Excerpt for The Emerald Orbs by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Emerald Orbs

Patrick Bowron

The Emerald Orbs

Published by Patrick Bowron

Copyright 2018 Patrick Bowron

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Chapter 1: Memories in a Dream

The frigid wind blew its cold breath down in a sweeping path from the tall peaks of the Mountains of Darkness at the World’s End. The wind twirled the grass that lined the North Road coming out of lands unknown to the habitants of Stirlyn and sent small animals scurrying back to their nests and dens. The leaves had turned and many had fallen. The leaves that fell descended like golden-red wafers and were caught in the unseen tide and swept away to form swirling cyclones.

A group of four adventurers moved slowly northward on the old road that had fallen into to ruin this far south due to its lack of use. They were mismatched and strange and carried gear of war and combat, and by the looks of the equipment it seemed that it had seen much use. Their journey had been a long one, and their tales many. But they thought nothing of that. Their thoughts focused on only reaching the forest a few miles before them, that they might find shelter from the wind before the setting of the Starsun.

There were no sounds save only the howling of the wind, the shifting of fallen leaves, and the crunching stone from boots on the ruined road. Shadows began to shade the land. For the travelers were between the ice covered grim peaks of the Mountains of Darkness and the flank of East Lannerdan Forest that now stood higher than the sinking Starsun in the west. Darkness was growing.

“The Starsun sets,” said Zain Lamtred, a rough and grizzled dwarf. “We must hurry if we still wish to make camp in those dark woods.”

With his words barely out of his mouth, the Starsun shed its last true strong rays of light for the day, the upper bows of the trees seemed if their orange leaves burned with fire before they faded and were again shadowed.

“We would have been there sooner if your legs weren’t stunted,” quipped Jase Zalendar, a young dark haired rogue with a poor excuse for a mustache.

“Bah! Shut your mouth, Jase. You whine more than you walk and you walk more than you fight. If I had never seen a gold coin before then I would have never seen you,” Zain retorted. He rubbed his head and his gear rattled. He was old, tired, and hungry and did not want to listen to Jase’s verbal assaults until he was at least fed and off his feet.

Jase snickered to himself, knowing he had gotten under the cleric’s skin. He rubbed the hilt of the rapier at his side and was lost momentarily in some fanciful duel against mighty opponents from deep dungeons. He slew dark elves and goblins and was rewarded by kisses from princesses and hordes of gold from their kingly fathers. His fantasy ended quickly though, for in the growing darkness he had missed his step and tripped on a rock.

“Will you two stay off each other’s necks?” Dagen Vrance growled.

The blue skinned warrior from Snowfell glared back at them. His sapphire ice eyes gleamed with irritation even in the fading light. His armor was thick and broad. The plates of hard metal were dented from many campaigns, but the helm upon his head was as flawless as the day it came out of the forge. For no enemy had come that close to slaying him, the last of a fallen tribe.

Dagen scratched his blue thick beard that contained flakes of permanent ice. Looking to his left he conversed with the other dwarf of the traveling party. A dwarf of two hundred winters named Sarik Moonwater was the father figure to Dagen Vrance. Sarik had raised Dagen since he was young. While tracking a great foe of his people, Sarik had pulled Dagen out from amongst the slain and frozen bodies of his kin, setting the young boy’s path to righteousness and will for victory over all things spawned from the Shadow.

“Master Moonwater,” Dagen started, “what do you think of this forest up ahead?” Sarik Moonwater looked back to the barbarian that towered above him and studied him with old grizzled dwarf eyes. There was no worry in Dagen Vrance’s voice and with his dark vision he could see that Dagen stood as still as stone, wishing only to hear the opinion of his mentor and adopted father. Sarik turned his gaze back to the forest that was only a few hundred meters before them now.

“I sense no more ill in there than most of the other dark places we have visited,” Sarik said turning a sarcastic grinning face back to Dagen. Dagen returned a similar grin to Sarik, though the dwarf knew the snow barbarian could not see his face. “But I know not these lands. Any evil may lurk there or maybe it is the home of wood elves, but I suppose we will find out the answers before long. Now let’s hurry up and get there and get out of this blasted wind,” Sarik finished, picking up the pace.

Dagen knew his master did not abide well with the overworld. Forests did him better than open plains, but what Sarik needed was to be inside great Dwarven halls or mines in the tall mountains. Dungeons suited him too, for he was a disciple of Achaines, the God of War, and loved to clear out evil dwellings with the sharp blade of his axe. Sarik had spent the first one hundred and fifty of his two hundred years of life in the fabled Mines of Kanazar, part of the great Dwarven stronghold in the Mountainous Sea the land to the south of Snowfell, Dagen’s home, before the mines were broken by the great war with the dark elves.

The four travelers continued on and soon came under the open archway of branches that hung over the decrepit and overgrown road. Sarik called Zain forward, and together the two dwarves helped lead the barbarian and rogue deeper into the forest. They walked slowly for about another hundred meters then took off the path to make camp in area nestled with tall pine trees.

“This will make good enough shelter from the wind,” Zain said. Then after a moment of thought he turned to Jase. Zain could see in the dark that Jase was rubbing the hilt of his rapier and had that worried face he always carried when he thought danger could strike out from anywhere. Zain smiled and said, “Jase go collect some fire wood and rocks for a pit.”

“But I can’t see anything,” Jase protested, an edge of fear hinting in his voice. “Why can’t you do it? You’re the one who can see in the dark.”

