|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|
From the pen of Eylee Zephyrswell --
We knew that we had a hard road ahead of us, and that the only way to succeed would be to gain allies. Our search, however, met with few results. The men and women of the northlands were too embroiled in their own conflicts, and my own people, as well as the Koada'dal, had too much on their hands with the great migration that consumed them. The Teir'dal could possibly have lent might, if we trusted to work with them, or if Asharae were not considered a criminal and we her accomplices.
So it was, then, that we came then to the dwarves of Kaladim...
The Cloudskipper swayed back and forth in the light wind, tugging lightly at the ropes that tethered it to the upper branches of a very great old oak tree that reached into the sky with its gnarled branches. Professor Fiddlewiz waved to the departing group from his comfortable perch in a broadcloth hammock that had been strung up on deck. For his part, Twiddy had already managed to suspend himself within a small harness that dangled him at the side of the deck, where he sanded down a few uneven spots and spread resin where it had grown thin between boards. He managed a quick wave to his departing passengers before turning to his work as they took to the rocky trail that wound through the Butcherblock Mountains toward Kaladim. Kruzz also watched them go from the deck, insisting his staying behind on the boat would mean a piping hot dinner, or breakfast, or lunch – he would be ready for anything – on their return. The unspoken truth of it was that Kruzz was just as well off taking a bath in a river full of saber toothed piranha as he was walking into the heart of the dwarven kingdom; too many of the mountain men and women had lost loved ones in spars with the trolls.
Eylee adjusted the straps on her satchel, which had begun to bite into her neck already. It hung heavy with parchments upon which she had recorded the details of the companions' adventures -- crossing the plains of Karana with Illisia and Bayle, rousting void-touched trolls in the swamps of Innothule, spurring goblins in the Misty Thicket, fighting off the soldiers of Neriak as they made off with the struggling V'Nols, their trek to the northlands, and the subsequent flight from the warpaths of the bloodthirsty barbarians that had resulted. It was all there, on paper, in great detail, as well as a complete recording of the visions she'd been having. In all practicality, she should have long since unloaded some of the pages into a safe corner of the Cloudskipper, but something inside her said she should keep them close – even closer than the locked boxes Twiddy and Fiddlewiz kept in their cabin. It wasn't, she hoped, vanity that motivated her; no, it was not simply a matter of this being her tale to tell, but rather a sense of great importance to the details of their journey. She even curled up with the bag at night, resting it snugly in the crook of her arm like a treasured doll. But it had grown cumbersome as their adventures increased in number, as they glimpsed new corners of the world every day from perspectives none but those born with wings had ever taken in.
The evergreen trees of Butcherblock rose around her, tall and imposing, with thick trunks made stout with burls and age, their limbs hanging heavy with bunchy green needles. They were scattered sparsely across the generally rocky face of the mountains, standing like lone sentinels keeping watch on behalf of the great dwarven city. Now and then, Eylee would catch the sound of bleating and glance to see a ram dash up the hillside spraying pebbles in its path and butting aside scrub with its great curled horns. Birds circled above their heads, the wide expanses of their wings casting shadows upon the party, and snakes wound through boulders to vanish into dark holes below their feet.
Eylee glanced from face to face. Bayle and Illisia walked close to one another at the head of the group, now and then speaking in hushed tones. She remembered with a slight smile that they had one time insisted on taking front and rear, but had gradually both drifted to the front of the marching order; whether that was from an increased desire to stand next to one another, or a decreased distrust of the rest of the group -- or possibly both -- Eylee wasn't certain. Now it seemed Nurgg had positioned himself solidly at the rear, and his heavy steps defined the end of their column. Asharae drifted in the center of the party, her cloak draped over the soft curves of her body and Scryona's pouch bouncing against her knee. Roadyle drifted a step or two behind her, speaking to her when he could manage to attract her attention about magical theory or some sight or the other on the horizon. Eylee peered in his direction, wondering whether the mage's interest was merely academic, or if his impulses had taken a turn for the unnatural-bordering-on-abominable. Asharae was beautiful, but hardly the elf a Koada'dal brought back to his austere mother and father.
Finally, her attention fell on Kaltuk, and she was drawn immediately to his side by the struggle she could see in his eyes. She didn't really need to see his expression to know that something was wrong. His complete silence during their trek had already told the tale. She cleared her throat and smiled at him, saying, “It can't be all that bad, can it? I mean, you miss your home, don't you?"
