Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone and the Companions of Althea




Brimstone

and the Companions of Althea.

Book 1


 

 

ã  Copyright 2004, by Ricky Sides

and Kathy Young

 


Acknowledgements

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the company Dialsoft, which owns the rights to t4c (the Fourth coming.) Marc Frega, company President, granted us the non-exclusive rights to write books based on t4c, and the right to seek a publisher. Dialsoft also created the cover for this ebook. We are currently in negotiations with Dialsoft for the license to place the entire series on the market. Meanwhile, Dialsoft has approved the temporary release of this free version of the book.

 

http://the4thcoming.com/

 

Kathy and I owe a debt of gratitude to eAcceleration. They have graciously granted their permission for us to include references to their t4c development in our books. These references include eAcceleration t4c server specific spells, items, and an island named Brach Dalar. eAcceleration’s t4c server was our t4c home for many years. Kathy and I have many fond memories of the people we met, and the staff of the server.

 

http://t4c.eacceleration.com/

 

eAcceleration actually gave us our first real writing break. I’d been posting the Brimstone stories on the general forum for a while when the t4c director took interest and gave us a Brimstone forum hosted by eAcceleration. Over a period of years, the nine books of the series were posted serial style on that forum.

We would also like to say thank you to all of the player characters who permitted us to use their characters and profiles during the course of the series. All of the human and seraph companions were real players who permitted us to use their characters. They also contributed in other ways. Veksar contributed maps that inspired me to no end. Many posted comments after the segments. Reading those comments was the high point of my writing career. I so cherished the comments of those people that I copied all that I could find and placed them on my website. Those players all trusted us with their good names. It was a humbling experience for me to be trusted by so many good people.

Some people have told me that I should consider renaming several characters, because their names are unusual. They suggested that I change them to something more palatable in order to make the books more marketable. In my view, that would be an act of betrayal. These people trusted me with their good names. I will not alter those names to make a buck. They’ll grow on you. That was most assuredly the case for me. (:>

 


Dedication

 

I’d like to dedicate this book to the players of eAcceleration’s t4c servers. Without your participation and encouragement, this book and the series would never have come to be what it is today. If this series turned out to be a good, it’s because so many good people provided a steady stream of comments, feedback, and ideas. In doing so, they nurtured and inspired this author.

I’d especially like to dedicate this book to Pig Killa, an Australian player. He was a young man who was among the first to encourage me to continue with the series of posts. His untimely death in a tragic auto accident devastated many players around the globe. All mourned his passing.

 

Piggy, this one’s for you.

 

*Raises a glass of wine in a toast to a friend.*

 

 

Synopsis

 

Born of the union of Artherk, god of good, and a mortal woman named Evelyn, Brimstone was destined for great things. The followers of his father rejoiced on the night that Evelyn gave birth to Artherk’s son. But sinister forces did not share in that joy. Those forces conspired against the newly born Demigod and his mother.

When a professional assassin slays Evelyn, a powerful mage retainer loyal to her opens a portal, casts the child into it, and then does battle with the assassin. On the other side of the portal, followers of Artherk take the child to safety as he emerges into the Stonehenge near the city of Lighthaven on the island of Arakas. Later, Artherk joins his followers and gives them their instructions. An elect group of his followers is charged with the safety of his son. It will be their task to train him in the path of the warrior and safeguard him until he comes of age.

When Brimstone comes of age, he meets Damia. She is the daughter of Ogrimar, god of evil and the lovely goddess of the sea, Shinobi. Working together, Damia and Brimstone work to maintain the balance between good and evil as they fight for the cause of justice. Soon mages, warriors, paladins, and archers join them in their eternal quest to right the wrongs of the world of Althea. This group of companions is a mixture of all alignments. Eventually they become known as, simply, The Companions.


 

 

 

Part 1

The History of Althea


 

 

The Gods of Althea.

 

 

In the celestial realm dwelled several gods. There was Artherk, the god of light and goodness, Ogrimar, the god of evil and chaos, Gluriurl, the god of corruption and Lothar the Just, who was the god of justice. Other gods reside within the celestial realm, but these four gods are the principal gods that influence the history of the world of Althea to the time of the disappearance of the dwarven race.

 

***

 

After the fall of the dwarven race, humanity became the chosen race. In the wake of the fall of the dwarves, the wisest among the humans gathered and they discussed the problem for several weeks. Finally, they reached the conclusion that to fulfill the mandate of the Harbinger, humans needed to try something new. Something that neither the Elves with all their wisdom, nor the Dwarves with all of their strength at arms had thought to try.

The wise men and women of the time realized that both the Elves and the Dwarves had failed to maintain the balance between good and evil because they had tried in vain to work within the alignments of good and evil to maintain that balance. They concluded that this approach wouldn’t work any better for the human race than it had for the other races. They further concluded that if they were to succeed where the other races had failed, they needed to form a third alignment dedicated to the base philosophy of maintaining the balance between good and evil.

For the balance to be maintained, at least some portion of humanity needed to remain neutral. This meant that some should favor neither good nor evil. It also meant that those neutrals would work actively to see to it that the other two alignments remained balanced.

In those days of the first generation of neutrals, they had no deity. The founders of the path struggled daily along the path, always doing what they could to maintain the balance. But their struggles did not go unnoticed.

The celestial realm is the birthplace of all gods. It exists in another dimension. The goddess of the sea and neutrality took notice of the struggle of this first generation of neutrals. That Goddess is named Shinobi. Seeing the plight of these men and women who struggled so valiantly to maintain the balance, she decided to come to Althea and assist them along that path.

Shinobi was the first goddess of neutrality. She was also a goddess of the sea. But now Damia has taken Shinobi’s place as goddess of neutrality and Shinobi is primarily the goddess of the sea.

Damia is the daughter of the goddess Shinobi and Ogrimar the god of evil. Both Shinobi and Ogrimar had visions that warned them that unless they had a daughter, a great calamity would befall Althea. This seemed impossible because Shinobi loathed Ogrimar and would not suffer his touch. Yet the gods found a way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task without ever touching one another.

Shinobi raised Damia until she was six years old, and then she turned her daughter over to Ogrimar as agreed. It broke her heart to do this, but it was the only way that Ogrimar would agree to the plan. Ogrimar yearned in his heart for the daughter of his visions. This might seem a cruel fate for the young goddess, but Ogrimar doted on his daughter and she led a happy life. Later, when Damia came of age, her mother, Shinobi turned over the responsibility for the neutral path to her. Shinobi is now primarily the goddess of the sea, though she is still neutral, and Damia is the official goddess of neutrality.

 

***


 

The races of Althea.

by Gunter Quickquill

Chief Librarian of the Great Celestial Library.

 

In the beginning, the Supreme Being created all worlds. Some few of those worlds were populated with animals, plants, and intelligent species. But the first intelligent race that he created were godlike in their own rights for they had been created with portions of the powers of the supreme being. These godlike beings dwelled in the celestial realm until a world caught their attention and they decided to take an interest in the intelligent beings who inhabited their chosen worlds. In some cases, the gods then dwelled upon those worlds. In other cases, the gods would visit a world, walk among its people, but then return to the celestial realm, and watch their people from their celestial homes.

Zeus was one such being who briefly interacted with one of those worlds, but there were several others. This missive will deal with the gods who chose to live on one world among its people. Though they can depart that world and return to the celestial realm, they more often than not spend most of their time on their chosen planet. The name of that planet is Althea.

Althea formed as a water world interspersed with islands. One of those islands is known throughout the recorded history of Althea. That island is Arakas. Other islands are known as well. The island of Raven’s Dust was discovered after Arakas. In the fullness of time, the island of Raven’s Dust became the seat of power for the human kingdom of Goldmoon. Raven’s Dust was known as greater Goldmoon and Arakas became known as Lesser Goldmoon to the population. Still later, Stoneheim was found and settled. Yet Stoneheim never became an integral part of the Kingdom of Goldmoon. Once there, men learned of the higher calling of the gods Ogrimar and Artherk. They were called into the service of the gods by making the great sacrifice of being reborn as seraphs to help in the eternal battle between good and evil.

Yet on all three isles, the humans found evidence that they were not the first race to walk the land. Indeed, there was substantial evidence that humans were the third race to dominate the isles. The first race to dominate Althea was the elven race, which had a thriving and advanced culture that was old while the other races were still in their infancies. The second race to ascend to cultural domination was the dwarven race and the third was humanity. This missive will chronicle the events as they unfolded during the history of the three races of Althea. It will reflect upon the interaction between the gods of Althea and the races that followed those gods.

The elven city of Anwynn was the peak of elven architectural achievement on the isle of Arakas. The city was located on a small isle on the southeastern side of Arakas and was linked to the mainland by two graceful bridges. Anwynn sat in the same location as the present day human city of Lighthaven.

Anwynn was the center of the Elven Kingdom, which was ruled by a king. There were other lesser elven cities on the three islands of Arakas, Raven’s Dust and Stoneheim, but none rivaled the intrinsic beauty of Anwynn. Elven villages dotted the countryside on the three isles that made up the Elven Kingdom. Originally, travel to these isles had taken place by the conventional means of utilizing ships for exploration.

Later, the Elves had developed the means to use magic to travel between the isles, thus making it possible to safely travel from one isle to another in moments. The magic of gateways and portals, later rediscovered by humankind, was first discovered and utilized by the elves. To this day human scholars still pour over the elven and dwarven books in the Great Library on Raven’s Dust in an effort to rediscover the knowledge that disappeared with those two races.

Evidence found in the Great Library does confirm that the Elves flourished for several millenniums perfecting their arts, literature, architecture, and of course their weapons and warfare. The elves are best noted for their prowess with the bow but they were also adept at many other means of conducting warfare.

The elven race was a long-lived race. Their average lifespan was three times that of the dwarves and six times that of the humans.

When the civilizations of the dwarves and humans were still in their infancies, the elven race had advanced their society to domination by any standard one could reasonably apply.

The dwarven race was a race of short but stout men and women. The males had long beards in which they took great pride. Such was the pride of the dwarves in their beards that it was death to insult the beard of a dwarf. It is believed by many that the dwarven women also possessed the full magnificent beards of the race. The evidence would seem to indicate that this is untrue, as the scholars of the Great Library have known for a many years.

Ancient books exist with the drawings of dwarven families and only the males depicted in those drawings had the long and flowing beards for which their race is most noted. Of course, I should report that several of the books found within the Great Library indicate that the dwarven society was a male dominated society and the females could well have had the same full and flowing beards. It is a matter of some heated contention among the scholars of the library. Some maintain that being female their beards were most likely much more beautiful than those of the males and as such in the male dominated society they were forced to cut them down to the short stubble represented in those drawings. Still others maintain that the dwarven female’s beards were left intact, and that the artist was told to represent the male beards with detail, but to depict the women as near beardless.

My personal opinion on the matter is irrelevant, but since many will no doubt ask me, I will reveal it to you. Since all scholars agree that it was death to insult the beard of a dwarf, I consider it unlikely that the males could have done so by having the female’s beards depicted as insignificant stubble or forced the females to cut them. After all, the males have to sleep sometime, and the females could exact a wicked revenge at that time of vulnerability.

The dwarven race is best noted for their achievements in building cities and in crafting superb weapons with special rare metals that they located during their exploration of the subterranean areas that they had a passion for exploring.

The humans were present through the time of the domination of the elves and later through the time of the dwarves, but having the shortest lifespan of the three races; it took them longer as a race to advance their society. In addition, there was little need for them to advance their own society, because they had the trade with the elves and later the dwarves to sustain their limited needs. It was only after the elven and dwarven races disappeared that our ancestors, the humans, had a genuine need to begin to advance their own societies. Prior to that, it was much easier to simply trade with the other societies who were always generous in their dealings with what they considered a disadvantaged race.

The humans of Althea are telepathic, and can send their thoughts to one another across great distances. These thoughts can be sent to the individual of their choice. They can also be sent to all humans who are receptive to such mental communications from strangers. Many do not enjoy the mental clutter that accompanies such a receptive state of mind. These individuals can and do close their minds to the messages of any save those people they know. But exercising this option does not come without risk for there are times when a general warning is given that can save the lives of the people of Althea. This is just one example of such a warning:

“The goblins are massing for a raid on Lighthaven! They overpowered the guards and are pouring over the bridge! Prepare to defend the city!”

As you can imagine, not knowing that the city is about to be attacked can cost the citizens of Lighthaven their lives. For this reason, most of the people of Althea remain receptive to the general mental messages. They have learned to filter out the trivial, but are instantly alerted to certain keywords used during the mental contact. They can and do become irritated if a person abuses the common mental network. Fights over this are common and at times, they are vicious.

It is known that the elves also possessed this mental skill. References to royal pronouncements being distributed to the Elven Kingdom in a matter of moments abound in the ancient tomes written by elven scribes.

The dwarves also possessed the talent. There are references that allude to the capability in the scant dwarven writings that are available. In the case of the dwarves, they apparently utilized the talent extensively in coordinating their building projects.

Some monster species also seem to have the ability to communicate mentally with members of their own species. It is the consensus of my colleges that the talent in monsters is crude by comparison to the skill level of humanity.

 

The Monsters of Althea

 

Althea is populated by many species of monsters that are both prolific and dangerous to humanity. The monsters universally hate mankind, and will attack people on sight with no provocation needed.

There was a time when the monsters were not so prolific. Indeed, there was a time when there weren’t even as many species of monsters as those that exist today. Ancient texts found within the Great Library, indicate that several species of monsters prevalent today, did not even exist during the reign of the elves or the dwarves. Those texts also refer to a time when the lowly goblins of Arakas were both few in number and reclusive. The texts insist that during the time of the elves and dwarves, the goblins would flee from contact with man, even if they outnumbered the man twenty to one. Of course, that is hard for us to believe today. Who among us hasn’t seen the aggressive goblins attempting to raid Lighthaven?

The different species of monsters located on the isles of Althea are numerous. There are several tomes residing in the Great Library that provide detailed information concerning the names, strengths, and weaknesses of the various species. Therefore, it would be redundant to go into detail on those matters here. There are two main divisions between the monsters. There are the living monsters and the undead.

The gods of Althea reward humanity for battling the monster species by making the men and women stronger in their chosen classes. The mage grows stronger in magic by battling monsters, just as the warriors and archers grow stronger in armed combat. Even the priests of Althea must do their part by combating the common foe. The monster species respect no alignment. They would as quickly attack an evil alignment as they would a good or neutral.

Perhaps the most irritating of all the monster species are the skraugs that infest Stoneheim. Their tendency to insult humans as they attack can be most infuriating. These monsters are variants of rats that sprang up overnight, sometime after the third coming of the Harbinger.


The magic of Althea

 

Magic abounds on Althea. It is known that the elves were great in their magic, and the dwarves had lesser magical abilities. Humanity is also talented when it comes to the use of magic. Humans fall between the elves and the dwarves in their use of magic in most respects. However, when it comes to battle magic, the humans are second to none of the three races that have been dominant on Althea.

Unfortunately, while humans seem to have a great capability at battle magic, many of the other applications of magic died with the elves, whose magic was said to rival that of the gods in some respects. For example, the gods can summon items and food by focusing their thoughts on what they desire and utilizing their magical energy to produce the items. This magical skill was routinely documented in the elven tomes, though to be sure, not all elven magic users possessed the skill level required for that high magic. There is no documentation of any human possessing the skill level necessary to summon items.

Teleportation from one geographical location to another was accomplished with ease by the elves, but such spell casting leaves humans drained of magical energy and thus helpless until they recover. Furthermore, they are physically frozen in place for some few moments. For this reason, human teleportation spells always take the caster to their sanctuary, which is the temple in the cities where they have arranged with the priests to place their safe haven. That teleportation spell is named Word of Recall.

Gateway spells similarly leave the human drained of magical energy and vulnerable to attack. But those spells can take the caster to a variety of locations on the three primary isles of Althea that are utilized by the followers of good and evil. This vulnerability caused the mages to create scrolls to accomplish the same goal. Utilizing a scroll does not cause the negative side affects of vulnerability and the total loss of magical energy. These scrolls can be purchased, but are expensive. Warriors and archers are forced to purchase the scrolls because they lack the magical aptitude to learn the spells.

Some monster species are talented in magic and have potent battle magic.

In the human language, the word for magical energy is mana. The amount of mana available to the spell caster is dependent upon several factors, the main factor being the intelligence level of the spell caster. A higher intelligence level equates to a larger mana pool available for utilization by the mage.

When their mana is depleted, the spell caster cannot utilize magic. They must first replace a portion of their pool of mana sufficient for the spell to work. There are many ways to accomplish this. Potions are sold in the cities, and manastones can be found, though they are rare. The druids teach spell casters to meditate, but to meditate, the spell caster has to remain perfectly still and do nothing. Therefore, to negate that vulnerability, spell casters augment their mana supply with potions and manastones. Mana prisms also greatly aid in replacing lost mana. But such prisms are extremely rare and difficult to locate. Powerful monsters that are attracted to the location by their presence generally abound near them. But if a mage can obtain mana prisms, they are a very good source of mana. These prisms are highly prized by mages who encourage warrior friends to save any they might find for them.

Many items are imbued with magic. Quivers are self replenishing. As long as the archer can retain his or her quiver, they will never run out of arrows. Melee weapons, such as swords, axes, war hammers, and daggers can be imbued with magical properties that permit them to inflict more damage when they are used in battle. Such weapons are sold on Althea, but they are expensive. There are also magical rings, bracelets, and necklaces that are imbued with many magical properties. Even the poorest of souls usually owns a ring of light, which permits them to see in the dark as if the sun is shinning.

Armors and mage robes are often imbued with special magical properties to make them resistant to elements. Some even boost the attributes of the wearer to increase their efficiency in battle.

Magical potions can heal you, replace spent mana, increase various attributes, and even make you stronger. Scrolls, imbued with magic, can teleport people. Others can cast spells that shield the user in battle, make them stronger, resist elements, and a host of other uses.

Magical shield spells can increase your resistance to physical and elemental attacks.

Then there are the magical chests of Althea. The gods admire an adventurous spirit in their followers. In order to encourage that spirit, the gods long ago set magical chests throughout Althea. These chests replenish themselves once they are opened. The time required for replenishment varies from about an hour to several hours. One never knows what these chests might yield. One time a chest might yield an item worthy of a king, and the next that same chest might yield an item that even the poorest of souls would disdain. Many adventurers can and have spent their lives in pursuit of the treasures yielded by these chests.

Every human on Althea is directly touched by magic in one way or another on a daily basis.


Chapter 1

 

In the elven city of Anwynn, it was a time of great joy and celebration. The harvests were in for another year, and the king had just brought the last independent elven village into the Elven Kingdom through a series of negotiations. Now the elven people had one ruler and that was the king.

The king of the elves had sent out word to the dwarven and human races to send representatives of their villages to speak with the king on issues concerning the relationship between the elven race and the lesser races of Althea. The good Elven King was distressed to see that the lesser races still suffered many afflictions that the elven race had long ago conquered in their ascension to domination on Althea. To celebrate the unification of the elven race under one standard, the king had decided to share some of their knowledge with the other races.

To facilitate this goal of assisting the lesser races, the Elven King adopted a plan to have dwarves and humans apprenticed to some of the elves who would teach them such things as healing skills, farming skills, architectural design, metal working and the use of some magic, though the attack magics of their best mages would not be revealed.

Likewise, the best of their battle techniques and strategies would not be taught to the other races. Such war making skills they reserved for their own race for a time might come when the relations between the races were not as good as they were at that time.

Anwynn was crowded with dwarves and humans who’d been sent to the elven city to represent their various villages. Earlier that morning, the lesser races had met with the king and agreed to his plan to help their races. Now they were seeking out the elves that they had been instructed to contact to set up apprenticeships. The dwarves and humans had been informed that they should send only young adults because some of the apprenticeships would require years of study.

Only one elf in the entire city was unhappy on that momentous day. He was an elf who studied the sky by night. He had noted that the moons and the Centaur constellation were aligned. He had a premonition that this held a dreadful significance, as it was an extremely rare conjunction. All of his studies indicated that this conjunction occurred only once per millennium. Surely, such a rare conjunction must be accompanied by significant occurrences. Yet none of his studies confirmed any recorded significant events during those past conjunctions. Still, a millennium was a long time even by elven standards and he realized that it was quite possible that the knowledge had vanished during the interim. 

A stranger arrived on the outskirts of the city as night descended. He walked across one of the bridges and immediately sought out the king. His appearance was nightmarish and foul. A foul odor accompanied him. The guards led him to the central gathering place near a great fountain where the king was still attending a feast. The crowd grew subdued when the guards escorted the newcomer amongst them. The king turned to address the newcomer, but it was the stranger who spoke first. He greeted the elven people and told them that he was the Harbinger and that he was there to warn them that they were now the chosen people. He told them that they now had a responsibility to the gods, and further stated that their duty was to maintain the balance between good and evil.

The king replied that the elven nation had risen to prominence through their hard work and diligence, and that the gods had not made them the great people that they were. He pointed out that the elves preferred to remain detached from the dealings of the gods and not become involved, for the elves didn’t need the gods.

Some few of the older elves blanched at portions of the king’s statement to the Harbinger. The Harbinger simply reiterated his warning and stated that if they failed to heed his words then they would be punished when he returned.

Some few of those wise elves met and conferred that night long after the Harbinger had departed.


Chapter 2

 

King Oberon studied yet another list in the many that had been presented to him by his aides who were overseeing the planning of the great festival, which would celebrate the one thousand years that the Elven Kingdom had been unified. The human and dwarven lists of people who wanted to attend were both too long. Also, there were several names present of individuals who would be attempting to present requests to reinstate the apprentice program that he had suspended two hundred years before. The lesser races were already losing the knowledge that the elves had given them with the apprenticeships.

Sighing, King Oberon drew lines through the names of several dwarves and humans on their respective lists. He would not have the festival marred by the incessant nagging of the lesser races. He had cancelled the apprentice program because he had felt it not in the best interests of his people. He had no plans to reinstate it despite the pleas of the lesser races.

Then an aide handed him another parchment to review. This time he pondered the parchment very carefully. It was a report that Artherk, the god of good and light, had fallen in love with an elven maiden. He considered that matter gravely and decided that it was not of great importance to the elven nation.

An hour later, he was interrupted when one of his advisors told him that he had a visitor who wished to see him. He claimed that he had a message for the king’s ears only and that it might well mean disaster for the elven race if the king was not made aware of the contents of that message. The king almost dismissed that out of hand, but at the last moment decided to take a break from reading reports and see what this man had to say.

The king ordered the room cleared of all save the guards and had the elf visitor admitted into his presence. The elf looked pointedly at the guards but the King said, “They will stay. No one is admitted to my presence without my personal guard here.”

Nodding his understanding the visitor replied, “Then I suggest you permit me to mind speak you, for what I have to tell you will cause you to wish to maintain secrecy.”

Oberon agreed to this and the man explained himself. He was Gluriurl. He had come to warn Oberon that the Harbinger would be returning soon. Indeed, that return would occur on the night of the Great Festival that the elves were planning. He further stated that Artherk’s love for the elven maiden would be perceived as unbalanced in the favor of good. He pointed out that the elves were the favored people of Artherk who had gone so far as to create the Elvenweave, a great tapestry that depicted the elves and celebrated their greatness.

Gluriurl, in elven form, then stated with assurance that this relationship was dooming the elves. Without warning, he then gave Oberon the gift of sight and let him see the return of the Harbinger and the annihilation of the elven race.

Aghast at what he had seen, Oberon ordered the guards from the room so that he could speak candidly with Gluriurl who had come to befriend the elves. “Is there a way to avoid what I’ve seen?” he asked in the hopes that the god would assist his people.

“Yes, there is a way. If there were no way to avoid this, I would not have approached you. You must help to set a trap for Artherk. If you kill his physical form here, you will banish him to the celestial realm.”

You suggest I kill a god?!” Oberon exclaimed.

“Only the physical form he uses here will be destroyed, he will still exist in the celestial realm. And the death of the physical body will be perceived by the Harbinger as a restoration of the balance.”

“But even the physical body of the god Artherk is much stronger than mere mortals. I doubt that I could kill him, even if I were willing.”

Nodding his head Gluriurl said, “You are wise, even for an elf who are the wisest of the races. What you say is true. But you will have the help of a god. Ogrimar has agreed to bestow a weapon upon you that will slay the god Artherk’s physical form. If you agree to help restore the balance, I will help you by enhancing your skills and powers, if you but open yourself to my mind at the moment of the attack.”

Oberon considered all of this very deliberately. “Such an important issue should not be decided in haste. There is still plenty of time to decide. The festival is a moon away. Please return in one week. You will have my decision then.”

Outwardly, Gluriurl seemed pleased by this response. He said, “As you wish, Oberon, but you should know that if you delay beyond that week to make the decision, it will be moot. It will require time for Ogrimar to produce the gifts that he will bestow upon you.”

“You shall have the answer in one week,” replied Oberon.

 

***

 

Oberon gave the matter serious consideration. The gift of sight that Gluriurl had bestowed upon the monarch returned many times to haunt his dreams and his days of work. Many times, he saw the Harbinger enter the city and begin to slay the elven race. Several times, he saw the city and all of the elven cities destroyed by the Harbinger.

On the fateful day that Gluriurl was to return, King Oberon had the audience room cleared and told his advisors to admit the strange visitor as soon as he returned. A far different Oberon greeted Gluriurl, the god of corruption, when he returned. Oberon was exhausted from lack of peaceful sleep and the nightmarish images that the gift of sight had been visiting upon him. This weakened king asked Gluriurl, “What do I need to do to accept your proposal?”

Smiling pleasantly Gluriurl replied, “Accept the pact. Take the gifts Ogrimar will offer. That’s the first step. The next step is to help me capture the essence of Artherk on Althea where he is vulnerable. Then and only then I will be able to banish him to the Celestial realm forever. You must open your mind to me shortly before the attack so that I can aide you. Without my aide, you cannot possibly defeat Artherk’s physical form even with the gifts that Ogrimar will bestow upon you.”

Rubbing his sleep deprived eyes, Oberon said, “It shall be as you say then, for I cannot bear to see the visions come to reality.”

Smiling pleasantly at Oberon, the god of corruption replied, “Having made these decisions, I doubt that you will see the visions of the annihilation of the elven nation again. You have altered the future already.” Gluriurl removed the gift of sight with which he had burdened Oberon, and Oberon took their banishment as a sign that the annihilation of his people had been averted.

“Now, good King Oberon, you must prepare yourself mentally to embrace the limitless power that will come to you once you have slain Artherk’s physical form for what power that form has will be transferred to you.”

Oberon’s eyes widened at the thought of this power being transferred to him and the faintest of smiles touched his lips. Being rewarded for what he must do hadn’t occurred to him. This made the events to come much more interesting to him.

Gluriurl, god of corruption had lived up to his title. He had corrupted the Elven King.

With a solemn expression on his face, Gluriurl said, “I have informed Ogrimar of your willingness to participate in the plan. He will see you with the gifts the day before the festival. Arrange a free hour both before and after high sun. He will see you here in these chambers within that period. Be alone.”

Nodding his head Oberon said, “It shall be even as you say.” There was no way that he would ever permit his men to see him plotting a murder with the god of evil and chaos. It would stain his honor.

Gluriurl, seeing what was in the heart of Oberon, sealed the fate of the Elven King when he said, “Think not of this as murder. Think instead that you are sending Artherk back to his realm and saving your people from certain annihilation at the hands of the Harbinger. What honor is there in failing a people, and in that failure, ensuring their extinction? No, good King Oberon, your actions are not dishonorable. On the contrary they are noble and quite honorable.”

Oberon’s smile was warm and genial as he replied, “Why thank you, my friend. That does put things into a better light. I’m glad that we had this conversation.”

“So am I, Oberon. So am I,” replied Gluriurl.

Leaving the king, Gluriurl returned to a secret place on Althea where he dwelled. Assuming his preferred form while on Althea, he took on the foul appearance of a giant red demon with massive wings. Calling on Ogrimar he said, “Oberon is ours. Still I will make certain that he stays ours. I will follow the plan that we contrived together. You make certain you do your part in all this.”

“With great pleasure,” replied Ogrimar, who found the prospect of Artherk’s favored race being the instrument of his destruction exceedingly pleasing.


Chapter 3

 

The day before the festival, King Oberon was very busy. A myriad of details screamed for his attention. He spent most of the morning pouring over those details and making last minute decisions. He was so pressed by the issues at hand that he almost forgot about his appointment to await Ogrimar, but an aide reminded him of the two hours he had scheduled for solitude and tranquility.

As the appointed hour approached, the aides began the process of clearing the hall, and then they left the king to his solitude. As he awaited Ogrimar, King Oberon contemplated what was going to happen at the festival. At precisely three minutes past the appointed hour his vigil was to begin, Ogrimar appeared before him in the form of an aged but healthy elf.

“Greetings to thee, Oberon, king of the elven people,” said Ogrimar, greeting the king formally.

“Greetings to thee, Ogrimar, god of evil and chaos,” the King responded just as formally.

“You are still committed to this course of action?” Ogrimar asked.

“I am,” replied the king. “I wish that it was not needed, but I have a duty to my people.”

“Indeed it is necessary. The elven people are fortunate in that you are their king. A lesser king might not rise to the occasion at this moment of dire need for direct action.”

Smiling faintly, Oberon said, “Gluriurl said that you had gifts that would aide me in the coming confrontation.”

“Indeed I do, Oberon. Hand me your crown if you please.”

“My crown?” asked Oberon in some confusion.

“Yes, I have a gem that I will embed in the crown. That gem will enable you to call upon certain powers when you are battling Artherk,” Ogrimar replied.

Removing his crown, Oberon then handed it to Ogrimar who took a blue gem from his pocket and touched it to the center of the golden crown. Handing the crown back to the monarch, Ogrimar said, “There, that is finished. The gem will work automatically when you are attacked. There is nothing that you need to learn to utilize its power.”

Next, Ogrimar held forth both hands palm up and summoned a staff. When Oberon’s eyes fell on the staff, he drew in his breath in surprise at the beauty of the weapon. “This staff is one of a kind. It has a name but you should not reveal the name to others. The staff is named God Slayer. It is thus named because it is the only staff ever crafted that has the potential to slay a god in the physical form. Naturally your people might not appreciate such a staff being carried by their king.”

“The people do not need to know the name of the staff. There is wisdom in your words.” Oberon stated, his eyes riveted on the beautiful staff.

Ogrimar smiled and handed the King the staff. Once more he held his hands before him palm up and summoned a robe. It was a beautiful robe of blue with padded shoulders and gilded with golden trim and golden belt.

“The robe, staff, and gem all work together to make the man equipped with them the most formidable of spell casters. Your spells will devastate Artherk,” Ogrimar stated as he handed the robe to Oberon. Then he cautioned, “Let no other wear or handle these items, lest they discover their true value and covet them for themselves.”

Oberon’s eyes narrowed at the thought of someone taking these things from him and he replied, “They will not leave my sight, Ogrimar. I thank you for the gifts.”

“You are most welcome, Oberon. Now I bid you good day. Perhaps I will see you after the festival tomorrow night to congratulate you on averting the Harbinger’s wraith upon your people.”

 

***

 

A few days earlier in a remote elven village, the people found an odd mist obscuring the countryside around them. The men of the village gathered to speculate as to what this portended. Soon they were joined by the women and children of the village, who being curious, went to see what had caused the men to gather.

From out of the mist strode a dark robed and hooded figure. A foul odor hung upon the morning air as he approached. Stopping before the villagers, he said, “I am the Harbinger and I have come to judge your race. If you have maintained the balance between good and evil, all is well. If you have not maintained that balance, then I will punish you.”

A moment later, the stranger disappeared leaving many unanswered questions hanging in the morning air. The village chief then sent messengers to other villages asking the chiefs to come to the village to discuss the stranger and his warning.

After much discussion, they decided that a group of the chiefs and several villagers who had seen the Harbinger would go to Anwynn to speak to King Oberon and report what had transpired. They set out for the city on the day of the festival but were stopped just outside the city by the guards who had orders to admit no one after a set hour.

 

***

 

The day of the festival, King Oberon was so busy that he had little time to feel any anxiety at what was to come. He was seeing to the details of the festival when an aide told him that his strange elven visitor, who had twice before sought private audience with the king, had returned to the castle and waited to speak with him. Since the king had left orders to always admit the elf and treat him with the utmost respect, the elf had been admitted.

King Oberon immediately went to speak to Gluriurl. The moment that he walked into the chamber, he dismissed his guards and greeted the god of corruption. Gluriurl said, “I see that Ogrimar has indeed given you the gifts.”

Smiling Oberon replied, “Yes he arrived yesterday just as you said he would.”

“Would you mind setting that staff down beside your thrown?” Gluriurl requested. “It makes me nervous. You understand, I’m sure.” he added with a wry grin.

Thinking of the implications of holding the staff in the god’s presence, Oberon blanched slightly and set it down beside the thrown as requested. “I’m sorry, my friend. I assure you, I meant you no harm.”

“The God Slayer is a very dangerous item. your majesty.” Gluriurl stated smoothly thus building Oberon’s confidence that he would be able to fulfill his mission.

Nodding his head in understanding Oberon replied, “I am ready to do as you have bid me. Tonight, I will use these items to avert the Harbinger’s wraith upon my people.”

“That is why I am here today. If the items are to succeed in this endeavor, Artherk must be very close to you. Therefore, you will need to contrive a reason for his close proximity at the desired time. I have pondered the matter diligently. Only one event will cause this to happen. You must begin a ritual that requires Artherk to be very close to you. This can be accomplished by declaring that, on behalf of the elven people, you have decided that the elves will officially become the followers of Artherk. He will have to step near you then to accept this noble gesture of the Elven Nation. As he steps near you to accept your people, you must clear your mind and open it to me if I am to augment your powers and abilities. If you do these things, and have Ogrimar’s gifts equipped, you cannot fail.”

Looking at Oberon with keen interest, Gluriurl in elven form then asked, “Do you understand all of this?”

Oberon was pleased. He had been pondering the problem of getting Artherk close enough that he could attack him and not endanger his own people. This plan would be perfect, and would also work to cause Artherk to drop his guard. Smiling he said, “I do understand. It is an excellent plan. It solves several problems. I shall do as you have advised.”

“Good. Then you cannot fail. If he is reluctant to come near of his own accord then ask him privately to come stand beside you as you make an official announcement to your people, and then tell him what the announcement entails. He will come then. Any god would for such a momentous occasion. At that point, command your people to kneel in honor of Artherk. This will put them lower to the ground and out of harms way if a stray spell flashes out from the fight that will soon ensue.”

Brilliant!” Oberon exclaimed. “You have thought of everything that concerned me for in truth it had occurred to me that some elves might be harmed in the battle and that is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable? Oberon you forget what is at stake here. If you fail, the entire Elven Nation is doomed to extinction at the hands of the Harbinger.”

With no outward sign that anything was amiss, Gluriurl exerted his will and Oberon saw the Harbinger attacking the elven people slaying them in the hundreds and then thousands. A moment later, Gluriurl banished the vision and Oberon staggered. Reaching out a hand, Gluriurl feigned concern. “Oberon, are you alright?” he asked solicitously.

Rubbing his forehead, Oberon replied, “Yes, I just saw the vision of the Harbinger attacking my people again.”

“Then you must steel your resolve. You are the Elven King. It is your duty to protect the people. If you are weak and fail them…” Gluriurl left the rest unsaid. He didn’t need to finish the statement. Oberon had seen all that he needed to see to remind him of the consequences of failure.

Before he left, Gluriurl laid a false image on the mind of Oberon. If Artherk decided to check Oberon’s mind he would see a king who was a devote follower and wished to honor him. If he probed deeper, he would discover the truth. But by then it would be too late. He informed Oberon of this settling the last concern in the mind of the Elven King. Oberon was now ready to be Gluriurl’s avatar.

Gluriurl wasn’t concerned about Artherk identifying the staff as a god slaying weapon. No such weapon existed. If it did, then the gods would never hand it to a mortal. That was just a lie told to Oberon to give him the courage to follow through with the plan. It was however, a powerful focus of magical power as were the gem embedded in the crown and the robe. Those three items combined would give a mage incredible power and turn him into a formidable opponent.


 

Chapter 4

 

Oberon had a last minute meeting with the commander of the city guards. He told the commander that Artherk would be honored during a ceremony that night, and further stated that once that ritual ceremony had begun, no one was to be admitted into the city for he did not want the ritual disrupted by new arrivals who would not be participating. The commander assured the king that the order would be carried out and requested clarification if that order was to be enforced, no matter who the visitor happened to be.

The king was adamant that there were to be no exceptions. He planned to be in total control of the situation at the critical moment just prior to his attack. The last thing that he wanted was the unexpected arrival of people who might not be fully under the sway of the emotions of the moment for he fully intended to mesmerize the people present with the ritual just before the moment of the attack. In that way the danger of outside interference was minimized. The king was leaving nothing to chance.

 

***

 

 That afternoon, the festival began right on schedule. The king opened the festivities with the traditional blessing upon the people present. As he completed that ritual blessing he spotted Artherk in his elven form standing beside the elven maiden that he had come to love. She was a beautiful elf from an old elven family whose ties to the monarchs went back one thousand years to the very first Elven King. As such, she would be seated at a table near the king’s own and Artherk would be beside her.

As for Artherk, he had chosen an elven mage form and even in that physical form, he would be an incredibly strong adversary. He had brought with him a tapestry that he had created to celebrate the Elven people, whom he favored of all the races. That tapestry he called the Elvenweave. The tapestry depicted the beautiful elven city of Anwynn.

For hours, the people feasted and socialized. There were booths set up where great works of elven art were displayed. Venders displayed fine elven armors and the latest in elven weaponry, including the famed elven bows. Elven poets and bards circulated among the people entertaining the small crowds that gathered to hear them ply their craft.

Several of the dwarves entertained a crowd as they threw their battle axes at various targets.

The humans present took it all in with wide-eyed wonder and paid well for the weapons and bows that took their fancy. They also had an almost insatiable desire for the minor magical items and scrolls that the elven mages crafted and sold as a means to finance their magical experimentation. This was a habit that they held in common with the dwarves and bidding wars often erupted between the humans and the dwarves.

King Oberon took a final sip of the excellent elven wine that was being served, and then stood to make an announcement. At a nod from the king, trumpeters blew the notes that called the attention of the crowd to the king’s table. As the idle chatter stopped, the noise of the crowd diminished, and every eye present turned toward the king.

Facing the crowd, the king announced, “People of the Elven Kingdom, I have an announcement to make. One that will surprise some of you.”

 Pausing for a moment, the king bespoke Artherk’s mind and asked him to join him at the table for he was about to announce that the Elven people would follow Artherk. Artherk arose from his chair and bent to kiss the cheek of the elven maiden. He whispered an explanation in her ear and then made his way to the king’s table.

When Artherk had joined him, he went on, “As you all know, the elven race has traditionally stayed away from following the gods. Yet I have decided to change this. Having reached this decision, I have pondered the matter seriously and decided that we should follow Artherk as a race for his philosophy most closely matches our own.”

The stunned crowd remained silent and the king went on, “As king, I cannot command this of you, but I do ask you to consider it. Now let every elf present knell and declare your fealty to Artherk. If you’d rather not make that commitment at this time, then at least knell to show your respect to the god of good and light.”

The Elven people knelt then as commanded by their king. Many did give their oath of fealty as he requested. Many more did not do so at that time. Those preferred to wait and ponder the matter before committing themselves.

Turning to Artherk, he saw the warmth and gratitude in the eyes of the god. For a moment, he wavered and then Gluriurl’s voice spoke inside his mind saying, “Do not falter now. The moment is at hand. Clear your mind and prepare to accept the power I will give you.”

This message sealed the fate of the king, for it served to steel his resolve. The king cleared his mind and a moment later the mind of Gluriurl burst through his few barriers and possessed Oberon. Smiling malevolently at Artherk, he raised the staff and struck with the full might of his magical power.

Artherk reeled under the magical assault of the traitorous king. So vast was the power of the spells being hurled at him that hundreds of elves nearby were instantly slain where they knelt. Gasps of astonishment went up from all over the crowded area as the spells lanced into Artherk’s elven form and continued to wash over the elves in attendance.

Soon thousands were dead and only then did Artherk begin to fight back. He had withheld his own spells at first, for fear of harming the innocent elves in attendance. But so vast was the assault upon him that it had washed over the table of his beloved elven maiden, and she had died horribly burned. Artherk had seen her die and in that moment, he retaliated with his own devastating attack spells.

The gods fought on, inflicting damage upon one another. Yet Artherk confined his attacks to Oberon only. He refused to use his most powerful spells, because they would also kill hundreds of innocents.

 

***

 

On the outskirts of the city, the guards who had stopped the group of village chiefs heard the sounds of the battle. They heard the screams of the elves as thousands were being slain. Turning back to the city, the guards raced away to join in the fighting to defend the citizens from what they felt must surly be a mass attack from some unknown enemy.

Shortly after those guards left, the village chiefs saw a dragon fly past them and head into the city roaring a challenge. It was Crimson Scales.

Thinking to enter the city themselves, the villagers were shocked when the dark shape of the Harbinger stepped past them and turned to address them. “The Elves have failed in their appointed task. They were to maintain the balance between good and evil. Yet your king has conspired with evil and corruption to slay Artherk. I go now to punish the elves. Yet you were wise and did not participate nor did your villagers who are not present. You I will spare. You will be placed inside the Elvenweave to preserve your wisdom. Perhaps one day you will again walk the lands of Althea.”

The moment he completed his statement the elves there disappeared, as did the villagers who had remained in all of the villages represented by the leaders. They were placed inside the Elvenweave just as the Harbinger had said.

 

***

 

Artherk was losing the battle with Gluriurl. He had waited too long to begin to fight back against Oberon, for fear of killing innocents. When he had begun to fight back, he refused to utilize his most powerful spells lest he slay most of the elves who remained. Finally, he fell and Oberon drew in energy for the final blow that would slay Artherk, thus releasing his essence, which Gluriurl intended to trap.

It was at that precise moment that Lothar the Just, god of justice in the form of the great dragon Crimson Scales attacked Gluriurl. Landing beside the king, he attacked the possessed monarch in a withering attack. The fight with Artherk had weakened Gluriurl and he was defeated by Lothar. The god of justice sacrificed himself by imprisoning the essence of Gluriurl inside his own heart, thus releasing Oberon from its hold in the process. Artherk, weakened by the conflict, perished. But his darkstone, which contained his heart, was never found and his essence returned to the celestial realm.

The Harbinger arrived on the scene a moment after the death of Artherk. Oberon, now free of the possession of Gluriurl, stared in horror at the carnage he had wrought. The bodies of thousands of elves gave mute testimony to his treachery.

The Harbinger pointed his finger at the Elven King and said, “You have sought to destroy the balance between good and evil. You have betrayed your people and their trust in you. I rename you Makrsh P'Tangh and curse you with unlife.” In that moment, the monarch was transformed into an animated skeleton eternally dressed in the traitorous robe, gem encrusted crown, and carrying the staff, which had been given him by Ogrimar. The army of Oberon was taken by death then, as were all the remaining elves in Anwynn, save a few of their wisest whom the Harbinger imprisoned in the Elvenweave.