“You’ll do it,” Zain retorted, “or you will be warming your own dinner up.”

In the dark Zain watched Jase glower at him, but then wiped the look off his face when he remembered the old dwarf could see him. Then he turned slowly and stumbled out into the dark to search for wood and rocks.

“Well, let’s get settled,” Sarik said. His words were followed by clunks of equipment hitting the ground as the band of heroes removed their armor and weapons from their bodies and backs.

Twenty minutes later Jase returned with the supplies for the fire. He brought them into the middle of the camp and dumped them saying, “I collected everything. Someone else can make the pit.” Jase threw up his hands in defiance.

“I’ll take care of it,” Dagen said to the rogue, taking the pipe that he was smoking from his mouth and handed it to Sarik. “You just sit down and relax,” Dagen finished, and then went immediately to work constructing the fire pit. A few minutes later the pit was made and Dagen sat back down.

“Do you want to do the honors?” Dagen asked Zain, motioning to the unlit campfire.

“Sure,” Zain replied.

He moved forward to the pit and sank to his knees. With his hands out before him, he began chanting a prayer to Forlen, the God of Light. “Forlen Tu’ Terrin Mor Du’ Forlendal.” He ended his chant and light coursed through the trees forcing back the clouding darkness. In the center of the pit a warm fire blazed.

Sarik, who had been putting together a stew in the dark, now placed it over the fire in an old iron pot. The light and warmth was welcomed and soon the smell of rabbit and wild herbs filled the small campsite. It reminded all those gathered that they had not eaten since daybreak, and all of the adventurers soon found themselves salivating.

“Is there any bread left?” Jase asked while licking at the corners of his mouth.

“No, I told you this morning that we finished it yesterday,” Sarik roughly replied. “Don’t you listen to anything?” asked Sarik. The rogue mumbled in response and then sat back in silence to wait for the stew.

They ate their stew without talking. The wind that was not blocked by the trees caused the flames of the fire to ripple and sway as if in a dance. The sound of the blowing wind through the branches of the trees intermingled with the sounds of the forest. When they had finished eating, each did their own part in cleaning up.

Once everything was put away Jase put his head on his pack and tugged his cloak up and around him, and he fell asleep. Zain followed suit, saying first his prayers to Forlen and studying a few incantations of spells he wanted to be ready for the next day. Dagen snuffed out his pipe and threw a few extra pieces of wood on the fire. He held his scabbard and grasped the hilt of his sword and asked Achaines for strength and guidance, and then lay down. Sarik read a bit from a book he kept always with him. He grew sleepier as he read and just before he slipped off to sleep he noticed that a strange mist now clung to the forest.

Jase was asleep, but his dream was a written page of the book of his past. He sat alone in Dog’s Mead, an edgy and seedy tavern in the port city of Goldorath; a gathering place of would be adventurers, pirates, and low-life thugs. His back faced the bar, not willing to put it to the tavern’s patrons, though he did not trust the bartender either. He took turns gazing at the brown haired serving wench that was now making her way across the sawdust covered floor. Hands reached out to touch her as she went by. Some she knocked away, and to others she turned and smiled. Jase figured that for the right price she would probably offer more services than just serving ale.

Between watching the serving “maid” (and at that term Jase used it lightly), he watched a group of four boorish men that were gathered in tightly at a table near the far wall. Jase knew they were members of the pirate guild called the Hands of Moon Blood, a secret group that held allegiance with Count Lanto, which through such groups was trying to tighten his grip over the Realms of Confusion.

Jase wondered if he should really be doing this. This was not like him at all. Jase was a pickpocket, a thief, and a womanizer. He wasn’t a hero, nor did he care all that much about justice or walking in the light. This was meant for someone like his father, who believed in all those ancient stories and religions.

Jase took another sip of his ale. So much that had gotten his father, he thought. Slain as an unpaid soldier on some meaningless battlefield by a goblin. Unpaid! The word screamed through Jase’s head. The man never even went after another woman after his wife had died while birthing me, Jase thought grimly.

He noticed that he was staring at the group of men and quickly turned his attention back to the serving maid. She sat on a man’s lap now and was slightly lifting her skirt up for another man to view. His father had it all wrong, he thought as he took a long draught from his drink, and then quickly turned his eyes back to the four men as they rose from their table. They were leaving and heading towards the side door.

Jase reached into his pocket and took out a coin and tossed it to the barkeep, then slowly kept his distance as he followed the men outside. Jase left through the front door of the tavern and quickly the smell of the salty sea combined with the smell of garbage filled his nostrils. He was sick of that smell; maybe that was why he was really doing this. He held onto that thought hoping that it was really right.

He slowly looked to his left to where the ships were anchored up to the yards. He noticed no one looking at him and acted like he was just observing the swaying of ships in the beating waves. He took the fact that the guild members did not have anyone watching their backs from the docks to turn his head around to make sure he wasn’t being followed. He wasn’t, and he smiled to himself. So far so good, he thought.

Jase took his time. He found things to take his focus off those that he was following. Many times he paused to look at the wares of a street vendor, letting the guild members build up more distance between the two. But, Jase never let his gaze slip from his hunt.

The pirate guild members finally turned away from the docks and made for an alley that slithered further into the mess of buildings that were littered throughout the port. Jase closed the gap now that he had no choice. From this point onward he knew things would get trickier. He would now have to follow at a closer distance, one that would have a higher chance of him getting found out. But again, he had no choice.

