Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flight from Unicorn Vale

The Sudden Departure

For a few moments the canary fluttered around Hermel’s head, whistling a cheerful song, before alighting onto a rung of the ladder.   In the smoke and embers that were circulating in the air from the fire above, she seemed to transform into a three inch tall pretty blond girl with gossamer wings.  Hermel rubbed his eyes and looked again.  She fluttered her wings a few times and smiled.  Then with a sudden leap she flew directly to Hermel’s face, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.   Delighted she flew around in a little circle, and then flew away down into the dark mine.

Hermel called out after her but she vanished into the darkness and was gone. He listened intently. From the darkness he heard footsteps approaching. Not wishing to wait and find out to whom they belonged, Hermel climbed the ladder and hoisted himself out of the hole. There was snow on the ground, and covering the pine forest round about. The burned out barn had collapsed completely, and all that was left of it was smoldering ruins with a few spots still burning, casting smoke and embers into the air. In the distance he saw the Prancing Unicorn Inn. There were a few people still milling about putting out the last of the flames, but there was no sign of Hermel’s companions.

Ibis happen to have been at the Inn tending to Korfu who was in bed feverishly sleeping. Praymar had gone with his mother Lanna and his father Ben who had decided to leave the valley and head back to the mysterious Gray Serpent Cave where they’d lost their friends. Star was downstairs in the tavern tending to the wounded. He was not able to save everyone, however, and a few men died of injuries and smoke inhalation. One of the miners had been very badly wounded, crushed by a boulder. The man, Star realized, could not be saved. Before he died, the man gripped Star by the arm, and with blood sputtering from his lips, he took small leather parcel from his vest, and pressed it into Star’s hand.

“Take this to … uuuuuggghhh…” said the man with his least breath.

“Take this to … ‘uhhhhgggghhhh…? Who is ‘uhhhhhggggghhhh’?”, asked Star, but the man was already dead. Without looking at the contents of the parcel, he said the man’s last rights, and went on to help the next miner, whose injuries were such that he could be saved. Star, after that, veritably forgot about the parcel in his haste to help the other victims.

Back at the barn, Hermel heard familiar voices call up from the hole behind him.

“Hello!” shouted Arik.

“Hi!” called Bantum.

Hermel was confused. He couldn’t understand how they wound up being behind him in the mine.

“Hello!” he called down, glad to see them. “Where have you been?”

“We went for a drink somewhere at a Dwarven pub with Thorvain!” shouted Arik merrily as he climbed the ladder and heaved himself out of the hole.

“It was pretty!” said Bantum following behind him. “We ate real good!”

Hermel was very surprised to think that there was a pub in the mine somewhere. In fact, he had trouble quite believing any of it until Bantum said “Look what I got!” and lifted up his bright and shining Dwarven warhammer that he’d received from Thorvain as a gift.

“We have to go,” said Hermel tersely.

“Where to?” asked Arik.

“Hobbington, and as soon as possible,” replied Hermel earnestly.

They walked toward the Inn, and as they approached Star happened to notice them out the window. He put down the bandages he was wrapping, having finished tending to the last injured miner and went outside onto the porch to hail the party members as they came walking up. Meanwhile Ibis had come downstairs as well, and so the members of the adventure group conferred with each other as to what to do next. Hermel was anxious to leave the area as soon as possible; feeling strongly that life expectancy for them all was to be measured in minutes as long as they were within the vale. The last cryptic words of Joe Ricci down in the mine served to convince him that the adventurers were already known suspects among those who controlled the mine. He did not want to wait long enough to find out if his theory was correct.

The Ibis Stratagem

Ibis, however, had other plans.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Ibis. “Korfu is too ill to be moved, and I also have interest in whatever it is that is going on down in the mine. There is a mystery afoot, and I find myself curious to discover more about it,” he said with determination. “I will catch up with you later on.”

As Hermel was anxious for them to escape the vale as quickly as possible, he did not spend much time arguing with Ibis about it. He simply recounted his most recent adventure, and that there were serious dangers in the mine, alluding to his capture and escape from “dangerous persons” who lurked below.

Ibis was not persuaded by this to alter his resolve to enter the mine and find Joe. He felt that he should  apologize to him, thinking that making a friend on the inside of the mine would help him to uncover the mystery more efficiently. He intended to go down in the mine right away, seek out Joe, make his apologies and establish a friendly rapport with the man.

