The Silver Tower Chronicles Adventures in other worlds, other times, and other realities

26Dec/12Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0026

“So we got to meet one of your nasty elves,” Kava said, “If they are all like that, I can't blame you for your distaste.”

“For a long time, the Halz thought of them as allies. We have several stories of adventures together. After their betrayal, however, research proved the hidden motives of the elves in each tale.”

“I'd like to hear that,” Kava said, “I love tales where people get fooled.”

Ritter sighed, “They are devious. We had no reason to suspect that they only worked with us for their own goals and never for mutual aid. We had given them support for many of their endeavors. We thought it was a wonderful partnership. Let me tell you a tale that demonstrates the difference between what we thought was happening and the real truth behind it.”

“Good, I'm bored,” Kava croaked in reply.

“This tale starts with one of our females,” Ritter said, “Her name was Freya Soulforge. She was the greatest smith of her time and was to be married to the heir of the clan. Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. The great hall of Velindre was assaulted as giants broke through the great mountain walls. The terrible giants battled the warriors of the Soulforge clan and were quickly driven off. All seemed well. However, the great heir to the clan was missing, He had been kidnapped.”

“The clan leader had several sons, however, and named his second son to be heir. If his first son had been captured, he would certainly die at the hands of the giants. Their first priority was to rebuild the mountain wall that protected the city, to make it stronger than ever. After that, vengeance would be sought against the giants for the attack and slaughter. Freya's marriage would now be to the new heir. This did not sit well with her, however. She had fallen in love with the first son. She would not give up on him. There are few things in this world as unstoppable as a Halz woman with a goal.”

“I find it hard to believe your people would just give up on him and attach Freya to a different fiance,” Eurysa hissed.

“This was when giants ruled the world above the ground,” Ritter replied, “Militarily we were not match for them. What little we even knew of them meant we believed they kidnapped people in order to eat them. Our people felt that any lost were already dead, as any that tried to rescue them were slain or captured as well. Our vengeance was meted out in strategic raids, especially using our engineering skills to act as sappers on their buildings.”

“As for a new fiance, that is not unusual for a female Halz. Even in those times when we were at our most fertile, only one in ten children was female. Keeping the population from shrinking was important to our kind, and most Halz women spent most of their young lives bearing children. A Halz who could no longer bear children often was too old to join in more youthful activities. Most end up as leaders of various sorts. Our teachers for most subjects are our women, their knowledge is invaluable. Those who are more physically inclined become the hearth guard, warriors who protect our youngest from harm. They are widely considered to be among the best warriors of the Halz.”

“We had lived all our lives in the mountains, we knew nothing of how the world above ground worked. We were about to learn. Freya pulled out her personal armory. She had crafted the finest of weapons and armor for herself to hone her skills. Nothing like them existed anywhere in the world. She had perfected the art of steel, far stronger than our iron or bronze armaments of the time.”

“Bronze?” Eurysa asked, “This must have been quite long ago.”

Ritter nodded, “It is true. Although we do sometimes make ceremonial armors of bronze even now as a tribute to our past. The clan leader was determined that Freya would not leave, that it was too dangerous and would only result in the loss of another Halz. The fact that it was someone who was both a woman and with such excellent craft skills only made the desire she not be lost even stronger.”

“The attempt to lock her in her room until she came to her senses failed. The guards were found unconscious the next morning and Freya was long gone. The great clan hold went into mourning for her loss. Her death was assumed as there was certainly no way to catch her. She knew all the secret ways, and even if she did not, there was a massive hole to the outside that the giants had created.”

“Freya followed the trail of the giants. She found their encampment and saw her fiance alive in a cage. He was not the only creature caged there. She understood the tongue of giants, many of the Halz had learned it so that we could better defend against them. It is far easier when you know what your foes words and plans mean. She overheard that the giants did not eat people of any kind, they were using the various people they captured as labor. The Halz were valued for their engineering expertise.”

“Even with the power of steel, Freya knew she was no match for the giants. Yet the news that her love was valuable to the giants and would be treated well meant that she had time to rescue him. Thus she began a quest to find people who would aid her in her quest. She visited the clan halls of the other Halz. Most thought her tale insane. As the creativity and inspiration of the Soulforge clan were quite often mixed with madness, Freya was easy to brush off in their minds. However, there were those in each hold who held out hope that their relatives remained alive. She slowly gathered a few boon companions to follow her.”

“There was Gunther Goldbeard for one. He was a portly Halz who had turned to drink when his son had been stolen. He was not much use as a warrior, but Freya admired his determination. He gave up his drink and traveled with her on the quest to rescue his son. By his reckoning, he was of no use to his people as he was. The hope to see his son again drove him.”