Jase entered the alleyway. His hand moved down to his side where his rapier was sheathed. He made sure the blade was ready to emerge at any moment. He also drew a small knife and slipped it up his sleeve.

Jase let his hands go to his pockets as he adopted a demeanor of casually strolling along. He even hummed lightly to himself so it appeared he wasn’t trying to keep absolutely silent. The pirates up ahead turned and went down a short narrow alley. Jase glimpsed in to see which way they would turn when they left it. They turned right.

He moved along to catch up with his query. His feet slid silently over the cobblestone. He peered down the alley they had taken. The alley widened, allowing the pirates to no longer walk single file.

The scoundrel hired to find the keep of the pirates entered the alley after them. They still continued on. He could hear their voices carrying to his ears down the alley. They spoke about one of the barmaids at the tavern they had just left.

Jase soon noticed something strange about their conversation. It sounded forced. It sounded as if they were making a distraction for someone’s benefit. Jase quickly counted their number and noticed they were one short. Alarm filled his mind as his hands left his pockets. His knife slipped easy into his hand as he began to draw his sword from its sheath. It did not matter though, for everything went dark, as he was struck hard from behind.

Jase Zalendar awoke groggily as water splashed forcibly into his face. He tried to look around as blurry consciousness quickly turned to dull throbbing pain.

“The little rat is awake. Too bad he fell into a rattrap first.” Jase heard a voice snicker. A small chorus of laughter followed.

Jase tried to bring his hands to his face to wipe away the murky water that still stung his eyes, but was unable. He quickly recognized that he was seated and his hands were bound behind him. He tried to move his feet next to no avail because they too were tied.

“You can quit wiggling rat,” a different voice said this time. “I know how to tie a rope and you ain’t going nowhere.”

One of the pirates must have realized that Jase could not see with the remnants of the water in his eyes because a towel was forced onto his faced and wiped it clean.

“Here we are,” said a beefy pirate that was peering into Jase’s eyes. The man’s breath smelled like bad ale and rotted food that was probably decaying in his wooden teeth.

“So who are you and why were you following us?” the pirate asked. The pirate did not expect a response and received none. He smiled.

Jase’s head flung up and backwards as the pirate put his fist hard into the trapped scoundrel’s mouth. Jase would have howled in pain if he had not nearly blacked out from the force of the blow. Stars and bright light now danced all before his eyes. He did not hear what the pirate said next, but felt the answer. His head flung to the right as the pirate hit him openhanded against the left side of his head.

The blow almost seemed to revive Jase, rather than cause him to see stars again. The pirate had counted on this. “There we go,” the pirate said as he saw that his prisoner’s eyes began to refocus.

“Now, let’s be a little more civil this time. I am going to ask you your name. You will tell me your name or I will hit you again. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Jase breathed.

“Good,” the pirate responded. “Now, my name is Lorgan. What is your name?”

“Jase,” the scoundrel exhaled.

“Good,” Lorgan said again. “Jase what?”

Jase’s mind raced trying to come up with a phony alias for a last name. He did not think of one in time. A blow struck Jase right on the nose and immense pain exploded through him. Blood began to trickle down his face.

“Now Jase, I thought we had gone over the rules here,” said Lorgan with mock disbelief. “I guess I’ll have to explain them again. You see, when I ask you a question, you answer or pain is the consequence. If punching you doesn’t work then I will resort to other tactics. And trust me, you don’t want me to resort to other tactics,” Lorgan said with malice in both his voice and eyes.

“What is your last name?”

“Zalendar!” Jase flinched at the eagerness in his voice to give his captor a response.

Jase saw Lorgan smile. The pirate could tell from the response that it was not a falsified name.

“Good,” Lorgan said. “You understand how this works. Next question, why were you following us?”

“I was paid.”

“By whom and for what purpose?”

“By a third party to find out what Count Lanto is up to,” Jase said lowering his head in shame. He had always felt that he would be a hard nut to break. All it had taken was a few punches to his face and he was dribbling out information as fast as he could.

“Good,” Lorgan said again. “But, I want a little more information about this third party.”

“I really don’t know anything about them,” Jase started before his head flew back again from another blow to the face.

“I don’t,” Jase gasped out as blood from his nose now mingled with blood now flowing from his lips.

Lorgan was quiet for many moments. The other pirates laughed and spouted out threats to Jase as their ringleader thought what to do next.

“Unfortunately, I think you are again telling the truth,” Lorgan began. “So, I suppose that means we don’t have a use for you anymore.”

Jase heard the finality in his voice. He waited now for the searing pain of sharp steel to sink into his gut. He heard several blades being drawn as he closed his eyes. He did not wish to see his doom coming. As grunts of satisfaction came nearer to him there was another noise that rocked the compound that they were in.

Jase opened his eyes and saw the pirates turn away from him. The sound of ringing steel could be clearly heard. Lorgan issued quick, sharp orders and the other pirates quickly left the room. Lorgan turned and took a quick look at Jase before he followed his men.

Jase started to frantically to try to break free of his binds. It was useless. He was tied too tight and too much strength had left him. He would have to wait to see what his fate would be.

The fighting in the halls and corridors grew louder as it neared Jase’s room of imprisonment. The scoundrel heard grunts and screams of those that had steel put to their flesh. He heard also the call for help and aid from those that had fallen and those that still battled. The fight soon found itself right outside the prison door. Jase waited for his death.

The door burst open and several figures poured in. Two were dwarves, who both paused and looked at him with recognition. The third that entered first finished off one of Lorgan’s men with a sword stroke. The third figure seemed strange and exotic, having blue tinged skin. The three were clearly of those that had invaded the pirate hideout.

