Janis quickly bustled onto the sun-drenched patio, breathing quickly from her long walk. “Milady?”
The Lady Shore mumbled a distracted, “Mrm,” as she read through a long roll of parchment, the roll rods held in each hand. Her startling blue eyes slowly scanned the scroll, squinting slightly from the sun's midday sun above her.
The maidservant paused to smile at the sight. The castle stood upon a steep hill that overlooked the harbor. The small city around the harbor was mainly concerned with fishing, though the sounds of a smithy and a small market were plainly heard on the wind. An enormous sailing vessel was the main draw of the servant's eyes, moored as it was out in the middle of the harbor. Smaller sailing vessels darted around it, or put in at the many jetties darting out into the water. The brilliant blue of the sky was marred only be a few tufts of white cloud, and the bright sun a few marks past noon.
Janis bustled to the other side of the table at which her lady sat, and moved the large umbrella so that it placed the lady in the shade. The maidservant placed a small envelope upon the table, sealed in green wax, and refilled Lady Shore's glass of water from a pitcher hidden inside an earthern container.
Jacqueline Shore blinked, pausing in her reading, and her eyes slowly slid to the small envelope. Both hands quickly pounced on it, as a seagull's shadow flew quickly across the balcony. “Janis?!”
The maidservant paused just inside the archway leading to the balcony, and turned around. “Yes, milady?” she answered with a knowing smile.
“Is it..? Did it come from..?” Lady Shore eagerly broke the seal on the letter, opening it without really waiting for an answer.
“Yes, milady. It came in on that Rakoran ship in the harbor, the Rial's Reach. It's from yer lordship, milady.” Janis chuckled softly to herself, and waited patiently nearby. She knew that a flurry of instructions was about to interrupt her lady's review of the tax codes.
I have at long last located the ruins of the Neretule Tower. As suspected, it was deep in the Dorinoc Forest, some one-hundred miles west of where the Rorik and the Knife Rivers meet. There are clear signs that the tower fell out of time rather hard, into the Dorinoc Forest. The enormous basalt blocks that made up the tower lie about the forest as though some giant had kicked them about. A great deal of the superstructure and substructures are intact, such as the main floors and basements, but… My men and I have begun salvage operations, and will continue to search through the wreckage for the Mikalian Amulet. I trust that things are well at home, and that you are well.
–Your humble servant, Khavik Ghestalt. Dacal 11th, 1326 Avard.
When the Lady Shore said nothing for awhile, Janis asked from the archway, “Is everything alright, milady?”
Shore blinked, and turned in her chair. “Janis, summon Darian. And tell him to bring his scrying crystal.”
The maidservant nodded once, her brows drawn together in confusion. She did not question her lady, though, and pulled her dress up to let her walk quickly out of the room.
* * *
Khavik leapt over a log, and then pounded through the ferns. Behind him, something charged through the forest, knocking aside trees with its unstoppable girth and strength. Whatever it was that so chased the man was fast, but the khavik was faster.
He grunted as he flew across a twenty foot stream, landing heavily on the other side. He scrambled up the slippery slope, and then tore off through the underbrush again. His black leathers were stained with green moss and gray mud. His boots were a solid mud gray, and the muddy color slowly fell away as it travelled up his breeches. His white cotton shirt was wide open, revealing a sweating, muscled chest, and his black vest swung heavily across his torso with every well-placed stride.
The crashing behind him paused for a moment, and there was an enormous splash as whatever beast chased him crossed the stream. Khavik paused, and looked behind him. His eyes were a brown rim around his black pupils, with a bright green color towards the edge of his irises. His pupils went wide for a moment, turning his eyes a mesh of green and brown, and then he turned and continued to run.
“Can you show us what's chasing him?” Shore asked of Darian.
The mage ripped his eyes from the massive quartz crystal in the middle of the table, and shook his head. “No, milady. The images you see are not necessarily from the present, either.”
“We could be watching something days, or weeks old?”
Darian nodded. His well-cut white beard and hair were ruffled slightly in the evening breeze, and only the stars and the crystal provided light to soften his angular face. “The temporal disturbances near the tower are too great, milady. Where he is, though, should be well into fall or even early winter; though what we see in the image is clearly summer, with leafy greens. I doubt this image is recent.”
In the crystal, Khavik continue to run. He ran around a large outcropping of black rock, and Shore realized that it was one of the stones from the Neretule Tower. She gasped, and realized the scale of the block, as the khavik continued to run past it. The block must have been twenty feet tall, and perhaps forty feet long. Though gouged and crumbling in some places, it still showed the massive strength of an enormous brick.
Darian gasped, and said, “I'd no idea the tower was so large!”
Shore muttered, “They said it was larger than the Tower of Brigain – the largest ever built.”
The mage shook his head. “It'd have to be enor–”
In the crystal upon the table, Khavik ran past another block, and then leapt up the twenty feet of the block in a single bunching of his powerful legs. The daylight in the image clearly illuminated hundreds of the stones, running off into a small hill in the distance – which Darian belatedly realized had to be the stump of the Neretule Tower.
The image wavered, and then faded, leaving the crystal dark and clear. Janis, also seated at the table, asked, “What happened?”
Darian rubbed his white eyebrows, and then sighed. “The temporal distortions are too great, so close to the tower.”
The maidservant glanced at her lady, and then asked the mage, “Temporal?”
“Temporal. Er… Time displacement.”
“You mean, the tower is from another time?”
Lady Shore interrupted, “A time before the Storm Wars. Before the Inquisition, Janis. The Neretule Tower was where the great mages went to train.”
Janis glanced from Darian to Lady Shore, and then back to the crystal. “What happens if the Inquisition finds it?”
Darian said harshly, “They'll destroy it. Or ward it, so that no one can ever find it again.”
The maidservant asked, “And what if they find his lordship?”
Shore answered, “They'll find out he's a mage, Janis. They'll kill him.”
* * *
Sir Jack Ghestalt, Khavik of Paladia, growled, and summoned a feeble purplish light to his fingertips. The glow faded, caught, brightened, and then went out. “Great. Antimagic field.”
He backed out of the field, and used his magic to light a torch from a sconce in the wall. With that in hand, he slowly walked forward, probing the edge of the antimagic field with his lit finger. With a puff, the fire went out, actually burning him, and he had to shake his finger, before sticking it in his mouth. “Mrmph.”
With the torch held high, he stepped slowly down the dark corridor. The black stone of the tower seemed to absorb light, though the dust of centuries placed a gray pall upon everything from the flagstones of the hall to the occasional bit of broken furniture left on the floor. Several cob webs high in the high corridor sent shivers down his back. Deeper in the shadows of those webs, he saw dark shapes that had to be spiders as big as his hands.
As the khavik made his way slowly through the corridor, he drew his ninja-to, a shortsword whose blade was barely longer than from his elbow to his fingertips. The dark blade seemed to have a deep purple color of its own, and occasionally flickered with purple light, as though trying to resist the antimagic field. Khavik glanced all about, the blade silently swirling in his hand in lazy loops.
Behind the khavik, a slab of stone quietly detached itself from the wall. In the flickering shadows of the torch, the black stone was all shadows, save for a lightly glowing rune of red. The stone slowly resolved itself into a vaguely man-shaped brute nearly twelve feet tall. The stone brute moved with surprising speed and stealth up behind Khavik, and brought its hands up together in a move to smash the man.
That motion saved Khavik's life. He noticed the torch gutter for an instant, in a place where there was no wind, and he instinctively rolled forward, dropping the torch. The brute's stone fists swung through the air where Khavik's head had been an instant before, and it actually growled in frustration.
