Epilogue

Oren walked to the book shop, the same route from his house he always took.  It was still dark this morning, but that did not mean he was not eager to open shop.  It was not for the customers he was excited.  Teman had been by earlier in the week and dropped off a collection of books from Erridda.  He had been running that place as if he had always owned it.  It was only now that he started bringing in craftsmen that the rest of Iseb realized the wealth of artifacts that Devlin and he scored in taking up residence there.

This delivery had been the books from the dungeon that a year ago he had had the pleasure of first perusing. Circumstances had changed for him since then.  Martell and he now shared an expanded home, and they were expecting their first child.  Oren’s father was teaching Oren how to manage the family business, which meant less time at the shop.  In another month, they would hit up the caravan trail to look in on Avo.  To help manage his store, he had taken on an apprentice to help with daily traffic.

Avo had changed slightly since he had last been there.  Word was it currently was operating without the Tethinger Order.  Tabia had come in to clean house, but at least those at their home had let the corruption spread far.  Tabia tried to recruit Martell to form a new order under Varelle.  Martell was honored but declined the invitation.  So for now, the Tethinger Order’s former home stood vacant and Tabia reviewed its members looking for a new leader. Word had also reached Oren that Varelle had a new priestess in training. 

The counsel of priests and the knight commanders had passed sentence on Lady Nattan.  She was to be held at the Vocknuera’s dungeon.  Her sentence was for life, though from what Martell and Oren had heard from Ba-shar, they may be retaining her on behalf of the Enchanters so that they may probe her for information on Casapan’s techniques.

Ba-Shar had been retired from field service in the Knights of Vocknuera and was now busy with training the new recruits.  Oren had offered him a job working with the Tsuminoe and his caravan, but Ba-shar had declined. With one less arm, he felt his days in the field were over.

The Channelers and Enchanters had received word of Oren and some of what he had done.  Both had requested to see the talisman that had allowed him to do such feats.  He had declined and was certain both organizations were now watching him, if not directly then through some network of agents. On occasion, he had kicked out a few of the guild members from  the shop, as they spent more time studying Oren than looking at the books they had expressed interest in.

The Neffians opened operations in Avo, against the wishes of the Lords.  However, since the town does not technically have an official hall they can do little to continually harass them.  The Neffians were quite frequently in the store, browsing books and researching whatever their masters had sent them in to look up.  They seemed to harbor no ill will against Oren or Martell, despite the rocky relationship they had gotten off on. Oren was certain they were also keeping tabs on him, knowing full well he did not give them access to his personal collection.

The three loyal knight orders were working toward restoring Wind Gait to working order.  The hope was to spread the teachings of Varelle and the other priests to the land beyond the mountains.  Tabia told Oren that once the place was cleaned up they would look to the Velgreys to help establish a route to the regions across the hills. Oren reached out to Eston and was waiting to hear if he wanted a new post and a challenge.

Oren’s parents were now able to relax from their monitoring of Casapan and the Wolves of Dawsil.  Though Oren was certain his mother was checking in on something occasionally, she was more frequently present in conversations.  He had pressed her a couple times for a reason for the checking in and all she managed to reply is that it was a hard to break the habit.

Oren spent the afternoon paging through the books, his mind racing with the new knowledge.  He was not certain at what point he dozed off with his face in the books, but when he awoke in his shop he it was dark outside.  There was a woman in the corner flipping through the volumes.  He went over to tell her it was time for him to lock up and leave.

He tapped her on the shoulder and jumped back at recognition of who it was in his store.  Lady Nattan looked up and smiled at him.  “O-ren you need not worry about me.  I just wanted to thank you for your assistance in freeing me from having to compete with Casapan.  The low born have no place in leading the world.  You have done the Drémores a great service, much like the Velgreys have always done, despite what father said of your kin.  In repayment for my life, I will leave you and your family out of my plans as long as you stay out of mine.”

“Are you not still in prison?”

“Why, yes silly boy, right where I need be for now.  Plans like this take time and patience.  Thanks to Casapan, I have time and thanks to you, I have a safe place to build an empire from.  Unfortunately, you will not remember any of what I have said when you wake up.  I really am in your debt and will never be able to repay it in full.”

Oren felt himself being shaken and heard Martell calling his voice.

“Oren, wake up.  You have fallen asleep; you should really go home if you are not doing well.”

“Martell…I…think I had a nightmare but recall none of it.”

“It is no surprise; you are working too hard.” Martell replied, “Let’s close the store and call it a day early.  You will feel better tomorrow.”

Chapter 42

They were able to make their way into the temple through the back door.  It was in an entrance located under the city hall.  Rowenn explained that the door would move as Varelle saw fit.  Oren and Martell were now welcome guests of Varelle in return for the service they had provided.  Oren would be allowed the privilege to view the history around the fall of Drémore but neither events further back nor more current.

It was here that Oren found answers to Tabia’s outbursts and rage.  It was in this text he learned many things of Casapan and why he needed to be stopped.

In his eluding the priesthood, we now see that Iseb was right in their revolt against the Drémores.  They had fallen sway to this Casapan and his deceptions.  His subterfuge in Aleto was discovered too late as he had visited this city most, allowing him to proceed in his experimentation.  There, he had already added wards to the obelisk preventing the mere mention of the gods’ names.  If he had gone undetected longer he would have copied these trials in the south.  This would have created a situation like Avo, where priests of Latl and Dahl and those in their respective orders feel pain when they enter the boundary of the city’s wards.  At this time, he offers power to any he thinks he can sway.  The enchanters have agreed with us to erect no further obelisks until a method preventing or reversing such enchantments can be devised. 

Casapan is already suspect of teaching techniques to the Drémores’ children.  Our assumption is, he has their loyalty and could still assert control over them in some way they do not recognize.  It is unfortunate that he already slayed one of our order before she even suspected his deceptions.  The other priests will be convening with us to have a discussion on how best to rein him in.  There is word that the late priestess may have aided the Drémores in sealing up the stronghold of Erridda.  Whether she did so willingly or not we may never know.

We had cornered them at Wind Gait with the last of the Drémores and their loyal forces.  After a several day siege, they finally surrendered.  I am suspect of the body they provided of the dead Casapan, but with no one else around of a fitting description, we will take their word as to his death.  The King has accepted his fate of execution as he has lost everyone in his family in this fight.  Punishment for his loyal retainers will depend on judgments from the court held by the heads of the orders.

This was about all he could determine from what Rowenn provided.  Oren was certain that there were other records and more detailed accounts of the battles or tribunal judgments.  However, she was not at liberty to provide them and he was willing to accept this.   The average person would not have been treated to this much information. 

While Oren had read from the records provided to him, Martell had been off elsewhere with Rowenn.  Rowenn had pulled out some artifact from the cavernous vaults and it was proceeding to aid the healing of Martell’s wrist.  Oren watched as Rowenn continued to chant a prayer while bathing Martell’s wrist in water from a bowl.  With each pour of water, the intensity of bruising and swelling went down. 

After she finished, Rowenn spoke, “Your wrist is not fully healed.  You need to continue to wrap it up and take it easy.  This sped it up but it will not cure everything.  You should refrain from fighting for a while, if you can. ” 

“I will see to that,” Oren smiled at Martell. “She will be headed back to Aleto with me for some deserved rest.”

“Good, I do not want you here when Tabia returns.  She will try and recruit you to help clean house at the Order.  Varelle says for you to not be involved.”

“It will be nice to see it returned to a proper, respectable organization,” said Martell.

Chapter 41

The stone started to fall off of Dhavak and he quickly collapsed to the floor. He was alive, but his legs were crushed and his arm mangled.  He would be easy prey for the wyverns, if they made it to him.  Oren went over to Casapan and stood there debating if he should end Casapan’s misery.  He could feel the demands of the spirits in his staff for more bloodshed fighting with his own desire to stop it.  He pulled the dagger out from Casapan’s back and tossed it between his hands as the internal debate continued. 

The spirits hissed, “Casapan was who you have chased here and under his orders, there has been much pain for others.” 

“But I am not an executioner.  There are the priests who want him for what he has done.  Let the blood fall on their hands.”  Oren countered. 

“I have heard your thoughts and discussions about him and did he not succeed in breaking the bonds that were put on him?  Correct us if we are wrong, but he even tricked the young masters into freeing him,” the gravelly voice retorted. “You would let him live longer to trick yet more people with his power?”

Oren was quiet; he was starting to see their logic and it was starting to scare him.  “But is it my place to end his life, he no longer posing a threat?”

