Part 3: Of Sylvan Retribution
Chapter 43: The Lich King By Don Fuller
Thrain sat at the helm of the huge manta ship, which Erroyl had dubbed The Gopher based upon some ancient creature no one else had heard of. He was still trying to master the intricacies of controlling something so large. The green chitinous helm was strangely warm as it conformed to his body, and his arms gripped the rests tightly. The sides and back of the helm were covered in a mass of swirling patterns interconnecting a dozen or so three inch long oblong crystals. Only five of them were glowing brightly like miniature stars; all the rest were dark. They had started off with twelve, but already one of them had burned out with their jaunts across Antheria, and he was worried about how long the remaining ones would last before the ship was rendered powerless.
The red multi-faceted view ports were set on either side of the cramped cabin, but the pilot at the helm didn’t need a port to see. Thrain’s senses were extended throughout the ship, its body becoming his own. He could see in any direction that he focused on as if the ship were a great eye, and his mind the retina. Additionally, the surface of the ship felt like his skin. It was a dull sensation, and he kept experiencing the desire to scratch in places that weren’t truly his own. There were other quirks too. Unlike a typical enchanted item, where mastering it required intense focus and intuition to explore the spell matrices, the ship gave up its secrets differently. There was a sentience that he hadn’t figured out yet. He could sense an animal-like presence at the edge of his mind, somewhat timid and afraid like an animal that had been kicked, seemingly unaware of its own vast potential. He had to coax it to him, and slowly it was giving him control. In a drop of fortune, he was able to discover the cloaking ability that turned the ship invisible, which had gotten them this far. He was very grateful for that boon, as he looked out upon the undead horde surrounding the tower where his companions were holed up.
He had pulled the ship back out of range, and was hovering silently some three hundred feet from the tower; once Derth’s ritual had started and the mega-crystal at the top of the tower began to glow, the Lich King’s minions had swarmed from the palace like ants. Dozens of armored undead warriors were zipping around the area on floating wooden disks, half-a-dozen Fell beasts with mounted warriors holding lances circled slowly above, and hundreds of soldiers were taking positions as the base of the tower. Of all the enemies deployed, only one truly concerned Thrain.
The Lich King stood casually atop a large, gaily colored red carpet, its corner tassels fluttering in the breeze. Once a man, he was tall and gaunt, his ghoulish grey skin hanging from his frame draped in a flowing blue gemmed robe. He held a serpentine staff and had numerous glowing rings, necklaces and a jewel encrusted platinum crown. Not physically imposing to the casual observer, but with Thrain’s arcane sight, he could see a vast array of spell defenses and contingencies, and judging by his aura, the Lich King was easily three times as powerful as himself and Derth combined.
For the last several minutes, Thrain was certain that the lich would see him, but he was obviously focused on the ritual going on in his palace. They could all sense that it was about to end, as if the gigantic glowing crystal that was getting brighter and brighter wasn’t clue enough. Then it happened.
The crystal erupted in a burst of pure focused mana brighter than the sun. The shipped dimmed his vision, protecting his eyes, as a beam blasted upwards to the heavens, and a clap of thunder boomed from the top of the tower, immediately followed by a powerful shockwave. The ship was buffeted back, and as he recovered control he could see that all of the aerial enemies had been blasted back from the force, and at least two of the warriors on the disks were thrown off and plummeted two hundred feet to the stone courtyard below. A moment later, the crystal erupted again with a second blast, smaller than the first, but it traveled not up, but outwards and across the sky roughly in a southwesterly direction, and then it was gone.
The air was supercharged with Essence, and Thrain’s skin tingled all over. Far above, the sky was rumbling and he knew it was time for them to go. The Lich King had recovered from the blast, and was directing his forces with loud shouts and gestures. If only this ship had some weapons, Thrain thought. It suddenly occurred to him. It does. Thrain grinned evilly.
“Hang on”, he projected his voice throughout the ship, giving Ash, Fezla, Myste and Loda Shar some small warning of what was about to happen. He then focused on the Lich King with the manta’s tail, and fired.
A crackling bolt of green elemental lightning cut across the sky. The lich turned in surprise as the massive bolt caught him square in the chest, cutting through his defenses and projecting him off of his carpet in a burst of hot energy. He arced out and downwards, trailing a plume of smoke while Thrain cackled with glee. The carpet raced down after its master.
“Here we go!” he shouted, and the manta sprung forwards, seemingly materializing out of thin air to the surprise of the remaining forces. They tried to scatter as the ship rapidly accelerated and roared through their ranks. He felt the repeated thumps and crashes as he clipped the flying soldiers with the huge wings, sending several more to their doom. Two managed to hang on, and he could feel them climbing up and trying to find purchase to get atop the wings. “Boarders”, he alerted the others, and Ash went running for the top hatch.
Dramm was a second too late. The room that he, Derth, Zane and the goblins were in was hot, and he was sweating profusely in his armor. Derth had sealed off the exit with a magically created wall, and he could hear the sounds of fighting that he was missing out on just beyond it, where Av, Oz and Erroyl were engaging the undead. He had watched uncomfortably as Derth stood before the strange crystalline spire with arcane looking levers and knobs. Bursts of multi-colored energy were coursing up and down its length and through the ceiling which connected to the thirty foot tall crystal that was mounted there. He had no real understanding of what was happening. Meanwhile, Zane and his damned goblins were fidgeting about and making him nervous. There was something decidedly smarmy about the little thief, but as long as he kept the goblins in check he could stay a bit longer. His patience had nearly worn thin, but he could tell it was almost over. The lights were pulsing too fast to follow, and the room was blazing hot now. It was so bright that he could barely see clearly, and he didn’t know how Derth stood there in the midst of it. With a deafening roar and a clap of thunder, the room shook and filled with a blinding white burst. His ears were ringing and eyes were burning, and he thought he should react when one of the goblins leapt over next to Derth and pulled a lever. His axe came up a moment faster than Zane could fathom what was happening, and hot goblin blood splattered across the far wall as its limp body hit the ground in halves. Another bust of light erupted from the crystal spire, blinding him again, and he heard Derth sit down with a loud thump.