Then the Harbinger poured his wraith upon the other elven cities. As the curse fell upon their race, the elves stood defenseless. Despite their arcane lore and magical skills, they could not resist the godly powers that crushed them and when the Harbinger left their lands, not a single building remained standing.

Once he had completed his punishment of the elven race, the Harbinger turned his attention to the dwarves. He went among them and told them that the dwarves were now the chosen race. He also informed them of their new responsibilities and duties towards the gods, and the consequences of his next visit, should they fail in the task before them.

The dwarves had plenty of reason to believe the Harbinger. Many dwarves had seen what had happened in Anwynn and had lived to tell that tale. Those were the lucky ones for even though many survived many more had not. The dwarves wisely decided that they would heed the warning and work to maintain the balance between good and evil.


 

Chapter 5

 

After the second coming of the Harbinger, the dwarven race built great cities and flourished as a society of artisans. But the main love of the dwarven race was the mountains and the subterranean tunnels which they found and often expanded.

So great was the love of the dwarven race for such subterranean places that everywhere they settled they created miles of tunnels with chambers intricately designed in some cases as a maze. This was necessary as they sought precious ores for their famed metal working projects. When a vein of ore was located they followed it until the ore played out which explains many of the dead end tunnels one sees in many caves.

The capital city of the dwarves was built on Arakas, as had been the case with the elves. Unlike Anwynn, the name of the capital city of the dwarves is unknown. The scholars of the great library find no reference to the name or even the location of the city beyond references that refer to visitors going to visit the Dwarven King on Arakas. However, it is thought by some scholars that the dwarven capital city is the lost city found on Arakas when one travels through the labyrinth. There may be some merit in that theory as the dwarves did love the subterranean world and mountains. That city is surrounded by mountains and can only be approached after having found your way through the labyrinth.

It is also believed that the thieves’ hideout on Arakas was once a dwarven village and that the old Hermit’s house was the home of a dwarven recluse.

It is thought that the dwarves kept the knowledge of the elven magic as best they could but it was in metalworking and tunneling that they eventually surpassed the elves. Their knowledge of the underworld of Althea stands unsurpassed to this day.

The dwarves flourished and worshiped their god. Which god they worshiped is unknown. This can be explained by the lack of dwarven literary effort. The elves held a great love for writing and their scribes wrote many volumes of books, which were eventually added to the Great Library on Raven’s Dust as they were discovered. Still, it is thought that only about one percent of elven literature has been preserved in that effort. The rest was lost in the destruction of elven society by the Harbinger. By comparison, the dwarven society wrote next to nothing and pitifully few examples of dwarven literature exist in the Great Library. If not for their penchant for drawing sketches, even fewer dwarven books would exist. The majority of dwarven books remaining in existence in the great library are primarily filled with sketches with very little accompanying text.

The humans found the dwarves to be not nearly as gregarious and extroverted as the elves. Though still friendly toward the humans, the dwarves felt little need to interact with humanity beyond trade. They did buy and sell with humanity but most humans found their penchant for the subterranean lifestyle disquieting. In addition, the dwarves were a more introverted race when compared to the elves.

Curiously, the dwarves felt uncomfortable in forming friendships with the human race because they had a much longer lifespan. It is believed by some scholars that the dwarven race felt it unwise to form friendships with the race of mankind because it pained them to see their human friends age before their eyes while they remained comparatively unchanged.

Of course, this conclusion must lead us to ask ourselves if this didn’t also disturb the elves. Yet Scholars seem to think that the elves had a different viewpoint on the aging process. A viewpoint that was somewhat darker and more arrogant. It is thought by some scholars that the elves as a whole considered themselves to be the superior race and therefore found it entirely appropriate that they had the longest lifespan. That they were selected to be the chosen race by the Harbinger just served to confirm that in their minds.

 

***

 

A millennia after the judgment of the elven race by the Harbinger, the skies repeated their fateful alignment of moons and stars. The Harbinger returned to Althea to judge the dwarven race.

The Harbinger found that the dwarves were doing well and had been maintaining the balance between good and evil. He was much impressed with the dwarven race and set out to visit their seat of power to address their king.

At this point, it is necessary to introduce a document that is a matter of some contention among scholars. Some claim it to be a fake and swear that the matters related in this document are purely fictitious in nature. Others swear that it matches so much of known history that it should be given credence and some degree of validity.

The document appears to be a letter written by a human visitor to the dwarven capital. It seems that the poor man was tormented by the horrors of what he had reportedly seen and sought to put them down in a letter in the hopes that doing so would cause them to plague him to a lesser degree. That was a common belief held during that time period. Indeed, there are many people who still believe this sort of outpouring of the emotions by transcribing them to parchment can have healing effects on a person afflicted with terrible memories.

At any rate, here is the man’s letter.

 

Greetings,

 

My name is John the scribe. I traveled this past year to the city of dwarves in the hopes of selling my services in the Dwarven Kingdom, for they pay much more than my own kind and they seem averse to scribe work. Woe unto me that my greed took me there for I, and I alone of mankind, was present when the great calamity struck the dwarven race which exists no more.

I had been in the city some few days when the terrible night came that a stranger did enter that city. I assume that he walked through the labyrinth just as I had come to that city, for he came toward the city from the east as do most new arrivals that exit the labyrinth.

When the dwarves saw him approaching, there was a great outcry and many did draw their swords and axes and rush to do battle with the dark robbed and hooded figure. His visage was terrible to behold and there was an odor most foul upon the breeze as it reached my nostrils after first having washed over the stranger’s body.

The stranger stood there before the armed host of dwarves and said, “I am the Harbinger. I am here to judge the dwarves, for you are the chosen race. Have you maintained the balance between good and evil?”

The dwarves began to murmur amongst themselves that this was Gluriurl resurrected and come to trick the dwarves just as he had tricked the elves. Boldly the dwarves then fell upon the stranger with sword and axe. With mighty blows, they struck him down. When the stranger fell, the dwarves backed away from his body. Quite a few contrived to burn that body and tossed torches upon it. To their great surprise, the body refused to burn nor were his garments even singed by the great heat of so many torches and then the man stirred and got to his feet.

Walking with slow deliberation, the stranger stepped from the growing flames of the many torches and pointed his finger at the newly arrived Dwarven King. “Your people could have passed their judgment but they struck me down because of my appearance. Very well then, let the punishment of the dwarves fit their crime. Since they struck me down because of my appearance I curse you all to be loathsome atrocities eternally doomed to roam the land shunned and loathed by all.”

In that fearful moment, the dwarves all began to scream in agony as their bodies began to alter. They cast down their weapons and stripped off their clothing and armor as their bodies contorted. Arms and legs elongated and joints were rearranged. There was an accompanying horrible sound as I could hear their bodies altering in both shape and size. In stunned horror, I watched as all about me the dwarves became mindless things. I awaited my turn at this torturous punishment but my turn did not come. The stranger ignored me as if I did not matter in the slightest. Rather he stood there watching the dwarves a few more moments and then turned to leave.

As he was leaving, he turned and looked at my horrified face and uttered words I shall never forget. “Leave the land of the dwarves now. Soon they will adjust to their new forms and when they do so, they will attack all whom they encounter.” Saying no more he turned, took one step, and then he disappeared.

I fled the city, and not a moment too soon. I almost took the time to return to my room to gather my belongings, but at the last moment I decided to flee immediately instead. It is good that I did so. I barely escaped as the transformations ended and the atrocities looked about for anything to attack. As I darted past the last of the guards that then guarded the entrance to the labyrinth their attention was riveted on me and they did give chase through the labyrinth. I emerged into the night air just ahead of them and fled as fast as possible to the nearest human village.

In the days that followed, I learned that the Harbinger must have visited that curse upon all of the dwarves that night, for the dwarven race is no more.

Having suffered many a nightmare at the memory of these events, I have recently sought out a priest of Artherk to learn what I must do to preserve my mind. The good priest recommended that I set the experience in print in the hopes that I can then forget the terrible things that I saw on that night or at the least suffer lesser torment from the dreams.

I swear before the gods that the narrative contained in this letter is entirely true. If I have lied even once, may Ogrimar steal my soul from Artherk.

 

A tormented soul,

John the scribe

 

When he was finished with the dwarven race, the Harbinger turned to the human race. He appeared in the largest of the human settlement in what is present day Lighthaven, built upon the site of fabled Anwynn. The Harbinger told our ancestors that they were now the chosen race. He told them about the proud elves and the dwarves and warned them about his next coming. Their task was to maintain the balance between good and evil and to remain steadfast in faith.

***

 

The human race was now alone for the first time in recorded history. Their dependence upon the other two races for trade and knowledge had been mitigated to some degree by the elven apprentice program. But Oberon had ended that program two hundred years before the second coming of the Harbinger.

The dwarves, as previously mentioned, were not as gregarious a people as the elves and didn’t share their knowledge as readily. This left the human race in the position that during the supremacy of the dwarven race they were forced to do much more for themselves.

So it was that by the time of the third coming of the Harbinger the human culture had advanced along several fronts. Their scribes and bards had reached an advanced state of development but to be sure they could not rival the elves. Their builders and metal workers lacked the skill of the dwarves who had at times surpassed the Elves in those fields but they were learning well. In truth, they fell far shy of the skill level of the elves as well. In magic, they were still a young race. They had some magic but in comparison to the dwarves that was very little and the dwarves never approached the magical abilities of the elves. However, they did have a high aptitude for battle magic, and given time they would surpass the elves in that regard.

All these things being taken into consideration, it should come as no surprise that the ability to use magical means to travel between the islands of Arakas, Raven’s Dust and Stoneheim had died with the Elves. It is not known if travel was widespread between the isles during the reign of the dwarves for the dwarves kept precious little records of such things.

The humans having the shortest lifespan of the three races had lost the scribe abilities rather quickly when the apprenticeship programs were cancelled by Oberon and most were unlettered by the time of the second coming of the Harbinger. A few human families had maintained the scribe skill, and John the scribe was of the lineage of one such family. The priests and mages could also read and write. After the third coming of the Harbinger, the priests and mages decided that since they alone could read, the responsibility to begin to teach others fell upon their shoulders. Even so, the teaching was difficult and took time.

All of this explains a general lack of human contributions to the Great Library until about two hundred years after the third coming of the Harbinger. Some of the first examples of the human contributions are old records of trading ships cargos and destinations. Sufficient such books and ledgers exist to prove that as little as two hundred years after the third coming of the Harbinger, or 200 A.H.3, (After Harbinger three,) as some scholars say, there was a steady amount of shipping between the three isles of Arakas, Raven’s Dust and Stoneheim.

 


 

Chapter 6

 

Mankind’s first great city was Lighthaven. They built it upon the ruins of Anwynn, the ancient Elven capital city. It was a natural place to build a city for it was easily guarded against the ever-present goblin menace that plagues Arakas. Orcs, giant snakes, and other monsters also plague the isle to a lesser degree, but the goblin threat is the dominant menace on that isle. Then of course, there are the undead, which seem to be universally present on all three isles. Some scholars believe that these undead are the remnants of Oberon’s armies slain millennium ago by the Harbinger, and that they are doomed to fight against the living eternally or until they are slain by the chosen people.

Humanity began to multiply as their survival skills improved and they learned to better take care of themselves alone. The population outgrew Lighthaven and settlers went out to build another great city on western Arakas called Windhowl.

For generations, humanity steadily improved in their knowledge and skills. Mage towers were established to see to it that the magic the mages were rediscovering was never again lost to humanity. The mages in those mage towers would teach any man or woman who had the desire and the skill to learn, if they had the intellect to learn and the gold with which to pay. Eventually the human mages rediscovered the ability to send people to other islands instantly by magical means and the dangerous sea travel fell into disuse as it became possible for even the unlettered men and women to use a scroll to go to another island or be sent there the first time by mages. By 400 A.H.3 all mention of trading ships in the library stops because it was no longer needed.

 The human settlements on Arakas became the great cities of Lighthaven and Windhowl. On Raven’s Dust, the city of Silversky was built and maintained. The Kingdom of Goldmoon was born under the leadership of a human king who united the populations of Raven’s Dust and Arakas under one banner. Raven’s Dust became known as Greater Goldmoon and Arakas became known as Lesser Goldmoon.

Raven’s Dust also had its share of monster problems. There, the demon trees seemed most pervasive but there were also rogue human elements on the isle such as rogue mages and blackguards.

Contact was made with other races of some intelligence on Stoneheim. Most were hostile to humanity. The skraugs of Stoneheim seem the worst of the semi intelligent races. They hate humanity as a rule but one of their merchants, a trainer, and a mage teacher do assist men for a price. Some of the centaurs will do business with humankind, but most seem at best semi hostile toward humans, while still others make it clear that they hate humankind by attacking men on sight.

Though important to the Kingdom of Goldmoon the island of Stoneheim never became a part of the kingdom. Another adventure awaited the people if they went there. An adventure of far greater importance than the Kingdom of Goldmoon for on Stoneheim mankind learned of the higher calling to defend their world against the forces of Makrsh P’Tangh, the traitorous one, and his minions.

In the cause against Makrsh P’Tangh, the followers of good and the followers of evil found a common foe. Both alignments pursued complex quests far different from their opposites toward attaining the right to become reborn as a seraph with enhanced powers, strengths, and skills. They would use these advantages to do battle with the ultimate foe who was amassing an army to attack all of the inhabitants of Althea if that was what it took to resurrect Gluriurl.

To make matters worse Makrsh P’Tangh had recruited the Obsidian Conclave. The Obsidian Conclave was formed from amongst the most powerful arch mages of the time. The members of the conclave answered to Makrsh P’Tangh. He was their master.

The doomed Elven King turned lich was preparing to wage all out war upon mankind in an effort to resurrect the fallen god Gluriurl. Humanity in turn was being organized to resist and combat this growing menace by the gods and the followers of the gods.

At first glance, Ogrimar was an enigma. Having failed in the conspiracy to destroy Artherk he had turned on Gluriurl and now he worked to ensure that the god of corruption was not resurrected. It was in his own interests because the army that Makrsh P’Tangh was raising to wage war didn’t care which alignment they annihilated in the effort to resurrect Gluriurl. They planned to slay all in their path to achieve that goal.

And so the people of Stoneheim struggled to complete the trials of the quests in preparation for becoming a seraph. Slowly the first few seraphs were reborn, and then in rapidly growing numbers more and more succeeded in that vaunting task.

Makrsh P’Tangh was aware that humankind was preparing to face him and he led his forces, which he called the Harvesters of Life on the attack.

 

***

 

Makrsh P’Tangh led his armies during an attack on Stoneheim. At the forefront of that army was the Obsidian Conclave. They attacked the island of Stoneheim in an effort to destroy the growing resistance to their forces. Thousands of humans attempting to complete their seraph quests were set upon by the forces of Makrsh P’Tangh as the Harvesters of Life set about to live up to their name. The death screams of their victims reached such a crescendo that they woke the sleeping dragons, who had remained apart from the gods and the other races as they had slumbered for thousands of years.

The word was spread that the forces of Makrsh P’Tangh were on the attack. A great army of seraphs marched out into the lands of Stoneheim to do battle with them. As the seraphs converged on the army of the lich, so did the dragons, who were led by the great dragon Crimsonscale. The battle raged on for many days as the dragons and their seraph allies waged all out war upon the Harvesters of Life and the Obsidian Conclave.

Olin Haad was one of the dragons who flew with Crimsonscale. He did so well in battle that Crimsonscale gave him Gluriurl’s skull to guard and watch over. Unknown to Crimsonscale, Olin Haad had also found the darkstone of Gluriurl and soon he came under its influence as the soothing voice spoke to him and granted him powers very near those of a god. Olin Haad began to change and become belligerent when things did not go his way so the dragons excluded him from their meetings as they planned their battle strategies.

At the height of the battle, which became known as the Battle of Emanations, Olin Haad changed sides. The battle raged on and the dragons allied with the seraphs finally managed to destroy the majority of the Harvesters of life and the Obsidian Conclave.

Olin Haad retreated with his new master, Makrsh P’Tangh and the surviving Harvesters of Life and Obsidian Conclave members.

The dragons, now sickened from the slaughter of their own kind by Makrsh P’Tangh’s forces made a vow never to slay another dragon so they did not pursue Olin Haad. They left Olin Haad to the seraphs and humanity to deal with and returned to their own secret places.

 

***

 

In the aftermath of the defeat of Makrsh P’Tangh and his allies, the seraphs and humanity returned to their preparations for a final conflict with the lich and his forces. Many mortals having seen the power of the seraphs decided to join their ranks and make the sacrifice to become reborn into seraphs so that they might be strong enough to fight in that final conflict, should it occur within their lifetime.

In the wake of the defeat of P’Tangh’s forces in the Battle of Emanations, a fanatical cult was formed. They were known as the cult of corrupters and their one goal was the resurrection of Gluriurl, god of Corruption. At first small in number, that cult grew as the years went by and eventually became a formidable force. To this day, there are members of that cult pervading society. If they succeed in their mission and manage to return Gluriurl to the land of Althea, then it is quite possible that humanity will go the way of the elven and dwarven races before them and fail in the responsibility assigned to them by the Harbinger. It should also be noted that many of these cult members have also become seraphs in an effort to use the additional powers and skills of the seraphs to advance their ignoble agenda.

Periodically groups of seraphs mount expeditions to go and seek Makrsh P’Tangh and his minions. Sometimes they even manage to defeat the lich and his minions. More often than not Makrsh P’Tangh escapes to another area of his vast fortress on the dead isle where he resides. But some do manage to slay him. When this happens, he is always reanimated by the curse of the Harbinger, and doomed to exist eternally as the ruler of an undead army, bent on the resurrection of Gluriurl.

But think not that these valiant seraphs are wasting their time. For as long as the lich is fighting desperate battles with these seraphs, he has little time to plot another war against humanity as he did in the Battle of Emanations. It is this relentless hunting of Makrsh P’Tangh by the seraphs of Althea that guarantee the average citizen another day free from the attack of Makrsh P’Tangh and his legions of undead.

Even those seraphs too weak to slay the lich can help just by disrupting things on his isle and causing him to spend his time in dealing with the influx of seraphs. So you see, even a lone seraph can stop the plotting of Makrsh P’Tangh and hinder his ability to mount a major attack on the isles of Althea. This is why every seraph should do their duty, seek out the lich occasionally, and harry him to no end. Every moment he has to spend dealing with a seraph is a moment that he cannot spend plotting against the decent citizens of the isles of Althea.

This hunting of P’Tangh and his minions on their isle also provides the time needed for more seraphs to be reborn and grow in their powers. Eventually the seraph population will reach a point of numbers so large that Makrsh P’Tangh and his minions will no longer be a viable threat. But this can only come to pass if the few brave souls continue to enter his isle where he is strongest and has all of the advantages. Once there, they must harry his forces and cause the most disruption possible on the isle, thus rendering the lich incapable of mounting a major attack upon humanity and the younger seraphs.

All seraphs of the lands should make that pilgrimage to P’Tangh’s isle at least once during their lifetime. It is the sacred duty of all seraphs to do so. Remember that even if you never slay the lich, you are still contributing to the overall safety of the citizens of Althea and your fellow seraphs.


 

 

 

Part 2

Brimstone, the early years.

Chapter 7

 

In the still night air surrounding the home of Artherk's mortal wife Evelyn, a ground mist slowly began to rise. Deep within those mists, a shadow seemed to move. The shadow moved with such stealth that the guards never noticed it.

Inside the home, a woman lifted a small bundle from a cradle and lovingly stared at the babe swaddled within the soft folds of a light blue cotton blanket. There was a touch of sadness in her eyes. Unnoticed by her, a single tear trickled down her left cheek.

Outside her home, a shadow moved and another guard died. This was the last of the six outer guards who protected her home. Like the rest, this one died silently.

A slight rapping sounded on her door and she reluctantly placed the baby back into his cradle. Opening the door, she saw her chamberlain, Aaron Grizwaldy. Aaron was also a priest devoted to her husband, Artherk. He was appointed by Artherk to see to the safety of his wife and child in the God's absence. Aaron Grizwaldy was also a mage of significant power. "M’Lady, something is wrong," he said.

A worried expression crossed his face and she studied him intently a moment. Her eyes took in the graying beard and strong but slightly bent form that was even now reluctant to admit he was gaining in years. She knew he was loyal to a fault, and she trusted Aaron implicitly. She also trusted his instincts. Not one time in the two years she had known him had he been wrong about her safety.

She knew inside her heart that this was the night that Artherk, her husband, had foretold. She quickly glanced at her son, Brimstone, lying blissfully asleep in his cradle. Helplessly lying there, he would be an easy target for what was to come. She lovingly picked up the babe and turned to her friend, Aaron.

"Aaron," she began, then swallowed her fear and continued, "You must take Brimstone and see to his safety personally."

Aaron immediately began to protest that the child was safest with her, and that he would die before harm came to either of them. But the lady forestalled his protests. Gently placing a finger upon his lips, she regarded the man she was trusting to save her son with gentle eyes. Then they grew demanding. He understood that this was not a request. He bowed in reverence to her and in a way; he understood that this was Artherk's will as well. Deep inside his soul, he felt a faint touch of approval, as if Artherk were blessing him.

In a quiet and calm voice, the woman told Aaron to take Brimstone and see to his safety inside the small chapel adjacent to her chambers. She further instructed him not to open the door to her room until she called on him to do so. Gone was the gentleness normal to her voice when dealing with him. Now her voice was commanding, and brooked no argument.

Then in a gentler tone, she added, "As you love, Artherk, love and protect our son. What is to come this night must be, my friend. I know what is to come, as does my husband. Would you follow Artherk's will, if not my own?"

Bowing again he said, "Always, M’Lady."

Evelyn gently kissed the forehead of the child then handed him reluctantly to Grizwaldy. He turned to go, but before he could, she touched his arm. "Thank you my friend. Now carry with you this message. Remember it well, for it is of importance to me. When my son matures, tell him that his mother approved of Damia. There will come a time when this will mean something very deeply to him. For now, it does not. Go quickly my friend, and remember your pledge. You must protect Brimstone, no matter what else happens this night."

A confused Aaron turned to go into the small chapel. When last he glimpsed Evelyn, she was reaching for her sword on a stand near the bed. Mentally, he was aware that she was a swordswoman of great skill. Yet, he feared for her safety.

Outside the house, a shadow moved into the light spilling from the parted curtains of the main room. Had anyone seen him there, they would have seen a vague form that was indistinct in both shape and color. Almost as if the very substance of the man was changing from one moment to the next.

Smiling contemptibly at the ease of this mission, he prepared to draw it to a successful conclusion. Ogrimar would be pleased. Perhaps more importantly, Mordenthal would be pleased. He was known to be hard on people who failed him. Ogrimar might be the god, but well he understood that it was to Mordenthal that he directly answered.

Inside her room, Artherk's wife heard a soft tinkling sound coming from the room the assassin had just entered. She moved on light feet to face the door opposite that room. She didn’t make a sound. Her breathing was soft but accelerated. A taste of fear touched her throat as she considered what she knew was coming to pass. Despite her acceptance of her fate, beads of sweat dotted her brow and plastered a strand of hair to her forehead.

Inside her mind, Artherk wept. She briefly wondered if it was real or her imagination.

Slowly, Evelyn saw the knob of the door turn. The door was locked. But the intruder didn't even pause to pick it. It was as if his very touch triggered the locking mechanism.

Then the intruder was inside the room with her. Malignantly, he stared at her bared blade. In contempt, he hissed and lunged at her. He was fast. But she deflected the dagger that she sensed was poisoned away from her throat with her sword.

Then the battle began in earnest. Calmly and methodically, the assassin attacked her time after time. He attempted many tricks of his trade, but she valiantly countered attack after attack. Evelyn was weak from recent childbirth. Her reflexes were slower. Her sword felt heavier by the moment.

Sensing her defeat inevitable, her attacker smiled and silently fought on.

Inside the chapel, Aaron heard the sounds of battle and fought a private war with his God. "Send help or take Brimstone and let me help her," he pleaded. But Artherk was silent beyond a one sentence reply. "Obey my beloved, even as you would obey me," he commanded.

In the sanctuary, Aaron wept in frustration. He was old enough to understand that the matters of gods were not as the matters of man. Or perhaps, indeed, they are. For in some cases, certain things must come to pass to fulfill a destiny, even for the gods.

Yet he loved Evelyn. He had grown fond of her in the two years he had served as her priest and the chamberlain of the house. This was his greatest test in the service of Artherk. Never had such been demanded of him. He swore in frustration as he held the child. The sounds of the battle outside the chapel bore into his head like an auger.

Inside her room, Evelyn slipped and fell to one knee. The assassin immediately lunged in to push his dagger into her soft, unprotected throat. Then a blade intersected his. The assassin staggered backwards a few steps and froze in place.

A lady stood beside the kneeling wife of Artherk. She was dressed in chainmail and was beautiful to behold. Her head was bare, as were her feet. "No, M’Lady, you cannot enter into this!" pleaded Artherk's wife, who recognized, Shinobi, goddess of neutrality.

The goddess smiled and said, "It would seem that I already have."

"Think of the future," pleaded the wife of Artherk. “Your daughter will come one day in the near future. Her future is entwined in these events."

“I know. And I know the sacrifice that you make this night. I wished to speak with you. To tell you this. If the future unfolds as foretold by Artherk, then I approve.” Then she winked. "Do you like, Damia for a girl child's name?"

Smiling, Evelyn said, "I do."

"I thought you might. And I approve of Brimstone. Mother to mother, we have a deal?" asked the Goddess.

Nodding seriously, Brimstone's mother said, "Yes we do. I know my part of the bargain, and will keep it."

With that, the Goddess touched her cheek and was gone an instant later.

Some ten seconds after the goddess disappeared, the assassin moved to attack again. He was unaware that he had been frozen or that Shinobi had been there. Evelyn met the assassin’s attack. But he was stronger and her recent childbirth had weakened her. One minute later, he penetrated her guard and scored a flesh wound to her left arm. It was a tiny wound. Such a wound was normally insignificant, and easily ignored. Yet, the poison did its vile duty and that wound would take her life.

Inside the chapel, Aaron received a message from Artherk. He immediately opened a portal to Lighthaven, and then threw the child Brimstone through it.

Inside Lighthaven Stonehenge, on the other side of the portal, a priestess waited to receive the babe. When he magically appeared there, she took him hurriedly and fled to safer regions where a large group of Artherk's followers awaited some special event promised this night. Artherk appeared before them the moment the priestess entered the circle of light around the fire. Once there he issued grave instructions to these followers. Many were shocked and spilled tears of anguish even as Artherk struggled to maintain his own composure. They pledged a solemn oath to do his bidding.

As they watched in amazement, a single tear fell from Artherk's eye and dropped to the ground. As gently as that tear struck the earth at his feet, it was as if an earthquake was upon them. The ground heaved and several foundations in Lighthaven were cracked open. A nearby flower seemed to wilt in commiseration with the god's profound sorrow. Artherk beheld the plight of the plant and regained control of his emotions. He bent to touch the wilted plant and it was instantly renewed. He then turned to his followers and blessed them all. The burning anger was still there, but the pain of the god's grief was forgotten, save for a faint memory of vast sorrow. One thing was certain. To the last man and woman present, they would die before allowing harm to befall their young charge, Brimstone.

The battle effectively over, the assassin stepped away from the woman he had just killed. She wasn't dead yet, but it was a matter of moments only and she would be dead. No one survived the touch of his blade. Even such a slight scratch was fatal.

The door to the chapel burst open. It was only then that he finally realized he had not as yet seen the child. “What magic is afoot here,” he wondered for a moment how he could have neglected that detail.

Somewhere, Artherk smiled at the assassin's confusion.

Cursing, he moved to attack the priest before him. Yet, Aaron Grizwaldy resisted him valiantly. Time after time, the dark assassin sought to close with the priest to kill him. But always it was as if he were fighting a god. No attack succeeded.

For his part, as he entered the room, Aaron saw the lady lying crumpled up on the floor. In fury, he attacked the assassin with spells. Aaron had entered the battle without his protective shield spells in place. As he fought he never noticed that from elsewhere shield spells were being placed on him, and a cure poison spell easily negated the poison that the assassin did indeed succeed in administering to him.

Finally, in desperation, the assassin struck the blade deep inside Aaron's chest. But Grizwaldy plucked it out and contemptuously tossed it aside. To the assassin's amazement, he saw the wound close instantly through a tear in the priest’s robe. It was then that he realized he was doomed. He was fighting a man who had the full support of his deity. He cursed and called upon Ogrimar for his assistance. But it was Mordenthal's voice he heard in his head. "Think you that we reward failure, miserable one?"

That was the last he ever heard from Mordenthal or anyone else. Grizwaldy struck him time after time with a very strong shatter spell. He was punishing the assassin. Stunned, the assassin dropped to his knees helplessly. Then Grizwaldy's deep goodness took over and he ended the assassin's misery with a tremendous onslaught of boulder.

Rushing to her side, he cradled Evelyn's head in his lap. She was barely breathing when she spoke to him. "Well fought, my friend. Remember my wish. Remember to tell him, Damia..." and then she died.

An anguished Grizwaldy threw back his head and screamed in bitter sorrow. All around him, followers of Artherk began to appear. Sadly, and reverently the maidens of the company took charge of the body. When they had cleaned it and wrapped her in silken robes of white, they were ready.

In a secluded grove of trees, Artherk waited with his followers beside a Mausoleum. It was simple and trimmed with gold. The marble was white with emerald green streaks flowing through the stone.

When the maidens were ready, Artherk teleported them to him with his beloved Evelyn's earthly remains. He thanked them for their loving care, then personally took the body of his wife into his arms and walked through the wall of the doorless Mausoleum.


Chapter 8

  

Brimstone’s father is Artherk, god of good and light. His mother was a human warrior woman named, Evelyn, whom Artherk found pleasing in her honor and humility.

He is a demigod, born in a time of strife, and destined to dedicate his existence to defending the weak and innocent.

Reared in a series of secluded enclaves, always guarded by his father's servants, Brimstone was never left alone for even the most private of requirements known to man. Hovering near him at all times were some of his father's loyal followers. They taught him that one day a hero would come to the land of Goldmoon, and they stressed that when this hero arrived, all injustices would have a champion.

They also taught him to use many of the weapons of mankind. He excelled in those lessons, mastering every weapon they put before him in short order. He was a natural with weapons and was soon skilled, even beyond the experience of the masters who instructed him.

Never would they consent to instruct him in magic. When he pleaded with the priests and mages who guarded him, they invariably refused to teach him, stating that he had no need of their instruction. One old paladin did consent to discuss with him the battle strategy of healing friends in combat.

But always, some of the vile ones followed. Relentlessly, they sought to slay him. However, his father's servants, enraged at their inability to protect his mother, never once permitted the minions of evil to get close enough to harm Brimstone. He often heard the sounds of titanic battles waged with both magic and blades. By the time he was ten, some thirty assassins had died in attempts to take his life. Alas, seven of his father's followers had also perished.

Then one cool summer night when he was seventeen, dressed in only a simple white robe, he walked into a secluded grove of trees located near his current residence. He had slipped away from the guards who always provided a protective shield. He had done this without premeditation. Indeed, it was almost as if the will of another led him to the spot. In the center of the glade, he found a magnificent marble mausoleum gilded with golden trim. No name marked the occupant's earthly remains. Yet, he knew, somehow, he just knew that it was his mother's mausoleum.

Falling to his knees, great sobs wracked his body as he grieved. Unnoticed by him, his tears fell as he bowed his head and prayed. Then, his prayer finished, he stood and touched the white marble streaked with emerald green.

Collapsing to his knees again with his right hand still touching the smooth marble he was silent a moment. Then he began to speak.

"Mother," he said softly.

"I miss you so. It’s odd that I was a babe when you were lost to me. Yet, I remember your beauty, your love."

"Mother, they tell me that a hero will come one day. That hero will bring justice to the realm of Goldmoon. That hero may indeed come to Goldmoon. But I’m not content to wait for him to bring forth justice. Mother, I send you my love."

"I will pass the quests, mother. I will become a seraph, even as many of the servants of my father have done in the past. And on the wings of the seraphs I will administer Justice in the realm myself, until the hero comes."

"Mother, I miss you."

He had spoken softly to his mother. His heart was breaking because he would never get to see her. He said this last in heartbroken anguish.

Then a voice commanded him to arise and see his mother. It was the voice of his father, Artherk.

Obediently, Brimstone rose to his feet. Standing before him was a beautiful, dark haired woman, dressed in a silken white robe. He knew she was his mother.

"My son," she said, "don’t grieve for me for I am happy. Your father knew what would happen that night. He spoke to me of it, and he gave me the opportunity to choose. My choice was to be the mother of the hero who will fight for justice in the land. In making my choice, I fulfilled my destiny. Now, you must fulfill yours."

"How could father let you die!" a confused and tormented Brimstone demanded. "Oh, Mother!"

"Hush, child," she said sternly. Then she looked behind him and spoke to Artherk. "Husband, have you not permitted him to see?"

"Nay, beloved, I have not. He was too young to comprehend," Artherk replied softly.

"Show him now, husband," she said softly as she gazed at Artherk with adoring eyes.

Artherk hesitated a moment. "For me, please. For our son," she entreated.

As Brimstone stared at the face of his father, he noticed it begin to change. A profound sorrow seemed to sweep over him. It radiated outward from him in waves of agony that threatened to overwhelm Brimstone. He literally felt Artherk's pain and fell to his knees in abject sorrow. The sorrow that he had felt at the loss of his mother was as a dust speck in a sandstorm compared to his father's profound grief. Then as quickly as it had begun, it ended. A deep sense of love and compassion took the place of the abject grief.

"You see, my son, a god's love is all encompassing and can affect all those around him. But a god's grief is also capable of having an effect on the realm and its inhabitants."

Then Brimstone understood what he had never admitted to himself before. He had blamed his father for not protecting his mother. He had thought that his father did not feel her loss as much as did he.

How profoundly wrong he had been. How arrogantly he had assumed that he alone felt her absence.

"Father, I …" he said in sorrow.

"I know, my son. I have always known," replied Artherk. "I cannot permit myself to experience the full grief of her loss. If I did, the land of Goldmoon would also feel it to varying degrees. It would wilt and die, and be as desolate as those lands that Makrsh P’Tangh controls.”

"Brimstone," said his mother. “You have a destiny to fulfill. For the sake of the realm, I died. For your sake, Artherk did not resurrect me."

In shock, Brimstone looked up at his mother.

"Yes, he could have resurrected me. That’s why his sorrow is so profound. He sensed your pain and allowed me to return for these fleeting moments. But I cannot stay. If I do so, it would be as if I never died. And that would be disastrous."

"I don’t understand, mother."

"I know, my son. But there are other forces at work. Another god helped to save you. She is a goddess of neutral alignment. If I stay, that upsets the balance. Artherk warned that this would happen. I decided to pass on to the next realm of existence, to make your journey more profitable, so that you can fulfill your destiny."

"No, mother!" Brimstone pleaded. “I will work harder! Stay!"

"I cannot, son. I have been back too long even now. The neutral goddess will grow ever more restless. I must return to the next realm. Fear not, my son. Be at ease. Fulfill your destiny and one day you will walk with me in that realm. Just as your father Artherk does."

Taking heart from this, Brimstone asked, "Then you are not alone and frightened?"

"No, son, I am neither alone nor frightened for there are many of your father’s followers where I dwell. When he can, Artherk visits. We walk and talk. If he is busy, I tend my gardens and I am happy. But I do miss you. He shows me your development," she said as she smiled warmly, with a mother's love and pride. "What a handsome and well grown son I have." Then she added, "I am so pleased with you, son."

"Now, I must go. My time is at an end here. Know that I love you, Brimstone." She looked lovingly at Artherk for a moment, and then she said, "Husband, I approve of Damia. She is the one."

"I know, beloved," Artherk replied. Then, with profound sorrow evident on his face he said, "Your time here has to end now, my wife, for the balance is in jeopardy."

"Till next we meet, my husband," she replied demurely.

Extending her hand to her son in a gesture of yearning, she began to shimmer. Hastening to her Brimstone took her hand in his and kissed it. "Mother, I love you."

"And I love you, son. I always have. I always will. Study hard, son. Be a hero. Be my hero!" she said fiercely and then, with a final flicker of light, she disappeared.

He turned to his father and saw the sadness. Brimstone thought of the many times that he had felt his father did not care. "Father, I have been a fool. Please forgive me."

"My son, I always have. I knew you didn’t, you couldn’t possibly understand." Then with a smile his father said, "Think not that she is sad. Beyond her yearning for you, she is happy." Then he added, "Train well, my son. Become her hero as she asked. She deserves you.” Then, as a seeming afterthought, he added, "And you deserve us, my son. I am well pleased."

With that, Artherk shimmered and disappeared.

 

***

 

Brimstone strained and struggled with the weapons of man. Generations passed as he mastered all of the weapons utilized in battle by man. Yet he did not age as mortals do. He seemed frozen in the appearance of a 30-year-old mortal.

One day, while protecting a group of young acolytes of Artherk, his father, a huge group of monsters and villains attacked him. He fought grimly hand to hand, reluctant to forsake the weapons of man. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a maiden fair beside a tree not too far away. She was radiant and impressed upon him a stirring in his soul that he had never before experienced.

In his distraction, he fought with less than his true skill. Noticing that another group of monsters and villains was rapidly closing on his location, he set aside thoughts of the lovely maiden in chainmail armor. He drew upon all of his skill then, and hastened to defeat the enemy near him.

As the enemy perished, he noted that the lovely maiden was using earth spells to slay the onrushing horde, which was seeking to join forces with the enemy he fought.

As the last of his opposition died, Brimstone looked once more upon the radiant and lovely maiden who had added her skills to his defense. He recognized her as a goddess then, as he saw her in true light for the first time.

 


Chapter 9

 

Brimstone was asleep in his room on a peaceful, warm night. He dreamed he was standing beside a mountain. A very lovely young woman stood before him. She was very small. He would guess that she weighed less than one hundred pounds. She had gray eyes framed by thick sooty lashes. Her hair was straight and falling to fingertip length. It was the color of a moonless night and caught back from her face in a simple braid. She was dressed in chainmail armor and carried a sword.

When she spoke, her voice was pleasing to the ear. She said, "Greetings to you, good sir. I have need of thee." She smiled and he found himself struck by her loveliness. "Will you help a stranger in need?"

Brimstone bowed to the woman and said, "I am sworn to help all if the cause be just, good lady."

In the wink of an eye, he found himself transported to a small trail high on the mountain. From there, he could see the valley below. In this valley, he saw a young man and a woman. Both were dressed in studded leather. The man carried a sword and the woman a bow. As he watched, he saw a horde of goblin's fall upon the pair. The human couple engaged the goblins in a furious battle. They were good, that pair. But Brimstone could see that the sheer numbers of their enemies overmatched them. Then, an odd thing happened. At the back of the pack of goblins was a mage in black robes. Even here, from his perch upon the mountain, Brimstone could sense the mage’s aura of evil. The foul stench of it permeated his nostrils. In anger, Brimstone reached for his blade and began to move toward the conflict.

"Hold, sir!" the lady commanded and he stopped confused. Brimstone prepared to argue with the woman, but she continued, "That which you see has not yet come to pass, sir. This is what will happen in one week. Be still. Watch and learn."

Reluctantly, Brimstone obeyed.

As he watched, the black robed evil figure strode to the front of the horde. They parted as he came through them as though his very presence disgusted even the vile goblins, or they feared him terribly.

He stopped before the goblins and stood between them and the human couple. With a sneer on his face, he saw the warrior's chest heaving from his great efforts to defend his lady companion as she skillfully used her bow. There was a sheen of sweat on the lady's face. She looked worried but not panicked. Brimstone respected the courage of the pair.

Then the evil one spoke. "It is time to end this myself." He raised his hands and used a fire spell. A great ball of fire shot toward the brave pair. The fireball hit the man square in the chest. Mortally wounded, he fell to the ground at the lady's feet. Tendrils of the fire also hit the woman as she loosed an arrow at the mage. Her arrow flew wild as the searing pain spoiled her aim. Then the mage sneered as he saw their helplessness. He turned to the goblins. "Now finish them." His wild laughter grated on Brimstone's ears as the horde fell upon the young couple. It would have been more merciful had the mage finished them. But mercy was not in his heart. He laughed and laughed as the goblins slowly tore the couple apart bit by bit. It took the woman a long time to die. Her screams of agony caused Brimstone's eyes to fill, and a lump too big to swallow came to his throat.

The goblins made the woman’s companion watch helplessly as they tore her apart. Next, they turned to the helpless, mortally wounded man and finished him.

Then the vision was gone. Before him, he saw only the lovely maiden in her chainmail. Her grey eyes stared into Brimstone’s sadly, as if it had hurt her to show him the things that she had revealed to him. When she spoke, it was softly. "This is wrong. Mordenthal has seen into the future. The young couple you just saw perish are of great import to the cause of good. That is all I will tell you. Mordenthal knows this. He seeks to slay them while they are still too young and weak to prevent it, thus upsetting the balance between good and evil. I am neutral. Neither good nor evil, I believe in preserving the balance between those two alignments. Mordenthal is breaking the rules and, in the doing, he is threatening the balance. So I summoned you in your sleep to show you what is to come."

"I leave this matter for you to deal with, sir," the goddess said.

Brimstone nodded his head and accepted what she had told him. "And your name, good lady?" he inquired.

For a moment, it seemed she might not answer. But she smiled at last and said, "Damia."

The next morning a troubled Brimstone went to speak to his friend Aaron Grizwaldy. Older now, Aaron was more stooped of frame, but still a very powerful mage. In his years of guarding young Brimstone, he had also gained much in wisdom. As a reward for his loyal service to his family, Artherk had extended Grizwaldy’s life far beyond the years of a normal mortal.

Brimstone told Aaron of his dream the night before and sought out the council of the one man whom he had known all his life. The moment that he revealed the name Damia, Aaron's reaction took him quite by surprise. He leapt to his feet and grasped Brimstone's arms in his hands. "Are you certain of the name?" he asked. Brimstone nodded his head and said, "Quite certain."

Grizwaldy turned and paced the floor rapidly back and forth with his hands clasped together in deep thought for a moment. Then he reached a troubled decision. He turned to Brimstone and said, "I can give you only one brief message about Damia. It may not be enough." Then he added, "The night your mother died I was there, as you know. I never told you this because the time was not right. It may not help you. But your mother left a message for you that I was to give you when the time was right." Brimstone's face took on an expectant look as he waited to hear the message.

Grizwaldy sighed and hoped that he was doing the right thing. He knew it would hurt Brimstone, but he had to tell him. He had to fulfill his pledge to Evelyn. "With her dying breath, she told me to tell you that she approves of Damia. She said it would bring you comfort someday. That is all that I can tell you, for that is all I know."

"Then go I must, and go alone," Brimstone said firmly, expecting an argument from his chamberlain. But Aaron just bowed and said, "So I am told by Artherk. I am not to interfere."

He had expected an argument. Always before his father’s followers had carefully guarded him. His freedom had always been severely restricted.