Khavik paused for a moment to assess the situation, and grimaced. The antimagic field prevented him from using any of his own magics, and it left his enchanted sword as useless as a real katana – useless against black basalt. The rune on the brute's forehead obviously protected it from the antimagic field, and an idea formed in Khavik's head.
His blade swung out, and then in, as the mortal man rushed the immortal stone. Ninja-tos, designed for punching through an opponent as quickly as possible, were never intended for heavy slashing attacks. Rather than slash, Khavik punched, placing the tip of the blade through the rune on the stone monster's forehead. The rune flashed and sizzled even as the blade sank into the stone an inch, and then the monster froze in place. It's animating magic no longer sustained it, and the rune had allowed the enchantments on the blade enough magic and power to pierce even stone.
Khavik dropped down the twelve feet to the floor, and stared up at the brute. His ninja-to was stuck several inches into the brute's forehead, and without his magic, he could not retrieve it. “Hrmph.”
He picked up the guttering torch, and nursed it back to health. More cautious, and more wary, he resumed his slow walk down the dark corridor. “It's moments like these,” he muttered, “That I wished I'd chosen a familiar like other mages…”
Khavik continued on into the labrynthine corridors of the collapsed tower, sometimes having to squeeze through tiny fissures in the behemoth stones. Dust was everywhere, and many creatures had made the caves their homes. The occasional tracks through the dust indicated strange and varied creatures. As Khavik caught the occasional glances, he could only surmise that some of the critters had escaped from mage's cages within the tower. Whatever they were, they were not natural to the mage's eyes.
He sighed, weary deep down, even in his bones. It had been close to two months since he had had a bath. Two months since he'd had a hot meal – or held his wife in his arms. He paused, leaning against a large stone in the meandering hallways and tunnels. Feelings of despair washed over him, because of the futility of his mission. He only wanted to return, to his wife, and his friends. He turned his head, and looked back down the corridor. The torch – his tenth or eleventh in the deep night of the corridors – barely held back the shadows and the darkness. He took a tentative step back, and then turned his head, again.
He held his fist up, staring at his wedding band. The multicolored diamonds blazed in the dim torchlight, and he sighed, longing to see the matching ring on his wife's hand. As he stared into the diamonds, his feelings of despair and tiredness fell away. Growling, he glanced down the corridor, and swept his torch up higher.
Khavik muttered, “Interesting spell,” and pushed through the spell's envelope, deeper into the ancient tower. “Very nice. Keeps people out, if they don't have a damn good reason for being here…”
* * *
Therilius crossed his arms, as his orcs moved into position around the entrance to the Neretule Tower. Dozens of orcs with expensive scale mail and scale shields, as well as spears and scimitars, circled the area, preparing to make camp.
Therilius himself was a half-orc, but little of that showed in his physique. Three hundred pounds and seven feet of powerful muscle and thick green hide were barely contained by mithrel-edged plate mail. The half-orc's scimitar reflected the sunlight that struck it in a hazy fashion, indicating heavy enchantments. A veteran of many wars and many campaigns, his scarred hide had several scars from one human in particular.
“Khavik.” He grunted as he said the name, as though it indicated a curse, more than a man.
One of his subordinates glanced at him questioningly, and Therilius growled back. “We'll go in at dusk. In the meantime,” he said in the harsh orcish tongue, “We rest.”
Several more orcs entered the clearing, one of them practically dragging an elf bound in chains. The elven male was stripped to his loin cloth, and was bleeding from many healing cuts. The orc guard that was leading him tossed the end of the chain to one of his companions, and ambled off to relieve himself on a tree.
The new guard glanced at the tree, grinned evilly, and then beat the elf to the ground with one meaty hand. As his companions laughed, the guard began to relieve himself upon the elf.
Several other orcs relieved themselves on the elf, as well, who stoically endured. His glaring hatred was quite evident in his eyes, and Therilius did not doubt for a moment that the frail creature would do anything in its power to kill them all.
Therilius guffawed, then, knowing that the elf would never even bother them. It feared their blades too much, and it would soon be dead – as it lead the way into the traps within the Neretule Tower. “Elves are such cowards…”
As the orc leader moved to sit down and rest his weary legs, Mhyrtheros watched him with his blue eyes. He ignored the smell of orc urine as it dripped off of him, and ignored the sting as it seeped into his many cuts. Though his eye was swollen, he could still see out of it, and he clamped down on his emotions with an iron will.
The elf had been spying upon the orcs, as they wound their way through the forests. After careful consultation with his tribe, he had allowed himself to be captured. A party of orcs in the Dorinoc Forest was strange enough, and no elf in the tribe could remember one in living memory being so far north. The fact that the orcs were well armed and heavily armored, as well as on a mission, made the elves ask more questions than they had answeres to.
Mhyrtheros locked eyes with one of his kin hidden just behind a noisy, smell orc, and nodded to indicated he was well enough. His humilitation would continue until they could ferret out the purpose of these orcs. The fact that they wanted to enter the Block Ruins was strange, for death and disappearance awaited them inside.
The elf wondered if, perhaps, the orcs were chasing whatever being had been through the forest two months prior. It had left a swath of destruction tens of yards wide through the forest, and none of their trackers could identify it. Whatever it was, it had disappeared deep within the ruins, from whence it had come. The Block Ruins were strange, the elves knew, yet their adventurous spirit to explore them had been tempered by a plain warning visible only at night.
The enormous stone blocks glowed faintly in the night, such that only elves could see the souls swimming within them, trapped for all eternity in stone.
* * *
Darian blinked, glancing around. His protector on the mission stumbled, and then quickly drew his sword, looking for danger. Both men would have been able to hold off a small army, but all they faced was forest, strangely warm for the altitude and time of year.
Vance was dressed in banded mail armor, the leather that bound it dyed a rich purple color. His impressive cloak and riding boots were of purple trimmed black, and the knight wore a tabbard of black and purple. The warrior was perhaps six-foot four, and powerfully built. His greatsword dipped nimbly in his hands as he slowly turned about, and Darian felt more comfortable for having his aid.
Darian was dressed in simple, purple robes, and upon his back was a large pack, full of every possible thing he could imagine needing while out in the forest, searching for a lost magical ruin.
After a moment, Vance asked in a quiet voice, “Well? Which way, Darian?”
The mage chuckled. “Just a moment.” He pulled out a smaller crystal than the one he had scried Khavik with, and concentrated, the smile fading from his face. “The real trick to finding him, is finding out where he's not.”
“Shh. I'm talking to myself.” Darian concentrated, scouring the forest for indications of his Lord Ghestalt. There were several jumps in the images the crystal brought in, and the mage had to concentrate. “These forests are heavily infested with all kinds of beasties… Let's see where they're not, as well… Ah.” He glanced slightly northwest. “That way. I'm assuming you take the lead?”
Vance nodded. “Let me do the talking and the fighting. You just back me up, and keep me going the right direction.” He glanced over his shoulder as he headed off into the underbrush. “And if we run into a mage, or a priest, you call the shots.”
Darian nodded, and followed the young warrior into the forest.
As the two travelled on, they talked, their conversation the meandering conversation of men getting along. At one point, though, the talk wound back to their mission.
Vance asked, “These ruins of the tower, are supposed to be enchanted and have a lot of personal effects and magical items, of the Nuretulians. I gathered that. But how come Khavik's the only one to find the ruins?”
Darian stepped around a particularly thorny bush that Vance had just walked through, and answered as best he could. “Well, for one, we didn't know where across the whole of Gaeleth the tower had gone to – or even if it had come out of the time stream, yet. It could've crashed into the ocean, or might not even be around, yet.”
Vance swung his machete, striking down a small pine in his way. “I've seen you track a stolen ring a thousand miles with that crystal of yours. Why couldn't the Nuretulians track something of theirs, in the tower, the same way?”
