|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|
"King Stormhammer has decreed that we will consider your proposal on one condition," said Graniteaxe, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms in front of his barrel chest. "We need to know your friend Ironstein has made right his relationship with Brell. We cannot go forward on this without his blessing. Kaltuk needs to admit what happened on that battlefield was due to his own failing, and no fault of the Duke of Below."
The room went quiet, so quiet Eylee thought she could hear the heavy beating of Kaltuk's heart. She watched a bleak desperation wash over the dwarf's face, but he stepped in front of Bayle with surprising composure. The entire group watched him, on edge; even Illisia, normally so austere, seemed to be entreating him with her eyes.
He cleared his throat and swept his eyes over the room. "I was the only one on that battlefield so many years ago," he said, "and I was the only one who saw what it was that happened there. I have stuck by... a particular interpretation of what happened there, for many years." He paused, and his eyes searched the ground. Eylee noted him glance to the side, and followed his gaze to where his daughter and former wife sat. Meen wore and expression of clear disapproval. Cora, however, looked noncommittal, but Eylee hoped for her father's sake, she might crack a smile.
Graniteaxe seemed to notice Kaltuk's gaze as well and cleared his throat, saying, "Focus on the subject, Ironstein, and not my wife. She's no concern of yours."
The crowd went completely silent. Kaltuk's eyes and nostrils flared. Eylee felt her breath catch in her throat and she whispered, "Oh no."
Kaltuk lowered his head and then raised it again, eyes fixed on Graniteaxe. "I have stuck by it because I can see no other explanation. Maybe Brell didn't abandon us all. Maybe he only abandoned me, but he wasn't there. By my beard, I swear it. None of you can say you know the whole tale, none of you can say what exactly happened, because I'm the only one left of the second company of the Stormguard." The crowd began to mutter and murmur, at first softly but at a steadily increasing volume. "As they died one by one, I called to Brell, but Brell didn't seem to think it was worth his time." The murmurs had risen to angry shouts.
"So I'll admit no fault - Brell failed me that day, perhaps Cazic Thule had him by the beard somewhere - and it will be up to you to decide whether to put aside your grievance with me." Bayle's head dropped to his chest, as Kaltuk's words were drowned out by the angry roar of the crowd. The council was on their feet, arguing both with each other and shouting at Kaltuk, who, for his part, was on the offensive, shouting back at the lot of them as if it weren't him versus the whole of Kaladim. Only General Basaltheart remained seated, but he looked at the ground, sighing and shaking his head. Eylee saw her own disappointment mirrored on the faces of the other adventurers. Even Asharae didn't seem to be taking any joy in Kaltuk's failure. The Teir'dal's expression was as sour as any other as she stood and began reacting to the hubbub.
"I believe we are very close to outstaying our welcome," she said, striding back behind Bayle and then looking back toward Nurgg. "Perhaps it best you hoist our stony faced friend over your shoulder and forcibly remove him."
Bayle only nodded. Eylee felt Nurgg's hands on her shoulders. "Cut them," he said, glancing at Braldan with a look that warned him of all the great pain that would come to him if he interfered. The wood elf fumbled with the small knife she kept tucked in her boot and began sawing at the ropes. She glanced up at the ogre and noted a curious expression on the ogre's face. It seemed the hurt that now lay hidden beneath Kaltuk's anger was reflected in Nurgg's eyes. He squeezed her shoulder once the bonds had been loosened and then pushed his way through the rest of the party, unceremoniously lifting Kaltuk to his shoulder, though the dwarf shouted and kicked against him. Asharae hurried after them as they went, shooting glares at the dwarves that she had no doubt been suppressing since the moment they entered Kaladim, and then followed Bayle and, at his heels, Illisia, until finally Eylee glanced up at Roadyle, who smiled at her and shrugged.
"Never trust the future of the world to the temper of a dwarf, I suppose," said Roadyle, and then gestured her forward. Eylee sighed and nodded, hurrying after him. As she stole a final glance back, she noticed Cora standing quietly within the crowd, watching the direction her father had gone. Eylee wished she could capture the image somehow and record it, showing it later to Kaltuk, for there was a genuine sadness to the dwarf's daughter's expression that said perhaps the woman was not so cold to her father as she would have had him believe. There may have only been one dwarf in Kaladim who cared for him, but at least there was the one.
That did not, unfortunately, improve their current situation.
Eylee lifted her spoon and watched as thick globules of porridge clung to the tip of the utensil. She'd had thick porridge before, but what was far more unsettling was the chunk of gamy meat sticking from the cornmeal. She glanced up at Kruzz, who watched her nervously, chewing on his fingertips. The elf managed a weak smile before putting it in her mouth and closing her lips around the food nervously. The odd mixture of sweet and salty dissolved on her tongue and she chewed the chunk of meat - which she hoped, with all her might, was deer or boar, and not possum, or rat, or anything else she feared would give her as much in the way of disease as sustenance.
