On the Road Again
“This is different.” - Shaunna Nightshade
Shaunna stared at the twin half-elves. Despite the fact that she had witnessed the separation, and they were still connected by the hand, she could hardly believe that these two had been a single person only moments ago. There were stark differences between the two. The man on the left was a hard-faced, wild-eyed zealot. The man on the right was as different as night to day. There was a soft gentleness to his countenance that told any who had known him that this was Paron’s apprentice, Na’el.
“What have you done to me?” Ne’al spat, tugging against the light that held the joined hand in place.
Morganna climbed wearily to her feet. “We’ve taken you out of the equation. Now we can go directly to the source of the help we need,”
A slew of profanity spewed from Ne’al’s lips until he became red-faced for lack of breath. Following a large gasp for breath, he went to continue his tirade, only to find that his voice was gone. His lips were moving, but no sound left him. His attempts thwarted, he continued to silently rant, his face growing an ever deeper shade of red.
“If this continues, we may not be able to put them back together.” Morganna surmised. Gesturing to Ne’al she continued. “This one may just kill himself before we can.”
Na’el laughed weekly. “That would be fine with me. I don’t want him anyway.”
Morganna stepped over the glowing edge of the circle, placing her hand on Na’el’s shoulder. “He is part of you. Without him, you will die.”
Na’el just nodded before changing the subject. “To help you, I will need to make a new heart stone for the ice blade. You already have most of the difficult components. Now I just need some gold from the mines of Simu-zer. For the sake of ease and speed, it needs to be the purest that they have.
“I also need the Forge from Paron’s old workshop.”
Shaunna bounced happily. “That shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll just have...” Her face fell as she beheld the looks on Na’el’s and Ne’al’s faces. Na’el looked serious, deathly so. Ne’al’s face was all glee and happiness. “The old workshop isn’t in Cera, is it?”
Na’el shook his head slowly. “No, the old workshop is in this very forest.” He looked directly at Narissa as he spoke next. “In the southern part of the forest, there is a copse of trees that grows closely together. The trunks have fused together to form a long passage, something like a hallway.”
Narissa’s colorless skin grew translucent with fear. “No! I don’t ever want to go back there.”
Shaunna stepped protectively in front of her diminutive friend. “How do you know it’s the same place?”
“That is the reason I moved here. It was close enough that I could keep an eye on things, but far enough away that I wouldn’t rouse the suspicion of the new occupants, the Dark Lord and his pet tiger.” He paused a moment to let it sink in. “Narissa, you are their best hope for survival. You know where the hall is and you, most likely, know where this is.” He pulled a picture of a glowing device from his pocket. The rectangular device had runes carved into its sides. There was a small hole in one side where a bright light shone.
“I have seen that, but it didn’t glow like that. Neither Dareth or I knew what it was, so we just left it alone.” Her voice was shaky and she blinked a lot, trying to keep the tears from falling, as she related the information to those around her.
“Let’s go get the gold first, shall we kitten?”
Narissa nodded silently as the ward against her frightened tears finally broke.
“I’ll stay here, it will be easy enough to maintain the spell. It’s the casting and breaking that take the most energy.” Morganna lifted her staff slightly. “Besides, she needs to rest.”
Parel took a small step forward. “I’ll stay with her. If nothing else so Oran can maintain the silence spell on that vile man.”
“Your company will be welcome.” Morganna smiled up at her wearily.
Shaunna turned to Saria. “Maybe you should...” She stopped mid-sentence when she saw the look on Saria’s face.
She quickly changed the subject. “We should rest here tonight. We’ll leave in the morning.”
“You know where you’re going, right?” A shiver ran through Morganna as she glanced toward the house.
Shaunna smiled. “Yes, we should only be gone a couple of days, and Parel will be here with you.”
Morganna let out a shaky breath. “I don’t relish the thought of spending any more time with them than I absolutely need to.”
“I know, we’ll try to hurry.”