“He is only temporarily no threat because of the dagger in your hand” the spirit responded in a gravelly voice and then hissed, “You have no guarantee of how long this advantage will last.  End the menace.”

Before Oren could think further about what he was doing he was slitting Casapan’s throat.  A far quicker death than he deserved, but certainty in death was an end to the problem.

While this debate was going on, Martell ran to the back of one of the wyverns and dug her short sword in to the back of its head.  The other two did not notice as they were busy with Ba-shar.  One of them had Ba-shar’s blade in its mouth, trying to pull it away.  The other was snapping at him from the other side.

The wyvern was about to grab at Ba-shar’s side when it recoiled.  Martell had moved on to the second of the wyverns.  She had lost her short sword in the back of the first one and now had her longer sword in one hand and her knife in the other.

Ba-shar’s relief was short lived as the last wyvern snapped down on his forearm.  The crunch of bone could be heard across the room as the beast pulled back and blood flowed out.  It made several strange and awkward faces as its jaw cracked the bones in its mouth and worked the flesh into its belly.  Ba-shar was now on the floor screaming in pain.  The wyvern reeled back ready to strike down on Ba-shar.

Martell reached over with her knife striking at its exposed throat.  The young wyvern thrashed, wrenching her knife from her hand and causing a crack to resound from her breaking wrist.  Oren saw the look of pain etched in her face as her wrist now was disjointed by almost hundred and eighty degrees.  The wyvern fell back, gurgling as its own blood filled its throat.

Martell quickly made sure all the wyverns were dead, and then ran over to Ba-shar.  She rummaged through his backpack and found some cloth to wrap around where his hand and wrist used to be.  She tossed some salve onto the bandage and wrapped up the wound. 

Oren set down the staff and went over to Dhavak, who lay on the ground.  Unfortunately, he was too late to do anything.  Dhavak’s bones had been crushed and had cut him up internally.  He then went over to Nattan.  She was still breathing.  He debated briefly whether or not to allow her the same fate he had given to Casapan.  He rolled the dagger that had been used on Casapan in his hand deciding what to do. This time he did not hear the spirits and mercy prevailed in Oren’s thoughts and actions.

Oren searched her for any weapons or talismans she may have hidden on her and found none. Next, he bound her wrists behind her and gagged her mouth so she could not activate any talismans. Then he stood up, leaving her there on the floor. Oren went over to Martell and helped her set her own wrist properly and bind it to keep it in place.  Finally, the two helped Ba-shar to his feet and they stood quiet for a moment, taking it all in and mourning the passing of their companion.

“I think we can leave her for the army to get,” Martell spoke solemnly.  Let’s head back to camp.  There may be a healer that can assist Ba-shar and I.”

Oren went and collected Martell’s weapons for her.  He then came over to Ba-Shar to help support him as they made their way up the stairs.  It was a slow pace, but they eventually made it to back to the main room.  Outside, they could hear fighting in the courtyard. Oren set Ba-shar down on a bench and had Martell wait with him.  He was going to see what lay outside.

Looking out through a cracked door he saw a battle raging as several adult wyverns and scores of goblins were doing combat with the knights, not only in the courtyard but presumably also across the field outside the keep.  He quietly worked his way back over to the other two and explained the situation to them.

The three decided to take their chances sitting out of this fight.  They heard the cacophony of the battle outside grow and recede and though they were curious as to what events were transpiring, refrained from looking outside for an update.  From what they could tell, both sides were suffering from the fight. While they waited inside, Oren set up barricades to defend themselves from in case the battle did not favor their allies.  A couple tables were turned on their sides to serve as cover and they remained crouched down behind them as the ordeal progressed.

It was about half a day till the doors to the place were busted open letting in light and Tabia entered with Knight Commander Aarika, Gera the Silent and Knight Commander.  A few steps behind was Kala of Edostera along with several other knights in tow.  Tabia looked over and saw the three of them barricaded in a corner and ready for a fight.

“Ba-shar, is Casapan dead?”  Aarika asked.  She seemed almost indifferent to his state.  This could be attributed to the blood that was all over the group that had just entered.  There were several shields riddled with damage and a couple of the knights in the group looked about as well off as Martell.   Gera had a patch over one of his eyes, a casualty of the trek to the fort.

He forced himself up and at attention, “Yes commander, Oren slit Casapan’s throat himself.  Also, there is tied up below one Lady Nattan.  Dhavak died, we should have his body retrieved as well.”  He saluted again and sat.  Oren could hear the restrained grunts of pain.

“Excellent.  Kala, work with Attilio and round up the rest of these goblins and wyverns.  I will work on getting the Lady in proper chains and retrieve the bodies.” Kala departed.

“Martell, you and Oren have done a great favor to the priests.  Here is the key that Rowenn needs to enter the shrine.”  She handed them a key. “You will not need our guidance to get past the clouds.  The path down from here has never been the problem; it is headed up that they will confuse you.  Go straight down the path in the morning and it will seem almost intuitive on where to go.”

“Outside just watch your back.” Aarika said. “We have a path clear from here back to camp, but you never know who may lurk amongst the dead.  Ba-shar, you go with them as well.  You are no further good to our fight in here. Vocknuera will reward you for your service today.”

Back at the camp they slept for a while after consulting a healer.  In the morning, Oren and Martell bade farewell to Ba-shar and descended down meet up with Rowenn.  On their travels back to the Avo Temple, they relayed the tales of what transpired at Wind Gait. 

Rowenn was thankful that they had both made it through the ordeal.  Oren asked about what would happen with the Casapaten’s followers now that their priest was dead.  Rowenn explained the Kaddock Order will search out the next priest.  It is the Order’s job to carry on the practice if the priest is killed and there is no apprentice or heir apparent. 

Chapter 40

The stairway down was well lit.  The walls were hewed out of the mountain itself, with an unusual smoothness to them.  Whoever had cleaned them out had not left much in the way of tool markings.  When they got to the bottom of the stairs, they found Lady Nattan.  She stood with around ten people working to clear a path to a doorway that had been blocked by a cave-in.   The ceiling had a hole in it going up a ways.  This had probably at one point been as pristine as the place Nattan had been preserved.

“Work faster,” She hissed.  “I got the key; you were supposed to have cleared this out for me already.”

“My Lady, It keeps caving in.  Without proper supports our progress means nothing.”  One of the workers shouted back.

“I do not care; they will be here soon and we need my brother to fight them.”

“Too late,” said one of the men.  He put down his shovel and ran to his sword.  The others, taking the hint, ran to get their weapons as well.  Lady Nattan turned to them, fury showing in her face.  If they didn’t know better, they would have claimed flames were erupting from her eyes.

“O-ren, did you come to greet your new queen?  And I see your lackey survived as well.”  She reached into her pouch and drew out a sphere, hurling it at Oren and Martell. She muttered a phrase he had not heard her say before, the ball erupted in flame and came right at them.

Oren reacted by putting the staff out in defense, his hope that it would work as well as it had in the dream encounter.   The fireball lessened in intensity, but then it still went past his staff.  Oren felt the heat sear against his skin; he felt like he had just received a sun burn across his skin.  He also heard a voice in his head, “I told you we need practice, the real ones are stronger than what we have dealt with before.”  Oren felt frozen in place, as his legs would not respond to what he commanded.  Martell, thankfully, looked unharmed by it all and was heading over to face their opponents.

She stepped in to fight with her two swords drawn.  She cut down the first two attackers without more than a thought.  The next two wizened up and waited till a group of four of them could press the attack.  The din of the swords echoed through the room.  Oren felt helpless as he could only watch right this moment.  Lady Nattan walked over to him and was inches from him.

“Let us watch your servant fight, my O-ren.  She is so masterful with her technique. I wish I could have at least one ally with her sword skills.”  Lady Nattan paused, as if she expected Oren to speak. “Oh, you are right, I could step in and help them, but you have my attention right now.  I know about your abilities with spirit control and it could easily undermine my authority here.  That is why I am keeping you and your staff out of the fight.”

She paused again as if he was expected to say something, “Really, I should be a little more useful to them.”  She tossed another sphere, this time at Martell.  This time her words charged the sphere with electricity. Martell jumped to evade the sphere, but the metal of her armor still received a shock.  She fell to the ground.

Lady Nattan stood there with her hand outstretched from throwing the sphere, smiling like someone that had just won the bout.  An arrow flew across the room piercing her hand.  Lady Nattan looked over to see Dhavak rushing over to her, sword drawn back ready to strike.  Ba-shar was clumsily trying to re-tension the crossbow for another shot.

