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|Heart of the Hound|
|1.||Heart of the Hound|
|The Tavern of Lost Souls|
|2.||The Tavern of Lost Souls|
|Escape from Guk|
|The Flight of the Mudskipper|
|The Worst Cook in Grobb|
|A Storm of Sorrow|
|Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies|
|On the Plains of Karana|
|By the Wings of Dragons|
By the Wings of Dragons – Part I
From the pen of Eylee Zephyrswell --
The last of all our destinations – save the bastion of the invasion, the first location we failed to save, Innothule Swamp – would be the continent of Kunark. The iksar might have once been powerful, if not entirely trustworthy, allies, but they had been reduced to small villages of savage jungle dwellers. Even so, we tried to approach them, but our efforts were met with spearheads in response. We learned to travel by night, as silently as possible, heading as directly as we could to where we found the rifts. Though we were refused entry to Chardok, an envoy of the sarnak heard our story and said the sarnak would not be letting any invaders into their lands. Any found would be killed. It was made clear we were not much more welcome than the Void invaders, and though we would be able to keep our lives as reward for the warning, we had best be on our way. We found ourselves able to close some of the portals, but others were too much for us, and we ran for our lives desperately.
It was then that we were approached by a representative of the dragons themselves, and led to the highest spires of Veeshan's Peak to stand before the Ring of Scale.
For too many nights now to count, her dreams had been edged with cascades of peacock feathers, and the face of a woman, both beautiful and terrible, lingered behind everything that she saw. Tonight the woman pursued her down a corridor of darkness. Eylee was aware that if she paused at any moment, she would be swallowed. She knew that she was dreaming. This was certainly not where she had gone to sleep, curled up against Nurgg's back beneath an overhang of shale, and more than that, it made no sense for her to be in this undefinable space, but despite all of that, she couldn't make herself wake up. She beat against consciousness like the walls of a prison, but to no avail, she couldn't leave the dream. All of a sudden, her path ended as she collided with a wall. Turning, she pressed back up against it as a tide of feathers enveloped her. She screamed as they surrounded her, and as she did, feathers flooded into her mouth. She choked for air, clawing against the barrier between sleep and wake. Finally, when she thought she was going to black out, her eyes flew open, early morning sunlight flooding her senses.
Eylee awoke suddenly, gasping for breath but not able to take anything in. She tried to struggle, sliding around on the flakes of shale, realizing she was being held to the ground, a hand held over her mouth. No wonder she had felt as if she had been suffocating. Nurgg stared down at her, expression heavy with concern. The ogre had her locked to the earth, and over one of his shoulders, Kaltuk looked on, eyebrows stitched together. He released his hold over her mouth and she breathed in a long, sharp breath.
“What... I mean...” she struggled to formulate a thought, but her head was splitting with pain. It had been happening this way as long as the woman had been invading her dreams. Every night, they were more intense and, every morning, so was the pain.
“Shhhh,” said Nurgg, holding one large finger over his lips. Eylee's eyes darted around her surrounding, noting Kruzz sitting nearby with his fingers in his mouth, looking worried.
He grinned and hissed as she looked at him. “You is awake!” he said. She managed a weak smile for him.
“You were flailing, lass,” said Kaltuk, in a hushed voice, “calling out, and tearing at the ground. Illisia found suspicious tracks nearby, so everyone scattered to look about. We couldn't wake you, though, no amount of shaking did a bit of good. The three of us decided to stay til you woke and keep watch, but then you started up with the screaming and well...” Kaltuk shrugged his head to one side. “... here we are.” Eylee forced herself to breath in long, slow breaths and gradually she felt herself relax. Nurgg relaxed his grip on her and eased away.
There was a flash of gold as their guide stepped into sight from around a craggy edge of mountain. Eylee's heart leaped into her throat as her eyes locked with the elven man – who she knew to be no elf at all but a dragon – stepped into the clearing.