Smiling benignly at Brimstone's confused expression, Grizwaldy said, "The time has come for you to follow your destiny. Artherk says we must no longer interfere. Your time has come, Brimstone. You have come of age."

Brimstone smiled.

One week later, Brimstone was once more near the mountain where he had met Damia in the dream. He had sent her his thoughts and learned the precise location. It was near an evil necromancer named Jarko, on the isle of Arakas. He journeyed there alone and settled in to wait for the appointed hour of the conflict.

He didn't have long to wait. After only a few minutes, the young couple came into view. He was standing in the middle of the trail just around an outcropping of rock. When they saw him, they both stopped and eyed him warily for it is common knowledge that some evil types lurk in these mountains. Men and women alike who would slay a traveler for a single gold piece called these ranges their territory.

Brimstone smiled encouragingly to the couple and greeted them. He was about to tell them what was coming when Damia sent him a stern warning not to reveal his true reasons for being here, for he would upset the balance. So instead, thinking quickly he said, "I am an unfortunate lone traveler in these mountains. I have an uneasy feeling that danger is near. I would add my sword to yours, good sir. I will travel as far with you as you are going in my direction and then take my chances alone."

The young man looked undecided for a moment, but then he smiled and said, "If your cause be just, good sir, I welcome your blade, but I fear my skills may be poor and I of little use to you."

Brimstone instantly liked the man. He grasped arms with him in the traditional warrior's clasp of greeting an equal and said, "My name is Brimstone. Well met, sir."

"I am known as Thor, good sir, and this lovely lady is Kats," was his easy reply.

Kats managed a curtsey despite holding her bow and smiled shyly. "We are newly wed, and our family is Justice," she added.

Kats' words caused Brimstone to ponder the unlikely coincidence that he, a man who was determined to dedicate his life to the cause of justice, should make it a point to follow Damia’s desire that he fight to help a couple whose last name turned out to be Justice. He smiled warmly as he pondered this.

Thus introduced, the small party headed toward Jarko's lair, where the archer maiden Kats hoped to obtain a book belonging to the necromancer and thus restrain his evil plans.

They had traveled only a short distance and the goblin horde attacked, exactly as the vision had portrayed it. But this time Brimstone was there. He had brought with him a high metal broadsword for this adventure. A sword that had been blessed by the gods and was the most powerful high metal broadsword one could ever acquire.

As the goblins attacked, he told Thor to stay with Kats and he would cut a path through these horrible creatures. Thor trusted him. He had a feeling Brimstone's word was good, and that he would not abandon them. He fought well beside his mate as she fired arrow after arrow into the horde, helping Brimstone to clear a path, they thus advanced through the horde.

Brimstone cut a terrible swath through the packed horde of goblins.

At the rear of the horde, the black robed evil figure knew that something was terribly wrong. At first sight of Brimstone, he became enraged. "You!" he screamed, then raised his hands to launch an attack spell. Brimstone noticed the mage's face twist into a grin. That was all he had time to see as he leapt at the mage with incredible speed and cut him deeply across the chest with his sword. Instantly the man used the word of recall spell and vanished. As he did so, he sent a curse whispering through Brimstone's mind. Promising that one day he would exact revenge for his tampering in the plans of others.

Brimstone, Thor, and Kats easily dispersed the remaining goblins, causing them to flee in confusion. Even so, they slaughtered many. Kats laughed as she shot at one who thought he was out of bow range and had turned to gesture rudely at her. She shot and her arrow went ballistic, almost straight up into the air. It nearly disappeared from view and the goblin tilted its ugly head up to watch. In disbelief, he saw it coming back down. His dim wits caused him to continue to stare upward in disbelief. Too late, he realized the danger. The arrow splashed through the goblin’s right eye and nearly flew all the way through his head. Brimstone smiled warmly at the archer lass and said, "Well shot, good lady."

Thor smiled in pride at his young wife's skill and said in jest, "I need to remember that shot, just in case I ever make you mad. I know now not to stand that close."

She smiled at his jest and said, "Good idea." Then she added playfully," Want to try at two times that distance?"

Thor grinned and shook his head. "Nay, good wife, you are just too lucky today," he said seriously.

Kats giggled in good humor, causing Brimstone to smile warmly at the loving couple. They traveled on to Jarko’s lair, and did indeed get the lady her book.


Chapter 10

 

Leaving the remote library on the island of Raven’s Dust, Brimstone walked south and crossed a bridge. He continued to make his way south and a bit west as he traveled toward another bridge. As he made his way toward his destination, Brimstone was attacked by many demon trees. Sometimes it was just one tree but sometimes two or more attacked him at once. Today he was carrying a high metal flail of great quality. The priests of his father had blessed the sturdy weapon, and with the addition of their blessing, it was a potent weapon.

As the trees attacked, he rapidly closed with them and attacked with devastating results. Usually they fell in two hits of his flail. His bluestone armor easily withstood the lightning they cast at him as he slaughtered the demon trees.

He was heading south to cross the bridge on his way to the lake of tarantulas. He had heard reports of a villain showing up at that lake and slaying the weaker hunters there with massive spider spawns. But as he moved deeper through the trees, a man suddenly appeared from thin air. Instantly many trees appeared and attacked both Brimstone and the man who had just appeared.

Brimstone moved swiftly to defend the man who was being attacked. With no regard for his own safety, he drew the wraith of the trees upon himself and soon he was fighting six at once. This hurt him to some degree. Even the bluestone armor could not take such punishment with no damage to the wearer.

Disregarding his own pain, Brimstone healed the man and continued to battle the trees. In moments, it was all over. All of the trees crumpled and died.

Brimstone walked over to the man who had fallen during the conflict and offered him a hand up to his feet. Only then did he heal himself. Then he laughed and said, "I should have worn ancient armor, but I have been experimenting with this set of bluestone."

The grateful man stared at him in admiration. Few had he ever seen with the skills this man took for granted. Then Brimstone grew very serious. He looked at the man and liked what he saw. He was a warrior with a polished broadsword of great quality. As he watched, the man sheathed his weapon and began an intriguing tale.

He began by introducing himself as Tarn the mercenary. He explained that he had been hired to escort a man through the desert of Raven’s Dust to a cave entrance. Alas, along the way and about midway across the desert they had met with an attack near an oasis. Fighting a rear guard action, he desperately sought to protect his employer as the scribe moved south. But as they moved south, more and more monsters appeared and they had been forced to move deeper and deeper to the south. Then came a moment when even as he was glancing over his shoulder the scribe disappeared. Instantly he leapt to the spot to examine the ground there. The closest monster was a minute away and he had a few seconds. But as he stepped on the same spot, he too disappeared, and the monsters stopped confused. A moment later, they moved away.

Far below them in a dungeon, Tarn saw the scribe. He was looking about himself in amazement. Finally, the scribe spoke and said, "This is the fabled Minotaur Dungeon. It is said that there are books of power here in a library."

Tarn shook his head wisely and said, "Aye so it is said. It is also said that it is death to go there without a great war party. In the land above, I could defend you. Here you are dead, and so am I. We must leave this place. I presume you have the spell, or a scroll."

The scribe shook his head. Sighing Tarn said, "I have one myself, but don’t worry, I won’t abandon you. I would give it to you myself, but then I would almost surely die for I don’t know this place. I do have a map, but alas, it is far from complete. And I need your help to read it." Tarn looked decidedly uncomfortable then, and in embarrassment, he said, "I never learned my letters, sir."

Being accustomed to dealing with such men, the scribe smiled warmly and said, "At least I feel I will be of some use to you then, friend. For I fear I will be useless in any battles." Then he drew himself up with dignity, and said, "And, sir, I would never abandon you to an uncertain fate here. Even a scribe can have honor."

Smiling warmly, Tarn readily agreed that this was so.

Together the pair moved warily through the dungeon. The scribe quickly realized that there was an exit marked on the map. He led the way, and moments later they were beset by bats, and then later by the fabled minotaurs. Tarn fought off each attack, and the scribe was forced to give him directions now for he could no longer lead the way.

As they neared the spot on the map marked exit, the last of their healing potions were used and their situation grew desperate. Then disaster struck. The minotaurs separated them. One moment the scribe was beside him, the next the monsters were between them. Tarn desperately fought to reach the scribe, who was struggling with two of the bull men who had captured him.

Then Tarn was forced back away from the scribe by an onslaught of minotaur reinforcements. When last he saw the scribe, the man was being dragged away by the monsters. Tarn shivered visibly as he related the scene to Brimstone. He had heard nightmarish stories of what the bull men did to their captives.

Then he resumed his tale. He quickly saw that it would be impossible to save the scribe alone and with no potions. He considered using the scroll of recall and assembling a rescue party. Yet there was no time to get it from his pack. He was simply too hard pressed. Therefore, he fought as he retreated from the onslaught of enraged bull men.

Working from memory of the scribe's directions, he found a portal exactly where the scribe had said it would be located. It was his plan to exit, find his scroll then go to town and get aid for the unfortunate scribe.

The rest, Brimstone knew. He praised Tarn for his valor then said that he would rescue the scribe if Tarn would be so kind as to lead him to the unseen portal. Having seen with his own eyes the might of Brimstone, Tarn readily and gratefully agreed.

For the moment, Brimstone laid aside his plans for the lake of tarantulas and headed with Tarn as his guide to the invisible entrance. At the oasis, Tarn turned due south beneath the center palm tree. The fighting was indeed fierce, and Brimstone could easily see in his mind what Tarn had so vividly described earlier.

Then Tarn disappeared. A moment later, Brimstone was beside him inside a dungeon. Brimstone thanked the man and told him to use his scroll and return to town, but Tarn stubbornly refused. He insisted that he help in the rescue. Brimstone took Tarn's hand in a warrior's clasp then explained that should he fail in the attempt, he wanted Tarn to be prepared to return with a war party. He took a small pouch of gold. Enough to hire five men and outfit them and handed it to Tarn. "Work swiftly, friend. Get the men to the oasis and wait there. I will ask you to enter if I need you."

Though he was reluctant to leave, Tarn used his scroll and hastily formed a well-armed group of adventurers to return to the oasis. Each man had enough potions to last for hours inside the dungeon should they be needed. They marched rapidly back to the oasis, and within three hours they were there waiting. Tarn spoke silently in Brimstone's mind to tell him all was well and they were in position.

Brimstone thanked him and said that he would send for him soon if he needed help.

After Tarn left for Silversky, Brimstone could concentrate solely on locating the captive scribe. He moved deeply into the maze like labyrinth of the minotaur dungeon. He saw evidence of recent battle here and there, and followed the carnage to the room where the scribe was taken from Tarn. Once there, he followed the corridor that Tarn had described as the last place he saw the scribe as the man was being dragged away. As he proceeded through the maze, he often encountered monsters. Minotaurs, rats, and bats he killed beyond an easy counting.

Utilizing his methodical search, Brimstone finally found the scribe tied hand and foot and chained to a wall. The man had been roughed up. The minotaurs had been none to gentle in their treatment. When the last of the bull men fell at the scribe's feet, he smiled warmly at Brimstone. His eyes were swollen almost shut from the beating the monsters had inflicted.

Brimstone healed the man and an hour later, they left the dungeon by way of the portal. On the other side of the portal Tarn waited with his men, having been silently summoned there by Brimstone, and together they fought off the trees that always swarmed men who used the portal to escape the dungeon. 

 


Chapter 11

 

The gray cloaked man sat at a corner table in a tavern in Silversky. Seeming to take no real interest in his surroundings as he concentrated on his meal of cheese, hard bread and a bit of mystery meat that smelled suspiciously of goblin, he took careful note of everything around him.

At one table a dozen feet away sat a lady whom he recognized as the famous Skan,  who was one of the leaders and founders of the noble guild known as Dragon Knights Goldmoon. She was enjoying a cup of elven wine with two ladies of the realm whom the gray cloaked man did not know.

At the next table over, situated between Skan's table and the one where he was seated, sat a rowdy group of four rough looking young men. They were loud, and deep in their drinks. Most were also in need of a bath, and he realized that the goblin scent was coming from them and not the meat on the platter before him. They were talking lewdly and more than once the man in gray noticed Skan glance their way and frown.

Over by the bar stood the archer maiden Cougar who he knew by reputation to be a fun loving lady, though she was also quick to anger and always ready to fight for honor or friends. She was laughing and talking to a man known as Gazfaz, a representative of the kingdom, about the rumors of the spawn killer who was still terrorizing people at the lake of tarantulas. She was seeking his opinion as to the identity of the fiend that would commit such misdeeds.

The man in gray correctly guessed that a friend of Cougar's had recently fallen victim to that fate.

Just as he finished the last of his bread, he saw a man walk in the door of the tavern. He also noticed that Skan, Cougar, and Gazfaz each took note of the new arrival and smiled at their professionalism. Those three were not likely to overlook much.

The newcomer swaggered in and boisterously shouted for ale, then insulted the serving maiden for her lack of speed.

Again, Skan frowned as she noted the heavy burden of mugs the maiden was carrying to the bar. The girl was obviously doing her best, yet this fellow was impatient, and obnoxiously rude.

The newcomer walked over to the rowdy crowd at the table and joined those four young people. With casual interest the man in gray noted that both Skan and Cougar shifted their positions slightly and smiled again. He knew that they were keeping a wary eye on this young man.

When one of the men at the table greeted the newcomer by the name Static Shock, he instantly knew why the others were wary. Static Shock was basically a bully who delighted in tormenting others for sport. He also made it a habit to insult people at every opportunity. He was cruel to most of the people that he interacted with on a daily basis. Though the man in gray had never seen him, he was well aware of his reputation and had heard his mental messages to the people of the realm often. Never had he seen a good one.

Usually, if you look long enough, you can find some good and redeeming quality in people. So far, no one had found one in Static. The man in gray hoped that soon this would change or Static was doomed to the life of a rogue and outcast, loathed by all with honor.

The already lewd talk grew even more lewd with the addition of Static Shock to their party. The rest of the patrons of the tavern did their best to ignore them, but he could see that Skan was beginning to lose patience, and one of her companions began to blush at the language being used louder and louder near her. It was becoming impossible to ignore them.

At the bar, Cougar frowned and turned around to face the group. The group at the table never noticed this, but the man in gray did, and shifted a bit in his seat and unobtrusively loosened a dagger in a sheath beneath his robe. Cougar noticed the movement and winked at him.

Gazfaz was getting tired of the rude young men and was seriously considering taking them to the dungeon to sleep off their ale. Before he took action, the serving girl returned to the table with Static's drink, and then proceeded to clear the table of another tray of empty mugs.

Static grabbed her wrist in a viselike grip. She gasped in surprise, and then whimpered in pain as the man stood up and brutally forced her to her knees. Tears of pain streamed down the serving girl’s face. "Thief!" he said, "you took my gold!" Then he pried open her fingers and a scrap of cloth fell out. "Ah well I guess I was wrong." was all he said while offering no apology. Then he roughly shoved her away. When she gathered up her serving tray and the empty mugs, he kicked her in the rear from his seated position as she scurried past him.

At that moment, three things happened at once. The man in gray stood up revealing ancient armor beneath his cloak,  Cougar set her bow to the ready position and Skan stood up to face Static.

Static laughed at Skan as he saw her rise. "What do you want, dumb lady of the realm?" he asked.

Skan smiled at his foolishness, but her companions frowned and shifted in their seats to face the men at the next table.

"An apology to the serving girl will do quite nicely," the high lady replied calmly.

Gazfaz watched calmly and did not interfere as the two faced each other. Well he knew Skan's reputation and there was little doubt in his mind that she would handle this situation quite readily.

Static stood up, laughing at Skan. He squared off and faced her, apparently quite ignorant of who she was. Then he made another mistake. He taunted her again, thinking that once again, as he always had, he would escape any punishment for his offenses. "Dumb lady," he said again.

Skan, a warrior of vast power, never even bothered with a weapon. She didn't need a weapon to deal with her opponent. In contempt, she slapped him across the mouth. But that slap rattled his head. "I like that stun and power blow," she thought with a mental smile. Then she slapped him again across the cheek. This time her fingernails bit into his flesh and marked him. She slapped him on the other cheek and again marked him. Then she cast a warrior's spell and it was a simple one. When she cast it on him, he stared in shocked surprise.

"What did you do!" he demanded.

Skan grinned at his obvious fear and said, "Why, I do believe that I just taught you some proper manners." Then she continued, "Oh, the spell I cast was on the wounds. Now they will not heal. Until such a time as I lift the spell, you will be marked by me." Then she leaned a bit forward and stared intently into his eyes. "Do you want to apologize to her now?"

In fury, and with spittle dribbling from his lips like a rabid dog, Static Shock screamed in fury, "Get her!" to his companions.

The man in gray was ready. As Static's four companions leapt to their feet to aid their friend, he moved into action. He slammed the hilt of his dagger into the head of one, and then another of the men nearest him. Both went down quite unconscious. He saw another raise a throwing dagger overhead to throw at Skan, but before he could reach him, an arrow streaked past him and struck the hand holding the dagger. The man howled in anguish and dropped the blade, and Cougar winked again when he glanced her way.

Looking for the fourth man, he spotted him and almost laughed aloud. Skan's two companions had the man by both arms and appeared to be attempting to clean the hardwood floor with his face. One of them, the one who had earlier blushed, was overheard to say, "We are Dragon Knights Goldmoon. We won't start it, but we will finish it."

Skan, who hadn't bothered to move, smiled at Static. "Well?" she said.

Static vanished then. He had used a scroll and abandoned his companions to whatever fate awaited them.

Skan laughed at his craven nature.

Cougar and Gazfaz also laughed.

The man in gray pulled back the hood of his robe revealing his full features and introduced himself. "My name is Brimstone, son of Artherk, seeker of justice." Then he looked squarely at Cougar, "I seek the spawn killer to administer justice."

 

***

 

An hour later, Brimstone was headed down the trail to Tarantula Lake. This time he carried with him some scrolls that he felt might aide in his search. Beside him walked Cougar the valiant archer maiden. She had insisted on going to seek justice. Brimstone knew a bit about Cougar's personality. If she was determined on doing something, then she would. It was as simple as that. Therefore, he agreed to work with her and together they arrived at the lake.

Once there, they settled in to wait. For three days, they watched the lake with no incident. They saw many come and go. By the third day, their supplies had begun to run low, but their patience was rewarded.

A young mage and archer were fighting the spiders at the lake seeking the bounty that the king's mage Starbolt, by order of the king, had put on their eyes as proof of faithful service to the kingdom. They were young and had to struggle valiantly to slay the spiders. Actually, more than once Cougar had to assist them with a well placed arrow lest they die. But such was her skill with the bow that the arrows she occasionally fired to help the couple buried themselves completely in the bodies of the spiders, and the young adventurers never saw them.

They had harvested but a few sets of eyes when something odd happened. Brimstone noticed it first, but Cougar quietly touched his arm to get his attention a moment later. He nodded his understanding and awareness of what was going on.

Some demon trees came into the lake area. Moments later, a wave of spiders came from the opposite direction.

Brimstone opened his pack and removed the scrolls he’d brought with him. He handed several to Cougar. Using one himself, he immediately saw the spawn killer.

After using a scroll of true sight, Cougar raised her bow and prepared to fire an arrow at the man trying to kill the innocents. But Brimstone laid a hand on her bow arm and whispered another plan, and after hearing the plan she readily agreed.

Brimstone took another set of scrolls from his pack. He gave Cougar two, and kept two for himself. He used one and instantly became invisible then he moved down toward the spawn killer.

Cougar took the two recall scrolls to the innocent young hunters then dropped them at their feet. Then in rapid succession, she killed every spider and tree that came their way. She told the young mage and archer to take a scroll and use it. Grateful, they used the scrolls of recall.

Meanwhile Brimstone started spawning himself. Soon a wave of spiders and trees had the spawn killer trapped. He tried hard to get past them, then realizing that was impossible, he stood his ground to fight. Soon he was lost under a wave of hairy spiders as they teemed over his position. When his potions were gone, he was sent to temple by the spiders.

When he perished, Cougar gave a valiant mental shout to the kingdom. "So die all spawn killers of the innocents!"

A great cheer went up in the realm as many who had suffered at the hands of the villain heard the news.

That shout was heard in the minds of the realm, along with the identity of the spawn killer and a stern warning from Brimstone to leave the innocents of the realm alone.

Rubbing his scared and still bleeding cheeks, a very angry and nearly dead spawn killer looked around Silversky temple. He had lost a lot of gold when he’d almost died. Soon he forgot that as he saw many very hostile looks being directed at him. More than one weapon was removed from its sheath and a low level murmur began. Some of the mages present began to murmur their spells as well. He decided very quickly that he had pressing business on the island of Arakas, and used a scroll to get there at once.

Never again did he bother people on the king’s business at that lake

 


Chapter 12

 

Brimstone slept fitfully, troubled by a bad dream in which he relived the preceding day’s events. He slept in a small tent high in the mountains of Stoneheim. He had spent the day tracking down and then killing a monster that had slain a young mage new to the island.

Then, his troubled face relaxed and he was once again with Damia. "Greetings to thee, good lady," he said in a quiet voice.

The lovely goddess smiled and her radiant beauty warmed his heart. Then she became quite serious. "Brimstone, I have need of your service once more, if you will aide me. But I warn you, this time the danger is much greater, and you cannot accomplish this task alone."

Brimstone smiled at her and bowed. "Please show me what you will, lady."

"Remember that what you see is what will come to pass. This is the future and you cannot interact with the events to come. In fact it is an illusion, but these events will most certainly happen as I show them to you, unless you agree to intervene."

Brimstone nodded his understanding.

Without another word, they were instantly transported to the city of Stonecrest.

A powerful raid and monsters swarmed near the temple. Three valiant figures stood near the front door of the temple. Damia spoke their names one by one in his mind. "There is Tipher the paladin, Tarkenstar the mage of imminent wisdom, Pig Killa an archer, and fire mage."

As he watched, Brimstone noted with appreciation their professional demeanor as they slaughtered many of the monsters attempting to gain entry into the temple. He observed that as Tarkenstar blessed all those present they were instantly stronger. Pig Killa mass killed some monsters with the spell meteor. Tipher dispatched those that escaped Pig Killa’s flaming death with ease. Tarkenstar healed both a moment, then stepped to the front and raised his hands. Incredibly strong waves of boulders descended upon the bodies of the packed horde of monsters.

For a while, they managed easily. But something was wrong. Monster raids were not uncommon, but this was no ordinary raid. Normally all one had to do was survive a wave or two of monsters and they broke off their attacks and went away to lick their wounds. This time they just kept coming and coming. Still the valiant three fought with precision and great skill. Countless foes did they slay. If the mage grew exhausted, and needed to regain his mana to battle, then the archer Pig Killa and the Paladin Tipher stepped to the front and shielded him with their deadly weapons.

Then things started to go wrong. Soon all the mana was gone and the healing potions as well. Still they fought well and not one monster got past them to the Priest Nissus Haloseeker inside the temple proper. Then the monsters burst through the rear door. The rear door had never been breached. It was considered impossible.

Tarkenstar noticed and turned to run inside and face this threat from their rear. At that moment, the last of the remaining defensive spells collapsed on all three defenders at once, and the monsters swarmed over first Pig Killa then the valiant Tipher went down under a fury of attacks.

Brimstone instinctively grasped his sword hilt. He had just spotted a black robed man standing at the rear of the horde of monsters. This man had dispelled the defensive shields of the valiant party, and thus brought about the deaths of Pig Killa and Tipher. He was also speaking to the monsters and urging them forward.

"Remember my warning," Damia said softly in his mind.

Brimstone relaxed and continued to observe.

He turned his attention to Tarkenstar and saw him go down, attacked by eight Skeletal Centaurs at once. Ordinarily, he would have devastated them in moments with his turn undead spell or boulders. But the vile mage outside leading the horde had taken every defensive spell and dispelled it. Even Tarkenstar’s vast bless was dispelled and with it his reserve of health.

With the last of his defenders now gone, Nissus Haloseeker found himself at the mercy of the horde. They had none. A powerful man in his own right, he fought valiantly to defend himself and did well, but then the wretched black robed mage entered the temple.

Brimstone noted that the vile mage emanated pure hatred as he winced in pain. It caused him great discomfort to enter the temple of Artherk, yet he was able to do it and it should have been impossible. He placed the same spell on Nissus that he had used on the three champions that had sought to defend the high-ranking Priest of Artherk. Then he hastily left the place in obvious pain.

Outside the temple, the pain stopped and he turned to glare malevolently at Nissus. In great satisfaction, he saw the priest die in agony. Now defenseless, Nissus was torn to pieces in a matter of moments.

Laughing, the villain disappeared in a flash of light.

Then a strange thing happened. The temple rocked and swayed a moment and a very angry Artherk appeared inside it beside the fallen form of Nissus. The monsters inside the temple cringed in terror at the fearsome presence of the angry god.

He looked at them and spoke a word of power and they were gone in a flash of light.

Throughout Althea, every man and woman stopped what they were doing and listened as time seemed to stand still a moment. No one knew what had transpired, but all felt something different in the air. Then they heard Artherk, soon followed by Ogrimar vent a scream of anger. Then Artherk spoke. "Who has defiled my temple?"

Ogrimar replied, "I have not violated our rules weak god of goodness. I too am angered, because if someone violates our rules agreed upon a millennium ago to violate you, then I am surely to be next."

For a moment the realm cringed fearing all out war. Friends looked at each other uneasily, for by following the established rules of conduct between the two deities it was not at all uncommon for a follower of Artherk to be friends with a follower of Ogrimar.

Then Artherk spoke sounding calmer. "Ogrimar speaks the truth." The realm knew that a god would know and seemed to relax a moment. Then Artherk spoke once more. "I order my followers to work with any that will defend our realm from what is coming. Yea, even the followers of Ogrimar you should strive for this must be stopped."

Ogrimar spoke then, "Aye even with the pitifully weak followers of Artherk do I so instruct my followers to strive. Artherk, the weakling, speaks true. If this continues, the world of Althea will most surely perish."

Then Brimstone saw the vision end. He was once more alone with the lovely Damia.

There is a new element being introduced to the realm. It is a power so vile that it will destroy all of Althea in its quest for power. It is neither good nor evil. It makes use of spells forbidden man by the god's agreement. And it kills personal servants of the gods to prevent mankind from reaching their full potential."

"You mean by killing Nissus no follower of Artherk can reach their next plane of existence when they seek to become a seraph?" asked Brimstone.

"Exactly, and no," she shook her head to his unspoken questions, "he can not be resurrected nor can he be replaced." She leaned a bit toward Brimstone and stared intently into his eyes, then said, "And Ogrimar is correct. He is next and we know it."

Brimstone was confused. He knew that Artherk could indeed resurrect followers. He was about to say as much when the Goddess spoke a last time. "Ordinarily yes, but you see when the mage broke that rule it altered things. There was a very good reason for that rule. Exactly what this event changes I cannot relate to you. Though you are half of god blood you are not a full god, therefore unfortunately I cannot reveal that. I am sorry, but that is against the rules and would violate the agreements of the gods."

Then she smiled at him radiantly, and her beauty warmed his heart. "You will help?" she asked needlessly. She already knew he would.

He answered that of course he would, and was soon once more asleep.

This time he slept with the blessings of the all the gods. And when a follower of  Ogrimar passed by his sleeping form for some odd reason he bowed to the sleeping man and stood watch as he slept a blessed sleep of the gods, not to be disturbed until dawn.

The follower of Ogrimar killed several monsters as they came near the man whose slumber he guarded. The man of evil alignment marveled that such a deep sleeper had lived to maturity. Finally, with the dawn Brimstone stirred. As Brimstone started to stir, the follower of evil quietly walked away shaking his head in confusion as he asked himself, "Now why did I do that? Normally I never care about a lone hunter camping," the man thought to himself.

Somewhere Ogrimar smiled at his follower's confusion.

Yes, the Gods were now aware and they would assist to some degree as Brimstone gathered the forces needed. But there were limits to what they could do by agreements unspeakable to any but the gods.

 

***

 

The next day in the city of Stonecrest, a group of people filed out the back door of the temple and headed west to the sea. Each had received an urgent message from Brimstone to meet him here in the city at this appointed time. They stopped when they reached the sea and waited for Brimstone to arrive. Out of respect for him, they had come to see what he needed.

Tarn the mercenary was there with two companions. Thor and Kats Justice, the young married couple was there, as were Cougar, Tipher and Tarkenstar and the magnificent Pig Killa. Also present was Gazfaz the representative of the Kingdom, who was accompanied by Hilda, who was also an official of the realm. The guild leader, Skan stood near them.

Brimstone noted them all. He was amazed that so many had come at his invitation to attend this meeting. He also saw Symbiotic, a very powerful light mage. XconX, another powerful light mage was present as well.

Noughtinhill, a fire mage, was smiling at the crowd. Lord Cal, the powerful warrior was there in gleaming armor, as was Jedi with his trusty frostbane sword. A devastating weapon that it was said grew ever stronger as a warrior's strength grew. Brimstone smiled and nodded in appreciation of the fine blade. He greatly admired those weapons and made a mental note to get one for himself someday soon.

Smiling at all those present, he studied the last of the volunteers who had come at his call. Kain Bloodstone the archer was there with his oak composite bow, and two more light mages had arrived. They were Fudd, a powerful mage, and Blktygga.

Brimstone nodded in appreciation. He was confident that these volunteers would be more than adequate to the task.

He spoke to them then, relating everything that had transpired in his dream. They all calmly listened as he described the incidents that had unfolded. Tarkenstar nodded sagely at the description of the battle at the temple entrance. Pig Killa fingered his bow, grinning as Brimstone described his deadly accuracy, and Tipher modestly blushed at the praise of his valor in combat.

Then, as he got to the part of his dream in which the temple was invaded from the back door, there were audible gasps of disbelief. Gazfaz and Hilda frowned in consternation. This was unheard of in the realm. During countless monster raids, that door had never been breached. Many of the light mages grinned in understanding as he related to those assembled that the monsters that stormed the rear were all undead. Now they understood their presence at this meeting. Up to that point, the monsters were of such breeds that they were not needed.

Brimstone then related to them the tragic events that followed. Pig Killa swallowed hard as he heard his fate. Tipher frowned in consternation, and Tarkenstar paled as he heard of his death. But all three men grew resolved. To be forewarned was to be forearmed. Each privately resolved that they would not meet those fates.

Brimstone then told them all the rest of his dream. When he had finished they stood silently a moment. Then, in their hearts, some few began to doubt him. Oh they knew his reputation, and it was inconceivable that he would deliberately lie to them. But it was a dream, and all had experienced dreams of events that never came to pass. As this doubt settled in a few quietly questioned him.

Blktygga spoke first. "Brimstone, I do know that you speak in honesty. There is no doubt there, but it was a dream, sir."

Brimstone nodded his head, understanding that genuine doubt. He had anticipated such doubt. "Does anyone else share this doubt?" One by one, a few others nodded their heads. "Good, then you are wise and not blind followers."

Without another word, Brimstone stepped a bit away from the group and raised his head to the sky. Lifting his voice to the heavens, he spoke these words, "Father, I need you."

A moment later, Artherk stood before the assembled group. The followers of Artherk bowed and kneeled before their god. Even the followers of Ogrimar bowed in respect of Artherk. He may not be their deity, but he was a god.

Artherk smiled at the assembled group, then looked at his son. "What troubles thee, my son?"

"Some doubt the dream, father," replied Brimstone.

"They are wise not to blindly follow dreams, son," said Artherk, then he turned to face the assembled group. "However in this case, you can trust that dream." Then realizing that the followers of Ogrimar might not heed his words he spoke Ogrimar's name and his voice answered from the air itself near the group.

"I hear you, Artherk." Then he also stood before the group. His followers bowed, as did Artherk's followers. Then Ogrimar’s followers also kneeled. "They doubted the dream?" he asked.

"Not anymore I assume," replied Artherk. Indeed this was true.

 

***

 

The next day, the final preparations were made.

Gazfaz and Hilda went on missions to each of the cities in which they consulted with the city officials about the need to strengthen their city guards and defenses. No one knew how this would end, and if the enemy managed to escape it was easy to understand that he might show up at any city to wreck havoc.

Being members of the ruling council of the realm made this possible.

In Stonecrest, Thor, Jedi, Skan, and Lord Cal all made several trips to purchase manastones and potions of a variety. These they staged strategically near the front and back of the temple doorways just outside the temple.

The light mages, Symbiotic, Blktygga, XconX, and Fudd studied the layout near the rear of the temple and just inside. It was readily agreed that three of them should face the monsters outside the rear of the temple, and one should remain inside to kill any of the undead that might perchance get past the other three. Brimstone had to mediate a small argument with these men when they could not decide who would be the man to remain inside the temple. He solved it by drawing lots. He took four gold coins and marked them with the letters S, B, X and F. These he placed in a small vase inside the temple. He took the vase in his hands and walked to Nissus, who then reached in and drew one coin from the vase. It was marked with an X.

XconX frowned in disappointment but accepted his destiny with good faith. He had wanted to be in on the hard work outside the temple and test his skills there. With his luck being what it was, he would most likely not see even one monster during this trial ahead. At the height of the battle to come, he would laugh at this fear and think, "gods, I was so wrong!"

Brimstone decided that one warrior and one archer should also stay inside with XconX. He remembered the precision teamwork displayed by Thor and Kats and immediately asked them to take on that assignment. They readily agreed, though Thor expressed some concern that he would be unable to use his weapon inside the temple. Brimstone assured him that he would indeed be able to use it by saying, "You are doing Artherk's will, Thor. Think not that he will prevent you from following his wishes." Thor smiled sheepishly. Over in a corner, Brimstone saw XconX also looking relieved. Apparently, he had shared that concern.

Brimstone decided that a fire mage, an archer, and a warrior should also join the light mages behind the temple. He sought out Noughtinhill, Kain Bloodstone, and Jedi, who all agreed readily to defend the temples rear entry.

Tarkenstar had a very tricky assignment. His bless was recognized as the best bless of the party available, therefore at the first sign of the raid he was to bless the defenders in the front of the temple, then pass through the temple and bless those defenders as he passed them. Nissus agreed to heal those defenders free that day. That took a nudge from Artherk himself, but Nissus agreed, albeit reluctantly. Then Tarkenstar was to exit the rear door and bless all those outside, and then he was to promptly return to the front where he would join Tipher and Pig Killa.

The warriors, Skan and Lord Cal, would be joining the battle at the temple front. Cougar would add her bow to the defense there as well.

All understood that Brimstone's job in all this was to take on the powerful sorcerer whom he had seen in his dream. It was his hope that if he could slay that foul creature then the raid would soon after end as they normally did. Without the sorcerer, who would be controlling them and forcing them to do his bidding, the monsters would soon flee the city.

Brimstone had sternly warned the defenders in front of the temple not to leave their positions to come to his aid should he fall. That would surely cause a calamity in the front. They had agreed, but Brimstone had noted a peculiar look in Cougar's eyes. "I mean it," he sternly warned.

"Yes, Brimstone," she replied readily, then continued, "I will not move a step away from the temple front," she finished with a laugh.

 

***

 

That was his plan. He mentally reviewed every detail of the layout for the defenders. He was afraid that he had overlooked something, but upon mental review of each interacting detail, he failed to find anything that he could do in advance that had not been done. Each member of the party of defenders was so heavily laden with potions and mana that it would be nearly impossible to pick up so much as a gold piece. He had also made certain that all had scrolls of protection and barrier to augment their defenses.

Ten minutes before the attack was to begin, Brimstone made a final round of all of the defensive posts. All were in good spirits and ready to begin.

 

***

 

The gods, Artherk and Ogrimar, within their respective realms, watched with interest. Somewhat grudgingly, Ogrimar bespoke Artherk saying, "Your son is a fine leader. You should be proud of him."

Artherk smiled and replied, "I am proud of him, and you are correct. He is a fine leader." Then he said, "Thank you Ogrimar, and your followers are very brave. I sense no fear among them."

Ogrimar laughed and replied, "Of course they are brave. They are, after all, mine." With that said, the two gods remained silent and observed in contemplation.

 

***

 

At precisely the predicted moment, the raid began. Slow at first but then building in intensity. Tarkenstar blessed all the defenders in front of the temple then ran inside. Once he was inside, he blessed the defenders stationed there, and then he ran out the back door. Nissus healed the occupants of the temple while Tarkenstar bolted out the back door and hurriedly blessed the six defenders located there. The light mages behind the temple healed the party.

Tarkenstar returned to the battle at the front of the temple where he joined the center of the line of the five defenders who were already engaged in serious battle with the rapidly growing horde of monsters.

Skan, who was on the right side of the defensive line, took the head of an arrogant skraug as he taunted her, and then kicked his body away from her position. She smiled grimly as another skraug took its place and that one also died taunting her when she slashed it across the face then reversed the sword stroke and took its head on the return stroke.

Cougar was taunting the skraugs near her and firing with uncanny dexterity. She was using dark arrows, and as she shot them, she received some of their life force into herself. The resulting vigor drove her to a frenzy of rapid shots that decimated the attacking skraugs confronting the left side of the defensive line.

Lord Cal stood near Skan on the right side of the defenders. His sword was so  powerful that more and more of the attackers were falling near him and some sought to get around him only to meet Skan's skilled blade, or Tipher's who fought valiantly next to him. Tipher healed Lord Cal when a skraug got in a lucky hit, and then continued to battle the monsters fiercely.

Beside Tipher, Tarkenstar unleashed several volleys of boulder and many skraugs died. Next to Tarkenstar stood the valiant Pig Killa, who had already killed numerous skraugs with his bow. As the crowd of skraugs grew more numerous he raised his hand and unleashed a torrent of meteors to rain down upon the packed mass of monsters. On his left, Cougar laughed and killed yet more of the skraugs.

When he finally saw the sorcerer, Brimstone walked from behind the city potion shop. Some instinct must have warned him, because the vile man turned and without speaking a word, he ordered those monsters nearest him to attack Brimstone.

Ten of the skraugs attacked the son of Artherk then. He met their charge head on, and like a dervish, he spun through their ranks and killed.

The sorcerer saw that his skraugs were no match for the defenders, so he summoned a wave of bloodlusts that attacked the defensive line. These giant worms were harder to slay, because it took longer to slay each great worm than it did to slay five skraugs. This was when the line needed the potions. Some defenders also chose to use their scrolls of barrier and protection at that point.

Working in tandem, Tarkenstar and Pig Killa combined their lethal spells to weaken the entire line of monsters attacking them. They did this with such great skill that the warriors gleefully hacked the monsters to pieces, and then attacked two worms unaffected by the spells of the mages. They hacked and hacked, and with each stroke of Skan and Lord Cal's swords, the monsters grew weaker, and then died.

Cougar fired arrow after arrow into the great beasts, killing several. Those few monsters that reached her could not slay the archer for their very essence of life was yielded to the woman by her arrows.

Tipher stepped back and demonstrated why he was a paladin. As Skan and Lord Cal fought off the monsters, he healed them with great affect. So skilled was he that neither needed to use a potion. When they were fully healed, he returned to the fray with sword in hand.

Brimstone waded through the dead worms near him. Once more, he sought to close with the sorcerer who turned and saw him. The sorcerer cursed, and then summoned a wave of Dark Nobles.

 

Inside the temple, the defenders watched as best they could from their positions. Many times XconX used his very good heal spell to heal the defenders that he could target from his position. Thor watched in frustration, unable to lift a finger to assist them, but Brimstone had been adamant. They were not to leave their positions even for a moment. Kats smiled shyly and fired an occasional arrow when a target presented itself. She had accounted for five skraugs and finished off one worm weakened by the mages’ attacks.

Thor smiled encouragement at her and she winked in response as she nocked another arrow.

  

Behind the temple, the party of defenders could hear the sounds of the battle but could see nothing. They all wished they could join the group in the front of the temple, but knew that if they left their position it would be disastrous. They waited faithfully, but in frustration.

 

***

 

It was at that point that the sorcerer used his dispel spell as he simultaneously summoned a horde of undead behind the temple. Even as the defensive line in front of the temple heard the sounds of battle now being waged in their rear, their defensive spells all failed at once.

Prepared for this, they immediately began to recast their spells and Tarkenstar blessed all. From his position inside the temple XconX healed those among the defenders in his line of sight. Tipher glanced quickly inside and smiled his appreciation, then returned to the fight at hand. Dark Nobles were coming. He attacked with spells fully in place. Cougar was having a field day. She killed and killed, often luring Dark Nobles away from the main attack in the center of the line by hitting them on the outer fringes of the packed mob.

Pig Killa and Tarkenstar once again were laying down a withering barrage of the spells meteor and boulder.

Skan and Lord Cal fought as valiantly as ever and killed many of the Dark Nobles, which was no easy feat. The vile clerics were deadly in their own right. Whipped to a killing frenzy by the mysterious dark robed man, they were significantly more dangerous than the skraugs or bloodlusts.

 

***

 

Behind the temple, Symbiotic, Blktygga, and Fudd formed the center of the line. They unleashed their turn undead spells at the packed horde of Spectral Knights who were advancing on them. Symbiotic was by far the most powerful light mage of the group. His turn undead spell quickly lay the undead to rest. Fudd and Blktygga also killed many with their turn undead spells, but they also had planned on the two weaker light mages of the line using their healing spells on Jedi, Kain, and Noughtinhill. Kain seldom needed their help for some reason, but Jedi occasionally did, as he could not defend himself from the many casters targeting him. Noughtinhill fared better and seldom needed help so Fudd and Blktygga would heal those in need and then unleash more turn undead.

Kain Bloodstone, using fire arrows for his attack, was on the left flank of the line. With great skill, he killed many Spectral Knights. He raked the Knights, often drawing fire onto himself when he saw one of the other defenders taking too much damage, thus he heroically sacrificed his own health for that of the others. But his cleverness in wearing a ring of the priest paid off. That ring saved him many times during the battle.

Jedi, fighting between Kain and Fudd, met the attacks as best he could, but these Spectral Knights were primarily spell casters, and seldom closed with him, therefore during the opening moments of the battle his deadly sword was of limited value. He had only killed four of the Spectral Knights that ventured too near him before the advance line of monsters was decimated. After that, it got bad for him, for he could not leave the line to attack the spell casters, as he would have done in single combat. He cleverly activated his flaming wristband and thus managed to exact some revenge on his attackers as the wristband struck back with a flame attack at any who attacked him.

Noughtinhill was fighting to the right of Blktygga. He unleashed another burst of firestorm into the packed mass of Spectral Knights. Then another wave appeared. This time it was Skeletal Centaurs and Putrid Beasts. He sent wave after wave of firestorms into the packed monsters and they slowly grew fewer in number.

This time Jedi was pleased. At least this time he was near enough to the Putrid Beasts to unleash his weapon to full affect, for they had spawned almost on top of him. He stopped counting at fifteen and just killed and killed more with a wild abandon, as his frostbane sword hit them with incredible speed.

Fudd healed Jedi, and then cast more turn undead.

Blktygga healed Noughtinhill a bit, and then released his own turn undead.

Meanwhile, Symbiotic was slaughtering the Skeletal Centaurs with a deadly quiet intensity. He didn't even try to count how many he killed in those moments. Later, when he had a chance to speak to Silverstream Dionysus, the centaur informed him that he had taken an incredible seventy-six Skeletal Centaurs that day.