“Where can I meet you in Hobbington when I get there?” asked Ibis of Star. “I hope to follow on behind you as soon as I can,” he said.

“You can find me at the Temple of Eldrik whenever I reside in the township,” replied Star.

“Ibis, you’re probably going to be the death of yourself, and me as well," said Hermel.  "I hope you realize that you’re going to put all of us in danger if you lurk around here sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“No,” said Ibis, “you’re not going to be here, since you’re leaving.”

“Oh I’m sure you won’t intentionally do anything wrong, but if you’re captured and tortured, you will naturally reveal our party’s destination, and put us in jeopardy.”

“Well,” said Arik, responding to Hermel’s point, “we will all be together, and with our new equipment from Thorvain, Bantum and I at least are a force to reckon with! And I have to say, you’re a pretty hardy fighter yourself by now, Hermel,” he concluded.

“I suppose so,” replied Hermel not entirely convinced.

“You know, caution is one thing, but don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid?’ asked Star.

“No, not at all,” answered Hermel. “In fact, lets go.”

“We’re not going to take skinny man with us?’ asked Bantum puzzled by the party split.

“No,” answered Arik, “skinny man is going to follow along behind us later. He needs to rest. Don’t worry, he’s got those skinny legs. He’ll catch up fast.”

“Oh, ok”, said Bantum resigned to not understanding.  He petted Dr. Chickenhiemer and looked to see where everyone else would go.  As the group was talking outside the Prancing Unicorn, Lanna and Ben came trudging through the snow towards them along with their albino son Praymar.

“I just want to say ‘Thank you’, before we leave,” said Lanna to the group. “You helped rescue my husband a second time and we feel a debt of gratitude. But we also feel it’s best to leave immediately, and we wish to go back to the Gray Serpent Cave now that Bantum helped us to learn the secret of how to open the secret tunnel. Our friends may be in danger there, and we must see if we can find them. So, thank you, and farewell.”

“You’re welcome,” said Bantum.

“You’ve been very helpful, Bantum. Thank you,” said Lanna warmly.

“You’re a nice lady,” replied Bantum, looking down at her happily. Ben, limping from an injury in the mine, came and shook each of the adventurers’ hands and thanked all of them.

“Well, good bye, Ben, nice meeting you. That’s a hell of a wife you got there,” said Hermel as they shook hands.

“Well, I think so, too … thanks… uh,” replied Ben not quite sure if he’d been complemented or not. In any case, seeing his limp, Star asked if Ben might want him to take a look at his leg. In a few minutes Star used his medical skills to bind the wound and provide some relief from the pain with an herbal balm. “Almost good as new” said Ben afterwards, stomping his foot down a couple of times appreciatively.  "I don't know how to repay you," he said, "but I'll find a way somehow."

"Don't mention it, please," replied Star politely.

“We’d best be getting along,” Ben said to Lanna and Praymar, and with that they turned and began heading up the path to the gap in the hills which lead out of the Unicorn Vale.

“Good bye all,” said Praymar to the adventurers. No one replied. He said “Good bye all,” again a couple of times in his high squeaky voice.

“Uh… good bye…,” said Arik finally, “…weird bear people…”

Praymar Acknowledged

Hermel, realizing that no one had wanted to say good bye to odd little Praymar hurried after them and shook his hand saying, “Praymar, I underestimated you at first, but you did go down the shaft and freed the miners, so I want to say thank you. Don’t worry if people look askance at your appearance in life. Your merits will eventually shine through in people’s eyes, I’m sure.”

“Oh thank you for saying so,” said Praymar excited that someone had finally acknowledged him. “I’m just glad that someone listened to me and that my dad and the others were saved,” he answered sincerely and shook Hermel’s hand in his surprisingly crushing grip.

“Well, sure sure… uh… you still creep me out, but you did well in the mine, and … so … uh, thanks,” Hermel said wrenching his hand free before it was accidentally crushed by the enthusiastic little albino boy. Praymar’s eyes flashed red and he smiled.

"I have to say, you give me the heeby-jeebies, too, there, Praymar," said Arik, "but you did a good job rescuing my buddy Thorvain and the rest.  We Dwarves owe you something for that.  In fact, keep your freakish red eyes peeled for Thorvain.  He mentioned along the way that he intends to try to catch up with you some time and thank you personally.  I wouldn't be surprised if his doing so turns out rather handsomely for you, young fellow," he said with a wink.