“Another was Ulf Silveraxe. He had no one to rescue in the most literal of senses. His family had been slain in a raid by giants. He was out for revenge. He had honed himself into a deadly warrior. Without Freya intervention, it was likely he would have gone on a suicidal attack. He was wise enough to recognize that as a team, the group might actually effect some real vengeance on the giants.”

“Then there were the twins Barnard and Barrett of the Orcdoom clan. Like many of the Orcdoom at the time, they one one of a large number of offspring. They wished to prove themselves on an adventure, or at least to prove one or the other was the best. They had long been in competition with each other, as well as all their older siblings.”

“Perhaps the most intelligent of the group was Klaus Stonehammer. He was a student of many fields and he leapt at a chance to study and document the giants. He figured that anything they could learn about the giants could eventually be used to defeat this ancient enemy. He was enormous for a Halz but had never believed in violence. Still, Freya valued his wisdom and his keen tactical mind.”

“Dietrich Diamondheart promised a small retinue of warriors to aid the cause, but that he needed to see the situation for himself before he would commit his resources. The Diamondheart clan had long suffered some of the worst losses to the giants. If this was an opportunity to strike at the giants in a way that would cripple them, then his clan would certainly provide enough warriors to give the giants pause.”

“Otto Platinum was the last of the Halz to join the cause. At first it seemed that none of my clan would join Freya. We had never been attacked by the giants and felt quite safe from their depredations. Otto had the wisdom to see past the politics of hiding. He had long felt that the isolationist tendencies of my people caused more problems than they solved. As Freya was leaving our great hold, he made a stealthy escape to join the company.”

“Freya dared not return to her own clan hold. She feared they would capture her and try to hold her for her own good. All the other clans had deemed her words likely the ravings of the insane, only her status as the female of another clan kept her from being imprisoned by any of them. The rarity of our females meant a great many codes that protect them from harm, persecution, or prosecution by other clans unless there was a direct threat of harm to the people of that clan. Even then the role of justice was merely to capture the female unharmed and return her to her home clan for restitution.”

“However, eight Halz with few warriors among them was not enough to rescue the heir to the Soulforge clan. Freya's first goal was to take the group through the land and show them what the giants were truly up to. Then she could have aid from the Diamondheart clan at the very least. All of the Halz were quickly shocked at how easy it was to travel through the land without being attacked. While each giant was mighty, they were relatively few and could not be everywhere.”

“The group studied the giants and their movements for many months. Then in the far south they spotted something odd. The giants had taken prisoners, but they were not Halz. They were a race we had never seen before. It was the elves. Freya had found the potential for new allies in her quest. Finding the home of the elves would be impossible for Freya, but the elves found us first. They were suspicious of Freya, especially as our only common language was that of the giants.”

“However, as they had lived above ground for all their lives, they had seen the giants take other Halz as prisoners. They agreed that being able to deprive the giants of their captives was a good plan. They wanted their own people returned as well and promised to mobilize a great many elves to aid the cause. For now they sent a mere three with the group to scout out the situation and to help convince the Halz to send more soldiers. The elves saw our great clan halls and met our people.”

“They were astounded by our knowledge of smithing and engineering. Our people were amazed by their knowledge of nature and of the lands above. Even the Soulforge clan sent representatives. Soon Freya was leading a small army of Halz. They were joined by a small army of elves. Freya led a mighty attack on the fortress that stood near here, the ruins we now call Center Point. Most of the slaves were kept there. The battle was ferocious, but the giants were not expecting to be attacked.”

“Freya had won the battle to free her love, but the war had just begun. The madness of the Soulforge clan had been manifested fully, but it was not in Freya. There is a reason I have not used the name of her love, the long lost heir to the Soulforge clan. It is because I do not know it. His name was scrubbed from all records and he was cast from the names of the Halz for all time. His madness had led him down a dark path. The attack on the Soulforge clan hold had not been random.”

“He had led the giants there and they made a distraction so that he could escape. He had no love for Freya or his fellow Halz. His sole love was in creation. As heir to the clan leadership, he would have no time for engineering and construction. His duty would keep him from his true love. With that knowledge, he snapped. There were many paths he could have taken to flee his duty, but in his madness he chose the one with death and destruction. He wanted not just freedom, but to destroy his shackles without mercy.”

“Madness runs deep in the Soulforge clan it is said. Learning of the betrayal of her love broke Freya. It is said the roar she unleashed that day could be heard across the continent. That is where this tale turns dark indeed.”

19Dec/12Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0025

Gierig grinned as he charged forward. His axe slashed through the air. Ritter deflected the blow with his shield as he stepped to the side for a better angle. His warhammer crashed past Gierig's defenses and clanged on heavy armor. Gierig grunted, but no real damage had been done. The two Halz traded blows, each seeking an advantage or opening. Neither could land a solid blow. Ritter was surprised at Gierig's skill. He thought the quest for vengeance would have distracted his foe.

