The vast hills and steppes of Narzuk were known throughout the Fae Realm for their rugged beauty and untamed peaks. Trade had gone on for ages with the west and was noted well in the records of the Portogans and wood elves, respectively.
The band of travelers moved on through the borderlands with caution. None of them knew when the troglodytes and goblin-men would stage another attack on the behalf of Gor. The air was warm and dry and the sun shone through the dusty haze.
Hedrick took the opportunity to take a drink from his water flask as he rode next to Wren.
“I noticed that you are a Dweomer, Wren. How is it that you joined The Hand in Obelix? I thought all Dweomers thrived in the Ashgar Forest.”
“Yes, Hedrick. It is true that my parents, like you, lived most of their lives in a remote settlement in the forest. They sought a different way of life, however, and were captivated by the elaborate cities of the world. My father, especially, was fond of books and scrolls documenting the War of the Ancients and the time before. He wanted to keep up to date with the happenings of the world and was drawn to The Hand for it's adamant approach to reconnaissance. He was the first Dweomer conscript to the guild, incidentally. I grew up in Obelix but have always missed the company of my kind, like you and your uncle.”
“That's interesting, Wren,” answered Hedrick. “I never left the woods until the recent course of events. It has been inspiring, though, to see the castle of Lord Aquiline and your eclectic city. Perhaps you can share with me some of your knowledge of the outside world as we continue our quest. I am an apt student, as I'm sure you'll see.”
“Good, Hedrick. I have a few maps and scrolls with me and can introduce you to the archives of the guild upon our eventual return to Obelix. You'd be surprised at how much correspondence takes place among the nations of the Fae Realm. It is an essential element of commerce, I suppose.”
“I believe you, Wren,” replied Hedrick. “Uncle Ram says ideas are just as important as real objects. Language and symbols allow us to communicate across large distances and tracts of time.”
The Dweomers chatted further as the traveling party moved on through the hills and steppes of Narzuk. The natives of the region continued to keep the journeyers at a safe distance and refrained from approaching them.
As the band moved on Sindariel noticed fresh tracks in the earthen path.
“Many horses have passed through here, recently,” observed the wood elf. “I suspect the troglodytes and goblin-men are on the move. It is likely that they are looking for us.”
“I agree,” said The Rogue. “These markings are the same as many I have encountered on the Ashgar Forest road. Let us be on our way. It is advisable that we prolong a direct confrontation as long as possible.”
The fighters and magic users stayed their course and did not stop although night fast approached.
“I will not illuminate the road, my friends,” declared Archon. “I shall navigate us by the light of the stars, which I have studied in depth. The light is sufficient for our needs and this trail is well-worn.”
The group rode for several hours under the light of the stars and constellations in the night sky.
Hedrick was impressed by Archon's familiarity with the positions of the celestial bodies.
Bluefox next addressed his companions.
“Be on the alert, my friends. There are torches burning beyond the hills. There is definitely a search taking place tonight.”
“I fear we are about to be detected, Archon,” said Ram. “I think now is as good a time as any for us to make haste.”
“Yes, good people,” answered the aged Dweomer. “Let us spur our mounts to the horizon. If my orientation is correct the untamed mountains of Narzuk are within reach. It will do us good to claim the high ground in the event that we become surrounded. Onward!”
The group charged forward and urged their steeds into a gallop. The moon rose over the hills and added light to their path. As they rode to the top of the nearest knoll their hearts were filled with dread. A massive, gibbering horde of troglodytes and goblin-men waited in the shallow valley on the other side. The hostile humanoids were mounted and bore flaming torches and glinting swords. A handful of goblin-men lifted hollowed ram's horns to their lips and blew the note to attack. The army of the Daemon unleashed a booming battle cry and headed toward Hedrick and his friends.
“Oh dear,” said Archon. “We are in trouble. There are too many of them here. Sindariel and Bluefox fire your arrows into the echelons. We may be able to purchase time to go around them.
Lady Rosalia and her Portogan knights drew their swords, ready to head into the horde.
Archon addressed the anxious warriors.
“Please stay with the group, brave Portogans. We will be lucky to get out of this without losing any of our number. A direct assault at this point would be foolish.
“As you wish, Archon,” answered Rosalia.
Lord Aquiline's wife gestured for her vanguard to remain in its current formation. They complied but eyed the slavering humanoids in the valley with disgust.
Archon gave a tactical order to the group.
“Let us break right as fast as we can. Xander and I will assert a magical diversion and in the process slow the approach of the troglodytes. Continue your barrage of arrows, friend wood elves. I have confidence in your faculties of marksmanship.
Archon uttered his practiced enchantment again summoning a pair of wyverns over his shoulders.