“Who are you?” Jase seemingly whimpered as one of the dwarves came forward.

The dwarf ignored him as he started to cut Jase’s bonds. Jase heard the blue tinged man talk to the other dwarf and thought he caught the man calling him Sarik. The last of Jase’s bonds were cut free and the injured man fell forward. The dwarf stayed his fall.

“We are going to get you out of here Jase,” the dwarf that had freed him said. “You did a good job leading us to Count Lanto’s lair, but he has already fled.”

“Who are you?” Jase tried again. He was full of confusion on what had befallen.

“We are part of an underground resistance against Count Lanto. We are the ones that hired you. My name is Zain.”

It was the last thing Jase remembered before he blacked out.

Jase awoke with a start. The jumbled memories of the dream quickly sorted out in his awaking mind. He had been dreaming of the day he had met his three traveling companions. He had been with them every day since.

They had failed in their mission. The Count had slipped through their fingers, but they had thwarted the evil noble’s imminent plans and driven him out of the land. He was still on the loose and had fled northwards past the great mountains that separated the world. Jase’s companions would follow Count Lanto anywhere. To them the man had much to answer for, and Jase felt honor bound to come with them.

Jase let his eyes open a little wider. He lay on the hard ground of the forest. The wind blew from between the branches of the trees. Its breath was cool and Jase pulled his cloak tighter around him.

He looked to the dying embers of the fire. They glowed orange and bright, but were low and smoldering. Jase looked around and saw Dagen sitting up as watch. Dagen noticed the thief’s movement and looked at him.

“There is something both comforting and disquieting about this forest,” the barbarian said. “Perhaps, it only seems so since we spent so much time crossing the Mountains of Darkness into the north. I do not know what we shall find up here.”

Dagen Vrance seemed to be talking to himself as much as he was to Jase.

“Maybe we will find what we are looking for this time. It has only been three years,” Jase quipped.

Dagen nodded. “Yes, it has been a long journey. But, it has gone on much longer than three years for the rest of us.”

Jase stood up and came to where Dagen was sitting. He held tightly to his cloak as the wind blew again, fluttering it out behind him like a cape. For many moments they sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

“I’ll take the watch from here, Dagen,” Jase said, breaking the silence.

The blue-skinned man hesitated for a moment then reluctantly nodded. There were deep thoughts behind the ice-barbarian’s eyes.

“I could use some sleep,” Dagen said. His voice seemed solemn.

“And I could use some thinking time,” Jase replied with a smile.

Dagen patted him on the shoulder and got up to go to his bedroll. Jase watched as the ice-barbarian seemed to fall instantly to sleep. He was always amazed how Dagen was able to do that. Jase turned his eyes away from his companions gathered around him and scanned the outer darkness. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

The thief’s eyes soon settled on the dying embers that glowed orange. Jase witnessed a small trail of smoke that lifted up and made its way to the tree bows above. He followed the trail with his eyes, moving them upward until he saw the break between the branches and the sky above. Blue stars lit the curved dome. Looking at the vastness above, a peculiar thought entered Jase’s mind, and for some strange reason he believed his own fate rested up there somewhere amongst the stars.

The rising Starsun lit the forest in dancing golden rays that descended as beams of glistening light. Dew sparkled on curved leaves and on the sparse grass that littered the forest floor. The air was cool and crisp and soothing with the dawn. The four travelers rose, and began preparing for their day’s journey.

There was the sound of rattling gear as it was swung into place. The dwarves and two men then moved away from their camp and went back to the old forgotten road. Soon, they were on their way again through the place known as East Lannerdan Forest.

They walked for several hours before resting. Their pace was slow, being in no real hurry. They were on a journey with a goal, but with no real destination. By midday they had slowed even more, and then stopped. They took the time to observe the natural overhanging beauty that was touched by the turning color of leaves all about them. Soon, they decided to add food to the rest of their march.

Each of the travelers munched on dried meats, which they had brought along for their long journey. They had saved much through the mountains, where they had found more game that they had expected. The forest was soon to offer up fresh meat, but had yet to give them that opportunity. Close by Sarik discovered a small stream, which they drank from and refilled their water skins.

Zain sat on a rounded tree that must have not long ago been knocked down by a storm. He chewed his food thoughtfully. Bits of the jerky found its way into the dwarf’s beard, but they were soon discovered and devoured. He looked around as he ate, taking in all that he saw. Soon, his head stilled as he tried to peer through the foliage at something he glimpsed in the distance.

Zain stood, and moved slowly away from the others. Sarik eyed him carefully, but did not interrupt him. Zain had not reached for the war-hammer that was strapped on his back. Sarik trusted the dwarf with his life, having fought side-by-side with him in the United Dwarf War. If trouble were about, Zain would alert the others.

Zain was gone for several minutes. Dagen glanced questioningly at Sarik, but did not ask him any questions about the other dwarf directly. The ice-barbarian had seen the way the other dwarf had left too, and by his movements he knew he had not left to relieve himself. When Dagen had finally decided to go and look for the dwarf, Zain reemerged.

“I’ve found something,” Zain said before any of the others could question him. “There are ruins of an old fortress not too far from here. I did not see any movement from the outside, but it felt strange, like it is not empty.”

At the dwarf’s words, Jase sat up. The idea of an old fortress filled his mind with what valuables that might have been left. Sarik observed the thief, but also the gleam in his adopted son, Dagen’s eyes.