However, Gierig had perfect focus. Ritter wondered if their last combat had prepared Gierig for this. Another possibility flitted into his mind. Working together may have allowed Gierig to get used to Ritter and to properly focus his rage. It had made the treacherous dwarf far more dangerous than Ritter had anticipated. However, it was obvious that Gierig did not have Ritter's extensive training. Ritter waited and fought, learning his foes moves while Gierig slowly became frustrated.

When the opening came, Ritter swung with all his might. Gierig's armor caved in on that side. He hit the ground with a thud and his axe clattered across the rocky terrain as it slipped from his grasp. Gierig was beaten. He laid on the ground panting. Ritter's warhammer had not only damaged the armor, but had likely shattered at least one of Gierig's ribs.

“It is over then,” Ritter said in Nuvro.

The general of the Halz forces nodded in return, “We shall take the axe and hammer and keep them out of anyone's hands. They will be symbols to inspire our people. We will survive, and we will do it without aid.”

“I see no reason to stop you,” Ritter replied, “I wish you luck in aiding our people. I shall continue my search out here for now. Hopefully one of us will find a solution.”

“That is quite pragmatic,” Befehlen stated, “But I would expect no less from someone with your background. I may think your quest to be pointless, but even I can admit my plan may fail. Perhaps we will meet again under better circumstance young prince.”

As things began to settle down Ritter turned and moved back towards the Irregulars. He heard a yell of protest from Befehlen towards someone not to grab the Silveraxe. This didn't strike Ritter as odd. It was a dangerous artifact. It had to be handled carefully and it made Ritter relax to think that this Foundation group had their priorities straight on that. It was the eyes of his teammates that told Ritter that not all was right.

A growl from behind him and the odd looks of his fellows made Ritter turn. He saw Gierig rushing him with the Silveraxe itself. His eyes were consumed with rage. A fire burned in the black orbs. The power of the axe had let Gierig come at unheard of speed. He was ignoring his wounds, feeling no pain. It might have been shock or adrenalin. More than likely the power of the magical axe had given Gierig strength.

The manic Halz stopped his charge suddenly. Ritter wondered how that could be. Beside Gierig was Kava. Her axe was planted firmly in the weak spot in Gierig's armor. The rage faded from his eyes as he slumped to his knees. Kava ripped her axe from his side and kicked the bleeding dwarf to the ground.

“I told you there were debts you owed me,” the vodyanoi croaked.

Befehlen's soldiers quickly and carefully retrieved the axe as the general spoke, “You have shown no honor Gierig Silveraxe. We shall not slay you, but you are not welcome among us.”

It was another exile. Gierig was no longer welcome anywhere. Unity was his enemy. The Irregulars and the Foundation wanted nothing to do with him. He had nowhere to go. Ritter wanted to feel sorry for him, but it was a punishment of Gierig's own making. The Halz were tough. Ritter imagined that Gierig would survive the wounds he had been given.

“I will recover,” Gierig gurgled, “I will have my revenge.”

“Perhaps you should find a better reason to live on than revenge,” Ritter replied as he joined Enzi.

Enzi and the five mercenaries made their way back towards their wagon. The group nursed their wounds and bruises as they set off. With Unity and a great many mercenaries after them, they had no idea where to go. Enzi was not deterred.

“Are you sure those weapons are safe from causing harm?” Enzi finally asked.

Ritter nodded, “Our people have a love for our culture and the well being of the future of the Halz. This drives our need for honor and trust among each other. Gierig is an exception. His lust for revenge blinded him.”

Enzi nodded, “Perhaps it would have been better to slay him.”

“Perhaps,” Ritter agreed, “He may yet die from his wounds. I doubt it, we Halz have a strong fortitude against disease and infection. I imagine he will recover. But he has no friends or support. All those that hunt us now also hunt him, yet we still have allies. He is no threat to us. He showed that he had some of the honor of a true Halz inside him, despite his treachery. I could not slay him and deny him the chance to redeem himself.”

Kava grinned with her overly wide mouth, “Yes, hopefully he comes back for more. I owed him for two, and only gave him one.”

***

The foul smell seemed to seep into everything. The Tarvoni did not believe he would ever be able to get used to the stench of the goblinoids. It did not help that most of they land they lived on was swampy. The amount of filth they left around rotted in the moisture. They didn't care where they dropped their trash or even where they unleashed their biological waste. Their resistance to disease was remarkable.

As for the stench, the Tarvoni suspected that the goblinoids did not have much of a sense of smell. They had no noses, they breathed through their mouths. It made them almost sound like they were panting at times. It was unnerving to the human. The enormous creatures they rode, the creatures they called wargs, also had no nose. The Agonish called the wargs barghests. Rumors had said the barghests were able to take a humanoid form. The Tarvoni knew that wasn't true.