Kain Bloodstone fired arrows with such vigor that soon the rear elements of the monsters were gone. Jedi worked on those near him until they too were gone. The center of the attackers broke as the three light mages and the fire mage devastated them.

Then it was over. This wave was gone. Fudd healed Jedi, who had disregarded his health in his determination to finish off the last of the Putrid Beasts. Fudd shook his head in amazement. "Never would I have believed that a warrior could mass kill. I swear, Jedi, you almost do." Jedi laughed and thanked Fudd, who grinned good-naturedly.

Kain smiled grimly and nocked another arrow, preparing for the next wave. But that wave never came.

 

***

 

Fighting past the Dark Nobles, Brimstone finally closed with the sorcerer. He struck the man a mighty blow that staggered him. Even as he regained his balance, Brimstone's fingers closed around the dark mage's throat.

Frantically, for several moments, the vile sorcerer struggled with Brimstone, straining his muscles as his fingers wrestled with those of Brimstone. Then he grew very still.

Brimstone felt a wave of vertigo as he was translocated to the temple along with the sorcerer. Losing his balance from that experience, his fingers loosened their grip, and the sorcerer disappeared yet again. This time, the mage translocated alone.

He reappeared several feet away and snarled savagely at Brimstone. He then closed his eyes and summoned a mass wave of Skeletal Centaurs. These monsters swept over Brimstone in their arrival and he fell to the ground.

A moment later, he arose with sword in hand. He killed a dozen Skeletal Centaurs in moments.

Then the sorcerer pointed his right index finger at the three defenders inside the temple. Instantly they were beset by another horde of Skeletal Centaurs. Kats, Thor, and XconX braced themselves and fought well. With his spell, turn undead, XconX killed two times the number that Thor and Kats killed. But they were being overwhelmed. Then Brimstone was beside the archer and he added his sword to her defense. Together, with Thor and XconX, they kept the monsters at bay.

In a fury, the Sorcerer summoned a wave of Skeletal Centaurs and Putrid Beats behind the temple. He did this hoping that they would break through what had to be a line of strong defenders out there. Had he been able to concentrate a few moments, he could have seen them. But with Brimstone pressing him so, the best he had been able to do was summon and hope.

XconX killed them by the scores, but the Skeletal Centaurs kept coming in greater and greater numbers. He saw Brimstone down two as Thor killed one and Kats finished another. But he lost track of them as another wave of the undead beasts rushed him. Out of the corner of his eye, the mage saw the malevolent sorcerer pointing at him. Soon he was taking so much damage that even his great healing spell was not enough, and he had to resort to potions. In rapid succession, he drank forty, yet he was still dying. Then his supply of healing potions was gone and he thought that the monsters would surely take him to Ogrimar. There was no way he could get to the potions on the floor near the rear of the temple. The monsters were between him and that much needed aide.

Then Kats appeared by his side shooting arrow after arrow at the attacking undead. He briefly remembered his earlier thought that he would see no action in this battle and smiled a brief smile to himself at the irony of his fate, and then the mage collapsed near death.

 

***

 

Outside the front of the temple, a last vast wave of undead appeared. This was the first spawn of undead for the defenders situated here, and Cougar frowned as she quickly changed to her fire quiver. Then she sent many flaming arrows into the packed horde of Skeletal Centaurs and Spectral Knights.

Pig Killa didn’t even try to use his bow this time. His meteor spell slammed into the undead non-stop. He was glad that he had replenished his mana supply during the last lull in battle. If he had not done so, he would now be without the use of that mana draining spell. But Pig Killa’s meteor was a perfect attack spell for this mass spawn of undead, who were so tightly packed together.

Tarkenstar used boulder to great affect also. He was worried for the sounds of a huge battle being waged inside the temple had reached his ears.

Tipher glanced inside the temple and paled. The spawn inside the temple had reached such a level that the undead were now being forced to head outside to make room for more. He shouted to Lord Cal and Skan, "Behind us!"

They spun around just in time to meet a charge of Skeletal Centaurs head on.

The three of them managed to slow the flow so that the line of defenders were not trampled underfoot. But they were all very hard pressed.

At that critical moment, Tarn the mercenary arrived, accompanied by ten mercenaries that he had been sent by Hilda and Gazfaz to secure. The city of Stonecrest was paying these men to defend the temple. The mercenaries were mainly warriors, but there were two bowmen as well. They filled the gap and stopped the flow from the temple along with Skan, Tipher, and Lord Cal.

Lord Cal did a most remarkable thing at that moment. He sidestepped a charging Skeletal Centaur, then with his left hand, he grasped the passing monster's neck and with a leap, he was on the creature’s back. He promptly struck its head from its bony neck and leaped aside laughing as he rushed back to Skan's side to reclaim his place in the battle line.

Skan struck the head from a monster and welcomed Cal back to the battle line.

Tipher healed them both, and then killed two more of the undead himself.

 

***

 

Inside the temple XconX collapsed near death and waited helplessly for the deathblow to come. Two things happened at once then. Kats leaped to his side with bowstring humming. Even as she ran to his side, her arrows were firing, one after another into the onrushing monsters, thus drawing their attacks onto her. Then Nissus healed him. XconX got to his feet and added his turn undead to her arrows as Thor hacked his way to her other side. Smiling she welcomed him even as she killed her fourteenth Skeletal Centaur. Nissus healed them all.

Brimstone had managed to close with the vile sorcerer once more. He had noticed something odd. The sorcerer was wearing a necklace of a strange design with a large gem attached to the bottom of the ornate golden chain. That gem seemed to glow at times, especially when the sorcerer was summoning monsters. This time, when Brimstone locked his fingers around the sorcerer's throat, the man went berserk. He summoned another vast wave of Skeletal Centaurs.

Brimstone called to all the defenders at that moment telling them to get inside the temple soon or all might be lost. Then he concentrated on choking this vile man.

A moment later, the back door burst open and in rushed Jedi with his frostbane whirling. He looked like a berserker as he slashed and killed with a wild abandon, a whirring dervish of a killing machine. He was followed by Kain Bloodstone who stepped inside and then to the left of the door, making way for others to enter. He then fired his bow to great affect.

Nissus seemed to be everywhere, healing all who needed it, just in time in some cases, to prevent their deaths.

Then the magnificent Skan was there beside Kats, sword raised defiantly over her last kill as she closed that gap. Lord Cal was on her other side and Cougar was with Pig Killa, near the front door. Both were using their bows in great teamwork laying down a withering barrage of arrows that had cleared a path for Skan and Lord Cal. Tarkenstar was near the two archers, and he blessed all those present once more.

Nissus was overheard to be grumbling as he healed the mercenaries. He was grumbling because he was losing so much gold this day with his services free. *Artherk coughed to get the priests attention.* Nissus looked sheepish as he healed and healed.

The four light mages then joined ranks, with Symbiotic and XconX in the center and Blktygga and Fudd on the left and right sides. Then they unleashed turn undead to great affect. It was almost unnerving how quietly they killed the undead with that almost silent spell.

Noughtinhill used his spell firestorm and another small group of monsters was laid to rest. Then he used his manaburst spell to pull two Skeletal Centaurs away from a mercenary who was down near him. He switched to firestorm when they were clear of all defenders, then stood over the unconscious mercenary until the battle was done. Then, when the man was safe, he went about his business seeking no thanks, as usual.

There came a time when somehow they all realized that the spawning had stopped, and that the monsters being killed were no longer being replaced. Taking great heart from this, they all redoubled their efforts and soon the temple was free of the undead.

In the center of the temple stood Brimstone and the vile sorcerer dressed in black. The sorcerer's hood had fallen back in the midst of his struggle with Brimstone whose hands continued to squeeze the life from him. Then Brimstone released the man's neck with his right hand, and grasped the chain supporting the odd necklace. He yanked it from the mage’s body. The gem was an angry bright red, but the mage’s body relaxed completely. Perhaps oddly, considering he had just been trying to kill the man, using only his left hand, Brimstone gently lowered him to the temple floor.

Stepping away from the man, Brimstone watched him very carefully a moment, and then he said, "Father, I need you."

 

***

 

Artherk appeared in the temple near Brimstone. Ogrimar and Damia also appeared at that moment.

Artherk directed his son with very careful words. "My son, touch not that vile gem." Brimstone had understood intuitively that it was dangerous to do so and was taking great pains to see that he did not touch it. "It is a malevolent thing that will consume your mind as surely as it did this unfortunate soul's."

Damia summoned a large rock near Brimstone. Artherk bade him to place the gem upon its flat surface. Being very careful not to touch the gem Brimstone laid it down upon the rock. As he did so, everyone in the temple felt a nauseating wave of hatred and fury from the gem that was now glowing white and causing a white smoke to arise from the rock upon which it rested, as if it were drawing moisture from the rock.

Stepping away from the gem, Brimstone saw Ogrimar raise his hands over the stone and felt a moment of fear that the god of evil would take possession of this vile item. But he need not have worried, for Ogrimar knew only too well that this thing was too dangerous to keep, even for a god. Instead, he made the stone grow. It grew and grew, and as it grew, it covered the gem entirely and continued to grow. As the stone grew and covered the gem, the intense fury in the air seemed to dissipate. Only when it was completely gone did the rock stop growing, and even then, it took several seconds to stop.

The god of evil stepped backwards away from the large boulder and said, "It is contained for the moment. But the boulder will not always contain it. Even now the boulder is weakening a bit at its heart." He looked at the other two gods and nodded his head. "It will contain it long enough for our purposes."

    Artherk raised his hand and the people inside the temple marveled as the ceiling disappeared. The three gods then took their places around the boulder, and with hands outstretched over it they made it rise. It rose slowly at first. Then in a burst of speed, the rock was hurled up through the sky. Faster and faster it traveled, through the thinning atmosphere of Althea. Then it was outside the atmosphere entirely and still picking up speed as it hurtled toward the star that Althea orbited. It traveled at speeds inconceivable to man. When it struck the star moments later, forces beyond the comprehension of most mortals instantly consumed the boulder. Along with the boulder the gem was destroyed. The star never even burped as the gem ceased to exist.

The gods had concluded that the only safe way to destroy this thing was in the eternal furnace of the star.

 

***

 

The gods then turned their attention to the pathetic body of the sorcerer. He was apparently quite insane now, driven mad by the powerful influence of that dread gem. He lay on the floor drooling. A pathetic lunatic with the obvious signs of starvation etched into his emaciated features. Apparently, the gem didn't see much need for him to feed himself and neglected that. In his insanity, the man also forgot it.

Ogrimar spoke then in a dire tone. "This one is one of mine. He was Maximillain. He would have broken our agreement, Artherk. Therefore, I will punish him as you deem fit, to make amends."

Artherk thought but a moment, and then he spoke. What he said shocked most present. Only Damia and Brimstone appeared unsurprised when he said, "Then give him to me."

Ogrimar was outraged and indignant about this. He was nearly livid. Never in history had he given a follower to another god. He said, "I will punish him myself. He is, after all, one of mine."

Then Damia spoke quietly but firmly. "He is yours no longer, Ogrimar. You gave your agreement to abide by whatever punishment Artherk wished. If he wishes to make a servant of the man to make amends, then that is his right by the accords of the gods."

Ogrimar was boxed in and he knew it. He was indeed bound by the accords of the gods. It was that or all out war. And he was not yet ready for war. He reluctantly relented. Artherk placed his hands above the form of the whimpering soul suffering at his feet. As he did this the man's body rose into the air floating on unseen strings of godly power.

Then Artherk gently touched the man's forehead and said, "Be well, and be whole."

Instantly the man's eyes snapped open and he looked at Artherk in wonder. Gone was the insanity that had claimed him since the day he found that accursed gem. For the first time in ages, he was once more himself. He also appeared healthy and well feed.

Artherk gently placed the man on his feet before him. "I forgive you. What you did was not your fault. The gem consumed your mind. Therefore you are free to go."

Ogrimar snarled, "Weakling fool."

Artherk just smiled at Ogrimar who was having what was apparently to him, a bad day.

Maximillain stared in wonder at Artherk. "I remember it all, Artherk. Every action is etched in my mind." He paled noticeably as he remembered. Then he said, "I have endangered you all. I profoundly beg your forgiveness."

"That I have already given," Artherk replied softly, and then he added. "You are free to go."

With that said, Maximillain fell to his knees begging, "Nay Artherk, do not send me away. Let me be your servant."

"Then arise my follower and know the joys of being one of mine." He then cast his blessings on the man and the last vestiges of his torment were erased as if they had never happened.

Damia walked over to Brimstone, slid her arm through his, and said. "It is time for your reward for aiding me once more."

"No, good lady, I cannot accept a reward," he stammered embarrassed.

She arched an eyebrow and said, "I'm afraid you have little to say in the matter." Then she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him tenderly. The temple erupted with shouts of delight and even some light applause. Ogrimar left in disgust. Artherk smiled. Brimstone's face got red, but he managed to return that sweet kiss with a passion that surprised them both. Then he whispered in her ear, "Long have I wanted to do that."

"Then why didn't you?" she asked, smiling up at him.

"I was afraid you might turn me into a horse or something."

"Oh that. No I would have chosen the form of a golem," she said laughing.

Brimstone pondered that a moment and decided that she was joking. In battles, he was brilliant, but when it came to women, he was a bit slow. Damia decided he was too slow, and that she would have to take matters into her own hands with this fellow one day. She kissed him once more, and with a giggle, she disappeared.

 

***

 

On the island of Raven's Dust, just outside Bane Blackblood's castle, a young archer named Octavius was heading to the castle to talk to Bane about a key that he needed. Just outside that castle, he was attacked by a Nightblade. He killed this Nightblade with his bow without a second thought and then he proceeded into the castle in his quest to get a key.

Had he searched the body of this Nightblade he would have found a piece of Parchment penned by Maximillain long ago. On that parchment was written this letter:

 

Bane,

 

I found a cave with some very strange gems in it. I saw two of them, but only took one. The other was too deeply embedded in the wall of the cave to pry it loose in a hurry. I was hard pressed by monsters, so I left with only the one.

It seems to have some sort of mystic power. Last night, as I held it in my hand studying it, the gem began to glow and I had a vision of a necklace. I drew that necklace and I am having it fashioned by the famed jeweler, Omar of Stonecrest. When it is ready, I will set the gem in it myself. I’m not about to leave that gem with Omar.

The necklace thus designed will harness the power of the gem, and enhance it. How I know this, I cannot say. I just know.

I am leaving this letter for you because we are friends, and I owe you a large favor. That, and for some reason I know that I can only possess one such gem. Again, how I know this I cannot say. I just know.

I will tell you myself in person when next we meet. Failing that, my servant, a loyal Nightblade, will have instructions to deliver it to you in one year’s time, should I fail to tell him otherwise.

I am enclosing a map of the cave, along with instructions for finding it. The X on the map is the location of the other gem. I am also including a picture of the necklace that Omar is making for me now. Just take the design to him and he should be able to make another for you quite easily.

Until next we meet old friend,

 

Maximillain

 

Bundled with that parchment were two others. One contained a detailed map of a cave with instructions for locating it. The other was a picture of an oddly shaped necklace with an obvious place to mount a gem, yet with no gem in the setting.

On his way back out of Bane's castle, Octavius noted that some passerby must have looted the Nightblade's corpse. It was now stripped of anything of possible value.

In the city of Silversky, the young mage Galen glanced around the bar nervously a moment. Good. No one was paying him any heed at all. Shrugging he pulled out a rolled up sheaf of parchments and studied them intently. This might just be a significant short cut to true magical power. Excited, he noted the detail of the necklace that would need to be fashioned and pondered just what such a piece of jewelry might cost. Swallowing bitterness, he decided he would just have to wait a long time to get that made. The cost of having such a custom piece custom made must be at least a million in gold, which was much more than he could spare at the present. Especially on speculation of a return that might never come. He still needed to buy spells from the teachers that he could not afford.

The cave map made him feel better. “Artherk be praised! That is Skeleton cave!” he thought to himself. Galen recognized the cave immediately. But the passage marked was odd to him. He had been in that cave several times and never seen that passage. Then he read the text written neatly alongside the picture of the cave and understood immediately. Smiling, he decided that he could indeed find that gem anytime he was ready. No rush though. It would take a long time to earn the gold he would need for Omar to fashion the necklace. Galen placed the items back inside his pack and ate a cold stew for supper before sleeping.

While he ate, Hilda and Gazfaz talked quietly at another table discussing the events of the past few days. They were relieved that it was all over and they need not worry about gems creating such sorcerers anymore.

 

***

 

Maximillain went on to become one of the most spiritual men of the realm, ever doing good where ever he went, always in Artherk's name. Thus did the once hated and feared man become beloved by many.

 


Chapter 13

 

On the island of Arakas, six young acolytes of Artherk walked down a trail near the city of Lighthaven. They were on their way to do the good works required of them by their faith. On the trail ahead of them, a black robed man stood watching the acolytes intently. One of the men spoke a word of greeting to the man as they drew near. It was then that the man attacked without warning and without any apparent reason.

He unleashed an incredibly strong drain that killed the first of the six in moments. When the other five sought to flee, he entangled them each in such rapid succession that they were helpless to escape their own doom. Then, one by one, he drained the life from the entire group.

When it was over, he smiled as the last man fell, and then the mage disappeared in a flash of white light.

 

***

 

On the island of Raven’s Dust, a high priest of Artherk sat in his study and went over plans for the improvement of food distribution to the poor. He heard the door open but continued to study the charts laid out before him. When a shadow obscured the chart he was studying, the high priest looked up expecting to see one of his assistants. But the man standing before him was a stranger in a black robe.

Standing up to greet his visitor, he wondered why his assistant hadn't properly introduced the guest. Then, through the open door that the visitor had not bothered to close, he saw the crumpled form of his assistant lying on the floor. The priest glanced quickly at the visitor in astonishment. The man was smiling. Then he struck with a deadly drain that the priest sought to counter with bless and healing spells. Desperately, the priest tried to cast defensive spells, and for a moment, he held his own against the dark mage. But he ran out of mana and the stranger drained and drained.

When it was over, the dark mage stepped over the dead priest and laughed as he saw the charts. Then in a flash, he was gone.

 

***

 

On the island of Stoneheim, a priestess of Artherk was meeting with her counterparts from Arakas and Raven’s Dust. They were discussing the unexplained deaths of so many followers of Artherk. As a precaution, they had several guards stationed outside the room.

One hour into the meeting, they heard cries of surprise coming from the guards outside. Then the sounds of battle cries reached their ears. Moments later an eerie silence weighed heavily on the air.

The three priestesses inside the room cast defensive spells on themselves and braced for what might await outside the closed door. Then the door was thrust open with great force and in stepped a black robed man.

The moment he saw her, the mage attacked the priestess nearest him. She retaliated with her best offensive spell, but her boulder had no apparent affect on her attacker. Her companions tried to heal her. Tried and failed. She died in moments. Then he turned to the other two and struck savagely with his drain spell. This time it ended faster and the second priestess died.

As she valiantly struggled against the dark robed mage of incredible power, the remaining priestess called on Artherk, "Mighty Artherk! Avenge our deaths!” When she died, the man laughed and disappeared in a flash of light.

 

***

 

Brimstone walked slowly down the trail from the house where the bodies of the loyal servants of Artherk were being cleaned for burial. He noted the very heavy guard presence and shook his head in consternation. It made no sense to him. The mage who was attacking Artherk's followers seemingly did so at random.

He had investigated the three incidents in an attempt to learn all that he possibly could about the attacker. But there was never much in the way of evidence to examine. The killer left nothing behind except the bodies of his victims. The healers believed that they had all died of a very powerful drain spell. There were no apparent wounds on the bodies of the victims, so Brimstone was inclined to agree with their conclusions.

Artherk had summoned him after the first attack on Arakas and asked him to track down the killer of his followers. He had explained that by the accords of the gods, he could not attack the follower of another God for actions against his own followers. He further explained that he must allow the killer to be brought to justice by his fellow mortals. Only in this way could the uneasy truce between good and evil be maintained.

He then gave Brimstone the name of the killer. Black Death was what he called himself, and he was a follower of Ogrimar. He had no permanent home, and traveled incessantly. When Brimstone asked his father how he could find the man, his father said, "He will find you, son, and very soon." That was all he could say due to the restrictions of the accords.

Brimstone was starting to resent those troublesome accords. With a rare smile, Artherk said, "Ahh but, my son, the accords have inconvenienced you but a few times. They have plagued me for generations."

Brimstone gave his father a rueful smile and apologized for his impatience. "No need to apologize, son. I can understand the frustrations the accords give you. But know that the accords protect both sets of followers. If that were not so, then Ogrimar would have long ago slain all mine. If I attack his now, the accords are broken, thus freeing him from the restrictions. Many of my followers, perhaps all, would die at his hands in retaliation. My personal philosophy would prevent me from doing the same to his. After all I am a god of goodness, and can kill only to protect myself or the innocents."

 

***

 

The next day, Brimstone left Stonecrest. He traveled alone and with no particular haste. He headed toward Mordenthal's keep in the mountains. Near the mountains, he encountered a man standing on the trail. The man was dressed in a black robe, and was standing arrogantly in the middle of the trail with a look of impatience on his face.

He smiled when he saw Brimstone and said, "I have been waiting for you."

"I am here," was Brimstone's calm reply. "You are Black Death?"

Without a word, the necromancer struck. He hit Brimstone with plague and curse spells. Brimstone reacted with astonishing speed, attacking with a mithril scimitar. He fought superbly, but the necromancer's drain spell was devastating. It had him near death in a few minutes and for the first time in his life; the son of Artherk began to doubt the outcome of a personal battle.

Then Brimstone felt the magic that he had inherited from his father rise to the fore. Always before, he had used the skills of his mother and fought as a warrior, aside from healing spells or personal shields. Now he was in danger of being slain by a man that would kill other followers of Artherk.

He was but moments away from death when suddenly the knowledge of fire spells was with him. He knew spells he had never studied. Not just one spell, no indeed. Brimstone knew all fire spells.

The necromancer smiled as he prepared to finish off Artherk's son. Mordenthal would be well pleased.

*In his dark realm Ogrimar looked on displeased.* He liked Brimstone, despite his parentage, and he did not like his underlings taking on such decisions without consulting with him.

Brimstone felt magic surge through every fiber of his being. It gathered force and he cast his first offensive spell ever. It was the spell meteor. He didn't know how strong it was, but apparently it was enough. In three casts of the spell, the necromancer fell dead. Not even his great drain could kill Brimstone while withstanding that incredibly strong spell.

*Artherk noted the demise of Black Death calmly and noted that Brimstone was indeed a strong user of magic. He had known he would be and that it would only be a matter of time until he was forced to use his innate magic.* "So," he thought to himself, "you chose fire, my son. Interesting."

 

***

 

Thus it was that Brimstone, the master of the weapons of man also became a master of the spells of fire. Yet he prefers weapons to spells, and will always try weapons first.

 


 

Chapter 14

 

Brimstone awoke early in the predawn hours, as was his habit. He listened intently for a moment, with every sense alert to any possible danger near him. He emerged from his small shelter made of spruce boughs a few moments later into another incredibly clear morning.

He ate a cold meal of bread and cheese, and then packed his gear for the day’s journey. At six feet tall he was not the tallest of men. He was of rather average height and build actually. Yet that is where any comparison between Brimstone and other men should stop.

 Brimstone stared grimly at the surrounding countryside. He was seeking a group of men who were preying on the weak. Slaughtering the young and inexperienced of the realm, they had amassed a fortune in ill gotten gains. For days, he had tracked them and the night before he had felt he was getting close to their main camp. He had elected to rest for the night and continue his hunt with the rising sun.

Oddly, he had a strange sensation running through him in ever-growing waves. It was a sense of foreboding that he shook off for the third time since it had first occurred last night shortly before he had made camp.

As he left the small camp, he was especially careful. He had camped about one hundred yards off the trail that he had been following. He slept inside a small grove of woods that was surrounded by fields of short grass. He had selected that spot so that he might have an opportunity to see anyone trying to sneak up on him during the night, knowing that the starlight alone would provide sufficient light for him to see an approaching enemy.

He eased through the trees silently in his ranger’s armor. He had elected this armor for reasons of stealth and its usefulness in blending into the surrounding countryside. Today he was carrying a sword called a frostbane. Stopping at the edge of the clearing, he stood motionless for several moments observing the countryside that he meant to cross to pick up the trail once more. He sensed again that all was not well. Pausing, he swept his eyes over every feature of the surrounding landscape.

Unable to locate the source of his inner warning after half a minute, he moved on swift feet through the clearing until he was once more on the trail of the fugitives.

An hour later, he came across the bodies of three people on the trail. The group consisted of a young mage in black robes, an archer in elven leather, and a young warrior woman in platemail. They had died in battle with the fugitives that he was pursuing. Grimly he examined the area with battle-experienced eyes. The warrior's primary weapon was gone, taken by the thieves, but her dagger was left behind as being near worthless to the thieves. The archer's bow had been left behind but his quiver was taken. The mage's backpack was lying beside him, its contents dumped on the ground and rifled.

Gently Brimstone turned the body of the mage over onto his back. He saw several gaping wounds. The man had been viciously hacked to death. It was a cruel death. The archer was in the same condition. The warrior woman's throat had been cut and her helm was missing. Searching the bodies for some form of identity, he found none. If they had carried any, then the thieves had taken it too.

From the appearance of the bodies, the trio had died late the previous night.

Brimstone mentally contacted Gazfaz and told him about the bodies he had found and what had happened to the trio. Gazfaz promised to send men to recover them immediately. His call for volunteers was answered by SuperDude-KoH who agreed to lead a band of his guild mates to recover the bodies.

Brimstone thanked Gazfaz, and then he moved cautiously down the trail.

Moments later, he came across fresh sign of the thieves. They had moved off the trail to make camp, just as he had. He saw very fresh tracks where they had returned to the trail and he grew more cautious. Five minutes later, he heard the sounds of a battle up ahead on the trail, just around a bend. Fearing that more innocents were being slaughtered, Brimstone threw caution to the wind and sprinted down the trail with his frostbane in hand.

As soon as he rounded the bend, he saw a lone warrior dressed in azure armor surrounded by the group of men that he had been stalking. He charged through the men and joined the warrior in the center, cutting down two attackers as he ran through their circle.

The men around him stepped back and oddly began laughing. Warily Brimstone turned to stare intently at the men surrounding him, and then all at once the warrior in azure stabbed him in the back with a dagger that had been dipped in a very deadly assassin's poison. Brimstone struck back instantly with the frostbane but the damage was already done.

Too late, Brimstone realized that a member of the deadly assassin’s had attacked him, just as his mother had been attacked many years earlier. Instantly, he felt a weakness overcome him and he felt his life slipping away. The assassin's body hit the ground first, followed quickly by Brimstone.

Then the thieves moved in and stabbed him repeatedly until they were satisfied that he was dead. As they stripped his frostbane from his hand, they heard a great outcry coming from the trail. Cursing, they fled as a large war party led by SuperDude-KoH came charging into the area. They stopped at Brimstone's body. The leader of the war party sent a scout to follow the fugitives as one of the healers of the guild and a paladin both checked Brimstone. Sadly, both shook their heads. It was too late for their skills to assist Brimstone.

A moment later the scout returned reporting that he had seen the men enter a portal and disappear. There would be no following them. They had a mage with them who had seen to that.

Sadness filled his heart as the leader notified the realm of the death of the hero. All over the countryside, men and women stopped what they were doing and listened stunned. Many demanded to know who had done this thing, but there was no answer to give them. A search of the assassin provided no clue as to his identity.

Leaving the assassin where he had fallen, the war party reverently lifted Brimstone's body and carried him back to the city of Silversky along with the three other victims. A silent and respectful crowd greeted them. They carried Brimstone to the temple where priests took charge of the body. Many of the priests were openly weeping at the sight of so many wounds upon the body of the son of their deity.  

A priest spoke Artherk's name in torment, and then the gods appeared. One moment they were not there, and the next they were. Artherk had a tormented expression on his face and the ground trembled. Damia took Brimstone's hand in her own, threw back her head, and screamed in anger and grief. The ground shook harder. Ogrimar alone seemed calm.

He spread his hands palm down over Brimstone's body and said, "Arise, son of Artherk."

The gapping wounds closed but he did not arise. Then Damia knew that poison was in his body. She gently kissed his mouth and inhaled. Her godly breath drew the poison from Brimstone and she expelled it in a now harmless bluish puff of mist. Artherk joined the other two gods, grateful for their assistance. Resurrections were very difficult, especially if you were in emotional distress. He took Damia's hand in his and she took Ogrimar's. Together they resurrected Brimstone with the command to arise as they poured forth their combined power.

The ground stopped shaking, but not before the earthquakes brought on by Damia’s grief formed several new islands. All over Althea, people breathed a sigh of relief.

Artherk thanked the two gods as Brimstone was assisted to his feet. He looked at Ogrimar in some confusion. But Ogrimar shrugged and said, "I told you, Artherk. I like him." Then he said, "Even if his father is a weakling." But the sting of the comment was lost in his warm smile as he turned his attention to Damia and Brimstone. He never noted the smile that Artherk gave him in response to his comments, which was a good thing.

For her part, Damia was smothering Brimstone with affectionate embraces that he returned with some confusion, unaware of what had transpired since he had been struck down. Artherk joined her and smiled at his son. Soon, he knew, they would wed. Ogrimar then shocked Artherk for a second time that day. He bespoke all of Althea and said, “Behold all. Brimstone Lives! Rejoice all ye of the lands!"

Artherk smiled warmly and on the new isles formed by the goddess Damia's grief, flowers appeared and bloomed.

The war party of Knights of Honor cheered loudly outside the temple.

 

***

 

Mordenthal frowned in his keep, but wisely held his own council. He hated Brimstone with a passion. Thankfully, his assassin had not betrayed him.

  

 


Chapter 15

 

A slowly swirling ground mist moved back and forth in the small clearing deep in the Kaph Leth territories, known more commonly as the green skraug territory. A small tent was situated in the clearing, and the mist coated the rough canvas and caused beads of moisture to form inside along its walls and ceiling.

The campfire burned low, and soon it would need to be refueled. It was necessary to have the fire because of the wolves in the area. The fire kept them at bay.

The mist swirled around the feet of the warrior on guard duty. Tom stoically ignored the discomfort as the mist swirled around his platemail clad feet and legs, and wisely kept his back to the campfire to preserve his night vision.

Inside the tent slept three men. Gazing at the stars, he realized that in another few minutes it would be time to awaken his brother who had the second watch of the night.

The four young men were a group of adventurers out to seek their fortunes. They had heard of a cave in the green skraug village that led all the way back to the Moon Tug territories. That cave was said to have many fine treasures for those willing to risk it.

He was just about to move from his post to awaken his brother when he heard the sound of a twig breaking. Instantly, he froze in mid step and glanced in the direction the sound had originated. His alertness saved his life. He saw the group of five shadows moving with stealth toward the tent. He also saw the man standing behind him and to his left.

Reflexes, honed by many hours of practical application, took over. Without a single thought, he drew his sword and parried a blow to his unprotected head. He had removed his helm for the guard duty to take full advantage of his peripheral vision.

Even as he parried the blow, he gave a mighty shout to alert his brother and friends inside the tent. "To arms!" he screamed, and then he continued, "They are among us!"

His brother was the first to exit the tent, and the first to be cut down by a shadowy figure. He fell under a terrible blow from a battle axe. Then the other two were out also, and the battle was on. The axe wielder died in moments. But not before wounding one of the campers. When the axe man fell, four men replaced him, and those men finished off the two campers.

The guard was in the struggle of his life. He fought valiantly, but he could not penetrate the guard of the man he fought. They seemed equal in skill. Moments later, one of the four remaining men, wielding a war hammer, struck him down from behind. The blow left him unconscious. It glanced off his head and slammed into his right shoulder, knocking him to the ground.

The camp invaders surrounded him. One of them held a hand in front of his mouth and felt a faint breath. On the hand was a small ring with a curious black gem embedded in it. "You almost killed him with that damned hammer fool," he said. "We need one to live."

"I know, I know," said the hammer equipped warrior. "He will live. I was careful."

"He'd better," stated the leader of the group. "If he doesn't live, Mordenthal will want to know why." He glared at the man a moment longer, and then he said, "Time to build up the fire. You hit him so you get to watch him until he awakens."

"Yes sir," said the hammer man. "You can count on me, sir."

The leader snorted in contempt and walked away, followed closely by the remaining members of his squad. They picked up their fallen comrade and headed off into the night.

 

***

 

The next morning, the guard awakened with the worst headache of his life. The headache made it difficult to get his bearings. When he finally did, he reached for his sword.

"It’s about time he woke up," thought the hammer man. Then he walked away into the woods silently to escape the detection of the newly awakened guard.

 

***

 

That afternoon in Stonecrest, a very angry Tom stood before the Sheriff Grant Hornkeep trying to get something done about the slaughter of his party. "What do you mean there is nothing you can do?!" he asked in outrage.

The sheriff patiently explained that the Kaph Leth territory was way out of his jurisdiction. He further tried to explain that there simply were not enough men to control all that area.

"So that's it then? The killers get away with this?"

"Smiling patiently, the sheriff shook his head and said, "Now young man I never said that. I said there was nothing that I could do." Asking for Tom's patience a bit longer, he hastily wrote a short letter. When it was completed, he gave the letter to Tom along with a set of instructions.

 

***

 

That afternoon in Stonecrest tavern, Brimstone sat at a table with a small cup of elven wine and a meal before him. There was good bread and a cheese of high quality that he was developing a taste for, and a huge bowl of savory stew in thick gravy. The bar was blessed to have a good cook. If he had the time when he was in town, Brimstone usually sought out a meal in the tavern.

He was just finishing the last of the gravy when a young man walked inside and closed the door. Brimstone automatically noted the battle damage on his plate armor. The right shoulder had taken a brutal impact from some heavy blunt instrument.

Tom recognized Brimstone the instant he saw him. The sheriff's description had been very detailed. He approached Brimstone's table and introduced himself. He then handed Brimstone the sheriff's letter. Five minutes after that, Brimstone was asking him a series of questions concerning the attack.

When he had the answers to his questions, he agreed to see what he could do to bring the murders to justice. Tom wanted to accompany him, but Brimstone flatly refused, saying instead that he was going alone.

 

***

 

On Raven’s Dust, in the Forest of Specters, a young mage named Galen fought his way to a cave. Once inside the cave, he followed the map that he had found on the body of a dead Nightblade months before. With surprising ease, he recovered the gem mentioned in the letter and left the cave to return to Stonecrest.

Galen went to see a jeweler in the city who was renowned for his ability to make fine jewelry. At the jeweler’s shop, he picked up a custom piece that he had commissioned the previous month. The necklace was ready at last.

Inside his room, he placed the gem in its place in the necklace. It glowed briefly with a white light. But try as he might, he could get it to do nothing. For hours, he tried everything he could think of to make it work. Finally, disgusted at his own foolishness, he stood and tossed it in his pack. He had paid a fortune to have it fashioned, and spent months anticipating the power he would receive from the item. Now the thing did nothing. What a fool he had been to spend so much on this thing, based on what the letter had said.

Now he seriously needed gold. But he knew just where to go make a lot of gold fast.

 

***

 

Brimstone left the city that very afternoon. He entered the portal to Centaur village, then left that town to seek out the remote campsite Tom had described. With the directions that he had been given, Brimstone had no trouble locating the campsite. At the remnants of the camp, he found three graves newly dug and covered with stones to discourage the animals from digging up the bodies. Only one wolf stubbornly insisted on trying to get to the bodies anyway. Such was the animal’s distraction with the graves that it never heard Brimstone's approach, and he cut it down instantly with his new frostbane sword.

Brimstone twirled his sword then whipped it straight out to his right, flicking off the blood. He smiled in warm memory of the gift that Lady Sparks had given him to replace his old one that he’d lost to the band of thieves. She was a generous woman who appreciated justice and what he had done for the realm. She had smiled when he tried to repay her and declined, saying, "No, M'Lord, someday I may need your help myself. The realm is dangerous these days. Consider it a gift."

He inspected the campsite in minute detail. His professional eyes missed nothing. When he left the area, Brimstone followed a small trail that led away from the camp. An hour up that trail, he came across the body of a man that had a hammer clutched in his hand. Examining the body, Brimstone noted a small stab wound to the back of the neck. He suspected that the man had been poisoned. On the body was a note addressed to him. The note warned him not to venture near Mordenthal's keep. That was all it said.

 

***

 

Later that night, Brimstone once more sat in the Stonecrest tavern and had another splendid meal. Tom sat with him and ate slowly. When they had finished their meal, Brimstone sat back and sipped his elven wine.

"Are you going to Mordenthal's?" inquired Tom. Shrugging, Brimstone said, "I see no choice in the matter. That’s where the trail leads, so yes I am going."

"When do we go?" Tom asked.

"We?" Grinning Brimstone shook his head. Frowning Tom was about to protest, so Brimstone cut him off. "I go alone on this trip, Tom. The note was addressed to me."

Tom was a seasoned warrior himself. He knew that this was all a trap set to snare Brimstone. He was torn between some anger that his brother and companions had been murdered to set a trap for Brimstone, and more than a little resentful. If not for Brimstone, they would still be alive. He couldn't help resenting Brimstone to some degree. But his own sense of fairness overrode that resentment. It wasn't Brimstone's fault that he was hated by Mordenthal. Yet, the resentment was there and Brimstone could sense it, and that was the reason he refused to allow Tom to accompany him. The man’s inner turmoil would make such a hazardous venture all the more risky.

The next morning, Brimstone left Stonecrest just before dawn. He quietly left from the back gate behind the temple and headed northeast in a straight line across the countryside, avoiding trails that he felt might be watched. By doing so, he avoided two assassins waiting along the trail normally used by people seeking Mordenthal's keep.

When he came to the Coliseum, he headed due north to a small lake. Skirting around that lake he went east. At the eastern edge of the lake, he once more headed northeast right into a huge pack of wolves. Brimstone killed the wolves with his frostbane in moments then proceeded on his northeast course across country to a mountain range. As he headed to the eastern edge of the mountain, Brimstone fought a few skraugs who pounced on the opportunity to attack a lone traveler. At the eastern edge of the mountain, he turned north. Soon, Brimstone encountered the undead that guard that approach to Mordenthal's keep. He killed them as he encountered them.

Taking a small pass through the mountains, he went west and soon arrived at Mordenthal's keep.

Inside his fortress, Mordenthal frowned. It would have been better had his assassins killed Brimstone far from his keep. He would have to kill all witnesses to this deed when he disposed of the body. He ducked into a secret alcove concealed in his fortress. He didn’t want to encounter Brimstone himself. If he did so, then Ogrimar was almost certain to become aware of the encounter.

Brimstone entered the keep and sought out Mordenthal, but he was nowhere to be found on the ground floor. Finding a set of steps that led down into a maze, the son of Artherk headed cautiously through the twisting corridors seeking out Mordenthal. As he went, he saw signs of recent battle. The place was crawling with monsters that guarded the keep. They attacked anything that moved, be it good or evil. This was the domain of Mordenthal, and he shared his treasures willingly with no one.

Making his way through the maze, he heard the sounds of battle down one especially long corridor. Brimstone made his way, cautiously following the sound of battle. He soon rounded a corner and saw a young mage fighting monsters and several men that Brimstone suspected might have been waiting for him. This time he entered the fight to assist the mage, but Brimstone made certain his back was never turned to the mage. He was certain the man was no assassin because he had seen him using attack spells against the men attacking him. But his recent experience had taught him a lesson. Never again would the son of Artherk assume that everything was as it seemed at first glance.

Galen shouted out a word of greeting to him and thanked him for the help. Then the mage used the spell boulder to slay a man trying to stab him with a sword. He healed himself, and then he healed Brimstone who had taken on several of the men in an incredible demonstration of his combat skills. In moments, it was over. The men were all dead. On the hand of one was a small ring. The small black gem embedded in the ring that twinkled slightly.

 

*Mordenthal cursed Brimstone's luck and skill. “Someday, Brimstone, you will die. This I swear.”*

 

Together Brimstone and Galen searched the rest of the dungeon maze, yet saw nothing but monsters. Galen seemed to be seeking gold. He was looting the chests and doing pretty well. He apologized to Brimstone for not sharing the treasure, explaining that he had recently wasted one million gold pieces on a foolish necklace, and was now too poor and needed to make his gold back as fast as possible. After all, learning spells cost a fortune and he needed to learn several new spells.

Brimstone readily agreed to let him take all the treasure. In gratitude, Galen pulled a leather pouch from his backpack and tossed it to Brimstone. "Here, sir. Take this. It cost me a million in gold to have it made but it is useless to me. I had it made on speculation. What a fool I was. At least the gold itself is worth something."

Brimstone caught it from the air and opened the pouch to see the item.

 

 


Chapter 16

 

The moment the necklace fell into his hand, Brimstone felt a surge of power shoot through his body. Galen's eyes widened in amazement as a white globe of light seemed to form around Brimstone. Then the light slowly receded. It seemed to the mage that the globe of light was absorbed into Brimstone's body.

"Are you ok, friend?" asked a concerned Galen. Then he continued, "I’m sorry, Brimstone. I had no idea the necklace could do that."

Brimstone stared at the necklace in his hand. Fear began to creep into his mind. He recognized the design as the same necklace that he had once ripped from Maximillain. Yet the stone set in this necklace was not the same at all. This one radiated a sense of peace and serenity. Still, he would need to see his father about this immediately.

He hastily returned the necklace to its leather pouch and placed it in his pack. "I’m fine, friend, and thank you for asking. Thank you for the necklace."

He said goodbye to Galen and used a scroll of Lighthaven. Once there, he walked to the Stonehenge where he hoped to have a private conversation with his father.

He asked his father to come to him. Moments later, Artherk was there beside his son. The god of good and light immediately detected the presence of the necklace. He summoned Damia and Ogrimar to join them. They also detected the presence of the necklace within moments.

Damia raised her hands, summoned her power, and focused her energy on examining Brimstone from head to toe. Finally satisfied, she said, "He is unchanged, save one thing. He no longer ages." Artherk then examined his son and agreed, followed by Ogrimar, who also agreed.

Confused, Brimstone protested this, saying. "I haven’t aged for many years now. That seemed to stop when I was thirty years old."

Shaking her head, Damia responded. "Nay, beloved. You are but half god. Though you did not appear to age, you did age very slowly. Eventually your appearance would indeed change. It is this very slow aging process that has halted." Then she said, "I suspect that the change is permanent and not dependant upon thy necklace."

Artherk asked Brimstone to remove the necklace from its pouch and hold it forth for them to see, but cautioned him not to touch the gem. Gingerly, Brimstone removed the necklace and held it out for the gods to see. It seemed to glow softly.

Ogrimar spoke first. "It is harmless, and will not violate our pact. All that it will do is protect the wearer. It is safe for you to touch it, Brimstone."

"Aye, this is so," Damia responded, and then she added, "You need not fear it, beloved. It is not of vile intent as that which Maximillain wore." Looking at Artherk she said, "I think that it accepted Brimstone the moment he touched it, and then granted him immortality."

"But not true immortality," Artherk disagreed. "He can still be slain, just as before. But he does not age now. Still, this can be a dangerous item in the wrong hands."

