. I'm just wanting to know how it is we would fit in to all of this."

Bayle seemed to pause and consider his answer, but not for long. After a few moments, he said, "I didn't know what I was going to find here. We had an idea of how far this was spreading, but couldn't know any specifics. I would hate to ask you for more than you are already doing, especially when you came here to stop fighting."

Urth let out a low sound and said, in a deep voice that rose and fell at just the right moments, "We may have come here seeking an end to the constant, petty bloodshed of the north, but we are still the children of those icy peaks, hardened by a life of fighting against ice and snow. Maybe our children, or our children's children, and those who come after, will forget it, and be tamed by these gentle plains, and their lives will be the better for it. But we are still those warriors, and we can still fight. And I hope that no matter what, our children's children's children will still have it in them to raise swords against their enemies in righteousness anger, for the sake of defending home and family; just not for anything less than that, not simply to prove that they are 'better' than their neighbor, nor fill their halls with trophies and empty plunders. So we are ready to do what we can against this enemy, for our homes, and for our families, and for the promise of a future where our descendants will find better ways to face their troubles."

Bayle was stunned, looking at Urth. This reverence was mirrored throughout the room. Eylee realized she had been holding her breath, wrapped up in the powerful man's even more powerful words.

"Truly, the gods chose you to lead, Urth," said Bayle. "I'm humbled."

A smile played on Urth's lips. "Don't be so humble that you can't tell me what there is to do next, boy."

Bayle rose and opened his hands, saying, "This will be our united front. This is where the war must truly begin..."

***

And there it did begin. A turning point. Urth Iceaxe lead the united plainsfolk alongside us to establish a territory the Void would no longer touch, and bands of warriors - human, as they had begun calling themselves, warriors - traveled to us when we called for them.

There was talk for a time that he might become the first king of those united humans, but Urth Iceaxe fell in a battle against the Void, slaughtering dozens of them before he went down. He was mourned by many, and in his wake, there was once again no united leader. I have no doubt some day another will rise. In fact, I know it. Following the end of our discussions, I finished the canto that had been plaguing me. When it was complete, I performed it for Urth and left the only copy with him, for it described that future he had so animatedly described for us in the elders' chambers that day. It told of a great leader who would lead the humans to an age of enlightenment. When I was finished, I noticed that he had begun weeping, and I apologized profusely, but he assured me that it was out of joy, not sorrow, and embraced me. I like to think that maybe it will be our example, the unity of many different races working toward one goal, that will help lead these humans to their future.

Those days were touched by something magic, and we rode high on the success, but we always knew it would turn again, as things have a way of doing.

- Eylee Zephyrswell.

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