However, the wargs had a hairless humanoid face and their four legs were shaped and muscled in a way that reminded people of human proportions. Otherwise they seemed more like massive wolves. The Tarvoni suspected that lycanthropes had been mistaken for wargs at some point. In their animal forms, however, the lycanthropes appeared like a giant wolf. Even then, the wargs were much larger. The smaller goblinoids rode them like horses.

One of the goblinoids approached the Tarvoni and spoke in its own foul tongue, “You come human. They ready for you.”

There were four basic types of goblinoids. This messenger was of the smallest type, what humans called a goblin. Goblins rarely had much hair, what hair they did have made them look like an animal with mange. They were scrawny, but were otherwise as large as a dwarf. They were the most numerous and bred like rats. However, the larger goblinoids often used them as slaves or as expendable soldiers.

Larger than the goblins were what humans called the hobgoblins. They were human size but were covered entirely with fur. They rarely lived in the swampier areas, instead making their homes in the hillier areas near the mountains. They trained griffins as their steeds and perhaps had the most skill with weapons. Their main competition for that was the orcs. Orcs were mostly hairless, like goblins. They were slightly larger than hobgoblins in height, but much larger in pure muscle.

Orcs were the brawn of the goblinoids. Their ferocity made them dangerous, even among the goblinoids. The largest of the goblinoids, however, were the bugbears. They did not have the raw muscle of the orc, but their bulk was considerable. They were the survivors of the goblinoids, living deep in the swamps. They were furred like the hobgoblins, but their fur was made for the water. They would often make their way stealthily through the swamps and ambush their foes. Their ability to hold their breath was unrivaled.

The Tarvoni was led out of the slightly marshy area he had been waiting in. He followed the goblin into the nearby hills. The majestic Nuvro Range blocked passage to the east, but caves and paths on the mountains made for a large number of places for the goblinoids to work. A hobgoblin shooed the goblin away and turned to address the Tarvoni.

“Gree,” the hobgoblin said, “We know you have skills in summoning creatures. We have been training our pet that had been brought to us, but we no longer have anything worthy for it to fight. We also need something to convince those who stand against our crusade that the beast is unstoppable. The war with the humans is inevitable. We appreciate that your people see our worth.”

Gree knew that his people had sent him here to help the goblinoids weaken the northern kingdoms. He had no respect for them. They were useful pawns. He suspected the goblinoids saw him in the same light. A pawn to aid their goals. However, the goblinoids were too divided to ever win. Their goals were pitifully obvious to Gree. However, as he was led to the creature that was being trained, he breath was swept away.

The egg that the Tarvoni had brought had been enormous. Sneaking it into Goblinoid territory had been one of the greatest subterfuges that the Abyss Cult had ever pulled off. Gree had expected a dangerous creature, but this thing was beyond his imagination. Greenish black scales glistened on the creature's hide. Immense leathery wings stretched out and knocked over some careless goblins. The immense flying lizard turned its head towards Gree.

The eyes bit into the Tarvoni's soul. This was a monster. Yet it was worse than that. It was intelligent and cunning. It had been adopted by the goblinoids and taught to be a weapon of war. Gree wondered how much sharper its mind might be if it had been filled with knowledge. Even without that, it was capable of learning and understanding.

Then it spoke, “This is the one to bring me a challenge?”

“Yes, great one,” the hobgoblin beside Gree replied.

“I hope so, this is starting to get boring,” the mighty lizard said in its booming voice.

The goblinoids words sounded unnatural from the creature's mouth. But this was a creature that Gree had trouble believing was real. He had thought the egg was from some ordinary monster that the lizardfolk had worshiped. Yet now he saw that the lizardfolk were correct. This was the offspring of a dragon. This child of a dragon, a drake as legend called them, was certainly powerful. Gree grinned as a number of terrible ideas flitted through his mind.

“Well then,” the Tarvoni stated, “Let us see what you are capable of, mighty dragon.”

***

Ritter looked out over the Disputed Lands. He wondered why he hadn't gone with the other Halz. If the humans were hunting him with the other Irregulars, it was questionable as to what use his experiment above ground would lead to. He realized his goal had changed, however as he looked over those he had fought beside. They were in trouble through no fault of their own. There was an enemy that needed defeated.

The Halz planned to do his best to make sure that the Irregulars would survive and prove themselves once again. Having a new goal comforted the dwarf. It gave him focus. The future was impossible to predict and he had no idea what fate had in store for him and his allies. However, as long as he could stand on his own two feet, he would not allow the villains to win.

Enzi's Irregulars would have their day in the light again. Ritter planned to see to it himself if it came to that.