“What was that?” he yelled, but Derth was still reeling from his effort and didn’t acknowledge him. He spun on Zane, but from the look of surprise and fear on his face he doubted the man knew either. “We gotta go Derth,” Derth nodded his head, shaking off the fatigue. They all heard a loud crackling explosion from outside, following by more of Oz’s gunfire. Derth waved his hand and his wall vanished into mist. Av, Oz and Erroyl were on the landing leading down the stairs, where undead were hacking through a stone wall. Av fired her bow again, sending a flaming arrow through one of the holes and knocking back a soldier on the other side, and Oz fired at something beyond the balcony outside. Erroyl was chanting and glanced at them expectantly. Dramm stepped out onto the balcony, prepared to fight, and observed an unexpected spectacle. Their ship had apparently just raced through the area and was spinning around for another pass. Half-a-dozen undead warriors on flying disks were chasing after it, while two others on foot were perched precariously on one of the wings. Ash, their great gray skinned ally, was standing on the ships main deck holding the railing, and he cut loose with a firebolt that caught one of the undead in the head. It staggered around in flames and then fell off and away. Two fell beasts with mounted fighters were closing in fast, and another four circled around and prepared to charge. The ship hovered in place for several long moments, and then a brilliant burst of green lightning leaped from the point of the arching tail and cut across the sky, blasting off the wing of one of the fell beasts. It roared in agony, and then fell in a jerking spiral, its rider hanging on futilely. “It would seem Thrain has them occupied”, Derth said, as he moved up next to Dramm. They both looked far down upon the courtyard, where hundreds of undead stood ready, unable to get into the fray. Erroyl finished his spell behind them, and white lightning shot from the sky and struck one of the charging fell beast riders; his chest exploded and he fell off to the side in the stirrups shaking violently. The ship leapt forward at the charging disk riders and smashed two more off of their disks. A third managed to leap clear and onto the wing. The second of the original two nearly made it to the railing when Ash sent him spinning with another firebolt. He lost his balance and slid off of the wing, flailing wildly. Loda Shar popped up at the opposite railing, hand-crossbows blazing. Four bolts pin cushioned the third boarder, taking out a kneecap and sending him sprawling. The ship spun in a tight arc, and the warrior gracefully slid off the edge. It looked like Thrain had the ship on a collision course with the tower, but he spun it again and brought the starboard wing right up to the balcony, just a bit too overzealous as it made a scraping noise against the railing and vibrated the balcony beneath their feet.
“Your carriage is here,” they heard Thrain’s voice echo from the ship. Derth glanced at the closing fell beasts, and jumped onto the wing, moving quickly towards the top deck. “We’re leaving!” Dramm yelled, as he followed suit. Erroyl hopped on with Zane, Av and Oz close behind. The second goblin made to jump, and then leaped off the balcony to his death; Zane paused briefly at the edge of the wing, and then ran after the others. Ash and Loda Shar continued with their cover fire, and Av sent several arrows into a fell beast, while Oz fired again grazing one of the closing riders. No sooner had the last of them cleared the railing when the ship lurched forward again turning away from the closing fell beasts, and rapidly sped away, easily outdistancing even the fastest of their pursuers.
Derth came up behind Thrain in the helm room. “Well done.” “You too. Nice light show. Looks like you started something big up there.” Derth looked out a portal at the sky above where a dangerous looking storm was brewing. “What of the Lich King?” “I gave him something to think about. We didn’t make any allies back there.” Derth shrugged. The undead army and their king was no longer a present worry, but the forming storms across the sky looked like their next crisis to deal with. “Take us up. We’re going to Glantri.”
Chapters 44 & 45: Return to the Sky By Don Fuller
The manta ship cut through morning sky like a knife, occasionally buffeted by the strong crosswinds from the forming storms. The thunder from the exploding gases could still faintly be heard, as the combustion spread outwards and around the world. The bright sun was scouring away shadows below in places that had not seen the light of day in hundreds of years. Thrain surveyed the countryside in all directions, sickened by the blight that the demons had spread.
Derth stood on the top deck, casually holding the railing. His curved hazy arcane shield blocked the wind, and gave him free opportunity to observe what was happening in the sky. He watched astrally as all of the energy that had been released from the demon clouds began to pool. He guessed that over the next three days and possibly more, powerful elemental storms would continue to form and run rampant until the energy was spent. The irony that they had saved all of the falling cities from a poisonous death only to have them obliterated by the ensuing storms was not lost upon him, and he was determined to save as many cities as he could.
Ozmandimus came up behind him, pushing through the wind until he was fully protected by the shield. “I need to return to my grove as soon as possible.” “I know. I too am concerned about that second energy burst.” Oz nodded. He knew that his master was powerful, but if SkyFlame had found a way to strike at him, Oz was duty-bound to defend the grove. “It would cost us too much time to make for the grove first though; we have little of it to spare before these storms become a threat to the cities.” Derth glanced over at their draconic ally, who had finally shed his mask in their company. He too wanted very much to race back to the dragon WindSong, so that he could continue on with his primary quest of purging the world of taint, but again pressing priorities were leading him astray. They had ascended to over a thousand feet, and were still slowly climbing to the south east. With Ohtar lost, and Kaycian somewhere below them searching for his father, they didn’t have a fully trained navigator. Thrain was using the navigational charts and studying the landscape; it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the massive floating city of Glantri, but he’d calculated it was about five-hundred miles away, easily an eight hour trip. If all went well they’d make it by dusk. Where are you Kaycian, Derth mused, studying the terrain below. He intended to recover the others soon, and then meet the Wind Sprite at Fort Reid. If it all went the way he hoped, they could reunite the crew and continue on his quest. If Thrain’s speculations were correct, they couldn’t continue on for as long as he needed in the Gopher, unless they could find a way to recharge the power crystals, so his best bet might be to travel on Kaycian’s new ship once they got it crewed and refitted. One thing at a time though.
The Gopher hit a strong downdraft, and everyone’s stomachs lurched. Dramm cursed to himself and held on to his chair. Avinatria and Erroyl were engaged in a deep conversation in Elvish in an adjacent room, Myste was lying down in the bedroom, and Ash, Loda Shar, Zane and Fezla were playing cards at the table. He was wondering who was cheating more, and opted to stay out of the game lest he be tempted to hurt one of them; the scoundrels could have each other. They all had decisions to make, but by his guess only the elves were seriously planning their futures. He mulled over his own. On the bright side it wasn’t too likely anyone would remember his sentence. On the downside, the people who would remember were the only people important to him. He knew returning to his home city of Kazad was in his future; the question at hand was, how long before the dwarves opened up the great city-kaer and came back into the world? Clearing the sky the way they had done today was a big step towards that he figured, but the rock man apparently in charge of this show had crazy ideas of cleaning the whole world. That had to be a good thing; if he could return to Kazad a hero, it might just put him in good standing to get his rank and title back. But then again, they could all die in this mad quest. From the sounds of it a lot of people had already died following Derth. Bah. What did he have to lose? He chuckled to himself at that. Not a damn thing.