Tarea appeared from the small dwelling. Her skin was beginning to lose its golden hue, though she still glittered in the morning light. She was, once again, clad in her tight shorts and short shirt; the clothes Morganna made for her having been destroyed in Taloren’s attack. Her hair had been re-braided, the metal spike at the end glistening almost as much as her skin. She wrapped her arms around both Shaunna and Morganna, pulling them close. As she pulled back she placed a long, wavy bladed dagger, into her sister’s hand.
“If either of them annoy you, give them a poke with this.” Her smile was bright, but it didn’t extend to her eyes. Apparently she wasn’t joking.
She graciously accepted the dagger, nodding briefly.
“We should get going, it’s a long way on foot.” Shaunna shouldered her pack and set off in a north-easterly direction.
The light was just beginning to creep over the mountain tops. She estimated that the sun would be making its daily appearance in approximately an hour. She hoped the walk wouldn’t be as long as she made it out to be, but she was concerned about leaving Parel and Morganna behind.
“It should be a strraight walk frrom herre, should it not?” Grathius was in high spirits since Mark’s restoration.
Shaunna thought for a moment. “I think so. I’ve only been to the mines once, and I was quite young.”
The sounds of the forest surrounded them as they walked. The noise was oddly soothing, despite the occasional discordant cry of some bird in the distance. Sounds such as these generally meant danger was not nearby. A situation that the group had found themselves in sparingly since they started their trek.
“What do you think will go wrong?” Tarea asked “I mean our entire journey has been traipsing from one catastrophe to another.”
Shaunna smiled vaguely. “You’re not wrong, we’ve had our fair share of trials on this trip.” She dropped her gaze to the forest floor while the painful memories flooded through her. When she continued, her voice was subdued. “I would like to think that this time all will go according to plan.”
She jumped as a deep rumble sounded beside her. Narissa’s purr echoed through the trees, causing small animals to scurry from their hiding places and frightened flocks of birds to take flight.
“Oh, Kitten, you startled me.”
“She says she’s sorry. That was not her intent.” Tension that she hadn’t even known she was holding melted away as Eric’s familiar voice sounded in her mind.
Laying her hand on Narissa’s head, she scratched the tiger behind the ears. She marveled at the fur under her had, both soft and coarse at the same time.
No words were spoken as they continued their northerly march. Around midday, a solitary mountain appeared on the horizon. It looked lonely as it was surrounded closely by its cohorts, but was not close enough to touch any of them.
Shaunna gestured to the spire, “Half way up the slopes of that mountain is our destination. It will probably take another day and a half of walking to get there.”
The others nodded in understanding.
“We must be vigilant.” Grathius’ voice was low as he spoke. “Talorren is still hunting me.”
Tarea examined her dull golden hand. “I’ll be ready for him. It didn’t take me this long to turn back last time, and that was a dragon. I owe him.”
The old wolf shook his head. “No, he’s my prroblem to deal with. I will be the one to stop him.”
Saria shook her head, “But, Shaunna said...”
She was cut off as Hope stepped forward, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Shaunna said he would die if he faced his nemesis before Mark was restored.”
Understanding dawned in her eyes as light glinted off the fiery stone set into the sword’s hilt.
“Wow, I never expected you to be the one to understand.”
He nodded to Shaunna. “You’re right, I’ve been an abysmal traveling companion.” He turned to the two sisters. “I owe both of you an apology. I know it can’t have been easy growing up as you did.” He hung his head in shame. “Unfortunately, the one I owe the biggest apology is not here.”
“She forgives you.” He jumped as Maxx’s voice sounded in his mind.
Hope turned back to Shaunna. “Thank you for not giving up on me. Thank you for being my friend.”
Shaunna smiled warmly.
They stopped for the night when the sky was draped in reds, yellows, and purples as the sun began to disappear behind the distant mountains.
“Wow, the temperature has dropped.” Shaunna paused pitching her tent to rub her arms, trying to fend off the sudden cold.
The others nodded their agreement as the hurried to erect shelter against the bitter chill.
A ring of tents soon faced a large fire blazing in the fire pit, the carcass of some animal roasting over the bright flames. The scent of the meat cooking in spices wafted through the evening air, bringing visions of great feasts to the mind of those present. Sitting around the fire, the idle chatter of old friends mixed with the chirping of nocturnal insects in a relaxing thrum in the early evening.