The gods spoke in depth for a few minutes, and then reached a decision. Damia spoke to Brimstone saying, "Place the necklace around thy neck, beloved." Trusting Damia, Brimstone somewhat reluctantly did as she had bid. Once more, he felt a surge of power go through his body. This time the surge seemed gentler. But the tiredness he had felt was gone and he was filled with a feeling of good health and vigor. He felt completely rested and ready for battle.

Damia once more lifted her hands and focused her power on Brimstone. This time, she zeroed in on the necklace and actually communicated with it. A moment later she said, "The gem agrees, and will do as we asked."

Ogrimar raised his hands and focused his power on the necklace. He placed wards upon it that were unbreakable by any mortal. Now, the necklace was unbreakable and indestructible.

Artherk raised his hands and focused his power on the necklace. He placed a spell upon it that bonded it to his son so that it could not fall off him, even if he were held upside down and shaken by an enemy. Only Brimstone could remove it from his neck. He cautioned Brimstone, saying, "Never remove it, my son."

Then Damia focused her power on Brimstone. A moment later, he heard a voice inside his head speaking softly. "Greetings to thee, son of Artherk, beloved of Damia. I am the stone of light."

Without thinking, Brimstone responded to the voice saying, "Greetings to thee, stone of light."

Damia smiled sweetly, and said, "You need not speak aloud to it, beloved. You need only speak within your mind. It will hear your thoughts."

Then she grew serious, as did Artherk and Ogrimar. Damia said, "The stone of light has agreed to remain with you. None but a god can steal it from you now. Even if you are slain, if their intent is vile, the stone of light will slay any who dare to touch it without its permission. She then spoke softly to the stone with her mind. The stone twinkled like a radiant star for a moment. Walking to Brimstone, she melted into his arms and kissed him lovingly.

Ogrimar laughed, and then vanished. Artherk smiled benignly.

 

***

 

A few days later, Brimstone walked softly down a trail following the tracks of a murderer who had slain a man for his gold. The murderer had agreed to sell the victim an item that he did not possess. When the buyer had met him to close the deal the thief had taken the gold and then slain his victim and fled the scene of the vile deed.

Witnesses had given Brimstone a description of the archer who had committed this foul deed in the city of Lighthaven near Cattie's corner and he had been pursuing him for two days.

Brimstone walked softly into the forest following the trail of the elusive archer. He smelled the unmistakable scents always associated with deep woods, and heard the normal sounds of the forest. Yet he was certain that he was very close to the archer he was tracking.

Brimstone was a very good tracker. As a youth, he had been trained by some of the best rangers in his father's service, and had excelled at the skill. Though Brimstone wasn’t the best tracker on Althea, he was one of the ten best. He had an uncanny ability to know when the person he was tracking was doubling back to set up an ambush. That ability had often proven quite useful to him and indeed had saved him from traps multiple times in the past.

That ability was warning him as he tracked the elusive murderer. The archer was setting him up. Even as he realized this, the stone of light spoke to him softly saying, "Beware, Brimstone. Danger is near." He felt the faint surge of power as the gem prepared to aid him should he have need of assistance. Brimstone silently thanked the gem and then proceeded with greater caution down the trail.

Moments later, the archer attacked. An arrow streaked in his direction and Brimstone parried it with the flat of his sword. Another arrow streaked his way and again he parried it. Then a third arrow streaked his way and he moved to parry that one too, but his foot slipped on a loose stone on the forest floor and he momentarily lost his balance. Frantically, he tried to parry the arrow, but he knew that he would be a moment too late.

Then he felt the power of the gem surge and the arrow seemed to slam into an invisible wall. It struck that unseen wall, and then fell harmlessly to the forest floor.

Brimstone moved quickly to close the gap with his enemy, parrying three more arrows as he went. The archer was incredibly fast with his bow but soon he was within sword range and the battle was over a moment later. He took the archer captive and returned him to the city of Lighthaven to face justice at the hands of the city officials.


Chapter 17

 

The young woman glanced furtively over her shoulder as she walked briskly down a dimly lit walkway in the city of Silversky. As she walked, she noted that the two men were still behind her and indeed seemed to be gaining on her. But just ahead she saw the city tavern, and hoped that once she arrived there she would be safe. She reached the door and opened it quickly, and then she ducked inside.

The hour was late, and there were only a few patrons in the tavern. The few who were there were deep in their cups, and would be of little use in protecting her. Then she spotted the man she was hoping to find. Over at a corner table sat Brimstone sipping a cup of elven wine. She heard the door behind her open, and without hesitation, she strode in Brimstone's direction. She had taken only two steps when a hand grabbed her hair and savagely yanked her backwards into a rough embrace.

Brimstone stood up and frowned, and then he headed in her direction. He had noted her fearful expression when she had entered the tavern. He had also noticed the rough looking pair of men who had entered behind her.

The man holding her from behind expertly took her gold pouch from an inner pocket of her cloak and laughed in her ear. Then he spun her around and told her to say nothing to the city officials if she wanted to remain healthy. Then to emphasize his point, he drew back his hand to slap her roughly across the mouth.

The young woman glanced fearfully as the hand descended in a savage arch towards her unprotected face. But just short of her face, another hand intercepted the descending wrist and caught it in a viselike grip.

Brimstone spoke then. "Let her go," he said in a quiet voice that brooked no argument. Then to encourage the man to comply, he twisted the wrist backwards. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the other man pull a dagger. He took a step towards the man whose wrist he was holding, and using his body as a lever he threw him over his shoulder and let go. With a crash that rattled the tavern tables, the man slammed into his friend. Brimstone grabbed both of them by their hair and slammed their heads together hard. They both sagged to the floor unconscious.

Picking up the woman's fallen pouch of gold he returned it to her and smiled. "Thank you, M'Lord," she said and flashed him a smile of gratitude. "My name is Glenda, sire. I noticed them following me and came inside in the hopes of finding a protector. I see that I chose well."

She reached up to rearrange her now disheveled hair and clothing.

Brimstone bowed courteously to her and said that he was glad he could help. Then he called in the local authorities to jail the thieves.

 

***

 

The next morning, Brimstone once more sat in the tavern having a quiet breakfast. Glenda walked in and sat near him at his invitation. She wanted to talk to him about a problem she was having, so he listened attentively as she explained. She had recently inherited a fortune from her father. But to claim that fortune she had to go to Stoneheim where she must present certain documents to the city magistrates to verify her right to the claim.

Getting to Stoneheim was not the problem. The real problem was that apparently someone was trying to keep her from getting her inheritance. Three times, she had tried to walk to see Zhakar for one of the documents that she needed to verify her right to the family fortune. Large bands of outlaws had beset her guards three times, and in every case, the attacks forced her to turn back to Silversky.

She had no idea who was behind it, but she was certain that someone was attempting to delay her until the inheritance was forfeited. Now, only three days remained to claim her birthright.

Brimstone agreed to assist her, and the woman smiled radiantly at him.

 

***

 

They left Silversky at noon and made good time on the trip to wizard's vale. There was nothing at all out of the ordinary as they made their way to the vale. Brimstone easily defeated the demon trees that savage the unwary on that trip. The rogue mages soon learned to seek easier prey as did the taunting horrors.

It was only when they entered the tower of Zhakar that they encountered real problems. On the second floor of the tower, a band of men waited in ambush and beset them. Brimstone slew three of the six men in moments. The other three left the tower when one of them opened a portal.

A soft voice inside Brimstone warned him of imminent danger, and he felt the now familiar surge as the stone of light prepared to assist him should he need help. But he saw no one else present. Glenda was grateful and wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss him in gratitude.

The stone of light screamed an urgent warning. This time Brimstone felt a vast surge of power radiate from the gem into his body.

The kiss caught him by surprise and he jerked back away from her in shock. As he did so he saw the dagger in her hand as it descended at him in a savage arch. Using the back of his hand, he blocked Glenda's descending wrist and stepped back away from her. Had he accepted her embrace it would have been the last of his life.

Hissing in rage that her trick had failed, the young woman lunged at him intent on killing Brimstone. On her hand, the small ring with an embedded black gem twinkled as she attacked repeatedly. Brimstone drew his sword and countered attack after attack. She was good with the dagger. As good as any adversary he had ever fought. He realized he was facing one of the specially trained assassins that had often plagued his family.

As he skillfully countered her attacks, he tried to get her to reveal who had sent her but she doggedly refused to discuss the matter. Without a pause, she switched the dagger to an underhand grip and darted inside his guard. She was fast. Brimstone hastily took a leap back as her dagger passed within a hairsbreadth of the tip of his nose. He was well aware that even a scratch would be fatal. She stepped back and switched hands with the dagger, and then she lunged at him again.

Repeatedly she did this, but time after time Brimstone narrowly avoided death. He could have killed her three times, but he wanted to know who had sent her, so he was fighting a purely defensive battle. He was waiting for just the right moment to grab her wrist, and then he could take her alive.

But fate stepped in as it so often does, and at a critical moment a rat stepped under Brimstone's right foot. As this happened he staggered backwards, frantically trying to regain his balance. The woman grabbed at him to pull herself closer. She grabbed his necklace in order to pull herself in for the finishing blow.

The moment she grasped the necklace, Brimstone heard an exultant voice in his mind. It cried out in a scream that conveyed first outrage and then satisfaction.

Glenda stood transfixed. Her eyes conveyed pure terror as she said, "Nooo!" But it was too late. The hand that had grabbed the necklace let it go immediately, but the damage was done. Aghast, Brimstone saw the hand turn to stone. The hand was followed by the arm, then it spread over her entire body. In her eyes was a stark terror as she wailed until her mouth was also turned to stone. The last thing he heard was a muffled, "Morr..."

Her eyes were the last portion of her body to be turned to stone. They pleaded with Brimstone to save her. Just as they glazed over, a single tear escaped and immediately turned to stone on her left cheek.

Brimstone was horrified by what he had just witnessed. She had deserved to die. But such a ghastly death disturbed him. "Can you undo this?" he asked the stone of light. "No," was the reply, followed by, "I am sorry, my friend, but she would have slain you."

Sighing Brimstone said, "I know. But such a ghastly way to die. Is that the only way?"

"Brimstone, that is certainly not the worst way to die," the gem said somewhat petulantly and evasively. Then it continued, "Would you prefer a knife in your back while being kissed?"

"Of course not," he replied, starting to get angry. “But gods. I have seen death many times in the past but never such a horrible death.”

"You are still young my friend. I have seen far worse, and your enemy is planning worse yet for you. I have a feeling that before this is over, you will also see worse."

Then the gem grew silent and it would not respond, no matter what Brimstone said.

 


Chapter 18

 

Brimstone sat beside the still pool of water and contemplated what he was about to attempt. He was worried and that made him uncomfortable. He had been in many battles during his life. He had faced death more times than he cared to admit, even to himself. Yet never had he felt the worry that plagued his soul now. Unaccustomed to the unfamiliar sensation of fear, he stood and braced himself for the most difficult task he had ever undertaken.

He stood in a secluded wood beside a small pond on the isle of Arakas. He said a prayer to Artherk, requesting the strength he needed to undertake his task. At its conclusion, he heard his father's response. "My son, I am with you always. You can prevail, if your heart doesn’t fail you." Then his father said, "Your mother is proud of you. She is watching with me now in her garden. Do it soon, son. Our time together is limited. It would please me if we were together when you do this, so that your mother might also see what transpires."

Brimstone grinned and worked up his courage. He said, "Thank you, father, and thank you, mother."

He stood still for a moment. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled slowly to calm himself. When he was ready he called out, "Damia! I need to see you!" Brimstone was nervous. Never before had he attempted to summon the goddess to him, and it would not have surprised him had she failed to respond at all.

She was beside him in moments and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you for coming to me, Damia," he said nervously. Suddenly he was almost overcome with fear. His heart beat harder and faster than it ever had in battle. And he began to sweat, even in the shade of the trees.

"Brimstone, what so troubles you?" the lovely goddess inquired.

"I have to ask you a question, love," he replied. "I confess that I am sorely vexed. Never before have I experienced such fear."

Damia smiled shyly, for she could read his soul. "Be brave, my champion," she replied, almost demurely.

Kneeling on his left knee, Brimstone steeled his nerves and spoke, "I love you, Damia. I love you more than any woman I’ve ever met. Yet I fear that I’m unworthy of a goddess. I am but part god myself. Yet, your face haunts my nights. In my sleep, I dream of you. During my days, I miss you. So I have gathered the strength of nerve to ask you a question, lovely one."

Damia stood as still as a statue. The expression on her lovely face was cautiously neutral. A small gust of wind tugged at her garments and a twig from a nearby tree fell into her hair. Brimstone reached up to remove that twig without thinking and she smiled. Then remembering himself he said, "Sorry, love, yet not even nature can improve upon your perfection. You are beautiful beyond compare. I want you to be my wife for as long as we both shall live. I am unworthy, love. Aye, and do not say otherwise. But, I love you beyond all others, and I want you." He had planned more words, but he forgot them at that moment, and the air hung pregnant with their silence.

Damia caught her breath. True, he was but half god, and that god was Artherk the Good, yet he had caught her eye when she’d first beheld him. All he had done since had shown her the person that he was, the man he could become. His soul called out to hers and she knew there would never be another who could so touch her.

Damia stood silent for many heartbeats. Brimstone aged a minute then, despite the stone of light's best efforts to prevent it.

Taking his hand in hers, she bade him rise. "Brimstone, know you that my path is neutral," with a gamin grin, she continued, "and my temper is not. Nor have I much patience with a man's folly, at times. Think you that we could manage not to kill one another?"

Brimstone smiled, and then he said, "Yes, love. Never would I raise a hand against you. So the answer is yes."

"Then that is my answer, also." Turning his palm upward, she placed a tender kiss upon it, and closed his fingers over it. Gazing lovingly into his eyes, she said, "My heart and my love are now yours. Ever shall we walk together, from this day forth." Damia then stepped forward into Brimstone's embrace and kissed him, losing herself in his heartfelt return of her love.

In his mind, Brimstone heard his father and mother. "Well spoken, son," his father said. His mother sounded as if she were sniffling when she said, "Oh, son! I am so happy for you!"

 

***

 

Days later, the wedding plans were set.

 

 ***

 

The peddler walked through the gates of Windhowl and proceeded to the appointed meeting place in the city. In the house appointed for the meeting, he was met by a black robed figure. That man gave him a cold stare when the peddler asked for the rest of his gold. The stranger asked, "Did you open the package?"

"No, Lord," the humble peddler replied. Before paying him, the man examined the package intently. All of the secret seals were intact. If that had not been the case, the peddler would have died on the spot.

The black robed figure paid the peddler precisely what he was owed and told him to leave the city immediately, further instructing him to avoid the taverns of any city for a period of three days if he wished to remain healthy. There would be no drinking and talking about things that he was not supposed to discuss.

The road to the city had been hot and he had craved an ale. The peddler bristled slightly at this unexpected change to his plans and almost challenged the man on his instructions. But he was wise enough to know when he was dealing with a dangerous man. All his senses were telling him to get out of the city without delay. Suddenly the thought of ale didn't seem so grand.

He politely thanked the man, and left the city immediately by way of the back gate.

 

***

 

That same night in a clearing in the woods, a small package was delivered to a group of four men. Two were mages, one was an archer and the last man was a warrior.

The black robed figure handed the package to the archer. "You understand what is expected of you?" he asked.

"Thoroughly, Lord Mordenthal," replied the archer.

"Then do not fail me," The dark robed man said, and vanished in a flash of light.

The archer unwrapped the package with great care and pulled forth a single arrow. It was as black as the night. Even the feathered fletching was black. The arrow appeared sleek and wicked to the archer's professional eye. A godslayer arrow if ever there had been one. Where it had come from, he did not know. Nor was the giver apt to give him that information.

The archer carefully removed a sealed vial from the inner pocket of his tunic. As he did so, a small ring with an embedded black gem twinkled in the starlight. Nervously, the other three men backed away from him. The warrior covered his mouth and nose with a cloth, while the mages, standing further away, smiled nervously.

The archer licked his right index finger and held it up into the night breeze. Finally satisfied, he turned his back to the slight breeze on the evening air, and then removed a very small bowl from yet another inner pocket of his tunic. He carefully removed the cork stopper from the neck of the vial. As it popped free a small puff of bluish vapor escaped. Professionally, the archer held his breath, just in case. A moment later, the faint night breeze swept the vapor away from the archer.

The man emptied the contents of the vial into the shallow bowl. He then took hold of the arrow some twelve inches behind the broadhead and dipped that wickedly barbed broadhead into the bluish liquid contained within the bowl. As the steel met the liquid, it boiled vigorously for several heartbeats. Only when the contents of the bowl were completely still did the archer carefully remove the arrow. He held it at a forty-five degree angle away from his body so that none of the poison could run down the shaft, toward his hand.

A few moments in the night breeze dried the arrow completely. Almost ritually, the archer repeated the process many times. Each time the arrow caused the liquid to boil less strenuously. After the thirteenth bath in the poison, the archer froze to dry the arrow for one last time. The warrior had dug a hole three feet deep and twelve inches in diameter while the archer poisoned the arrow.

Minutes later, the archer wrapped the arrow in several layers of supple leather, and then placed it inside his quiver. He then turned to the warrior and approached the hole the man had dug. Once there, he gently placed the bowl containing the remnants of the poison in the bottom of the hole. Next, he dropped a thick hide of leather over the bowl to prevent accidental splashing. After that, he dropped the now empty vial inside the hole. It landed with a thump on the hide. Then the mages dropped two more hides upon the mass at the bottom of the hole. Only then did the warrior begin to cover the hole with the earth that he had removed moments earlier.

When that task was accomplished, the four men held a brief meeting. The archer was the leader of this group. When he was satisfied that all knew their roles well he went through it step by step with each in turn. Each knew that if they failed the archer, they would pay for that failure with their life. He was to fire the arrow at Brimstone. One of the mages was to open a portal. The other was to use spells and slay anyone who was near that portal. The warrior was to be the last man through the portal and his task was to handle any enemy that might prove too much for the mage.

In his bed, fast asleep, Brimstone tossed and turned. His slumber was troubled by something he could not identify.

 

***

 

On the isle of Arakas, one hour before the wedding, Brimstone stood in the center of the Stonehenge in the Order of Nature. They had discussed the location for the wedding and compromised on locations. Brimstone favored the temple of Artherk, yet that presented a certain problem. After all, Damia was a goddess herself, so it was not appropriate to wed in another god's temple. In addition, she was neutral and not a follower of good or evil. The Stonehenge was perfect and especially fitting in their case, because Damia had a special closeness to the earth.

Brimstone was dressed in ancient armor. He had offered to wear a robe for the ceremony, but Damia had been adamant regarding his form of dress. He had too many enemies. She had already assisted in resurrecting him once, and she would not hear of him appearing in public with no armor. Not even at their wedding.

Brimstone was talking to Ogrimar and Artherk, who were both in attendance. He marveled at the decorations that dotted the area. Many of the High Ladies of Althea had traveled far and wide and brought the decorations. Darkrose-VoT had brought rare gems that she sprinkled here and there inside the ancient circle of stones. It was a king's ransom in gems with which she so adorned the wedding site.

Abbigale had gathered the ingredients and done a quest to make dozens of Candles of Eternity, which she had placed in the area in such vast numbers that even had it been full night, they would have cheerfully illuminated the area. Brimstone thought that appropriate, as Damia was a goddess, and therefore eternal.

Lady Sparks had gathered dozens of gems of immortal, which she placed at the cardinal points of the Stonehenge. Again, appropriate because Damia was a true immortal.

Several heavily armed men and women stood guard to ensure that no one tried to steal the wealth of decorations. Oga was there as was Lord Cal. Skan was there as well and had also contributed gifts, which she had placed in a growing pile near the eastern stone. Ziona stood with her bow in hand glaring at any newcomers until they proved friendly and not inclined to steal the items that dotted the area. Near her stood Rocks who was laughing at her caution, but he was also holding his bow. Lord Malachi stood nearby, on guard as well.

Brimstone was amazed that so many apparently thought well of the coming wedding.

He was slightly nervous, but nowhere near as nervous as he had been before the proposal. Soon, Damia would be here and he was eager to see her again.

Then Damia arrived and smiled shyly up at him. She was lovely to behold. Damia was dressed in a flowing gown of antique white with intricate lace. Her hair was decorated with a small crown formed of tiny yellow flowers interspersed with Stephanotis and dark green leaves. Normally she wore her hair braided, but for the wedding, it was down and magnificent to behold. He smiled as he remembered his comment that nature could not improve on her beauty. With that clever headdress, she had just proven him wrong.

Gasping, Brimstone marveled at her beauty, as did many of the men present. At that moment, many secretly hoped for a thief so that he could tear the fool apart to assist Damia. For his part, Brimstone just marveled at his great good fortune.

He readily agreed when Fawnn spoke up as she stood nearby. She said, "M'Lord, your bride to be is exceedingly lovely."

 

***

 

The High-Druid performed the actual wedding ceremony. Then came the moment for the wedding kiss, and at that moment, the spectators went wild with shouts of glee at the union of Damia and Brimstone.

Just moments after the wedding kiss, the unthinkable happened. Brimstone felt something slap against his armored chest piece just as he was turning his body to greet a well wisher named Tipher. He glanced down in surprise. Something had dug a faint trench through his chest piece. Then he heard a startled gasp and turned to Damia. An arrow, black as midnight, was embedded in her chest. Her startled eyes fluttered once, and then closed. She would have fallen to the ground, but Brimstone caught her and laid her down gently on her back.

Screams of anger and outrage erupted everywhere as the guards sought to locate the archer who had fired that arrow.

Brimstone noted that she was not breathing and turned pale. Then with a scream of outrage, he lost control as Tarkenstar tried his best to heal Damia.

Standing up straight his professional eye located the archer as the assassin sprinted toward a man who had just opened a portal. Several of the archers were now firing their bows but the assassins were out of effective bow range. The mages present fired spells but they were busy ducking attacks from a mage who stood between them and the portal.

Brimstone raced clear of the innocents in ten giant strides, and then raised both arms. He pointed his hands in the direction of the fleeing assassins. Screaming in grief, Brimstone released his fire spell. The column of fire incinerated the mage who was attempting to hold off pursuit, and then took the warrior fighting a rear guard action. A heartbeat later, the second mage was swept up in the column of fire and then the archer as well. In the space of three heartbeats, all four assassins had been incinerated.

It should have ended then, but it did not. In the anguish of his grief, Brimstone lost control of his spell. He poured forth the column of fire into the very ground that the assassins had died on. Artherk immediately ordered all present to stand well clear of Brimstone to protect them from the power of Brimstone fully unleashed, then rushed to him accompanied by Ogrimar.

"Son, you have to regain your control," pleaded Artherk. But Brimstone was near insane with grief, and could not understand his father. The ground was beginning to liquefy and die.

Ogrimar stared sadly at Brimstone and said, "Son, you have to stop. Damia will live. She is a goddess, and no mortal may slay a goddess."

Hastily the two gods consulted, and then they took their places beside Brimstone with one standing on either side of him. With their irresistible force, they moved his arms straight up. Had they been mortals, they would have had their hands incinerated by the proximity to the column of flame. But being gods, they were safe. Soon the column of fire was flowing straight up into the gathering darkness.

Then Artherk translocated the three of them to the center of the Stonehenge near Damia.

Hesitantly, the two gods released Brimstone’s arms. By the force of their will, they kept him in that position.

Ogrimar turned to Damia and carefully removed the arrow. He stared at the arrow for a moment and then angrily tossed it into the column of flame that Brimstone was now sending harmlessly into the night sky. It was immediately incinerated.

Ogrimar spoke then to Damia. "Daughter, arise, we need you." Then he focused his power on her wound and assisted her natural healing processes to speed her healing.

Brimstone was lost. He was totally consumed by the grief he felt at the death of Damia. Never had he felt such anger and anguish. It threatened his very sanity. The stone of light tried to help, but there was nothing that it could do.

The column of fire was now illuminating the night. It raced up through the atmosphere until it reached a point where the air was too thin for flame to live. There it dissipated harmlessly. But the component gases thus released would form some spectacular aurora borealis for several nights.

The wedding guests stared in awe at the column of flame. Many wondered just how strong Brimstone really was, and with fire spells such as his why bother with weapons at all. But the warriors in the party understood why Brimstone utilized weapons.

 

  

***

 

On the isle of Stoneheim, the Centaur King Aedenas Gravesoul saw the column of fire reaching up into the night sky to the east and summoned Dionysus Silverstream for an explanation. "Sire, I asked my god Ogrimar a moment ago. He told me that it was the business of the gods and to mind my own business, unless I wanted to become skraug food like my cousins the wild horses."

Laughing, the king said, "That sounds like Ogrimar."

 

***

 

In Lighthaven, the citizens marveled at the brilliant column of fire that could be seen high in the night sky to the north.

 

***

 

In Silversky, the people gathered in wonder and marveled at the spectacular column of flame reaching into the night sky to their northeast.

 

***

  

Damia heard a great roaring along with shouts and screams. As her eyes opened, she realized she was lying on the ground inside the Stonehenge. As she rose from the ground, she saw that the roaring sound was coming from a monstrous column of fire, reaching up into the sky. She remembered that this was her wedding day, but something must have gone drastically amiss. Suddenly, she realized that the column of fire was coming from Brimstone, and both Ogrimar and Artherk were trying to contain him and help him regain control over the fire spell.

She struggled to stand, trying to call to Brimstone, but she realized there was no hope of being heard over the noise of his spell. With a great effort, for she was almost completely drained of power, she tried to reach him by the method she has used with him before, which was mind to mind. "Beloved, hear me. I live, heart of my hearts, but I need you. Please hear me, Brimstone. Turn, for I am behind you and I have need of your strength"

Brimstone's anguish was such that he barely heard Damia in his mind. But hear her he did, and his sanity returned at once. When it did, he stared in awe at his hands then closed them and stopped the column of flame.

He turned to Damia and took her in his arms, gently kissing her. Sobbing he said, Beloved, I thought I had lost you."

Held safely in Brimstone's arms, Damia quickly regained her strength and her powers. As she looked around, she saw the carnage, the destruction, and then the curdled and pitted earth. "Oh, the poor earth, it cries to me," she said in great sorrow. Slowly Damia walked to the torn earth. Kneeling she held her hands over the damage. Slowly, so slowly, from the bottom of the crater she began to heal the land, soothing, comforting, and rebuilding.

 

 


 

 

 

Part 3

The emergence of the Companions


Chapter 19

 

Fawnn stopped just outside the entrance to Orc cave and cast a light spell. She moved inside and stood still for a moment to get a feel for her surroundings. When she was content that there was nothing dangerous near her, she moved on through the labyrinth of twists, turns, and side passages. She had a map of the cave with her, but seldom consulted it. She didn't need to because she had been inside this cave many times.

When she was a young girl, Fawnn's father had taken her on a trip through a cave. Inside that cave, it had amused him when his daughter had found two of the magic chests that dotted that cave. When she opened the chests, she found a bit of gold, a pair of studded leather leggings, and a rusty long sword. The young woman was thrilled. To her way of thinking, this was a fortune and she could not believe her luck. She asked her father to whom the items belonged and he smiled and told her this tale.

"Daughter, long, long ago, the gods decided to gift to mankind certain items. Those items they placed inside magic chests all over Althea. Some are quite common such as these that you have found in this cave. But other chests have quite rare items that are worth a vast fortune. This was done to encourage adventurers, for the gods love that spirit in humanity. The chests refill after a time. That’s their magic. They don’t always give the same items. The contents of these chests are free to the adventurer who opens them, so enjoy your newfound wealth, Fawnn."

Fawnn loved it when her father spoke of the gods. "Someday I might actually get to meet a god," the young lady thought.

Fawnn generously offered to share with her father the gold she made from the sale of the items, but he had smiled and responded, "The gold is yours, my child,” he said lovingly.

From that moment on, Fawnn was fascinated with caves and the wonderful chests located inside them.

To her, the gold thus obtained was a marvelous fortune. She opened a bank account and deposited all of the gold. From that day forward, she was intrigued by the magic chests that she located at every opportunity. Fawnn always deposited the gold into her bank account. The proceeds from these adventures, she used to advance her study of magic.

As she moved confidently through the cave, Fawnn smelled the familiar damp earth smells that she found oddly pleasant.

About thirty feet down one side passage, Fawnn heard voices speaking faintly. As she moved in the direction of the voices, they grew louder. She stopped inside the cave and stared at a fissure in the rock wall. The sound of voices was issuing from that fissure.

There was something odd about all this. Many times, she had been down this corridor, yet never had she seen this fissure.

 

*In his realm, Ogrimar smiled as his follower, Fawnn, stared puzzled his handiwork.*

 

As she studied the fissure, she heard one of the voices say something that made her blood run cold. "Brimstone must die! There can be no more failures. Our clan of assassins has been hired by our employer to do a job. Many times, we have tried to kill him. Only once did we succeed, and that success was negated when the gods resurrected Brimstone. This time when we slay him, it must be done so that a resurrection is impossible. All we need do is hide the body beyond the time a resurrection is possible. If that proves impossible, then we must behead his corpse, for a beheaded body cannot be resurrected."

She stood still, barely daring to breath and listened as the voice continued. "In three days, I want every member of our clan to gather here. We will make an all out attack upon Brimstone in seven days. I want every clan member to know what is expected of him. So send out the word. Gather our clan. Tell them to be here by high sun three days from now. I will accept no excuses for failure to comply."

"Yes, clan leader," another voice replied.

Fawnn decided that she had to leave immediately to warn Brimstone. She wisely moved away from the fissure. Only when she was well away from that fracture did she use the spell word of recall. She knew that if she could hear the men, then they could also hear her spell when she cast it, and word of recall was a loud spell.

Inside the temple in the city of Silversky, she stood impatiently waiting for the immobility that always followed that spell to wear off so that she could move. As she waited, she sent a message to Brimstone with her mind asking him to come to speak to her in person.

 

***

 

Brimstone met Fawnn at the Stonehenge in Silversky. There she described in minute detail what had occurred. As she spoke, he grew more excited by the moment. Finally, he would have an opportunity to strike a real blow against his enemies who had plagued him for so long. But he would need help.

 

***

 

Ziona stood patiently instructing the young archer on the island of Arakas. The archer was frustrated. He simply could not make the shot that she was trying to teach him. Five times, he had attempted the shot and five times, he had failed. Finally in exasperation, he rather crossly said, "It simply cannot be done!"

Smiling patiently Ziona untied, and then unwound a red sash from around her slim waist. Still smiling she wrapped the sash around her head several times, completely covering her eyes. She tied the two loose ends of the sash behind her head. She then took her bow and nocked an arrow.

The young man had a smug expression on his face as he watched her draw her bow to the full draw position. He was sure that she would miss the target. It was simply too difficult a shot.

Ziona stood at the full draw position with the limbs of the bow creaking slightly. She could feel the bowstring biting cruelly into the index and second fingers of her right hand as she continued to hold the bow at full draw. With her mind, she sought out the target and shifted her aim minutely. A moment later, she released the string and she felt the sweetness of the shot that only a true archer can appreciate. She knew the arrow would fly cleanly. Then in rapid succession, she reloaded her bow and fired two more shots. Only then did she remove her blindfold.

As she removed the makeshift blindfold, she heard the sound of applause. Curious, she turned to see who had joined them. As she turned, she saw her young student with a stunned expression on his face. She also saw Brimstone. Ziona curtsied politely. "Thank you, M'Lord," she said.

Bowing in return Brimstone said, "An incredible feat, good lady. But pray tell me, how many times did you have to practice to make the shot your young apprentice is attempting?"

Laughing, Ziona replied, "As I recall, it took me hundreds of attempts, sir." She followed Brimstone's gaze to the target downrange. At a distance of forty yards, she had sent all three arrows into the bull’s-eye. That was a difficult enough shot for a young archer. But that shot was complicated by the fact that the target was attached to one of the fan blades of an old dilapidated windmill that was slowly spinning.

Glancing at the apprentice she said, "Please don't tell me that the shot is impossible."

" I won't. I want to learn that shot!" said the archer with a smile.

"In time you will, my friend," Ziona responded.

Turning to Brimstone once more she said, "Did you wish to speak to me, M'Lord?" Glancing at the apprentice Brimstone silently nodded his head. Understanding that he wished their conversation to be private, she said, "Jeffery, please recover my arrows for me. I do not wish you to split mine when you hit the target."

Thus encouraged and flattered, the boy ran hooting toward the windmill, dreaming of the day he could shoot a bow with Ziona's skill, and someday he indeed would.

When he was out of earshot, Brimstone said, "I have need of your bow, M’Lady. I am going after the assassin clan in three days."

"It is yours, sir," she said with a smile. Gladly would she seek out the assassins that had so vilely struck down Damia. If the assassin clan was not dealt with properly, the time would surely come when they would harm other innocents.

Bowing, Brimstone said humbly, "My thanks, friend." Then he said, "There will be others. We meet in Silversky at the Stonehenge three days from now. Secrecy on this matter is urgent."

"Yes of course, and I'll be there," she replied.

Downrange, Jeffery was laughing and leaping into the air to recover Zion's arrows. He had to jump several times, and then wait until the blade returned to the bottom position. But he recovered all three arrows without breaking them and returned the arrows to Ziona.

 

***

 

Dime was standing in the forest of Stoneheim in the Red Skraug territories. As he stood there facing the monsters, a pair of skraugs came charging at him taunting him as they ran. He calmly raised his hands and fired the spell meteor at them. It slammed into them hard and they died instantly.

"Well done, sir," a man said behind him. Turning, he saw Brimstone standing there smiling.

"Brimstone!" said Dime. "It has been a long time since last we spoke."

"It has indeed, my friend," said Brimstone. Then, wasting no time, he said, "You said that you wanted in on the hunt to seek out the assassin clan."

Nodding his head in agreement, Dime started to grin. "I am in, Brimstone."

"You haven't heard the details yet."

Smiling hugely now, Dime responded, "Doesn't matter. I am with you in this, Brimstone."

Laughing, Brimstone thanked him, and then told him about the meeting and the need for secrecy.

 

***

 

SuperDude-KoH sat at his desk going over some papers pertaining to his guild. He heard a knock at his door and walked over to open it. Brimstone stood in the doorway smiling. "It’s good to see you, old friend," his visitor said.

"Come in, come in," he said. He motioned for Brimstone to have a seat, and then asked, "Can I offer you food and drink, my friend?"

"No thank you," Brimstone replied politely. He smiled warmly at his friend, and then said, "I know where the clan of assassins will gather in three days."

"So where do we slay them?" asked SuperDude-KoH.

Brimstone smiled at his friend's eagerness and then he frowned. He said, "I had heard that the three bodies I found the day your group brought me to Silversky had petitioned your guild for acceptance into your membership."

Frowning at the unpleasant memory, SuperDude-KoH nodded his head in silent assent. He said, "That is the truth of it. And no one slaughters our people. Though not yet members they would have been."

"Be at Silversky Stonehenge in three days. And remember, we don’t know who all the assassins are, so secrecy is urgent."

"I’ll be there."

 

***

 

A few days later, they all gathered at the Silversky Stonehenge.

When they reached Orc Cave, Fawnn took the lead. She guided them to the fissure. From there, she could lead no more with certainty. However, consulting her map, she noted that a great chamber was on the other side of this wall. All they need do was take the next two left turns down side passages and they would arrive at that chamber. She smiled when she pointed out that there was only one small exit from that chamber so there was only one way in and one way out.

Brimstone smiled. The enemy had never before been challenged in their hideaway. That very fact made them overconfident. He planned to take full advantage of that.

Proceeding with great caution, they made their way to the second turn on the way to the chamber.

 

***

 

The assassin guard cursed his fate as he stood guard at the last turn before the narrow passage that led to their meeting chamber. Not all assassins were equal. Not everyone who tried to become an assassin could do so. They simply lacked the skills required, or the potential to develop them. Therefore the lowest rung in the assassin clan was guards, then cooks, then the assassin practitioners, and at the top the ruling body. Hell, he was lower in standing than the damned cooks.

Had he known what was about to happen to him he would have really cursed his fate.

 

***

 

Ten feet from the last left turn, Brimstone cautioned the others to wait a moment with the hand signals that they had agreed upon in advance. He moved to within one foot of the turn and stopped. He carefully placed his gauntleted fingers against the side of the wall and made a scratching sound.

Around the corner, the guard heard that sound and assumed it was one of those pesky bats fluttering against the wall again. He moved to the edge of the corridor and pulled his sword. "At least it is something to do," he thought. A moment later, he stepped into the corridor prepared to attack the bat.

Brimstone grimly closed his gauntleted fist around the guard's throat and drew the hapless guard's startled body to him. He then slammed the guard’s unprotected head into the wall of the cave and lowered his unconscious body to the ground.

 SuperDude-KoH and Dime worked together to bind the guard, while Fawnn gagged him. Brimstone and Ziona stood guard at the ready to defend the party should another guard approach.

When everyone was ready, the party moved with great stealth down the corridor toward the main chamber. A short distance down the corridor, they came across another guard. This one was more alert, and if not for Ziona's well-placed arrow would have sounded an alarm cry. SuperDude-KoH raced past Brimstone and caught the guard's body before he could fall to the ground. Quietly, he laid the guard to the ground and no alarm was given.

Then their luck ran out. A short distance down the corridor, they encountered a strong band of guards. One of the five guards immediately shouted a warning. Dime stepped to the front and used his spell meteor. He was joined by SuperDude-KoH who used boulder. Ziona fired an ice arrow. In moments, the corridor was clear of all opposition.

Moving down the corridor, the party soon saw the edge of the large chamber at the end. It was at that moment that the assassin practitioners poured forth to meet them head on. Blades bared they charged Brimstone's small group. Twenty strong, they came at Brimstone and his small band of companions.

There are moments, especially in battle, when time seems compressed. Almost as if time is slowed down. The five adventurers were facing twenty of the deadliest practitioners of death in all of Althea. Dime fired burst after burst of meteor. SuperDude-KoH launched the attack spell boulder as rapidly as he could cast it. Ziona fired a dozen arrows the first thirty seconds of the battle.

As for Fawnn, she was everywhere, spelling up the entire group to protect them. They had agreed early on during their discussions that it would be best to make their approach inside the cave with nothing but the spell bless on them. That would prevent the telltale sounds of spells being cast from giving them away.

Brimstone raised his hands to cast his own fire spell, then smiled and instead he drew his frostbane sword. He realized that he had never cast his spells in a cave and remembering the damage to the earth that he had already caused, feared a cave-in that would harm his allies.

Standing his ground, he defended the party. When two assassins broke free of the spell zone, he cut them down in heartbeats.

Ziona fired an arrow into the face of an assassin who was about to strike Brimstone from his left. Then Dime and SuperDude-KoH stepped up beside him. As Fawnn recast all of the defensive spells she had on the party they slowly advanced a few yards down the corridor. SuperDude-KoH took a moment to recast bless on the party. Fawnn was yet too young in the magic to possess that spell.

When all were ready, Brimstone bade them wait where they were a moment. He advanced to the very edge of the tunnel corridor and stood facing the large chamber. Scanning the chamber with practiced eyes, he noted the group of ten remaining assassins.

Standing at the forefront were seven of what Brimstone assumed were the top assassins. The three remaining exuded an air of authority. These would be the ruling body. He correctly guessed that the man in the middle of those three was the assassin clan leader.

Stepping forward, Brimstone spoke to them. "Who has hired you to slay me?" he demanded. None of the assassins answered. Brimstone took another few steps. Ziona followed him while SuperDude-KoH and Dime each took their positions to the rear with one going to the left the other to the right. Thus, they maintained a clear field of fire. They would proceed no further. They needed some space between them and their targets.

Suddenly the ground before Brimstone erupted and a concealed assassin leapt to his feet flinging sand directly at Brimstone's eyes in an attempt to blind him. But fate stepped in and Ziona stepped into the path of the sand. Instantly, the stinging sand blinded her. She almost panicked, but calmed her mind and remembered the discipline of the archer.

Brimstone cut the assassin down in three thrusts of his sword.

SuperDude-KoH let loose a barrage of boulder. He was joined by Dime, who sent wave after wave of meteor at the assembled assassins. Three assassins died in moments. En mass, the survivors charged Brimstone’s party.

Ziona sought out a target, holding her bow at full draw. Seconds later, she fired three arrows into the torso of an assassin who was but feet from Brimstone. Brimstone fought the next assassin who attacked him, leaving him dead in moments. SuperDude-KoH and Dime each got one of the others as they were charging.

Now only the three leaders remained.

Summoning his power Brimstone faced them one last time and said, "I will have my answer now. Who hired you?"

In a powerful throw, the leader of the assassins demonstrated why he was the leader. He threw a dagger at Brimstone’s face with such force and speed that Brimstone never saw it coming. But he did feel the surge of power now associated with the stone of light and the dagger bounced harmlessly away from the invisible wall the gem was using to protect him.

Then the stone of light struck back. A small beam of light flashed from the necklace and hit the assassin leader. It stopped just a moment after it made contact, but the damage was done. Instantly the assassin leader began to transform into stone. "Stop!" Brimstone commanded the stone, but he received this answer. "My friend, I failed you on your wedding day. That arrow never should have touched you. If it had not, it could not have struck Damia. Never again will I allow anyone to target you with a missile."

The remaining two members of the ruling body backed away from their leader, afraid that whatever was happening to him could spread to them. But they were no cowards. They drew their daggers and charged Brimstone head on.

Again, Ziona's bow took one while Brimstone dispatched the last.

Fawnn walked to Ziona, speaking gently to let her know who she was. She produced a small flask of water and helped Ziona rinse out her eyes. With the worst of the sand now washed from her eyes, and finally able to see again, Ziona almost wished she couldn't. So many dead.

The entire party seemed to be sobered by the conflict. Dime and SuperDude-KoH examined the bodies checking for survivors, but there were none. Even Brimstone seemed oddly unhappy with the outcome.

They returned to the man they had left tied hand and foot in the corridors of the cave. Just in time too, because an Orc Battlemage had just found him. Fawnn laughed and shot the Orc with several rapid blasts of Shatter killing it.

 

***

 

Brimstone turned the lone survivor of the assassin clan over to Gazfaz in Silversky to face realm justice. He thanked his friends for helping him and departed to see Damia.

 

***

 

In Silversky tavern, a lone figure sat at a corner table in the shadows. The person sitting there was dressed in a dark robe of indefinite color with a large oversized hood concealing the facial features. Reaching for the wine glass on the table the figure lifted the glass to drink. A small ring with an embedded black gem twinkled on the female’s hand.

 

 

 


Chapter 20

 

Genkaku walked slowly through the city of Lighthaven. As he did so, he handed out a few items and gold to the needy. But he was saving a special item for young Sasha. Sasha was an eight-year-old girl who had stolen Genkaku's heart the year before when she had courteously handed him a cup of water one hot day when he had entered the city drenched with sweat from the battle to drive off the goblins.

When he got to her house, he knocked on the door and smiled as her mother opened it to greet him. He handed the mother the package he had brought to give to Sasha and inquired about his young friend. The mother told him that she was asleep as she had been long at her studies of magic the night before and the hour was but two hours past high moon. "Come back after high sun," the mother said, "I am sure she will be awake by then," she finished.