12Dec/12Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0024

All the mercenaries stepped over the dead elf except Eurysa. She stayed to watch the cave entrance. Mayitso looked back once as the group traveled on. He stayed in the rear, keeping his sharp senses ready. With his speed, he could aid the gorgon is battle quickly. That was assuming that their goal was not much further inside the cave tunnel. Soon the group came to the back wall of the cave.

The wall had obviously been built there. It appeared to be perfectly flat and smooth. However, there was writing upon it. The flowing script was almost certainly elven. No one in the group could read the language. Gierig merely snorted and kicked the wall. There was a loud cracking sound and the treacherous Halz grunted. Enzi soon had the group rearrange themselves so that Aldebaran was at front. The massive minotaur was able to break down the thin wall quite easily.

Beyond the broken wall sat a vast domed cave. The lantern Enzi had with him only lit enough to show the walls seemed to be as smooth as the one they had broken through. The floor also looked perfectly smooth. In the center of the room sat a pedestal. On the pedestal sat an enormous dwarven maul. As he was in the lead, Aldebaran took the first steps forward. However, as soon as his hooves stepped past the debris from the shattered wall, they slipped.

The minotaur hit the ground with a loud thud and Enzi spoke in Nuvro, “So the floor very nearly is perfectly smooth. At least we have been provided a solution. The debris and the damage done here gave some traction. This floor, like the walls, seems easily damaged. So let us make a path.”

This time Ritter led the way. Using his warhammer, he smashed the floor and any rocks the mercenaries tossed forward. It made for a path that was treacherous to walk upon, but far safer than the smooth and slippery floor. Ritter sheathed his weapon and stowed his shield as he stood at the base of the pedestal. With both hands he grasped the enormous maul.

The weapon was extraordinarily heavy. The Halz was not expecting that and it nearly slipped from his grasp. The mighty two handed hammer hit the floor with a loud reverberating thud. Ritter felt his ears pop from the sudden change in pressure in the room. The floor rippled from where the hammer had hit and the ripples continued until they hit a wall. Suddenly a section of that wall shifted backwards.

At first the group thought it was some sort of secret door, but the engineer in Ritter told him the truth. The stone had been compressed by the hammer. It had been used to create the room they were standing in. It puzzled him that the compressed stone would be so brittle and easy to damage, however. That went against his knowledge of materials. He wondered if the properties that allowed the hammer to shift stone like that also weakened the stone somehow. Certainly weakening stone could earn the maul its title as the Hammer of Ruin.

“I didn't think the hammer was supposed to have any power?” Enzi asked.

Ritter shrugged, “No stories tell of that. I am as surprised as you. I expected a less fantastical reason for its name.”

Mayitso raised his head suddenly, sniffing the air. He growled then turned and ran down the tunnel back towards Eurysa.

“That can't be good,” Kava said, “But I sure hope its fun.”

The group rushed back towards the entrance. Eurysa's bow was at the ready as Mayitso sniffed the air. Ritter could see shapes moving outside, but the transition between the dim cave and the bright outdoors made it difficult to ascertain exact numbers.

“Leave the hammer here,” Gierig said, “Lets go meet these foes as a wall of Halz forged steel.”

Ritter nodded, putting the dwarven maul down and drawing his shield and warhammer for battle. The two heavily armed dwarves led the way. Out side sat a ragtag collection of mercenaries.

One of the armored men swaggered forward and spoke in Nuvro, “Ah, Gierig. First you brought us our axe, now our hammer. How nice.”

“So where is the axe?” Gierig asked.

“Oh, we couldn't leave the dwarf weapons apart. We brought it with us.”

“That seems foolish, do you think this band of mercenaries is enough to stop even two Halz, let alone the rest of the warriors here with us?” Gierig asked.

The man shrugged as the two Halz moved forward. The rest Enzi's Irregulars came out of the cave, maneuvering so that all could fight.

“Finally some room to fight,” Kava said, “Too bad there are so few foes.”

The male mercenary who had addressed the two Halz smiled, “Well, we can certainly fix that.”

Dozens of soldiers in heavy armor made their way out from behind rocks, as more stealthy warriors rose from behind the grassy hills. A small army now faced Enzi's Irregulars. Eurysa and Enzi glanced back at the cave and the strategic cover it provided.

“I wouldn't do that if I were you,” the mercenary leader said, “We have more than enough crossbows trained on you to kill you all. I don't see the hammer.”

“If you could see it, we would already be dead,” Enzi replied.

“True enough,” the man said, pulling out the magical heirloom of the Silveraxe clan as his own weapon.

Ritter and Enzi shared a glance. They could see the blood-lust in the man's eyes. The overconfidence. It was perhaps warranted. Gierig, however, was strangely confident himself.

“Surrender the axe of my clan and perhaps we shall let you live,” Gierig yelled out, “Both heirlooms will fall in the hands of the Halz this day!”