"Is good?" asked Kruzz. Eylee sat for a moment, trying to decide what she thought of it. It was not unpleasant, but she had a hard time getting over the strangeness of it. Still, considering the first meal that the troll cook had ever served them involved the various intestinal bits of vermin served in a soup with nothing for flavor but a root that when boiled smelled of rotten eggs, it was a vast improvement.
"It's... good," she said, nodding. The troll leaped up from his crouched position and danced around the deck of the ship, hissing with glee. She smiled despite herself, and then noted where Kruzz had the lock of her hair he'd taken braided and bound to a lucky stone suspended from a leather thong. Uneasiness washed over her. She couldn't shake the terror she'd felt when she'd woken up to see the troll crouched above her with a knife, but it had been all but dulled by the sympathy she felt when Nurgg knocked him across a clearing, and they had then found a lock of her hair clasped between his fingers. It seemed that in the troll's profound superstition, he'd taken her visions as evidence that she was blessed and hoped a token of it would ward off his own ill fortunes. Since then, she'd tried to be kinder to him than she had been previously, and part of that involved taste testing his attempts at making food that anyone in the party but he and Nurgg could stand to ingest; the ogre's tolerance owing only to his long imprisonment at the hands of the trolls of Guk.
She sat cross-legged on the side of the Cloudskipper, cradling the wooden bowl full of meaty porridge in her lap and surveying their surroundings. She had chosen the spot to sit and work at a canto that had been writing itself in her brain all night when she should have been sleeping. As soon as the sun came up, she'd emerged to take advantage of the light and scratched out the verses that had been cycling through her head until she had been recruited as a taste tester.
The ship was tethered above a vast grassland outside of a plainsman village on the Plains of Karana. The sun had emerged from over the hills probably an hour before, and now rose steadily into the sky, light creeping further across the land as it did. It had rained the previous night, so they had spread rucksacks from below on the slick wood where they decided to sit. Illisia moved through the deep grass below them, returning from an early morning scouting mission. The others had begun stirring about on the deck. Nurgg had been awake for as long as Eylee had, and Illisia up even earlier than the ogre. Kruzz had woken up reluctantly when the ogre shoved his foot into the troll's side and said one word: "Breakfast."
Kruzz now echoed that as he cried, "BREAKFAST!" in his high, screechy voice, attempting to rouse the remaining crew.
Eylee looked over as Kaltuk clambered up from below. The further they had flown from Kaladim, the more the dwarf had seemed to regain his usual disposition. Still, everyone was disappointed in what had happened with the dwarves, and it wore on him. They had only retreated just outside of the council room, and waited there as the anger inside the room died down. Eventually, General Basaltheart emerged and spoke to the group, telling them that though Kaladim would defend Faydwer against the threat of the monsters, they would not be dealing directly with the group, nor leaving their own continent. The High Prior thought it would cast a shadow of ill-luck upon them to deal with Ironstein and had convinced the King that it was the case. His tone had been apologetic, and as he delivered the news that they would need to leave Kaladim immediately, he turned to Kaltuk and without any inhibition, embraced him.
"I'm sorry, my friend," he'd said in closing, "I wish it could have been different."
Ironstein nodded to him and asked, "Is it true? Meen? Did she...?"
Basaltheart bowed his head and then said, "Married Graniteaxe after he gave her half the wealth of his clan in gifts. It was hard for her, but she had to close her heart to you."
Kaltuk nodded to him, eyes blank.
"Cora has never called him father," said Basaltheart, a smile playing on his lips, "though he wants her to. You'd be proud to see the time she's been giving him."
Kaltuk had smiled with a genuine look of happiness and clapped his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thank you, you're as true a brother as I ever had."
"Good luck to you and your friends on your mission," said Basaltheart with a nod, disappearing back into the hall.
Kruzz met the dwarf at the top of the ladder, shoving a bowl of porridge in his face excitedly. Kaltuk eyed it with suspicion and then looked up at Kruzz and said, "That almost doesn't look terrible. What've you done to it?"
Kruzz grinned with a mouth full of sharp, discolored teeth and said, "Filled it full of die-licious meat stuffs."
"I didn't think porridge called for meat," said Kaltuk, dubiously.
"It's not so bad a combination," interjected Eylee, "at least, not so bad as you might think."
"I'll believe it when I don't vomit it up," said Asharae, emerging from below Kaltuk, accepting a bowl from Kruzz. "Remind me why the troll was chosen to be the cook?"
"He had the experience," said Twiddy, stretching as he emerged from his cabin at the bow of the ship. "And he actually wanted the job." Fiddlewiz was at his heels, surprisingly free of the cap and scarf that usually covered his head. His wire thin hair stuck out at odd angles, and his purple veins were difficult to tear one's eyes from. Though Eylee felt terrible admitting it to herself, she understood why he made the decision to disguise himself. The gnome caught her watching him and nodded with a thin smile, grabbing a bowl from Kruzz before vanishing back into his cabin.
Asharae stirred her spoon in the bowl and shook her head saying, "Even a slave in Neriak eats better than this. On feast days, it was even better. We would drink the remains of the bloodwyne and steal legs of candied boar."