“If it is ruins then any treasure has probably long been plundered,” Sarik said. “But, it could be used by thieves or worse. Many evil things dwell in ancient rocks and holes.”

“Do you think Count Lanto might have set up a trap for us? Or at least some of his minions to watch for us?” Dagen asked. Battle-fury was already starting to flame up in his eyes, and his hand was rubbing the hilt of his blade.

“It is possible, but might not be likely,” Sarik responded. “We haven’t heard or seen any sign of the Count in months.” Sarik’s face became a grimace with the statement.

“I vote to explore the ruins;” Zain cast in. “There is no telling what might be inside. We could find some useful supplies, or at least a clue of what land we are in. A map would be worth wonders. Also, maybe the Count visited the place on his trek north. We won’t know if we don’t explore.”

“Then let us go,” said Dagen. There was a grim smile on his face, and none of his companions were surprised to find his sword already in his hand.

Chapter 2: The Old Fortress in East Lannerdan Forest

The four travelers made their way through the vegetation, pushing back branches and tall plants. They soon moved into an area, which had been cleared of trees long ago. Still, the outlying trees stood tall so that their branches hung high, shading the clearing. Plants and grasses could be seen here, but what were most noticeable were the decrepit ruins of a long ago abandoned castle.

The four travelers looked upon the ruins of what was once known as the Old Fortress of the Watch. It had been used long ago as the land’s southern citadel to protect the North Road as it made its way up from the places south of the Mountains of Darkness, into the land known as Stirlyn. As time passed, and the citadel seemed to not be needed, it became abandoned and forgotten.

Vines now snaked their way up the battlements and crumbled towers, as if they meant to pull the stones of the fallen fortress back to the earth. The castle’s perimeter wall was crumbled and had many large open gaps. The wall’s gate was rusted steel, which now sat ajar, welcoming any that may pass by. It was a symbol of a forgotten past.

The four crept slowly towards one of the piles of rubble that was once part of the protective wall. They crossed through the gap and came to a courtyard that was well overgrown by wild foliage. They moved silently, creeping closer to the ancient castle in its apparent slumber. Darkened windows, which had long forsaken glass, peered questioningly down at them. There was no movement up above. The travelers moved on.

Across old cobblestone, which once had been a luxurious walkway; the travelers went towards an old iron door caked in rust. Jase moved forward and inspected it, but found nothing out of the ordinary. He tried to open it, seeing that it was not locked. It would not budge.

“Hey,” Jase whispered back to his companions. “I need some of your muscles to push this thing open.” the second comment was directed at Dagen.

Dagen sheathed his sword soundlessly and came forward to push on the door. It did not move. He tried again, this time applying more force. It moved slightly.

Turning back to Sarik, Dagen said, “Father, I need your assistance.”

Sarik handed his curved moon-blade axe to Jase and came to help his adopted son. The two pushed with all of their might and the door slowly began to move inward into the darkness beyond. The open doorway was like a portal into night. Sarik moved back and retrieved his axe from Jase, while Dagen drew his sword again.

Zain, we will need light,” said Sarik, turning back to the Cleric of Forlen.

Zain moved forward. The others gave way and let him pass. Zain leaned his war-hammer against the outside wall and came into the darkened doorway. With his hands together, he bowed his head and spoke muted words.

Zain extended his hands, from which now rested a small globe of light. Raising his arms and pushing them towards the darkened chamber within, the globe shot forth from his palms. The light went to the center of the chamber and hung without motion or sound. All that was within the chamber was cleansed of the seemingly eternal darkness that it had suffered from.

The light revealed what had seemed to be once a guardroom that was small and square shaped. Along the left side of the room was an old weapon rack, which was still filled with swords and pikes that had long been covered with rust. There was a stone table in the center of the room, with stone benches. They seemed unhindered by the passing of time; save for the spider webs that adorned them. On the far side of the room was a gaping doorway, which once probably had a wooden door that had long since disintegrated.

Sarik entered the guardroom, followed closely by Dagen. Zain came in shortly afterwards, taking a moment to grab his weapon and rearrange his armor. Jase came in last after peeking around the corner, making sure everything was clear and safe.

They did not tarry long in the guardroom. They found nothing of interest. Sarik and Dagen were soon headed to the far doorway. And with a flick of his wrist, Zain made the globe of light follow their progress.

They walked down a short hallway before they came to another room. Rats scattered from the light as they entered. It was easy to see that the room had once been used to store important goods. Two old chests rested against the far wall. One had fallen in on its self as the wood had rotted away over time. The other was rusted iron. It was open, but nothing of value remained within. They continued on.

They walked down a long drafty passage. Cracks in the stone and holes in the mortar allowed the outside air to purge some of the dank enclosed smell of the old fortress. They passed several old chambers, pausing to sift through the remains. Jase was able to discover a few old coins, but they did not seem of great value.

The passageway curved and then ended. They were forced to pass through a rather large hall, which appeared as if it were the citadel’s banquet hall. They found nothing of value and quickly moved on. Another short passage brought them to a chamber that held an old iron cage. The room moved off in two directions, one went to more chambers on the first level of the fortress, and the other went to a stone stairwell that was well preserved.

Dagen and Sarik stayed put as Zain and Jase explored the remainder of the first level of the castle. As Zain left with the globe of light he had cast, it left both Sarik and Dagen in darkness. Dagen removed a torch from his pack and lit it. Father and adopted son talked quietly amongst themselves as they waited for the others’ return. On a stone table on the far side of the room, sitting away from the prisoner cage, Dagen found many old documents.