After thanking the woman, Genkaku walked away from the house and headed to the inn. He had been on the road many days without the benefit of the comforts of civilization. He longed for a bath and a meal that didn’t consist of trail rations. After that meal, he decided to take a rest on the bed in his room at the inn. His planned one-hour nap turned into a sleep of several hours when the weariness of the trail finally caught up with him in the soft bed of the inn.

 

***

 

Later that day, when Sasha awoke she spoke to her mother in greeting as she entered the family room. Her mother handed her the package that Genkaku had left for her. With excitement coursing through her, the young girl opened the package. Inside, she found a book of Feylor and smiled. She had confided in Genkaku on his last visit that she yearned one day to locate that book, so that she might fulfill a Druid quest.

Sasha decided in that moment that she simply must go seek out that Druid with the book in her possession. She did not tell her mother of her plans, as she knew that her mother would not approve of that dangerous trip.

She waited until nightfall, and when her mother left to visit a sick neighbor, Sasha walked furtively out the door of her house. Slipping through the night shadows as only a child can, she made her way gradually towards the Druid camp. She bypassed goblin crossing and headed ever north.

As she walked, she occasionally heard the flutter of wings. Sasha never noticed that she was being followed. One moment she was safe and the next moment she felt something heavy slam into her from behind. A few seconds later viselike teeth clamped onto her throat. Her screams were cut short as the teeth took a firmer grip around her throat. Mercifully, she passed out long before the vague dark shape holding her down with its hind legs finished feeding.

 

***

 

The following morning Genkaku returned to Sasha's house only to see a crowd gathered just outside the door. Sasha's mother stood in front of the house weeping and terrified. Never before had her daughter been gone so long.

 

Acting on the belief that the girl may have sought to turn in the book to the druids, Genkaku left to join the growing search parties. Toward evening, Genkaku found Sasha's body near the Druid camp. She had been dead quite a while. Inside her small hand, she still clutched the book of Feylor he had gifted to her. In sorrow, he wrapped her tiny body in his own cloak. Holding her close to his chest with his left hand and clutching his sword with his right, he stared guardedly around the area looking for signs of the beast that had so savagely slain the girl.

Only when he was certain that nothing nearby threatened him did he bespeak the realm with his mind. When he announced the sad news, his brothers XconX and Corey both heard and immediately left to join their sibling.

 

***

 

Dime and Tinkerbell made camp south and east of the druids on Arakas. They had vainly searched most of the day for Sasha and they were ready for a rest. They had been awake some thirty hours as the sun sank, having been called upon to assist friends in need the day before. Dime had suggested that Tinkerbell, his loving wife, leave the search to him. Tinkerbell had adamantly refused and argued that if it were their child, they would want everyone searching who could do so.

Bowing to his wife's logic, Dime agreed to the plan to search for the child and they entered a portal to the Druid camp on Arakas. From there they had painstakingly searched, but to no avail.

When Genkaku announced that he had found the girl's body, Tinkerbell had broken down in tears and Dime had insisted that she sleep. Fixing a makeshift camp, he erected their small tent and escorted her inside. Gently he kissed her lips, and then bid her sleep well. Before he even had the tent flap closed, she was fast asleep.

He decided against a campfire, fearing that it might awaken his wife. "What," he thought, "could seriously be dangerous to us on Arakas?" Had he built that fire he might have prevented what happened later.

 

 

***

 

Determined to stay awake despite the relative safeness of Arakas, Dime spent a tiring night standing guard. Three hours before high moon he drifted off to sleep, having been awake past all human endurance for some thirty-three hours. He never heard the flutter of wings that came minutes after he fell asleep.

 

***

 

Lord Malachi walked softly on the dirt path heading to the Druids. His inner time sense told him it was about three hours before high moon. He heard a flutter of wings, stopped, and stared curiously off the trail in the direction of the sound. He shifted his runed halberd in his grip for comfort, and then slowly eased off the trail into the countryside.

About one hundred thirty feet from the trail he saw the vague outline of a tent, and then he noted a man sitting near the front of that tent. He saw the shadowy forms hovering near the sleeping man. Giving a battle cry, he alerted the sleeping Dime who leapt to his feet in some confusion. "Above you!" Malachi shouted frantically as he raced toward the campsite.

Glancing up, Dime saw three shadowy forms hovering near him and cast the spell meteor into their midst. Two of the forms were instantly incinerated by the spell, but the third flew away just in time to escape the blast zone.

 

***

 

Inside the tent, Tinkerbell stirred and awoke, troubled by dreams of monsters closing in on her husband. A moment later, she heard a battle cry from someone other than Dime. Gathering her wits, she exited the tent at the moment Dime fired his spell.

Dime greeted his wife, and then he thanked Lord Malachi for his timely warning. They all walked over to the charred corpses of the creatures, but could not identify them from the remains.

 

***

 

Back in Lighthaven, the people of the town had settled in to sleep. One hour before high moon, Edgar Gimplestratten awoke to the sound of fluttering wings and squealing pigs. Something was attacking the town’s pigs. He sent a message to the realm that the city of Lighthaven was under attack then wisely remained inside his cabin.

Marnec Sunim was out before dawn as usual tending his small fields of crops, which help to feed the citizens of the city. He heard the squealing of the pigs and fluttering wings himself and ran over to see what was attacking the city pigs. Something slammed hard into his back and knocked him to the ground. Luckily for him, the attacker decided to grab one of the squealing pigs rather than finish him off.

 

***

 

In Lighthaven tavern, Genkaku sat with his brothers XconX and Corey quietly discussing what he had learned of the child Sasha's death. They were discussing what should be done next when Edgar sounded the alarm.

All over the city of Lighthaven, the people scrambled to defend the city. Warriors, archers, and mages poured forth to do battle.

The three brothers were first on the scene and saw dozens of large shadowy forms hovering near the pigpen. Corey fired an arrow into one of the attacking creatures just before it could rip Marnec Sunim's throat open with its fangs. XconX healed the poor man, and Genkaku drew his frostbane sword. He charged into the small pigpen. He didn't bother to go to the gate. Instead, he ran straight at the pen, and then launched his body into a jump, clearing the top of the fence by a foot. At the apex of his leap, he spun his body in a three hundred sixty degree turn and his sword flashed out cutting the wing membranes of two of the attacking monsters. They fluttered to the ground shrieking in rage.

XconX fired several rounds of boulder into the attacking monsters, and then he healed his brothers who were taking the brunt of the attack.

It was at this time that others arrived and joined the battle. Shortly after that, the battle ended. The surviving creatures flew away shrieking angrily. Stopping just out of the range of the archers and mages they shrieked their defiance.

Corey and Genkaku each had a foot placed on the back of one of the wounded creatures, and were holding them pinned to the ground while they examined them.

A crowd soon gathered to get a good look at them. The creatures were bat like, yet not entirely. The monsters looked like a mixed creature, possessing the features of several different animals. Their bodies were about four feet long. They had powerful hind legs that were that were disproportionately large, indicating that they were probably very strong jumpers. The beasts were covered by short oily hair that was black to a dull brown in color. Their teeth were sharp and pointed with two protruding fangs. The eyes appeared red at times when agitated, but sometimes black, and were very large for their body size. The faces were monkey like but also very maniacal looking. They stank to high heaven. The beasts exuded a very rank odor that reminded the people there of the smell associated with rotten eggs. They had short arms and sharp claws. Their wings appeared leathery and they had wingspans ranging from about four to six feet, from what the brothers had witnessed.

The angry crowd killed the two wounded creatures and burned the stinking remnants of the corpses of a dozen.

The brothers gathered and quietly discussed what had occurred. They all agreed on one thing. In their opinion, the rising sun had driven the creatures away, and not the battle. In battle, they seemed fearless. Even when severely wounded, the beasts would struggle toward their enemies attempting to attack them. Once you wounded one, you had best kill it before turning to fight another.

They made one other observation. The monsters did not actually eat their kills. They drained all the blood from them, as was evidenced by the many dead pigs in and around the area of the pigpen. "Just like poor Sasha," said Genkaku sadly.  

 

 

***

 

Brimstone entered the city of Lighthaven just before dark. He joined the growing group of defenders in the tavern. He greeted the many people he knew. The brothers Genkaku, Corey, and XconX were there, as was Dime, Tinkerbell, Lord Malachi, and Rocks. Also present was the warrior woman LenapeSue who had heard about the death of the child Sasha, and was determined to assist in the extermination of the creatures responsible.

XconX briefed Brimstone on everything they knew about the monsters that were attacking the citizens of Arakas. Dime, Lord Malachi and Tinkerbell added their information to the growing pool of knowledge.  

Later that night, the city of Lighthaven settled in nervously for what they feared might come. At four hours until high moon, the alert guards heard a flutter of wings. They waited until they were certain it was the creatures returning, and then they sounded the alarm.

Brimstone had organized the guards personally and had instructed them to give the exact location of the creatures when they sounded the alarm. Once more, they struck at the pigpen. Apparently, they loved the blood of the pigs.

Brimstone arrived at the pigpen and the entire war party followed the plan that he had laid out for the defense of the city. They surrounded the area around the pigpen. Stunned, they saw hundreds of the creatures hovering above the pen with many of their numbers landing and attacking the squealing pigs.

Brimstone raised his hands and fired his meteor spell. It shot through the air and hit the main mass of swirling monsters, immediately killing an untold number. That was the signal for the rest of the defenders to attack. From all around the perimeter, arrows flew and magic spells fried or crushed the attacking horde.

Tinkerbell and Dime stood shoulder to shoulder attacking and attacking the monsters. Tinkerbell used the attack spell boulder, and Dime used the fire spell meteor. Together they fought to good affect. Lord Malachi stood beside Dime and struck down any creatures that darted at the couple with his runed halberd.

The three brothers fought together on the other side of the perimeter. Corey fired arrow after arrow into the packed mass and smiled as he fought.

XconX utilized the spell boulder and killed many, but mainly he kept his two beloved brothers spelled up with bless and other spells. He also healed all those who needed it and seemed to be able to handle all of that with ease. This time, he wasn't waiting in a temple for a battle to come to him. He exalted in the battle as he fought beside his brothers.

Genkaku fought with his adamantite blade that had been blessed by the gods so that it was much stronger than the average blade. He could have used the frostbane again, but opted for the shorter blade this night. At first, no target came within his reach, but when his brothers’ attacks took a toll on the throng of creatures, several broke away from the swirling mass and dived toward the trio. In an amazing display of speed, he cut figure eights through the air and demonstrated why he had opted for this particular weapon. He killed five in heartbeats while Corey and XconX fired arrows and spells at near point blank range. As he killed the creatures, Genkaku kept a mental tally of the revenge he was exacting on the creatures for poor Sasha.

 

***

 

Rocks stood his ground and fired arrows into the packed throng of creatures with such speed and dexterity that soon he had a packed mass of the creatures splitting off from the main mass. "Uh Oh," he thought, as he saw about twenty hurtling in his direction with incredible speed. When they were fifteen feet from him, they were hit by a blast of meteor. Across the perimeter, Dime grinned and waved.

Beside the archer, Rocks stood the valiant warrior woman, LenapeSue. Armed with her tempest sword, she was a whirling, dancing, dealer of death. Three times, she struck down creatures diving at Rocks. Several of the creatures that had been hit by the meteor spell were not yet dead. They struggled to reach Rocks and LenapeSue finished them off when they got close enough.

Laughing, Rocks shouted a thank you and fired his bow even faster, whittling away at the diminishing swarm of the creatures.

All around the perimeter, town folks began to arrive and attack the swirling mass of creatures.

Suddenly, and as if on cue, all the creatures darted at the defenders and landed amidst them. It was as if they had been ordered to leave the air where they were being slaughtered by the defenders. This made it harder for the defenders because they had to be careful not to slay each other with their bows and spells.

Now the warriors in the party stood in their element. They had been frustrated at having to settle for the few creatures that dared to dart near. Now they could really employ their skills. Shouting battle cries, the warriors all fell upon the now grounded creatures with gusto. LenapeSue trilled a short battle cry and stepped into the packed mass nearest her.

Lord Malachi smiled and attacked the creatures near him with the runed halberd. He decapitated many and mangled many more. Tinkerbell healed him as he fought and smiled at his courage. Dime used the attrition spell plague on several as Malachi killed and killed.

Genkaku killed what must have been his fiftieth creature and fought on without pause. XconX marveled at his brother’s superb skill even as he healed and blessed him. He healed all that he could see in need. Corey used the spell plague to assist his brother in the battle and he fired lightning arrows into the winged creatures when he could.

Brimstone waded into the mass of creatures and killed many with his frostbane sword during the opening minutes of the ground attack.

Rocks fired a flaming arrow that struck one of the creatures that had used its powerful legs to leap toward Brimstone's unprotected back. The arrow struck the creature in mid air with such force that it was hurled several feet away from Brimstone. The flaming arrow ignited the oily body hair of the creature and it shrieked in rage. Rocks fired another arrow at its ugly face, striking it in its mouth and silencing the creature forever as its face erupted in flames.

Rocks waved, and then he turned his attention to another creature that was attacking LenapeSue. Firing rapidly, his three arrows killed the creature and she turned to battle another monster.

As if on cue, the surviving remnants of the creatures took to the air and attempted to flee the town. The mages and archers hooted with glee as once more the night air was filled with spells and arrows that struck down near one hundred of the creatures in moments.

Then they were out of spell and arrow range for the mortals. Still better than one hundred strong, the swarm of flying creatures hovered just out of range. They shrieked in defiance just as they had done the previous night. But Brimstone was no mortal. He had been waiting for this moment. He raised his hands and fired his pillar of fire spell. Shrieking, the creatures tried to outrace the spell, but one by one, they were turned to ash as the spell overtook them all in the space of three heartbeats.

Before the pillar of fire overtook the creatures, the force of the shockwave in advance of the fire spell broke their wings, and then the searing heat of the flames struck their bodies and turned them to ash, which fell to the ground.

The crowd of defenders witnessed this attack. They marveled at the power of this man, and thanked their gods that he was friend to all who lived with honor.

 

***

 

Deep in a cave never entered by man the creature stood and faced the east. The others had not returned and she sensed that they would not. She turned away angrily and walked to her nest. Inside the nest were four eggs. Soon they would hatch. Then she would teach them of the slaughter of their people. They would be avenged.

Other females sought out comfort in their nests. Adolescent creatures too young for battle prowled the cave and mewled in anger. The adult females would fan that hatred.


Chapter 21

 

Three weeks had passed since the battle in Lighthaven, which some locals referred to as the battle of the pigpen. In the cave where the remnants of the monsters lived, the first egg began to rock back and forth. The excited mother chittered ecstatically, and soon all over the cave, others joined in as their own eggs began to wobble. Soon, hundreds of eggs were rocking in their nests. The adolescents roamed the cave area guarding the entrances protectively.

Minutes passed as the excited chittering reached a near crescendo. Then as if on cue, all the chittering stopped. In the ensuing silence, a sharp cracking sound filled the air as the first egg hatched. From the jagged shell emerged an ungainly creature. A miniature version of the species, the young male was covered in mucus from the egg.

The mother crooned softly and with her tongue she gently cleaned the small monster's face. As she did so, her mind marveled at her good fortune that the firstborn was a male. That was a good sign. As she cleaned his small wings, she thought of the things that she would soon teach her son. Soon they would avenge the death of so many of their tribe.

All over the cavern, eggs hatched. There were an unusually high number of males this hatching. At least eight of every ten eggs produced a male. It was almost as though their god had known the needs of the tribe, and seen to it that many males were born this hatching.

An hour later, the last egg had hatched. At a signal from the leading female, the adolescents left the main cavern and soon returned with hundreds of small animals that they had retrieved from a holding pit that had been stocked by the now dead members of the tribe. These were given to the mothers to distribute to the nestlings. A mother took the small rabbit and held it out to her nestlings to sniff. Then she bit the creature on the neck. Having demonstrated to the nestlings what they were to do, she then handed each nestling another rabbit. They were clumsy at the process, but soon the cavern was filled with small sucking sounds as the nestlings fed.

 

***

 

On the island of Raven's Dust, three young hunters eagerly set off on the greatest adventure of their lives. They had been on the island only a few days having recently arrived from Arakas and were terribly excited by the prospects of this new land.

The three young men were all warriors who had banded together early in their adventuring careers on Arakas. They were sword brothers now, and where one went all went.

They had set out from Silversky late one night and headed for the lake of tarantulas.

A mage in Silversky, named Aloysius Starbolt, was willing to pay an astonishing three thousand gold pieces each for sets of tarantula eyes no questions asked. He would buy all that they could supply. The men had gone hunting the night before and managed to accumulate enough gold to get them one third of the way to the cost of their next set of weapons. They had learned much from that hunt the previous night, and were eager to put that knowledge to use.

They had set out eagerly to hunt this night. Bill was the toughest of the three warriors and his chainmail armor was far superior to the studded leather armor worn by his friends Dave and Gary. He was armed with a polished broadsword of great quality, which had cost him all of his gold.

Dave and Gary were not as tough in their studded leather armor but they were stronger, and their fine steel short swords were more deadly than Bill's broadsword.

Working together, they fought at the lake and soon began to accumulate many sets of tarantula eyes. Dave and Bill stood on the south side of the lake near the center just feet from the edge of the lake. Gary would sprint to the west and find a few tarantulas then sprint back to Dave and Bill with the giant spiders in hot pursuit. Once there, the three rapidly killed the tarantulas. They repeated this process often. Killing the giant spiders was deadly work.

After one such spawn was slain, Gary turned to Bill and Dave and said, "I am uneasy. Let’s return to the city and call it a night."

Dave and Bill knew that Gary was no coward. They had both fought beside him for so long that they trusted him implicitly as a sword brother. Yet Gary aspired to become a paladin, and because of those aspirations, he spent many hours a day honing his mental skills needed to become a good paladin. He was very spiritual and prayed to Artherk on a regular basis. The two men respected his decision to become a paladin, but at times, his spiritual nature did interfere with their hunts.

Bill was the unofficial leader of the group. Of the three, he was dominant. "My friend," he said, "what has made you so uneasy?"

Gary shrugged his shoulders and said, "It is nothing I can sense. I have heard nothing, seen nothing, but it is as if I am being warned by Artherk to leave this place at once."

Dave was inclined to follow whatever Bill decided without question. He remained silent, but regarded his friend Gary with a grave expression on his face. Bill considered Gary's words and took them seriously. Finally, he said, "My friend, you stay with Dave. I will bring the tarantulas to the two of you."

Gary bowed his head in shame, afraid that his friends had mistaken his concern for cowardice. When he raised his head, he stared deeply into Bill's eyes and said, "No, Bill. I will do my part in this venture. I cannot in honor permit you to face what I fear is coming this night."

 

*Artherk sadly shook his head in frustration.*

 

Bill protested, but it was too late. Gary had sprinted away to the west at top speed. Soon he returned with six tarantulas in hot pursuit.

Repeatedly he made that run. An hour later, even he seemed to have forgotten his feelings of unease as they collected more and more eyes. Thus it came as a surprise to Bill and Dave when Gary failed to return after one of his runs. Minutes ticked by slowly and soon they both began to grow concerned. Then they both heard a fluttering of wings above them and looked up amazed to see large winged forms hovering over them.

It was hard to see them in the darkness, but two of the creatures were holding a dark object clutched in their hind feet. The creatures shrieked and dropped the object directly into the faces of the two young warriors, and then they flew away. Bill and Dave barely managed to dodge the falling object before it hit the ground.

It was Gary. His throat had been ripped open and he was not moving. Screaming in rage, Bill knelt beside Gary's still form and deeply regretted not heeding his warning.

They picked up the body of their friend and headed back toward Silversky, fighting off demon trees and other monsters as they went. Several times, they heard the flutter of wings and dreaded another attack, but none came. They were almost back to the city when the attack came.

Suddenly the fluttering wings returned as they had several times on the trek back to town. But this time, they did not fly away. This time, the sound of fluttering wings grew louder and louder. Hastily, they eased their poor burden to the ground and drew their weapons.

They had just made ready when a hurtling form that approached him from the rear knocked Dave to the ground face first. Bill saw two creatures dive onto his friend and grasp his outstretched arms in their powerful prehensile rear feet. They immediately launched themselves back into the air with powerful wings that had a span of ten feet. They went airborne, taking the stunned Dave with them. All of this occurred with such speed that the young warrior Bill did not have time to react.

A moment later, Bill heard Dave scream in pain. That scream was almost immediately replaced by a horrible gurgling sound. Then Bill felt something warm falling onto his upturned face as he vainly sought sight of his friend. He wiped at it with his left hand and stared in horror at the blood of his sword brother.

His scream was so loud then that people in the city actually heard him and came running to see what was happening just outside the city gate. When they reached the scene, they found an enraged Bill standing beside the bodies of his two sword brothers. With his sword at the ready, he stared into the night sky.


Chapter 22

 

Brimstone was standing blindfolded in a small clearing stripped to the waist. He was going through a training exercise that he practiced upon occasion. In front of him stood his training partner, a young warrior in training, named Keith, who sometimes trained with Brimstone. He was similarly blindfolded and stripped to the waist.

They stood within arms reach of each other with their arms touching. Brimstone's left wrist rested lightly atop Keith's right. His right wrist was gently touching Keith's left, which rested atop his own.

At a signal from Brimstone, they began the exercise by moving their arms up and down slowly in such a fashion that when Brimstone's right arm was down to near full extension the left was in the upward position. When Keith felt ready, he did his best to slip through Brimstone's guard and strike him in the chest. Feeling the slight shifts in the body of his opponent, Brimstone reacted to the attack without thought by twisting his upper body and striking Keith in the left side while his maneuver deflected Keith's attack.

Keith grunted and returned to the drill position. At Brimstone's signal, they began again. This time when Keith attacked, Brimstone knew from the shifting of his body that Keith was attempting to snap his knee upward into his groin. Snapping his right hand palm down, he intercepted the rising knee and blocked it. Simultaneously, his left hand shot outward open palmed and the heel of his palm slammed into Keith's solar plexus. He had been careful not to hit with anywhere near full force. Had he done so, the attack may well have proven fatal by splintering the bones beneath the solar plexus and driving a sliver of bone into the man’s heart.

All the air rushed from Keith’s lungs for a moment, and he staggered backwards away from Brimstone. When he could speak, he said, "Good strike, M'Lord."

Brimstone removed the blindfold and instructed Keith to do the same. He said, "You are making good progress, friend. Remember that you must learn to judge your opponent's intentions based solely upon the body mechanics. When your opponent shifts a certain way, you can reasonably expect the attack to come from a specific direction. The purpose of this drill is to teach you the body mechanics and make it an unconscious reaction to block and attack simultaneously. In this way, even if you are blinded or in the deepest darkness, you can defend yourself once something touches you, without the need for conscious thought. This saves you precious seconds in battle, and can indeed save your life." Smiling he added, "It has saved mine in many a battle."

Brimstone continued to lecture Keith saying that when you fought in armed combat the same principals applied. The weapons become extensions of your arms.

They began the drill again. This time, Brimstone was the attacker. Keith was still being hit often. But Brimstone was glad to see that he was beginning to get the hang of the exercise and could block some attacks. Of course, Brimstone was not attacking at full speed. Had he done that, then few mortals would ever block him. He was simply too fast for all but the fastest of the warriors.

A few minutes later, a man came running up to Brimstone breathless. When his breathing stabilized, he told Brimstone that he was needed in Silversky. Quickly he told of the deaths of Gary and Dave. As he was told the circumstances surrounding the deaths, Brimstone frowned. He had a bad feeling about what was happening.

 

  

 

***

 

Brimstone stepped out of the portal and entered the city of Silversky. He walked to the tavern where he had been told Bill would be located.

Inside the tavern, he found Bill sitting alone at a table and took a seat across from him. He quietly introduced himself and explained that he was there to help.

Bill took a sip of his lukewarm ale to stall for time while he studied Brimstone carefully. He liked what he saw. He decided Brimstone was a good man on the spot, and decided to tell him what had happened to the three adventurers. He left nothing out. Not even his bad decision that led to the tragic deaths of his sword brothers

Brimstone tried his best to reassure Bill that there was no way he could have known that there were new creatures roaming the land. He did tell him that he might want to heed the concerns of his groups more in the future. Especially if a warning was coming from a paladin, for they were close to the gods and, at times, the gods favored them with warnings.

When he reached the part about the two creatures taking Dave into the air, Brimstone nodded grimly. He had already heard that from other sources, but he had wanted confirmation. This confirmed it then. If two of these creatures could do that, then they were far different from the Arakas version. He asked Bill about the wingspan of the creatures he had seen, but was careful not to lead him to any specific answer.

Bill confirmed the other rumor that Brimstone had heard, which was that the wings ranged near ten feet in span. That was four to six feet wider than the Arakas version.

Brimstone thanked Bill for his help and assured him that he would avenge the cruel deaths of his sword brothers.

As he left the tavern, he did not hear Bill's parting words when he said, "As will I, my friend.” Then he ordered another ale, feeling much better now that he had decided what to do about his sword brothers' deaths.

 

***

 

The next day Bill acted on the tales that he had heard of the Arakas creatures. He began a systematic search of every known cave on Raven's Dust. And as he searched those dim caverns, he did by necessity grow stronger and stronger as the days turned into two weeks.

 

***

 

Brimstone frowned in frustration and studied his map of Raven's Dust for the tenth time. By now, he had searched every known cavern on the isle with no sign of the creatures. Twice he had bumped into Bill, who had grown in strength and endurance remarkably since their first meeting. When he had questioned Bill's presence in the caves he had simply said that he was questing for some item needed.

Brimstone had his doubts about that, but opted to let it go as the caves held none of the creatures that he sought. In both instances, he had already completed his searches and was heading out content that none of them was present in those caverns.

 

***

 

On the twenty-first day following the deaths of Dave and Gary, the realm had returned to normal. There had been no further attacks by the strange new monsters, and the people of Raven's Dust had relaxed their precautions.

So it was that a thirteen year old girl, named Amy, found herself sitting on the fence once more staring at her adored pigs in the city of Silversky as the sun sank below the horizon.

She was a farmer's daughter, but her father had given up farming and moved to the city to make a living there. She missed the farm animals and the only place that she was truly happy in the city was at the pigpen. At least here, she could be near animals.

For weeks, there had been a strict prohibition of the pigpen. No one, absolutely no one was to be near it especially when the sun was sinking. Now that the vigil was beginning to relax, she returned to her favorite spot in the city.

She was just about to leave for the night when she noticed that one of the young piglets had a lacerated foot. Climbing down the fence, she walked over to the piglet speaking softly to it. She petted the piglet's mother with whom she had long ago established a relationship by feeding her corn. The old sow calmly let her handle her baby and Amy set about doctoring the lacerated foot. From a pocket of her dress, she produced a small jar of salve, which she applied liberally to the now cleaned foot then gently lowered it to the ground.

The piglet came up to her grunting and sniffing her foot. Smiling, she once more petted the old sow, thanked her for her trust, and then she climbed back up on the fence. As she did, she heard the flutter of wings. She had just reached the top of the fence when the pigs started squealing frantically. Then something hit her hard from behind and she was knocked off the fence. Amy landed hard on the ground.

The stunned girl felt something grab her outstretched right arm in a viselike grip. Then she felt a sharp pain as she was lifted from the ground by that same arm.  

 

***

 

Bill was uneasy. Since the loss of his friends, he had begun to change. He now prayed to Artherk, just as diligently as Gary ever had. He had grown in strength much since that night as a result of his cave searches, and was now armed with a very good blade. His High Metal broadsword was a much better quality weapon. Having been blessed by the priests it was one of the strongest blades of its type in Althea.

That sword was a gift, given to him by a fellow named Thor Justice. Thor had seen Bill trying to buy one from some people of the realm, and without a word, he had taken his own sword off and given it to Bill. When Bill tried to pay him, Thor had shaken his head and said, "I have heard of your circumstances, sir. Avenge your friends. Let justice be served."

Bill had swallowed hard to ease the lump in his throat, and replied, "May Artherk bless you, sir." Bowing politely Thor thanked Bill for the blessing and walked away to get another weapon for himself.

Of late, Bill had taken to praying to Artherk near sunset of each day. Today, as he prayed, he felt the god's presence. Suddenly he felt that Artherk wanted him to get up immediately and go to the city pigpen. Taking his sword, he stood and headed obediently to the door of the room and left the tavern by the side exit. Running, he noticed that the sun was setting and slipped on a ring of light.

As he neared the pigpen, he heard the sound of squealing pigs. Then he saw the now familiar dark form streaking through the air and landing beside the fence. He was almost within sword reach of the form when it began to rise.

Horrified, Bill saw a human being lifted into the air by the creature and screamed in rage. "Not again! Never again!" Then he shouted, "Artherk, give me strength!"

Swinging his sword with all his might, he struck the leg of the creature with the last six inches of his blade. The sword severed the foot from the leg just above the ankle joint and the girl Amy fell to the ground.

 

***

 

Brimstone sat in the Silversky tavern in the main hall eating a quiet dinner of roast antelope baked and served sliced thin in thick rich gravy. His inner time sense told him the sun was setting and in moments, he must leave for his nightly patrol.

Just as he was wiping the last of the gravy onto a piece of fresh bread, Damia bespoke his mind. She said, "Husband, arise and go at once to the pigpen in Silversky. Take your weapon." Then she was silent.

Brimstone leaped to his feet and threw some gold onto the table beside his plate as he ran from the tavern. "On my way, love," he sent to her mind as he ran.

"Be safe, heart of mine," was her only reply.

The tavern keeper knew better than to question Brimstone, for he came and went as he would. He always paid, and that was what really mattered to the tavern keeper. In fact, he was generally in such a rush when he left that he greatly overpaid. The tavern keeper rushed over to the table and grabbed the gold in excitement. Brimstone had double paid this time.

The poor serving girl stared at the greedy tavern keeper in contempt. She walked away knowing that, yet again, the greedy scum had stolen her gold that Brimstone always left in his generosity.  

 

***

 

Brimstone ran quickly to the pigpen. When he came within sight of it, he saw a remarkable thing. A warrior stood with sword at the ready fending off several hovering monsters who were trying vainly to penetrate his guard. He noted immediately that the man's sword had a glowing blue appearance. Then he noted the crumpled form huddled at the warrior’s feet.

Giving a battle cry that disturbed the deadly silence of the battle being waged, Brimstone charged the monsters with his frostbane at the ready.

The hovering creatures heard Brimstone’s war cry and halted their attack on Bill. Alas, it was their bad luck that Bill did not halt his attack. When one of the hovering creatures beat its wings a bit too slowly and dropped within his reach of his sword, he promptly gutted it.

The mortally wounded creature fell to the ground two feet from Amy who huddled in terror near the paladin's feet. Bill saw the creature, even in its death throws, dragging itself toward the huddled form at his feet. Again, he called on Artherk to give him strength, and he sank his blade into the creature's back as it crawled toward the girl. His glowing blue sword slid through the tough hide of the monster as a hot knife might slide through soft butter. The creature thrashed about briefly, and then died.

Brimstone leapt into the air lashing out with his sword and struck the feet from two of the hovering creatures. They screamed in rage as the waves of pain penetrated their minds. The monsters shot upward with frantic sweeps of their powerful wings seeking safety from the warrior by gaining altitude. But Brimstone was no ordinary warrior.

Twirling his sword and stopping it with a snapping motion of his wrist to flick away the worst of the blood he sheathed it wincing. He’d have to replace that scabbard. which was now contaminated. Brimstone raised his right hand and pointed at the wounded beasts. Then fire engulfed the pair in a massive wave and their ashes dropped harmlessly to the city grounds.

The rest of the creatures left Silversky immediately following the death of the two creatures that Brimstone killed. Stopping just out of range of the mage they thought that they faced they screamed in defiance before winging away to the west.

Brimstone resisted the urge to slay them all. Instead, he elected to observe their flight direction in the hopes that it might reveal a clue as to their location. That they flew west was no surprise, for Silversky was nestled in the southeast section of Raven's Dust.

He ran to the west gate and tried his best to keep up with the retreating creatures, but lost them when he encountered the mountain ranges near the lake of tarantulas. These mountains cost him precious time to circumnavigate while the creatures flew on unimpeded.

 

***

 

Bill cleaned his sword on the body of the beast that he had slain, and then taking a rag from his pack cleaned it again. Only then did he return his sword to its scabbard with something near reverence.

Then Bill turned to the frightened girl still huddling at his feet and said, "Child, tell me your name."

Bill took her to the king's castle and waited with her until her father arrived to take her home. Cautioning her to take precautions at night, he left seeking Brimstone.

 


Chapter 23

 

The next morning in the Silversky tavern, Brimstone met with several old friends. Ziona and Fawnn were there, as was Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, and Cougar. Jedi, Mystyka, and Lord Malachi were also present. Gazfaz and Hilda were there to represent the realms magistrates.

Getting right down to business, Brimstone asked Pig Killa, Tarkenstar and Cougar to seek out all caves on Stoneheim and search for versions of the beasts that were plaguing Althea.

He asked Fawnn and Bill to search the caves of Arakas to assure that there were no remaining threats on that island. Bill protested, and further stated that he wanted to seek out the killers of his sword brothers.

Brimstone said, "My friend, last night you killed the beast that took your friends from you. Now other innocents may need your blade. Will you ignore that need for personal vengeance?"

He leaned toward Bill who was sitting across the table from him and said, "If you doubt my word on this, then by all means, ask my father."

Bill looked a bit uncomfortable, but closed his eyes and began to pray. A moment later, his eyes snapped open in wonder. Then he bowed his head in shame. "Forgive me, sir, for doubting you," he said in a soft voice. Then he said, "Artherk himself just confirmed your words." Then he added in utter amazement, "He, … well." He stammered, "He is pleased with me."

Brimstone nodded and tried to suppress a smile. He said, "Of course he is." Then he added, "So am I, friend. You did very well and saved an innocent in the bargain." He grew serious then, and stared hard into Bill's eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was pitched so low that others in the tavern not of their party could not hear him. He said, "Now, other innocents may need your sword. Will you follow your own desires, or the will of my father?"

Bill sat straight up then. Gone was any trace of doubt from his visage. "I follow Artherk's will," he proclaimed. Then he added, "And his will leads me to Arakas, for Fawnn will face a test there, and there she will have need of my blade. Thus Artherk has said, thus will it be,” he finished.

Then the voice of Artherk bespoke the realms of Althea. Every man woman and child heard his words as he said, "Behold my favored paladin doth do my bidding. To all my followers, I command thee, do aid unto thy brother Bill, should he ask or need it. You will know him by his sword."

All over Althea, followers of Artherk fell to one knee and one by one answered, "Artherk, thy will be done."

Bill's eyes opened wide in amazement. He could not speak for moments as he thought that this honor should have been Gary's. But Artherk said privately to him. "Gary understood his responsibility well. He was to lead you to me. He did that. He is with me now and happy that you have come to join us."

Only Brimstone had an inkling of what had made Bill’s eyes fill with tears then. The rest put it down to being overwhelmed by Artherk's praise.

Brimstone turned to Ziona, Jedi, Mystyka, and Lord Malachi and said, “I need you four here on Raven's Dust.”

As one, they answered, "Then you have me."

 

***

 

Damia came to Brimstone in his sleep as she had twice before. One moment he was sound asleep and the next he was standing before her on a beach with the ocean waves gently rolling in.

"What troubles thee, my love?" Damia asked.

"Bill," was Brimstone's one word reply. Damia nodded her head and said, "You fear that he is not ready for the task Artherk, thy father, has set before him?"

"No," Brimstone said simply, and then he added, "I know that he isn't ready. Bill is good. Given time to train him, he could do it. He has the potential. But as is right now, he will fail and that troubles me. He is a good man and should have a chance of success."

"Perhaps, my husband," Damia replied, "that is why your father asked me to do what I must soon do." Then Damia laughed and said, "Heart of mine, Bill will train for one year before he goes on his mission. More to the point, he will train with the foremost of Althea during that year."

Damia took a step away from Brimstone and sighed. "Unfortunately, beloved, that means you."

Brimstone was stunned. "Wait a moment, love. This emergency can’t wait a year."

"I know, and it won’t. Permit me to explain," she said with patience. Then she added, "The two of you will leave with me today, immediately after breakfast. You will tell your friends that you have an errand, to run and that Bill must accompany you. You will say that you will be back before dark. The two of you will be taken to an isle of my choosing. There you will be provided with food, drink and shelter for the time that you need to train Bill. I will bring you back to Silversky before dark the same day that you leave."

"But how, Damia?" a bewildered Brimstone asked.

"I am a goddess, beloved," Damia replied modestly. "I can do what I just outlined. Trust me."

"With my very life, love," he replied.

 

***

 

The next morning in the Silversky tavern, Brimstone met with Ziona, and Fawnn who had been joined by her traveling companion Veksar. Also present were Jedi, Mystyka, and Lord Malachi. Bill was the last to arrive, coming straight from his morning prayers.

Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, and Cougar had left the previous night to return to Stoneheim to search the caverns there. MetalHead, who wanted to assist in the search because he knew the family of Sasha, had joined them.

Brimstone told everyone to order his or her food and that he was buying. When the food arrived, they all ate with gusto. When the meal was finished, they settled down to discuss the plans.

Brimstone, Ziona, Mystyka, Jedi, and Lord Malachi would leave before nightfall traveling to various spots on the island to watch the known cave exits. They were to send mental messages to alert the rest if they saw the creatures exit a cave. That message would state their locations. In this manner, they could most efficiently try to locate the monsters. Brimstone stressed that no one should try to take them on alone. Instead, they were to send the message and wait for help to arrive. In that way, they should be able to catch the beasts when they returned to the cave.

Bill, Fawnn, and Veksar would leave Silversky for Arakas just before dark and each would seek out a cave entrance and follow the same plan as the Raven's Dust team.

The plans were made and all of the participants had agreed to follow the plans. Brimstone then said, "Bill, you and I have an errand to run for Damia. She needs us today. Don't worry, she will see to it that we are refreshed when we return."

He faced the rest of the company and told them that they would return by sunset at the latest.

"Damia, we are ready," he said aloud. An instant later, she was there. "Greetings, husband," she said, and then kissed him softly in greeting. Jedi snickered a bit, causing Brimstone to scowl, and Damia to grin and wink at him.

"Are we ready?" Damia inquired, still smiling.

He frowned, and said, "Not quite, dear."

Turning to the rest of the party, he said, "Rest up today. You will need your strength tonight."

Then he yelled at the top of his lungs, "Serving girl! Come here at once!"

Immediately she was at his side, "Yes sir?" she inquired politely. "Scowling, Brimstone said rather loudly, "It has come to my attention that the tavern owner here has been taking your earnest wages. Nay, girl, don’t deny it."

Over in the corner of the tavern, the owner stopped what he was doing and listened intently. Brimstone continued, "Girl, if ever again he steals from you, I want you to report it to Gazfaz. My friend will seek out justice. If that fails you, then get the word to me." Then looking directly at the tavern owner he said, "I loathe a thief who would steal from the poor."

Having said all this, Brimstone dropped several pouches of gold into the girl’s hands. "This is yours, to replace what the little man took from your honest work at my expense. Leave the tavern now and deposit your wages in the bank where it will be safe from him, then return at once."

The young woman looked to the tavern keeper for permission, then decided not to wait and darted out the door with the gold. At the door, she stopped long enough to say, "You are so nice. Thank you, good sir." She curtsied then darted to the bank.

Brimstone scowled at the tavern keeper. He said, "Little man, if I should hear that you have abused that girl because of my actions, I will be very displeased."

"As will I," said Damia, frowning at the tavern owner.

Gulping, the little man assured all present that the girl would not be punished.

"Punished?" said Damia, "I should think not," she said with narrowed eyes. Then she said. "Just so you know, I will be watching you. Take her gold again, and it will be a race between the two of us to punish you."

"Yes, Damia, I understand," said the tavern keeper, bowing to her profusely. Apparently, the fool did not realize that she was Damia the goddess.

"Now I am ready, beloved," said Brimstone with a smile.

 

  

 

***

 

Damia left the tavern first. She simply disappeared. A minute later, Bill disappeared, quickly followed by Brimstone.

When Brimstone arrived, he found his wife explaining the plan to Bill. Gravely he nodded his head and said, "I understand, Damia. Artherk told me during my prayers this morning."

"Good, then I will show you both the house."

Inside the house, Brimstone liked what he saw. Sleeping rooms for both men, a small room to prepare meals that had cupboards full to overflowing. A water barrel was also present in that room. A small chapel was there and a massive training room took up the rest of the space in the house. Bill loved the small chapel and immediately planned his daily prayers.

"Food will always be in the cupboards, and fresh water will be in the barrel daily. If you desire fresh meat, there is game aplenty on the isle. But what is in the cupboards alone will keep you hale. There is also a flask of wine that replenishes itself should you wish to indulge." Damia explained.

"If you should need me, then call on me. I will be listening for either of you."

Bill nodded gravely, and then begged off to attend to his prayers.

Now that they were alone, Damia turned to Brimstone. "Husband, I will miss thee. If you need me, call and I will come. But be aware that if I do, then the two of you must return with me. For then, the powerful spells that hold off time will be broken. Once those spells are broken they cannot be rekindled lest we damage the present."

"I understand, Damia," Brimstone grimly replied, "I will miss you, my dear. A year for me will be a long wait to see you again. Can you stay the night?" He asked hopefully.

Gently caressing his cheek, she replied, "The spell is activated now, but as the spell will not seal until I leave, my heart, yes. We can have this one night."

 

***

 

The next morning, Brimstone found Bill waiting in the training room. A few rounds of mock combat showed Brimstone what he needed to know. By the end of the first week, Bill was improving rapidly. Just as Brimstone had suspected, Bill was a naturally talented fighter. They set the pace for the training that first day, and that pace was a grueling eight hour training day. Atop that was a four-hour hunt that Brimstone insisted on because Bill needed the experience.

The second week, Brimstone trained Bill without weapons. All warriors must be able to fight without their weapons, for there was no way to know when they might be attacked while they are unarmed. In that aspect of physical combat, Bill was woefully unprepared. A month of intensive training later, Bill was superb at unarmed combat. They returned to the weapons training, but daily mixed in unarmed combat to maintain his skill level and he improved it as time passed.

The second month Brimstone intensified the training with strength training. To do this, he took a practice weapon and strapped it down to its sheath. He then added several small weights along the length of the scabbard. This left the weapon balanced, but nearly three times the normal weapon weight. Brimstone handed this sword to Bill and told him to practice with it diligently, but warned him never to free the blade from the scabbard.

The first few days left Bill’s hands sore and his arms aching. But he adapted and overcame those obstacles. By the end of the third month, he was so strong that the weighted sword seemed normal to him. Only then did Brimstone permit Bill to try his own weapon again.

Bill was stunned when he tried the weapon. He remembered it as being very heavy. But now it seemed to be as light as a feather, and it followed his will before he was even aware of his own intentions.

Brimstone was pleased. Bill was a superb warrior now. But he could be better. He must be better.

By the end of the seventh month, Bill had mastered the sword. By the end of the tenth month, he was equally masterful at unarmed combat.

