Storms over Kelerak, Part III - Page 4 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part III

   
I love learning more about the characters. And this makes sense for how a half-elf would come from Orland.

It's also a correction for how I originally thought the ranarim were located in Zeland, and hence calling Aidan "of Zel". Turns out, they're not in Zeland, so he calls himself that because that's where his mother originated (along with his offensively red hair, as the running gag goes) and where he went in search of paladin training.

Nice! No wonder finding him from Orland was satisfying to me. Haha Will we have an installment for March?

Excellent!

For all that they were absolutely going to adhere to every aspect of their plan, right up until doing so was obviously not to be helpful, there remained one overwhelmingly urgent question that simply could not wait until they were all out of Carn Marrot and in some relatively safer area - and so long as Brokk asked it, any remote observation of them would not necessarily be able to pierce their disguises.

"Do I just hear you make a happy noise when you saw that kobold?" Brokk demanded incredulously of Embla, and she nodded her head, smiling broadly. "Why would...what were...how is that...just why?"

Her answer was a simple and guileless: "Is much cute."

Isolde clapped both hands to her head, a pained whine struggling out from gritted teeth, and Aidan nearly tripped over his own feet in confusion. Of all the words they had ever used, or heard used, to describe kobolds, 'cute' had never been one of them. The little reptilians, even at their tallest being smaller than the average halfling, were typically considered lower than even goblins or the snog slave-caste of orcs among the dark folk, and treated as little better than pests by their own ostensible allies.

There were certainly more questions raised by Embla`s answer, but now was not the time for them. The group were on a very strict time limit here, and in the far distance they could just hear the sound of the keep`s forces restoring order to the garrison. Without further ado, they pressed on through the open doors at the far end of the foyer - Isolde leading the way and pointing out the discharged magical trap that had been placed upon the doors, deducing its existence by the horrified facial expression of the unmarked corpse lying across the threshold - and into the great hall beyond.

Here, they stopped and stared about in confusion. The great hall was the aftermath of a bloody battle, gore-splattered corpses strewn about in piles, most of them kobolds, outnumbering the orcs by about seven to one. At one end, a magnificent tapestry blazed with fires that did not actually consume its fabric, and a similarly impressive mirror stood at the other, gilded in silver and gold, and its surface streaked with dark blood.

"If we weren`t in such a hurry..." Isolde murmured, eyeing it almost lustfully.

Now that they were actually inside Carn Marrot, the four friends could hear newer, closer sounds of battle, seemingly located somewhere underfoot, in some unknown lower reach of the keep. Disregarding that for the moment, Isolde knelt by one of the piles, carefully examining the bodies. With even greater care, she plucked a tiny dart, no longer than her little finger, from the nape of a heavyset orc. The congealed substance on its tip was not blood.

She frowned, as much in wonder as in confusion: "The kobolds are rebelling..."

*****

In the maze of tunnels below the keep, known as the Undercarn, the vast majority of the lich's forces were coming dangerously close to tearing themselves apart. Only the constant bellowed commands of their oluk captains kept the wrathful army from turning on itself in paranoia. Every so often, there were squeals and screams as the treacherous kobolds struck out from their own minute tunnel system, many dying before they could flee back into it, but always leaving behind dead or crippled - and formerly invaluable - soldiers, oftentimes even one of the officers or veterans.

If it had been any other faction that had rebelled, the fight would already have been over. Unfortunately, the very thing that had made the kobolds be overlooked as a threat for so long - being the smallest and weakest of the troops - had meant that nobody actually knew which of the regular tunnels were lined by those of the kobolds. Any one of them might have dozens or even hundreds of murder holes along its length, through which the kobolds could blow darts and loose bolts, and disappear into their unmapped and, to the larger soldiers, unnavigable maze before anyone could break through the walls.

From his own murder hole, Bukki took careful aim, puffed up his cheeks, and blew out the dart. Its sharp tip barely pricked the thick skin of its target, a mage-warped ogre with an extra pair of claw-tipped arms, but this was enough to deliver its poison into the bloodstream. The monstrous ogre did not even notice the attack. Instead, its attention shifted to an oluk that had a very irritating face. There was a strange heat coursing through its veins as it glared at the unsuspecting oluk, fuelling its rage.

