Marrakest is a medium sized village, Ivy tells me. Seeing it, it is larger than any tribeholding, but much smaller than the city in which I met her. We have traveled a week to be here, near to a keep that we have heard of. It is called Brightstone, and is said to be unoccupied. I have no belief that it is, a deserted place always has some owner ready to claim it. Though it may only be rats, still they claim it. But the stories of gems as large as a fist intrigue us.
Drakha, Relowen, Ivy and I are here, as is Zem, the shaman. The others have gone with Revikh for some other matter, to be tested, he said.
Drakha has spoken with some of the people in the village as I have gathered provisions. She tells me that the Keep had been occupied by an army, but that the army moved on. This army kept goblinoids away from the mines, and the people worry that they might come back.
“If they promise not to become bats when we kill them,” I say, “then we can take it back.” She chuckles, and nods agreement.
We eat and drink, and get directions to the council hall. We are met by an assistant, a young girl who bids us wait as she informs the council of our interest. It is not long before she returns to us, and bids us enter the council chamber.
The council chamber is decorated with parchment and cloth and ink; it is the place of those who war with words, not with weapons. Five people sit, sure in their importance. Their leader, or so I take her to be, speaks to us.
“I hear that you are interested in Brightstone Keep. Tell me, what are your intentions?”
Drakha steps forward, one single step. Her scales are visible, and she runs a hand through her blond hair to keep it from her eyes. She waits just long enough before speaking. “Things have gone badly here, and we are…curious. We may be more force than you can muster in a month.”
The councilor can see that we do not boast, and looks us over. “The army redeployed,” she says, “and everyone in this town is worried about greenksins. Someone or something could take that Keep and use it as a base for raiding.”
“It is our plan to at least check it out,” Drakha says.
The council woman leans back in her chair. “This is good.” She signals another of the council, and this man gives Drakha a rolled parchment.
“A sergeant of the army gave this map to us. You may have it for your scouting. Good luck.”
I grin, and Ivy thanks her with a smirk. We make our own fortune. Zem likes that we will help these people, and tells us he will come along.
Ivy asks of the others, and I say “We will save the others some shiny baubles.” Drakha gives me a glare, and I amend my speech quickly.
“I will save them shiny baubles, then.” She smiles and winks at me, and we set off for the Keep.
We ride, heading to the crudely drawn Keep on the map. I hear a snarl from just behind me and am truly surprised. I dive to the side, freeing my morning star from my belt.
As I stand, I see that a dog has just missed biting me. I am confused; I heard no dog, smelled no dog…and yet this one has just snapped at me. And it has two companions with it, attacking Rel and Drakha.
The thing disappears with a pop and I see it reappear just in front of me, damnably quick. Drakha’s flame breath just catches one, as I swat the one before me across the nose. It rolls with my strike, then blinks away again.
I see Ivy float up into the air, levitating to get out of reach. She sends her purple lines of magick into the dogs, hitting them from time to time. She kills the burned one before I can get to it, and it twitches on the ground.
I feel a pain in my calf, and know that one has appeared behind me. Grunting through the pain, I backhand blindly with my morning star, batting it away. Drakha breathes flame again before it lands, burning it in the air. It lands as a blackened lump. Ivy finishes the last, and we are free to move on. We have fought well, turning what these blink-dogs thought would be a meal into their death. We are now starting to fight as a pack ourselves, knowing when one another will act, trusting our backs to each other.
We ride on, and soon see the Keep before us, three towers rising high. There is a high wall, fifteen feet perhaps. It is difficult to be sure from so far away. We stop at great distance, shielded by trees from any who might watch.
Relowen and I look about, and we see tracks of boots, only days old. I tell Drakha, and she discusses this with Relowen. I do not hear their talk, as I am thinking long on this. I have an idea, and tell them.
“We approach the Keep. If challenged, we say we are travelers, and we go along our way. Then we know who is there.” My three companions look at each other strangely, and then Relowen tells me I have had a good idea. We walk along the road then, walking straight to the Keep.
As we near, I hear strange music floating in the air suddenly. I look about, but can not tell its source. It is perhaps magical, as it nearly calls my rage. In the next breath, arrows crash down into us. We must flee.
“Not my best idea!” I shout. “Perhaps fleeing and returning under the cover of darkness would be wise.” We are wounded as we flee, even Ivy, who attempts to run in my shadow. I am a large target, and such is unwise.
As we reach a safe distance, Ivy whines to Zem “Will you heal me?” I pluck out an arrow from my left arm, and see that it is crude. I grunt and ignore the pain. “Their fears have come to pass,” I say. “This is orcish work, or that of a child.”
“I doubt the keep was taken by children,” Relowen says.
“Just so.” I agree.
Zem approaches me, the words of healing magicks on his lips. “Stop,” I say, and see the question in his eyes. “Pain is a teacher. Heal me before we try again tomorrow night, but leave me with my lesson for now.”