He began to look through them, taking his time trying to save them from falling apart. Many of the first documents he handled did just that, and fell to pieces in his hands. He worked more diligently after that, and tried to absorb all the information on each document before moving it. At first he found little that was helpful.

The documents were old and faded. Most were of soldiering content, discussing supplies and pay. This was of little interest to Dagen. He went through several of these before he finally found one of use.

“Father, I found a map!” Dagen exclaimed at the discovery of his prize.

Sarik quickly made his way over to the map and studied it. There was no telling how old the map was. It seemed hand drawn by a soldier, and was not very good from an artistic standpoint. But, the map did label many important places, such as forests, roads, mountains, and rivers.

The physical features would be accurate, both knew. But, the cities and fortresses on the map could be gone.

“This will be very useful,” Sarik said to Dagen.

“It is too bad we can’t take it with us,” Dagen replied. “It will fall apart as soon as I move it.”

“Then we study it now,” Sarik responded. “We will not move it until the others get back and they get a good long look at it too. Perhaps Zain still has some parchment and a quill with ink. He could make us a quick replica.”

“Make a replica of what?” Zain asked as he and Jase returned from their search of the other rooms.

“Of the map Dagen found,” said Sarik. “Did you two find anything?”

“Nothing useful,” said Zain.

“Just a few more coins,” piped in Jase. “Nothing much. A handful of copper and a couple pieces of silver.”

Jase was ignored as Zain came over and looked at the map. The cleric pulled some parchment out of his pack and a quill. He went to work covering the highlights of the map as quickly, but as accurately as he could. When he had made the map he put it carefully back into his pack. “Are we ready then?” Zain asked. The others nodded.

They went to the stairwell and tested the steps before they tried to ascend. The steps were of stone, and though they were chipped in several places, they were sturdy and intact. Dagen led the way with the globe of light floating near him. Sarik followed, with Jase coming next and Zain taking up the rear position.

Coming to a platform that led to the second level, they found an iron door ajar. Dagen peeked through; the light was not needed to aid him. He saw a balcony with slate stone that was cracked and crumbling. A rusted rail ran across the edge of the balcony and the trees of the forest were visible beyond, rustling and swaying like cloaks in the wind.

Dagen saw two doors on either side of the balcony. At each door stood a statue. Dagen looked closer and saw the hidden arrow-slits over each statue’s shoulders. Each door was made of stone and covered with dust and spider webs. The left door was open.

Dagen turned back to his companions and described what he saw. “I think we should go up to the next level first and see if we can gain entry there too before we explore here,” Dagen added.

The warrior did not wait for a response from his comrades, but was already ascending to the highest level of the ancient ruined fortress. He came to the platform that held a door to the third level. Trying the handle on the iron doorway he found that it would not budge. He applied pressure, but it seemed that force would not be enough.

Dagen looked back to Jase, “Hey thief!” he yelled back mockingly. “Do you think you can get this doorway open?”

Jase pushed forward pass the dwarves. He muttered something under his breath about being tired of being referred to as a thief. The others glanced at each other and did their best to hide their mirth, but Jase noticed.

“I am glad you guys think it is funny,” Jase said in an annoyed tone. “You guys won’t be using me as the butt of your jokes if I get this door open,” He said as he brought out his lock pick and started to work on the door.

“You have to get the door open first,” Sarik snorted behind him to a chorus of low laughter.

Jase grimaced and continued on. He worked furiously for several minutes before he sat back on his haunches. He rubbed his chin and tried to peer into the keyhole on which he worked. Dust and debris, which had built up over time did not allow him a proper view.

“I can’t see anything,” Jase finally blurted out. “I can’t get this thing open either. The only chance we have getting through this is going back down to the second level and looking for a key of some kind. And, if we don’t find a key then we can pack up and move on, because we will never know what hides behind door number three.”

“Let’s head back then,” Dagen responded with seriousness back in his tone. “I want to be out of this place and moving along to get out of this forest in an hour.”

Dagen pushed back the others and quickly went back the way they had come. The dwarves whirled and followed him. Jase was left packing up his stuff and scrambling to keep up with his friends. “Wait for me!” He managed to squelch out as he bunched up his belongings in his arms and ran down the stairs behind them.

Dagen was the first to move out onto the balcony on the second floor. He made his friends wait behind. He wanted to be sure that all of them would not be killed in some ambush of arrows fired from the hidden arrow-slits. As the blue-skinned warrior moved forward onto the balcony with his sword raised he went first to the door that seemed soundly closed, and he found that they would not be able to enter that way. Looking over the statue’s shoulders he saw no one in the hall behind the slits. He motioned for the others to come forward.

The four travelers moved as one as they went to the other door. Moving through the door they found a short hallway that traveled about thirty feet to an open doorway. Entering, they found a room ornate in its ancient construction. The dwarves moved forward passed the warrior as awe overtook them.

“The stone here is strange,” Sarik said almost to himself.

“It appears to have come from many different places. Places I have never seen. The cutting is like none I have seen either. It seems as if it was brought here from many different lands,” Zain said speaking to the air.

“Or different worlds,” Sarik added to himself.

Dagen and Jase moved around looking closer at the stone. They too noticed that it was strange. The colors seemed to be wrong, and were like nothing they had ever looked upon.

“What does it mean?” Jase asked.

“I don’t know if it means anything,” Sarik responded in all seriousness. “I just wish I could take some with us.”