Thirty seconds after the dart had struck it, the ogre snarled viciously, and turned on the oluk, ripping at it in a maddened rage. The rest of the brigade ignored the shrieks of their luckless companion, knowing it was too late for him, and turned their blades on the deranged ogre itself. Once it too had been felled, their captain drove them onward without a second glance at the shredded corpses.

Bukki wished that his people had been able to stockpile more of this toxin. It was far too difficult to procure except by theft, and taking too much at one time would only have brought suspicion down on them. Fewer than fifty darts could be treated with it in total. Once those had been used up, the kobolds had needed to rely on more regular skirmish tactics to harass the soldiers.

So far this was proving to be a bloodier engagement than he had hoped for, but it would all be worth it if the strange quartet he had spied on earlier completed their task. He was not sure quite what that task was. He also did not care, and neither did the rest of the kobolds after he had told them what he had heard.

Bukki was aware that the rest of the world, to an extent quite correctly, regarded kobolds as stupid or unimaginative creatures. Things that mattered though, that really mattered, were preserved in their memories and passed down through the generations. Bukki's tribe owed a debt that could not be easily repaid, and the adventurers trying their luck in Carn Marrot were agents of the one to whom that debt was owed.

Nearly two-thirds of the tribe could be sacrificed in this battle, and still have numbers enough to recover. The mated females had already escaped with the tribe's eggs to safety. Even if every single one of the kobolds left behind died, it would not matter. The tribe would endure. The tribe would remember. And in time, the tribe would heal.

*****

Breathing a sigh of relief, Embla pulled herself free of the straps and setting down the platform she had borne thus far. It had indeed been an honour to use her strength in service to Brokk, whom she would have respected the most of all her companions even if he had not been a master of the Clever Craft; but it had also been very uncomfortable and would have made it difficult to fight effectively.

She still needed to play the part of dumb muscle, but whilst they were within Carn Marrot, there was simply not enough room for Brokk to be carried on her back. He could walk now, making good use of his own wizardly robes to convey a sense of power and importance. She and Aidan would be at his side, as befitted such a mage`s most loyal servitors, whilst Isolde stayed a few feet ahead to act as his mouthpiece - or, in actuality, to be a scout and trap-finder.

Based on what little information they had been able to glean about Carn Marrot, they would now need to reach the upper levels, where the lich kept his study and more valuable prisoners, and avoid the numerous undead horrors that had been bound to his service over the years, otherwise they risked becoming overwhelmed.

The first of these goals was going remarkably well, for Isolde had almost immediately located a stairway leading upwards, and between her experience and one of Brokk`s divinations, the apparent absence of any active trap placed upon it meant that the group had no better alternative than to use it. As for the second goal, the kobold rebellion seemed to have done its bit to help them here as well, luring away most things that might otherwise have stood in their way.

The moment they stepped through the door at the top, they were assailed by a coldness that was utterly alien to the mortal world, crashing against their souls in waves, trying to leech them of any will to survive. Though otherwise utterly bare, the stone hall in which they now found themselves did have one feature that was impossible to miss, and was clearly the source of the horrible ambience.

In the centre of the southern wall was a large ovular portal, just big enough to admit Embla, ringed with brass plates that crawled with powerful warding inscriptions. A blackness wholly unnatural and inimical to life was on the other side, a blackness that was all the more terrible for its utter stillness and silence, a blackness that had nothing to do with reality as any of them understood it.

Above this portal, fixed to the wall with iron spikes through his limbs, mounted like the trophy he was, was a husk of a man that twitched and writhed in interminable agony. Briefly, his eyes opened to stare wildly about, seeing nothing behind the haze of torture, then closed again. Here, for the last seven hundred years, had hung Harald Thodricsson, last of the great barons of Kelerak, exposed to the void.

As the others gazed upon this dreadful sight, each coming to terms with its enormity in their own way, Embla instead turned her eyes to the portal. Her scars began to ache, as if still fresh. She knew that if she looked, they would be flaring up brightly as the blood rushed past the old wounds. This would normally only happen when her heart was beating especially quickly, but right now it was calm.

Her eyes looked beyond the mortal world, into the next, where a self-proclaimed god of death held grim court. Somewhere behind her ears, not quite so deep as her mind, she fancied she could hear the echo of her heartbeat, in perfect and impossible synchronicity to her own.