“Well, it’s time we get going,” said Hermel. Turning around looked at Ibis who was standing a little ways off back toward the Prancing Unicorn Inn.

“Good bye Ibis. Take care of yourself and Korfu, and try not to get captured and tortured too much, ok? And good luck with whatever it is you’re planning to do, anyway,” he said, not in the least bit suspecting the vastly sinister plan that Ibis had been planning and plotting ever so slowly and carefully for so many years.

And with their final ‘good byes’ they parted from Ibis and headed down the snow-laden path towards the gap in the hills where the wooden bridge lead out of the vale. They passed the steaming bathing pool on their right and walked through the forest about a mile. It was sunny, but the air was bitter cold and a wind howled through the trees casting long mists of snow along the hill's rocky ridges. As they walked Star looked around in every direction. In fact the entire vale was surrounded on all sides by steep slopes topped with pine trees, and he surmised that the vale itself must be a crater from which there was a single gap through which one might enter or leave. “Quite a strategic location, actually,” he thought to himself, as he peered along the slopes. “No wonder Ibis likes it here, with all his military conjectures and whatnot. Seems the ideal place for him to write his treatise ‘On the Defenses of Mountain Villages and Townships’,” he thought.

The Unknown History of Chickens

As they trudged through the snow Dr. Chickenhiemer was reminiscing.  It was not well known that the very first encounter with chickens among human kind had occurred a very long time ago when a great human General had come upon Dr. Chickenhiemer and his arch-rival, Senior Chickenduku, one blazing hot  morning along the side of a road in the land of the Breex near the sea. The General, whose name was Thamocles, was on his way to confront a gigantic army of invading Derxian forces, and yet had taken the time to observe the two cocks engaging in a fierce battle. He stopped to watch the two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” With that Thamocles and his army were inspired by this display of primal aggression, and marched off to the coast where they went on to defeat the Derxian forces invading the land of the Breex, saving all of Western Civilization from subjugation at the hands of the brutal Obsidion Empire which had risen in the South East during that dark Age. Even to this day, Doctor Chickenhiemer is amused when he remembers that the General had entirely failed to understand what the two cocks had actually been fighting about. It was not merely that Senior Chickenduku would not give way, which he certainly would not, but that he had been conducting a terrible ceremony on behalf of the Obsidion Emperor for the prior eleven weeks, which was on the verge of completion. Had Dr. Chickenhiemer not courageously disrupted it then the Breex would have found themselves entirely destroyed by a ten day rain of flaming hail stones as soon as their army entered the coastal region. Instead, the flaming hailstorm was diverted to the western desert where the Jinn live; killing many of them. Senior Chickenduku’s plan backfired on him and after that the Jinn cursed him, and the wicked Chickenmancer was forced to vanish into obscurity, and probably wound up in a cooking pot somewhere. And so it was that the Western World was saved that day long, long ago, and Dr. Chickenhiemer had been granted an Earldom on the slopes of Mount Palamir. Had his wing allowed himself to do so Dr. Chickenhiemer would have patted himself on the back. He clucked a little chuckle to himself as Bantum carried him in his enormous left arm. As to what happened in the subsequent centuries to his Earldom, his famous bride and their many adventures and discoveries, which would be far too much to cover here in this story, let it suffice to say that Dr. Chickenhiemer had seen and done a great many things, and that his adventures were far from over.  But then he began brooding again about how things had turned out after all with the humans, and once again questioned how it was that the chicken race, so proud and courageous, became food.  It annoyed him tremendously as usual, and he went back to his ruminations on how to remedy the situation somehow.

Ibis Takes a Leap in the Dark

Ibis returned to the Inn and looked in on Korfu who was still sleeping. He decided that it was a good time for him to head back down into the mine in order to apologize to the mechanic Joe Ricci. Since he planned to leave the valley as soon as possible he did not want to delay. He went to the barn and climbed down the broken ladder into the tunnel. He smelled a slight trace of gas in the air he decided against lighting a torch. And so thinking that he knew the way reasonably well he made his way by crawling through the mine slowly expecting to find Joe in short order. It was soon pitch black. He came to the stairs going down and made his way slowly holding to the right hand wall as he went. He turned the corner and went what seemed like a far distance, stumbling here and there over rubble and broken wood. The smell of gas was a bit stronger here.