Martell lay there feeling helpless.  She tried to figure out what just happened while a sword rose above her in hopes to strike a killing blow.  Everything went black.

Oren had gotten the break he needed, Nattan could not maintain the hold on him and the spirits in the staff while dealing with the bleeding hand.  Seeing Martell in a dire situation, he shielded her while maintaining his stillness.  His hope was to not tip Nattan off too quickly.  He then stealthily moved the base of his staff by her feet and then pushed her over using the staff to disrupt her balance.  With her on the ground, he brought the staff around and up and then down onto the top of her head.

The four workers not quite engaged in fighting were confused by the sudden change in events and yielded.  Meanwhile the other three tried to attack Martell, who had after being able to see again, rolled a bit away from them.  She was now with Dhavak at her side.  They were able to make quick work of their opponents.

“Thanks, Dhavak,” Martell finally said as temper’s cooled.

“Not a problem,” he replied.  “Oren, is she dead?”

“No, she is unconscious.  May wish she was dead after the priests get a hold of her. Ba-Shar, you got an eye on the rest of them?”

“Yeah Oren.  But what should we do with them?”

“Well, let’s have them carry her out of here,” said Oren as he reached down and pulled the key off her body. “Best keep this out of her reach too.”

Lady Nattan stirred slightly and saw Oren grasping the key from her hand.  “Amar…” she whispered before passing out.

They heard a rumble and the ground started quaking.  The pile of rubble started to shift.  The four workers panicked and rushed to the exit. Ba-shar let an arrow fly when he thought they were rushing him.  One of the men took it in the arm and seemed indifferent, running past him up the stairs.

Martell and Dhavak jumped back as they realized the pile of rock was moving.  Oren assumed that the door was opening beneath the rubble. He hit down on Lady Nattan’s back in frustration.  The three spread out preparing to take on Tariq.  They had no idea what he was capable of or what his reaction would be to his sister laying beaten on the ground.

“Thank you,” said a voice emanating from the clearing rock pile.  “Lady Nattan you have done well releasing me.  Unfortunately, your brother died during the wars for the kingdom.”  A dust cloud obscured the view of whoever it was walking out from behind the chamber.  “Oren is it?  You were quite helpful too in waking me up….” there was some incomprehensible chanting.

Ba-shar had heard enough. He let a bolt fly at whoever it was coming out.  The shadowy figure flinched as it was hit, but the chanting continued.  Ba-shar dropped the crossbow at the sound he heard next.  It was claws rapping on stone.  Lots of them and they were headed down the stairwell.

“We have something coming down the stairs,” Ba-shar commented as he reached to pick the bow back up.

“No, need to worry yourself,” the voice said.  “Just my pets coming down to greet their master. But you have the option to either being a treat for them or assisting me in my endeavors.”

A quiet filled the room as the four exchanged glances. Each with the reluctant acceptance the fighting was not over.  Ba-shar reached to reload the crossbow while moving himself out of the doorway. He was clearly trying to figure a way out of his predicament. Dhavak looked to Martell and they rushed to assault the man in the shadows.

Oren stood; sensing spirits in the room retreating from the individual he now assumed was Casapan.  They feared him, at least the lesser ones did.  He was fixated on trying to grapple with the why of it.  In his distracted state, he almost missed the figure materializing behind him.  Oren shielded himself from a blow from a mace Casapan was wielding.  When he turned to face him he had already retreated across the room.

The speed he moved caused Ba-shar to miss the shot.  He saw the man appear out of nowhere swing something at Oren and then was gone in a flash.  Nothing had ever moved with such speed in the battlefield.  He reloaded preparing for the wyverns approaching.  At least those he knew he could harm.

Oren called to Dhavak and Martell.  The two of them had still been looking for the adversary in the rubble.

“Your choice has been noted.  Though, your besting of poor Lady Nattan was a good indicator.”  Casapan mocked.  He then threw something at Dhavak while muttering a few words.  Unfortunately for Dhavak, it caught him off guard; the object hit him in the left arm shattering and as it did so; it encased most of his arm in stone.

Dhavak shrieked in pain as the stone crushed in on his arm.  It took all his mental strength to focus past the pain and charge at Casapan.  For the first time he was hit.  Dhavak chopped with his blade into Casapan’s shoulder.  Casapan dropped the mace he was wielding, but otherwise did not react.

It was now that the first wyvern poked its head in the room.  It saw Ba-shar and made a beeline for him.  Ba-Shar held the crossbow steady, aiming till he felt he could hold no longer.  Firing the bolt flew, straight into the wyvern’s eye.  The beast cried an unearthly screech; it made the room feel as if it was shaking.  All five of them were slightly disorientated by the sound as it reverberated in their ears.

Out of the people in the room, Martell regained her senses first.  She looked over to Oren to make sure he was still standing.  Above each of Oren’s shoulders a small flame started to appear.  As they grew, Martell recalled seeing something like them once before.  The flames at this point were growing larger into the shape of ravens.

Casapan was next to shake off the disorientation.  He took some object out of a pouch from his left hand and held it against Dhavak while chanting something.  The stone started expanding over more of Dhavak’s body.  One of the birds dove at Casapan, distracting his focus.  This left the left side of Dhavak’s torso and all below his waist encased in stone.  It seemed to stop causing him pain, as he was no longer screaming.  The diving bird had singed some of Casapan’s hair, which was still releasing smoke.

The second bird bore down at Casapan running into his waist.  It broke a belt that held on several pouches, and resulted in Casapan cussing at the creature.  Meanwhile, three more young wyverns made their way into the room.

Martell drew the second dagger she had received from Oren’s family and threw it at Casapan.  It wedged into his back.  Casapan let fly a string of expletives as he unsuccessfully tried to use his talismans.  The birds of flames dove in and started pecking at him, like real birds picking at a carcass. His anguished cries were drowned out by the wyverns as they closed in on Ba-shar.  The bolts he fired this time were not on mark.

Chapter 39

They climbed the stairs which seemed longer going up than down.  When they finally got to the next opening, they were not in the main hall but in a room some ways above it, possibly on the third floor.  It was hard to say with no windows to the outside in the stair well.  The four decided to exit the stairwell and look at the room now before them.  This was some sort of music room.  There were several stringed instruments mounted along one wall.  On a table were a variety of hand bells.  A piano sat off in a far corner adjacent to a door to the room.

They went over to the door and it went out into a hallway going off in two directions.  They took the way that headed toward what they assumed was the front of the stronghold.  There were a few rooms off of the hallway.  They peaked in them as they went by. The first one was an interior bedroom, for someone well positioned in society.  The second was an exterior room that was sleeping quarters for a large group of people, perhaps the guards.  It had no windows, so it was of no use to them.  They continued to a third door that opened up on a walkway that looked down on the great room below.  They ventured out on to the walkway to look for a place to possibly secure a rope and climb down.  Ba-shar was testing the strength of a railing when the room below lit up.

There were lit torches along the wall illuminating a clean room with goblins seated at tables underneath.  They were watching a woman enter from a door off to the side.

“Let me set the scene for you little goblins.  It was a cold winter’s eve and the Lady had finally returned to her brother.  She rapped on his door and he did not stir.  She called his name but there was no response.  Oh, if only she had a key to the door.”  She put on a very distressed look.

The four of them stayed put, unable to move.  Dhavak wanted to grab his crossbow, but clearly could not move it.  Martell tried to move and reach for her dagger to throw, but her body refused.  They heard the door they had entered the room from swing shut.

She then looked up right at them.  “O-ren, you decided to be nice and bring me my key.”  She smiled dramatically. The goblins howled in delight as if they understood all she said. “Thank you my hero.  I shall be united with my brother again and we shall sleep no more.”

Against his will, Oren started to reach into his pouch and pulled out the rod.  It was then he heard a voice call to him in his head, “We can break her control.  But only for one of you, let us know who.”  It was the spirits in the staff reaching out to him.  “Know that we demand blood in exchange for help.”

“Free Martell and you will feast on the goblins below.” Oren thought back to them.

“Very well,” They responded in a delighted tone.

Martell felt herself suddenly back in control of her body.  She found one of the daggers given to her by Oren’s mom had and sent it sailing down at the woman.  It left her hand a moment before Oren released the key flying in the air in the same direction. The woman grabbed at the key and dodged the throw of the dagger.   As soon as the dagger hit the ground, near her, her control over the other three broke.