“City spotted”, Thrain’s voice echoed throughout the ship. “I wish he wouldn’t do that. Ain’t natural,” Dramm muttered. “C’mon little man, lets see this thing!” Ash said gravelly. “You call me that again, I’ll cut your kneecaps off.” The gray giant laughed boisterously and climbed up the top hatch. “No, I’m serious about that,” Dramm scowled. Loda Shar snickered and darted up the ladder. The rest of the crew, save for Myste, climbed up to join Derth on the main deck. Thrain slowed the ship down appreciably as they leveled off with the massive floating city. “Whoa.” Ash said aloud, and the others murmured agreement. “Now that is somethin’” “Come in slowly, Thrain. There are certain rules to follow here, and unfortunately I don’t know them in detail. We should be given an escort when they spot us. Hopefully not having any proper flags won’t be a problem.” “I should go below,” Oz said. “Me too, I s’pose,” Ash grunted. “Wouldn’t want to make them unfriendly.” Derth nodded.
The city was circular, easily one and half miles across. It was surrounded by a low wall that enclosed an outer ring of crops and parks, broken up only on one point by the dock area. The inner ring was comprised of hundreds and hundreds of independently floating buildings some connected by portions of sidewalks or courtyards, but even more having nothing more then small private docks. The sky above was filled with countless manned skiffs, carpets, hypogriffs, or small flying disks zipping around from place to place. The docks were swamped with people, as dozens of ships of all sizes were crowded in, and half that many were waiting for a berth. It looked like the city was preparing for the storms, and the ships were trying to get to whatever safety the city could offer.
They didn’t have to wait long to get noticed, and apparently not having the appropriate colors made a difference, as a dozen armored guardsmen with bright blue capes on disks escorting a larger armored skiff big enough for ten men broke away and quickly approached. Once within hailing distance, the officer in charge bellowed from the skiff. “Hail ship! Identify yourself, and state your allegiance and business.” “My name is Derth, of Haalkitaine, and this is the… Gopher. I have pressing business with Emissary Otarie that involves the safety of Glantri from the coming storms. He should be expecting me. There is no time to waste.”
As usual, it took some time to convince the right people to make the correct decisions, but once they pushed through the bureaucracy, the ship was cleared for docking. Due to space issues, they had to wait for an actual spot, but a skiff was sent for Derth. He left them with clear instructions, and said that he would need the ship for a while, but anyone who wished to stay in the city should do so. When they finally docked, it was agreed that Thrain would stay with the ship, and Ash would provide guard duty. The rest proceeded into the city to find food and to do some sight-seeing. At some point during their jaunt, Zane detached himself and vanished into a crowded street, apparently back in his element.
Derth moved quickly through the echelons of ranking mages, rapidly presenting his theory on how to protect the city from the storms. He was soon given access to the Mage Council, where they discussed his idea for a short time, but given the pressing need, they bypassed the normal lengthier arguments and opted to put his plan into effect. The council soon sent out communications to the other cities in the region, as far out as it seemed feasible for Derth to travel based upon his projected travel times in the ship. Within a few hours, the council was casting a ritual to magnify his essence stabilization field a hundred-fold across the entire city, with tremendous success. Exhausted, but with several ranking mages as allies, he then returned to the ship with the mages and told Thrain the plan.
It was a taxing three days for Thrain, Derth, the ranking council mages Sirian and Dorlas, plus a navy appointed navigator by the name of Amvar. Moving at top speed, they passed through Bazilar, Salaza, Erewan, Rasul, Calambre, Haalkitaine, Norek, Nomikos, Kaitaine and Sel-Kai, and then returned to Glantri. The sky lanes were empty by the time that they returned. On the way, Thrain learned a bit more about the ship, in part through answering the myriad of questions that the council mages had in regards to how it worked. They never would have been able to get safely through the storms otherwise, but Thrain took the ship continually higher until they were at last above them. Derth was anticipating the need to cast his environmental sphere, but the ship took care of that itself, so the air was perfectly breathable and at a normal pressure even upwards of twenty thousand feet. He wondered just how far up he could go, and determined to find that out sooner than later. To his dismay, two more crystals burned out in the journey, leaving them at nine.
While Derth and Thrain were gone, the others had been put up in private suites in the Palladium, a small token of thanks from the city. They wined and dined with a number of important city officials, mages, scholars and artists, causing something of a stir in numerous social circles. They also toured the city, exploring shops, markets and landmark attractions. Oz was desperately impatient, but there was no safe way to navigate through the storms, and so they waited for Derth to return and the storms to abate.
Derth woke from his meditational slumber slowly, the efforts of the last three days still hanging on him. He stretched his stony arms wide, producing cracking noises clearly not of human origin. He opened his eyes, taking in the lavish suite with little concern, instead focusing on the noise that had awakened him. Tap. Tap. Tap. He stood, producing more creaks from his joints, and walked over to the large balcony doors where sunlight was streaming in, and gently pushed them open. A moment later, a small blue bird fluttered in and landed on his shoulder. “Greetings little one,” he rumbled. “Are you lost?” The little bird chirped a tune, but it wasn’t what Derth heard, as he immediately recognized a language spell. He briefly considered a defensive spell, and then relaxed as a feeling of calm washed over him.
“Blessing to you Sky Friend and Wind Savior. The Sky Mistress Gwynne sends you her gratitude for the service you have provided to all of Sylva.” Dumbfounded for the first time in his short life, Derth listened. “While you have done much, there is still more to do. She asks a boon of you. One of her daughters, no stranger to you, is in need. Kethia is in grave peril. Go to her now, if you can, and take this feather as a token of gratitude and goodwill.”
The bird flicked its wings, and a small blue feather came free on his shoulder. It then chirped again, and flew out the window and was gone. Derth carefully took the feather and slipped it into one of his pouches for safekeeping, and then gathered up his other meager belongings, grabbed his Laen staff, and headed out the door to find the others.