Darian continued following Vance for a moment, and then answered, “We're not sure. The time line around the tower, and around the Neretulians, flows very strangely. It distorts spells, and makes it difficult to scry upon them. Khavik is a very well read man, and remembered reading the exploits of a Karatikan traveller to the northern elven clans.
“You mean, up around Gordanis and Alith?”
“Precisely. The Karatikan noted seeing a massive stone block far into the forest, but he could never find it again. Apparently, the blocks are still moving through the time stream, sometimes in and out. It's all very strange.”
Vance shuddered. “So part of it could disappear or reappear while we're in the area? A big stone block just… appear on us?”
Darian stopped, thinking. “You know, I never thought of it, that away. But I suppose you're right. Yes, it very well could happen.”
* * *
Khavik spun in midair, blindly reaching for the edge of the room. His fingers barely found the edge in time, and he slid until just the tips of his fingers held him up. He fought against his breaking nails, and climbed up, and over the edge in one sinuous movement. Jack watched as his torch fell into the depths below, and was lost from sight.
He looked down into the depths, and then blinked. A moment prior, he had been squatting in a small room within the tower, picking the lock on a large chest. And then with a flicker, the whole of the floor had dropped out from under him.
He caught his breath, and stilled his hammering heart. “Hoooo. I did'nae expect that tae happen.”
His eyes flashed in the darkness, and then began feeling his way back down the corridor, towards where he thought he remembered seeing a sconce with a torch in it. After several minutes of wandering, he realized that he was lost. He found a turn in the dark corridor that he would have sworn had not been there before, and he scowled.
Khavik reached deep into his soul, and touched that point of power that was the source of all his magics. There was a spark, and a purplish flame leapt to life in his hands. He held it high, and looked around. What he saw in the dust made his heart begin hammering, again.
His footprints came straight out of a massive black slab of cobwebbed stone. It was as though he had walked through the wall. Jack's hands found the wall to be as real as any other he had touched, and he sighed softly. Though a spell had forced him to feel despair, earlier, he was beginning to feel real despair at that moment. “I knew I should've just hired somebody to come do this…”
The khavik glanced around, and randomly picked a direction, trudging on.
* * *
Mhyrtheros cautiously stepped around the corner, his leash going taught.
Therilios grunted in the common tongue, “Careful, elf. You have to last me through a lot of traps.”
Mhyr said nothing, pretending only to understand the rudiments of Common. He did slow down – though more because the leash was going tight, than because of the command. Like the corridors before it, the new one was empty. The footprints of a human were plainly visible in the guttering light from the torches.
Therilios watched the elf silently. He knew the pointy-eared, pale-skinned sneak could understand more of the common tongue than he let on, but he said nothing. The half-orc vowed to kill the frail little thing as soon as it had outlived its usefullness; unfortunately, he knew he would still need the elf, just to get out of the catacombs of the broken ruin.
Mhyr paused, frowning. His elven ability to 'see' heat kicked in and out because of the flickering torchlight held at just the wrong distance, but further down the corridor, something as warm as mammal had crossed, quickly. Watching the floor to see where the human had walked, the elf continued cautiously along. As the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up of their own accord, Mhyrtheros half-wished he had not volunteered to be captured by the orcs.
The rest of the orcs shuffled behind their leader, bored. One wiped at the drool coming out of his maw, as another used an old rag to wipe some of the dust off his armor. The last orc in the line glanced back, and grunted.
The savage swine next to him turned and asked, “What?” in orcish.
The last orc grunted again, and shrugged. “Thought I heard something.” As he turned around, a massive shadow reached into his chest from behind. The orc's heart turned to ice, and shattered within his chest.
The next orc in line from the rear turned, and squeeled in porcine fear as the shadows themselves opened their eyes – dozens of shadows – those red, glowing eyes.
Therilios spun about, his grip firm on his leash, and growled, “What the hell?”
His view was blocked by a corner in the corridor, and as he stepped forward, he was nearly run over by his own orcs. Mhyr was jerked along, and then had to flatten himself against the wall as the crazed and fearful orcs rushed past.
“Stand and fight, you fools!” barked the half-orc, even as one of the shadows rounded the corner. “Stand and…” His jaw fell open for an instant, and then clamped his teeth together with a loud *clack!* sound.
The half-orc leader ripped something out from beneath his scale mail armor, and held it before the shadow. He barked, “Begone!” in the harsher ogran tongue.
The shadow paused, and blinked at Therilios. It scowled at him, and then turned, fleeing back into the shadows from whence it had come.
Therilios yelled after his frightened orcs, “Get your sorry butts back here!”
Mhyr, quietly holding to the shadows, filed away in his memory the fact that Therilios was far more than he appeared.
* * *
Vance held up his hand for Darian to stop, and drew his greatsword. As he did so, there was a gentle rustling of the underbrush around them, and suddenly a dozen elves in mottled green and brown, hooded cloaks surrounded them – bows drawn with arrows knocked and ready.
Darian surreptiously placed his thumb on the ring about his middle finger, ready to spin it about in an instant. The wizard knew that, together, he and Vance could take the elves. Darian also know that 'the natives' might lead them to their khavik.
Vance said calmly in the elven tongue, “We come in peace.”
One of the elves spat, and answered in the common tongue, “With weapons and armor? The two of you alone? You humans make me sick, with your overbearing confidence.”
Vance said quietly in elven, “I have no qualms about killing in self defense. You might have information I –”
The elves released their arrows, almost as one. It was clear that their hatred for humans, and perhaps outsiders, had tainted their reason. Darian twisted the ring on his finger, and instantly a field of shimmering energy rose up to deflect the arrows of the elves.
Vance leapt forward, ignoring the shield, and his greatsword swung in viscious arcs, cutting the elves apart. Darian's hands dealt a rain of arcane energy down upon the elves, and they fell before him.
The splint-mailed warrior yelled, “Ensorcel one of them; we have to question them!” as he cut down two more of the startled, angry elves.
One of the elves yelled, “Stop! STOP!” in the elven tongue.
Vance held his swing, though the force of stopping the massive blade slung a spray of blood all over the surrending elf.
Darian glanced left and right, his hands tingling from the spells he had already cast.
The elf said more weakly, “Stop. Please.” He discarded his bow, and slowly crawled through the torn up brush to one of his comrades, nearly cut in half by Vance's powerful sword.
Vance grimly maintained his grip on his sword, and held it at the ready. He had been tricked far too many times by compassion to be taken in, again. Darian continued to slowly spin about, watching the other elves as they tended to their wounded – and their dying.
The elf nearest Vance, the one that had called out for them to stop, cradled the body of his comrade, tears openly streaming down his face. “What do you want from us, outsiders?” he asked quietly in Common. “We surrender, damn you. We surrender.”
Darian arched one white eyebrow, and said, “We're looking for another human. Dressed in black, save for a white cotton shirt. Have you seen him?”
The elf shook his head, his eyes going red from the tears he was shedding. “No. No, I've not seen this human you speak of.” He looked into Vance's eyes, and though the warrior stood ready for anything, his eyes were compassionate. “But I know where he may be.”
Vance asked gruffly, “Where?”
“A group of orcs – perhaps a dozen or so – went into the ruins. They have one of our own with them – and they were tracking someone. A human, perhaps.”
“Where are these ruins?”
The elf looked up into Vance's dark brown eyes. “You do not want to go there. There are things there not even you can face, human.”
Vance nodded. “I know. But I have to find him.” He glanced quickly at Darian, who shared the glance. “We have to.”
Covered in blood and tears, the elf sighed, and then pointed one shaking hand towards the northeast. “That way lie the ruins, if you travel the rest of the day, and then half of the night. Be warned, human.” He looked into Vance's eyes again, sending a shiver down the warrior's back. “Be warned that you do not want to be near the ruins at night.”