“That is either wise or insane,” he says.
“Both.” I answer, through a smile. He leaves me to my thoughts, and I think long on when to be bold, and when to be cunning. The wise warrior can be both, but often I rely on boldness.
We spend the night resting, and the next day preparing. We will not abide these orcs, and though they are many, we are mighty. And cunning. Better that we deal with them than the villagers so close by. Many would die, I think.
As night falls, we set our plan in motion. We approach cautiously, keeping to shadows in the moonlight. At the edge of an archer’s range, Relowen readies a spell known to rangers, a wall of wind. This will blow arrows away from us as we run. We watch him, and he nods, casting the magick. We charge in, running for the Keep’s entryway.
Ivy blasts the great door with a line of power, and I follow it by only two breaths with my battering ram. I feel the impact throughout my arms, shoulders, and into the small of my back as the wood resists. I strike it a second time, and the great oaken door is sundered, flying wide like a tavern door. We have caught the orcs by surprise, no archers are on the wall.
We immediately turn to our left coming through the gate, running for the first tower. This Keep has three of them. We will take high ground first, to cut down on the orcs’ advantage of archers. On our way through, we notice a great wolf, nearly as large as a horse, chained at the center of the courtyard. I pay it no mind, setting my thoughts to the task at hand.
The tower door is hearty, resisting the ram once, twice. Ivy blasts the latch area, and it gives way. As we charge in, three orcs are running down the stairs to greet us. They are met first by Drakha’s fiery breath, and again by Zem’s lightning. One is cooked like bacon.
I run up the stairs, meeting one with a morning star against the side of its knee. It continues to fight from its back, and it takes me some time to pound it into the stone of the stairs. As I look up from the bloody mess, the third is killed by my companions.
I take the lead up the stairs, and find a small dining room, sloppy with the remnants of three unfinished meals. These orcs would have been well armored, had they bothered. I take a breastplate from a rack, strapping it on. Ivy tells me it is magical, and I believe her. The armor seems lighter than it should, and is comfortable. I ignore the smell, and resolve to clean it later.
Relowen asks if I will give him permission to cast a spell on me, and I accede. He tells us, after laying his magick, that we have become hidden from animals, and can pass by the wolf outside unnoticed. We descend the tower and cross the yard to the smaller of two squat buildings at the Keep’s rear, and indeed the wolf lies still, unaware of our passing.
Having been bold, we now rely on cunning. Zem opens the door, cautiously. We are greeted by snores, and count 8 snoring and drooling orcs. Relowen sneaks among them, slitting throats. As each cut is made, a snore becomes a wheeze, and becomes silence. In minutes, there is no sound from this bunkhouse.
We move to the larger of the two structures, and are met with similar sounds. These orcs have slept through our invasion as well, and will pay for it with their lives. Eleven more opened throats join their companions in the eternal sleep. There are now two towers left to clear, and Relowen points at the nearest. I nod agreement, and we set off.
I work to keep my mind focused. This has been easy, and it would be tempting to relax. Still, we do not know how many orcs may yet live, and we must be ready. I breathe deeply, letting the air swell my chest, and hold it there for a count of five. I exhale. I am ready.
We climb the stair of this tower, and do not need stealth. The orcs above are loud, but their laughter is muffled. It seems the door is closed. Rising to the level of the door, we see that this is true. I count three guttural voices from behind the door. Drakha raises her hand, and makes a chopping motion, and I shoulder into the door with a great heave. It opens with a crash, and we see three orcs, armed and armored.
I bash the first with a mighty swing before it can even look at us. The fight happens in a rush. Relowen is swift, dancing about the room. Drakha’s flame casts shadows, as does Zem’s lightning. Ivy’s magick seems to suck the light from the room. As it finishes, I look to see the elf’s blades dripping blood. I nod to him, and he nods back. We crashed upon them like a storm wave upon the beach.
The last tower goes much the same, though one of the orcs is able to draw a line of blood upon my forearm before I can kill it. We can find no more living orcs, and we breathe a bit easier.
“What shall we do about the wolf?” Drakha asks.
“Kill it,” Ivy says with a shrug.
“Release it,” Relowen says, with feeling.
I care not either way. Zem tells us that it is a winter wolf, intelligent, and capable of speech. Relowen goes to speak with it, and returns quickly. We busy ourselves while he is gone with the gathering of the orcs’ fine swords and armor, knowing that they shall be valuable.
“It is here against its will. It has given a vow to leave this place and keep to the wilds, in exchange for its freedom.”
“You believe it?” I ask.
We walk to the courtyard, and I grasp the iron collar binding the wolf to its chain. I heave, pulling it apart steadily until I feel it suddenly give way, the pins flying somewhere in the darkeness. The wolf is free, and I am shocked to hear it say “Thanks” before loping off into the night. This world has more surprises within it than ever I knew.