“Hey Joe!” he called out into the darkness. “If you hear me, throw me some light! I came down to apologize to you about what I said earlier!” There was no answer from the echoing black corridor. He turned the corner where he believed he should find the iron gate and two lion statues. Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching him.

“Joe? Is that you?” he asked the darkness. There was no answer but the footsteps came up to him rapidly.

“Halt!” yelled Ibis when the footsteps had come within five feet. Suddenly he felt a sharp painful whack to the back of his head, and yellow stars flashed in his eyes, and he fell to the ground unconscious.

Ibis found himself in the the familiar dark cavern. There was the little red man standing on the other side of the fire that came out of the hole in the ground. The black tripod with the bronze brazier on it held a pile of feather dolls.

“What was that?!” demanded a little red man with a bristly black look as he adjusted the round bronze glasses on his crooked nose. “I try so hard … and what do you do? Throw yourself down a dark hole!”

“The relics call to me. Their power is of the ancient Elkron. They are worth the risk,” replied Ibis coolly.

“Perhaps,” said the little red devil.

“Can you help me?” asked Ibis.

“Not from here,” said the little red devil and with that he leaped into the hole and vanished with a cackling laugh. Ibis threw a feather doll into the fire. From far below he heard the sound of laughter falling away quickly into dark silence.

Meanwhile, back at the Inn, Korfu began having a very strange dream of his own. He found himself wandering through a vast desert of small round stones and redish colored sand, and coming upon a gigantic stone hand sticking out of the ground some thirty six feet into the blazing sky above. The ground was shimmering with heat. On the top of each finger was a scarlet flame. In the palm of the hand was an inscription, which read, in a language that Korfu somehow recognized, “You have come to the Palace of the Red Desert Jinn. Be Thou Crushed”. He touched the hand and said some words in the same obscure language. How he knew them he could not remember. A doorway opened at the base of the hand, and he saw inside small chamber in which there was a spiral stair going down. He went inside and climbed downward for a long time until and found himself in a cavern. He wandered in the darkness. Eventually he came to a large cavernous chamber with a fire flickering from a hole in the ground. He saw next to it was a brazen bowl on black tripod, in which he saw what looked like a pile of feathers.

Spotting the Tree-Rat

Far away the party was trudging through the snow toward the wooden bridge that lead out of the vale. Star was saying, “You know, that Ibis is a pretty smart guy. I’m sure he will be ok.” At this Lanna took a look back over her shoulder and rolled her eyes.

Meanwhile, in a clump of trees on top of a tall thin hill about three hundred feet ahead, Star spotted a man with a long bow concealing himself behind a tall old pine in the snow. He quickly scanned along the slopes around them and spotted on the far side opposite another tall narrow hill also about three hundred feet from the trail on which he saw another man with a long bow also concealed in a cluster of pine trees.

Not wishing to give away that he’s spotted the men in the trees he walked calmly over to Hermel and Arik and quietly whispered, “It’s a trap. There are men with bows in the hills.”

“Where!?!” shouted Bantum looking around in every direction. “Where are they?”

“The squirrel is over there!” Star shouted, pointing to a tree.

“I want to play with it!” said Bantum excitedly, following behind Arik.

“It’s there!’ It’s a tree rat! Its in its nest!” shouted Arik loudly, pointing to a tree back up behind them along the trail. “Come on Bantum, lets go look at it,” and he took Bantum with him over to the tree where a squirrel happen to be making a panicked dash up the tree. Everyone followed behind, gaining cover from the archers. They were now all clustered together in a clump of pine trees. The squirrel gave a quick wave to Dr. Chickenhiemer, and then leaped onto the branch of another tree, and made his way off into the forest.

“I can scout ahead and try to sneak up on one of the archers,” offered Praymar.

“No,” said Hermel. “We’re all looking at the squirrel. Lets just stick with that for now while we plan this out, ok? Now we need to figure out a way to sneak up on the archers and get the drop on them, right?”

“Mom, can I go scout ahead? I’ll be careful,” said Praymar to Lanna. She looked at Hermel, and replied that he certainly could, but he must go with his father, and be very careful. Hermel sighed and stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets. And so Praymar and Ben headed off in a round about direction to go scout out the archer on the southern hill.