Darian let his hands down, and placed his spell components back in their pouches. “We'll keep that in mind. Thank you,” he said in Elven. “We regret the loss of your friends.”
The elf roared something unintelligible, and rushed at Darian. Vance cut him down from behind without a second thought. The remaining elves were fading into the underbrush as Vance glanced around, and then wiped the blood from his sword.
The warrior said, “That's something of an insult in Elven, because elves usually live for many centuries.”
Darian said softly, “Oh. I hadn't thought of that, before.” He looked down sadly at the cooling body of the dying elf nearest Vance, and sighed. “Come. Let's get going. We've a lot of ground to cover.”
Vance nodded, and again took up the lead.
Neither of them saw a silvery wolf with emerald green eyes, watching them from the cover of brush.
* * *
Khavik set the torch down inside a large glass beaker, and glanced around the laboratory. The 'fall' out of the timestream had disturbed even the shielded contents of the mage's lab, but much of the mage's accruments had survived, from ceramics and glasswares, to large tomes and half-made magical items.
He ignored most of it, stepping gingerly across the floor, searching only with his eyes for something. His boots crunched small bits and pieces of glass to dust as he stepped on them, hidden as they were in the shadows and the inch-thick dust over everything. The khavik moved slowly and deliberately, stirring up as little dust as possible with each step. At last, his eyes found what he was searching for.
As he moved forward to pick it up, he heard something far down the corridors. And for a moment, it sounded disturbingly like a pig grunting.
Mhyrtheros cautiously stepped into the room. The dust upon the floor was deeply indented with the human's footprints, and a fresh torch was lying inside a glass container of some sort on a counter along one wall. The room was obviously a mage's workshop of some sort, but there was also only one way in or out. The elf paused, and tilted his head to one side, assessing the situation carefully.
Therilios grunted, and pushed the elf aside. “There's only one way out, elf. He's in here.” The half-orc passed the leash to one of the other orcs – the same one, Mhyr noted, that had urinated on him.
The orc's leader peered about the laboratory, squinting in the poor light. There was virtually nowhere for the human to hide. “Come out, Khavik. We know you're in here.”
Mhyr blinked. He did not know the name – the half-orc had never spoken it – but he was learning quite a bit. He would have to escape from his orc captors soon enough, and report to his clan. The elf quit thinking, and resumed observing.
Therilios slowly moved into the room, glancing often to the trail in the dust at his feet. “Whatever it is you're searching for, you'll never find.”
The trail of dust ended abrubtly, and the half-orc frowned. He glanced about, half expecting the stones around him to disappear, or suddenly reveal another shadow.
More nervous, he said, “Glernikas has paid me a lot, to see you dead, Khavik. But I would've done it for free… You owe me, human.” The half-orc began edging his way back to the door. Something did not sit right in his mind, as though he could feel the trap that was laid for him.
When he made it outside the lab, he took Mhyrtheros' leash from his leftenant, glanced back into the room. Something about the room was making his hair stand on end. Therilios growled, and pointed a beefy green finger inside. “Tear it apart. If he's in there, I want him found.”
The orc leftenant grinned, showing larger tusks than normal for an orc, and then he and the other orcs entered the laboratory in a frenzy. They cleared everything off of the surfaces in a tinkling of breaking glass and ceramics, throwing up a huge dust cloud.
Khavik's torch flickered in the ensuing chaos, being left alone, and the torches of the other orcs added to the wild and hazy orangish glows. The dust cloud flickered, growing larger and thicker, as the orcs destroyed cabinets, upended bookcases, and searched every wall for hidden passages. Therilios slapped the elf hard enough to send him to his knees, for the sheer pleasure of it, and then turned his eyes back to the chaos ensuing in the laboratory.
Mhyr turned his eyes back down the passageway, and blinked. For just a second, he had seen a silvery wolf, almost glowing in the darkness down the corridor. He blinked his eyes, which were tearing up from all the dust being stirred up. Mhyrtheros was an sylvan elf, a creature of the woods. Though his people had shunned the arcane magics long ago, they still retained a great link to the more subtle magics of the earth and the forest. To the elves, the wolf was a creature to be respected, unless diseased or deranged. A silver wolf was anything but.
He glanced up to see if Therilios had seen the wolf, but the half-orc was still intent on seeing what happened in the growing dust cloud within the room. The half-orc called into the room in orcish, “Anything?”
Several answers of, “Nothin,” came back through the haze. There was a final crash as something large hit the floor, throwing its contents out, and then the orc leftenant appeared from the dust of the room. He grunted, and said in orcish, “He ain't here, Ther'los. Der's nobody here at all.”
Therilios snarled, and punched his fist into a wall in anger. He turned his eyes on Mhyrtheros as though to take his anger out on the elf, but an iron will asserted itself. “Damn. All right, elf,” he said in the common tongue. “Now you lead us to Javier's chambers.”
Mhyr looked at the half-orc in confusion, half from pretending not to understand Common, and half from not knowing who Javier was, or where his chambers were.
The half-orc handed the leash to his leftenant as the other orcs stood by, waiting. Therilios pulled out his purse, and shook from it a small, yellowish-glowing crystal. The crystal was obviously the fragment of some larger rock-crystal, and it glowed with a faint, pulsing light much like sunlight. Therlios put his purse back, and held the crystal out at arm's length, first towards the dusty laboratory, and then down the corridor from which they had all come. The crystal's pulsing light was faintly brighter down the corridor, and he grunted. “You lead, elf.”
As they moved out of the laboratory, Khavik slowly drifted down from the ceiling. Invisible as he was, the dust motes simply flowed around him. The last orc in the line glanced back once, but saw nothing, and continued on.
Jack dropped the spell that had rendered him invisible, and also let go the simpler spell that had let him levitate. In his hands was an amulet of braided platinum and silver wire. The silver was tarnished and black, though bits of bright metal were still visible through its length. The focal point of the amulet was a hexagonal pane of amythest, perfectly cut from a large, perfectly form amythest crystal. The amythest itself was the purest of purples, though in the flickering torch light, it appeared dark and almost black-indigo.
The khavik slowly moved to the corridor, glancing down it. In the distance, he could see the dim flickering of the orc's torchlights from around a corner, as they moved away. He knew he had to free the elf captive. But what intrigued him the most, was that they somehow had a way to home in on Javier's chambers – Javier, who was one of the more powerful of the Neretulian wizards.
The fact that Duke Glernikas, his old mentor and former friend, had hired these orcs to find and kill him, barely bothered the khavik. Glernikas and Ghestalt had served well together in the Karanal Army. It was Duke Glernikas himself that had knighted Jack, and Duke Glernikas' father, the Patriarch, that had bestowed upon him the title of 'khavik' for saving his son's life during the Nor Campaign of 1320. When Khavik's latent arcane magics manifested themselves with a vengeance, however, every friend and ally he had made through the years turned on him. The Inquisition and its single-minded pursuit of mages was all-powerful in his homeland.
Jack had been hunted by the fearsome Seekers – the most powerful and covert of the Inquisitors. That Glernikas would stoop so low as to hire second-rate orcs was eerie. Almost as eerie was the fact that the orcs were so far north – thousands of miles from their homeland. Stranger still was the resourcefullness of Therilios.
Khavik remembered him vaguely, during his battles with the Vord Orcs. Therilios was a powerful warrior, and the two had even squared off against one another at the Battle of Two Thumbs' Hill. But the half-orc had changed. He was leaner, more cunning and more resourceful. Less prone to rash action. Jack wondered what had happened to the half-orc to cause the change in him. Too many questions remained unanswered, as he followed the orcs and their captive elf through the labrynthine corridors of the Neretulian Tower.
