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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Of Orbs and Ooze

Boucher’s knowledge of underground environments served the group well.  The cave entrance through the storage area was completely blocked.  It would take several days to clear the rubble, and they couldn’t be sure anyone was left on the other side, at the academy, to help.  Boucher soon found the small shaft that the goblins were using to escape the dark ones.  The promise of fresh air and the tiny trickle of sunlight beckoned to them from just inside small opening.  It would take only a few hours work to widen the crack enough so that Murook, being the biggest of them all, could fit through.  Mandlebrot, on the other hand, being just a bit smaller than the average goblin, could fit through easily.  He decided to scout the passage beyond, being of little use when it came to manual labor.  Inside, he found the remains of a long dead adventurer.  Little more than bones with tattered remains of clothes and a back pack of dried and brittle leather.  Mandlebrot sifted through the remains as the others kept to their work.  Inside he found a pair of leather pouches perfectly preserved as if they were no more than a few seasons old.  He also found a gilded scroll case that contained a curious map.  Mandlebrot showed his finds to his companions when they finally squeezed through the now widened crack.  The companions studied the map for a short time in the dim light of the cave, but soon decided to make their way out and have a better look at it in the light.

They soon made their way to a large cavern with many columns of limestone that connected floor to ceiling.  The columns were all covered in a sickly, viscous liquid that seemed to defy gravity as it flowed up, around and down the columns.  Ooze!  Not long after the realization hit them, four of the slimy creatures manifest themselves and began to close in.  Ochre jellies!  Little more than puddles of sentient muck driven to devour any living thing that wanders near.  The battle is joined when Murook charges forward and is soon struck in the chest by one of the ooze.  Its acidic slam to his chest causing his armor to smoke and sizzle.  Boucher and Murook hack at the ooze wildly, while Mandlebrot, fishes around in his pack for some vials of stomach acid that he’d expertly harvested from the drake corpses.  Aelar rushes in to help bolster Murook, while Archellios hangs back and looks for an opening to strike at the foes with his magic.  The battle soon turns against the companions as the blows start to hit home and the acid in the oozes attacks starts to contact the skin and burn.  Doing no visible sign of damage to the vile, flowing forms save for the occasional unearthly wail, Murook gasps when the ooze before him divides and becomes two separate, slithering lumps of goo bent on devouring him.  A quick glance around confirms his newfound fears.  At least one of the other disgusting piles has divided as well, each new form smaller in size than the original, though still pressing their attack.  Where once there were four, now there are eight!

A feeling of desperation starts to overtake them, but it vanishes quickly as Boucher slams his mace into one of the new smaller oozes and the thing splatters in every direction rejoining the ooze that already covers the walls and columns inside the cavern.  The five soon realize that they had been much more effective with their attacks than they first thought.  Hacking into the filthy creatures was hurting them, and causing them to divide.  Once divided they were more easily dispatched.  The acid in the ochre jellies’ attacks still bit deep into exposed flesh however, and begins to devour armor and weapons alike.  When the last few small oozes are dispatched, the five pause to collect themselves, but the ooze covering the walls and columns inside this cavern starts to jump and flow more urgently.  It is decided, rather quickly, that the best thing to do is exit this cavern and rest outside.

A short, but rather narrow, crack leads to the sunlit surface and out of danger.  Mandelbrot, being one of the wee-folk, as gnomes are typically referred to, has no trouble walking through the crack only occasionally bumping his enormous back pack against the sides.  Aelar and Archellios, being of lithe and graceful elven stock, Aelar of the moon elves and Archellios of the dark elves, walk through without so much as a scrape of either side of the narrow passage.  Their forms seem to flow and bend with the shape of the stone corridor as if they were simply water in a stream, bending around and rolling over rocks as they flow.  Murook, however, has a more difficult time of it.  Even turning sideways to squeeze through the narrowest sections, he still very nearly gets stuck at a few places.  The half orc is thick in the torso, and broad in the shoulders, and sucking in, or letting loose the breath from his large lungs allows his barrel chest to conform enough to allow him passage, albeit with a few rough scrapes here and there.  Boucher takes a typical dwarven approach.  Walking up to the crevice, mace in hand, he studies the narrow opening for a few moments.  Then, he proceeds to bash, and beat, and chip his way out.  On the outside of the cave the other four hear the commotion and fear the ooze has returned, but only for a moment as it soon becomes clear what is about to exit the cave.  Soon the four companions standing just outside the crevice are pelted with dwarven curses, as well as, small shards of rock and various other debris.  A dust cloud forms inside the crevice, and just a moment later Boucher emerges spitting out grit and dust along with the various curses his lineage demands when reshaping particularly stubborn stone.

