The City of the Dead
The weakest link
Kalad Stoutheart sat with his head in his hands, salty bitter tears stinging the numerous cuts and bruises on his face. His beard savagely cut short by the orog’s choppa, and ugly purple bruises marring his face and body, Kalad was a grim reflection of the proud, respected paladin he was.
“Thank you heroes,” he took a long breath and straightened himself, his left eye nearly swollen shut. “I do not know whence you come from, but you have saved Ashton’s life.” A shadow flitted across his eyes. “And mine.”
“Ashton,” he said softly as he got to his feet. With a grimace on his face, he hobbled to the unconscious acolyte, and then knelt. “It’s just us left now.” Turning to the group by the entrance to the forge, he said. “Please, rest, friends of Onatar. Avail yourself to whatever comfort the monastery is spared. You’ve all fought valiantly, may Onatar bless your souls, and you need rest. I believe there the guests rooms in the upper floors are left untouched. Please, use them. I will be with you shortly after I have…” the dwarf trailed off, his eyes fell upon the forge’s floor littered with corpses. His swollen hands clenched into fists.
“We are not that worse for wear,” said Jett, his breaths coming in short bursts. “We will help you.”
Kalad shook his head, his hair wild and torn. He pressed a calloused hand to his face, a muffled cry shuddering through his stocky frame.
“Thank you,” softly, he choked out.
The pyre burnt through the night. It has taken the better part of the week to gather the corpses. Each one of them a friend, each one of them, Kalad counted as a forgemate. Even obnoxious Ollagan, his body limp and broken in the arms of the tall eladrin, caused a terrible surge of despair and sadness up his throat. Snow came early that morning, and in the frozen air, the wood had refused to take fire. But after much coaxing by the being who always seem to be smoldering, Kalad watched helplessly, a cry trapped in his chest as the life he knew blazed in defiance of the building snowstorm.
The rest of the week had been nothing but cleaning up and making the proper offerings. Cynthia Shade was tired and growing restless. The halls reeked of death, and the rooms reeked of stale beer and sweat. It offended her sense the more she stayed there.
It happened one night after a frugal dinner in a prayer hall. She was just going to the crypt where she woke up in. Kalad’s voice came from down the hall.
”... must secure the relic. It’s our duty as the last protectors of the Sundered Chain.”
“But where do we go?”
“They seem to be eager to look for a big settlement,” Kalad said. “I am thinking of bringing them to Hammerfast.”
“So we entrust it into the care of Forgetemple?”
“I…” Cynthia edged closer to the crypt’s entrance. “don’t know.”
The footsteps were approaching fast. Cynthia stood to the right of passage, and before too long, the two dwarves emerged from around the corner. Kalad wore a haunted look on his face, but it brightened a little as he saw her. They greeted her, but did not stop. It was then that Cynthia saw the small brown package tucked deep into the paladin’s sling.
Sidnar was the last to wake, and when he did, the realization of what had happened nearly devastated him. He spent much of the week helping the two dwarves in whatever way he could, his mind reeling from trying to reconcile what the others had told him. Once he found himself wandering into the monastery’s small library and using the books. While most were written in the old Davek, a dwarven script, he could read a few of the older books written in Old Galifar.
The dusty leather bound tome was inconspicuous and title-less, but the introduction drew him in immediately. It was written by a renowned, or rather infamous Demon Age scholar, Vorcithias Bhald. Its presence in a monastery of Onatar baffled him, but then again, the tome was not unheard of in the scholarly world.
It was then that he felt a tremor in the divine æther, a soundless hum that resonated within him. He spun around, and finding no one in the library, left to find the others. He spotted Cynthia talking to Jett and joined them. Through the ranger, he learnt of the package and while he now knew the source of the powerful resonance, he chose to remain silent.
The day of departure came. It was a forlorn sight, the paladin and the acolyte standing silently on the stone bridge to the monastery, their backs shadowed in the early morning sun. Snow had frosted over the remnants of the pyre in the courtyard, and where once blazed the beacon of the Monastery, now sat a cold, unlit brazier. With heavy reluctant steps, the two dwarves turned, the paladin pulling the bear skin coat tighter around him.
“This way, heroes. This way to Hammerfast.”