Arik's First Earth Walk

“While Bantum and I were recently with Thorvain, he showed me a very interesting technique known to the Dwarves that allows us to travel through the earth,” said Arik quietly, looking around the side of the tree at one of the men on the rocky hill. “We can use it to make our way to that man, I think, and gain surprise.”

What Thorvain had taught him was that Earth Walking allows a Dwarve, and a guest or two perhaps, to walk through the earth in any direction up to three hundred and sixty feet. “Now the thing about it”, had said Thorvain, “ is that you’ll be walking through the Earth Realm of Minvar and the Earth Elkron. You might meet others along the way, and some might be friendly, while others might be unfriendly, or neither. It’s risky to use if you are not walking along an Earth Road, which is also known as a Ley Line by some wizards. The other thing to know is that time flows differently in the Earth Realm. No time at all will pass in the outer world. But you only have a limited amount of time to go from the Earth Door at the beginning of your path to the Earth Door at the far end. Any stone can serve as an Earth Door, and you pick it by looking at it as you cast the incantation. Once in the Earth Realm you see clues as to the way you must go to find the other door. It will not be a straight line, so stay alert. Sometimes you’ll see a glow on the ground, or a special kind of stone, or some other sign. You’ll know the sign when you see it. Use Earth Walking when you are in dire straights, lad. It’s saved me more than once, and you can bet your beard on that.”

Arik explained these stipulations to Hermel.

“Can you really do this?” asked Hermel, deeply concerned.

“Of course! I’m a Dwarve damit! We do this sort of thing all the time!”

“Oh, and Dwarves can fly?” replied Hermel skeptically.

“Oh ok! I admit I can’t fly. But it’s not my fault Omri decreed that Dwarves should be too sturdy and stocky to fly!” said Arik, finally admitting that all of his claims about flying were actually Dwarven jesting. “Don’t worry, Hermel. It will work. We may get bogged down in some underworld adventure, but even if we do, as long as we survive that we’ll show up at the far Earth Door in a second, no matter how long we spend down there.”

Hermel’s look was one of absolute incredulous shock.

“Look, ok. I know the theory. I’ve never done it myself, but I know I can do it. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll be up on that ledge next to the archer in the blink of Ormi’s eye. Now help me to find a stone around here!” said Arik, now eager to try out his new power.

Hermel’s lips moved, but no words came out. He blinked a few times.

“Come on! Snap out of it!” said Arik. “You’re the one who wanted to get the drop on these guys. Are we going to do this or not?”

“Well when I had that idea, I thought you could fly. Not walk through rock. That’s totally different and much less … uh… believable … somehow…” replied Hermel.

“Like I said, it’s not my fault. Omri gives and Omri takes away. Once upon a time Dwarves could fly, maybe. But I can say quite honestly without jesting – we certainly cannot fly now. But we can walk through the Earth, and heck that’s probably even better if we’re planning to surprise the guy!”

And with that they found a stone, and Arik laid his hands on it, and with an incantation for two, he created the two Earth Doors, one there, and one high up on the ridge behind where the archer was standing.

“You ready?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“Ready for what?” asked Hermel, not seeing that anything had changed other than the wind began blowing a little bit more from the south east.

“It worked!” said Arik affirmatively.

“Short people,” replied Hermel to himself as he peered down at the large boulder before them.

“Come on tallie, let’s go,” said Arik and walked directly into the rock and vanished.

Hermel, very reluctantly held his breath and closed his eyes and followed Arik into the boulder. Stepping through he felt a deep bone chilling cold and was immersed in pitch blackness. Arik took him by the arm and they set off.

Arik, of course, could see in the Earth, and followed what looked like the right path down a shelf of granite, through to a rough section of limestone that made a long sloping stair. They made their way slowly, but Arik was always aware that time was passing, and if they stayed below for too long the other portal would close. And that could be bad. Very bad. So they hurried along as fast as they reasonably could. Which is to say, rather slowly. For Hermel it was a dark and claustrophobic journey, and he felt like he was somehow being sanded down with every step. But that sensation wore off after a while and the only sense he had after that was of a dull and persistently cold numbness.