INTERMISSION: LOST AND FOUND By Don Fuller
Kaycian jerked awake, and immediately groaned from pain. His arms were numb, and his wrists chafed from the heavy metal shackles that secured him to the damp stone wall. He could still feel the burning slashes on his back from his last round of interrogation, and his right eye was bruised and puffy. He readjusted to the gloom of his tiny cell, and once again he accepted that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. He pulled himself to his feet and stretched, working out the kinks in his sore muscles. At least it isn’t that cold, he thought. They’d left him with his trousers and a pile of straw to sleep on. The only light he had was from the thin cracks around the door, but he could make out every minute detail of the room with his keen elven vision. He paced the small cell until his legs were awake, and then someone was coming down the hall, and he could hear rattling. A small panel slid open at the base of his cell door, and a tray of gruel and a cup of water were pushed in. It was unpleasant stuff, but he knew he had to keep his strength up if he was going to get out of this. He sat back down and ate the meager breakfast, his mind retracing the steps of the last few weeks.
It had started well enough. After Derth’s group had left Fort Reid, Kaycian’s group stayed another night. It ended up being well worth it, as somehow Kethia used her wiles on the horsemen and procured not only mounts for the first leg of their journey, but an escort. Originally they didn’t want the burden of horses once they reached the great forest, but the horsemen agreed to take their mounts back once they made it to the border of their territory. It was nearly one hundred twenty miles across the dusty plains, and the riders kept a hard pace. They knew the lay of the land and good camping spots, so overall it was largely uneventful. They did have to fend off a couple of minor attacks against some creatures called Blightworms, and there was a nasty acid rainstorm to contend with, but they all made it alive and in an unbelievable four days. They camped with the riders one last time, and then in the morning it was a brisk parting, as he, Kethia, Trel, Tolani, Tyr, Colwyn and Squee limped their way to the eastern river, bruised and aching from the rough ride, very glad to be free of those horses.
Crossing the river had been a bit tricky. It was Colwyn who had insisted that they bring ample rope, and it proved useful. Trel flew across the river and tied it off, and they climbed one of the taller trees and glided across one at a time with a harness that Colwyn put together. Once across without mishap, they entered the forest fringe, the plan being to cover the next two-hundred or so miles keeping as much cover as possible without compromising their overall hiking speed. The weather was temperate, and with the continual cloud cover and additional shade from the trees they went through the drinking water slowly, to Kaycian’s relief.
He had hoped that they would cover at least twenty miles a day, but that proved impractical if they wanted to keep good cover. The undergrowth was heavy in many places, and they had to continually contest with tangling vines, dry ravines, impassible walls of trees and hampering swarms of stinging insects. By day three, he reckoned they had only covered forty miles, but the truth was he couldn’t be sure. Without any stars or view of the sun, and no landmarks to match what was on the map, navigating was beyond difficult. Both Trel and Kethia were able to do aerial reconnaissance, which was helpful, but they both said the same thing. The line of trees went on and on, well out of sight.
On the fourth day, after a nasty fight with a large, leathery skinned black bear, the group overruled his preference for staying in the trees. At their current rate, it looked like it could take three weeks just to get past the forest, and everyone was tired. Once that was decided, they moved out into the thick rolling grass, and with Trel and Kethia keeping watch, they picked up the pace considerably, and everyone’s spirit improved.
On the sixth day, Kethia spotted the ruins of a small town nestled up against the forest, but neither she nor Trel could see any signs of life. The last two nights they had heard distant howling of numerous animals, but nothing had approached yet. Thinking the ruins might offer them shelter for the night, they approached cautiously.
Kaycian sighed, going over their actions again. Looking back, he still blamed himself for Trel and Colwyn’s deaths, but couldn’t come up with a scenario that would have gotten them around the ambush safely. Somehow the dog men had spotted them, and prepared for their arrival. Dozens of spears flew out of the ruins, seemingly from nowhere. Trel fluttered in the air for a moment, and then they all watched in horror as he fell to the ground, his lifeless body impaled. Then the dog men were on them.
They were tall and lanky, covered with light fur, a mix of brown, black and grey. Most wore fitted leather armor, and all of them were armed with spears, swords, axes and maces, some also using circular leather shields. He figured that there were at least fifty of the creatures, and he recalled shouting a retreat to the trees. It was a losing fight from the beginning, but his crew was dealing out furious death, just not at a fast enough rate. Colwyn was the next to fall, going under a pair of slashing blades. They all took wounds over the next minute of fighting, and it was just a matter of time before an attacker got through with a crippling injury. And then the elves came.
The wall of arrows filled the air with a ringing hum unlike anything he’d heard before. Half the remaining dog men went down in the first volley, and the other half scarcely were able to stop their charge, the surprise was so complete. Some managed to turn and run, but none made it more than a dozen steps before the next wave hit. Less then ten were still running, and they almost made it back to the ruins. Almost. The last volley dropped them all.
Breathing hard, he and the others spun to face their saviors, and were immediately surrounded by five dozen or more of the blood elves, their bows drawn and now pointing at Kaycian and crew.
Kethia concentrated again, and again failed to find a connection to Gwynne. The thin silver manacles on her wrists somehow were preventing her from recharging her power or casting spells, and she felt even more naked then the silky low cut blue gown and exposed midriff ever could worry her. She looked at Tolani, who was chained and similarly attired at the other side of the dais. The sky elf was battling hard with the indignity of their situation. She had already been whipped twice for her behavior, and while she was acting cowed Kethia guessed it was a matter of timing before Tolani tried a new tactic. She was a strong one, having suffered so many losses. First her ship was destroyed by the pirates in the red corvette; then one by one her remaining crew died before her eyes, the last one suffering the most.
They were nothing more than Lord Valdak’s latest playthings, imprisoned in his fortress dubbed Castle Lakeguard, possibly because it overlooked the nearby bay. He was an ulpir lord, ruler of the eastern demesne of their province. From conversations, she’d gathered there were five or six such lords who reigned over a large stretch of land, much of which once comprised the City-States of Tenryk and Glantri. One of these ulpir was the High Lord Lucard, and he was the master of the others. Even now, the castle was in a hectic state of preparation, as Lord Valdak’s liege was on his way to see the sky people. She suspected one or more of them would be offered as a gift, and if that happened she doubted there would be any hope of escape.