It was then that he asked Brimstone to discuss certain things with him that were weighing on his mind. They spent two weeks discussing philosophy every spare moment. But no matter what, Brimstone insisted that they keep up the physical training.

By the eleventh month, he was nearly ready. Brimstone had one technique left that he wanted to teach and train Bill to utilize during combat. That last month, he trained Bill in his ultimate technique. It was a technique that no mortal had ever seen Brimstone perform because he had not yet needed it. By the year's end, Bill had his own version of the technique perfected.

Brimstone called on Damia. When she arrived he kissed her gently then he told her that Bill was ready and then he had said, "Oh how I have missed you, wife." He smiled and asked, "Can you stay the night?"

Sadly, Damia shook her head. "The spell is broken and we must return now, in order to have you back on the evening of the day you left." With a smile, and a kiss that left Brimstone breathless, she continued "but as soon as you have finished this night's work, I shall come to you. I have greatly missed you, also, husband of mine. Though only a day has passed for me, I have felt your intense longing for me constantly. It has touched my heart more than you’ll ever know."

 

***

  

Damia reappeared in the Silversky tavern. Bill, and then Brimstone quickly followed her. They found the others waiting for them. Fawnn, Veksar, Ziona, Mystyka, Jedi, Lord Malachi, and Tha Don were all there. Tha Don had volunteered to join in the hunt as he loathed monsters that stalked children.

Everyone greeted the trio and some stared at Bill oddly. He seemed different somehow. Older maybe? But that was silly. They had seen him just this morning and there was no way he could be older. Yet he did appear to be. He walked differently too. Somehow, he seemed graceful as he walked across the floor to the table. He now had an air about him of confidence that had been missing before.

Brimstone discussed with both groups what it was that they must do. He refreshed everyone's memory not to attempt to enter the caves alone, should one of them locate the creatures.

While they talked, they all ate a hearty meal of stew in a rich thick gravy, cheese, and bread.

They discussed last minute details for a few minutes, then Brimstone wished them all good luck and they all began to head for the door after paying their tavern bills.

Brimstone personally handed the serving girl her gold that he wished her to have, as did most of the others. Tha Don, having missed the exchange between Brimstone, Damia, and the tavern keeper earlier that morning, was not aware of any problem and just dropped his gold on the table, as was the norm of Althea. The serving girl picked up her tip and smiled bashfully in gratitude at Tha Don. She wished them all good fortune in their hunt and walked away shyly.

 

***

 

One other incident of note occurred at the tavern. During their year of training, Bill had confided to Brimstone late one night that he was planning to acquire a better set of armor one day. His scalemail was good, but Azure was better and he desperately needed a golden emerald-encrusted tiara to improve his meager spells.

Brimstone surprised Bill with a set of Azure plate armor and a golden emerald-encrusted tiara that he had delivered to the tavern.

 

 


 

Chapter 24

 

Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, Cougar, and MetalHead spread out over the isle of Stoneheim. Over a period of three nights, they stalked every cave entrance on the isle, with never a sign of the creatures that they had been sent to locate.

 

***

 

Brimstone, Ziona, Mystyka, Jedi, Lord Malachi, and Tha Don searched Raven's Dust diligently. But if the creatures were leaving their cavern at night, the team could not locate them the first three nights.

 

***

 

On the fourth night, the Arakas team found the cave entrance to the lair of the Arakas creatures. They had separated just as the other two teams on Raven's Dust and Stoneheim had done. Veksar's sharp eyes spotted a lone adolescent emerge from a cave entrance and wing away clumsily into the night.

He immediately sent mental messages to Fawnn and Bill that he had finally seen one of the creatures emerge from a cavern. He told them that he would meet them on the main trail deep inside the cursed valleys so that he could guide them to the cave.

They met him an hour later on the trail. Fawnn arrived first, then about ten minutes later Bill arrived. Veksar took the lead and within another fifteen minutes, they stood within sight of the cave entrance.

They had just arrived when the adolescent returned to the cave. He landed clumsily, folded his wings, and walked inside the cave. Bill insisted that they wait five minutes to give the creature a bit of a head start, and then they followed it inside.

Just outside the cave, Fawnn called a halt for a moment. She pointed to the debris lying scattered near the front and sides of the cave entrance, but Bill didn't understand. Veksar whispered, "It appears that this cave opening is fairly recent. It looks like a part of the escarpment gave way, and that collapse revealed this opening."

Fawnn nodded her head and smiled at her friend who was interested in the study of the land.

Proceeding cautiously they entered the cave. They were all wearing light giving equipment, and had agreed that no spells should be used inside the cave for fear that the sound of spells being cast would alert the monsters. In the event of an attack, the magic users would cast defensive spells, while Bill fought off the creatures until the mages could enter the fray.

Bill noted at once that the floor of this cave was dirt, and that the clumsy adolescent was leaving tracks that they could easily follow. An adult would have flown, but the adolescent was barely able to navigate open skies, flying in the narrow corridors of the cave system was out of the question for it presently.

Speaking in near whispers, Bill asked Fawnn, "Have you ever been in this cave system?"

"No, I haven't," she replied. Then she said, "I have studied every known cave on Arakas for many years. Raven's Dust too for that matter, and more than a few on Stoneheim. But this cave is a mystery to me." She finished by saying, "There is not one single reference to this cave in any map that I have studied. I have found the spot on maps of course. But it was always depicted as a shear escarpment.

They proceeded through the maze of twists and turns. Three times, they lost the trail when the creature's path crossed portions of rock floor. The first two times this happened they easily picked up the trail again once the floor became dirt once more. The third time they lost it for an hour because there was a side tunnel that took a left. The floor of that side tunnel was also stone.

They elected to follow that side tunnel, which led them to dead end when the tunnel led to an opening of a huge cavern. The tunnel opening was some fifty feet above the floor of the chamber, and there was no safe way down. Veksar and Fawnn both thought that there was no way that the clumsy adolescent they had seen land could safely break his fall before being dashed to the ground. Having seen the clumsy landing, Bill was inclined to agree.

However, they did note that there were many scrape marks along the edge of the floor at that entrance and they correctly deduced that the marks were from the claws of adult creatures that used this tunnel as an exit.

Since they couldn’t proceed, they went back and followed the original tunnel they had been following until they found the creature's tracks. By now, they had been inside the cave system for two hours. But they had been traveling painfully slowly for fear of rushing headlong into a bad situation.

 

***

 

Brimstone, Ziona, Mystyka, Jedi, Lord Malachi, and Tha Don were just outside a cave on Raven's Dust. On the fourth night of the hunt for the lair, Mystyka had seen several of the creatures emerge from a cave near wizard's vale and she had promptly reported it to the rest of the hunters.

They then gathered and concealed themselves near the cave entrance. When the creatures returned from their nocturnal foraging, they waited five minutes, and then began the task of following them inside the cave.

For them, that task was much harder than the Arakas team had it with their cavern. This cave entrance was not at ground level. It was situated some thirty feet above their heads in the rock face of the mountain. Like the Arakas team, they noted a scattering of debris directly under the cave entrance. Brimstone correctly surmised that this cave entrance was relatively new.

Lord Malachi stepped forward and volunteered to climb the rock face so that he could lower a rope for the others. Ziona backed away from the rock face and knocked an arrow. She guarded the cave entrance as Lord Malachi took that risky climb. Had any of the creatures tried to attack him, she was prepared to deal swift death to them.

Lord Malachi made the climb without incident. He tied his rope to a sturdy rock outcropping inside the cave and dropped the other end over the side. It fell short of the ground by some eight feet.

Smiling, Brimstone just reached and grabbed Mystyka's waist and hoisted her into the air with ease. She climbed the rope carefully but slowly. She was a mage, so Mystyka was not accustomed to such a strenuous endeavor. But it was important to Brimstone to get a mage up there next, just in case they were discovered. He wanted a mage present in the cave to heal if necessary or attack the creatures with spells to buy time for the rest of the team to make the climb.

One by one, the others made that climb. Tha Don laughed softly and waved off Brimstone's offer of help. "I climbed worse than this as a kid. This is not so bad," he said. He got a running start, leapt up, and caught hold of the rope several inches above the end. A moment later, with a good foothold, he began the climb to the cave entrance.

Jedi followed next. Not to be outdone, he attempted the running leap that Tha Don had employed. But his armor was heavier than the red robe Tha Don was wearing and he fell short by inches.

"Nice try," said Brimstone. Then he griped Jedi around the waist and held him up to grab the rope. With amazing dexterity, Jedi scrambled up the rock face of the mountain.

Ziona went next, and moments later, her famed bow was added to the growing strength of the hunting party already inside the cave entrance.

Brimstone backed away from the rock wall before him and took a running start, as had Tha Don. Leaping up, he caught hold of the rope a full two feet above the end. He rapidly climbed the rock face to the cave entrance.

Lord Malachi retrieved his rope, so that no evidence of their presence would be left behind.

They entered the cavern system and chaos ensued.

 

***

 

Fawnn led them through the tunnel system. Veksar was right behind her, and Bill was a few steps behind him. Finally, they came to the end of the tunnel. A small opening in the rock face of the tunnel appeared to be the only entrance.

Just inside that three-foot wide opening, they could hear the sounds of many creatures chittering, but could not yet see anything of them. They did smell them though, and that odor was almost overpowering. It was a rotten stench that caused their stomachs to roll and threatened to make them all gag.

They backed away at Bill's signal. A safe distance out of earshot of the chittering monsters, they stopped and held a hurried conversation in whispered tones. Bill said, "We have located the two entrances to the lair."

"Are you sure that there are only two entrances?" asked Veksar.

"So Artherk has told me, yes, friend," replied the paladin, and then he went on to say, "This is the main exit we need concern ourselves with at the moment. Right now, the creatures fly horribly."

They all agreed that the freshest tracks found had been here. They knew that this exit was the main one being used by the creatures they were hunting.

"Therefore," Bill continued, "I will seal this exit first."

"How will you seal it?" asked Fawnn with a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Artherk will actually seal it. I am but the instrument of his power."

They would have spoken more, but at that moment their luck ran out when a group of five adolescent males came walking out of the exit.

Veksar saw them first and hurled the spell fireball directly into their faces. But he was still young in the magic and the spell lacked the power to instantly slay the creatures.

Fawnn added her boulder spell to his fire spell and together they slew the five monsters that were attempting to reach the small party.

Bill knew that time was of the essence now. He hurriedly shouted. "You two must go back to the other exit and keep the monsters contained there as well. We cannot risk any escaping. But be warned, when you hear me say, ‘Now’, you must flee that entrance for it too will be sealed when this one is sealed."

There was no time for argument. Suddenly, more creatures boiled forth from the opening at the end of the tunnel. Their hatred of mankind had been fanned to great heights by the adult females of their tribe. And now the hated creatures had dared to come to them.

Fawnn and Veksar were amazed by Bill's prowess with the sword. In stunned silence, they saw him draw his blade, which immediately began to glow a soft blue. Darting directly into the mob of emerging creatures, he killed them with ease, his blade not even slowing as it cleaved through the tough skulls of the monsters.

Taking a step back away from the mob, he changed tactics and used the final technique that Brimstone had taught him. With his sword in the underhand grip, he began to cut figure eights through the air in a dazzling display of skill and speed. Within heartbeats, they could not even see the blade that was being manipulated at such a fantastic rate of speed. The bluish glow in the form of a figure eight was all that they could see as he wadded once more into the emerging monsters.

They saw monsters dropping one after another as he charged into them, and then he disappeared through the entrance to the lair.

Stunned by what they had just witnessed, Fawnn and Veksar turned and ran with all haste to the other entry to the cavern. They arrived in time, but just barely.

What they saw when they reached that entrance stunned them. The adult females were trying to speed a group of adolescents along to that entry to the tunnel system. They chittered and trilled at the adolescents as they attempted vainly to reach that exit. But the adolescents lacked the skill needed to make it through that exit.

Several tried, but always lost their grips and fell to the ground below. The entrance was so small that they could not enter it with wings extended. In order to land, they had to close their wings just before landing. It was a difficult maneuver that they were just not yet ready to accomplish.

The adult female's wings were all atrophied terribly from disuse and the best they could manage was an awkward hover.

The females changed tactics and began to goad the adolescent males into climbing the rock face of the tunnel toward that exit. That tactic proved much more successful, and if not for the combined spells of Fawnn and Veksar, they would have succeeded.

 

***

  

Ziona's bow twanged as she killed yet another of the creatures that was clawing its way along the floor in an attempt to get at Mystyka who had nearly killed it with her boulder spell.

Brimstone fought near Jedi who was killing the creatures one after another with his frostbane.

Tha Don fought with boulder too, and his boulder spell was potent. Out of the corner of his eye, Brimstone saw the red robed mage kill six of the creatures that kept boiling out of a cavern entrance in rapid succession.

Lord Malachi fought well with his runed halberd and accounted for six monsters in a few moments.

Minutes later, they had fought their way inside the main cavern. There they found hundreds of the creatures angrily chittering and trying to get into the entrance.

Brimstone stepped to the fore a few feet inside the main cavern and hurled massive bursts of his meteor spell into the packed cavern. The rest of the party joined him, and together their massed attacks killed hundreds of the flying creatures. So vast was the destruction to their tribe that the creatures en mass landed to face their foes on the ground. It was simply too dangerous to remain airborne.

Then they all saw an odd thing. They saw a creature with bone necklaces walk to the front of the line of creatures that remained. This creature pointed its clawed right hand at them and suddenly all were struck blind by the mage’s spell.

Brimstone immediately sheathed his sword and waited to feel the first attack of the creatures.

Ziona focused her mind and continued the battle. With her mind, she sought out the creatures and killed all those that dared approach their party. She yelled a warning to the line of defenders not to move forward into her line of fire.

Jedi and Lord Malachi waited with their weapons at the ready.

Mystyka and Tha Don both drew their twisted daggers and waited calmly for the spell to wear off. It would be the longest five minutes of their lives.

Brimstone calmly waited until he felt a clawed hand grab his wrist, then began a serious bout of hand-to-hand combat. In moments, he broke the neck of the creature attacking him and threw its body as far away from him as he could in order to leave the ground before him free of obstacles.

Ziona's bow killed repeatedly as the creatures rushed their party. She had killed twenty since the blindness had struck her. But she could not hold them all back and dared not fire the bow once the creatures were among her friends.

Lord Malachi and Jedi were attacked at about the same time. Jedi used his frostbane and struck down the creature without thought. Lord Malachi slammed the shaft of his runed halberd up between the legs of his attacker, causing the creature to mewl in pain, then the warrior reversed the attack and split open it's skull with the business end of that deadly weapon.

Tha Don felt something claw at his arm. He grabbed the monster's wrist with his free hand and thrust his twisted dagger at the spot he assumed the face would be located. He was trying to hit the monster in the eye. He missed the eye, but buried his dagger into the nose of the creature. It struggled and almost yanked the blade from Tha Don's hand. But miraculously, the mage maintained his grip on his only means of defense at the moment. He yanked the blade free and stabbed the creature repeatedly.

Mystyka felt something grab her hair and pull her body against it. The foul stench of the creature was in her nostrils when she attacked. With her blade held low, she stabbed it in the groin and the creature screamed in outrage. Mystyka had just stabbed it again when she was struck a stunning blow to her head. Just before she was knocked unconscious, she penetrated the creature's heart with her dagger. She collapsed in a heap on the floor of the cave, even as her now dead attacker did the same.

 

 

***

 

On the island of Stoneheim, Lord Death and Hierophant had joined Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, Cougar, and MetalHead in their quest to see if any of the new creatures were on that isle. But as yet, they had seen no evidence that they existed on that isle at all.

 

***

 

Inside the main chamber of the cavern, Bill saw hundreds of adolescent creatures milling about. Many charged at him, and for the fifth time since the battle had begun, he said a prayer to Artherk. Again, he felt the same response as his strength was renewed.

Artherk then spoke to him saying, "Well done, my paladin. Now you must make a terrible decision. I can seal this cave but only by channeling the power through you and your sword."

Instantly Bill knew precisely what he would have to do, and he knew why Artherk called it a terrible decision to make. The exact spot of the strike that he must make was at the mouth of the entrance to this main cavern. If he sealed the cavern, he would be trapped inside with these creatures. But his companions, Fawnn and Veksar would be safe, as would all of the inhabitants of Arakas. 

For a moment, fear nearly overwhelmed him. To be trapped in such a hellish place with all these creatures was a terrible fate. He was under no illusions that he could kill all of the creatures. He almost said no.

Then Bill remembered the fate of his sword brothers Gary and Dave, and the frightened young girl named Amy. His heart was filled with shame at his cravenness. If his death could save even one poor soul from a similar fate as that of his sword brothers, then it was worth it.

"Artherk, I will obey," said Bill. "But, Artherk, a boon if you would?" he finished.

"What would you have of me, Bill?" inquired Artherk politely. He already knew for he knew well the heart of his paladin, but courteously, he asked anyway.

"I would not have my body dismembered by such vile things as these, my god. Would you please prevent that?"

"You have my word, Bill. Once the cavern is sealed, not one of the creatures will touch your flesh," Artherk replied gravely, and then he added, "And you will feel no pain, my friend. But you will die."

Bill backed away from the onrushing horde of monsters and returned to the spot in the passage that he knew he must strike.

 

***

 

Fawnn and Veksar fought valiantly from the very edge of the entrance. They killed the creatures by the dozen. But more and more were beginning to try to make that climb. Fawnn was nearly out of manastones having gone through her supply rapidly with the continuous barrage of boulder in her attempts to hold the monsters at bay. Veksar was in the same position.

It became apparent to them that soon they must retreat from this battle.

Fawnn sent a two word message to Bill with her mind. "How long?"

"Now! Run!" was Bill’s reply.

Fawnn grabbed Veksar's hand and together they fled down through the passage back to the main tunnel as fast as their weary legs could take them.

 

***

 

Brimstone broke the arm of the monster attacking him, and finished it off by smashing his fist into its throat crushing the creature's windpipe.

The blindness spell wore off at that point and he could see again.

Tha Don saw a creature about to lock its jaws onto the unconscious Mystyka's throat. He grabbed it by its forehead, yanked back savagely, and then cut the creature’s exposed throat.

Jedi hooted his approval, and shouted, "We will make a warrior of you yet."

"I'll be damned if that's so," replied Tha Don somewhat irritably.

Lord Malachi used his runed halberd to decapitate a monster that was attempting to fly into Jedi's unprotected back. Some were taking to the air once more.

Though dead, the creature's body still impacted with Jedi’s and knocked him to the ground. Lord Malachi gave him a hand up, and then all grimly returned to the battle at hand.

Tha Don healed Mystyka and she rejoined the fight.

Ziona saw the monstrous mage raise its clawed fist to cast a spell. Frantically, she sought to prevent that, but her arrow killed the mage a moment too late. Again, the entire party was struck blind.

The mages cursed their luck as once more they were blinded and could not see to cast their spells.

It was at that moment that Brimstone shouted at the top of his lungs, "Step back all of you or you may die!"

As one, the rest of the hunting party took several steps backwards unaware of what it was that Brimstone was about to do, but all had seen his fire magic and knew that when it came to fire spells he was a very dangerous man.

Brimstone took three steps forward as an additional safety measure, and then he halted. He drew his frostbane and began cutting figure eights with it, just as Bill had done moments earlier on Arakas. Where Bill's sword could be seen by the glow, Brimstone’s could not be seen at all, until he concentrated on his magic. Then a figure eight of fire formed in front of him. The onrushing horde of monsters stopped in their tracks, amazed by what they saw.

Then, without warning, fireballs darted out from that fiery figure eight. By the hundreds they swept out, and any creatures that those fireballs struck died.

Within fifteen seconds, every monster within that cavern was dead.

  

Thus it was that Brimstone used his ultimate technique that combined his fire spell and the sword for the first time in the presence of the companions. And thus it was that even though he used it in the presence of many, not one living soul had ever seen him use that technique in battle.   

 

***

 

Bill had returned to the tunnel with his sword at the ready. Just as he reached the spot he had to strike, he heard Fawnn's question. After he answered her, he gave them ten long seconds to begin their run for safety, and then he raised his sword before him, blade down. Gripping his sword in both hands, he shouted, "For Gary!" The sword flared with a brilliant blue glow. Driving the tip toward the ground, he shouted, "For Dave!" As the sword slid into the rock floor with ease, he screamed one last time, "For Artherk!"

Artherk's power surged through Bill into the sword and from there into the fault line that connected the two entrances to the subterranean cavern.

Shockwaves rolled forth and the two openings leading into that cavern were sealed with billions of pounds of rock and dirt. Portions of the ceiling of the cavern gave way. Thousands of tons of dirt and rock came crashing down and killed hundreds of the creatures.

"Well done, my servant," said Artherk solemnly.

Inside the cavern, the creatures closed on Bill's position. He drew the sword from the earth and faced them calmly as they approached. With malevolent hatred in their eyes, they came closer and closer chittering and spitting in their rage. They would have him now. They were trapped here, but so was he. And vengeance would be theirs. Oh yes it would. Horrible would be his death.

Calmly Bill saw them getting closer and closer. But his faith in Artherk did not waver. He placed his sword tip gently on the ground, but did not push it into the rock. Nor did he attempt to fight the remaining monsters. He simply stood and awaited Artherk's will.

Gone now was the bloodlust and the yearning to avenge his sword brothers. With the cave sealed, that vengeance was now complete.

As promised by Artherk, Bill never felt a thing, and not one creature touched his flesh. A moment before the first grasping hand could touch him; Bill fell into a blissful slumber.

The enraged creatures stared at the stone statue, which was the perfect likeness of Bill. One moment he was a living breathing target for their hatred, and the next he was a statue. Spitting at the statue and hurling rocks at the form, they defiled it. One even went so far as to urinate on the statue.

An enraged Artherk would have none of that. Bill's sacrifice for humankind would not be rewarded by this foul treatment. He killed that monster with a thought. The rest backed off a moment, confused by the mysterious death of the creature that had urinated on the statue.

Artherk teleported the statue of Bill to the other side of the blocked tunnel where it would be safe from the depredations of the angry creatures that milled about within the remains of the cavern. There, Bill stood mute guard, his eyes wide open but unseeing, his body unmolested by any creature now.

Fawnn and Veksar raced into sight of Bill and thought for a moment that he was safe. They ran on and halted near him. Fawnn hailed him with congratulations. Then to her horror, she noted Bill's fate, and then she wept in despair. Veksar comforted her as best he could and together the two left to go find Brimstone and report the sad news of Bill's fate.

 

***

 

They gathered in front of Bill's statue. All of the veterans of the three wars against the creatures. They had assembled there to honor him. At the last moment, young Amy had asked to join them, and Ziona had agreed to watch after the girl on the trip when her father said that she could go.

Sorrow was evident on the faces of all those present, but when the young Amy walked forth to lay a bouquet of flowers that she had gathered at Bill’s feet, there were not many dry eyes among this brave company.

She stood then and reached her small hand out to touch that of the dead paladin. Solemnly she thanked him for saving her life, and for his noble sacrifice so that others might live in safety.

Ziona was openly weeping by now, as was Fawnn.

It was then that Artherk bespoke all of Althea. He said, "Know ye all of Althea, that my paladin, William Irongrip, doth lie entombed in stone on the Isle of Arakas in a cave there. Know ye also that it was his last wish that his body be not defiled in death. Therefore, I say unto you all, defile not my sacred paladin. He gave his life freely for you all. Defile him and you will die."

Amazingly, a fool in Lighthaven had the nerve to talk back to Artherk. Using the common mental network so that all could hear, he said, "I follow Ogrimar, not you. I see no reason to obey you."

Ogrimar shattered the stunned silence then by saying, "Then add my warning to his, fool. I do not suffer fools lightly. Artherk's paladin, William Irongrip, sacrificed himself to save all, and indeed, he saved many of my followers. Therefore, I also will be offended if any defile him."

"Yes, my Lord," replied the severely chastised man.

Damia spoke then, "My followers should know that it goes without saying that we will comply with Artherk's command as it is the only decent to do so. But I will make it official. Let none defile William Irongrip on pain of death."

 

***

 

The tavern keeper was in a foul mood. The tavern was busier than ever. More and more people were coming to hunt the monsters, and many of those same people came to eat and drink at the tavern spending much gold, yet he was not a happy man. The tavern was his, but he was a greedy man, always wanting more.

Ever since that do-gooder, Brimstone, had singled out the serving girl, many were now handing the money directly to her. Few left it on the table anymore, thus denying him the chance to claim it for their food. She was being given a lot of gold and even gems and such that the mercenaries used for payment. Why, she was getting almost as much as he was.

"Bah, what does that wench need with all that gold!" he grumbled. But he dared not try to claim it from her, for who knew if those two really were watching him. Still, he plotted and schemed, trying to find a way to get the girl’s gold and not be caught in the act.

One night there had been a fearsome fight with some monsters just outside of town. Many of those eating were battered and exhausted. Some were just coming in, and others were leaving to continue the fight. All the talk he heard was that Brimstone was still out with the hunters, and when he saw a table of mercenaries hand the girl a number of small sacks, he decided that tonight he would get some of that wench’s gold.

He waited until a group of five exhausted fighters had eaten and gone, then approached the girl. "That group that was in the corner did not pay for their meal," he told her.

The girl was afraid of the man, but this had been the only place she had found in which to work. She took courage from the fact that Brimstone had warned the tavern owner about stealing her money or beating her again, and replied, "They did pay. I saw you at the table!"

"I may have been at the table, but they did not pay me," he snarled. "I heard them say the payment was in the gold they gave you, so you owe me for their meals."

The girl knew that she had left more than enough gold to cover their meals. A kindhearted girl, she had even left him a small tip. Shaking her head, she began to back away. The tavern owner roughly grabbed her by the arm and pulled her closer to him, reaching for the pocket on her threadbare apron. As he grabbed for the sacks of gems and gold, the pocket tore and all that was in it fell to the floor. The girl cried out and tried to reach for the falling gold, but the tavern owner pushed her away and began gathering up all that had fallen. As he reached for some gems that had rolled away, a booted foot was placed in front of them.

He looked up to order the person to move and then froze. Damia looked down at him with a slight smile on her face. "I had a feeling you wouldn’t be able to keep your hands off the girl’s gold," she commented. "I suggest you find all that has fallen, and then return it to her."

The man started to bluster. "The last table did not pay before they left. They said they gave it to the wench! I was only collecting the cost of their meals from her," he whined.

Damia called the girl over and asked if she remembered the group that the owner was accusing of leaving without paying for their meal. "Oh, yes ma’am, they paid and paid well. I even left him a small portion of my own tips because I felt sorry for him. He rewarded me by taking all my pay for the night."

Shaking her head, Damia looked at the miserable man, and said, "You were warned. You tried to take advantage of this girl, thinking that Brimstone was too busy to watch you tonight." With a grin, she said, "You may wish he had been the one to catch you, before I am through with you."

The hulking owner looked down at Damia, who barely reached his shoulder. "You? What can you do to me that would be worse than what a man could do? I can break you with my bare hands."

Suddenly, the man became dizzy. As he recovered, he looked at her and said, "What was that? You think a little dizziness will hurt me?"

"Look around," Damia replied.

As the man started to look around, he began to tremble. This was not his tavern. This one was much smaller and darker, and had an unappealing smell. He did not recognize any of the people. "What have you done?" he gasped.

"I am making your punishment fit your crime," Damia responded. "Let’s see if you like being a serving wench." She stared at the man and whispered a word. A searing pain filled the man’s body for a few moments. When he recovered, he looked down and tried to scream in anger and fear. Where a hulking brute had been, a thin girl in ragged clothing looked at Damia in horror.

"You are on Arakas, and this is not one of the better taverns," she told him. "Here, you will serve the customers, and for a small charge, the owner will let you sleep in a corner when your work is done."

"For how long?" a trembling voice asked. With a shrug, Damia replied, "Until I am convinced that you have changed." With a grin she continued, "And remember, I am still watching you." As someone roared for the wench to bring him more ale, Damia vanished.

 


Chapter 25

 

Brimstone sat in Stoneheim tavern, anxiously awaiting his favorite meal. Of all the food in the various taverns of Althea, his favorite was to be had on Stoneheim. He simply loved the bread, cheese, and stew that were the specialties of this tavern.

The tavern owner had told him when he walked in that he would have his usual meal brought to him. He had gone on to state that they now had a new cook, and if anything the stew was even better than ever, and then he had dashed off to give the cook the order personally.

Back in the kitchen, he spoke hurriedly to the cook and placed the order. He specified that great care be taken with the order because it was for Brimstone. The woman smiled and assured him that Brimstone's meal would be one that he'd not soon forget. Satisfied, the tavern owner walked back into the tavern proper.

Smiling, the cook moved with efficiency to prepare generous servings of bread, cheese, and stew. Removing a special spice jar from an inner pocket of her garments, she carefully added a bit to his bowl of stew. As she replaced the lid on the spice jar, a small ring with a dark gem embedded in it, twinkled in the kitchen light.

Satisfied that the preparations were made to her satisfaction, she summoned a serving girl to take Brimstone's meal to him.

Brimstone ate the meal with appreciation and left a generous amount of gold to cover the cost of the meal with a good amount left over for the cook and serving girl. He thanked the girl for the service and told her to share the extra gold with the cook. Then he headed out to hunt.

 

***

 

It had been a very long time since Brimstone had done anything for himself. Damia had pointed that out and suggested that he take a few days and simply hunt or walk the realm's forests. He had grinned at her and said, "Well, I could always see if I can locate any of the new creatures on Stoneheim." Damia had raised an eyebrow at that suggestion and pointed out that she wanted him to do something for himself, not the world.

So it was that he found himself on a remote trail, roaming the isle until late into the evening hours. As dusk fell, he decided to stop for the day. He efficiently made camp, and then sat down to eat a light meal of bread and cheese. He wasn't feeling particularly hungry.

Not long after the meal in the tavern he had began to feel feverish. He had put that down to just plain bad luck and assumed that he was catching a sickness that was currently going through some parts of Althea. Any sickness that Brimstone had ever experienced had always been of very short duration, so he wasn't particularly concerned. An hour later, he felt terrible and decided to go to bed early.

Twenty minutes into his sleep, the fever climbed higher, and the stone of light became aware that something was drastically wrong with Brimstone. He was delirious with the fever. In addition, his body was going through tremors that he could not control. Spasms wracked his body. Rising through the levels of consciousness, he realized what was happening to him and considered calling Damia to his side. Then, just as quickly as he had risen to that state of consciousness, he fell deeper into the delirium.

The stone of light was confused by the hodgepodge of mental images it saw in Brimstone's mind. This was very unusual. Brimstone's mind was normally very structured and orderly. The gem did know that he had considered calling Damia to come to him, but he had apparently decided against it.

Two hours into his sleep, his situation worsened dramatically. The tremors and body spasms were so strong now that the gem was genuinely concerned that Brimstone's body must surely tear itself apart if this kept up. Then he began to sweat profusely and to speak oddly in his delirium. He would speak of things that made no sense. In his fevered sickness, Brimstone was convinced that there was something important that he needed to do. But such was his physical and mental condition that he was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was that he must do.

 

***

 

Damia felt an odd sense of uneasiness. Although there was nothing she could pinpoint, she knew that something was wrong and she was afraid that it might involve Brimstone. She tried to reach his mind and received a brief reply in the form of fantastic images that made no sense. The one set of images she did understand were of burning heat, alternating with freezing cold.

Alarmed by these images, she tried to teleport to him and ended up in the desert on Raven's Dust. Trying again, she ended up in a dank cave. She returned to their home, then tried to teleport Brimstone to her, but could not get a lock onto his mind sufficient for that task.

Now truly alarmed, she bespoke Artherk and told him what was transpiring. He had no more luck than she’d had in locating Brimstone. The gods lock onto the minds of the people they wish to see and use that as the basis for getting the location to go to them. But Brimstone's mind was currently filled with insane images that prevented that.

 

***

 

The stone of light was now extremely concerned about Brimstone. He was sweating so profusely by now that he had soaked his bedding. The spasms and tremors were now even more pronounced.

Finally, the stone of light tried to heal Brimstone, but its best efforts fell far short. It could not heal him, but it could protect him, and when a wandering skraug came into the camp and tried to kill Brimstone, the stone of light killed the skraug.

Finally, it decided to call Damia for Brimstone. "Damia, Brimstone needs you! Come to us without delay."

Damia answered immediately, saying, "I have tried, and failed. I cannot lock onto his mind."

"Can you lock onto mine?" the gem asked.

"I can try, yes."

An instant later, Damia was beside Brimstone. She was horrified by the contortions she saw his body going through and immediately called Artherk to help her.

Artherk took one look at his son and placed him in a deep sleep to prevent the violent spasms from injuring his body, but they did not stop. Fortunately, the severity of the spasms was greatly reduced.

Artherk tried healing his son, but had no more success than the stone of light had managed.

Damia placed her hands, palms down, above Brimstone's body and focused her power. She probed deeply into his body seeking out the cause of this illness, yet there was no poison of any type present. His body was a raging furnace, and she cringed at his suffering as she gently withdrew her mental probe.

"Artherk, I am mystified. He has no disease that I recognize, nor do I detect traces of poison in him. Yet, his fever rages, and he is alternately cold and hot. He is sweating profusely, and his very body threatens to tear itself apart from the sheer violence of the spasms and tremors."

"I have heard of this once before, a long time ago. Damia, I think we need your father."

Just then Brimstone's body trembled violently again, even in the deepest of sleeps. The stone of light sought to comfort him and bathed him in the white light that, in ordinary times, always left him refreshed.

Damia took a step away from Artherk, and said, "Father, I need you!"

Moments later Ogrimar appeared beside his child. "What is it, daughter?" he inquired, for he fairly loved his child.

"Pointing to the prostrate Brimstone, she said, "We don’t know what is wrong with him. I can find no poison present, nor disease." Looking at Ogrimar, in desperation, Damia quietly requested, "Please, father, help my husband."

For Damia, this was tantamount to begging and Ogrimar damned well knew it. A willful child, she had always exhibited independence second to none. For her to so phrase that request touched his heart for he knew what that cost her personally.

"Off course, my dear," he replied simply, and then he knelt over Brimstone's body. In a moment, he was satisfied. He stood up beside Damia and said, "Who has placed Brimstone in this deep sleep?"

"I did," Artherk replied.

"You saved his life in the doing," Ogrimar responded, and Artherk nodded his understanding.

"I'll be right back with the cure, Damia," Ogrimar said, and then he vanished.

 

 

***

 

Brimstone was in his second hour of the tremors when a band of adventurers walked into Stoneheim tavern. Fawnn, Veksar, Ziona, Lord Malachi, Tha Don, Jedi, and Mystyka were all there. Present as well were MetalHead, Pig Killa, Tarkenstar and Cougar, Lord Death, and Hierophant. Coming in moments later were the brothers XconX, Corey, and Genkaku. All of the veterans of the creature wars were now present with the exception of Brimstone and, sadly, Bill.

It was a spontaneous meeting of the adventurers some three months after the last battle with those creatures. They had tried to reach Brimstone, but could not get him to return their greetings this afternoon. They did not know that he was already semi-delusional, and half the time heard none of the mental messages being sent to him.

Ziona kidded that Damia had probably taken him far away to a place where he would not be disturbed for a few hours.

The tavern keeper was delighted. He well knew of the fame of this band of adventurers. The exploits of their courage and strength in battle were becoming legendary. He paid a young boy one gold piece to hurry throughout the town and spread the news of the famed company's presence in his tavern in the hopes of making huge profits this night.

The tavern keeper rushed into the kitchen where the new cook was industriously making a huge kettle of stew. He had meant to tell her to increase the pot size, but apparently, she had already seen the crowd and knew what to do. "Ahh, you are a true professional!" the tavern owner praised.

The cook smiled warmly, then said, "You will need the sleeping serving girl to go on duty early tonight, sir. Best to wake her and have her wash the sleep from her eyes. It is still hours before her normal work period begins."

Rushing out of the kitchen, he marveled at the woman's business sense. He assured the huge party of new arrivals that the cook was aware of the size of the party and dinner would presently be served. Meanwhile, the serving girl was heavily laden with a tray of wine glasses and ale mugs.

Rushing to the sleeping quarters of the serving girls he woke the sleeping girl hours early and told her that if she played it smart, tonight she would earn two weeks pay from this band alone.

In the kitchen, the cook gently closed the door without making a sound. Such a huge group of Brimstone’s allies had conveniently decided to visit the tavern, tonight of all nights. She couldn’t believe her luck.

Returning to the cooking pot, she glanced around hastily to make sure that no one else was present, then quickly darted her hand inside a concealed pocket of her garment and extracted the same spice bottle that she had used to season Brimstone's stew earlier in the day. Dumping the entire contents of that jar into the pot, she hastily replaced the lid then concealed it once more. As she furiously stirred the pot to mix well this special ingredient, the small ring on her hand with a dark gem embedded in its center twinkled.

She then placed mental calls to all of her associates and instructed them to follow her lead this night.

 

***

 

In Silversky tavern Gazfaz, Hilda, Lady Sparks, Oga, and BluByU were all setting down at tables to enjoy a nice quiet meal. Back in the kitchen, the cook was stirring in a special spice that her associate had procured for her. As she rapidly stirred the contents of the pot, a small ring on her hand with its embedded dark gem twinkled.

She too would get to feed a group of Brimstone's allies this night. She was well pleased.

 

***

 

On Arakas in Windhowl tavern, a group of weary adventurers stepped inside to satisfy their hunger. The cook cursed her luck because there was not one Brimstone ally among the lot of them. But she would feed them all anyway. Oh yes, she would indeed. She had her orders.

Mixing in the special spice, she stirred it briskly to ensure a proper mixing. As she did, the small ring on her hand with a dark gem in its center twinkled in the lamplight.

 

***

 

In Lighthaven, the cook looked at the crowd in disgust, “Nothing but ragged lowborns.” she thought, but she obediently added the special spice to the evening meal. As she stirred the kettle, a small ring on her hand with a dark gemstone in its center twinkled.

 

***

 

Moments after he disappeared, Ogrimar returned with three backpacks loaded down with supplies for the cure. Handing his daughter a vial from one of the packs he said, "Damia, he must drink the entire vial. It won't be easy for he will resist it. He will try to spit it out. You must take control of his throat muscles and force him to swallow. Give him half the vial, and then make him swallow. Follow that with the other half."

 Damia trusted her father. If he meant harm to Brimstone, he had an odd way of showing it. Once he had helped to resurrect Brimstone, and at her wedding, he had fought hard to control Brimstone to keep him from harming Althea while he was helping to heal her.

She took the vial that contained the cure and knelt beside Brimstone. She cradled his sweaty head in her hand and tilted his head upwards so the fluid would be forced to go down his throat. He began to resist her, just as Ogrimar had said he would. He stubbornly refused to drink the cure. Gently taking control of his throat muscles with her powers, she said, "I am sorry to force thee to my will, beloved, but it must be if you are to live." Gently she made him swallow. He gagged and she was afraid he might throw it up. But he kept it down.

The second dose was a bit easier, but not by much.

Moments later, Brimstone visibly relaxed and his mind left the state of delirium. A few moments after that, Artherk was able to remove the deep sleep spell when the spasms stopped. He was still running a fever, but it was rapidly diminishing with each passing moment.

"Thank you, father!" said Damia, almost weeping with relief.

"Aye, thank you, Ogrimar," a grateful Artherk said.

They both pressed him for more information, so Ogrimar responded, "Long ago in the days of the height of the Obsidian conclave, a band of their greatest assassins found a poison to use on their victims. It leaves no trace, but does leave the victim stricken with symptoms identical to those that Brimstone was experiencing."

"So that no one could know who the intended victim was, and thereby retaliate against that victim's known enemies, they devised a very clever and ruthless means to administer it. One of their members would hire on as a tavern cook. There they waited until the correct victim had arrived, then added what they referred to as a "special spice" to the cook pot."

"Entire taverns full of people died as a result." He paused and said, "It is imperative that we wake Brimstone and learn where he ate that foul concoction."

"In that time my followers greatly outnumbered Artherk's, and as a result of that, many more of my followers died than his. I took matters personally in hand, and without violating the accords, I achieved a means to an end. I seized the supply of special spice poison and the cure to it. I thought I got it all, I may have missed some, or they may have made more." Ogrimar was hedging the truth here. He had a good idea where the assassin's had gotten the spice and would handle that matter himself very soon.

"I also warned the assassins never again to so poison my followers en mass or I would exterminate them. Yes, I know that would have violated the accords. But they didn't know that. I took advantage of their ignorance."

Moments later, Artherk forced Brimstone to awaken. He sat up and Damia asked him how he felt. "I feel really bad, dear. Every muscle in my body is sore." Then he grinned and said, "I feel as if I fought every skraug on Stoneheim, and lost to them all."

Damia smiled at him sweetly, for now she knew he would be fine.

"Where did you eat last, Brimstone?" queried Ogrimar.

"Stoneheim tavern," was his reply.

Ogrimar handed a backpack to each of the other gods. "We must go at once to that tavern," he said.

 

***

 

When they arrived at the tavern, they found nearly forty people lying on the tavern floor in various stages of contortions. Brimstone was stunned, and then he received a mental message from Gazfaz telling him that people in Silversky tavern were succumbing to some strange unknown sickness. After telling the gods of this message, he sent a reply to Gazfaz that help was on the way.

Stunned by the news of the simultaneous attacks on the two taverns, the gods sent word to their followers to make all haste to every tavern on Althea and there render assistance to the stricken. They were taking no chances. They told their priests to use healing spells and physically restrain the people that were afflicted, if necessary, until further help arrived.

Damia asked Ogrimar a question, "Father, can we duplicate these packs to send to all of the taverns with our followers?"

"Why yes, of course we can, Damia. How do you think I started with one and we now have three?"

All three gods then took a pack and duplicated their packs three times each. Damia handed packs to two of her priests who had just arrived, commanding them to proceed with all haste to Arakas, with one going to Windhowl and another to Lighthaven, for the people of Arakas were ever dear to her. Once there, they were to give every aid to any stricken tavern patrons.

Artherk sent two packs with followers of the gods to Silversky.

Brimstone was making the rounds with other followers of the gods inside the tavern. They did save most of the patrons of the tavern. Brimstone was overjoyed that none of his companions of the creature wars perished. But there were many deaths. Mainly the very old whose bodies were weak and frail.

Brimstone asked the tavern keeper about the cook, but she had disappeared earlier. He didn’t know when she had left.

 

***

 

In Silversky, Gazfaz was very lucky that he had not eaten the stew. Actually, everyone in the tavern was lucky that he had not. Alarmed when the people started falling, he had called on Brimstone who had told the gods. Twenty minutes later, help began arriving. Followers of the three gods arrived and then began the rescue process. They had to none too gently work the throat muscles with their hands to force the victims to swallow. Thanks to the swift action of the gods, there were no deaths in Silversky.

One of Ogrimar's trusted men went into the kitchen seeking the cook. He intended to kill that cook as Ogrimar had ordered but she had fled.

 

***

 

Windhowl was a nightmare scene. Fully half of the victims there were already dead when help arrived. They had eaten early in Windhowl. The followers of the gods did what they could for the rest. Artherk's trusted man entered the kitchen, but as in the other cities, the cook had fled.