The goblins, sensing something off, grabbed at their bows and took aim at the group.  Dhavak ran for the door but it would not budge.  Seeing him stuck there, Ba-Shar got a rope out and started preparing a way down for them.  With no real cover, he was not going to let himself die a pincushion.

Ba- Shar slid down the rope to be greeted by a rush of goblins. Once he cleared the bottom, Martell went down, followed by Oren.  Dhavak stayed up top and continued shooting at the goblins.

Oren did not recall much more after that, the fighting was a flurry of movement from his staff.  None of it was at his command. The movements flowed from him as natural as his breath, but it was not due to any skill or training he possessed. He recalled hearing shouts of pain as his staff cracked the bone of the goblins it came in contact with.  There was soreness in his arms he never recalled experiencing before.  His clothes were littered with an abundance of tears and rips.  He saw no blood anywhere on him, a feat he stopped trying to grapple with.

There were dead goblins strewn across the floor.  The sight made him queasy in the stomach.  He looked across the room to Martell who was wiping her swords off on some piece of cloth she had found.  Ba-shar stood stretching, looking at the accomplishment of them all surviving. Dhavak came down from his roost above.  He looked through his inventory and had about half his quiver left.

“She ran through the door over there,” Dhavak pointed.  “We should move quickly, maybe we can stop her before she wakes up her brother.  I got one hit on her before she left, so it might slow her down.

“May not, you saw how she had us frozen up there,” quipped Ba-shar.

“Alright, let’s go, but cautiously.  No idea who else she has waiting for us,” Martell spoke.  She went over and picked up the dagger she had thrown.  She handed it to Oren, “I think that used up the enchantment on it. But the blade is still sharp.”

“Should one of us go back to camp?  The doorway out is right over there.” said Oren.

“I say we continue on,” Ba-shar replied heading to the doorway to follow Lady Nattan.

“Agreed, they will come when we do not report back by dawn’s light,” stated Dhavak.

They went to the doorway and saw it led in a downward direction.  Looking along the ground, Oren spotted some blood, perhaps she was hit after all.  Following the hall, it went down a floor and split into three directions.  Trying to get a sense of what direction to take they looked for any traces of blood.  Lady Nattan must have known she was bleeding as there was a blood trail down all three hallways. Martell and Oren voted for the middle route.

The hallway continued downward into the mountain.  The group had relit their lanterns to see down where they were headed.  Oren paused as he heard from behind them the sound of a shriek.  It reminded him of the wyvern, but was very distant.  He whispered his concern to his companions.  The other three acknowledged that they heard it as well.  It did not bode well for their friends back at camp if there was another one stirring.  However, this was not the time for them to run back to assist.

The hallway opened up to another chamber.  Oren and Martell agreed there was a certain familiarity to the chamber, they saw one of the doors open and the group made their way over to it. They had traversed half the room before they heard some of the doors open.  There was the sound of arrows firing, and Oren immediately moved to shield himself.  When the darkness faded he saw a familiar face charging the group.  Out of the corner of his eye he also saw Ba-shar reeling on the ground as an arrow had pierced into his knee.

Oren took a defensive pose near Ba- Shar while Martell charged to meet Lord Katsutaka in combat.  There were at least four other men with them from Oren’s count. There may have been one more as he saw Dhavak lay down his crossbow and draw a sword.

Martell met two of the assailants, within one strike the first was down on the ground.  The second one hit Martell on the upper left arm, catching her slightly off guard, as she had been more focused on the other attacker.  Oren, meanwhile, waited for one of the men to come over to fight him.  His goal was to keep them away from Ba-shar while he focused on the arrow sticking out of his knee.   Dhavak went to confront Katsutaka.

Oren ultimately found him fending off two of the guards. He found defense to be working far better at this moment as each time he pressed an assault on one of the attackers the other tried to flank him.  Ba-shar had not yet been rendered useless.  He helped parry attacks from his prone position.  Martell had finished off her second assailant and moved to help Oren.  Meanwhile, Dhavak was finding himself well matched against Katsutaka.  The two were doing a good job of tiring one another out, but aside from that, neither was landing a blow squarely on the other.

With Martell’s assistance, Oren was able to break the assault of his attackers.  At about this time Ba-shar removed the arrow out of his knee.

Dhavak finally got the upper hand with Katsutaka and with a final blow that found its way past his armor, cut his neck.  Katsutaka fell over limp.  Dhavak came over to the others to check on Ba-Shar.

“Dhavak, will you stay here with him?”  Oren asked.  “I do not think he would be much use further down here and I would hate to leave him here alone”

“Yes, I would offer to go back to camp if I hadn’t heard the shriek on our way down here.  No telling what is outside currently.  Help us get him to one of these side rooms.  At least he won’t be out in the open then.”

“You do know I am right here,” Ba-shar spoke up.  “Just give me one of the bows, some arrows and my sword.  I can fend off the goblins for hours.  Just need someone to help bandage and splint the leg and I am good.”

“No, you are not,” replied Martell.  “You have no idea if they used poison. The goblins may also bring a wyvern down here and if they do you are not going to be able to fight that. No, the two of you will be a rear guard for us.  At the very least, you can put up a better fight when we are ready to leave and Oren and I are fatigued from what is to come.”

The four bickered a bit longer, but ultimately it was agreed the two would wait here while Oren and Martell went on.

Oren looked to Martell and smiled at her as they proceeded though the door leading to a set of stairs down to where they hoped Lady Nattan and Tariq were.

Chapter 38

Eventually, someone came to wake them up to prepare for the operation.  They were fed a warm meal before they departed and, under cover of dark, the four stealthily made their way to the giant stone walls.  The moonlight was sufficient for their travels.  It would be useless for any finer mechanical work of disarming traps, but that was what the lanterns they had were for.

“The gates look bashed open,” whispered Dhavak. “Possibly wrenched off their hinges, but I would need more light to determine that.”

The four walked slowly inside, watching for the slightest thing out of the ordinary.  The doors to the rooms just past the main gate looked to be ripped off their hinges.

“Ogres?” asked Ba-shar quietly.

“Maybe” replied Martell.

They continued across the courtyard and up a flight of stairs to the entrance of the main hall.  .  They were about to walk up when Oren motioned to stop. He pointed down to a tripwire across the ground.  He leaned down and looked across to see if he could view any more wires.  Seeing none, he motioned them to go over the wire and they continued to their goal.

Further down the path, Ba-shar put his foot down on one of the stones and felt it sink into the ground.  This caused him to stop dead in his tracks.  The trio looked around to see what may be triggered if he lifted his foot off.  A task near impossible in the dark.

“My suggestion is for us all to move away from him, he can roll back.  We have no idea where whatever is triggered will be released from,” commented Martell.

“I agree,” said Ba-shar.  He rolled back and they waited for something to happen.

They waited, holding still for a couple minutes before preparing to move on.  Perhaps it was not a trap or maybe it no longer functioned.  Either way, it was time to make their way to the doors.  Martell, having learned from the last time she was at one of the keeps scanned the courtyard for any statues.  She smiled to herself after seeing none.  Oren was busy examining the door.  He was looking for any type of seal over the entry.

“The two of you do this often?” asked Dhavak

“We were at Erridda when it was opened to free Lady Nattan.  Experience is just making for extra caution is all.  They set up all sorts of traps in these forts.  There may even be wards against creatures, keeping them in or out of this place.”  Oren replied.

“Thanks for the warning.” Dhavak retorted.

Oren found nothing amiss on the door or any seals in place.  He proceeded to push gently on the handle.  It gave way as the door swung inward with relative ease.  The room was dark and colder than outside.  Oren lit his lantern illuminating the room and giving them a better idea of their surroundings.

He saw glimpses of several wooden columns.  There were pristine tapestries along the walls with heraldic symbols he had never seen before on one of them.  Another depicted a story of some kind, but nothing he could make out.  The four made their way past the threshold looking up to see a ceiling that went up to the second floor.

The rest of the room was not as pristine as the tapestries.  There was furniture strewn about as if some fight may have occurred. There were tables turned on their side, some with burn marks others with arrows lodged in the side.  There were two doorways off the main room along with a spiral stairway going both up and down in the corner.

The doorway in one direction was missing the door while the other one was closed and still in good shape.  The group went over to the stairs and investigated for any indication of use.  Not to any surprise, there was no indication. Based on the last stronghold they had entered, Oren and Martell voted for investigating downward.