Embla knew then what this portal was, and knew that this understanding was limited to her. Given time, Brokk could determine its nature in other ways, no doubt, given his intelligence and learning. At this precise moment, however, she was one of only a very few who could see it for what it was. The intimate understanding of death, of finality, was perhaps the most important lesson taught to Aslaug...

*****

NINTH INTERLUDE

Few were able to befriend a Risarvinni, even if they were sincere in their efforts. It came almost naturally to a nemedene, however, and neither race thought that strange. Both were of similar sizes and strengths, with similar outlooks and tendencies; and more importantly, both were generally seen as unnaturally strange by many of their neighbours.

Nemedenes were victims of this prejudice on account of their physicality. Most people were understandably nervous around a creature that looked like it should be some kind of stone golem, but was actually flesh and blood; and made almost entirely of muscle and sinew. Many found the long tendrils that trailed down from a nemedene`s hairless scalp to be especially unsettling, for all that they were only used to store fat.

Risarvinnae, conversely, looked almost like oversized humans, but with them it was their mentality that proved to be more unnerving. Even their children had minds that were sealed into place with near-fanatical certainties, casually dismissing the truths of the world in favor of their people`s bizarre teachings without a second thought, and so eager to act in the manner of the adults that they were known to trail hunters or work in the mines of their own accord.

But between each other, in these highest places of the world where the sun scorched and the nightwind chilled with equal ferocity, there was a harmony and cooperation seen in few other places. Nemedenes who in ages past would have been left to die alone, unable to keep up with the rest of the clan, could today live out the rest of their lives with a Risarvinni tribe as a valued teacher or child-minder, treated with the same respect and courtesy as if they had been born to the tribe.

So it was on this day, when the venerable Kaal Most-Ancient at last succumbed to his old age, that the children in his care did not scream and run from the towering dire bear that had proven the swifter and hurled him aside, but instead crowded around his broken body to try and lift him to safety.

And one of them, a little girl barely seven years old, stood apart from the rest, glowering at the beast that had hurt her favourite teacher. She held a big stick that might have been meant as a spear in her games. The dire bear was five times her size, twelve times her weight, and protected by fur and hide thick enough to deflect a real spear. Even so, she felt no fear for herself, only for her friends and teacher.

She knew her duty. It had been recited to her daily since her birth, alongside rules and judgements that had stood the test of time, from every tribe across the Greatwall Mountains that were their home. The unbreakable Risarvinni conviction that was her birthright gave her strength now. Protect the tribe, was her commandment, and she would obey.

*****

The dire bear was on all fours now, lumbering forward slowly. It had been hungry enough to attack in the first place, and now could smell blood. It had no real interest in the small creatures that crowded about its intended meal, for they had so little meat on their bones that there was no real point to eating them. Maybe if winter was on its way, but it was high summer now, and the dire bear had no need to fatten up for hibernation.

As with many bears, its vision was not the best, and it relied on smell far more than even hearing. It could smell fear welling up from the blurred shapes in front of it. One small shape lacked this smell, however, and it was actually approaching the dire bear. The dire bear hardly noticed, and cared still less. There was nothing in these mountains that could harm it except for another dire bear, or the great beasts that did nothing but graze and were thus no threat to it.

Furiously, the girl began to beat at the immense creature with her stick, jabbing and striking with crude techniques that showed some training in spear-fighting. With a snort, the dire bear pushed past her, still far more interested in the broken, bloody nemedene that had smelled the slowest and weakest of its potential prey. The girl leapt in closer, now trying to stab out the beast`s eyes, blocking the bear`s path entirely.

The stick broke in her hands. It was, after all, just a stick. The bear did not care about this, however, and lowered its great head to seize this offending insect. Its jaws closed around the girl`s arm, piercing the flesh and shattering the bone without even feeling it. Then, much like a dog with a rat, it began to shake its catch from side to side.

Death hovered at the edge of her consciousness. It waited, patient, inexorable, a presence more keenly felt than even the pain surging through her body, searing her nerves and shaking her bones from each other. There could be no escape from this trap. Still, had she not done her duty? Had she not done her utmost to protect the tribe? She thought she had. She could die peacefully knowing this.