Eventually, after winding their way through the hidden byways of the earth they came to an opening that lead out of the limestone and into cave in which there was air. Suddenly Hermel knew a kind of relief that he had never imagined before. Panting he shook himself and breathed in deeply. There is nothing like air when you’ve somehow been missing out on it for quite some time. How he managed to breath at all while walking through the earth was something of a mystery, but there you have it. At any rate, it was still pitch black. They heard a burbling sound like the rush of water. The air was cold and wet. Arik could see that they were in a large open cave with an eight-foot wide stream running down the center from a tunnel entrance on the far side of the cave to another tunnel closer to where they had come out of the wall.

“There are two ‘things’, I’m not sure what they are,” said Arik, “on the far side over there. If we light a torch they will see us. Should we do it?”

“If I’m going to die, then I would rather see what’s eating me … I guess,” said Hermel unconvincingly.

They decided to take a chance and light a torch. Once lit, they peered around the cave. Way on the other side near the far tunnel entrance Hermel spotted the two man-like creatures with brown caps and vests hiding behind a rock. Arik took out his axe and held it in one hand, while he held the torch in the other. As soon as the torch was lit the two creatures hid themselves behind a rock.

“Is that Ishcandar and Lido?” wondered Hermel. “They’re short enough…”

It seemed that the only ford for the stream was over where the two creatures were. Trying to cross the stream elsewhere was not going to end well, they thought as they peered into the rushing waters. It seemed to Arik that the path lead to the other side of the stream and into the far wall of the cavern.

“We need to go over to where the creatures are in order to ford the stream,” said Arik. Hermel held his shield up and drew his sword. They walked along the edge of the stream slowly.

One of the creatures poked his head up. He had twigs coming out of his hair, and he looked to be a scrappy almost monkey-like person in a gray vest and brown cap made of leaves. Arik wondered if this were not one of the fabled earth sprites. He had heard tales of such creatures in the past. One such story was about a Dwarven couple who lived together in a deep cave. They finally had a child, and all was well, until one day they discerned that the child would not age. A year went by and the child was still the same as he was when born. Then other strange things happened such as the child suddenly bursting out in song in a strange language. They called the mage, who came and realized that the child was a changeling. He put an iron cross on the fireplace, and offered to make the child boiled eggs. The child upon being offered the eggs ran to the fireplace, and finding the iron cross, shrieked in terror and turned into fire and blew away into the chimney. The mage revealed that the child had been taken by the earth sprites and replaced by a changeling. Fortunately, the changeling was stuck in the chimney. The mage then traded poetic riddles with the changeling and discovered the whereabouts of the Dwarven child and in the end the child was restored to his parents and the changeling fled to whence ever it came.

Arik and Hermel crept forward. The two creatures peered over the top of the rocks they were hiding behind. The only safe ford was directly across from where the creatures were hiding. They crept forward slowly and Arik began trying make a round about path to circle behind the creatures if possible.

“This is ridiculous," said Hermel.  "Hello?” he called to the creatures.

“Fiddle-lee, fiddle-loo – down into the brook with you!” said one of the creatures. When he said this the brook began burbling more, as though a rush of water had come down from the tunnel entrance.  there was a strange laughter echoing throughout the cave.

Arik kept a careful eye on the creatures, but they continued their game of hiding behind the rock. As they stepped forward the stream began burbling more and more loudly. Soon the ford of stones would be covered over.

“We mean you no harm,” said Arik, “We simply wish to cross over to the other side and continue our journey.” There was silence from the other side of the rocks.  Arik knew from the tales that such creatures could be mischievous, and even deadly. They happen to be fond of such things as ‘Bitter Bark’ and ‘Nettle Berries’ and had a particular fondness for silver.

“Well, Googlie-goo, I don’t trust you!” said Hermel, trying his hand at he rhyming game. There was laughter behind the rock, and the stream’s water grew higher.

“Got any bitter bark?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“No, I don’t have any bitter bark,” replied Hermel.

"God any nettle berries?" asked Arik.

"No nettle berries," replied Hermel.

“Do you have any silver?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“Yes. That I have. There were a few pieces in Ishcandar’s pouch,” answered Hermel. In Ishcandar’s pouch he found three silver pieces.

“Oh people of the earth…” began Arik.

“If you can’t rhyme it then don’t say it,” suggested Hermel. “They seem to like rhymes.”

“I’m a story teller, not a poet,” answered Arik, annoyed. He tried a rhyme but it came out so off kilter that it was useless. “I recite Epics, not limericks!”

The creatures rolled their eyes on the other side of the rocks.