The City of the Dead
The snow ceased when they arrived at Hammerfast. A beacon of light peeked through the canopy of clouds, illuminating the Gate of Hammerfast. The Gate of Hammerfast, a stone structure of incredible dwarven masonry, curved out from a side of Mount Kolekar. Hammer’s Fare run straight through a pair of giant iron doors, which were open. On each side of the door glowered two monumental dwarven heads, much like the stylized face moulded onto the helmets of the dwarven elite warriors, the Ironbreakers. Stern and watchful, the heads stared into the vastness that is the Endworlds foothills. As the group passed beneath the shadow of the gate, a sense of awe and respect washed over them. Beyond, a riot of colours and sounds bloomed as the Gate marketplace thronged with traders. And much farther down the road stood another gate. While similar to the inspiring outer gate, the smaller Trade Gate was built into the side of the mountain.
At Trade Gate, Kalad’s explanation drew hisses and soft curses from the guards. Everyone looked the motley group with a form of respect. The guards parted and the gate opened. A long mournful note bugled from within a guard post. All the guards stood at attention and as one, dipped their helmets as the survivors of the Sundered Chain walked by. The gates swung shut behind them, the sound somehow ominous and bleak.
Within the mountain sprawled the city of Hammerfast. Through many turns, the group finally came to a wide street that led to a magnificent building. Twenty feet tall dwarven statues flanked the building’s entrance, one brandishing a hammer thrust victoriously into the air, the other striking an anvil with the same hammer. Pale warm light streamed from the building’s open doors and windows.
“Forgetemple,” Kalad said with a reverence in his ragged voice. “A blessed temple to our Soulforger, Onatar. We will stay here,” the paladin indicated to their left. A mausoleum like building squatted beside the road, a wooden plaque depicting something that looks like a pony bucking on the otherwise bare stone wall. “The Prancing Pony, Hegro will let us stay for a while.”
The trip to the Sivis message centre was discouraging. They were to meet a Theis Prose in Vulyar, Karrnath about five hundred miles across the Talenta Plains. Even worse was the terrible realization that it has been three years since that fateful encounter with the God of Secret’s aspect in the Shadowfell. Very much weaker and disoriented, the group decided that they try to join a House Orien caravan setting off for Vulyar the next week. In the meanwhile, all they could do was wait and try to understand what had happened in that missing three years.
Night came unbidden and unsuspecting to a city built within a mountain. Before they knew it, Sindar and his compatriots found themselves ready to call it a night. The silence in Hammerfast was deafening. It was as if the city was dead once more.
All of the sudden, chaos erupted. Loud, terrible shouts and curses came from without the tavern, and then almost immediately, came sounds of battle. As they hurried to the window, what they saw baffled them. An ethereal dwarven army, poised for war surged forth on the road beside the Pony. Farther on, a ghostly dwarven vanguard clashed violently with a spectral tide of orcs. Vicious snarls resounded through the city, metal rung and clanged, orcs and dwarves alike fought and died their second deaths, as the Siege of the Bloodspear played out again right before their eyes. The battle was brutal, neither side yielded any ground to the other, and for a long while the phantom battle held everyone in a macabre fascination.
Cynthia touched a finger to her lips as she watched the ghosts fight. Indeed, orcs and dwarves fight with nothing but brutality. Their lack of grace and their raw unbridled rage was a little too much for the elf to bear. Just as she was about to return to bed and sulk from the sleepless night, she saw three cloaked figures passing through the specters. She recoiled a little, her hands starting for her bow which was not there. That very afternoon, Ashton was not too pleased when Jett had walked through a ghost intentionally. The acolyte, and a very annoyed ghost, informed Jett that it was rude. She watched in growing alarm as the cloaked figures made their way across the road to the Prancing Pony.
Then, beside her, the eladrin disappeared.
The weakest link
“Are we under attack?” The dwarven acolyte breathed out in fear. Quickly, Ashton scrambled over to Kalad’s pack and pulled out a brown leather package. “We’ve… “
“Quiet,” hissed Jett, the ancient dwavern sword out of its scabbard with a soft ring. Despite its age, the edge was sharp and keen, and as expected of dwarven manufacture, the blade was well balanced and strong.
“I believe we will have need to ask of your package now,” Sidnar said, his face grim.
“Now is not the time,” Jett spat back. He frowned for a second before quickly stepping back. A trio of stilettos shot through the door, stabbing the planks where Jett was. “Damn assassins.” Almost immediately, three figures crowded in and through the door. Jett stood back, sword ready.
“Hand over the priest and relic, and I’ll promise to make this fast,” a man said as he casually walked into the room. His cleanly shave face and pale complexion almost made the jagged scar across his nose gleam faintly in the spectral light spilling from the ghost war below. The man wore a dark surcoat bordered with white, a putrid green dragon’s talon embroidered in the centre.
“Emerald Claw,” Sidnar hissed.
“Indeed we are, good soul,” the man smirked. “Now hand us the relic.”