“You served your purpose little dwarf,” the leader replied snidely, “Your little group stands no chance. Provide the hammer willingly and I might consider letting you live through this.”

“Oh, let me tell you an ancient Halz saying,” Gierig said, then yelled something in his native tongue, “Beendenklar!”

Ritter's eyes showed his visible shock. Gierig had just yelled the Halz signal that all was in place and ready. It was a simple term that was used to signal that someone else should do their part of the job as all was complete and the path was clear for them. At that signal the many rocky formations near the cave seemed to fall apart. A small battalion of Halz seemingly erupted from the stone itself.

The human army seemed surprised, but there was nowhere to run, the Halz had them surrounded. There was no time to ask questions, the Irregulars burst into action. Kava croaked out a mad cackle as she dove into battle. Eurysa's bowstring sang as it loosed arrow after arrow. Mayitso's mighty jaws hewed flesh from bone. Aldebaran cuts his foes down as if he were a farmer reaping wheat. Enzi's unarmed skill continued to impress Ritter as the Feergrus man took down his foes with cold efficiency.

Ritter himself smashed foe after foe with his warhammer, fighting nearly in sync with Gierig. Gierig's battleaxe cut down foes easily. The two Halz may have been rivals or enemies, but their combat training and their trust that each would keep their word of an alliance allowed them to fight seamlessly together. The other Halz showed equally efficient teamwork.

***

Naphar Bura watched the scene unfold and shook his head. The Kurrot Cleanser had hoped the time had come to end the menace of the monsters known as Enzi's irregulars. He worried about the future. News told of an increase in goblinoid attacks. Bugbears had been coming from the Siren Swamps into Kurrot. They dared not try to attack Ravalei with the golems that protected the borders there. This merely funneled them into Nuvroc or Kurrot in the north. To the south, Lake Hargis and its mighty rivers pushed the goblinoids into Agon unless they dared use boats or take the even more foolish route of trying to swim across.

While Bugbears were used to water, the other goblinoids did not have the same natural advantages of the marsh dwellers. If war came, Naphar wondered if that would lower the number of opportunities to slay the Irregulars. He could not imagine anyone hiring them to help in the war effort, even against foes like the goblinoids. Especially now that their crimes were known to many. He feared most of all that the mercenaries of the Disputed Lands would leave it undefended in order to end the larger threat of the goblinoids.

The damage that the Irregulars could do without anything to stop them was staggering to Naphar. He had to find a solution. He turned and left as the battle soured for the humans. To Naphar it proved that even the dwarves could not be trusted. The Nuvroci put too much stock in their supposed nobility. They were not human, despite their similarities. The Cleanser pondered his options as he left. He would not give up in his quest. The trophies that the Irregulars would provide for him would make his name in the world. He would be able to ask any price for his services.

***

The field of battle was slick with the blood of a great many. Aldebaran nursed a cut he had taken across his mighty chest. Kava wiped blood from her enormous orange eyes. Mostly it was not her own blood, though she had hit her head pretty hard once to avoid a blade. The ground had not been forgiving to her skull. The battalion of Halz made sure their foes were down then slowly gathered. The Irregulars gathered together, taking stock of their situation.

Gierig joined the new group of Halz, a grin on his stony face. Ritter instantly was on guard as the battalion formed into ranks once again. One of the Halz soldiers stepped forward. A ragged scar marked his grizzled face. One of his eyes was blinded, showing as a pure white rather than the normal pure black. His crystalline hair was gray with age.

He spoke in the language of the dwarves, “You have recovered the Hammer of Ruin.”

“Who are you?” Ritter asked.

“I am Grandmaster Befehlen Diamondheart, a general for the Foundation.”

“The Foundation?”

“Yes,” Gierig said, “While you Earthbreakers leave the home and search for an answer among these useless humans, the Foundation builds a better world for the Halz.”

“I thought you were an Earthbreaker as well?” Ritter asked.

“No, my family line was banished. I am of the blood of the great leaders of Silveraxe that stood against you in the old days. I have walked the world above, dealing with a world without comforting rock. I called myself one of your traitorous kind as there was little other explanation for me to stride this land that would not rouse your suspicion. When I learned that the axe and the hammer resided in this world, I sent world to the Foundation.”

“Yes,” Befehlen said resolutely, “These weapons are the symbols of the great dwarven clans. Already we protect three other relics from misuse by humans. We know who you are, Ritter Platinum. Though the Foundation believes the Earthbreakers are foolish and misguided at best, we hold no hostility towards a fellow Halz.”

“I hold all the hostility towards you that you need,” Gierig snarled towards Ritter, “Now is the time to end this.”

He took a step forward, axe raised. Ritter prepared his hammer. Noticing the shift in positions, the other Irregulars prepared for battle. A great many dwarven crossbows were leveled at the group.