They made it single file down what was probably two floors based on how long the stairwell was.  The stairs opened up to a room half the size the one above.  They cast the lantern light around.  It revealed they were in a kitchen. There were several ovens and stoves down here with ventilation leading upward.  There was a door at the far end of the room, slightly ajar.  They searched the room and found a few old, sealed bottles of wine.  Oren, Ba-shar and Dhavak each took one and stored it in their bags for later.

They continued to be on the lookout for additional traps, still weary of the courtyard.  Oren took the lead to open the door while the other three stood back.  As he pulled the door open he saw a flicker of light down the hallway.  It was something moving away from them, best he could tell.  The hallway itself was wide enough for them to go down two across, maybe three if it were really needed. Shining a light down the wall, the area was definitely meant to be traversed by servants as the wall were rather bare except for a few places where a lantern or candle may have been placed.

The four of them continued on still in single file; along the way there were a few doors branching off.  Most of the doors were still closed and intact.  There were a couple that had been damaged and one or two that were left open.  Based on the open doors, these must have been stores for food and other goods in the keep.

As they proceeded down the hall, they started catching up to whoever had the light.  It sounded like two or three people ahead, whoever they were. They decided to close in on the group and at least see who they were pursuing.  Picking up the pace they got close enough to see three goblins walking down the hall with a torch.  They appeared to be checking doors, looking inside ones that opened up and passing on locked ones.

The goblins would look inside, mumble to each other and then close the door.  They were indifferent to the amount of the noise made and seemed to be bickering about something as they went along their business.   The four of them could easily have overtaken them as the goblins looked unarmed.  They held back trying to figure out what they were up to or if more were ahead.  Based on the lighting there was no indication of others ahead.

They continued on like this for another little bit before one of the goblins turned back and saw them.  He shouted something and the three turned to run.  Dhavak, quick on his crossbow took a shot at one.  The bolt flew well and hit the goblin in the leg, bringing it to the ground.  He tried to reload to get another off, but by then they had turned a corner out of sight. He released the second shot, finishing off the one he had grounded.

The party went over to the goblin’s corpse to look for anything useful.  A quick search found nothing, unfortunately.  They looked in the room they had left open.  Inside was a giant egg, about the size of a goblin.  It rested on a bed of straw or hay and other fibers.  Martell put her ear up to the side of it.  She could hear something inside, moving around.

“We will need to report this back.  After we take care of Casapan, we should clean these creatures out of here. The last thing the Vales need is several of these.” She said calmly.  “My guess is it is a wyvern, but who knows.”

“Why not take care of this one now?” asked Ba-shar.

“Time,” replied Oren. “Unless you know how long it would take to kill it.  I have no idea how aware and able bodied these things are when they are broken out.”

“Alright, but if we have to fight it before leaving here, I am holding you accountable to the decision.”  Ba-shar grinned.

They pulled the goblin body into the room and closed the door. The four proceeded down the hall, a little less concerned about quiet since some goblins knew they were here.  The hallway started to widen as they went further along.  They realized the walls were less brick and more stone, perhaps an indication they were going back into the mountain itself.

They got to a point where they started to see a light up ahead.   The way it acted led them to think it was mounted in place.  As they moved slightly closer they could hear voices, it was nothing any of them could make out.  It was here that Martell ordered the group to halt.

“Let’s go back up.  I think we have enough reconnaissance to return to the commanders with.” She said.

“That sounds like a wise plan.”  Dhavak said.  “I have no plan of going up four of us against who know how many goblins and possibly wyverns.”

The four turned and high tailed it out of the area.  They made quicker progress, not checking the rooms along the way back.  Oren and Ba-shar took turns glancing back to make sure they were not being pursued at the moment.  When they got to the stairwell, the adrenaline started to wear off.  The group took a moment to catch their breath before going to climb stairs.  Ba-shar would take the lead and Martell would cover the rear with Oren next to her for support if needed.

Chapter 37

As they headed into the clouds, Oren and Martell lost sight of Tabia and the several rows of people in front.  They could make out about five rows ahead of them and that was it.

The troop proceeded for hours in this manner.  Oren and Martel could see the nearby landscape change with different rocks and plants.  The air quality seemed to change with their ascent, as some took time at the side to catch their breath, others moved forward to take their place.  They would eventually fall in line when they were ready to move on.  At some point, they broke to eat lunch.  It was a tasty mix of dried meat and stale bread.  Word was they were three quarters of the way through the clouds.

As far as Oren was concerned, they could have gone around in circles all morning and he would not have noticed. The sentiment was not only his as others had started voicing concern about the endless march without much other than tired feet to show for it.  As a whole, they were willing to put up with it for the day; the issue was they were used to at least a slight change of scenery after this long of a march.

The afternoon entailed more of the same, a gloomy trudge across rocky ground. The talk was kept to a minimum as there was not much to say among Oren and Martell or really any of the company.  Oren was not certain as to how much time passed before word came down the line that the front of the column had broken past the cover.  The light started to filter in past the cloud wall as Oren got closer to the edge.  The cool, clear air was a welcome change from the dense clouds and heavy, moist air.

Oren and Martell could see Wind Gait; it lay about half a day on from where they were.  It would no longer be climbing upward, but now across the ridge of the mountains over to it. They looked back into the clouds and saw only the dense wall that they had seen for hours before.  The rest of the party was forming up into squads for the next part of the approach.  Nobody could have suspected what happened next.

There was a screech from further down the cloud bank as a large reptile sprang forth.  The creature snapped at the priest with the robe bearing a castle and two flames, rearing its head back with his motionless body in its jaw.  It landed on the ground while fumbling with the body.  The priest was tossed out of its mouth across the ground, his clothes now blood soaked.

The creature shrieked again before rearing up on its back legs, clawing at the nearby infantry that had mustered up courage to attack.  A flurry of arrows flew, most bouncing off the wyvern’s scales, with a few lucky shots penetrating.  There was panic and anger flowing through the crowd.  Martell picked up on the lack of leadership, and grabbed those close to her.

“Stand your ground!” she shouted. “Archers fire another volley.”

Some of the men looked to her and saw her preparedness to fight and followed her cue.  Others still in panic retreated for cover.

Oren heard another voice wring out, “You heard her, let’s get back in formation and attack.”  He looked several yards away to see Ba-shar building on her rallying cry.  “Vocknuera, he has insulted us and our allies.  We shall not stand for this.”

Martell and Ba-shar lead a charge of those that stuck with them to attack the wyvern.  Oren looked over to the archers to see that Dhavak was with those firing yet another volley of arrows at the creature.  It winced in pain as arrows found their way into its scaly hide.  Oren followed behind the back of the group charging the wyvern.  He felt his odds were better in the group then being a lone person right now.

The knights made it over to the wyvern and as Martell expected, most blows were not strong enough to pierce the beast’s skin.  Whether it was the strength behind the hit or the weapon itself, she could not say.  She ran to the front of the group, certain her blades would make quick work of the wyvern.  The creature raised its wing claw to swipe at Martell and all went black for a moment.  When she could see again, the beast was stumbling back as if it had just hit a stone wall.

Martell took this moment to plunge her short sword up beneath where the wing attached to the body.  The wyvern howled in pain with the hit.  Meanwhile, several of the men had broken out ropes to throw over the beast and restrain it from thrashing around anymore.   It was mere minutes later they gained control of the situation and the wyvern was dead.

Oren looked around to see that a few of the knights had gone over to the priest and were trying to save him.  From what he caught, they were unable to do anything to counter the damage from the mauling he had just received.  They feared he would be dead before nightfall.

Oren went over to the carcass of the wyvern.  He poked around at it with the staff a little, still uncertain that it was dead.  He was slightly annoyed that it got blood on the end of his staff, but he continued to look at the beast not worrying about that for now.   Oren, like most people had never seen one before and felt both with fascination of its existence and fear that others may be lurking in the peaks.  He was not the only one curious about the beast; others came over to have a look at the carcass as well.

“Impressive creature,” Martell said walking over to him. “They will take that body back when we finish our campaign.”

“What for?”

“The scales mostly.  Its hide is tougher than many things; you saw the arrows bounce off of it.  But then, there are some who will want to study it, learn what they can.  One of the orders will want to study it to learn its weaknesses.”

“I see.  I thought they might use some of it for making talismans.”

“They might…Never thought I would be up against one of these.  Really happy we had an army here to take it down.  I would not have stood a chance alone.”  Martell paused in thought, “So is that darkness what you experience when you shield yourself?”

“Yes, disorientating at times since you don’t see what is going on, but preferable to the alternative.  You would have taken a claw to the face.”

“I missed it until it was too late.  So unwieldy, I prefer something my size that I can track in entirety.”