“What would you like? A liver? Or a sliver of silver?” asked Hermel in a singsong voice that he hoped would help obscure the truly awful rhyme.

There was no laughter. The stream’s burbling grew louder.

“Look if you don’t let us cross,” called out Arik, “we will recite bad poetry at you. We can keep this up all day, believe me!”

There was no laughter. The stream’s burbling grew louder still.

“There once was a Dwarve from Nantucket…” recited Arik boldly and then let out a loud guffaw. The affront was not lost on the little people.

“Twiddle-Goom, Widdle-Broom, Be thou lost in darkning gloom!” chanted one of the little creatures. And with that, from the stream there appeared a mist, which grew into a fog that began rolling in and started to fill the cave. It was a wet and gloomy fog.

“Lets retreat!” said Hermel, eying the fog nervously. And he began retreating back up the stream the way they came.

“We should try to get across the river!” said Arik.

“We’re better off pacifying these things. You said they like silver, so lets give them some silver. But we need a rhyme,” said Hermel.

“What is it with you and rhyming all of a sudden?” barked Arik as he followed back up the river behind Hermel.

“Rhymes make them happy. It’s like if I were talking with Dwarves… I would use small words,” answered Hermel. Arik bristled his beard at Hermel. From the other side of the rocks they heard the tittering of the creatures.

“You’re welcome!” said Hermel. Meanwhile the fog was filling up the cave.

“Googly-Hay, Googly-Way! Let is through – We can pay!” chanted Hermel loudly.

There was gleeful sounding laughter.

Arik inspected the stream, and found that the water was rapidly rising. He wondered if it could possibly fill the entire cave. He concluded that it was not worth mentioning that possibility. They were enshrouded in fog. Arik felt unusually gloomy.

“Are you feeling gloomy?” he asked Hermel.

“Yes,” answered Hermel.

“You always feel gloomy!” exclaimed Arik. “For you it’s normal. Stupid earth walking,” said Arik gloomily. “It’s not worth walking. I wanted to fly. Damnit.”  Arik's legs began to feel heavy.

There was laughter on the other side of the rocks. Arik peered that way, but the fog was so dense that he could barely see them. The water had risen to the point where the rocks that had been protruding were now submerged.

“Gibily-gee, Gibily-Flea – why won’t you answer me?” called out Hermel into the fog.

“Grumble-ton, Tumble-sun – pay us now, or you better run!” chanted one of the creatures with a peel of ominous laughter.

“You see?” said Hermel to Arik, “they respond to rhymes.”

“So they do, so they do,” replied Arik. “Gobbledy-Gook, Gibbily-Fear – we’ve got your silver right here!” chanted Arik, finally getting into the swing of things.

"Rumble-Fumble, toss our gifts, and best not stumble!” chanted back one of the little earth sprites with another peel of laughter.

With that Arik and Hermel walked back toward where the ford was. Hermel tossed a silver coin. Into the air one twiggish hand sprang up catching the coin. Arik tossed the other coin and the second twiggish hand sprang up and caught it.

The two adventurers could then see that the fog had cleared a bit at the ford, and there was a bridge of flat stones just above the water line by which they could cross. Arik tied a rope around Hermel’s waist and let him cross first.  He very nearly tumbled into the freezing stream, but managed to hold steady and made it across. Arik followed behind. Hermel took the rope in both hands and braced himself against some rocks. Arik came across without any problem, being steady of foot generally, as Dwarves usually are.

“Gee, that was so difficult,” said Arik sarcastically.

“Globeldy-gue, Flobldy-Foo, now that we’re across, thank you!” called Arik behind him as he grabbed Hermel by the shoulder and walked through the wall into the granite ledge. To torch immediately blew out as they entered the stone. They walked up a ridge of crystal quartz and at the top was the Earth Door through which they were to exit. Arik took out his axe and stepped through into the bright sunlight. Hermel took his sword and shield in hand and stepped out behind him. He was blinded by the bright snow and sunlight, and so held his shield up to cover his eyes. Arik was not so affected by the change in lighting, and saw immediately the archer’s back as he stood peering around the side of the tall pine. He charged forward and hacked the man with his axe. Hermel, recovering quickly from the snow blindness, followed behind and engaged the man in the next attack. The archer was utterly surprised, and quickly subdued by the two stalwart warriors. They tied him up with the rope, and looked out over the edge of the towering hill. Down below they could see the span of the snow-covered forest below. They spotted Praymar and Ben making their way through the trees toward the rock on the other side of a brook, some five or six hundred feet from their position to the south.