“She is well, then?” asked Xygoz, in a voice that played like a song that broke the young wood elf's heart to hear it. His eyes were a bottomless blue that slit in the center like a cat's and stood out against his dusky skin. He was garbed in a loose robe of golden silk and wore no armor, nor carried any weapons, only a lute inset with platinum and silver discs and strung with strings the colors of sunrise. She could hear nothing but the pulse of her blood as they locked eyes.
Finally, Kaltuk's voice pushed its way back into her head. “She's awake, not sure if she is well, though,” said Kaltuk. She blinked and glanced at the dwarf, who she noted had adopted a touch of a scowl, which overpowered his concern.
Nurgg snorted and said under his breath, “All better now.”
Eylee flushed and glared at Nurgg. “I'm fine, Xygoz, thank you,” she said, smiling. “Just bad dreams.”
“But your dreams are more than dreams,” said the elven man, coming in closer, “you shouldn't dismiss the possibility that the pain that comes with them...” He paused and touched her forehead, and the skin of his fingers was hot, burning with his internal fire. “...might not be able to truly hurt you.”
“We won't be letting anyone hurt the lass,” said Kaltuk, bristling.
“If this woman,” said Eylee, swallowing heavily, her mouth having gone dry, “is somehow tied to the invasion... maybe even behind it... and if she has truly gotten into my head, then I doubt you can protect me from her, Kaltuk.”
“I doubt that she is truly there,” said Xygoz, standing back up. “If she were able to cross to do that, she would have done it already. I simply believe this is your own power giving you insight into your enemy, but such power, especially in the hands of a mortal, often has a price.” Eylee rubbed at her temples, wondering if it was worth while.
“You speak with familiarity, dragon,” said Kaltuk, eying him. “Do you know something you aren't telling us?” Nurgg stood up and looked down flatly at Xygoz, cracking the bones of his fists. Behind him, Kruzz followed suit, scrambling to his feet as small chunks of rock sprayed out from around him. His hand went to the cleaver at his side that he had adopted as his weapon, and he did his best to look menacing.
The dragon elf was unimpressed. He simply smiled at them and tipped his head down. “Phara'Dar asked me to bring you to her, not to answer your questions,” he said. “I imagine that everything you need to know, you will know. And everything you don't, you won't.”
Kaltuk grunted and Nurgg leaned back on the balls of his feet. Just then, Bayle and Illisia came up the path, speaking softly. Eylee watched them and her mouth twitched into a smile as she noticed that the fingers of their inside arms, while not fully entwined, scratched softly at one another's.
“Oh good, Eylee, you've woken!” said Bayle. His spoke with gusto and smiled broadly at everyone as he came forward. When he noticed the generally sour expressions, his smile fell and he glanced around. “What's happened?”
“Nothing,” said Kaltuk, glancing at Xygoz, “except that our 'friend' here has information he isn't quite willing to share.”
Bayle glanced at Xygox, who was smiling and shaking his head. “We've been given the chance to speak with the Ring of Scale,” said the plainsman, “an honor not many mortals are privy to. I believe our guide is not bound to do anything more than he has.”
“You're all right, Eylee?” asked Illisia, examining the girl with her hawk eyes.
The wood elf smiled and nodded, saying, “I'll be fine. The pain is already fading.”
Bayle looked at her with concern. “While I won't badger our guide as the rest of you have...” He turned and looked at Xygoz. “I hope that maybe your people can help her.”
“I hope so too,” said Xygoz, smiling down at Eylee, causing her heart to flutter. “Miss Eylee should not be made to suffer so.”
Asharae finally returned a few minutes later, looking around her distastefully. She slipped a little on the shale as she was approaching the camp and glared at the ground venomously, adjusting her cloak, which had become tangled around her arms. “This rock is no doubt the fancy of Fizzlethorp Bristlebane,” she said. “No other god would so completely miss the idea that rock is supposed to be solid.”
“I am sorry you find our home inhospitable, Mistress Asharae,” said Xygoz, bowing slightly. Asharae looked at him with an arched eyebrow, and a smile played on her full lips. Eylee drew in on herself, aware of what a child she looked like beside the Teir'dal.
“It's not that at all, Master Xygoz,” she said. “You have been nothing if not the perfect host. It's the earth that's not so compliant.”