Each member released their respective crystal blade as the night wore on, so the weapons could keep watch through the night.
As Grathius released Mark into the air, he commented, “He was not left unmarked. Look at the gem. It glows darker than it used to.”
Shaunna glanced at the sword as it floated away. The rubies in the hilt did seem to be darker than before. “Do you think he’s going to be a problem in the future?”
Grathius shrugged. “I don’t think so, but I am not completely confident. Forr that matterr, I am not completely surre of myself. Therre is no way for me to know if the darrkness was completely expunged frrom me. Darrkness is in all of us. It was just enhanced in me for a while.”
Shauna’s hand rested lightly on the large canine’s furry shoulder. “I believe in you, Grathius. You have been a good friend and a reliable companion. The worry that you show is testament to me that we don’t have to be afraid of you.”
A single tear fell from a deep brown eye. “I prray I do not disappoint you.”
“Get some sleep, dear friend. I will see you in the morning.”
Grathius nodded and curled up by Narissa next to the fire to fall asleep.
Shaunna stood, stretched, and retired to her tent. Shaking her head at the thought of fighting the shadow creature that was Grathius, she retired to bed.
The morning dawned cold and clear. Low clouds clung to the top of the lone peak in the distance casting strange shadows across the land. A low buzzing in her head awakened Shaunna from a troubled sleep.
“What is it?” She thought blearily.
“The sun is rising. I thought you might want to get an early start. The others are rousing their wielders as we speak.”
“I don’t remember ordering a wake-up call.” She grumbled in her best grouchiness.
The smile in Erik’s voice was audible. “I thought time was of the essence. Do you really want to leave your friends at the mercy of a homicidal maniac while you sleep later than necessary?”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“Ahh, my day is complete.” The small crossbow flew into Shaunna’s out-stretched hand.
She dressed quickly, and packed her things into her travel pack. She was a bit surprised to find that she was not the first one out of her tent. Tarea was already out and her tent was mostly packed away.
“Good morning,” Shaunna called, sounding far more cheery than she felt, “I see your swords woke you too.”
Tarea shook her head. “No, I woke as soon as the morning light crested the mountains. I’ve been up for almost an hour.”
At that moment the wood in the fire popped, sending a shower of sparks into the air. The fire blazed warmly, dispelling the morning chill. Light bread and cheese were laid out on a stone waiting for each of them to awaken and claim the sustaining nourishment that would be needed to hold them until midday.
“Where’s Grathius?” Shaunna gestured to the location where the wolf-man was when she went to bed.
“Oh, he’s off catching his own breakfast. He should be back soon.” Tarea finished packing her tent away as she answered. “You should probably get packed up and eat. We should be going soon.”
Shaunna grabbed a bundle of food from the stone and quickly imbibed the contents. Upon completing the morning meal, she packed her tent away with the practiced hand of one who is used to the need to complete the process quickly.
As she finished, the first of the others emerged from their tent. Over the next few minutes the others emerged. In little time breakfast was consumed and camp was struck. Grathius lumbered into the clearing, licking his chops, just as the last tent was finished being packed away.
“We should reach the mines tomorrow.” Shaunna reported to the rest of them.
A collective nod passed through the party and they fell into line for the march ahead.
The lonely peak edged ever closer throughout the day, as they trudged ever closer to their destination.
The midday sun was shining brightly as they reached the entrance to the mines. The sounds of their footsteps echoed off the side of the mountain. There were no dwarves bustling in and out of the mines. In fact the opening to the mine was closed and barred tight. It was eerily quiet, the only sounds coming from the small party. A few mining tools lay scattered on the ground. The racks where the rest of the tools should have been were bare. An enormous iron door was closed and barred across the entrance to the mine. Just to the left of the door stood a small office.