Although he had what he had come for, the Mikalian Amulet, Therilios was fast showing that he was too dangerous to be running free. As quietly as a mouse skittering across an anvil, Khavik drew his ninja-to, and began to stalk the orcs.
* * *
Vance shuddered, and although the sight was barely perceptible in the darkness, Darian heard it.
The large warrior said, “I caught a glimpse of your face in the starlight. I'm glad I cannot see, whatever it is that so horrifies you so much.”
The mage suppressed the urge to gag. “The stones…” It was all he could say, before he threw up the contents of his stomach.
They were near the largest collection of the great stones that had made up the Neretulian Tower. The small mountain that was all that remained of the base of the tower absorbed the starlight as suredly as though it were shadow. To Darian's eyes, heightened by the use of a spell so that his vision saw heat, like an elf's…
Vance helped the wizard to sit down, and gave him some dry wine from the wizard's pack. The warrior had known Darian for several years, since he had agreed to hire on under the Lady Shore. Darian had already been under the Lady's hire, then, but the warrior and the wizard had quickly become fair friends.
After awhile, the older man shuddered once more, and then calmed himself. He said to Vance, “Thank you.” With a kerchief from his pocket, he wiped at his mouth, and then cleared is throat. “I think I've got ahold of myself, now.”
Vance nodded, and stood, glancing about. His unenhanced eyes saw only shadows, save in the breaks of the forest close to the base of the tower. The stars were beautiful, and there was a cold nip to the air, as though winter were still trying to invade the northern forest.
The warrior sniffed at the air, and grunted. “It'll snow, tomorrow.”
Darian stood, and brushed off his robes. “Assuredly not. It's far too warm. There's not even a breath of frost to the air. It's mid-summer, here, I'm afraid.”
Vance shook his head. “Trust me. It'll be piled deep, when we come out. Whatever's held winter off for so long, has finally given up. Winter's coming with a vengeance. I can smell it.” He tapped his nose with one gauntleted finger, knowing full well the mage could see the gesture in the darkness.
Darian frowned. “I'll take… your word for it. Let's get inside. I do not think the… visions I see, will affect me as much, inside.”
The warrior nodded, and moved around behind the mage. Massive and heavily muscled as he was, the warrior rarely carried their mutual pack, and he removed the torches with a casual familiarity. The mage had always insisted on carrying the one pack the two men needed, though why it had never encumbered him, Vance might never know.
Darian said several arcane words in a near hissing whisper, and suddenly his finger spouted a simple, candle's flame. The mage shielded the small flame long enough to light two torches, and then blew it out. Taking his lit torch from Vance, he led the way inside the tower with obvious relief. The trapped souls within the blocks of the tower were viscious at night, behaving as demons and devils, but confined to their stones for all eternity.
Vance simply held his own torch aloft and high, following Darian with his greatsword drawn and casually carried over one shoulder.
The mage made the obvious statement, “Well, someone's been here.”
In the dust at their feet were dozens of prints in the soft dust and dirt. Some of them were extraordinarily faint, and light. Others were huge and deep.
Vance grunted. “Big men… Looks like another group of elves followed them in. Hard to tell, though.”
Damian asked, “Perhaps a mercenary band Khavik hired to go with him, and the elves followed them?”
The warrior shook his head. “Not like Jack to hire other people to do things like this.”
The wizard grimaced. “You're quite right. Hence, the Lady Shore sending us to check on him.”
Vance nodded, his eyes still down in the dust. “Mrm. Let's get going. We follow the prints, and I'm sure they'll lead us to Khavik.”
“Common sense,” Vance answered. “When Khavik's in the area, everyone either fights him or befriends him.” He shrugged, his sword momentarily reflecting the torch held high. “It's the way he his.”
Darian arched one white eyebrow, and pursed his lips. “You're right, of course.” He turned to follow the prints in the dust. “I'll lead. I've a spell to find traps and the like they may have left behind – or that may be in the tower itself.”
Vance asked, “Would it find those blocks that could wink in and out of the… time river?”
The wizard shook his head. “I don't think there's a spell powerful enough to do that. We'll just have to pray it doesn't happen near us.”
The warrior blinked, and glanced down the corridor. “Rahne defend us,” he said reverently and with awe.
Darian pulled out an amulet with an eagle's claw depicted in silver, and he kissed it. After putting it back in his robes, he said, “This way, then.” More quietly, he whispered, “And Lul watch over us.”
As the two men with their torches wound their way into the depths of the tower, a silvery wolf watched them from just outside.
* * *
Javier's chambers were enormous, and easily large enough to accomodate a dragon. The vaulted ceiling had held up well when the tower fell out of the timestream, and only one of the large columns holding the ceiling up had collapsed. Debris was everywhere, though, as Javier had been possessed of a great many books and treasures of the mind.
The orcs, however, saw only junk. Therilios' leftenant grunted, and said in orcish, “What a bunk of junk.”
The half-orc growled for him to be silent. The crystal shard in his hand was pulsing with a bright and intense, golden light – putting out more than all their torches, combined. The shard chased back the darkness within the room with each pulse of light, only to have the darkness race in again to meet the torches.
The shard's pulsing reminded Mhyrtheros of a heartbeat, and the young elf was not sure it was a good thought.
Therilios kicked aside a bookcase, scattering book covers and shattering fragile pages. In one hand he held the elf's leash tight, and in the other he held the crystal shard high. The half-orc slowly moved into the center of the room, searching for something in particular.
The other orcs followed, with their own torches held high, and their shields at the ready. Mhyr stumbled along as best he could over the mishappen debris field.
Khavik peered into the chambers with one eye from the corner. His eyes went wide at the size of Javier's chambers, and then narrowed at Therilios' destruction of such valuable knowledge. He calmed himself, knowing that whatever the half-orc's ultimate goals were, Jack would have to find out. He had a feeling that Duke Glernikas' bounty was only an excuse, or a side-trip. The feeling left a sense of foreboding deep in the khavik's gut.
Therilios had found whatever it was he was searching for, and laughed deep within his belly. Several orcs helped him toss debris off of a massive chest, so large it could easily serve as a coffin. The chest was on its side, and the orcs pushed it right-side up with a loud *THUMP!*.
The half-orc had forgotten about his little elf in the exchange, but his leftenant quickly grabbed up the leash. Therilios handed his torch to one of his orcs, and drew his scimitar with a steely hiss. The weapon came down in a crunch of wood and metal, and two orcs lifts up on the heavy lid.
Khavik could not see what was inside the chest, but he knew the time had come. He took one step forward to enter the massive room – and found a thin blade at his throat.
The elves made no sound, as they quickly pulled Sir Ghestalt back into the shadows. Their eyes were gently glowing in the darkness, a by-product of their heat-vision. Khavik offered no resistance, as the elves bound his hands and legs behind his back. Hog-tied as the khavik was, he wondered if he could escape. He also wondered who the elves were, and why they were there.
One whispered very quietly to his companions in Elven, such that only the keen hearing of the elves could make out the words. Khavik heard only the sighing of the wind with his human ears.
Khavik tried not to sneeze, as his nose was half-buried in the dust and dirt of the floor.
Of a sudden, the elves were gone, and into the chamber beyond. Khavik tried to free himself, but his hands and ankles were bound securely. The sounds of battle reached his ears, and he could see the pulsing light of the crystal shard moving awkwardly, casting great shadows, and sometimes unseen for long, dark moments.
In the corridors behind the khavik, he could hear things he did not want to think about. The elf that had bound him, however, had done an excellent job. Even Khavik's sorcerous abilities were useless, with his hands so bound beyond his sight. He struggled with all his might to escape the rope, though, and he could feel the skin peeling off his wrists.