“Well, Zain can use that big hammer of his and smash a chunk off,” Jase said without thinking.

Both pairs of Dwarven eyes turned as one toward him. There was anger in their gaze. Jase, finally noticing the looks he was given fell back a step like he had been struck.

“What? What did I do this time?” He asked incredulously.

“To recklessly damage stone-cut like this would be a mortal sin to a dwarf,” Sarik said with venom full in his tone.

Dagen came to the young human’s rescue. “Father, you know he doesn’t know every detail about dwarves. But, we should take his point. Either take a proper sample, which we have no time for now, or we should move on.”

Sarik nodded slowly in agreement. He dragged his eyes painfully away from the sight of the stone. On the other side of the room Zain was doing the same.

“Alright, let us go then,” said Zain sadly as they left through an open passageway on the far side of the chamber.

They searched many more corridors and chambers without finding anything that would aid them in opening the iron door on the highest level of the stairwell, until they came to the last unexplored room of the fortress’s second level. In this room they found that the walls were rounded and held no decorations. In the center of the rounded room, alone with the collected dust of time, sat an ornate chest. It seemed strange and foreboding to the travelers to the lands north of the Mountains of Darkness.

It was a wooden chest, though the wood had not suffered from rot. In flowing silver there were many etched runes placed upon the iron working of the chest. It had at its latch a dial, which shapes could be turned. On top of the chest, perched as if to protect the contents within, was a stone gargoyle. Its claws stretched downward with its sharp talons. Gouge marks were clearly visible in an upward stroke across the container.

The gathered travelers stood and looked at the chest in silence. They were intrigued with the artistic workings of the chest. But, they were bewildered at the same time. It seemed to possess an eerie presence, though besides the claw marks on the chest, which seemed to be an intentional part of the craftsmanship, it seemed non-threatening.

“I do not feel any magic at work here,” said Zain carefully as he moved closer to the Gargoyle’s Chest.

Jase slipped by the others as they continued looking at it. He came to his knees before the chest and looked at the gargoyle. It seemed to be staring him in the eyes. He looked back intently, wondering if the thing would come alive any instant and destroy him. It remained stone.

Jase looked to the dial and saw different types of colored orbs. The dial had three different slots that could be turned. He began rotating the slots of the dial. Jase tried several different attempts with the slots mixing up colors and then trying to try all the same colors for each attempt. Finally, Jase transfixed the slots so that three emerald orbs lined up in the dial. There was a click sound and Jase carefully pushed open the lid.

Jase looked inside as the others crowded around him. All four of the travelers’ imaginations ran wild with ideas and anticipation. But, at first glance the massive treasure chest guarded by the stone gargoyle seemed to be empty.

Jase looked all the way to the bottom of the chest, reaching his hand down there to see if he could feel anything. His hand touched metal. He looked, but did not see anything. He grasped at what he felt and pulled up a small metal object. Bringing it forth into the light he saw that it was a key, but the metal was see-thru.

Sarik quickly plucked the key out of Jase’s hand and looked at it.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

“I bet there used to be other things in that chest, but were looted long ago, save for the key because they did not see it,” added Zain.

Jase stood up and quickly stole back the key from Sarik’s hand. The dwarf gave him a grumpy look, which Jase replied with a stern stare of his own.

“I found the key,” he said justifying his action. “I want to look at it first, and not have some old grumpy dwarf stealing it out of my hands.”

Sarik harrumphed and Zain said something under his breath, but neither interfered. Dagen was looking at the chest and rubbing his hand at the bottom to see if they had missed anything else. He brought his hand out empty.

“Well, I assume it’s the key to the upper level,” prompted Dagen.

“Yeah, you’re pretty quick,” quipped Jase. “I think we all came to that conclusion minutes ago.”

Dagen crossed his arms and scowled. He seemed to get taller as he looked down at Jase. The rogue broke off eye contact. He knew getting Dagen angry for no reason was not a smart thing to do. He had once teased the barbarian about his blue skin until the big man picked up Jase and tossed him in a lake of freezing water. Jase would almost bet that the Dagen was thinking of that moment as well.

“Here,” Jase said tossing the key to Dagen trying to diffuse the tension. “Let’s not wait any longer in this Gods’ forsaken keep. To the upper level we go.”

“That’s if that key opens that door, despite our assumptions,” put in Zain.

“If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” said Sarik. “But, the thief is right. Let’s get going.”

The two dwarves and the barbarian began to head back the way they had come, leaving Jase mumbling and scrambling to keep up. They quickly made their way back to the stairwell and came to the highest level of the fortress. Dagen inserted the key into the door and turned it. Turning the old knob the door slowly opened revealing what might have once been used as a barracks.

After quickly looking about the barracks they continued through a door on the far side of the room. A long corridor followed for nearly a hundred feet until it went out to shaded daylight. Rooms were positioned at uneven intervals throughout the corridor. They stopped in each of the rooms, but found nothing of real value. They continued onward.

As they exited the corridor they found themselves positioned on a narrow battlement with high walls. They seemed to be on the opposite side of the fortress from that which they had approached. Small openings in the battlement’s wall showed the tall overgrowth of trees in the forest. It was likely the trees, which grew close to the battlement, had not been there when the fortress was used on a consistent basis.

Coming forward to the end of the battlement the four travelers came upon something that completely surprised them. A tower rose high into the canopy of the forest. It too had been shaded from their eyes when they had approached the keep. A stone door barred their passage, but they found out quickly that their key worked the lock.