Originally this was meant to be a rescue mission to save Kaycian’s father, but things didn’t go as planned. They’d lost nearly half of the team getting here, and this was the second time that they had been captives. She shook her head sadly, thinking of those who had died, of the plight that they were currently in, of the cruelty inflicted upon the ulpir subjects, but then her eyes welled with tears thinking of the beauty and tragedy of the Blood Elves.
After their initial rescue and subsequent capture by the Blood Elves, she and the others were disarmed, bound and whisked into the forest. It was more than a bit frightening seeing them at first. Over the next two days she learned a great deal about the elves, of their fight against the demons, and the ultimate sacrifice that they had paid to survive.
In first few years of the Scourge, the demons began to spread across the world, as more and more of the rift gates opened. Following these lesser demons, creatures of a darker nature came though; These the elves dubbed Horrors. These new enemies were nearly unstoppable, their hunger insatiable. Unlike the lesser demons that thrived on murder, destruction, and chaos, Horrors attacked the mind, feeding on emotion, feasting on the fear that they created and growing stronger with it. The ancient arcane barriers that protected the forest slowly failed under this new onslaught, and the elves were struck from within, as many went insane under the constant mental barrage of the Horrors.
Realizing it was too late to hide away in a Kaer underground or in the sky, the elven council came up with a plan, and their queen enacted it. They would cast a powerful ritual on the entire clan, a ritual that would alter them in such a way that would strip the remaining joy and happiness from their lives, and give them a life of pain and suffering. It was believed that eventually the Horrors would leave, unable to feed, and at some point the ritual would be reversed.
The ritual was a dark one, but it was successful. With its culmination, every surviving elf was struck with a Curse of Thorns, their bodies as one erupting with painful thorns covering all of their skin. The thorns caused constant agony, and blood dripped freely from the thousands of tiny wounds that would never heal. This new state of being was too much to bear for many elves, who ended up taking their own lives or running to face death at the raking claws of the demons still laying siege to their home. Yet most survived, and soon the Horrors moved on. The demons were a threat that could be managed, although over the years many still perished in defense of their homeland. The worst realization came later. All of the surviving mages worked together to reverse the ritual, and failed. Worse still, there was no hope for the next generation. Newborns carried the curse, and these births were cruel affairs, usually resulting in the death of the mother. Now, what little hope that remained is that perhaps an infusion of new blood would break the curse of the Blood Elves.
Kethia and the others were not mistreated, but they were captives to be sure. She had been gawked at much of her life, her family strangers in the sky cities, rarely more than outsiders. They kept to themselves, working in the aqueducts, and her childhood was a lonely one. When she grew into woman hood, she was only occasionally pursued by foolish boys who were lusty for something exotic that they could brag about. That alone prepared her for the exhibition of their first day, as hundreds upon hundreds of the elves came to see the strangers, to touch their smooth skin and to remember a time when they too were free of the curse. Some seemed angry and hateful, their jealousy palpable. Others seemed to pity them, as if they were not worthy of being there. However, many of them wept at their sight, tears flowing like rivers, mixing with small bloody trickles and washing down their pained faces. She had embraced a few of the women with compassion, accepting the pain as the thorns pierced her body from the embrace, offering what words of kindness she could muster, until at last all she had left was a silent hug to give. More and more returned to her, until by the end of the day her clothes were torn and stained with her own blood.
Through all of this, there was one who lingered though, and she saw him watching her from the edge of the crowd for hours. He came back to speak with her when they had left, the guards allowing him to see her alone in the community room that she had spent the day in. He introduced himself as Prince Ralen Selenestor, nephew to the queen. He had food and wine brought, along with fresh clothes. He assured her that the others were unharmed, and he tenderly wiped the blood from her face.
They spoke for hours that night, and he shared stories of his people, and she hers. He was hungry to hear of life in the skies, and while it clearly pained him to speak of the struggles of the Blood Elves, he answered her many questions in a straightforward manner, his green eyed gaze never leaving her. He assured her that she would see her companions in the morning, but the Queen wanted them all separated until their fates were fully decided upon. By the time he took his leave, she found she wanted nothing more then for him to stay.
Tolani winced in pain from the lashes on her back. Apparently the whip was a popular punishment for nearly any infraction in this lovely castle. Spitting on the lord of the castle certainly qualified, but then he had made the mistake of manhandling her more then a little suggestively. She suspected he would have had his pleasure with her, had some higher up not been on his way. She knew the ulpir was not human, though in most regards he looked it. He was tall and broad shouldered, and moved with a dangerous grace normally seen in highly trained warriors. His skin was pale , and his eyes sunken in such a way that made her think he was undead, but when he touched her she could feel his heat radiating. His eyes were slitted, piercing hungry orbs that probed into everything he looked at, and she felt he was as likely to feast on her flesh as he was to take her woman hood. She drew away from the thought, rattling her chain and ignoring Kethia, her mind wandering over the last few days.
After their capture by the Blood Elves, the group had been separated from each other and made into a spectacle for all to come and see. She spent the day with the thorn covered elves pawing at her as if she was some sort of zoo animal. Though many of them cried, she couldn’t bring herself to feel too sorry for the creatures. It had been their arrogance that led to their fall to begin with. As far as she knew, only the elves of Erewan rebelled against their queen before the Scourge and built an aerodel of their own. The sky elves and the land elves, though never enemies, were never truly allies either, each reclusive enough in their own domains to almost never come into contact. Still, they probably didn’t deserve this final cruel fate, but there was no way for her to help them.
Later that evening she was approached by one of their nobles. He gave her food and wine, and did his best to ingratiate himself with her. He would have been handsome, but she couldn’t look past his curse, and his refusal to answer her pointed questions about what plans his clan had in store for them got him nowhere. He finally left her alone, and she got some much needed rest before their imminent escape.
They were reunited in the morning, and brought before the queen and all of the lesser nobles. One thing could be said; their forest city was extraordinarily beautiful, and was the first thing in years to take her breath away. Most of the city was built into the giant trees using wood shaping magic, and the treetops were filled with walkways and balconies illuminated with glowing flowers and draped with colorful vines. The palace was fashioned from great branches interlaced with crystalline formations, and the floor was a red stained polished marble. The queen and retinue were lavishly dressed, she in a flowing gown, adorned with diamonds and fine jewelry and wearing a golden crown.