“We have naught what you seek!” Ashton shouted, backing into the corner.
“Oh ho. Onatar likes not that one of his flock should lie. Why, he may even sanction a punishment on such transgressors .” The man waved, and through the windows burst two emancipated figures, their eyes and flesh withered to their bones. On the zombies forehead burned a green symbol of the Emerald Claw.
“Entertain me, my dears, for the night is indeed young and the spirits are restless!” the man grin a mouthful of crooked and black teeth. He sunk lower, his knelt bent and his black sword out. “Now, lets dance!”
The sounds of battle within the inn joined that of the spectral war.
Aramil teleported back into the room, swung a vicious strike at the first zombie, neatly decapitating it, before making a backhand swing that severed the neck of the other zombie. In three fluid steps, he crossed towards the woman, and almost like a raging whirlwind, cut her down in four strokes. His blade wet with blood, Aramil turned and glowered at the Emerald Claw sergeant.
“Mallora!” The man shouted. “Khyber’s spit! Beran! Get the fucking relic! We are out of here!” The burly man dodged the swordmage’s attacks and dived towards the dwarven acolyte. He yanked the package out of his hands and made for the window. But the eladrin was already there. With a swift motion, the eladrin stole back the package, stepping aside as the ranger’s arrow sliced through the air and into Beran’s neck. His hand haltingly reaching for his throat, the man lost his balance, and with a wet wheeze, toppled out of the window.
Jett saw the opening in the commander and went in for the kill. A brutal upstroke and a flash of æther later, the Emerald Claw laid on the scorched floor in a growing pool of blood.
“Vulkor’kaatol! What in the Xanthas is the relic!”
“It’s the Broken Link, is it not?” Sidnar said, coming up to the frightened dwarf. The dwarf gave a quick nod.
“And that is?” Jett spat.
“A piece of the chains forged by Onatar to imprison the demon lord Agbhad.”
“Brak veos!” Jett swung his sword angrily. Aramil came over to the genasi and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s none of our business,” he said, his cold eyes looking at the bodies on the floor.
“I supposed,” the genasi huffed. “But what about this? What do we do about this.”
“The watch is here,” Aramil said, motioning to the footsteps coming up the stairs. “They will deal with it.”
The ghostly battle was fading into darkness and the last echoes of it dying with it. A glowing barrier was erected around the Prancing Pony and when the group left the Pony in the escort of the Hammerfast Watch, several men in the grabs of the Warning Guild’s inquisitives hurried past them. The isolation field cackled a little as they passed through, and in a heavy silence, the group arrived at the Watch’s headquarters.
A middle aged dwarf came up to them, a smoking pipe in his mouth. H kept a rather neat and short beard, about three inches long, and a cropped head of white hair. He dismissed the escort and nodded to the group.
“The name’s Carnot Proudbeard. I have heard of you. You just came this morning didn’t you? Along with the survivors from the Sundered Chain monastery. Well, follow me, I have only a couple of questions to ask. Don’t worry, this is but a formality.”
“In fact,” he winked at them with a playful light in his eyes. “You will be rewarded for taking care of a wanted criminal.”
“Carrick Stol is his name.” Captain Proudbeard switched the imager on and a likeness of the man who attacked them appeared in the air above the dragonshard. “He and his partner, Delores, have been on our wanted list for years now. Damn those Emerald Claws fanatics. I can never understand what in Gromner’s name do they want to achieve.”
“Anyway, the interview’s over. I apologize for taking up your time. The Watch will take care of the Prancing Pony. In the meantime, I have gone ahead and made arrangements for you in the Battered Stein. It’s just off Logda’s Way in the Lore Ward. If you worry about security, the Battered Stein is sanctioned by Ghallanda. Beer’s good, sheets’ clean. Nice place.”
As the Captain escorted the group out of the stout dwarven building, two men approached them, a notepad in hand and an eberron dragonshard humming in the other.
“Damned reporters. Go on folks. You deserve a rest. I’ll deal with these hounds.” The dwarf gave a hearty slap on Sidnar’s back. “I’ll contact you if I might require you again.” He turned to faced the two humans, and revised the monologue he prepared for any press interviews. He wet his lips and took a deep breath.
By the fifth minute, the two reporters started cringing at the seemingly never-ending exposition on the virtues and the values of the Hammerfast Ironhands. The eleventh minute saw shifting uncomfortably as he stood. By the fifteenth minute, one interrupted the rambling dwarf.
“My pardons Captain, but what do you really think was the cause of the deaths at the Prancing Pony?”
Carnot allowed a scowl to cross his face. “No comment,” and he stalked up the stairs, back into the comforts of the station.