“Stay out of this fight,” Gierig growled in Nuvro towards the Irregulars, “You have been of great aid and you stand against the group Unity that has wronged the Halz. It was they who had paid to make sure you were there to be attacked at the auction. Their treachery shall not be mine any longer. However, this Halz must now face my justice.”

“Then let us fight,” Ritter said, his brow furrowed and his shield at the ready.

5Dec/12Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0023

Enzi looked quite displeased when he returned to the wagon, “We need to move. I avoided detection, but trackers will be on to us soon enough. I just do not have a sure location to go to.”

“We may have an idea,” Ritter replied, then explained all that he had learned from Gierig.

Enzi nodded, “Not a bad idea. A few dropped clues here at camp might get things rolling. If nothing else, at least it is a direction to go.”

The group packed up their gear and leapt into the wagon. They rolled off eastwards. As they rolled along, Enzi revealed what he had learned. It was not good news. Unity had complete control of Center Point. Several mercenary groups had been paid off to track the Irregulars. Enzi wondered how he had missed such a group taking over so much of the trading post. Having Gharaf as a member had certainly helped. Likely he had bought up much of what was needed. A few bribes and a little blackmail could work wonders.

Unity seemed like it was a group that was well funded. Mercenaries always gravitated to such people. Ritter had a hard time imagining how they would escape a grisly fate. The Halz wondered what could possibly be more profitable than a bounty for a powerful organization.

***

The Tarvoni standing in the circle had light blonde hair, though age had faded it considerably. He was just short of five and a half feet tall. Like most Tarvoni, he was shorter and thinner than most of the other races. His foe had once been his mentor, a man whose hair was quite gray with his old age.

“Laesiethys,” the younger Tarvoni said, “Your time has ended.”

“Yes, Raen. I knew this time would come. Your magical prowess has grown to match mine, even when I wear the trappings of leader. I have taught you well.”

The two spoke in the tongue created by the Abyss cult, a language that had formed based on the magic they wielded. The Abyssal tongue had terms for all known magical phenomena. Many of its words could be used to enhance the very flow of magic itself. When people used magical words in their spells in other lands, those words were familiar to the Tarvoni. It was part of their language.

“Some new leaders would slay the old,” Raen said to the elder Tarvoni, “I do not see the need. Our friendship can continue. After our losses at the odd dwarven tower, we need all our mages.”

“I agree,” Laesiethys replied, his red eyes still sharp, “I had long prepared for your ascendance. I relinquish now the leadership of the Abyss. Now Raen Nychte shall lead us, for good or ill.”

“Long have I developed plans to deal with our enemies,” Raen said, “Now they shall be set in motion. Agon will be crushed. Whether by war or coup, their country shall not survive. Long have their Magehunters come for our kind.”

The elder Tarvoni smiled, “I knew you had begun moving pieces of some plan. I knew when Gree Vanier disappeared.”

Raen returned the smile with a devious look in his eyes, “Yes, one of the greatest of our summoners. He has gone to aid the goblinoids. They have a new weapon. Along with the power of the summoners Gree recruited, the goblinoids will wage war upon the civilized nations. I do not expect success in this venture, but that is not the goal.”

“Of course not,” Laesiethys said, “The alliances of the north will crush the goblinoids. But not without serious losses. Especially depending on this new weapon.”

“Perhaps new is the wrong word,” Raen said, “It is an old weapon, stolen by Ahk separatists in Feergrus. Our agents liberated it, and made sure it was delivered to the goblinoids. The true owners will be quite displeased when evidence that the Feergrus stole it is laid at their door. All the world will be at war while we watch. Then when all are weakened, we make our next move.”

“Our next move?”

“We shall place a new king on the throne of Agon, one which will be favorable to us,” Raen said, “We shall be the ones to decide the heir to Agon.”

“Interesting,” Laesiethys said with a nod, “What if the plan should fail?”

“Then it fails,” Raen replied, “Our enemies will still be weakened. We shall use mercenaries where we can and not expend our own strength unless we have to. The war will bring a great bounty of experienced mercenaries to us. Nothing is as juicy a job as war for a mercenary. When the war is over, many will be desperate for work. We shall provide it.”

“Do you have further plans beyond that?”

“I have some thoughts,” Raen said, “But it is too far into the future to think about them in detail yet. Perhaps when the war is over and the plan for the coup of Agon is moving along, it will be time to look at them in more detail. Who knows what opportunities may come by then?”

***

Surprisingly the Irregulars made it to their destination without being harried. They were near the southern tip of the Nuvro Range. The sign of stonework had drawn the eyes of the two Halz. Someone had been digging into the rocks of the mountains. What had once been a rubble strewn cliff now showed signs of being cleared. However, it was far too quiet.

