"One fact that is certain about Koraz is that he feared only one man from a young age. The dwarf, Rexel Tyras, defeated Koraz in combat and kept from the assassin the one thing he coveted above all else."
From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies
There was not much of a farewell the next morning. Gelvin and his companions were greeted by the vizier and told how to find the Valley of Overgrowth. The vizier explained that it was a leisurely hike a few hours to the south where they could not miss it because of the valley's size. Thraxus thanked him for the directions and they were on their way.
The adventurers left Rocwhelm behind them and journeyed across the grassy fields leading to the valley. There were no more roads because people never journeyed that way. There was no reason to travel to the valley and thus nobody ever did.
The reeds of grass were tall and began to tickle Gelvin's legs as he walked through them. He tried to scratch the discomfort away, but it was no use since he would just walk through more of the itchy vegetation. "I'd hate to see what an overgrown valley looks like," Gelvin said and the others laughed. Gelvin looked at them in surprise because he did not realize that he had just told a joke. He was completely serious and his imagination drifted far south to the valley. He wondered what it would be like, to explore an unknown wilderness. Gelvin felt excited as he imagined the abundant sounds of insects and animals he would hear in the valley. Then he remembered the true reason he was traveling there. To face Koraz and his assassins. All of the images of a mysterious valley faded from Gelvin's mind and were replaced by the sound of a maddening laugh. Gelvin hadn't thought of a face to go with Koraz's laugh yet, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to imagine one. Gelvin wondered why it seemed his quest became more serious the further he traveled away from Caledan.
"I wish we knew more about where were going," Gelvin stated as he tried to ignore his nagging thoughts about Koraz. He was becoming more anxious as they got closer to the valley and his mind was flooded with more and more horrible images of what awaited them. Instead of kind woodland animals, Gelvin began to imagine dark trees and monsters with sharp teeth and hungry stomachs.
"I wish we knew more too," Thraxus said in a less than reassuring voice. "I don't think anyone can help us though."
"Maybe not someone, but something can," Fyndon said as her eyes intently watched the air around them. Gelvin wondered what she was looking for because all he saw was a sunny sky, tall reeds of yellow grass, and small swarms of bugs. Then a buzzing sound resonated from Fyndon's lips. She forced the sounds out between her barely cracked teeth and it created a rhythmic hum and buzz. Fyndon stopped walking and the buzz got louder. Everyone stopped to watch her when suddenly a larger bug, from one of the swarms overhead, flew down at Fyndon and stopped right in front of her nose.
Fyndon's powers never ceased to amaze Gelvin as he watched a large fat honey bee float in the air, only a handspan away from Fyndon's face. "This is a queen bee," she said as she started her buzzing sound again. "She can help us." Gelvin didn't notice anything unique about this bee, except that it was a little larger than most. It was colored yellow and black, with a barbed stinger on its tail and two antennas emanating from its head, feeling the air around it.
"What do youzzz wantzzz?" the queen bee asked as Fyndon smiled at it. Gelvin was amazed to learn that a bee could talk. He had never heard one speak before, but then again he had never been listening either.
"What do youzz knowzz abouse zzeee valley?" Fyndon asked as her lips vibrated with the buzzing harmonics passing through them.
"Zzee valeey izzz not farzz. Large. Veryzzz large."
"Whatzzz izzz inzzz zzeee valley?" Fyndon asked as the bee slowly bounced back and forth like a pendulum. Gelvin noticed that the queen seemed to float more anxiously as Fyndon asked about the valley.
"Zzee monsterzz. A giantzz wormzz!" the queen bee said as its wings buzzed more and more loudly. Fyndon could tell that the insect was ready to rejoin its swarm, so she thanked it and the bee flew away.
"That didn't tell us much," Thraxus shouted, obviously not appreciating the effort.
"Yeah, what's a giant worm?" Flynton asked as he scratched his head.
"I don't know," Fyndon replied and Thraxus ordered the group to march onward.
Gelvin remained conspicuously quiet during the next few moments. As he marched through the rolling fields of grass he thought about a book he read once at the temple. It was about creatures that were sometimes called worms. They weren't actually worm like at all, but the name was meant as a derogatory insult. Gelvin silently hoped to himself that the bee was wrong, because he knew that worm meant dragon.
Time passed as the sun rose higher and the grass eventually changed to green from yellow. Much to Gelvin's relief, it also became shorter and less itchy as they approached the valley. Thraxus led the party up one final steep hill and from the apex they saw their final destination. Below them was the Valley of Overgrowth.
Gelvin peered over the hill and stared down into the gigantic valley. The name was well deserved because Gelvin's keen eyes cold not penetrate the thick and lush gulf. The valley's trees stretched for as far as the eye could see and Gelvin noticed that not all the trees in the valley were the same size. Many were taller than others as the trees stretched outwards in a wavy landscape. It occurred to Gelvin that there may be smaller valleys within the larger one. He searched every direction in the land below him, but Gelvin saw no signs of Koraz, or any other people for that matter. The valley appeared to be an overgrown wasteland of jungle combined with the thickest forest.