Tolani recalled bits and pieces of what the queen said to them, but none of it was terribly important or heart warming. But she would never forget what followed. Apparently the elves had watched them from the forest for a day or two before intervening, and their plans were quite nearly solidified by last night. The queen had appointed the equivalent of a life mate for each of them, and they intended to try some sort of bonding ritual with hopes that it would reverse the curse on each of their respective mates. Clearly their mages had come up with this idea quite some time ago, but not having any untouched elves to try it on, it remained a theory. Until now.
They didn’t plan on wasting any time either, what with the daily existence with pain and suffering. In fact, they had already selected Tyr as the first candidate, and that’s when it hit her. The kind young noble-elf who came to see her last night was her chosen one. Then she realized that each of them had their future loves in close attendance, and the way that Tyr was making eyes with the elven princess, he didn’t seem too upset just yet. At least Kaycian didn’t seem as enraptured. She might just have to kill him if he was. Her shouts of objection and attempt to disarm one of the royal guards and take his weapon earned her a bloody nose, and she was dragged yelling from the throne room. She relished the look of shock on her fiancé’s face, and gave Kaycian a quick smile as they took her away.
It had been a long day, again locked in her private suite. She was in one of the tree towers, and judging by the sounds of revelry from the window, she figured that she was very near to the meeting grounds, possibly even overlooking it. The tree walls were polished and smooth, and the window was barred with iron hard branches too big to get her head through to see down. All she could surmise from listening was that Tyr’s union was close at hand, and she couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Lord Valdak came into his throne room mid-morning to attend to the business of running his little kingdom. The room was filled with various lesser ulpir magistrates, dozens of the dog soldiers, and a line of downtrodden looking humans. She listened for a while as she and Tolani knelt before their new master. Scarcely paying attention to them, he wisely made party preparations, settled disputes and dispensed judgments that almost invariable involved someone being whipped or an offender’s throat being ripped out. It wasn’t the first time on her knees in the last few days though, and she cringed at the thought of how it ended badly with the elves.
Kethia and Kaycian had been kneeling for the last few hours, their arms bound behind their backs. After Tolani’s outburst this morning, the elves weren’t taking any chances with them disturbing the celebration. And celebration it was. Tyr and his chosen one were dressed for a wedding, and the way he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl convinced her that he was under a spell. No, these elves weren’t taking any chances. To think, she too had nearly been duped by Prince Ralen. She scowled at him again for good measure, but he hadn’t gone far from her side all day, occasionally caressing her hair and trying to whisper in her ear, but she would have none of it now. Kaycian’s princess fawned over him too, although he didn’t seem nearly disgusted enough. She could see he was frustrated, his devious mind likely going over plan upon plan. She couldn’t see any way out for them though. “Gwynne, help me if you can”, she prayed.
The red shrouded mages were finally done with their ritual preparation, and the crowd grew hushed as a white robed priest read through a marriage ceremony. Tyr and his bride to be were standing in a vine covered gazebo, a sea of elves surrounding them on all sides expectantly ready to witness the future of their salvation. The nine mages had formed a circle around the pair, and when the priest finished his portion he stepped back into the crowd. The mages began their chanting, and astrally she could see them locked together and summoning a great deal of power. The spell was too complex for her to even begin to figure out, but she could see it spiraling like a whirlwind around the two, and the energy in the air was thick and shimmering. The whirlwind spun into the pair and washed over them, binding them together. They were each visibly glowing, and the crowd gasped at the beauty of it, waiting to see one of their own freed at last from the curse. And then Tyr screamed.
His body jerked violently, and he screamed again, his voice echoing above the shocked crowd. He looked around in confusion, his pained gaze finding her own, and then the thorns began to erupt from his body, blood splattering his and his bride’s fine clothes. He screamed again and buckled to his knees, as the crowd let out an echoing communal wail of despair.
Ralen grabbed her arm, thorns tearing into her and she jerked back in pain. “You have to go,” he said into her ear, fear on his face. She was too shocked to react as he pulled her to her feet. Kaycian looked up at her, and then Ralen pulled him up to, and dragged them into the distraught and distracted crowd. Kethia saw Kaycian’s mate following behind, probably thinking this was part of the plan. Once free of the crowd, they ducked through a door in one of the tree towers, and Ralen produced a knife and slit their bindings. “What’s going on Ralen?” The princess asked, her voice somewhat cracked. “I’m sorry Lorenna. They must leave us now.” “Leave us? They can’t leave us… they have to save us!” she said as she lifted her arms wide. “I was told we would be freed of this curse. I just want to be freed!” “It’s no use. We are all damned. They will just join us, and to what avail is that?” “No, No. NO! The council will get the ritual right. They will find away.” “It is wrong to use them against their will. I’m freeing them.” Lorenna looked aghast, her face shaking and pail. She then turned and fled. Kaycian made as if to chase her, but Ralen held him back. “But she’ll call the guards, won’t she?” Ralen nodded. “There’s time. Come, your friend is upstairs.” “What of Tyr, we have to save him,” Kethia said. “He is one of us now. You must leave without him.” “And my goblin, is he alive?” Ralen looked surprised, as if someone could actually care for a creature like that. “He is alive, I believe.”
The last few days had been harsh, but that’s what a goblin expects from life. He was thankful that he hadn’t been killed outright several times already. Fortunately there were those that appreciated a goblin’s usefulness. The lord of this castle had taken one look at him after their capture and ordered his execution, but someone called out from the mob and asked for the goblin, and mentioned something about the sewers. Spared again, Squee wasn’t sure what happened to the others as he was roughly dragged away before the lord could change his mind. His newest master was a large, one-eyed human introduced as Garp. Garp made it clear that the pain flowed down hill around the castle, and seemed overjoyed that there was something for him to pass it on to. He was quickly informed that his only reason for living was because there were plumbing issues to be dealt with. Squee was shown the various sewer access tunnels, given a beating, some tools, and told to find where it was backing up. He was told that if he didn’t have it draining properly by the time the high master arrived, or if there was a whiff of sewage in the air, they would flay his skin and feed him to wild hogs, alive.
It took him three hours to find the first major clog and clear it. He nearly drowned twice and was dizzy from the pungent fumes, but when he weakly crawled his way out, Garp was standing there with a crooked smile. “By the demons, you did it goblin! It’s flowing now. Get yourself some bread and water, and then fix the one under the north wing. After that, find a spot in the stables.” Garp gave him an appreciative kick, and headed off no doubt to report on his own success.