The battle in the chambers grew louder and more intense, and something large continued to bear down on the khavik from behind in the corridor.
With a mind-numbing roar of frustration, he slipped his wrists out of their bonds, bloodying his hands up in the process. He could barely grab at his ninja-to as he rolled into a sitting position, facing down the corridor. His eyes registered the sight, even as his sword cut down, cutting through the ropes that held his ankles together.
The corridor was empty.
There was only darkness there.
Khavik stood up cautiously, ignoring the burning pain in his hands, and the pins and needles of returning blood flow to his extermities. Convinced the corridor was empty, he turned his attention to the battle raging in Javier's old chambers.
The elves had cut down half of the orcs, before the orcs had regrouped around Therilios. They had pulled up debris such as desks and old bookcases, to act as cover from the withering arrows of the elves. The elves had suffered several casualties, but those that were down were helping one another to bind their wounds. The remaining elves advanced cautiously on the orc position, some with shortswords drawn, and others with bows held at the ready.
Khavik sheathed his sword in its scabbard at his back, and ripped off strips of cotton from his shirt. As he bound his wrists, a deep humming sound could be heard from behind the bookcases the orcs had thrown together. The orcs could not be seen, not wanting to put anything out for an elf to shoot, but the elves became nervous and edgy as the humming continued.
His wounds bound, the khavik once again drew his ninja-to, just as the humming sound stopped.
There was silence for a moment, and then the echoing, crunching sound of a rib cage being torn open. The orcs leapt out from behind their cover with their eyes wide open, in terror. Several dropped their torches into the debris – and the fire caught.
The elves tried to shoot at several of the orcs as the fire quickly spread, but the orc position exploded outward in a shower of splinters and shrapnel. The elves flinched, and when they looked up, there was true fear on their faces.
Khavik stared in awe. He had spent many long nights around the campfire with the Neretulian wizards, and his beloved Shore. He recognized the armor Therilios wore.
The half-orc was dressed from head to toe in red-hued armor, shaped like the carapace of a demon. Long horns swept out and forward from the helm, and spikes adorned the armor in places that would make close-quarters combat impossible. The armor was crafted to appear as a demon, and it did so superbly, down to the wicked gauntlets on Therilios' hands.
Therilios coldly swept his head to one side to casually regard an elven archer. The archer's hand trembled, but he unleashed a deadly bolt straight at the half-orc. The arrow shattered on the demon armor, and the half-orc smiled evilly within his helm. The helm resembled a demon's head, complete with a toothy maw that protected even his face from harm.
Therilios leapt forward, his considerable strength enhanced by the demon armor. The elven archer died as his upper torso went one way, and his lower torso went another. His colon unlooped, looking like an unravelling thread that held the two halves together. Though dead, the elf screamed shrilly, his body no longer bound to a soul.
The fire began to rage, leaping through the debris field, and Therilios laughed as one of the elves fell to his knees, coughing from the noxious smoke.
Several orcs tried to run out of the chamber, but the khavik stepped from the corridor and quickly gutted two before they realized they were hit. A third brought his shield up to bash the khavik, but Jack leapt over him in a tight flip, and landed behind the frightened orc. Khavik's blade punched into the small of the orc's back, severing his spinal cord and puncturing his gut.
Mhyrtheros crawled out from under the body of Therilios' orc leftenant, his terror finally overcome by force of will. He took up an orc scimitar, and leapt through the fire to slash at the half-orc from behind. A skilled swordsman, he seemed to literally dance through the debris field, as though his feet and legs had wills in and of themselves.
Therilios turned around at the sound of steel on steel, and casually backhanded the elf ten feet away. Mhyr trembled, his bronzed skin pale, as he slowly regained his feet. His jaw felt as though it had shattered, and he spit out several of his back teeth. His face was wet from where the spikes on the demon armor had split his skin and cut through it.
The half-orc revelled in the chaos he was sewing, and began speaking in a low, hushed tone.
It was then that Mhyrtheros saw the pendant hanging around the half-orc's neck, outside of his armor. The pendant's face was lost in the flickering reflections of the fire and the building smoke, but the elf knew it for a holy symbol.
Mhyr glanced towards the exit to the large room, and saw a human in black casually kill an orc attempting to flee. Mhyr's kinsmen were being decimated, and as they tried to regroup back towards the exit, they found themselves trapped between the human and the half-orc.
Khavik yelled in the elven tongue, “Get out of here! Go!” He stabbed his sword into a desk long enough to hurl a spell at Therilios. Green bolts of arcane energy flared from Jack's hands, curving about the massive room, and slamming into the half-orc from each side. The flames leapt even higher, and the khavik yelled, “GO!”
Therilios shrugged off the magical attack, and continued his incantations, formidably advancing on the khavik.
The elves glanced once at Mhyrtheros, who yelled his own encouragement at them, “Return to the forest!” The elf took up the scimitar again, and tried to circle back out of the room, around the flaming debris, towards the exit.
Khavik picked up one of the elves that had been wounded by the orcs, and helped haul him back to the corridor. As the fire grew higher and burned hotter, it began to act like a living thing, leaving a sea of calm and unburning debris near Therilios.
The half-orc finished his chanting, began walking towards khavik with his eyes every bit as on fire as the debris around him.
Mhyrtheros continued to search for a way out of the maze of fiery debris, when a wolf with a silvery white coat appeared from nowhere. Its coat seemed untouched by the burning fire around it, and its green eyes bored into the elf. The wolf turned, and moved off through the debris. It turned once to look at Mhyr, and then moved further into the flames. The elf followed, trusting his instincts, and his faith.
The wolf was the animal the elves most often associated with Rahne, the Goddess of War, and Wisdom.
Khavik narrowly dodged Therilios' swipe, and had to move fast to avoid the demon armor's other gauntlet. Jack could tell he was outmatched. Therilios was a fast and powerful opponent without the armor, and their last battle, all those years ago, had been a draw. The half-orc had learned a great deal in the intervening years, but so had the Khavik of Paladia.
Therilios seemed immune to the strikes of Khavik's enchanted blade, and also immune to the smoke and heat the fire was pouring out. Khavik had trouble breathing. He was getting light-headed, and it was all he could do, simply to avoid being cut open by the demon armor.
Mhyrtheros leapt through the flames into the corridor, and there was no sign of the silvery wolf that had led him to safety. There was, however, a gently flickering glow far down the corridor – the glow of torches approaching.
The elf paused only for an instant, and then his morals overcame him. The human was battling Therilios in the midst of a raging fire, alone. No matter what the human was really like, he was brave. The forest elves had developed a saying, over the millennia, to help save their lands: En quatte el havarre. “My enemy has enemies beyond me.”
Mhyr leapt back into Javier's old chambers, preparing himself mentally to do battle with the evil half-orc. Mhyrtheros saw the human leap barely out of Therilios' reach, as the demon armor's claws swiped at gut level. To the elf's trained eye, the human's next move was stupid. The man leapt back in, attempting to pry at weaknesses in the magical armor, but he also put himself in a clear line of attack, for the demon armor to backhand him right in the face.
Khavik flew back into the flames and smoke, one side of his face a bloody ruin. The half-orc lost sight of the human at that point, and turned his attention to leaving – right through Mhyrtheros. The elf snarled, and raised his orcish blade to eye level. He knew he would die, at that moment, and prepared himself for the greatest battle of his life; he prepared himself for his final battle, content merely to slow the demon armor down.
Therilios laughed evilly, even as the smoke gathered about him. “Prepare to die, pitiful elf. Prepare to feel my wrath.”
Though the half-orc had spoken in his native orcish tongue, Mhyr had understood him. And apparently, so had the two humans behind him.
Vance leveled his greatsword at the half-orc, and yelled, “Therilios! You curr!”