Surprise washed over Kaltuk's face and then vanished. He glowered and said, "What makes you think it's all so bad as that, missy?"
"Well," she said, "when the one who normally keeps the rest of us chuckling hasn't even cracked a smile... It must be dire."
Kaltuk scoffed but smiled. "I assure you, I'm not about ready to curl up and sob under a rock," he said, inclining his head to the side. "It is not an easy thing to return to a place that did not want you... no matter how you might have missed it."
Eylee nodded and said, “I'm sure they're ready to welcome you back. They must have forgiven you by now."
The dwarf barked a short, quick laugh. "Oh ho! I would not count on that, young one. A dwarf's about as stubborn and quick to forgive as a stone, and we've the whole of the council of Kaladim to contend with."
They had just begun to glimpse the facade of Kaladim, carved straight from the great face of the mountainside in a series of towering columns, when they were met with an escort. A pair of dwarves -- male and female, wearing earth toned leathers that helped them blend into their surroundings -- stepped from behind a copse of trees with axes and bows at the ready.
"What's your business, stranger?" asked the male, eying Bayle.
Bayle opened his mouth to speak, but Kaltuk stepped in front of him. The sentries reacted to the sight, the male taking one step back and the female grunting from behind a leather mask that covered most of her face.
"Prior Kaltuk Ironstein," said Kaltuk, "once member of the Stormguard, and high priest of the Church of Ale, has found his way back to Kaladim, and he's brought some friends along with him. Perhaps I could trouble you to run on ahead and announce my visit to the council, to whom I'll be needing to speak to immediately on matters important to all the dwarves of Norrath. Dark creatures have come to Norrath. They might be at your very step already. We've come to speak about fighting them back."
The sentries glanced at one another and the male stepped forward again and said, "One of us will go on ahead, but the other will be sticking close. I remember your name, Kaltuk Ironstein, but you're no Prior of Kaladim. Not anymore. Not for some time."
Kaltuk examined the sentry closely with a look so sharp that it seemed it could strip bark from a tree, and the younger dwarf shrank back a little again. “I was a Prior for more years than you've been on Norrath, sonny," said Kaltuk, “and I'll not be taking any guff from the likes of --"
"Father," said the female sentry. She removed her helm and a pair of blond braids fell down her back. Though homely, she was pleasant enough looking for a dwarf, with eyes the same robin shell blue as her father's.
"Cora," said Kaltuk, his voice ringing with a sharp note of pain.
She nodded to him and her expression was impassive. "Listen to Braldan," she said."He may be your junior in years, but he's still senior to you in Kaladim." She nodded to the other sentry, who seemed to straighten up under her praise. "Go on ahead, Braldan. I'll keep a close eye on our visitors."
“Don't you think --" began Braldan.
"That's an order." Her voice cut him off and provoked him to begin jogging immediately in the direction of the mountain face. Kaltuk straightened a little, beaming with an obvious pride. The glance Cora shot her father next caused the pride wither away. Asharae must have noticed, because she laughed softly to herself. Kaltuk scowled at the Teir'dal.
Cora swept her gaze along the whole of the group. "You've a time ahead of you explaining why such a band as this has been brought to Kaladim," she said, "but as a once citizen, you've the right to try. The ogre..." She looked Nurgg up and down with a distrustful gaze. "... should probably stay behind."
Nurgg grunted, planted himself beside Kaltuk, and leveled his gaze at her.
Cora raised an eyebrow with curiosity. "Well then, he'll at least need to be bound."
Kaltuk glanced to Nurgg with a raised eyebrow. The ogre paused only for a moment and then nodded. Cora came forward and wrapped his hands in a series of intricate knots.
"No weapons?" she asked Nurgg as she finished. He smiled and raised his fists. "Ah, well, then I'm glad I used a good knot." She swept a hand toward the other adventurers and gestured them forward.
Kaltuk nodded and began to follow in his daughter's shadow, the rest of the party falling into step some distance behind. “It's good to see you, lass," he said in a low voice, which Eylee only caught because she followed him as near as she dare. "You've done quite well for yourself. Makes an old dwarf proud to see it."
Cora stared ahead and made a low noise in the back of her throat. "You should spend your time thinking about what you're going to say to the council and not waste your breath with empty compliments."
Eylee felt a stab of sadness in her heart as Kaltuk's face fell, but the dwarf nodded and followed his daughter quietly toward the entrance to the vast network of mines that formed the veins of dwarven civilization: Kaladim, the city in the mountain.