We take our rest upon the parapets, exchanging watches in case there is an orc patrol. The night passes without event, and in the morning we gather the orc valuables, and retrieve our horses from our campsite. We have only to check the mines before we can declare our task complete.
It is a short walk to the minehead, and it is gated. There is a chain and a lock, the chains as thick as my wrist. Drakha, shaman of dragons, breathes flame upon the lock and the metal softens somewhat. I strike it soundly with my ram, breaking it apart.
Walking into the shaft, we can hear sounds from within the mine. The entrance is a hub, there are five shafts. It is from the center that we hear the sounds, and so it is into that dank stone tunnel we walk. In but a minute, Rel whispers “Trolls,” and holds up three fingers. His elven eyes can see much farther down the tunnel than ours.
“Quietly”, I ask, “or my way?”
“Right behind the magicks”, Drakha says. I smile.
Ivy and Zem immediately launch their magicks into the trolls, and I charge behind those bolts of power. I call the beast to me, and the rage. I smash into the center troll, releasing all my fury into it. Drakha and Zem envelop another in fire, and I smash my foe’s head repeatedly, without finesse. I crush its skull into a bloody lump, finishing it for good with the magical fire of my morning star. Relowen’s arrows thump into the last, and it is anyone’s guess which of my companions finish it off between magical fire and dark power.
A voice, deep and rough like hewn stone, calls from deeper within the mine. “What is happening you fools?” Silence reins for perhaps a minute, and Relowen sneaks down the tunnel to have a look at what awaits us. We hear the voice again. “You oafs! Answer! I hear you creeping around, you filthy elf-lovers!”
Relowen reappears. His look is grim. “One very large orc. It wears plate armor under a robe.”
We rush down the tunnel, and I am led by Relowen’s arrows as I charge, again calling the raging beast within me. We cannot interrupt its spell, though, and I realize it is a necromancer as skeletons arise from piles of bones on the floor. One rises directly in front of me, and I try to shoulder it aside to reach the orc.
The skeleton stands firm, as hard as stone. I strike at it, trying to take it down quickly. It does not fall, and I am amazed to note that I am not shattering bones with my strikes. I have never fought a skeleton so tough.
Drakha manages to reach the big orc, and breathes flame upon him. The others are surrounded by skeletons, and I see Ivy rise to the ceiling and cast her magicks upon the orc, dark lines of power slamming into its armored chest.
Finally, I am able to strike a mighty enough blow against the skeleton I face, sending its skull flying like a shot from a catapult across the stone floor. Two more close on me, the ones that Ivy had been pressed by. I hear Drakha scream in pain, a sound born of great anguish. I cannot get to her, though.
Relowen calls to me, and I see he is hard pressed, his swords near useless against the rock hard bone of the undead warriors. He faces four of them. I fight hard to get clear and join him, and I tear the spine out of one of my foes. I cannot get to him in time, and I see him fall under the weight of their numbers. I scream out my rage.
I hear Ivy cheer, and I look to see that she has felled the orc. But its minions still press us. Relowen is down, the skeletons he had faced now spreading out to attack the rest of us. Drakha is barely standing, and Zem holds her up as he heals her. Only Ivy is free to move, floating safely like a tiny human stalactite.
I call upon the magic of my gauntlets, and feel my strength grow. I crush the skeleton before me, and rush to stand over the elf. I call to my ancestors, and continue smashing foes, every swing hitting hardened bone. I am dimly aware of Zem beside me, and Relowen rises groggily to his feet. Zem has healed him, as well. The tide of the battle is turning, rising in our favor.
We fight in concert now, Ivy driving spikes of power into skulls from above, Zem shattering bones with his magick, Relowen distracting the skeletons for Drakha and I to crush them with our weapons. It does not take long for us to finish them.
I release the rage, and am surprised to find that I am unwounded. I have fought well, have done my ancestors proud. I am relieved that we all stand, it was a near thing.
I tease Relowen in my relief. “It is not so easy to win a battle from your back, elf.”
He responds with a gesture, a crude one he learned from me. My laughter fills the room.
It has been a month since we liberated the Keep. The town council was less than enthused with our success, worrying that they could not man the Keep. Revikh suggested that we make it our own, and we have agreed.
I look around at the armsmen we have hired, watch their work on this, our stronghold. We have hired a mage and a priest, as well. And we have hired a fine cook, to keep the men happy. No coin buys as much loyalty as good food. We have also given work to many of the villagers, paying them a fine wage to work the mine we have liberated from the orcs.
The stones are strong, and a small plinth has been added to the center of the courtyard. It is a focus, I am told, and the new bracelets we wear can return us to it by powerful magic, though only once in a sevenday.
We have changed our fortunes from a small band on the run. It remains to be seen how long the wheel will turn in good fortune. None of us have forgotten the power of the foe we face. I have not forgotten the riddle of crystal, nor will I rest until it is solved.