Darian began drawing in powerful energies for massive spells, and field upon field shimmered to life around the wizard. Mhyrtheros and his kind had shunned magic for centuries, in the aftermath of the Inquisition, but he was grateful for the human mage at his back. Together, the three of them prepared to take Therilios down.
The half-orc in demon armor had other ideas. He grasped the pendant around his neck, and yelled a battle-cry to his god that sent shivers down Darian's back. The wizard was the first target of the half-orc's prayers, as the fire itself formed up around the evil armor. A blast of white-hot fire leapt out of the forming fire, blasting into Darian with an unholy force, and sending him careening off of one wall before sliding back down the corridor.
Vance wasted no time, and raced forward, before leaping up to attack the half-orc cleric. Therilios staggered from the blow of the greatsword, and then caught the human in both arms, squeezing with inhuman strength. Vance hammered the pommel of his weapon into the armor again and again to no effect, and then he screamed as his banded mail began to crumple beneath the half-orc's strength.
Mhyrtheros leapt through the intense heat, and began a series of lightning fast, light attacks against the armor, looking for a weakness – any weakness – that he could use to save the human warrior.
For his part, Vance was not undone. He dropped his greatsword into the fiery debris around him, and began to hammer at the horns of the demon helm with all his might, even as he felt his insides trying to explode out.
Therilios staggered of a sudden, dropping the gasping Vance down into the charring debris. The human staggered back, as well, and turned to see Darian striding out of the corridor. His purple robes were in tatters, and one side of his face was black and blistering, but his eyes were grimly set in determination.
The wizard lashed out with another spell, and yelled above the crackling flames. “His armor protects him from blades! But his mind is not safe from me!”
Vance retrieved his greatsword, the hilt of which was smoking from the intense heat around it. Not once had Mhyrtheros stopped hammering at the demon armor, making the sound of a thousand nails striking the ground. The orcish blade suddenly shattered from the intense pounding, and the elf leapt back out of the half-orc's reach as a clawed gauntlet swiped at him.
Mhyrtheros heard a sizzling sound, and turned to see the fat frying off of one of the dead orc's bodies. The monster's body was on its side, and the elf kicked it over, revealing a scimitar still in its scabbard, protected from the intense fire raging about.
The fire was still gathering itself around Therilios, however, and the demon began to laugh as Vance circled it, battling for breath, as well as for his life.
The elf watched the wizard out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the next spell to flash out. Finally, Darian unleshed his spell, staggering the half-orc once again. Darian yelled, “Hit him now, while he's disoriented!”
Vance rained down blow after blow upon the demon armor with his massive greatsword. Each blow staggered the half-orc, but did little else to him. The pulsing fireball that had been gathering around the evil demon armor began to disapate, but the debris around them continued to burn at a ferocious rate.
From nowhere, something hammered into the back plate of the demon armor, making it ring like a smith's anvil. Therilios stumbled forward into a swing by Vance, and the confused half-orc turned half to the side, exposing his back to the big warrior.
A large portion of the demonic breast plate had shattered in the back, and Vance reversed his blade in a heart beat. The greatsword slid deep into the half-orc's gut, ringing as it struck the other side. The warrior pulled the greatsword out, reversed the blade again, and thrust up through the hole in the armor.
Therilios grabbed at the greatsword with one clawed gauntlet, and there was a hissing of steel against steel for a moment, as the greatsword stopped its rise through the half-orc. The demon armor snapped the greatsword in two, and then grabbed the warrior by the neck. The half-orc cleric launched Vance so far across the chambers that he hit the wall with a clang of metal and a sickening thud.
His blood smoking as it poured from the wound, Therilios began chanting to his evil god. Mhyrtheros knew that the half-orc would undo all the damage Vance had done to him, and the elf slid in quickly. With a deft thrust of his scimitar, the blade forced its way into the half-orc's fist, closed as it was around his amulet. The amulet swung free, and then it was batted into the fire by Mhyr's scimitar.
The elf danced back out of range of the half-orc's enraged howl, and Mhyr noticed a note of pain in the sound.
Therilios, enraged beyond rational thought and sanity, shrugged off Darian's spells with apparent ease. The half-orc leapt upon Mhyr, landing on him hard, and breaking the elf's legs in the process with a sickening *SNAP!* that echoed over the roaring flames.
Mhyr tried to yell, but the vise-like grip of Therilios' gauntlet was tearing into his throat. The demon armor pulled its fist back to make a strike at the elf that would end his life.
Blood suddenly poured out of the demon's maw, and the half-orc showed sudden clarity in his quickly dimming eyes. The massive figure toppled to one side atop the elf's arm, and lay there, looking up at Khavik.
The khavik's sword was covered in blood, from where it had slid into the evil cleric from behind, twisting in his guts and cutting his lungs to ribbons. Bits of intestine and blood dripped off of the ninja-to.
Jack wasted no time, and pulled the pinned elf's arm out from under the dead cleric. Easily tossing the elf over his shoulder, he leapt through the flames into the corridor, and lay him down. Turning, he yelled at Darian over the flames, “Can you clear a path to Vance?”
The wizard's white hair glowed in the light of the fire, and his eyes seemed lit from within. “Yes! But you must act quickly! This fire seems alive!”
Darian faced the fire, and cast an arcane spell out from his fingers. The fire recoiled from the spell as though in pain, clearing itself away from the spellcaster in a cone. Khavik leapt through the cleared cone, racing to the wall, and picked up the injured Vance. The warrior was dazed, and bleeding from his ears and eyes and nose. Khavik wasted no time in a medical assessment, and hefted the hefty warrior onto one shoulder. He moved as quickly as he could, race-walking through the smoldering debris at his feet, ignoring the intense heat in his soles. The stone itself had begun to heat up intensely.
He just made it back to Darian, as the flames roared back into the cone the wizard had cleared.
Khavik gingerly set Vance down, trying not to cause further injury to him, and yelled at Darian, “Get them out of here!”
Darian yelled back over the firestorm in the next room, “Not without you!”
The wizard obeyed, furious at himself for doing so. Using the ring on his other finger, he opened a shimmering portal in the wall. The portal was like a pool of rippling water turned on its side, and through the distortions could plainly be seen a courtyard of marbled columns with a small, square pool fed by a fountain.
Khavik picked Vance up, and gingerly slid him through the portal.
Darian picked up Mhyrtheros, who screamed in agony from his broken bones, and gently carried him through the portal to the other side.
The wizard looked woefully at the khavik, through the shimmering portal, before it closed with finality.
Khavik turned to face the room, and he could feel the gentle wind growing. He knew something that Darian had not guessed at. The fire was roaring, almost alive, and sucking in air to meet its fearsome demands. As the air came in from all through the tower's ruins, it brought with it the ultrafine dust of centuries. The dust was flammable.
He stared into the flames, and saw what he had been looking for. Therilios stood up, slowly and painfully. He ripped the end of Vance's sword from out of his gut, and glared at the human through the flames. The half-orc was healing at a phenomenal rate, and Jack knew the heat would do little to the monster in the demon armor.
Khavik grasped the Mikalian Amulet about his neck with one hand, and held his ninja-to with the other. As he rushed forward to battle the half-orc cleric in the demon armor, the wind and the dust ignited.
Out in the forest, the low-lying clouds were pouring forth snow so thick that nothing could be seen a hundred yards away. Thick as the snow was, a bright flash was seen for miles from what had been the stump of the Neretulian Tower. The fireball had grown hot enough to ignite many of the magical items that had been within Javier's chambers, and everything had detonated at once.
Eighty ton blocks of black basalt rained down into the forest, crashing through the snow-covered trees, and vaporizing the white powder in a hiss of angry steam.
* * *
“Khavik!” bellowed Vance. “Khavik!”