Limply, her life draining from her slowly, she hung in the dire bear`s mouth. Her eyes looked beyond the mortal world into the next, where a self-proclaimed god of death held grim court. Somewhere behind her ears, not quite so deep as her mind, she fancied she could hear the echo of her heartbeat, in perfect and impossible synchronicity to her own.

It was enough to remind her that she yet lived. She could be forgiven for not fighting only after she had died. With the last of her strength, she twisted in the beast`s mouth, and opened her own. Her child`s teeth closed on the sensitive muzzle, many breaking loose. The dire bear scarcely noticed the bite, but nevertheless dropped its prey in surprise. Seconds later, panting heavily, blood pouring from its mouth, it too sank to the ground.

*****

Tharym Aslaug completed her incantation, and nodded in satisfaction as her magic finished knitting the broken nemedene together. He would be more watchful the next time he took the children exploring beyond the tribe`s boundaries. Still, his decision to do so had been encouraged in the hope of this exact outcome.

She stood, her duty here fulfilled, and motioned to the children. They laughed happily and once more crowded around Kaal Most-Ancient, delighted to see him still alive. He and they were no longer Tharym`s concern. That was now the girl who had done her duty, who had risked her life to protect her tribe against an enemy that she had no hope of defeating, and who had nearly paid for this valour with her life.

The Aslaug that had felled the dire bear, their mighty barbed spears still piercing its lungs and heart, were with her now. They were not congratulating her exactly, at least not in the way that most cultures understood it. Perhaps an oluk commander might have seen similarities, or a monastic hermit with his apprentices. Either way, by the time they done, the girl would have started to learn how not to repeat the mistakes she made against her opponent.

Eventually Tharym approached the group, seating herself just slightly apart until the instruction was complete. All but one of her fellow Aslaug now took their leave, retrieving their weapons and heading back to their own regions, for there were always more trials to be overseen and more judgements to be passed across the tribes.

Now it was the turn of the girl to speak, to thank Tharym for healing her wounds, replenishing her body, saving her life at the very last moment, and for letting her bring back the lesson she had been taught. That even death was an acceptable price to pay for ensuring the safety of the tribe was a lesson that a dead person could learn, but could not thence apply.

Tharym acknowledged this graciously and dismissed the girl, who had proven herself worthy of salvation as a potential future Aslaug. If she had not, then death would have been allowed to claim her. Some years were especially bad for this, and far too many had to die for failing in this trial. It always hurt the Aslaug who saw this, lying in wait, ready to strike and slay whatever threat they had allowed to come so close, but enduring that was a part of their struggle too.

Tharym watched the girl skip happily over to her friends, showing off her new scars with pride, then glanced over at the remaining Aslaug, the most senior and respected of them. "So what do you think?"

"A few more like her, and we might even see her generation topple the Pretender. Can you see it, Tharym? In your mind`s eye. The wailing of the false as their so-called One God is torn asunder, reduced to naught. The feel on our skins of the same fires that consume their cities, boiling their blood before we even spill it. Death unleashed upon the unbelieving world. The Jailor Grlaarshh called forth and trampled beneath us. And after that, our time will truly come."

"Some days, sister-wife, you scare even me," Tharym commented lightly. "And yet have I not also heard our husband`s beating heart across the divide of worlds?"

To this, Embla Aslaug just smiled the frightening Risarvinni smile.

The story just gets richer and richer. This installment also meant more to me after re-editing the “Realms Under Shadow” manuscript.

Thanks. I thought it might, but of course the tricky bit is to write the story coherently without needing the reader to have done "homework" and read any other material to understand what is going on. I think I'm managing it adequately.

No, you're definitely managing it well. Extra knowledge just adds to it. I also like how you used details from the adventure in the story.

Yeah, I spent about a day doing nothing but looking through the plan of Carn Marrot to determine how, where, what etc etc. Originally I had the group go through the courtyard, until I realised that a certain pair of guardians there might be too difficult for them to overcome in time to avoid notice by the lich or anything else in the vicinity.

I think that the adventure itself, broadly speaking, could be said to take place shortly after this series of events. After Afej has had time to reevaluate some of his defences, reestablish order among his forces, and so on, having spotted some of the weaknesses shown up by our heroes and the mysteriously-rebelling kobolds.







 

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