The dragonlings focused quickly on the mass of enemies before them and spat a steady volley of acrid fireballs at the heart of the echelons.
Xander employed his magic fireball spell.
His enchanted missiles flared brightly and left trails of steaming flame in the air as they flashed forward into the body of the goblin-men. Several marauders and their mounts were struck directly by the barrage of projectiles and fell to the ground, shrieking in flame. Their positions were quickly filled by sizable reserves, ready to complete Gor's intentions.
The journeyers guided their mounts right as ordered and raced at full gallop around the perimeter of the evil horde. The troglodytes also had marksmen in their number and the air whistled around Hedrick as their wicked bolts flew within range.
“Yah, horse!” yelled Ram. “The middle-aged Dweomer carried much in his saddlebags and was determined not to fall behind as his companions made their break to escape the evil echelons.
Archon and his fellows made a great effort and began to gallop around the right edge of the circle of forces. Their missiles and arrows did enough to slow their opponents from pulling into their immediate path.
The troglodytes recognized that a head-on conflict was not taking place and sought to pursue the faster group at their perimeter. They urged their stallions to a frenzied gallop and headed toward their fleeing quarry.
The chase was on and neither side was willing to accept failure. Hedrick and Wren, being light in the saddle, soon moved to the front of their mounted group.
The moon had risen higher in the night sky and the sandstone peaks of the untamed mountains of Narzuk reflected the light in an angular cluster.
“Archon, those mountains are neutral and unclaimed by Narzuk or Cantar,” yelled Sindariel. “I can explain why this is the case in greater depth at a more opportune time. Our horses are faster than theirs but can only keep up this fever pace for so long. We must take the high ground while we can. There are ruins in those mountains from a pre-historic time. They are bound to offer a modecum of protection from the malevolent aggression of the horde close behind us. I suggest we make haste to the untamed mountains of Narzuk before it is too late.”
“Very well, Sindariel,” replied Archon.
The leader of the Dweomers turned to his companions.
“All of you, let us maintain our pace. Our lives surely depend on it at this juncture. Our loyal horses will rest soon. Once we scale the untamed mountains there will be time to prepare our defenses.”
“Yes, Archon, answered Ram and the others. “You have our lead. Let's go!”
It was a good mile to the first of the foothills of the mountains in question. The moon rose high in the sky and the etchings of very old architecture became visible on the nearly geometric angles of the sandstone mountains.
The determined riders reached their goal in a matter of minutes and they turned their mounts to view a field of torches and goblin-men hollering in the foothills below.
There is little time, my friends,” stated Sindariel. “Let us ascend these ancient ruins in search of shelter at least and an avenue of escape at best.
Hedrick had ridden farther into the network of ruins than his companions. He found a breath-taking structure. It had been carved into the foot of the largest sand stone mountain. Giant statues of jackyl anthromorph deities stood on the sides of what appeared to be an abandoned entrance.
The young Dweomer turned and beckoned to his friends.
“Archon, Ram, I think there may be a hiding place here. It seems that forces may only enter this structure one or two at a time. This may help us to survive our pursuit.”
The members of the group came quickly to Hedrick's viewpoint and looked at the mysterious entrance with desperation.
“That's fine, Hedrick,” said Archon. “Let us go inside, my companions. It will do us no good to dally out here.”
The members of the party quickly nodded their agreement and guided their horses into the geometric structure in single file. Once all were within the dark chamber Archon activated his spell of illumination.
The light of the wizard's staff was bright and revealed a long hallway carved deep into the sandstone. The walls extended over a hundred feet above and all of the surfaces were marked with faded symbols of a language Hedrick had never before encountered.
Before the group was able to analyze their surroundings further a flurry of arrows struck the entrance of the hallway. The sound of guttural grumbling and flickering torches grew near.
The Portogan knights drew their swords in preparation for a pivotal conflict.
“Look here, Ram,” said Lady Rosalia. “There is some kind of a lever in this wall.”
Ram knelt next to Aquiline's Lady and looked at the device in question.
“Ah, that's interesting, Lady Rosalia. That must be a fulcrum release lever. If I pull it here...”
“Wait!” cried The Rogue. “It could be a trap! We may all be crushed or worse.”
“No, it's alright, Rogue,” answered the tinker. “I can see the lay lines made of chain. They extend from here to the front of the entrance. See that obelisk above? It will slide down and bar our enemies from following. What do you think, my friends? The troglodytes are fast approaching.”
“I agree with the tinker,” said Sindariel. “We wood elves use similar mechanics to secure our platforms from above. This system is sound. We will not be crushed, Rogue.”
“Very well,” stated Archon. “Bring in the horses and tether them well. They will be safe with us inside this ancient structure.”
The group of adventurers did as Archon asked and secured their steeds. Another flurry of arrows struck the entrance.