After the dust settles, and the others can see the now widened passage, Murook heaves a great sigh and asks, “you couldn’t have gone before me perhaps?  It would’ve made my passage a lot easier  you know.”

To which Boucher could only reply, “how’s I supposed to know that none of you would be thinking to make the stone do your bidding?  If the stone be in your way, move it!”  As soon as those last few words escape his mouth, Boucher thought that he’d just recalled some sort of ancient dwarven proverb, but he could not be sure.  He silently reminds himself to write it down, just in case.

Now outside in the wilds, high up in the passes of the Thunder Peak mountains, the five companions pause to wipe the last remaining sticky residue from their weapons and armor.  As they begin the process they notice that the foul smelling substance doesn’t do well in the light of the sun, and quickly dries to a hardened, brittle layer that starts to crack only moments later.  They soon discover it’s only a matter of waiting a few moments, then brushing away the flakey mess.

Finally rested and out of those caves their thoughts immediately turn back to the events of the past day.  The Dalelands Defense Academy, housed in that ancient citadel perched high atop the northernmost ridge of the Thunder Peaks, had been their home for the last few years.  Those  years had been the most formative of their young lives.  Many lessons were learned, and many trials passed.  The same questions gnaw at the insides of every one of the five companions.  How to answer those questions immediately becomes clear to all.  They must make all haste back to the keep.  They dare not delay, for they know enemies must still be at large.  They cannot hope that all of the invaders had been destroyed the previous day.  In fact, the recollection of that cursed day did not fill their hearts with hope.  The last thing any of them saw was the battle against the enormous blue dragon.  The founder, a wizard named Thaelioth, and her gold dragon mount, struggled mightily against the powerful foe.  Mandlebrot and Aelar stared out of the entrance to the caves at the last few moments of that terrible fight. They saw the gold dragon fall, severely wounded, and the founder dismounting to continue the barrage against the evil, blue wyrm.  Although the enormous, lightning spewing blue dragon had many wounds of her own, she seemed to stand defiantly against the powerful magics Thaelioth leveled against her.  They had to return as quickly as possible.

Gathering themselves quickly, they started down the ridge line on the small, goblin worn foot path that led out of the caves.  They soon notice some smoke rising some distance down the ridge.  The smoke from a sizable campfire, Aelar surmised.  The five companions approached cautiously not knowing what new dangers awaited them.  As they round a bend in the rocky, narrow foot path, they see the fire.  Sitting beside the fire is a lovely, young woman, with hair as blue as the midday sky and eyes pale and cold as the wind in the mountain passes.  She does not look up as they approach, either not sensing their presence, or not caring.  Mandlebrot is the first to move closer.

Without looking up from the fire, the blue haired maiden states, rather flatly, “welcome gnome.  And, to the rest of your group.  Please come, sit and share my fire if you wish.”  She finally looks up from the fire to meet Mandlebrot’s wary gaze.  “I have only the fire to offer, alas I have already eaten and have no more food prepared.”  The maiden says with a slight chuckle in her voice, Murook notices.

The group gathers uneasily around the fire, making sure to double check their surroundings.  As they draw nearer, they notice that the woman is injured.  A large bandage is wrapped around her right shoulder and up under her left arm covering most of her left side.  In addition to that, she has obvious scratch marks and even a few minor skin burns on her lower neck and hands.  Her tunic and leathers might conceal more injuries. There is something not quite right about this woman.  The first of the group to notice is Archellios, with his keen dark elf senses that seem to grant him the upper hand in most any conversation.  He starts to question the woman about being out here all alone in the mountains, and about how she might have become injured.  The woman tosses her blue locks away from her eyes as she looks hard at the dark elf, but Archellios, being much too practiced in the ways of subtle negotiation and banter, doesn’t back down from his questioning.  He senses the truth already.