"That we could all reminisce on our lovely days in servitude," said Roadyle, who had recently emerged from below. Asharae shot him a venomous look. Their relationship had soured completely on the journey between Kaladim and the Plains of Karana. Previously, Asharae had tolerated his working with her on studying the Scryona at Bayle's insistence.
"Two minds are better than one," Bayle had argued, "and you may be a talented mage, but Roadyle has studied much more broadly than you."
Though her surrender had not been conducted with anything that could be called grace, Asharae had tolerated him analyzing its magic with her, but then something had happened. They both told it differently. Asharae claimed that he had somehow magically reached within it and begun drawing its power out; coaxing it with whispers in a language she didn't understand. At first she had tolerated it, but then a hunger had come into his eyes and she had cut him off, snapping the Scryona from his line of sight.
She swore that in the moment she made the decision, the artifact had seemed to cry out in pain to her. Roadyle's account of it was that he had simply been using his own power to pick apart the subtleties of it, and that he believed she simply didn't want him to be privy to its secrets. He lodged the accusation that there were things the Teir'dal was obviously keeping from the group about the device and advised Bayle that she be watched closely. Her expression had smoldered with hatred as he spoke, building as he went, until finally she let out an angry cry, extending a finger toward him and releasing a white bolt of electricity in his direction. He'd taken it in the chest, and his eyes flared with anger. He shouted, and she was struck in the face with rainbow colored energies. She fell to the ground, whimpering that she was blind.
By then, the others had stepped in, holding the pair of them back from each other. There was no way to say who had been telling the truth, so it had ended at an impasse. The pair of them had kept a careful distance from one another from then on.
"Roadyle," said Illisia, pulling herself onto the deck from the ladder, "quiet your mouth. We don't need that." The barbarian woman took a bowl from Kruzz and, with only a slightly curious glance at the chunks of meat, immediately began to dig in.
The high elf shrugged and took his food to the stern of the ship, leaning on his elbows and eating his food quietly. Bayle emerged from below deck after a couple of minutes more. Eylee noted curiously that his eyes were rimmed with dark circles.
"Well?" asked Kaltuk, mouth full of food. "We where we need to be?"
Bayle nodded to him and accepted a bowl from Kruzz, looking at it without a hint of hunger. "We're a few miles walk from the village of Oceangreen. You can probably see their fires in the distance there. I thought it best we stopped here. They're simple people, and we wouldn't want to scare them with our... transportation."
Asharae made a snorting noise. "A show of our power cannot possibly hurt," she said. "Walking into town like any other dirty pack of travelers is hardly 'an entrance'."
Kaltuk shrugged, inclining his head to the side, "The dark elf has a point, as much as I may hate to admit it. We will make more of an impression jumping from a flying ship than pulling ourselves in by our boots."
There were general mutterings of assent. Even Fiddlewiz emerged, now wearing his cap and scarf, and chirped, "More than happy to take her back out."
Twiddy mused over the thought happily. "We've avoided it before now," he said, "but I can't say I wouldn't love to pull her over the awed masses." There was some chuckling and grinning as the assembled party pictured the reaction. Only Bayle seemed unmoved.
"So it's a matter of showing off?" snapped Bayle. He shook his head. "We should go on foot. We shouldn't play like we're gods descending from the heavens. We're not gods..." His voice wavered.
Glances were exchanged. From her perch on the handrail, Eylee drew her legs in to her chest, worrying at how personally Bayle was taking it, and how much against him everyone was. "A number of good points have been raised, lad," said Kaltuk, looking to him. "And we've not exactly been successful in our other approaches. Perhaps a change is needed."
"If I remember right," said Bayle, "Kaladim was lost because of your temper, Kaltuk, not because we didn't wow them with a flying boat."
Kaltuk drew back, looking as though he had been struck, and then glowered.
Roadyle stepped forward and said, "I believe we all agree with what the dwarf is saying. You can't dismiss the rest of us so easily. You may act as leader, but nothing gives you the right to make decisions that go against everyone's wishes but your own."
Bayle glanced from person to person, eyes lingering on Illisia. "Do you agree with them?"
Illisia looked down, and then back up at Bayle. "I think they make a good point," she said. "There is no worrying about whether people are afraid of what is going on here. People are afraid. They should be afraid. Knowing we have resources one can fear puts us on more of a level with our enemies."
"So everyone is against me on this," said Bayle. Those who had spoken didn't feel the need to reiterate, but he looked to Nurgg, who only nodded a single time, and then to Kruzz, who nodded vigorously. Finally, he looked to Eylee.
She swallowed heavily. "I think they're right," she said. "We're in this. We can't hide."
Bayle nodded in defeat and said, with a mild hint of sarcasm, "You're right. I'm sure you all are seeing something that I'm not. Very well. Let's pull off. Fiddlewiz, Twiddy, take us in slow and steady. If we're going to do this, let's make sure we do it well."
Twiddy nodded excitedly and said, "I have just the sail for the occasion."
Fiddlewiz let out a high laugh. Kaltuk glanced at him suspiciously. The gnome just shook his head and vanished inside of the stern, saying, "You'll see."