Enzi, the Irregulars, and Gierig proceeded on foot. The first sign of trouble was found quickly. Ritter knelt beside the body of a fallen Halz. The normally solid black eyes were a solid white. That Halz was dead. Arrows had pierced the stone-kin. They were obviously of elven make. A quick investigation found a trap had been hidden in the plants that grew on the mountain side. Warned of the possibility of traps, the group moved carefully forward.

They found one trap after another that had been set off. The Halz who had been excavating the site had obviously gotten more careful after losing one of their own. However, Ritter was worried. The slain Halz would have been cleaned up after the area had been secured. Something had obviously happened to the rest of the expedition. Then they saw the bodies. The stone-kin had been cut down in battle. Someone else was there.

A lilting voice spoke the Halz tongue with obvious disgust, “Ah more of your blight has come to my home. You brought foul monsters with you as well. Perhaps you will be more of a challenge than the other rock born abominations.:

A creature stepped into the light. It was perhaps half a foot taller than five feet. Long and ragged blonde hair cascaded from the creature's head, but the unkempt locks could not conceal the pointed ears. Its skin was pale with an almost porcelain sheen. The creature was far too narrow to be human. Its build was unmistakable. It was an elf. Tales of them often called them thin, but that was the wrong word. While reaching human height, their body shape was differently proportioned. The widest part of them were perhaps the hips or shoulders, and even the largest elf did not pass a foot wide.

The Halz had a broad build, so the narrow shapes of the elves struck them as particularly alien looking. Even to human, the elves looked odd. Their skulls were too narrow. Their eyes slanted heavily to fit. It gave their features a very pointed look. This elf wore no armor but his curved blade was stained with the blood of the slain Halz.

The elf watched the Irregulars with an unnerving stillness. Elves had an uncanny ability to be very still. They showed no emotion either. While the Halz supposedly had the stony faces, that meant that any emotion the dwarves made was exaggerated as their faces had limited movement. The elves were capable of extremely subtle movement instead. Rumors also told of their lightning speed when they actually did move.

Enzi did not understand the Halz tongue, but spoke in Abyssal, “Fair elf, we come not as enemies.”

“Ah, the human speaks,” the elf replied in Abyssal, “You bring monsters including two dwarves and think to say that you do not come for war?”

“We did not even know you were here,” Enzi replied calmly.

“That matters little, you are here for the Hammer of Ruin.”

“We were here to stop murderers and thieves who will be coming for the hammer. Investigating the slain Halz is a logical part of that.”

“You appeal to my intellect,” the elf said, “You are a cunning foe indeed. The hammer shall not fall into anyone's hands. Now I must eliminate you, as I will all who find this place. If there are no survivors, none will tell of this place again.”

“What of the path that allowed anyone to learn of this place at all?” Enzi asked.

“As it seems to bring the dwarves to the slaughter, it seems fine to me. The less of such traitorous monsters in this world the better. It has been entertaining to speak with something that is not dwarven, but you are no more clever than they in the end.”

The elf moved with a blur. His curved blade slashed at Ritter, but Gierig's shield caught the blow.

“Sorry treacherous elf, but this Halz is not yours to slay,” Gierig said in the tongue of the stone-kin.

Gierig's axe slashed through the air at the elf, but it was fat too slow. The elf seemed to dance past the weapon with practiced ease. The elf leaned suddenly then Ritter saw why. One of Eurysa's arrows sailed past his head. He had never known her to miss like that. Certainly bad conditions or a touch of luck could make her miss, but this was not even close.

“You have never faced an elven warrior, little dwarf,” the elf said, “I have trained in combat for over two hundred years. I have experienced true combat many dozens of times. Your pitiful little group is no match for an elven...”

Suddenly he lurched and mad an odd sound. Between his legs laid the vodyanoi Kava. She was stealthy when she wanted to be and her small size allowed her to maneuver past the two Halz. They nearly blocked the entrance to the cave and access to the elf.

“Don't know what you were saying buddy,” Kava croaked in Nuvro, “But I didn't like the tone. You seem human shaped enough that I hopefully just skewered you in your most sensitive area. I figured that would work as a nice little attitude adjustment.”

Blood dribbled from the mouth of the shocked elf. His stoic face showed no emotion except his eyes. A fire of rage, pain, and confusion seemed to flow from the green colored orbs. He raised his blade and sought to drive it downwards into the prone Kava but Gierig's axe chopped into the elf and finished him off.

“You were quite right,” Gierig said, “He was being rather insufferable. We may not agree on many things, but I must admit admiration for taking that useless creature down a peg or two.”

“That is two you owe me then,” Kava said.

“Two?” Gierig asked.

“Oh you still owe me for causing trouble at the auction slaughter. I'll think of an appropriate payment for all your debts eventually.”