“Martell, Tabia wants to see you.”  One of the knights said walking over to the two of them.  “You as well Oren.”

“What about?” asked Oren.  “She has been keeping us out of discussions till now.”

“She did not say.  All I was told was to find the two of you and have you report back to her.”  The knight hesitated for a moment, collecting her thoughts and then spoke, “Also, thanks for rallying us Martell.  That beast caught us all by surprise, and could have done more damage if panic had settled in. Some of the men you have fought with said you were with Tethinger in the past.  After hearing of the order’s betrayal, many had concern as to what to expect from you.”

“I am curious as to why the priests or the commanders of the orders are not more organized and let that assault happen.”

“Well, the priests were leading from the front and the commanders were at the rear of the column,” she explained. “I do not know their logic for any of this.  Clearly, if I am out running errands for them, they don’t feel the need to consult strategy with me.”

“Indeed, you are to follow commands like a good little knight,” Oren jabbed.

“You, master Oren, we do not know what to think of you.  Originally, we were told you were here from a merchant house.  Though you are not like any merchant we have ever met and you have talismans that perform in ways that even my superiors can’t recall seeing before.  I would watch your belongings, though we strive for higher morals here, we have not yet all achieved them.”

“Why thank you for the information.  I will make sure I heed your advice.”

They arrived at the tent where Tabia was.  While they had been musing over the corpse of the wyvern, the army had been doing a decent job of setting up a camp and perimeter for the evening.  The knight bowed to them and pulled back the flap for them to enter.  After they walked in, she closed it and stood guard outside.

Inside the tent was a board on the ground with a few papers laid out.  They recognized a crude map which had been drawn up with the surroundings and the stronghold.  Inside the tent were the three commanders of the orders, along with the two priests and both Ba-shar and Dhavak.  It took Oren a moment to see that the third priest lay over in the corner; he looked pale, but was very alert.

“Good, Alana found you quickly.  That means we can get started sooner.  She’s a good knight, though she does occasionally dawdle.”  Tabia spoke.  “Let me do some introductions.  Oren and Martell these are the leaders of the orders.  Knight Commander Aarika of the Vocknuera Order under priest Gera the Silent of Dahl, Knight Commander Kala of Edostera Order harbinger of Latl’s return, and finally we have Knight Commander Attilio of Kaddock Order under priest Obadele of Casapaten.”

“A pleasure to meet you all,” Martell responded.  “How can we be of service to you?”

“We would like the two of you along with Ba-Shar and Dhavak to sneak close to Wind Gait and confirm we can enter.” Tabia spoke calmly.  “We had a couple scouts report back the gates to the stronghold are open and there is no sign of anyone present.”

“This sounds like you are sacrificing us to trigger a trap,” Oren shot back.

“On the contrary, you should be able to keep safe the small group and the other three have proven their prowess in the field above all others.”

“So you think they are gone or do they just not care about us?” Dhavak asked.

“We are uncertain about that,” Kala spoke.  “However sitting out here night and day guessing what may come will get us nowhere.  I also suspect the longer we linger here the more likely another wyvern will assault the camp.”

“Agreed,” Aarika consented.  She continued, “The one out there is only a juvenile, likely that he has family that will eventually come looking for him.”

“So, is this a morning operation or are we to nap and head in under cover of night? Ba-shar asked.

“This will happen tonight.  You will rest once you leave the tent and after the moon rises you will be sent over to check out the fortress.”  Attilio commented. “We wish you best of luck in the infiltration.”

The four took this as a single that it was time for them to leave the tent.  It was not the most diplomatic of goodbyes in Oren’s opinion.  But it did prevent any of them a chance to decline participation.  They wandered back to their tents for a vain attempt at rest.  Oren and Martell were starting to get weary of Tabia; this was not the calm, rational priestess that had met them initially outside Abbysta.  She had changed and was showing less signs of her initial self.  Martell was worried that someday a similar fate might befall her sister.  Oren reassured her that all would be well, but it was little comfort to either knowing that they had no way to control this if it truly was the goddess’s influence.

Oren lay staring up at the roof of the tent unable to sleep.  Martell had passed out a while ago.  In a short while he would be putting his life at risk and for what he wondered?  Would he have been better off having ran like Martell had suggested when there was still time?  How would he deal with Lady Nattan of Casapan if they were really inside the stronghold?  Regardless of them being present, what traps still lay in Wind Gait?  He had learned a few things on disarming traps since his first venture into one of these places, but he was uncertain if his skills would be enough.

The time passed slowly for him in the quiet of the tent.  He could see that the sun was setting from the changing tones of the tent’s tan fabric.  He knew this would be a long night and sleep was not going to come in time.  He figured the other two, being used to this lifestyle had probably also gotten some sleep.

Chapter 36

The trio had made fast progress up the hill with the nine other scouts. Since the number of pathways was limited, the groups had staggered their departure so as to not go up all at one time as a group of twelve.  Oren’s group went up in third place with one more scout group following behind.  The path was not well marked; the lead group was leaving signs of directions taken.  The difficulty in progressing lead them to rotating off with the other team as to who was in the lead.  Oren’s group periodically caught up with whoever was second and listened to their reconnaissance of paths not to take or dead ends into rock.

It was noon when they all met up again.  The path branched off in two directions for quite some distance.  It was here that they split with five people each pursuing a path and two of the other scouts staying behind in case the main body caught up before the correct path could be discerned.  Oren’s group was joined by two other knights to proceed up one path.  After a while up the path, Martell halted the group’s progress.

There was a trip wire across the pathway.  Following the mechanics Martell found it connected to a release that would have triggered a rock slide.  Based on the construction and condition of the materials, she figured it a relative recent creation.  Clearly, someone was trying to dissuade visitors.  She and Ba-shar proceeded to disassemble the trap while the others stayed on the lookout.

The group advanced slowly for the next several hours disarming traps along the way.  One of the other knights was sent back to check on progress of the other team and if they had any clarity as to which path was correct.  It would be a while till they heard back.

The quartet managed their way up the mountain with a few close calls to falling in obscured pits or almost stepping on a trigger for some other misfortune.  The further they made it the more Martell thought this the work of goblins.  The traps were well hidden and placed tactically, but the simplicity of their mechanical workings and the poor quality of the materials implied their constructors.

It was while disarming a trap along the path that the group was taken by surprise.  From above came several arrows from an obscured position.  They hit the rocks around the group, briefly causing small fires to break out as the arrows shattered on impact.  The liquid splashed just missing all four of them.  The two split up with Ba-shar and Oren taking cover behind one set of rocks and Martell and the other knight behind another set of rocks.  They could hear the shouts of what was assumed to be anger coming from the goblins.  Another volley of arrows was released, with some hitting the rocks they used for cover while others landed just past the group.

Ba-shar looked over at Oren, “You ever fight goblins?  This is them at their best.  If you stand up they will hit you and once they hit you, you are going to hurt.”

“No, never had the privilege and I had really hoped to avoid it.  Any advice on what to do?”

“Stay down, wait till they run out of arrows?  They are closer to the trap,” he pointed over at Martell, “If they can get ahold of the bows she might be able to fire back.  Otherwise, the other one has a crossbow on him, but I don’t think that verse all of the goblins will help too much.”

“Should we retreat?” Oren asked

“No, they would strike us down.  Not enough cover from the outcrops.”

Oren looked over to Martell; several fires had started already between the two of them where arrows had hit the ground.  The smoke was not too thick as the goblins seemed to be basing their volley on how much was in the air or if they thought they had a good line of sight on them.

“Ba-shar, how do you feel about enchantments and things of that nature?”

“Anything to give us an edge is fine by me.  Do you have something to get us out of here?”

“Nothing of that nature.  I am going to do something that will make me disappear. When you next see me I will either be further up the slope or behind the goblins.  That should be the disruption you need to move.”

“Nice trick if you can pull it off.  I hope you get behind them and not in front.  If it backfires, then sorry to see you go.”

Oren focused on finding a spirit to transport him.  He found several in the area but not many were willing to do his bidding.  That was okay for his purposes, he would be using several more later to shield him once he moved near the goblins and they would bend to that request.

Ba-shar and Martell watched as Oren slowly faded transparent and then gone.  Martell had to reassure the other knight that all was well and there was no need to panic.  It seemed like a blink of an eye to the three but an eternity to Oren as he guided the spirit to where he wished to end up.  The longer he found himself traveling the more fatigued he felt for focus on his end goal.  The spirit’s will fought back arguing that Oren should either return to his existence or lose itself in the spirit realm.