 

***

 

Lighthaven tavern was a pitiful scene that touched the heart. Not one survived that fatal meal. When the gods heard from their followers in Lighthaven, they all went there at once. But there was nothing that they could do for the dead. The victims had been dead much too long to resurrect. Damia personally sought the cook in the kitchen, but the cook was gone as in all other cities.

One other thing of significance happened in that tavern.

The Silversky tavern owner, turned serving wench, was in tears beside several of the bodies. She had rushed out when they were stricken and spent every gold piece that she had managed to scrape together for medicinal potions. Over the three-month duration of her punishment, she had been saving her gold in the hopes of buying her freedom. But the potions she returned with were useless to assist the stricken patrons.

Damia's heart was filled with compassion when she saw the obvious grief of the girl. She approached her and noted the pile of healing potions that she had tried so hard to get the patrons to drink. There were splashes of potions on every body in the tavern.

Damia patted the grieving girl on the shoulder and said, "Did you know these two?" She was referring to the man and woman that the girl was kneeling beside on the rough tavern floor.

"Not really, but they were always kind to me. They usually gave me extra gold."

Damia nodded and gestured at the pile of potion bottles scattered about the room, "And you spent all of your gold on these potions?"

The serving wench nodded her head and said, "I had to try to help them all. But none could drink it."

"Then return to your former life. I do believe that you have learned your lessons."

With that, Damia transformed her back into a man and sent him to his tavern, where he assisted in the cleanup. He working beside the tavern girl he had so often cheated and abused. The victims had sweated profusely where they fell, and some had lost control of their bodily functions in their delirium, so there was much cleaning to be done. He didn't shirk even the worst of the work.

Never again did he take anyone else's gold, and in the fullness of time, he became known as the most generous tavern owner to his hirelings in all of Althea.

 

***

 

Ogrimar appeared in Mordenthal's keep. As he walked through the halls, Mordenthal's servants tried to greet him. "Leave here at once, and do not return for two days," he commanded. The servants could tell when Ogrimar was angry. They hastened to comply.

Ogrimar entered into Mordenthal's inner sanctum and found him waiting. "Mordenthal, you were to hold the last supply of the assassin spice for safekeeping for me. Get it for me now."

Mordenthal began to sweat at that point.

"So it’s just as I thought, Mordenthal. You no longer have it. You hired the assassins that killed so many of my followers tonight."

Mordenthal lied then, "No, Ogrimar, I would never do such a thing." Ogrimar just laughed, for he could see the heart of his once trusted servant.

Ogrimar snapped his fingers and one by one, three men appeared beside him. Mordenthal visibly paled, for these were Ogrimar's three best torturers. He had witnessed their work many times.

"The next words out of your mouth had best be the truth, Mordenthal," Ogrimar warned in a deadly serious tone of voice. "Did you buy the arrow that struck down my daughter, and did you send assassins to kill Brimstone while my daughter was in close proximity to him, thereby risking making my daughter a widow on her wedding day?"

"Nooo, Ogrimar, I did not." This time Ogrimar did not laugh. He instructed his torturers to begin their work and to torture him to death but warned them not to slay him in such a manner that he could not be resurrected.

Three times that day, Mordenthal was tortured to death. Each time Ogrimar resurrected him and then he was asked another question. The first lie he told always got him tortured to death again.

Mordenthal's screams of agony during all of this were so terrible that some of the creatures in his dungeon heard them and fled deeper into the dungeon where his screams could not be heard.

At day’s end, they had reached an understanding. It was all to Ogrimar's satisfaction, of course.

"Mordenthal, you are very lucky. You are an integral part of so many quests in my name that to train another to take your place would take many years. But know this, if ever again you send the assassins against my daughter or her husband I will feed you to the ocean fish one bit of flesh at a time. When you die, I will heal your body then resurrect you. You will feed the fish at my leisure ten, maybe twenty times. Only then will I grant you a final death."

Mordenthal knew that Ogrimar was deadly serious.

Leaning toward Mordenthal, he said in the same deadly serious tone of voice, "Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Ogrimar, I do," said a clearly chastised Mordenthal.

"Mordenthal, you need to remember something about me. I am not the god of evil for no reason. Violate our agreement in any way, and I may just make it an even hundred fish feedings."

 


Chapter 26

 

When night descended upon the couple, Fawn and Veksar were deep inside the Green Skraug territories. They continued toward the skraug village unconcerned. They were accustomed to the territories be it day or night. What they saw that night made them question whether they were truly familiar with any place on Stoneheim at all.

At about two hours past sunset, they came upon a very odd sight. Off in the distance, they saw a rain of fire spells being hurled at something. This wasn’t an uncommon sight, but it is uncommon to see such spells being cast from the night sky toward the ground.

As the engaged couple watched the progress of the attack they moved in for a closer look. They saw a group of skraugs being bombarded from the air. As they continued to observe they saw a familiar sight. One of the skraugs was lifted into the air by a creature. The near continuous rain of fire spells served to silhouette the creature for a moment and then it was gone in a burst of incredible speed. The flying creature was much faster than the Arakas version that they had fought.

Veksar felt a vague premonition and glanced upward, but he saw nothing. He did however hear the unmistakable angry twittering sounds that he had heard on Arakas. He cast his truesight spell, so that he could see to defend them from what he feared was coming. As soon as he cast the spell, he shouted to Fawnn, " WOR, now!" using the acronym as people do when pressed for time and in a desperate hurry to use the spell Word of Recall, which would teleport the caster to their temple sanctuary.

She trusted him and followed his bidding. Moments later, he joined her in the temple, shaken by what he had just seen. 

 

***

 

"There were many of them forty feet above our heads," he explained, and then continued, "You couldn't see them, and neither could I, until I cast truesight." His next words chilled Fawn's blood. "Several were diving at us. If you hadn't used the spell Word of Recall when you did, we would now be dead for I would not abandon you."

 

 

***

 

Although the hour was late, Fawnn and Veksar decided to alert Brimstone immediately. Fawnn finally got a response. She'd had to wake him.

Brimstone, being a veteran of countless campaigns, shared a common trait with all such men. He could be instantly alert when danger was detected. He congratulated Veksar on his quick thinking and taking the correct course of action. Then he said what they too had come to realize, "So our search parties could have been near the creatures a dozen times and never known it." Then in exasperation he said, "Damn. All that wasted effort."

He then requested that they sleep the rest of the night and meet him in Stoneheim tavern at two hours until high sun the next day. As for Brimstone, he had many people to wake up.

 

***

 

Fawnn and Veksar were waiting inside the tavern two hours before high sun. In fact, they had arrived an hour earlier. 

Fawnn had already checked with the tavern owner who had said, "No, that cooking woman has not returned, and if she knows anything at all about vengeance, she never will." Fawnn thanked the man, and then advised him that a rather large group of adventurers were due to arrive at two hours until high sun.

Predictably, the tavern keeper had gone running to his help and rapidly organized the staff to align several of the small tables into a long table that would seat a large group.

When the huge party began to arrive, the tavern keeper was stunned. He smiled gratefully to Fawnn for the advance warning that had given him time to prepare. She nodded her head in understanding and smiled. He ran into the kitchen to ensure that there would be enough food for the many adventurers present.

Sitting at one end of the table, Brimstone stared at the eighteen adventurers who had come at his request. The brothers XconX, Corey, and Genkaku sat with their sister Ziona catching up on family matters. Just past Ziona, were Lord Malachi, MetalHead, Frusty, and Jedi. Fawnn and Veksar sat near Brimstone on the opposite side of the table. Tha Don, Hierophant, Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, and Mystyka were on that same side. Cougar and BluByU completed that row.

Brimstone began the meeting by having everyone order his or her lunches. He told the tavern keeper to let him know what he owed and he would pay for the food and drink.

Then the meeting began in earnest. Fawnn and Veksar were asked to give their personal report of the events the night before. When the two of them had related their experience, one of the warriors said, "It would seem I need scrolls."

Brimstone smiled and said, "Anyone that doesn't have the spell use these." Then he placed two large sacks of truesight scrolls on the tabletop. These were just a portion of the hundreds that he had found during his many years of adventuring. Those of the party who needed them divided the scrolls.

The meals arrived at that point, and Brimstone was pleased that the tavern owner had found a good cook to replace the assassin.

After the meal was finished, Brimstone outlined his plan for the hunt for the creatures. Tonight, all would converge on the Green Skraug territories and try to detect them. If any hunter spotted them, he was to contact the others with his location and the flight direction of the monsters. The teams were not to attack the creatures, unless it was to defend himself, or an innocent bystander. Everyone understood how effective the teams on Arakas and Raven's Dust had been when they had first located the lairs, and then pulled all out attacks on the strongholds of the creatures.

No one was to hunt alone. That was a firm rule.

 

***

 

Hours later, they had scattered all over the Green Skraug territories. The party that included Mystyka, Hierophant, BluByU, and MetalHead were almost within sight of the Green Skraug village walls when MetalHead spotted one of the flying creatures. Soon Hierophant spotted another, and then the rest of the party spotted others moments later.

They hunkered down near the base of some tightly packed trees that were covered with pink leaves. As wave after wave of the creatures swept over and past the trees, they were visible for a few moments before they flew over other trees and disappeared from view. BluByU, squatting on his haunches and staring out into the open sky, tried his best to maintain a count. No one dared move a muscle for fear of attracting this massive flight's attention to his or her presence. The creatures flew six abreast with one wingspan separating their wingtips at their closest.

Mystyka contacted Brimstone with the news and gave him the flight direction of the creatures they’d just seen. BluByU reported that the last of them seemed to have gone past and as best he could count, about four hundred must have flown past them.

Moments later, reports began to come in from the other teams. By now, all of the teams had spotted the creatures. Brimstone saw an alarming trend in the reports. Consulting a map briefly to be sure of his suspicions, he quickly confirmed them. The flying creatures were systematically surrounding his teams. He ordered all teams to keep a sharp eye out, and to begin to move carefully toward a central position on the map where they could all link up.

Moments into this shift in the defenders’ positions, the monsters reacted strongly by wheeling and darting in steep dives at the retreating defenders. Then chaos ensued.

The smaller groups of companions began to converge into one wide circle. Then the flying creatures were among the defenders. One moment they were not there and the next, they were among the companions, lifting three of their number into the air. 

Brimstone instantly sent a message to all present. Anyone lifted off the ground should use the Word of Recall spell or a scroll to get to his or her sanctuary instantly. Moments later the three struggling figures all vanished in a flash of white light.

With all the defenders clear of the field of fire for the moment, Brimstone cast his pillar of fire spell. The fire spell struck hundreds of the creatures incinerating them in moments. Other spell casters added their spells to the fray and the archers couldn't miss.

Then the creatures began their own magical bombardment of the defenders. The creatures in the sky began to cast the spell rain of fire. These spells were so vast in number that it seemed to the defenders that the night air about them had become a sea of fire. Brimstone saw an archer come struggling through that sea of fire. As he walked through it, he fired arrows as fast as the eye could follow. He saw Frusty hit one creature in the eye, and then he focused his attention on the battle at hand. Brimstone stood to his full height and yelled, "Down all or die!" He also sent that command mentally.

Seconds later, he was the only defender remaining on his feet. The creatures sought to concentrate their attacks on him and the stone of light engulfed him in a white globe of healing energy. By then it was too late anyway, for already the fiery figure eight was cutting its path overhead. Though infinitely more difficult that way, his ultimate technique could indeed be used overhead.

The amazed defenders witnessed the spell that no mortal had ever seen. Immensely strong fireballs darted out at any living creature above the level of Brimstone's frostbane sword, but not one stray spell fired below it.

The stunned creatures in the immediate area all died in moments. Then in rapid succession, Brimstone cast his pillar of fire spell in three different directions in a matter of moments and incinerated more of the larger pockets of the creatures that were outside the radius of his other spell.

Then they were all gone, having fled into the darkness with an angry twittering.

 

***

 

Jedi was teasing Brimstone unmercifully in Stoneheim tavern, "Oh come on, tell me where I can get a frostbane like yours. I want one."

Finally, Genkaku grinned and said, "Jedi, I thought that you knew. It's not the sword; it's the man wielding the sword that makes it awesome."

Moments later, the war council began.

The mages discussed the most effective spells that they had tried against the creatures. Hierophant quietly stated that he had killed several with tsunami. Fawnn reported that her spell boulder would kill them, eventually. Tarkenstar said that his boulder wasn't a lot faster at killing them, though his spell was far more potent, and added they seemed resistant to earth based spells.

Pig Killa said that fire spells seemed good, but stressed that he was also an archer; therefore, his fire spell wasn’t as potent as a true fire mage’s. Veksar offered his opinion that fire had a decent potential, but that he was as yet too young in the magic to possess the better, more powerful fire spells.

Tha Don suggested that the earth mages try manaburst, which was a mental spell, the next battle and try to maintain shield spells on the other members of the party.

Then Brimstone brought up what many of the party already suspected. The creatures had detected their presence then set out to locate all of the search parties and encircle them. This suggested several things that were new to the creatures. Evidently, they had a central leader making decisions that the group obeyed, and their intelligence level seemed vastly greater than those creatures of Arakas and Raven's Dust. They used invisibility spells to penetrate the lines of their enemies, where they sought to carry off members of the team. That was noteworthy in that unlike the Raven's Dust versions, these did not instantly slay their prey once airborne.

Brimstone also noted one other disturbing fact. All three of the party members lifted into the air the night before had been females. Ziona, Fawnn, and Mystyka had all been taken into the air as the hapless defenders battled the creatures. For some reason, the creatures wanted those women alive.

Brimstone reached a decision and prepared to announce it. He braced for the fury that he knew his decision would unleash.

Calling the meeting to order, he stopped the idle chatter that was going on as the group awaited the announcement of the plans for the coming night.

Fawnn, Ziona, Mystyka, Veksar, XconX, Corey, Genkaku, and Tha Don will all stay here in Stoneheim tonight. The women are to remain inside once it gets dark. The men should remain inside with the women. If for any reason you leave the building that they are in, you should remain near.

As one, the brothers XconX, Corey, and Genkaku stood up to address Brimstone. "Our sister is in danger?" asked one. "You think they mean to take the women?" asked another.

 Veksar glanced at Fawnn with concern evident in his eyes.

Tha Don moved to stand behind his guild mate Mystyka. He had also realized that there had indeed been something odd about the women being targeted as captives the night before. As far as he was concerned, he had been on guard duty since then. He just never made an issue of the matter.

For their part, the women looked sobered by the announcement. It had not escaped their attention that all three of them had been taken captive the night before.

Brimstone stood and tried to calm the brothers. "Yes," he replied, "I believe the ladies are in grave danger. That’s why I want them to remain inside the tavern tonight. I also want you men to guard this building. The rest of us will be nearby just outside the city walls waiting to see if the monsters come near the city." Then he added, "Tonight, all those outside will remain invisible." Just as he said that, three priests of Artherk entered the tavern and came to Brimstone with three large sacks stuffed with items.

One of the priests stopped before Brimstone and said, "The items that you requested, Brimstone."

Brimstone took the sacks from the priests and thanked them. He cautioned them to see to it the followers of Artherk remained on guard this night for he had a bad feeling about what was to come. Therefore, they should remain indoors if possible.

Brimstone didn't realize it, but he had quite a following among his father's followers. Most of the priesthood viewed him as only a step removed from the goodness that was Artherk himself, and therefore they revered him. Therefore, when he suggested they be on guard, he had no idea that they would spread the word to all of the followers of Artherk on Stoneheim to come to Stonecrest temple with all haste, prepared to stay the night and if necessary defend the city.

After the priests left, he distributed the contents of the sacks to the hunting party members by spreading them out on the tabletop and saying. “Scrolls of recall, invisibility, and resist fire and more scrolls of truesight. Take as you need, but take plenty, better five too many than one shy of enough."

In closing the meeting, he reminded everyone, "If you are taken captive, then recall to your sanctuary immediately.”

“Lord Malachi," said Brimstone. 

At the sound of his name being spoken, Malachi glanced up at Brimstone. "Damia tells me that you have it in your heart to allow yourself to be taken captive and wait until you are within their warren to recall." Malachi blanched a bit but did not deny it. Brimstone went on, "She wishes to know what you would have said of you on your marker?"

Malachi, now visibly pale said, "Marker?"

Brimstone sadly nodded his head and said, "Aye, my friend, for if you attempt that plan, you will surely die. This she has seen. Now, what would you have written upon the marker for your grave, should you attempt this brave deed against our advice?"

"I get the point, Brimstone. It might have been a crazy plan. I will abandon that idea."

Damia's lovely voice sounded from thin air then, "Why thank you, Lord Malachi. I have grown rather fond of you, and was dreading your funeral," she finished playfully.

Malachi grinned sheepishly. "I suppose it was a crazy idea."

Brimstone said, "It was a noble thought. Brave and true to your companions. A thought worthy of a hero, but I must say that it was also very unwise."

Brimstone sent his wife a mental message thanking her for intervening on Lord Malachi's behalf, and she replied with her best wishes for all the hunters.

 

  

 

***

 

As darkness was beginning to fall, Brimstone and all those among the companions who were not staying in the tavern that night left the city. They were to spread out and encircle the town staying within sight of the city walls all the time. Once set in place, they were to wait patiently with truesight and invisibility both cast.

Frusty found himself near the sea at the northwest corner of the city, north of the wall, but within eyesight of that barrier. MetalHead was with him and together they waited patiently. They both agreed that the slim stretch of beach west of the mountains there might be a good spot for the creatures to approach the city.

Jedi and BluByU were northwest of the gate, close to the crypt, but still within sight of the city.

Hierophant and Pig Killa were near the northernmost corner of the city.

Midway down near the mountains that fronted the gate were Tarkenstar and Cougar.

Brimstone had realized that he was five people short of enough to encircle the city with the protective net of watchers, so he called on old allies for emergency assistance. Psychost, Lord Death, Dime, Tinkerbell and Oga all came to assist. He had hurriedly briefed them, and then equipped them with scrolls and they filled in the gaps in the security for the city.

Lord Death and Psychost took the southernmost corner just within sight of the city wall.

Dime and Tinkerbell took the mid section and concealed themselves as they settled down to wait.

Brimstone and Oga took the next corner up the city wall and that completed the security net for the city that night.

 

***

 

Inside the city, Tha Don, XconX, Veksar, Corey, and Genkaku stood guard outside the tavern near the door.

They spoke in uneasy whispers. All were battle experienced, and had a sense that this night, they would be severely tested.

 

***

 

At two hours until high moon, outside the city, Frusty stared out to sea. He could have sworn he had just heard the sound of fluttering wings, yet he saw nothing. Signaling to his companion, MetalHead, he advanced quietly toward the city wall for a better look at the sky in the region of interest. What they saw stunned them both. Steady streams of the creatures were flying into the city from the western ocean side.

They sounded the alarm immediately, and all the search parties began to converge on the city proper.

 

***

 

Veksar heard them first. That sound of fluttering wings. A moment later, he heard the alarm given by Frusty.

Inside the tavern, the three women heard the alarm and prepared as best they could to do battle should the monsters make it inside.

Heartbeats after the alarm first sounded, the first of the creatures descended upon the defenders outside the tavern. In mere moments, they would have been overwhelmed if not for the timely arrival of many of the followers of Artherk, who had been waiting in the temple. Together they all fought to drive off the creatures, and then Brimstone was there with the rest of the hunters.

The night air crackled with spells and arrows.

Inside the tavern the three women, Fawnn, Ziona, and Mystyka prepared to defend themselves. The noise from the battle outside was deafening. Thus, they never heard the sound of the windows being broken open on the back side of the tavern. The first sign of trouble was when Fawnn was grabbed from behind. Ziona and Mystyka both met the same fate moments later. The three creatures who had grasped the women slammed their bony foreheads into the backs of their victim’s heads and efficiently knocked them unconscious.

Outside the tavern, the defenders cheered as the waves of creatures began to leave. But that cheering stopped when they saw three figures in the clutches of three of the monsters.

Try as they might they could not keep up with the retreating monsters, and soon they disappeared from sight.

 

***

 

 Fawnn felt someone shaking her and gradually awoke to a pounding headache. She saw Ziona kneeling over her. Beside her lay Mystyka, who seemed to be sleeping. She sat up and immediately regretted that as the cavern chamber seemed to spin. Ziona held her in place a moment and soon the room stopped spinning.

"Best to move slow at first," Ziona cautioned.

"Where are we?" asked Fawnn.

"I assume we are in the lair of the creatures somewhere," Ziona replied. Then she added, "I woke up an hour ago myself, but you two girls took rather nasty bashes to the heads. I healed those as best I could, but I am weak in magic. I was lucky. I didn't get hit as hard as you two did."

Fawnn tried to rise, but had some difficulty with her balance due to the head wound. Ziona assisted her to her feet and she felt better. She concentrated on her healing spell and moments later, she had healed herself. She then turned to Mystyka and healed her.

Ziona spoke then, saying, "I must find some sort of weapon. The wretched creatures took my bow and quiver."

Mystyka spoke up, surprising them both for they had not realized she had awakened. "As a young girl," she said, "I used to be pretty good with a sling and here there are rocks aplenty for your sling."

"Ahh so there are, so there are!" exclaimed an excited Ziona who immediately fashioned a sling and began to practice with it. She hadn't picked up a sling in years, but she used to be good with that child's toy of a weapon.

"But why don't we just use word of recall?" asked Mystyka.

Ziona stopped what she was doing and stood still a moment. "Try," she encouraged the other two women. But try as they might, they could not get that spell to work. 

Fawnn helped Mystyka to her feet. She had just gotten her to a standing position when she heard the flutter of wings. Wheeling around she saw three creatures settle on a rock ledge twenty feet above their heads. Staring at them, she sent out a message to her love, Veksar.

 

***

 

Above ground not far from the city of Stoneheim, the hunting party stretched out for one hundred yards. Veksar was in the lead. He stopped and looked back at the slow progress of the huge hunting party. He was irritated. He knew that everyone meant well, but this was costing them too much time.

Just then, he heard Fawnn's mental message. "Veksar! I need you!" That message almost drove him wild. He told the party what he had just heard.

Brimstone stepped up beside Veksar. XconX, Corey, Genkaku, and Tha Don were there as well. He could sense that all five of the men were very impatient and made a decision. "This large war party is too slow. We know that they were seen heading toward Mordenthal's mountains. But that was early on. Frankly, they could be anywhere by now. But we must take hope and head there at the moment. The six of us will run there as fast as we can. The rest of you will follow at the best time that you can make."

With that said, all five of the other men smiled and seemed happy with this turn of events. The rest agreed to follow as fast as they could. Brimstone promised to relay any information that they learned. That settled, the six men left at a dead run.

MetalHead shook his head sadly, and said, "At that pace, they'll collapse in twenty minutes."

With what for him was uncharacteristic seriousness, Jedi said, "I'd bet on them. They have good reason to push it that hard."  

 

***

 

Fawnn stared directly into the malevolent eyes of the female creature unflinchingly. "Why have you taken us captive?" she boldly asked, not really expecting an answer.

"For the ceremony tonight," was the brief reply from the monster.

Stunned, Fawnn said, "You can speak?"

 


Chapter 27

 

Brimstone called a halt for a breather. They had run for an hour straight, and most were near the point of collapse and total exhaustion. He gathered them in a circle and told them all to join hands in that circle. Then he spoke to the stone of light. "I need your help," he said mentally. Then he asked, "You know what it is we seek?"

"Yes, Brimstone." The gem responded.

"Would you reinvigorate us? Many are near done in by the pursuit." A long silence ensued, and Brimstone began to think that the gem would refuse. But suddenly the group was engulfed in a white healing globe that stilled laboring lungs, and left them all greatly refreshed."

"Very well, Brimstone. I have helped your party. But remember I am not an inn. I won't take the place of one for trivial reasons. But this time, your need is great. Proceed north, and then west at the mountains," the stone of light said.

That is all Brimstone could get from the stone of light, no matter how he tried for more information. He relayed that information to the main war party now far behind them and once more they set off.

But before they did, he explained to the group, "The stone of light agreed to help us this one time, but said it was no inn and not to count on it again."

"Fair enough," Tha Don replied.

 

***

 

"What ceremony is it that we are to participate in tonight?" inquired Mystyka of the creature that had spoken.

Turning its ugly head in her direction, the monster said, "The feast of fertility, so that our queen might lay many eggs of high quality."

"And what is our role in this feast of fertility?" asked Ziona, who feared that she already knew the answer.

The beast answered saying.

 

 "The Blood of three, the Queen doth sip.

 The flesh of three, King's talons rip.

 The entrails of three the maidens lay,

 In the Queen's nest for another day.

 When Fledglings walk the nest so great,

 The King and Queen, forever mate."

 

Horrified, the three women stared transfixed at the creatures.

Fawnn tried her best to summon a spell to attack them but none came. The female laughed a trilling laughter. "Try, and try again little mage. But your magic is no good here. Oh you can heal yourself and cast some few harmless spells. But you cannot leave, nor attack us with your spells. Our Shamans have seen to that. They are useless creatures those Shaman for the most part. But that spell blocking is of some use.

"What are you creatures?" asked Mystyka.

"We are the servants of Dalghard. His creation we are. For untold years, we have slumbered beneath the ground. But soon he returns. It is time for us to awaken, and prepare to do his bidding."

After that, the three creatures conferred together in what seemed to the three humans to be some sort of argument. Then abruptly they all took wing and left.

"Who is Dalghard?" asked Ziona. I have never heard that name. The others shrugged because neither had they.

But Damia had, and she heard when the creature invoked that name, as did Ogrimar and Artherk. It had begun.

 

***

 

Fawnn sent a message to Veksar, and XconX heard from Ziona at about the same time. They both stared morosely at the sun that seemed to be sinking faster than normal. It wasn't of course. They were just running out of time and they knew it.

Mystyka sent a message to Brimstone and he responded, “I think we may be close to you. Can you see anything that might help us locate you?"

Looking around, Mystyka shrugged and responded, "A cave, much similar to any cave I have ever seen."

Brimstone thought a moment then contacted Fawnn, "Greetings, Fawnn, I need your help."  

That struck Fawnn as so funny that she began laughing. The other women looked at her startled, so she explained to them what Brimstone had said and they smiled in appreciation of the humor there.

"Look around that cave carefully. Examine it with your true talents of the cave explorer that you are. To your knowledge is there anything there that you can see that is unique to any cave system you have visited?" Brimstone asked.

Turning serious, Fawnn examined the rock walls about her. She almost missed it. Then her eyes struck on a small bit of blue veined rock about eight feet off the ground. Calling the other two ladies over, she bid them help her up the wall for a closer look. They braced their backs against the wall to steady them and squatted down. She climbed up their legs and stood on their thighs. With their hands, they braced her legs, holding her steady as she studied the rock.

Moments later, she said, "Ok, let me down.” They released her and she jumped backwards off their legs.

Mystyka teasingly said, "Next time, could you please take off your boots? You got me dirty, you know."

Fawnn threw back her head and roared with laughter and the other two women joined her in the soul bracing emotion. They all felt better after that. She shook her head and marveled at the difference time made in some people. There was a time when she had thought adventurers laughing or smiling in the face of danger seemed odd. Now she had come to realize it was a way of relieving the stress of grim situations.

She reported to Brimstone, "There is a mineral here that I have only seen in one other cave system on Stoneheim. That cave was the undead cave south and west of Mordenthal's castle."

Brimstone immediately relayed that message to all the hunters.

 

***

 

Damia entered Ogrimar's presence unannounced. For anyone else to do that was to invite a very painful death. But she did so without fear.

Ogrimar glanced up and said, "Greetings, daughter."

"Father," she began immediately, “he is returning."

"I heard, Damia. We must prepare, aye that is so."

Damia doggedly shook her head. "That’s not why I am here." Then without pause she said, "Brimstone and the others will be too late to save the women. I intend to interfere."

Ogrimar looked at her startled, "Daughter, the accords say..."

With an obstinate tilt to her chin that Ogrimar knew all too well, Damia interrupted him. "The accords be damned, father. Dalghard never minded violating the accords to suit him. Just such a violation has endangered these women. You know that war with him is coming. I know it. Artherk knows it. I'll be damned if I let three innocents, whom I like, die because of a silly power struggle of the gods."

Ogrimar was stunned. He knew her to be willful. But she had never been this outright blunt. Then he relaxed and smiled, "That's my Daughter! What a woman she turned out to be," he thought with fatherly pride.

"I see your mind is made up, girl," he said.

"It is, father. I am going to violate the accords and save those girls." Smiling sweetly up at him, she continued, "You fix it after I break it, ok daddy?"

Ogrimar roared with laughter. "Ok, sweetheart, just don't make this a habit. I'll see what I can do with Artherk."

*Artherk threw back his head and laughed. He was pleased. He would of course have to reprimand Damia for the violation. After all, the three women were all of evil alignment. But it would be half hearted at best. He had been tempted to intervene himself, despite the fact that the women were Ogrimar’s followers. So any protest from him would be token at best.*

 

***

 

Brimstone was worried. They all were. They entered undead cave as the sun was going down. They were rapidly running out of time. The ladies had informed the men as to their impending fate, and consequently, Veksar, Tha Don, XconX, Corey, and Genkaku were in a pitiful state. So desperate were they to get to the women that they were beginning to lose all regard for their own safety, and Brimstone killed more than one undead about to slay one of the men.

Damia appeared before them stopping them in their tracks. "Husband," she said, "Hand me your sword. I have need of it but a moment."

He handed the blade to her hilt first. She examined it carefully, then made another identical weapon. She returned his. Then she hefted hers making a few token swings. Brimstone could see that she was no novice with a blade.

Pointing her new sword down a corridor, she created a yellow line on the floor of the cave.

"Make haste along that line, my husband. Time is short." Then she was gone.

 

***

 

In the pit, the three ladies waited. Escape was out of the question. There was no climbing out of this pit for it was wider by five feet at the bottom than the top. This made the walls taper inward as they went up.

They had not wasted their time with idle waiting. Now all three were armed with makeshift slings created from bits and pieces of leather from their backpacks.

When the creatures came for them they were ready and succeeded in slaying three of the creatures before the rest overcame them.

Then Damia was there. No one saw her fighting the creatures because they were so intent on their own struggles to escape the creatures’ clutches. But one moment they were under attack, and the next all of the creatures in the pit were dead.

Damia grinned at them and said, "Like my new sword? I’m sorry to come to you unannounced, but I did want you to see it." As she finished her sentence, another creature dove into the pit at her. Damia leaped into the air to meet it and split its head open like an overly ripe melon with the sword.

She landed lightly then tried to burn the bodies, because they stank, but something was interfering with her spell. She blew on her hand and fifteen feet from the edge of the pit, four shamans died instantly. Trying again, she burned the bodies in seconds.

The appearance of Damia in their midst had surprised the three women. She turned to Ziona and said, "M’Lady did you know you left your bow and quiver along the top edge up there?"

Suddenly Damia disappeared, only to reappear on the edge of the pit before walking out of sight. Moments later, she reappeared beside them and handed Ziona the bow and quiver.

"Are you here to save us?" asked Mystyka. Sadly, Damia shook her head and said, "That is forbidden by the accords of the gods." Then laughing she said, "I just wanted to show you girls the new sword I have and try it on a few monsters."

Winking at the three women she said, "The men are getting closer. They will soon be here and I must go." Turning deadly serious she said, "Fawnn, use fireball when they return. I know that is weak. Just do it. Mystyka, you, too. Ziona, you have your bow."

"Drat! I must go. Artherk is mad 'cause he thinks I violated the accords." Sighing she said "Daddy and he are talking. They summon me." Winking one final time, she vanished. But the three women in the pit felt much better than they had in many hours. At least now they knew the men were near, and they had a fighting chance to survive till help arrived.

 

***

 

The women decided to stay. They could have used the word of recall spell, but all decided to stay and see this through. Besides, the men were close and they were ready for a little payback. Therefore, by mutual agreement they stayed.

In a few minutes, another pair of the creatures dove down into the pit expecting no opposition. The flying monsters were stunned when the fireball spells in their faces temporarily blinded them and then the arrows struck true.

Repeatedly, pairs of the creatures dove into that pit never to emerge from that dank crater. As she fought, Fawnn caught herself smiling once and laughed. Yes, now she understood. They smiled because it was good to be fighting instead of just waiting to die. And, it was just plain good to be alive. She was learning.

 

***

 

Veksar blasted another creature with his fire spells and advanced another few steps. Corey's arrow took another creature in the head as it tried to dive at XconX. Genkaku cut its body from the air with his blade. Tha Don fired manaburst full into the face of one creature as he stabbed another in the eye with his twisted dagger.

Brimstone slaughtered the creatures like a killing machine. He seared their wings with spells, and beheaded countless others.

Soon they came within sight of the pit. At the edge of the pit stood several creatures awaiting their opportunity to get at the women in the pit. Veksar and the rest went crazy at sight of these creatures standing ready to harm their loved ones.

Genkaku darted ahead and landed amongst them after a titanic leap. His sword a whirling dervish of death, as he administered punishment to these creatures that had twice dared to take his sister captive.

Moments later, Corey and XconX were beside him. XconX used his dagger and blinded many.

Then Tha Don and Veksar joined the fray. Brimstone shook his head in wonder. The men were hacking the monsters to pieces, when they could have stood back and done it easily with bow and spells.

But he understood what was happening and let them have their vengeance. When it was over, he stepped amongst them and said, "Well done, all. Now, let's get the ladies out of that pit."

The women had heard the fighting at the top of the pit. They knew that at last they would be getting out of their makeshift prison. They were filthy from their confinement, tired to the bone, and they felt as if they hadn't eaten in weeks. But they were alive, and they were happy.

Leaping down among them, Veksar was a sight to see. He was bleeding in a score of places from the unaccustomed hand-to-hand combat. His garments were torn and bloodied. But to Fawn, he had never looked better. For his part, Veksar thought that Fawnn had never looked more lovely. Sweeping her into his embrace, with an emotion choked voice, he gasped, "I was afraid I had lost you!"

Fawnn kissed him soundly.

Genkaku jumped down into the pit with them. A rope was lowered and he assisted the ladies out of the pit. When Veksar climbed the rope, Genkaku quickly followed suit.

  

***

 

Genkaku was climbing out of the pit when the rest of the war party caught up to them. Brimstone had tried to get them to return to the city, but they'd have none of that. So they rested a moment and all ate a quick meal of cheese and bread.

While they ate, Fawnn, Mystyka, and Ziona explained all that they had learned from the creature that had spoken to them.

Brimstone contacted the priests of Artherk in Stoneheim and asked that they send other hunters to cover the entrance to that cave. They were not to enter the cave but were to guard it with a truesight spell activated at all times. They were to slay any creatures attempting to flee.

The word went forth that the son of Artherk sought the aide of Artherk's followers. Now that they knew precisely where to go, the followers of Artherk were able to take a different route that would be much faster. More than forty turned up inside an hour and stood guard faithfully outside that cave entrance with arrows knocked and spells at the ready. The warriors flexed their muscles in preparation.

The yellow line they had followed went down the corridor past that pit, and on to another corridor. The war party advanced. The women, who had endured so much in the past hours, were stationed protectively in the center of the men. There was no way the rest of the companions would permit them to remain exposed and vulnerable to recapture. The women may have resented that, but at the same time, they couldn't help but feel the love radiating from their escorts. Therefore, they accepted that as the price of their continued presence on this mission.

For twenty minutes, they proceeded down the corridors of the cavern system. Then they came upon a large chamber. Peeking around the corner MetalHead reported that it was a circular chamber filled with the creatures and that in its center was a huge nest of some sort. He also reported that there seemed to be one exit almost directly opposite this tunnel.

Brimstone considered the situation for a moment, and then he said, "Ok, this is what we will do." Then smiling, and demonstrating a very rare case of good humor, he finished, "We run in there and kill everything that isn't us."

Laughing he darted around the corner. Many of those that went after him were laughing as they charged.

A barrage of attack spells met them, and that sobered their humor quickly enough. Then Hierophant joined the fray and his tsunami spell soon chilled most of the resistance from the spell casters.

Tha Don and the other earth mages used the mental spell manaburst on the creatures, often working together to more quickly slay them.

Lord Malachi, Jedi, Genkaku, and MetalHead formed up behind Brimstone and they drove their attack toward the massive nest in the center of the chamber. Fighting his way there, Brimstone spotted what must surely be the king. He stood almost ten feet tall and dwarfed Brimstone. When he opened and flexed his wings, Brimstone was surprised to see that they were so huge. "Gods, this thing could be a small dragon," he thought.

Ziona shot arrow after arrow at the creatures attempting to dart at party members.

Tarkenstar healed all he saw in need and blessed all. Then he used his boulders to weaken the creatures. Generally, someone else would finish them off for him because they were so earth resistant. But he didn't care. He was contributing to the war, and that was what mattered to the mage.

Pig Killa added his bow and meteor to the attack and accounted for many kills.

Mystyka fought beside Tha Don, and added her manaburst to his. Together they killed twenty of the tough creatures.

Dime and Tinkerbell fought with Lord Death. Dime would use the spell meteor, while Tinkerbell and Lord Death fought with manaburst.

Psychost's spells were weak, but he managed to slay two of the beasts near death that the others were forced to leave in order to handle more imminent threats. His valor was noted that day.

BluByU and Frusty fought with amazing dexterity. Those two seemed to have an innate sense of when something was trying to attack them from the rear, and many times spun and released arrows into the gaping mouths of creatures about to bite them.

XconX and Corey provided what covering fire they could for the warriors advancing on the nest. Corey saw one leap at Genkaku and shot it in the eye.

Fawn fought beside Veksar, who fought as he had never fought in his life. She added her manaburst to his flare, and together they slaughtered too many of the creatures to keep an accurate count.

Brimstone and the warriors broke through the guards and faced the king of the creatures.

The king faced them and flexed his muscles.

Behind the king, his queen sat in her nest. Her bloated body was filled with eggs. She hissed at Brimstone then purposely regarded the three women in the company. In a sibilant voice she said, "Sooooooooon your blood will nourish my offspring."

Ziona, Mystyka, and Fawnn all attacked simultaneously. The two mages attacked with fireball and Ziona with arrows. Instinctively, they targeted the queen’s abdomen.

The king went wild. He leapt at the women attacking his queen but was intercepted by a barrage of spells, arrows, and one very angry Brimstone.

They squared off against each other. The creature dwarfed Brimstone, but he was unafraid of the creature.

Brimstone darted in and sliced the creature’s stomach with his weapon but the blade rebounded off the tough hide of the king. "Fool," mocked the king. "I am a cleric of Dalghard. Your blade is useless against me."

Brimstone looked at his blade and smiled. Suddenly flames erupted from the blade and he held a flaming sword in his hand. "Then let's try this," he said grimly and attacked again.

This time the blade went through the skin of the king like a hot knife through soft butter. The king howled in pain and hit Brimstone a mighty blow that flung him against the wall of the chamber.

Immediately, the king sought to slay the women attacking his queen who was trilling in torment. But once more the sheer volume of arrows and spells stopped him short of the women.

Lord Malachi stepped between the king and the three companion women, and then he faced the king head on. His runed halberd a blur, Malachi attacked. Time after time, he scored hits. His weapon also hurt the king, though not so much as Brimstone’s flaming sword.

Lord Malachi was hit hard and he was flung against the far wall. The sound of bones breaking was heard by all present and they feared for his life as Malachi collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall.

Then Brimstone was there again. Getting a running start he leapt up and drove his sword into the heart of the king then forced the flames to expand within the king's body. Like the giant he was, the king fell to the floor with a thud.

Then the Queen screamed shrilly as she died as well. She had been shot with over one hundred arrows, and hit by the scorching fireballs that destroyed her eggs even as they erupted uncontrollably from her bloated body.

The Ladies, Ziona, Fawnn, and Mystyka stood gazing at the body with a deep sense of satisfaction.

Hierophant used the water spell Tsunami on the eggs just to be sure, and the warriors waded among them smashing them all to bits.

 

***

 

As to the rest of the creatures, a very thorough search of the cave revealed a score more hidden here and there. Perhaps fifty had attempted to flee, only to be cut down just outside the cave by Artherk's followers.

Lord Malachi recovered from several broken bones, but the legends of his battle made the pain seem worth it. Especially when Brimstone personally thanked him for giving him the time he needed to recover from his impact with that wall.   

 

  


 

Epilogue

 

It came to pass in the fullness of time that the followers of Artherk began to make a yearly pilgrimage to William Irongrip's statue. Once there, they followed a tradition begun by a grateful young girl named Amy. Like her, they left flowers that they had gathered themselves.

The followers of Artherk were not alone. Many of the evil and neutral alignments also made that sojourn. Such was the volume of traffic there that fresh flowers were almost always present.

Many prayed to become as valiant in their service, and as unselfish as this simple man had been. As tends to happen sometimes in death, William Irongrip, better known to many adventurers as, Bill, became legendary in his exploits.

Many people stared in awe at his statue, and wondered if the legends were all true.

One thief of no alignment had sought to chip away the sword in the statue's grip, thinking to sell it. An irritated Artherk had teleported the man inside the cavern with the long dead tribe of monsters where the air was now rank and poisonous from the smells of the decomposing corpses.

No one missed him.

Then one day, some ten years after his death, a lovely maiden named Amy arrived at the shrine. It was appropriate to call Bill's statue a shrine at that point for so it had been treated for many a year. Once there, the maiden placed a garland of flowers fashioned by her own hand at the feet of Bill's statue as she had so many years before on her first visit.

Then she knelt in prayer to Artherk. "Artherk, my god, please hear me, I beg of you. Years ago, Bill saved my life. Now I wish to save his. Please, Artherk, free thy good servant, William from this entombment, and take me in his stead for without him I am lost."

Artherk replied immediately, "Amy, would you then take his place in the eternal stone?"

Sobbing, the woman said, "Oh please, Artherk. He was so good and noble. Aye, Artherk. Gladly will I take his place in the eternal stone, if you free him from it and let him live."

"So be it then woman. See thy heart’s desire." With the fading of his words in her mind, Amy stared in awe as the statue began to change. First free of the stone was the sword which glowed a brilliant blue. Moments later, Bill was free, and he said, "Lady, tell me your name."

A weeping Amy hugged Bill and kissed his surprised lips. "I am Amy, the young girl that you so valiantly saved in Silversky."

Then she solemnly stepped away from Bill, and said, "Artherk, I am ready and thank you."

"Then ask Bill to take you home," was Artherk's reply.

Confused, the woman said, "But we had an agreement."

Artherk spoke once more to the woman, explaining, "Amy, you and Bill are destined to be husband and wife. I could have teleported him out of that cave as easily as turning him to stone. I did not, because it was known to me that years after he was entombed, Bill would be rescued by his soul mate, who is a woman that loves my paladin more than she loves her own life. I think that you have established that this woman is you. Now ask Bill to take you home and trouble me no more this day. I am rather busy."

A grateful Amy then wept and Bill patted her on the back attempting to console her although he didn’t know why she was upset for he had not been privy to her exchange with Artherk. He asked, "Amy, can I take you home?"

"Yes, please do," she replied demurely.

 

  

 

Thus Ends Book 1