“Forgive us if we don't notice,” said Xygoz. “After all, for a dragon, it doesn't often matter what the ground feels like, only the sky.”
“For any spellcaster with enough practice,” said another voice, interrupting their banter, “the same is true.” Roadyle drifted down from a nearby cliff top. He glanced up at Bayle as he landed, “Nothing. I haven't found any sign of who might have might have left the tracks.”
“Nor I,” said Asharae, eyes full of spite as they locked on Roadyle.
Bayle nodded and said, “We had no luck either.”
Xygoz folded his hands in front of him and said, “I wouldn't worry. We are getting close enough to our territory that the chance of anyone being foolish enough to attack travelers is unlikely. After all, the possibility of there being travelers to raid in and of itself is not particularly high. It was most likely a lone wanderer, more frightened of our party than we should be of him.”
“Or four,” murmured Illisia, not loudly enough for Xygoz to actually hear it. She had felt that the tracks belonged to at least four individuals, based on subtle variations in their shape, but four individuals who were good at sneaking and leaving the tracks of fewer. Still, their search had yielded nothing, so what else could they do?
Bayle nodded and said, “I will leave it be then.” He glanced around the sky, surveying the high, broken peak before them. “I wish the Cloudskipper had been up and running when you found us. This would be so much easier.”
“Twiddy and the Professor will have it working by the time we're back,” said Illisia, placing a hand on his arm reassuringly. He smiled at her and nodded.
“Master Bayle,” said Xygoz, “it's not much further. We will be there by sundown. I hope that's enough assurance for you.”
“Of course,” said Bayle, nodding to him and smiling.
Eylee reflected, looking at Bayle, that he smiled much more easily than he had when they first met. It made her happy to see it. They'd ridden high on success for some time, though since coming to Kunark, their luck had seemed to run thin. Still, though they had faced defeat, they had never truly been devastated.
Suddenly, Xygoz was standing above her, holding a hand down for her. “Miss Eylee,” he said, “let me help you up, so we can be on our way.”
She felt light on her feet as she took his hand and rose, brushing dirt and rock from the seat of her pants with her other. “Thank you,” she said, shooting a satisfied glance in Asharae's general direction.
“I never thought I'd be accepting an invitation from dragons,” said Kaltuk, shaking his head as the group continued up the mountain.
The music that Eylee coaxed from Xygoz's lute was surprisingly sweet. She couldn't help but wonder if it had been magically imbued to forgive the minor off strumming of the musician, because she had only ever had basic lessons in playing stringed instruments from another traveling bard at the inn where she had stationed herself in the Plains of Karana.
“I told you that you would have very little trouble,” said Xygoz with a smile. He reached over and slid one of her fingers over to another string. “Try it again here.”
Once again, Eylee attempted to mimic the song he had been playing earlier. It sounded even closer this time. She grinned and laughed happily. “Amazing,” she said.
“It's coming from you, young one,” said Xygoz, accepting the lute as she passed it over to him. “You have bardic magic, and though you are hardly a master of anything you touch, you'll find it won't take you long to master anything you set out to play.”
She smiled and shook her head, saying, “My grandmother must have had it, and never told anyone... She was my only teacher. Those who had power in our community used it to pursue druidic functions and nothing else. This is not true of all Fier'dal, but our village was particularly devoted to keeping the forest alive.” She felt her lips tremble and tears spot the corners of her eyes. “Which meant we took it the hardest when we couldn't save the Elddar.”
Xygoz was quiet for a moment and then placed a hand on her back. “You couldn't,” he said. “You were mortals against the will of a god.”
Eylee nodded and smiled. Xygoz hoisted the lute and began to play it expertly. He began to sing with the instrument, and she recognized the song as an old Feir'dal devotion to growth and nature. Loneliness and longing for friends and family welled up inside of her, and she thought she might be overwhelmed. Suddenly, a group of four iksar descended down into the path in front of them, straight on top of Roadyle and Kruzz, who had been in the middle of their marching order.