Emerging from the office, a burly dwarf limped toward the party. “Good afternoon, my good fellows. What brings you to the mines this fine day?” The dwarf’s cherry words were belied by his appearance. Most of the right side of his body was burned. Long black hair hung from the left side of his head, while the right side was covered in raw wounds. His beard looked as if it had been impressive, once upon a time, but now it was short on one side, and missing from the other. Offering his left hand to Hope, as his right one was in a sling, he continued without letting anyone speak. “What can I do for you?”
Hope stared at the hand for a moment. “What happened to you?”
“Not even a ‘Hi, my name is…’, huh? Straight to business.” The dwarf smiled, blood oozing from the cracks that the act opened on his charred face. It was strange that he didn’t appear to notice his wounds.
“Oh, let me help you.” Saria stepped forward, laying her hand next to the raw, burnt, flesh.
Light flowed into her from the staff she held in her other hand. The bright light flowed through her, fading to blue it passed through her and into the ruined body of the dwarf. The light flared into a deep blood red as soon as it came into contact with the burns. The dwarf flinched at the sudden burst of pain. Tears leaked from his eyes as he steeled himself to keep from crying out. Fortunately, the increase in pain was fleeting. The light faded from deep red, to purple, to dark blue, and finally into the same shade as the soothing light flowing from her hand.
The skin on the right side of the dwarf smoothed itself out, the wounds closing and fading. Hair sprouted from the new skin on the scalp and chin, matching the length on the undamaged side in a matter of moments. His beard grew several inches, hanging from his chin to the middle of his broad chest. His body straightened as the final vestiges of the debilitating pain faded from him.
“Lass, I don’t know who you are, but you are a wonder.”
Saria flushed at the compliment.
Hope stepped forward. “Let me ask again, what happened to you?”
“We dug where we shouldn’t have, I guess. The mines filled with fire…” He paused a moment, covering his face to hide his emotion. His eyes were moist when he looked at them once again. “I was the only one to make it out. I can still hear the others screaming.” He paused for a moment. “Anyway, I’m Tome. Yes I know, my parents had a weird sense of humor. What can I help you with?”
“I’m sorry for your loss, but we are in a hurry. We need some of the purest gold you have.” Tarea took control of the conversation.
The dwarf shrugged. “Unfortunately, the last of our gold was recently purchased.” He gestured to the giant iron door. The load we were working on is still down there. There is no way to retrieve it”
Tarea placed her hand against the metal covering the mine entrance. The palm of her hand was glittering gold as she pulled it away. “Something is definitely warm in there. I guess I could go check it out.” She turned to the dwarf. “What, exactly, is in there?”
The dwarf was staring at Tarea’s hand, so it took him a moment to realize she was speaking to him. “Huh... What?”
“What is in the mine?”
The dwarf shook his head to gain some composure. “I... I’m not sure. When they broke through into the cavern, flames shot out. I was just entering the mine, so I was able to escape and get the door closed before, whatever-it-was could escape.”
“What are you going to do?” Shaunna placed her hand on Tarea’s shoulder.
“We need that gold, so I guess I’m going in.” Setting her pack down, and drawing her swords, she turned to the small man. “Open the door.”
He was about to object, but decided better when he saw the look on Tarea’s face. With speed belying his size, he went into the office. Moments later the iron door lurched open. Waves of heat billowed through the dark opening distorting the air. The sounds of something large moving in the darkness echoed on the walls of the great cavern. Sulfuric fumes flowed through the door as Tarea stepped inside.
The dwarf took no time in closing the door behind her.
“How long do you think she will last?” The dwarf asked as he stepped from the office.
Shaunna gave the dwarf a dazzling smile. “I think she will surprise you.
The dwarf just shrugged and began to clean up the mess that surrounded them.
With nothing else to do, the other pitched in and the area was tidied in no time. Tools were returned to their hanging spots on the wall, piles of refuse were disposed of and the mine was beginning to look like a viable business when Grathius let out a vicious snarl.
“Grathius, what...” Shaunna began, but stopped when she saw the large wolf like creature walking into the area.
“So, Grathius, where is your heat shield this time?” Taloren’s deep voice was gleeful. “It is time for you to die, runt.”
A thick stream of fire flew from the blade of the sword the Traren held. His eyes went wide when the fire stopped just short of reaching its intended target.