Aelar, with his special attunement to the wilderness, becomes increasingly uneasy.  He finally realizes that it is not just the strange woman and her perfect campfire that is out of place here, it’s the silence.  There is no birdsong, no insect noise, not even the chattering of squirrels can be heard in this forested mountain pass that should be nearly deafening with the sound of the woodland creatures going about their daily routines.  Aelar silently curses himself for not noticing this before.  Something is definitely not right here.  It is only moments later that his suspicions are proven correct.

Learning about the ways of the many malevolent creatures of the land is one of the most popular classes given at the Dalelands Defense Academy.  For instance, the class on dragons teaches that many of the beasts can take humanoid form, and that this form always manifests the color of the beast in some way, whether it be in the eyes, or a strange tint to the skin, or an odd hue to the color of the hair.

The woman springs up from her seat by the fire and instantly vanishes.  Mandlebrot winds up a clockwork scorpion and sets it loose on the ground.  Murook and Boucher draw their weapons and Archellios, being not the least bit surprised, readies a spell.  Only Aelar is caught unprepared, as he was still silently berating himself for not noticing the tell tale warnings the forest was giving him earlier.  The five companions ready themselves for battle.  If their suspicions about this woman prove true, they each know this fight will be their last.  But minutes pass with not a sight or sound of the blue beast become maiden.  Each of them take a turn scanning their surroundings and the sky fearing the inevitable attack that could come from anywhere.  The next moment, the clockwork scorpion stops moving.  Its tremor sense, perfectly attuned to sense even the smallest vibrations in the ground, detects movement nearby.  The next few seconds seem like hours to the group as they wait at the ready for a battle they will not win.  The little scorpion turns slowly, following the tremors that its sense has locked onto.  Mandlebrot, the only one receiving the mental messages from the scorpion, tries to signal the others without alerting the invisible stalker.

Boucher was too busy scanning the skies to notice Mandlebrot’s odd gestures.  When the blue haired maiden reappeared behind him, he could only freeze and wait for the killing stroke that was certain to follow.  At least it would be a quick death, and he wouldn’t see it coming, Mandlebrot thought to himself.  But, instead of a killing stroke, the woman leaned in to whisper something in Boucher‘s ear.  Then, grinning wickedly, she disappeared again.  Many more minutes passed, and the little scorpion sat motionless.  Eventually, the group relaxed and Boucher finally calmed enough to recite the message whispered to him by the strange maiden that everyone now knew was in fact the human form of the ancient blue dragon that attacked the academy.

“Watch your back.  Thaelioth lies!”  Boucher said.  Reciting the whispered message exactly as he’d heard it.  Just saying it aloud sent shivers running through every bone in the dwarfs short, sturdy frame, nearly causing him to shake visibly.  “What does all that mean?”  Boucher huffed, giving voice to the question that hit them all at nearly the same instant.

The group decided that it was better not to discuss the matter right here, right now.  Instead they began moving down the path at a rate not considered safe by any standards of travel.  A brisk pace was set by Aelar and Murook.  Brisk to everyone except Mandelbrot.  The gnome galloped along at a full run and did not complain once, even when his pack straps started chaffing his shoulders.  Aelar soon slowed their movement after some distance had been put between them and the clearing.  Still, the gnome had to jog some of the time to keep up, but again without complaint.

“Running for your life has a way of focusing the mind and the body.”  Mandlebrot thought aloud as he noticed the apparent lack of fatigue in them all.  For it was not fatigue that had slowed their pace, it was the questions they all had about their encounter with the blue haired woman.  “And, before you ask, I have no idea why we’re still alive.”  The gnome said as he gasped a few breaths still jogging to keep up.

“Yes, I was about to ask that very thing!”  Archellios quipped.  “Why did she not finish us then and there?”  He continued.

“She was injured, perhaps too injured to risk a fight with us?”  Murook stated as much as asked.  “Maybe the founder did more damage to her than we know.  We did not witness the end of the struggle.”  Murook said as he reached down to offer Mandlebrot a ride on his back, which the gnome graciously accepted being almost completely exhausted.

Aelar added his thoughts, “yet her appearance at the fire suggests she did not lose the battle… perhaps she won, and our founder is dead.”  As soon as the words came out Aelar regretted saying them.  Not because the others might not want to hear it, but because he did not want to think about what that statement could mean for them all.