Another call for the the khavik went out through the drifting, waist-deep snow. The big warrior recognized Darian's voice, from further afield.
They had returned as soon as Lady Shore's healers would let them. The elf Mhyrtheros had returned to his people, and they had faded into the thickly falling snow without so much as a 'by your leave'. Darian and Vance would have to find the khavik, themselves.
The big warrior knew he had only part of a day, to find him, as well. The Lady Shore would somehow find out that they had returned, and then departed. The healers knew a great deal of the situation, as Vance had foolishly babbled everything in the midst of his concussion. Once the Lady Shore found out, hundreds of warriors and all the Neretulians would pore forth from portals.
If the khavik were still alive, he would not want the defenses of Paladia stripped just to find him. Darian's ring was functioning a bit oddly, and the mage claimed it was because of the unique magical energies released near the Neretulian Tower.
Vance bellowed, “Khavik!” again, trudging on through the snow. If the Lady Shore found out that her more dependable warrior, and her most trustworth mage, had not knocked the khavik out or stayed with him, or… Vance shivered, almost wanting to face the demon armor, again.
From further in the snow, Darian yelled, “Khavik!”
Vance kicked at something in the snow, and swore. He bent down into the fluffy mess, and pulled something out. It was the helm of the demon armor. The warrior almost dropped the helm out of fright, and then shuddered. With a grimace, he tossed it aside, into the snow.
Darian sighed softly, and pulled out his scrying crystal, again. It was cracked, from the unholy blast of fire that Therilios had aimed at him. Though it had failed him the previous six times he had tried it, he tried it again, hoping to find the khavik amongst the scattered debris that had been the tower ruins.
As his spell failed, yet again, a wolf with a silvery pelt came padding up out of the snow. Though Darian was sunk up to his thighs, freezing various body parts off, the wolf seemed to sink no more than to his forelocks. The animal's gaze was strong and steady, and completely without fear. What bothered the mage even more so, was the emerald green color of those eyes.
The wolf suddenly bounded off into the thickly falling snow, and was lost from sight. Darian called out, “Wait!” and gave chase as best he could.
Vance heard the call, and came barrelling through the snow storm.
The wizard puffed, “There was a white wolf, that ran that way!”
The warrior quickly ran to the wizard's side, and saw the quickly filling paw prints in the snow. Together, the two followed them in a straight path through the blinding blizzard.
When both of them were quite winded, and even sweating beneath their warm winter wools, they saw the wolf together. It stood over a slightly higher pile of snow, and barked, once. Then it turned into the blizzard, and loped off out of sight.
Vance reached the pile first, and began throwing aside mounds of snow. Darian said, “Stand back,” and the warrior quickly back-pedalled.
The wizard's hands wove a complex pattern through the heavy snow, and a sudden burst of wind sleeted the snow from his hands, over the piles of snow. The wind grew quickly, and scoured the snow away from Khavik's limp form.
Vance moved in as soon as the snow was gone, and removed his gloved gauntlets to check for a pulse. The khavik was bluish in color, and his hair was gone, but otherwise seemed unharmed.
Darian used his ring to open a portal back to Paladia, and Vance hefted the khavik's form in his strong arms. Together, the three of them stepped back through to their tiny island nation.
* * *
Khavik woke with a start, and sat up in bed. The room was familiar, and the one he shared with his wife, the Lady Shore.
Even as he thought that, her hands gently pushed him back down onto the pillows. Without preamble or words, she kisses him on the cheek, and smiled cozily at him, her blue eyes atwinkle.
Jack tried to speak, to ask her what had happened, and she put a finger to his lips. “Shhh. Don't talk. Just lie there, and look like you're healing.”
The khavik glanced around the room. The great circular bed he shared with Jacqueline was set into the floor, but there was a small table at the foot of it. Upon that table rested the helm of the demon armor. The only light came from dozens of candles scattered about the room, shedding a soft, golden glow.
Shore smiled coyly at him, when he looked at her questioningly. She was wearing a very shapely dress, with a slit that went all the way up her leg. “Now, sweety. Do you want to tell me why I had to send my two best men to find you, what happened to the salvage team, and why did you risk your life so when you have me to come back home to?”
Jack grinned stupidly at the questions, and asked, “Can I play like I have a massive head wound that's causing me to see stars every time I speak?”
The Lady Shore arched one delicate eyebrow, and whispered in his ear, “My healers tell me that you are quite well, despite your ordeal.” She rubbed the stubble on his head. “Well, except for your hair, which they say will grow back.” She turned back to look into his eyes. “Now, tell.” She goosed his side, at the same time sliding one of her shapely thighs over his leg.
“Er, well…” He sighed, and collected his thoughts. He noticed that she had not asked about the Mikalian Amulet, and likely did not care about it, so much as she cared about him. “Honey, let's just say it was worth it.”
He closed his eyes, concentrating, and released a spell that would find the amulet if it was on the island. The spell indicated that the cut amythest amulet was in the next room, and he said, “Let me show you why it was worth it.”
Khavik forced himself up, despite his lady's attempts to hold him down, and he padded across the room, and through the great double doors into the next. He returned a moment later with the amulet hidden in his hand, and knelt before his wife.
“This was why I had to travel half-way around the world, battle vile monsters, and nearly get myself killed by a demon from my past…” He gently placed the amulet around her slim neck, and fastened it securely. “You knew the Mikalian Amulet was a powerful magical item, that would protect its wearer from harm. What you didn't know, is that its powered by love…”
He gently handled the amulet about his wife's neck, and held it up for her to see in the dim candle light. “I was unafraid of whatever faced me, honey, because I knew that your love would keep me safe. And now, I know that you will be safe, no matter what.”
Shore melted into his arms, and he gladly kissed her. She moved to remove the amulet, however, muttering, “It can wait until we've said our proper hellos. I haven't seen you in over three months.”
Khavik coughed into his hand, as she frowned, unable to take the amulet off. “Ah, well. That's another aspect of love, honey. You can never take it off, because you'll never be without my love.”
The scowl she leveled at him sent a chill through his soul, and he wondered at the verbal blistering her two henchmen had taken. And then she wrapped her arms around him, and whispered in his ear, “Oh, Jack… I love you.”
The khavik chuckled, and returned the hug. His love was evident, as the amythest in the amulet flared to light for a moment.
* * *
Darian ran a hand through his white hair, as he sat on the porch out beneath the stars. “Any idea why the wolf helped us?”
Vance shook his head. “Not a clue. But I'm not about to cry 'wolf', and tell anybody how we found him.”
“You think she'll ever let him out, again?”
The warrior chuckled. “I'd be honestly surprised if he doesn't have a chain around his ankle, as we speak.”
The wizard thought on that for a moment, and then said, “You know it wouldn't hold him, anyway.”
Vance sipped at his drink, and then nodded. “True.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Sides, if it did hold, we'd never get to leave here, either.”
Darian nodded, and moved to cross one leg over the other. The chain around his ankle jerked his leg short, and he grimaced. “I keep forgetting about that.”
The warrior nodded. “Next time, I think I'll stay and face the demon armor.” He yanked on his own chain.
“Remind me never to disobey the Lady Shore, again, old friend.”
Vance asked, “You can't just… magic us free?”
Darian looked at the warrior as though he had gone daft, and said, “You any idea what she'd do to us, if I did?”
“Oh, yes.” The wizard sipped on his ale, and watched the waves crash upon the surf. He knew, in his heart, that the khavik would be off traipsing around the world again, soon enough. And then the mage and his warrior companion would be right back on his trail. And plenty more evil was out there to be smited.
Old as he was, Darian was not too old to retire, and he smiled, looking forward to that inevitable cry of, “Khavik!” from the Lady Shore.