Praymar and Ben had crept fairly far forward through the scattered woods, trying to stick to the trees to keep from being a target for the archer. Praymar saw the archer cocking back the bow, and at the last second dodged behind a tree. ‘Thwak!”, the arrow hit into the tree next to his right shoulder. Ben pushed Praymar down to a crouching position and took a peek around the side of the tree.  He ran some quick calculations and formulated a tactical plan.

When Star, who had been keeping an eye on the hills with the archers while helping Bantum to find the squirrel, noted that the archers were both engaging in the fight.

“Bantum! Our friends are in trouble!” he cried pointing to the hill where the archer was shooting at Praymar and Ben from.

“In trouble!? Ok! I will help them!” shouted Bantum as he, Star and Lanna ran toward where Praymar and Ben were.

Korfu's Fateful Choice

Meanwhile, back at the Inn, Korfu’s strange dream continued…

Korfu, sleeping, found himself in the cavern, feeling feverish, frightened and confused. He was standing in the dark cavern lit by a flickering red glow emanating from a fire in a pit in front of him. Next to it there was the bronze brazier set on the black iron tripod. He thought there were clumps of feathers in the bowl, and it surprised him that they looked like feather dolls. Suddenly, he noticed the little red-skinned man with a tuft of black hair standing just beyond the fire next to the bowl. The red man looked at Korfu, and adjusted his round brass glasses.

"So, Korfu, you have made yourself the minion of that poor fool Ibis?" asked the little man rhetorically. "Ah, but alas, who knows what fate and destiny have in store, eh?" he continued, not waiting for an answer as he handed Korfu two objects. The first was a finely crafted silver mirror. The second was a gorgeously inlaid silver goblet in which was a green liquid simmering with a white mist bubbling over the top. Korfu took them, feeling that somehow he had seen this little red person before, somewhere, perhaps long ago, but he is not sure.

"Look in the mirror - what do you see?" said the little red man.

Korfu, holding the mirror in his left hand saw in it a strange scene, nothing like what he expected. There he beheld an iron tomb in a round chamber with twelve archways set deep inside a mountain that overlooks all the world. Next to it was Ibis, reaching out for the iron sarcophagus. Purple lightning flashed across the heavens. Above him to the north was a looming cloud of darkness, brewing with thunders. Southward he saw smoke and fires burning from horizon to horizon. The east was shrouded in deepest gloom. To the west was a dreadful storm, unleashing a torrential flood. The world was shaking. Wind was blowing hard all around him. There was thunder. An eye within the tomb opened slowly. He heard a deep thunderous voice intone "Boom Boom rain and gloom, shadow spreads in the wake of doom. North is grim, south does flame, east lurks dark in the western rain." Korfu felt a sudden terror and the blood in his veins ran cold.

Then the scene faded. He then saw in the mirror a tall man wearing a long black and scarlet robe with a golden belt and a mask of gold and turquoise, and precious gems, with a golden cobra set on his forehead and vultures wings spread wide above him. The man was lifting his arms upward and he was laughing with a sound like many thunders. There were two serpents growing out of his body, one on each shoulder. The earth was shaking.

Then the scene went dark, and the mirror clouded, and then reformed into another scene. He saw Ibis in a dark stone room tied to a wooden chair. A brute of some kind was looming over him. A woman with red hair and black skullcap was standing nearby. Someone else was observing from the shadows drinking a cup of wine. Ibis was in danger.  The scene faded from the mirror and Korfu looked up from it.

"Your dear mentor Ibis has fallen into the hands of some outlaws, the poor fool." said the little red devil. "Perhaps you can save him, or at least die with him if you so wish. If you choose to make the attempt, all you need do is drink of the goblet, which will restore your powers, throw a feather doll into the fire... and then leap into the flames after it!" he shrieked as he hurled himself into the flames, his obscene laughter mingling with the crackling sounds of the fiery abyss as he fell headlong down the fiery hole.

Korfu took a feather doll in his hand, tossed it into the flames, and then leaped in after it.  There was a sinister echo of laughter throughout the cavern as the fire died down and the dolls fluttered in the non-existent wind.

Previous Episode: The Unexpected Rendezvous
Next Episode: Battle of Dragon Bridge

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