“I know you hate me, but was it necessary to destrroy a whole town while trying to kill me? I know it was you who destrroyed the Trrarren’s Rrun and its town.” Grathius stood to his full height.
The fact that the other Traren called Grathius ‘runt’ wasn’t lost on the rest of the party. Their friend dwarfed everyone in the party, even the exceptionally tall Ularen Hope, but he looked tiny next to his challenger. The dark grey wolf-man had to have stood at least nine feet tall when standing on his hind legs. Grathius stood just over seven feet.
“You took everything from me: my pack, my family, my life, everything.”
Grathius shook his head sadly. “No, Talorren. You thrrew it all away forr yourr prride.”
“NO! YOU DESTROYED ME!” Taloren screamed, throwing his dark crystal bladed sword at Grathius, and drawing the massive battle ax that was strapped across his back.
Grathius released Mark and drew his own sword. “Stay out of this.” He barked at Shaunna as she was stepping forward to help him. “This is my fight.”
Shaunna stepped back, unwilling spectator to a fight she was not certain could be won by the smaller Traren.
The fight was dizzying to watch. None of them had seen Grathius’ prowess with a sword before, but what they saw was truly impressive. Not only did he meet every thrust that Taloren threw at him, he had the strength to hold his ground against the massive opponent. The battle kind of reminded them of the sparring match between Taren and Tarea. Both combatants seemed evenly matched in both skill and strength.
Sweat poured from both trarens as the fight continued. They were both tiring at the same rate. Nobody could gauge who would be victorious.
For several minutes the massive creatures traded blows before Taloren howled in pain clutching his head. A shower of ruby shards, followed by the dark sword fell from the sky.
Everyone was so intent on watching the two wolf-people, they had completely forgotten about the two crystal blades. Apparently Mark had been victorious in his battle.
Grathius struck quickly, stabbing Taloren in the side. The introduction of pain in another part of his body seemed to throw Taloren into a berserker frenzy. He started to foam at the mouth. His eyes rolled wildly. He reminded them, all of a rabid animal.
He lunged at Grathius, bowling him over and causing the smaller combatant to drop his sword. As Taloren raised his clawed hand to strike, Grathius let out a haunting howl.
Dozens of dwarven spirits rose from the ground, and even more came from the mine. With an eerie wailing, the spiritual mob grabbed Taloren, ripping him away mid-attack and pinning him to the ground. Their wails grew from eerie to downright frightening as they assaulted their target, tearing chunks of flesh from his body as they dragged him ever deeper into the dirt. The gruesome sight was quickly obscured by a thick cloud of dust.
Tortured cries echoed through the area as the group watched the dust in macabre fascination. Several minutes passed before the sound died away. As the cloud dispersed, it was quickly evident that there was no sign of any sort of struggle. The dirt wasn’t disturbed. There was no blood, bones, or anything that one might expect after witnessing such a scene. It was as if Taloren simply ceased to exist.
One by one, the spirits vanished until one remained. The last spectre turned to Grathius, gesturing to Shaunna. Grathius shook his head. The spirit nodded and disappeared.
Shaunna wiped the sweat from her brow “What was that?”
“The spirrit was asking if you werre an enemy. I told him no.”
“You couldn’t have done that at the castle?”
Grathius shook his head sadly. “Those spirrits were alrready agitated. I did not summon them. Therre was no chance they would have listened to me. These, on the otherr hand, werre called by me. They came to assist, and left when they were no longerr needed.”
Shaunna opened her mouth to reply, but thought better of it. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to know any more. Instead she brought the topic back around to the real reason they were there. “How long do you think Tarea will be in there?” She bowed her head as if she were listening. “Hmm, looks like it will be a little while yet.”
The other’s nodded their heads in agreement.
The dwarf eyed the group warily. “Based on what I saw as I escaped, literally by the hair of my chin, I don’t see how she’s even still alive.”
“She’s still alive, we have ways of knowing.” She gently caressed the small crossbow hanging at her side. “So, now we wait.”