Oren arrived unnoticed behind a group of goblins.  Before they could react, he swung his staff twice knocking one of them to the ground and stunning another with the blow to its head.  He then proceeded to parry a blow from a third one that had been quick to react with an attempted stab at him.  He then started calling for a spirit to shield himself as he sensed a series of arrows would soon be upon him.

Martell and the other two saw the disruption happen and proceeded to charge up the slope in the confusion that followed.  They dodged the few arrows that flew down at them from a group of goblins that had managed to maintain focus.  The knight with the crossbow, Dhavak, proceeded to shoot and take out one of the archers and give the others with him pause as to which threat they should be facing.

Martell and Ba-shar proceeded to rush to where Oren was, causing panic in the goblin ranks. Some choose to retreat while a handful stayed for the melee.  The fight was over in minutes with only small cuts and bruises being suffered by the four.

They regrouped under cover of an outcrop of rocks.  “It is only a matter of time before they get over their panic. I am going to collect a few of their arrows, see if I can do something to use them,” said Dhavak.

“Okay,” Said Martell, “I say we wait for word to get back to us on if we need to proceed up this path further.  I do not want to risk my life killing goblins when all they are doing is protecting their home.”

“We should still do something about them,” Ba-shar spoke up.

“Not now,” replied Oren.  “This is not a trade route and if we are to take on a keep, we will need all the manpower we can get.  This would be a wasted effort for now.”

They had cleared the path of the bodies and another trap before word got back to them.  This was the proper path for them to be trudging up.  The other route went to a small cabin, possibly some hunter or trapper’s summer residence. The other scouting groups would be over shortly, so for now the group of now six moved on with Dhavak and his two companions taking the lead.

It was evening when they started getting to the clouds that hovered around the mountain.  The order was to find a suitable place below the cloud line for a camp to be setup.  The twelve scouts would be first fed and free of all evening duties for their service.  The view from the mountain side was stunning; had Oren and Martell been on their own, they may have taken a day just looking out over the vales and beyond.

Rowenn was keen to hear about the day’s events.  She relayed that word in camp was that Oren was in possession of a powerful talisman capable of teleporting.  He felt no need to correct it, as he did not want to deal with explaining the truth of his power.  Rowenn was thankful her sister had made it through the ordeal with the goblins and then made certain Oren knew he was to protect her should such things happen again.

The two of them settled in early, as the day had been physically and mentally exhausting to them both.  For the evening, the guard was doubled and watch periods staggered in fear the goblins may sneak down and attack. The cold howling of the winds reminded Oren of someone singing him to sleep as he relaxed curled up with Martell.

The following morning it was decided that Tabia would lead for the first half of the day up through the clouds.  The company would follow by twos; Oren and Martell were near the front.  They were forward enough where they could still initially see Tabia and the four ahead of her.  The plan was that midway through the ascent the priests would rotate as to whom would guide the troop.  The leaders of the order would be left in the rear to make sure no one was left lost in the fog.  Rowenn and the camp were to be left here along with a score of guards.

Chapter 35

Oren woke up in the tent where he had gone to sleep.  He heard the sound of a fire going outside his tent.  Martell was asleep beside him.  He reached over to his belongings; the talisman was still there in one piece.

“Where did you get that?” Rowenn asked.  She had just come back in to the tent and saw the talisman in Oren’s hand.

“It was on the Tethinger Captain.”

“That is a key to something.  The key to the Varelle temple that Tabia has is similar to that.”

“So you are saying it would open up a temple door somewhere?”  Martell spoke up stirred from her slumber by the conversation.

“It might, but it may open a door to some other ancient structure.  Might open something at Wind Gait or the place itself.” Rowenn spoke. “May I see it?”

Oren handed it over to her.  “Lady Nattan wants it, so it had best be kept safe.  She tried to take it.”

Rowenn looked confused, “But there was no one outside or inside here when I came in.”

“Dreams, she has some way of traversing them to contact people and retrieve items.  I think it would be why they have not found any correspondence or messengers from Casapan or his operatives.  She probably delivers word directly to her agents and then they pass it on to lower rank and file.  The problem is we have no idea what type of loyalty he has.  He clearly has influence in the Tethinger Order and some of the former lords loyal to the Drémore family.”

“I think fighting alongside Tabia and the other priests makes sense,” said Martell.  “Though, I don’t know if Oren and I should both fight up front or if one of us should stay with you, Rowenn.”

“I think you should be together.  One of you does not need to babysit me while being nervous about the other’s fate.  Varelle will watch over me as she has done.  The Sienna Paladin has more to it then what we have seen.  I talked to Tabia about them.  They have a way of anticipating your needs and can do simple tasks like fetch items.  She was slightly envious for not having one but, you cannot chose or force them to favor a certain priestess.”

“It is agreed then, we will serve, best we can, the assault force on Wind Gait.  Oren and I will let them know later today.  For now, let us all get some rest; Oren you had best continue to hold on to that key.  You have done well to protect it so far.”

Oren got a few more hours of sleep, with no further visits from Lady Nattan.  The morning was peaceful on this side of the hill.  The day was going to be a bit warmer than the last and just as sunny.  It would be spent idling as they waited for the reaming forces to catch up with them.  The Dahl priest had decided that a prison was the fate for their prisoner.  Though, if he tried to do anything further to aid Casapan, death would be swiftly served.

Martell passed the time sparing with the Vocknuera Knights.  She was pleased with their skill level, though probably not the Vocknuera elite, they would be above your average footman.  She also did some training with Oren to improve his fighting with a staff.  Though not as familiar with his weapon as her own, she could fight in a variety of ways that would encourage him to think about how to best defend and parry attacks.  Martell knew the truth was he was never going to reach her level of combat skills.  Then again, direct combat was not his largest asset.

Oren talked to the spirits residing in his staff.  Eager as they were for combat and the taste of blood, he learned that the thrill of near death, like in the dream last night, also sated their desires.  They were capable of aiding in blocking the attacks Nattan did in this reality much like the dream.  This came with the caution that the spells used here, not in the dream world, would be stronger in effect, so how much they negated would be different.  In other words, if he could dodge out of the way it was still the better choice.  Interestingly, if they did block the attack, they were quite certain they could figure out a way to repel it back at the original caster.  This would take some practice for them to figure out, so again, best not to rely on this as a default defense.

Rowenn spent the time talking with Tabia.  Oren and Martell were uncertain what they discussed.  The assumption by the two was it included something relating to the priesthood.  The Dahl priest sat with them, occasionally penning something and showing it to them.

Everyone at the camp took a turn through the day looking out for the remaining army and keeping watch for any possible return by goblins to the area.  Oren took the last watch; he was scanning the mountain and hills in the direction of Wind Gait.  He saw something flying in the distance.  At first he thought it a hawk or some other raptor.  But then, using the distance of the mountain peaks it flew around, he realized it had to be much larger.  He called over the rest of the group.

There was speculation at first was like Oren’s, that it was just be a large bird. Then it moved closer and, whatever it was, in relation to the ground was larger than anything they had ever encountered.  They all stood watching it fly for a bit, no one choosing to voice their thoughts.  But it was the same thought they each had, was it a wyvern and did Casapan have control over it.  Oren knew his own thoughts went beyond that. Could they already be at Wind Gait and occupying the fortress?  Was this a creature that they had control of back in the Drémore Kingdom?

The silent mulling was broken when Ba-shar called their attention to the approaching forces of the army they had been waiting for.  The priests would talk this over with the captains tonight and tomorrow they would move. The lapse of attention to it made the group lose sight of the flying creature.  This did not remove any shadow of concern they now had in assault.

Oren and Martell were kept out of the planning.  Their roll was seen as helping fill in for the lack of the Tethinger Order’s troops.  Rowenn was part of the planning as her role as a priestess gave her some authority in the campaign.  She tried to protest that Martell was better to have in the discussion, but ultimately lost the debate.

Oren and Martell spent the evening together outside the camp area.  It had been a long journey this far.   And how much longer they had to go was uncertain.  They were sitting on the hill side, looking out to where the flying beast had been.  Martell was resting up against Oren; he could tell she was relaxing by the increasing pressure against him.  This was the most relaxed he had seen her since they met.  She still had some of her armor on from earlier in the day, the cold of it brushed against his neck, waking him up.  A full moon rose on this clear night lighting up the hills and mountains, looking past the mess immediately below, Oren could see the clouds lingering around the tops of certain mountain.

“You know we could leave.  Just let the knights here do their job and go home.”  Martell mused with a relaxed tone.