“Pull the lever, Ram,” asked the aged seer.
Ram did as his friend requested and gave the device a firm pull.
All of the people present heard the turning of gears and the pouring of sand from a great height. Lay lines made of chain clinked and clattered as they moved along their intended course.
A third jackyl statue slowly lowered from the ceiling. It was twice the size of the other two and must have taken years of chiseling to complete. It settled in the opening that had been the party's entrance with a thud. In a matter of moments the sound of growling and pounding metal could be heard from the other side of the ancient barrier.
Hedrick let out a deep breath.
“That's a relief,” he said. “The mechanics of this ancient structure are in surprisingly good working condition. I wonder who or what has maintained them. We may have him to thank for our lives.”
“I agree, Hedrick,” replied Sindariel. “The machines in my citadel take teams of engineers working around the clock to keep running. I'm sure this is a mystery we will soon get to the bottom of. Let us lead our horses down this passage and discover what these untamed mountains hold in store for us.”
The walls were covered with ancient pictographs. They were elaborate and sophisticated. None of the travelers were able to decipher their meaning, however.
They continued down the hall under the guidance of Archon's light. The air was surprisingly clear and hinted that there were ventilation shafts located far above.
The initial hallway continued on for several hundred yards until it intersected with several lateral passages.
“These aged halls are baffling,” observed Archon. “Sindariel, do you or The Rogue have any inkling as to the shortest way through this mountainous structure?”
“I'm sorry, Archon,” answered the senior elf. “This place is referred to as the untamed mountains for good reason. It was excavated and built thousands of years of ago, when the race of elves was very young. The founders of this once prosperous civilization are long gone, although not, perhaps, without sharing some relation with the modern tribes of Narzuk and the neighboring regions.”
“It would be good to take much time to record and study the significance of these etchings and designs,” said Ram. “Alas, we have our impending quest on our shoulders and must hasten onward. I suggest we take the straight path. That seems to be the most logical course. Let us remain on our guard, however, for none of us know what security measures the custodians of this formidable edifice have put into place over the years.”
The members of the group nodded their agreement with the tinker's suggestion and maintained their existing heading. The horses whinnied and flicked their tails in confusion. They were unfamiliar with the ancient surroundings.
A deep, bass voice permeated the hallway from some distance above.
“That is far enough, trespassers! These ruins belong to the Den of Thieves. No one who ventures here lives to tell the tale.”
The Portogan knights drew their weapons. Lady Rosalia did the same.
“There must be some means with which we can negotiate our passage,” breathed Xander.
“Archon, with your permission, let me address this new-found menace.”
“Certainly, Xander,” replied the leader of the Dweomers. “But make haste for this Den of Thieves sounds ruthless.”
“We seek asylum here,” yelled the southern Dweomer. “There is a horde of troglodytes and goblin-men outside. Our only avenue of escape was through this structure. Please, let us pass. We are willing to trade.”
A series of torches ignited over a hundred feet above the group. Over the nearest intersection of passages was a balcony filled with a cluster of tough-looking thieves.
“That is possible, Dweomer,” answered a tall Narzuk man. He was the bearer of the deep voice. “But not without a test.”
“And what kind of a test is that?” asked Xander.
“You will soon see,” replied the apparent leader of the Den of Thieves. “I am Khafret. We will meet again, if you survive.”
The line of torches extinguished and the journeyers were left in silence and the light of Archon's staff.
A loud rumbling shook the hall in which Hedrick and his companions stood. The floor moved and descended at an angle. The journeyers were surprised by the sudden movement but quickly regained their balance. The horses whinnied with concern as the floor continued to descend. It formed a ramp to a lower level of the mysterious structure.
“We have no choice but to venture within,” declared Archon. “Let us bring our mounts along. Everyone be on the alert. None of us can know what this Den of Thieves holds in store for those who find themselves in this place.”
The travelers complied with the aged Dweomer seer's advice. They followed the light of his gnarled staff into the looming hallway.
Hedrick saw more of the strange symbols on the walls. Many of the characters etched in stone resembled commonly encountered objects. These ranged from axes and staffs to falcons and jackyls.
“This must be the language of the ancient desert,” observed the Dweomer. “I wish I could discern its meaning. Perhaps it would give us intelligence as to what lurks ahead.”
“I'm sure the message is one of warning, Hedrick,” replied Sindariel. “The architecture of this place, I'm sorry to say, is much like many old ambushes designed by my people. We are surely to be tested here and must keep our wits about us.”
The wood elves drew their bows and blades. The Portogans and others wielded their respective weapons as they guided their horses farther into the edifice.
At last another mechanical rumbling vibrated through the stone passage. The clanking of gears and rolling of wheels emanated from all sides.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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