The doorway creaked open revealing a large empty chamber and a stair at its middle that spiraled high to the floor above. So, they entered into the place that was once long ago known as the Doom Knight’s Tower. And taking to the stair they ascended to the anterior chamber of the Old Fortress’s throne room.

Coming to the second level of the Doom Knight’s Tower they saw a double door hinged on a massive arch some three times the height of a man. Written across the arch in a crude array of stonecutting read: Bow before Helyst, the Keeper of the Emerald Orb. The four warriors stopped at the words.

“I’d be willing to guess that isn’t part of the original architecture,” Sarik grumbled as he hefted up the haft of his axe.

“You don’t think this Helyst is in there,” Dagen responded to his adopted father. “This whole place has been deserted for ages it seems.”

“And looted too,” Zain piped in. “Except for the Gargoyle’s Chest with the key in it.”

“But, doesn’t that mean that no one has been up here?” Jase asked. Fear had crept into his voice. “I don’t like this.”

“Of course you don’t,” said Zain mockingly. “You don’t like anything that might actually try to hurt you. You would probably prefer stealing from old woman and children.”

“They give the least amount of resistance,” Jase responded without mirth.

Zain shook his head in disgust, while the other two ignored the bantering.

“Yes, but it says Keeper of the Emerald Orbs,” Jase pointed out. “When I opened the treasure chest, I had to put all three slots of the dial on the emerald orbs. Why would emerald orbs be important?”

“Probably just an heirloom of this place and whatever lands it once controlled,” Sarik said.

“I will not back down to some cryptic words over an archway,” Dagen said defiantly and he moved forward and pushed open the doors to enter the throne room. The others followed him in with the weapons ready. Jase came reluctantly.

The throne room of Doom Knight’s Tower of the Old Fortress of East Lannerdan Forest had a tall arched ceiling. Tall marble columns were lined in far spaced pairs throughout the center of the chamber. In the center of the pass between the pillars rested a silver stand of ornate architecture. Upon the silver stand rested a seamless Emerald Orb. The Emerald Orb gleamed brilliantly from the rays of light that shone in beams from the series of stained-glass windows at the far end of the chamber.

The four travelers looked in awe at the orb that was positioned near the center of the great throne room. All four slowly advanced as in a dream. But, Dagen was soon stayed. He felt a warm breeze bathe over him in short bursts, like breath. It was then when he noticed a looming shadow, which started to extend over the chamber.

Holding his sword high for battle, Dagen roared, “We are not alone!”

A great bellow answered his warning. It was the roar of an ancient beast, and its call to battle shook the walls and columns of the old throne room. The Emerald Orb, upon its perch, did not waver.

Then Helyst revealed herself. And she was a mighty hydra of two serpentine heads spawned in the cracks of the Abyss in some distant past. Her skin seamed slippery, like that of an eels’, and she had two massive front claws with five talons each, like sharpened spears. Her eyes were slivers of pale moonlight and her fangs were four in each of her gaping maws, like husks of mighty beasts. A tongue slithered forth and hissed in sickening tones, as if the monster spoke some foul language that only its two heads understood.

One of the heads struck, flashing like the shadow of midnight. Dagen’s sword flashed, like moonlight quickly emerging from blowing clouds. It struck scaled flesh, leaving behind a thin trickling line of blackish blood. Dagen rolled as he swung his mighty sword, moving away from the maw that would have grinded him into a spray of ruined flesh.

More words of warning were not needed. The rest of the company fled for the protection of the columns. Dagen stood in the center of the chamber alone. He peered up at the beast in defiance and brought his sword up once again before him as a shield. The hydra moved slowly towards the warrior from the back of the chamber. Its right-sided legs moved upward as its talons clutches at columns, scraping off tiles as Helyst raised herself high, as if perched.

Helyst swooped down with her right head to draw Dagen’s attention as she struck at him with her front left talons. Dagen positioned his body to attack the beast’s head, but did not notice the creature’s claws coming to slay him from his blindside. Luckily, Dagen’s companions did see the monster’s faint.

Jase had managed to slip his bow from his back and quickly notched and sent forth an arrow. The arrow was ill aimed, but did strike behind Helyst’s attacking head. The arrow caused a gash, but did not penetrate and was deflected and sent reeling to the deeper regions of the throne room. The slight injury caused the head to rise up as it swooped for Dagen, and the ice-barbarian’s sword sailed and cleaved the bottom half of the hydra’s gaping maw. It split it in two and caused an explosion of black blood.

The hydra’s right head lifted and roared, causing the roof to shake. Many tiles and stones from the ancient ceiling rained down. They clattered and shattered on the floor below. Meanwhile, Dagen still did not perceive the danger, which came from behind. But, his adopted father, who had saved the barbarian as an infant who sat alone crying in the snow, did.

Sarik Moonwater came forth with his axe held tightly against the dwarf’s thick frame. Sarik made no sound as he unleashed his ancestral weapon. The curved blade of the axe whistled an eerie tune as it swept out and severed the clawed foot from the hydra.

The bestial roar was much worse than it had been before. Brave Dagen went forth to deal a stroke against the creature’s body, with a great outpouring of thick blood. From behind a column, Jase let sing another arrow from his bow. The arrow lifted high, striking Helyst’s left neck. Sarik was there, his axe swinging swiftly.

Zain watched, not yet engaged in the madness against odds that he had no chance against survival. He darted forth from where he watched the combat and grabbed the Emerald Orb from its shining silver stand.

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