“What about your sister?  Are we not here for her?  Also what should I do about Lady Nattan and her persistent assault in my dreams?”

“Rowenn already expressed to me that we have done more than enough for her.”

“That is a tempting path to take.  Leave the key here with Rowenn and be off, away from all this.  I could get used to spending my life with you, quietly not being the focus of anyone’s attention other than yours.”

“I had the same thoughts, but I know we will not leave.  Neither of us would rest easily not knowing what happened here.  And if the campaign failed we would be left knowing we may have changed the outcome.  Though once we help out Rowenn, I think I could rest easy with you by my side.”

Looking across the landscape and taking in the stars in the sky, Oren let the words sink in as he pulled her closer.  She reciprocated the sentiment and snuggled closer to him.  They sat for a while enjoying the quiet, cold evening.  Oren’s thoughts periodically drifted all over the place. One moment content with Martell in his arms and the next fearing what would happen in the next couple days.  He concluded from the fluctuations his goal was to get Martell through it alive.  He smiled to himself in his head at the thought; in reality, it would more likely be the reverse, as it has been in several encounters already.

It was some time later when the moon had scaled up the firmament that the voice of Rowenn calling to them broke the intimacy they had found.  She was to relay their orders to them, but she was not going to do it out here.  She ushered them back to the camp where some warmth was to be found for them.

They settled around one of the fires in the camp.  There were several other groups talking around the fire, each involved in their own conversation, but everyone present was really after one thing, some time away from the cold.

“I found out that there are five approaches to the Wind Gait. We will need to get closer to determine what methods we are going to use as we don’t know if they have even entered the keep.  There are a few old tunnels the priests know about if we need to get past the gates.  The concern we really have is what type of wards and enchantments are in place.  Based on what Tabia said about Erridda, I shudder at what they may have waiting for us.”

“I had been putting off dwelling on that…” Oren uttered halfheartedly.

“The two of you will be on one of the scout groups.  Since you are not part of one of the squads that train together regularly, they felt it would be better to use you to search ahead and dispatch any traps and relay information.  Oren, they are uncertain how good you will be in a fight so they want you to stick close to Martell at all times.  I was unable to give them any additional input on how to use your skills better.”

Oren took the tone of her voice as she left his ability unmentioned to anyone.  He was good with that. He did not want to have to deal with being called an enchanter or whatever they might designate him.

“I will be sheltered in the rear with the cook and a couple of blacksmiths.  Our orders are to retreat if we feel the need, but under no situation engage the enemy.”

“Sounds like we should have stayed in the back with you,” Martell joked.

“The other scout that will be with you is Ba-Shar, apparently we made a good impression with him and he wanted to team up with you.  You and three other groups of three will leave at day break with the rest of us moving on at mid-day.  You are to clear the path till you see the fog and report back anything that may hinder the company’s movement.”

Chapter 34

Oren was not keen on the underlying tensions he picked up in the small camp and was feeling ever more so the need to go dig around or root for something.  He had contented himself playing with some coins he had in a  pouch but the desire to do something more active had made itself known in the past couple minutes.

He walked over to the corpse and began rifling through the mess.  He was surprised by how indifferent to the blood he was.  It was as if his expected reaction had been shelved to be addressed later and another part of him may be contented hunting and foraging for a morsel of something…knowledge…treasure…no or yes maybe.  He pulled the captain’s backpack out from under his corpse.  He opened it to find clothes and assorted trail rations.  Oren dug deeper, past some changes of clothes, till he found a stack of paper.

He pulled out the papers and leafed through them.  The first couple were blank, the next was an incomplete letter addressed to a relative maybe.  He went down a couple more and found something from the Tethinger Order.  It started as a list of the people under the captain’s command.  That was followed by opinions of expected behavior in the field.  Buried in the expectations was a mention that they should not proceed past Elman’s pass.  The orders were signed Commander of Tethinger.  Oren browsed the remaining documents and found nothing of further interest.

Oren was still unsatisfied with his need to look around.  He continued to look for anything else of interest on the body.  It was in a belt pouch where he found something that caught his attention.  It was a ruby about the size of his thumbnail, housed in a gold fitting and the end of a clay rod.  All in, the rod was the size of a small fist.  The rod widened halfway down from the jewel, and then narrowed again.    Etched in the clay was the word “Amar”.  It was an odd trinket, nothing Oren had seen before.  He assumed it was a talisman of sorts, but uncertain as to its function or why the captain had not been using it.  The identifying markers for craftsmanship had been removed or worn down.

Oren came back over to the group and presented the papers to Tabia and Martell.  “This is what I found as far as orders.  Do you have any idea how far Elman’s pass is?”

“We would have reached that tomorrow,” replied Tabia.

“Do you know what lies beyond that point?”

“More mountains, but really, it would be another couple days past that till we would need the gods to direct us to the proper path or be lost going in circles.”

“Sounds like your goal was not achieved and they knew it was only a matter of time till you came for them.”

“I agree, so now we will wait and proceed up as an army.”

The party moved their camp back to the other side of the hill for the evening.  The sun settled for the day and there was much not said about the ordeal.  This was not something that any of the survivors were looking to brag about.  The one prisoner looked to be coming to terms with the fate that awaited him.  Tabia was not the same person Oren and Martell had traveled with earlier.  Rowenn felt uncertain as to if she should treat Tabia as an equal or superior.  For the first time, she looked to have some distress about her role as a priestess of Varelle.

Oren woke to find himself in a stone room.  There was a hallway off of it and, after a minute of thought, decided he may as well see where it leads.  He had no sense of if this was a building or a dungeon he was in.  There were no windows to the outer world so orientation aside from the stone room was all he could surmise.  It was not particularly damp or dry, cold or warm.  The more he dwelled on it the more he realized it may be not real. After all, he had just been in the mountains with people around him.  What made this time different was his staff was here, not a dreamed up version, but the actual staff.  When he touched it he could sense the spirits inside.

“O-ren, O-ren, I don’t think you are content with things.”

Oren could not place the voice he heard from down the hall but it knew him.  It was a young, female voice. He wandered down the hall, the voice getting louder as he moved.

“O-ren, you have something of mine.  This really needs to stop happening as I might make the mistake thinking you want to help me.”  The voice was a young lady, it was looked like Lady Nattan, but the voice was off. “O-ren, why do you not stay where I put you?  I locked you away for safe keeping and even left you a playmate.  Yet here you are chasing me and bringing me items.  I would not think you such an obedient mutt.”

“What are you going on about?”  Oren was uncertain about what any of this meant.  He saw a spark of lightning shoot off the tip of the staff when she got closer to him.

“Oh my, little O-ren, you should not play with sticks I do not have you fetch.  I may get hurt.”  She said in a mocking tone, the same patronizing one that someone might use with a pet dog they were playing with. “No, I want the fancy stick you have. Put the large one down please.”

Oren took a defensive stance, ready to parry any move she made on him. “I have nothing for you little lady. Nor am I your errant knight fetching you trinkets.  He is dead, and the more you toy with me the closer you get to his fate.”

“O-ren whatever did I do to you that hurt you so bad?  Clearly nothing that stopped you from having your freedom.”  She reached into a pouch and pulled out a sphere. “Here boy, fetch!”  She threw it at him before he heard her shout a familiar word.  The sphere burst into flame.

He heard one of the spirits in the staff reach out to him in his mind, “I can handle that.”  Oren moved the staff in front of him and as the staff and fire made contact the fire disappeared and a small wooden ball rolled across the floor to Oren.  She was no longer standing on the other side of the fireball.  He had missed her movement.

“And you learn new tricks too?  Oh, if I could only have had you play nice.  No matter, Uncle Casapan will delight in your company.  But now that I relieved you of my property I can go.”

Oren took her banter as initiative to rush to her, he slipped his staff between her legs and tripped her to the floor.  She rolled out of the way of a follow-through hit from his staff and got up.

“Oh, you do have fight in you.  And I see you got my trinket back.  I have asked nicely and you will not comply. Perhaps it is time I did something more…confrontational.”  Lady Nattan uttered a couple words with her palm pointed downward.  Oren felt himself sink into the ground, unable to pull away. “You are in my realm and if I do not like the outcome I can just change it.  This is easy work for me but I can tell you are running out of strength.”

As she said those words, Oren felt himself weaken.  A feeling of sleepiness started to come over him.

“Not to worry, I just need this one item.” She reached to take the talisman he had found on the captain.

He leaned his body making the item fall from him and hit the ground shattering the object to pieces.