The shadows elongated as the sun made its way across the afternoon sky, and still they waited. Shaunna sat listening to Erik report on what was going on. She shook her head as he reported on the battle that was ensuing in the bowels of the mountain. She wished she was there helping, but the opponent that was described sounded like a fire demon from legends long past forgotten by most. Tarea was the only one that had any chance surviving the encounter, but it sounded like it was a hard fought battle. Still, Tarea was alive and that was what mattered.
Shaking her head to keep from nodding off, she wondered when the sun had set and the moons had resin. Looking around, she noticed that she was not the only one that was suffering from exhaustion.
“Come, let’s get some sleep. There isn’t anything we can do to help her anyway.”
The followed the dwarf to the night quarters that the miners on duty would have used. The walls and floor were covered with a thick layer of dirt and grime giving the place a dingy earthen look. The beds were clean, made up with white cotton sheets and wool blankets. The beds were small, but they would be usable. Dim mining lamps shed a hazy light so the group could ready themselves for bed.
Shaunna chuckled as she watched Narissa enter the room, sniff the floor, and sneeze sending cloud of dust billowing into the air. Retrieving the cloak she’d given the smaller woman, she approached the large tiger. “What do you think, could this be one night that you sleep on a bed instead of the floor?”
Narissa pawed at the ground distastefully, and bowed her head so Shaunna could affix the magic cloth around her neck. As soon as the cloak was fastened, the great tiger was replaced by the tiny albino girl. “This place is gross.”
Shaunna chuckled again. Her sort chuckle grew into a full laugh as she noticed Grathius rolling on the dirty floor. It took her a few minutes to compose herself enough to speak. “Remind you of home?”
Grathius grinned wolfishly. “Indeed it does”
With a smile on her face, Shaunna rolled into her bed.
“Shaunna, wake up.”
Shaunna could hear the screams of the dwarf as Erik’s pleas brought her out of her slumber. As her eyes slid open, she saw the little man dangling from one arm, his hand closed greedily around a small object. Faint light glittered from the small bits of the object his hand did not cover. Blood dripped from his hand where a sharp edge had cut into his flesh. His legs kicked savagely at the air as he attempted to both free himself from his predicament and maintain his hold on the object.
“What have you got there?” The screams escalated in pitch and frequency the closer Shaunna moved. “Why don’t you let go of that?”
Pure dread crept through the dwarf’s features as Shaunna’s calm demeanor penetrated the dwarf’s hysterics. “Nononono, He must be re-forged, reborn. The Lord waits for me to finish…” His eyes went wide and voice failed, yet he still shook his head.”
“I agree with Shaunna, why don’t you let go of that?”
Shaunna spun upon hearing the voice.
Tarea stood in the door, torchlight glinting off her golden skin. Golden strands of hair fluttered in the sparse breeze. Solid gold orbs stared from where her once blue eyes had been.
With a loud thump, the dwarf released the blue heart crystal. Without a word he sunk to the ground.
Tarea approached the small man. “Your reign of terror ends here,” light flashed from the point that her finger touched his forehead, and his screams began anew. Dull grey spread from his forehead, quickly overtaking his head, and spreading through his body. After a few moments, a stone figure huddled where the sobbing form of the dwarf had just sat.
Before her companions could ask, Tarea began to explain, “The dwarves did not dig too deep to uncover a fire demon. The demon was summoned. This man was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of his fellow miners.” The look on her face told the others the matter was best not pursued.
“Well, what do we do now?”
The golden form hoisted a leather pouch. “We leave. We have what we came for.”
The sun was cresting the eastern horizon as they stepped from the sleeping quarters. The massive iron door that had covered the mine entrance lay in pieces of dull stone. It had obviously been blasted from the inside, based on where the rubble had fallen.
“I’m guessing that was you,” Shaunna gestured to the stone fragments scattered through the yard.
A grim faced Tarea just nodded.
A blazing fire could be seen in the darkness of the mine, “Also you?”
“This mine will not be usable for some time. That body will burn for hundreds of years.” Tarea shook her head. “He was powerful. Luckily, I can stand a bit of heat.”
Without another word. The party marched from the mines, their minds not understanding what had just happened.