At least there was an offer of food, which was more than those elves had given him. He grumbled, and went in search of a trough to rinse off in, thinking about the last few days. While the others were enjoying their stay with the elves, no doubt eating the finest foods and drinking the finest wines, they had obviously forgotten about him, regardless of Kaycian’s assurances that they too had been captives.
When Kaycian called a retreat from the dog men, he’d been the first to follow the captain’s orders. He saw the elves a moment too late, and the next thing he knew someone tangled him up in a net. He tried to shout a warning but an elf kicked him hard and he lost his breath in whoosh. They had bound him and put a bag over his head so tight he could barely breathe. And that’s about all he saw. He had been shoved around for hours, trying to make sense of what was going on. He gathered they were taken to a city, and there were lengthy discussions. Someone asked if they should kill the goblin, but praise be to the one who overruled that idea. At last he was roughly shoved into a small closet, and he heard the door lock.
He figured a day and a half had passed. Initially he had slipped out of the bindings and pulled the hood off once convinced that he was forgotten about. There was nothing else in the closet, and it was dark and smelly. He fiddled with the door, but without anything to pick it with, he was trapped, and so he sat there and waited, his throat parched and his stomach rumbling. There had been muffled noises most of the second day, and he figured it was a grand party for the others. At long last, the door rattled, and master Kaycian opened the door. “Squee! Can you walk?” Squee had nodded, and hopped to his feet, ready to serve.
It looked like they were leaving in a hurry. Tolani came down with a finely dressed thorn covered elf, and there was a heated discussion about Tyr, and then she seemed to break composure and cried. Kaycian held her for a moment, but the other elf insisted that they leave. He then led them out a back door. They all had got their weapons back and drawn, as the five of them ran silently through the city forest. There was yelling, and a chase, and a few brief fights that left some of the other thorn elves dead. And then there was the tree door.
He had never liked magic. It was a dangerous and mysterious thing to him. The thorn elf had stopped in a quiet part of the forest that seemed especially dark. They were in a small ring of trees, and Squee could make out strange symbols etched into them. One particular tree was larger than the others, and the elf approached it and began to sing a low song in his language that made the hair on Squee’s neck prickle. A few moments later, a crack appeared in the tree releasing a chill wind with a hiss, and then it quickly widened into a dark maw big enough for a person to squeeze into. “Come,” the elf said, and then slipped inside immediately vanishing. The others seemed concerned, but Kethia and Tolani followed, and then Kaycian gave him a nudge and pushed him through. All he could remember is that it was cold. Not just cold like a winter day. No, it was a cold that crept into his body completely and seemed to saturate his spirit. It pulled at him too, like icy hands were trying to drag him down beneath water. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see, and there was just the feeling of someone pulling him along. The trip lasted forever, or perhaps a minute or two, he couldn’t decide which, and then they stepped out of another tree and he could hear the others gasping for breath.
The elf gave them directions to head out of the forest. Kethia thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, and he promised to do what he could for their friend. And then they were running again.
Kaycian’s mind drifted in his small cell. He had gone from one bleak situation to another, so close to finding his father he was sure of it, but he might as well be back at the beginning for what it seemed to matter. Had it really only been eleven days since they left the fort? He tried to count them again, going over the events of each day, second-guessing his decisions until he pounded on the cell door in anger.
After parting with Ralen, they had ran for hours until their muscles burned, and at last they all collapsed in a narrow gulch with the smallest of streams trickling through it. Kethia said it didn’t appear to be tainted, and the four of them drank their fill and lay on their backs, still trying to catch their breath. They had lost Trel, Colwyn and Tyr, and all of their supplies. They were caught between two enemy territories, less than a days hike from their objective, but with no real return plan. To make things worse, they were a week ahead of schedule, which would mean at least three weeks or more before there was any real chance of the Wind Sprite looking for them. What would a great leader do in this situation, he wondered?
They rested for half an hour and he realized that they were all looking to him to figure things out. They needed to find food and shelter, and he wanted to get as far away from the Blood Elf forest as possible before it became to dark to hike. They each drank as much water as they could hold, and then headed out at a slow jog.
It was getting almost too dark to see, even with their night vision, when Tolani spied what looked like a run down farm house. Leary of ruins, they approached slowly, weapons ready. The place appeared to have been abandoned for months, and inside they found a few tattered blankets, some pots, pans and other dishware. Kaycian found an old storm lantern with a broken glass hood, and in a coup there was just enough oil and matches to get it going. They rifled through the house, gathering what useful supplies that they could, before setting a watch and settling down to a nights rest.
Feeling much better with some rest and at least a few useful supplies, the day got better when they discovered a well with water in it. To top things off Kethia took to the air and spotted some wild pigs which Kaycian quickly tracked and killed, and before long they had a fire going and were roasting some meat. Tolani found some wild vegetables to go with it, and by late morning they left the farm house feeling a lot more hopeful. They soon came across overgrown dirt tracks, and used that as their guide, sticking to the grass and staying low. Hours passed, and the track began to look less and less overgrown when they came across the first corn field, another farm house in sight, this one clearly occupied. Wishing he had his scope, he asked Kethia to carefully survey the area. She returned shortly with news.
They needed information, and if possible allies, so Kaycian led the group slowly up to the farm house to meet with the humans there. They were spotted, and one of the farm hands shouted and they all came running. There were eight of them, Kaycian guessing an extended family. Two of the men had rifles, not unlike what the riders carried, and the two younger teens had pitchforks. The women and two younger daughters stayed in the back, also holding tools, all ready to fight for their land no doubt. They were a seasoned lot, accustomed to long days of hard work, but there was a beaten look to them too. “Greetings, I am Kaycian. We mean you no harm.”
They stayed the night with the Pursley’s. It didn’t take long for the family to warm up to the strangers, especially once they realized that they had no association with the Ulpir. Durick and Jayna made a pleasant couple once you got passed the grim demeanor and pitchforks, and by later that evening the kids were playing around the visitors from the sky, as Kaycian regaled them with stories of their travels (leaving out the darker parts of course). The three of them were offered plenty of food and hot baths, which the women were especially grateful for. Once the children were in bed, and the eldest son Dane and his wife Tora retired, the three of them were finally able to press their host for more specific details of the land and its rulers over several cups of wine that Durick produced for the occasion.