She could see her friend's eyes searching the crowds, intent upon finding someone specific. As they had obviously already found at least one of Kaltuk's children -- or perhaps only, Kaltuk had never spoken much about his past -- she had to assume he was most likely on the look out for his wife. There was a look of strain, perhaps even pain, as he did so. Though it did not seem he had found who he was searching for by the time they came to a stop outside of the great stone doors of the meeting hall, his face had met with a number of startled recognitions, and where he walked, a chorus of hushed whispers followed. He had been famous as one of the most recognizable clerics of the Stormguard, but he had been infamous as the dwarf who turned his back on Brell. His expression was unreadable as the group stood and awaited their audience with King Aldus Stormhammer and the great council of Kaladim, but Eylee reached out and touched his shoulder gently. He glanced back at her with a look of surprise, and pain flooded the corners of his eyes, but then as he saw who it was and the look of gentle assurance on her face, his expression melted to a smile and he nodded to her, reaching over to pat the wood elf's hand with one of his own.
There was a scraping of stone against stone as a pair of burly dwarven guards, arms roped with muscles, drew them open and gestured the group forward. Braldan fell into step beside the group, making a point of keeping close. Bayle stepped forward to take point on reflex, then paused, smiled, and with a half-bow, let Kaltuk trundle in front of him. The dwarf raised an eyebrow and pointed beside him, so that the plainsmen stuck close to his side, and the pair entered the room at the same time. Illisia shadowed Bayle, and then the rest followed. Eylee was a bit surprised Nurgg did not follow closely behind Kaltuk, and her expression must have said so, for as she glanced at the ogre, he responded with:
"This is not the place for my friendship."
Eylee nodded, knowing the statement was two fold. It would neither help Kaltuk's acceptance by his one time people to advertise his friendship with an ogre, nor would it benefit Kaltuk as an individual to be supported by his giant friend when everything he needed for this would have to be found in his very own self.
When they entered the room, it had been like jumping into a sea of voices. The chamber was full of great stone benches for spectators in a bowl shape that stretched up from around the central table at which the council sat before the throne of the ruler of the dwarven people. She imagined these benches were not often full, but it seemed the whole the mountain had turned out to see their curious visitors and the returned exile. A ring of dwarven men and women sat at the central table, some dressed in well-polished armor, others in finely spun linen and wool clothing, and still others in robes affixed with the symbol of Brell. Behind them, a proud looking dwarven man sat in the throne, head leaning against one hand, elbow propped against the arm of the chair. She took this to be Aldus Stormhammer, king of the dwarves and a son in the long Stormhammer line. His dark brown hair was braided into a single long braid that fell across his shoulders, and his beard was similarly fashioned into a thick central braid and four smaller braids fanning out two at each side, with gold and silver rings, as well as blue and green gems, woven in.
The band of adventurers was led to a slightly raised platform in the back center of the room, and Braldan took a position near them. As Kaltuk came to stand before the council with Bayle at his side, that cacophony of voices quieted, and all eyes were fixed on them intently.
"Speak, Kaltuk Ironstein," said King Stormhammer. "I'm curious to know what has brought you back, and why you've arrived with such an assembly of companions." His voice was rough and echoed like boots on gravel in the massive hall.
"My thanks, King Stormhammer," said Kaltuk, bowing stiffly to the dwarven ruler. "I once knew you as prince, and am sad to hear your father has passed on, but I am sure you are as great a ruler as your father was." The king did not seem to react to the flattery, but he nodded in acknowledgment of it. Kaltuk turned so as to address more of the crowd. "Most of you know me, but for those who don't, I'm Kaltuk Ironstein, once a Prior of the Stormguard."
"Cast out for unrelenting blasphemy to Brell's name," interjected one of the councilmen. "And a refusal to rehabilitate." He wore the robes of a priest and had a long white hair that fell freely down his back. Though he did not have a beard, he did sport a thick white mustache that curled on either side.
Kaltuk did not attempt to hide a look of contempt and anger as he glanced at the priest. "As High Prior Graniteaxe has made clear, I have not been welcome here for some time, but our purpose here is far more important than your grievance with me. I will let my friend Bayle speak, and hopefully you can listen to him without being clouded by the same prejudice you would me."