The conversation and speculation went on for nearly an hour.  The entire time Boucher kept silent.  His thoughts were focused on what the blue dragon had whispered to him.  Why did she whisper?  Were those words meant only for him?  What lies?  Lies about him or lies told to him, he could not begin to answer so many questions at once.  His head started to pound.  Whether from the constant jogging along the rocky path down out of the mountains, or from all the questions stirring in his mind, he could not say.  One thing that stuck in his mind and would not fade from his thoughts for an instant was the fact that she chose to speak to him.  Was it a random choice?  Or was this blue demon playing some sort of sick game with them all.  Was she to swoop down and burn them to cinders with her lightning breath today, tonight, tomorrow or the next morning?  Boucher mentally slapped himself to push these cowardly thoughts from his mind.  He was a dwarf.  Stout and strong.  He would meet whatever was to come with courage.  That was the way of all dwarves.

The shadows grow long when the five companions finally make it down to the trade road between Arabel and Highmoon.  A little luck and Aelar’s sense of direction put them on the road only a few hours walk from the keep.  If they kept their brisk pace, they could make the keep just before nightfall.  Passing a ransacked trade caravan only gave the group a short pause to check the bodies, that lay strewn about the broken wagons, for any sign of life.  Finding none they could help, they quickly moved on not wanting to get caught by any bandits that might still be lurking around.  They could not afford the delay.

They stood before the bridge over the small gorge that led to the courtyard of the keep that was home to the Dalelands Defense Academy.  Heaving and panting to catch their breath from the long run they had undertaken, the companions looked upon the destroyed keep with heavy hearts.  Slowly they started across the bridge toward the massive wooden doors that led to the inner courtyard.  Only one tower still stood among the rubble inside the keeps massive walls.  The same tower that held the archives.  The tower that no student was allowed to access.  ‘Keep the orb safe’ Thaelioth, the founder, had said to them just before the cave collapsed.  Was this orb locked inside the remaining tower?

The five companions all started toward the tower in a dead run.  They did not care, or they did not stop to think if any enemies were still lurking around the ruins of the keep, they just ran knowing instinctively that the answers were at the top of that tower.  Up the stairs they bolted until they came to an expertly crafted stone door that had a strange dial mechanism embedded in its center.  It had the entire elven alphabet arranged around it like some sort of combination lock.  Mandlebrot, having learned to read and write the elvish tongue quite well, stepped up to try the lock.  He turned the lock to spell out certain words and eventually spelled out the word ‘guardian.’  A feeling washed over him that it wasn’t so much the word he spelled out, but his physical touch that really opened the door.  Had Thaelioth somehow done something to him?  Had she somehow given him the power he needed to open this door just before the cave in separated them?  He felt at that moment that he might never truly know the answer but also realized that he didn’t care.  It also occurred to him that he could sense that this door hadn’t been opened by anyone in a very long time.

Through the door they went into a small room lined with bookshelves and containing a small round table.  The shelves were filled with books on history, the planes, magical rituals and alchemical formulas of every description.  As soon as they finished looking around the room, the shelves began to sink into the walls and disappear.  The small table started to lower, and likewise, disappeared into the floor.  Only Boucher’s dwarven senses felt the movement of the room.  He informed the others that they should wait a bit for the room to stop, thinking then they’d find out what was waiting for them.  The room did finally stop.  A door appeared to grow from the middle of one wall, and once it was fully formed, it opened into a room with no floors, no ceiling, and no walls save for a swirling crimson mist that seemed to be quite close, yet very far away at the same time.  Just inside this room, for it was clearly a room even though none of them could fathom how they knew that, was a dais with a golden dragon claw clutching a grapefruit sized black sphere.

Murook took the sphere and the clawed, golden hand retracted into the dais.  Mandlebrot was quick to examine the curious object which certainly had the qualities of an orb.  As he performed some basic tests on the object a voice spoke.

“Hello.  I am called Traveler.  Where do you wish to go master?”  The voice said.

Mandlebrot could only think of one place he wished to go.  Home.  With a nearly silent pop, Mandlebrot, and the orb that he held, disappeared.

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