The ulpir had governed the people of Ulthar for hundreds of years, dating back to the early days of the Scourge. No one knows where they came from, but they brought with them powerful magic that could drive back the demon horde. For ten years the ulpir waged their war, securing more and more land until they had stretched their power as far as they could. They raised armies of the dog men, who became the eyes and ears of their ulpir masters, and soon they had divided the land into the present day regions. The humans that they had saved became their subjects, but this salvation came with a blood price.
Kaycian woke the next morning, a bit groggy but overall feeling refreshed from a good nights sleep in a soft bed. He could smell breakfast cooking, and made his way downstairs. Jayna was putting on a special breakfast for them, and even though it was already later than he had hoped to leave, they stayed and talked and got their fill. Their hosts implored them to stay another day and recover, but his suspicions didn’t go off in time. As they opened the door to leave, he realized all too late that they had been betrayed, as the house was surrounded by a small army of the dog men and half a dozen of their ulpir masters.
Squee woke early, and climbed out of the bale of hay that he had curled up in. Hungry again, he slipped in through a servants’ door, and wandered down the castle hall, deftly avoiding the staff bustling about, although most avoided him if they saw him first. It probably helped that he smelled of shit and sweat, his ragged clothes permanently stained with unpleasantness. It was perfect cover, as nobody wanted to even come near him long enough to question his activities, especially since they all had more important things to do. Never underestimate the guile of a goblin, he thought to himself, and chuckled.
While he appreciated the opportunity of an honest day’s work in exchange for his life, Sqiee missed the pleasant days back on the ship, stealing food, sneaking rum, and spying on the lovely Felf through the cracks in her cabin. He figured the only way to get back to those happy days was to find a way out of this place, and to that end he needed to find his Captain so that they could make their escape. He had spent the last day and a half getting the sewers flowing again, and had crawled through things that were even offensive to a goblin. With the final banquet preparations happening this morning, he hoped that he had at least an hour before Garp came looking for him, if at all.
The castle was huge, and he got turned around, inadvertently finding the kitchen. He tried to sneak in, but apparently his cover was too noticeable, and a white aproned cook threw a pot at him followed by some colorful swear words. A cook’s boy came around the corner pushing a tray of dirty plates, and he nicked a half-eaten chicken drum when the kid passed by, dodging a kick and running down the hall. He cut through a series of servant’s quarters, pausing only briefly to spy on a young girl getting dressed, her door open just enough for him to get an eyeful. Grinning happily, he then went down a flight of stairs and trailed some dog soldiers on patrol, finding what he believed could be the armory.
He spotted a gaggle of porters carrying crates filled with something sweet, and stalked them to the door to the main banquet hall. He peered in, where dozens of humans were arranging tables and chairs, clearly preparing for a feast. He could hear a familiar voice giving instructions for the porters and their crates, and then a moment later someone approached and came into the hall. He was about to duck behind a tapestry by the door, and then froze, dumbfounded, his voice caught in his throat for a long moment.
The tall, finely dressed elf stopped in his tracks, quite equally surprised, carefully studying the little goblin in disbelief.
“Master Tellivani?” Squee croaked.
Kaycian woke with a start, hearing someone trying the keys to the door outside. It must be time for some more questioning, he thought. It was his second night in the cell, and he was wondering what they planned to do with him. “Need help with those keys?” he yelled through the door. After a few more tries, the oaf found the right one and the door swung wide, the bright light in the hall making him wince. For a moment the change in light played a trick, and he’d swear it was his father. “Kaycian? Is that you?” “Father..?” “My son! By the Passions…it’s true!” Kaycian was nearly knocked off his feet as his father grabbed him in a fierce hug. “Oh my boy… How… why.. what are you doing here?” Kaycian hugged him back, overflowing with joy. “I came for you father! I’ve been searching all over for you. And we crashed… and I heard of another downed ship… we’ve come so far…” It all came out in a rush of emotion. “I’ve got to get you out of here son. The ulpir high lord will be here today, and the master of this castle is bound to send you and the others as gifts.”
“That’s why I came here, to rescue you. Do you know of a way to sneak out of this place?” His father shook his head sadly. “I can’t leave. I can try to cover for you, maybe create a distraction” “What are you talking about? You can’t stay here. These creatures are.. are..,” he was at a loss for words, finally seeing his father was dressed in fine clothes and didn’t look like a prisoner. “There’s so much to explain. After the crash, I and the few other survivors were captured. The lord of this castle spared my life because I am an elf, and that is more than a novelty here. He questioned us for days, and determined that I was useful. He made me his thrall, but soon realized I was smart and a good leader, and now I am his personal steward. I’ve told him so much Kaycian… so much. But my will is his own to do with as he wishes.” Kaycian’s mouth went dry as he absorbed what his father was saying. “We can still escape father. Kethia, one of my companions, is a powerful priestess of Gwynne. I’m sure she can break this spell. We just have to find her. And Tolani. Tolani is here.” His father moaned. “Oh Kaycian… you don’t understand. I can’t fight his commands. I only have free will because I have demonstrated a certain degree of loyalty. He wants me to build him a sky ship, but we don’t have enough Xenium yet. There is a small sailboat though that you and a few others could use. My lord plans for me to demonstrate it today when his liege arrives.” “Enough father… we’ll figure it out. How did you find me here though?” “Squee, my lucky goblin,” he chuckled. “We met in the halls; I only just got back this morning from fetching some special foods for the feast. I didn’t risk bringing him down here… he’s quite odious.” Kaycian nodded in agreement. “I have a plan Kaycian. It’s important that your initial escape isn’t linked to me, or I won’t be of any help. Squee is fetching your weapons now.” He looked thoughtful. “Tolani and this priestess are in the lords meeting hall. There shouldn’t be many guards, as there is no session this morning. Once the high lord arrives it will be too late for any of you. I will go and make as if to prepare the sailboat for the demonstration. It’s up to you to get the others and meet me in front of the castle.” “How will I pass through the halls… aren’t there guards everywhere?” “I brought you some of my clothes. Pull your hair back like mine. We look enough alike, if you walk like you own the place, the servants won’t even meet your gaze. Act like you belong here.” “Brilliant father… I’ll meet you. Be ready to go.” “One more thing son. The ulpir are supernatural in nature. Normal weapons are useless against them. I can’t explain now, but take this. It’s the only one I have.” Kaycian took the lon