Kaltuk gestured Bayle forward, who smiled to him and took his place before the assembly. Graniteaxe settled back against his throne, looking completely unconvinced; however, he was one of few in the room who did not at least look curious as to their purpose. Eylee glanced from side to side, noting she had come to settle between Nurgg and Roadyle. The moment her eyes hit Roadyle, he glanced at her, and smiled. She found herself wondering if there were any spell in his arsenal that could help their purpose, but then dismissed it, knowing their mission could not be shrouded by something so unethical.
Bayle cleared his throat and opened his arms toward the dwarves. "We've come to speak with you about a threat to all of Norrath," he began. He gestured Illisia over, and she stepped in behind him, unstrapping the Staff of Theer and laying it in his hands. He smiled to her, and she at him, as she stepped back behind him, casting a critical eye on the crowd. "Portals have been opening to a place beyond our own – the Void. The creatures that come from there are twisted visions of darkness, and they seem to be capable of filling individuals from Norrath with the same dark energy and corrupting them. This staff is linked to those portals, and it lets us close them, cutting off their passageways to our world. The longer this goes on, however, the more of those monsters there seem to be. We are a capable band of individuals, but not able to take them on by ourselves. We need allies. Our journey has taken us here, because dwarves are known to be capable and valiant fighters." There was a general murmur of approval from the crowd. "We would rest easier knowing you were in this fight with us."
Bayle's voice fell to a hush and when it was clear he had made his case, conversation sprang up around the room. The members of the council all huddled together; some with bright, encouraging eyes, but just as many others looked dark and suspicious toward the group. Chief amongst the dissenters was Graniteaxe, who shook his head as a female dwarf whispered to him from his left, eyes locked on Kaltuk.
"What exactly are you asking for?" asked another dwarf, leaning forward and clasping his hands in front of him. He wore shining plate armor that was dressed with medals and had a look of keen authority. Eylee noted that when he spoke, Kaltuk's expression softened, and something like a smile passed between the two of them.
Bayle nodded to the dwarf, acknowledging the question. He cleared his throat, clasping his hands behind his back. "Of course, we would expect you to focus most of your energy here on Faydwer, but we would also ask that you focus not only within your own borders. Send patrols to scour the continent and fight off whatever of these creatures you might find. If you come across a portal, fortify the position, do not let the creatures spread, and send word to us of its location. In time, if there is a true front established, we might call on you to send legions to help us in the fight. Unfortunately, we only have one small ship to travel by, so you would have to move yourselves."
The dwarf who had asked the question nodded and settled back, then the discussions began anew between the council members. Finally, the well-decorated, armored dwarf stood, as did Graniteaxe, and they walked up to the dais on which King Aldus sat. Eylee's eyes were fixed on the King, who thus far showed no bias either way. His expression was impassive. He had, however, sat up straight and leaned in while Bayle had spoken, listening intently. At least their case had not bored him.
Braldan leaned back toward them and whispered, "I believe you have an enemy and an ally heading up there. General Basaltheart was once a friend of Kaltuk's, and one of his few supporters during his trial. During your leader's speech, he was rapt in attention. The High Prior was against you from the start, though."
"I imagine he was a rival," said Roadyle. "They are of the same profession."
Braldan nodded. "Your friend's smart," he said. "Ironstein might have been High Prior if not for... well, what happened. He and Graniteaxe had been rivals since they were young." Braldan glanced to the audience. Eylee searched the crowd in that direction, and her eyes landed on where Cora Ironstein sat beside an older dwarven woman with gray hair spun with white strands. The matron had an uncommon beauty for a dwarf, striking even next to the much younger Cora. "When Ironstein was dismissed, his marriage was made void, and after that, Graniteaxe married his wife, Meen. I don't believe Graniteaxe married her for any reason but to have everything that had been Kaltuk's. He always envied Ironstein's popularity." Braldan chuckled. "Some of us still sing his song, 'Raise a glass for him, boys!', though not within earshot of Graniteaxe."
Eylee nodded to him and said, "Poor Kaltuk..."
Eylee did her best to disguise her reaction to the dogma, but Nurgg did not. He grunted and peered down at the dwarf, who shrank slightly beneath the ogre's gaze. "Your Duke was not there for him. Why should he give him praises?"
Braldan shrugged and examined the ground silently. At that moment, Graniteaxe and the general came back to the table. Aldus watched them go and then fixed his gaze on Kaltuk with a look of mild curiosity - or what might have been considered extreme curiosity for a dwarf. Everyone in the room waited, with bated breath, to hear what the King's representatives had to say.