“As I said, four!” shouted Illisia from in front of them, turning with her swords already drawn. Behind her, she could her Kaltuk beginning to murmur a prayer and Nurgg push his way forward. Bayle was spinning with Illisia at the front and beside them, elemental energy flared between Asharae's fingers, strings of power going from one finger to the next. Eylee herself reached for her rapier, but all of the sudden, there was a roar. She turned, and her expression slackened, as she noticed that Xygoz the elf had vanished and been replaced by Xygoz the dragon, flapping in the air above them. He was still beautiful, but in a terrifying sort of way; having a long, sinuous body covered in golden scales. The catlike appearance of his eyes spread to the whole of his face, which had fanning scales that almost looked like scruff and curled ears. His eyes were still deep and blue beneath a ridged brow of gold and a pair of fangs extended down from his mouth.
“Leave, intruders.” His voice still had a sonorous, lyrical quality to it, but it was deeper and more imposing. Everyone was frozen, stopped in their tracks and gazing at him.
But the surprise didn't last long on the iksar, who were each on top of Roadyle and Kruzz, two at each. Though Kruzz had managed to grasp at his cleaver, one knocked it from his hand, and they began to rake at the two Ethernauts savagely. Roadyle shouted and cursed, but they seem to know better than to let him gesture for his spells. They had obviously been on their trail and watching. Eylee looked at them closely, and noted they had the same eerie shadow that they had long since noticed in all who were Void-touched.
“Void!” she said, but everyone else had begun acting as well. Asharae had let her spell die and instead slipped the Scryona from its bag. She whispered to it softly, stroking at it and looking at the Void iksar intently. Illisia and Bayle had come at the pair on Roadyle and a bolt of energy crashed down onto another from the sky. Kaltuk howled in triumph behind her just as Nurgg barreled past and knocked into the same one. Eylee herself began to beat against her drum, singing a song to bolster everyone in combat. Nothing they had done, though, had managed to bring the iksar down, or even barely slow them. They lashed with their tails and raked with their claws, barely slowed from the blows they had been dealt.
Then Xygoz descended in a single fluid motion, claws latching around one of the two that Nurgg and Kruzz were battling. The iksar, whose elaborate fanning at either side of its face marked it for a female, screamed and struggled in his grasp, hissing and clawing, but the effort was futile. Xygoz drew her up high and then threw her against a cliff face nearby. Her body crunched as it hit, and whatever bones were left unbroken, or perhaps the already broken ones crunched again as she hit the ground hundreds of feet below.
Eylee's song nearly broke as she was struck with the realization that if they were on the other side of the dragon's anger, the same could happen to them. She reminded herself that the same could be said of any powerful ally, and that the best you could do was trust that a person was who they claimed to be, and Xygoz had done nothing to make her question his intentions.
With the quartet reduced to a trio, the party was able to bring them down easily. Eylee watched Asharae carefully, noting with relief that she didn't seem to disappear completely into the Scryona the way she had every time previously. She'd wanted to believe their intervention would do some good, but part of her had to be concerned it wouldn't. The Teir'dal had withdrawn from the group and been studying it intently, drawing in and releasing power as she could. On more that one occasion, she'd heard her shout out and curse at it. The struggle had been palpable, and from Asharae's bearing, it seemed she had succeeded. Asharae met Eylee's eyes and lifted an eyebrow, winked, and then opened her palm wide at a fallen iksar and drew out the energy from it, turning as she finished and releasing a series of three small fireballs at another.
As the fighting settled down, Xygoz returned to his elven shape and walked back to them.
“No chance at all of being attacked here, hmm?” asked Asharae.
Xygoz's normal smile was gone and replaced with a perturbed look edged in anger. “They are foolish if they try anymore,” he said. “The shadowed men may not be of exactly the same make as a mortal, but they are using the bodies of said mortals as shells, and those shells can be crushed very easily.”
“It might be best to examine your own ranks,” said Bayle. “You never know. Maybe they have a reason for confidence.”
“If those creatures have the strength to control one of us,” said Xygox, “then Norrath is in more danger than I care to think of. Let's hurry.”
The party pressed on, making their way to the top of Veeshan's Peak.