"How are we going to get down there?" Flynton asked in a whiny voice. Gelvin realized the magician was right, because the valley seemed to have steep walls of grass, creeping vines, and rock. There were no paths or ropes leading down the sheer cliff. Everyone turned to Thraxus for the answer but he was dumbfounded. He assumed all along that they would be able to reach the valley with ease.
Nobody said a word and Gelvin decided that he would find a way down if nobody else would. He surveyed the steep cliff directly below them and searched for any sign of a path. Then Gelvin saw, through a thick green bush and between two willow trees that were growing at angle along the wall of the valley, a few circular stones packed into the ground. "Look!" Gelvin cried out and pointed down at the rocks.
"What, I don't see anything," Slade said as jumped up and down in a futile attempt to get a better view.
"Yes, I see it," Thraxus said as he fixed his eagle eyes on the narrow stone path. It was not a wide trail, but it appeared to traverse the side of the cliff in a very round about way. The path wound its way down into the valley which would make using it a long and arduous journey, but there was no other choice. "Follow me," Thraxus shouted as he ran down the hill and across the rim of the valley. The others followed behind Thraxus as he ran twenty steps along the edge and then stopped. He pointed into the valley where Gelvin saw the beginnings of a stone path packed into the dirt. The trail originated only a few paces below them and wound back and forth through the steep vegetation until it disappeared into the thick trees near the base of the valley.
Thraxus hopped down to the path and Gelvin quickly followed. The two then helped everyone else down, except for Slade who refused their assistance and proceeded to somersault his way down to the stones. Gelvin was excited because he felt that he had done something for the entire group. Flynton and Fyndon smiled and told Gelvin he had done well. His eyes glowed as he tried to say it was nothing. Once they were all on the path, Thraxus started the descent and his companions filed in behind him.
It was a long walk to the bottom of the valley, because the stone path wound its way back and forth across the steep cliff until it reached the tree line. Gelvin thought he had seen larger trees before, but never trees so lush with leaves. All of the woods was thick, with different shades of green adorning their branches. Some trees had fur, or at least it appeared that way. Actually, they were covered in a fine moss, while other trees had leaves larger than a shield and thicker than plate armor. As Gelvin passed under the first branches, he felt the sun disappear off his back and a chill crept up his spine. The trees provided a shade that the sunlight could barely penetrate. As Gelvin fell under their shadow he could not help but feel that he was passing from the world of light and goodness into a world of darkness and evil. Then Gelvin understood why Koraz may be living in that dark valley.
The stone path changed to earth as the group reached a level part of the valley. The ground felt cold and dry from the lack of sun and rain and the trees formed a canopy above their heads. The air began to feel a little warmer though, as they stood motionless under the canopy, which trapped what little heat there was. Gelvin heard many of the sounds he expected, such as insects and small animals, which made him feel a little more comfortable. But still, he wondered where Koraz was hiding and how they would find him.
Then Gelvin heard a different faint sound from far away. It sounded like a hissing and there were voices too. Gelvin couldn't make out what the voices were saying, but he knew they were close.
"Which way now?" Slade asked as the adventurers examined the valley around them. There were no paths in this wilderness, but there were many opening between the trees and bushes, through which they could walk. Thraxus didn't know which direction to start in, so he simply decided to hike to his left.
"Wait!" Gelvin said as he held his head still and listened to the voices. "There's something that way," Gelvin said as he pointed in the opposite direction from Thraxus.
"How do you know?" Thraxus asked as he held his arms above his head in a gesture of frustration. He wanted the others to follow his lead, even if he didn't know where it might take them. He did not expect Gelvin to intercede with his own suggestions.
Gelvin did not respond because he was still concentrating on the voices. His muscles stiffened from tension as Gelvin focused all his energy into trying to hear what the voices said. Fyndon knew what Gelvin was attempting and she leaned over to Thraxus and whispered, "Spritelengs can hear many things. Gelvin is trying to hear a specific sound."
"What do you hear Gelvin?" Flynton asked quietly.
Gelvin did not turn his head or move a muscle as he responded, "Voices. They are close by, in that direction." Gelvin pointed through the trees towards the east.
"I don't hear anything," Slade interjected.
"You wouldn't!" Fyndon angrily whispered as she squinted her eyes in disgust at Slade.
"Lead the way Gelvin," Thraxus calmly said as he nudged the Spriteleng on the shoulder. His curiosity had overcome his frustration.
Gelvin crept slowly along the twig and leaf covered spaces between the trees as he continued to listen. His companions followed a few paces behind him, hoping that their movements didn't disrupt Gelvin's senses. Gelvin tried to walk silently like a thief in the night, but the crackling twigs scattered about the earthen ground made his inaudibility difficult.
As Gelvin drew closer to the origin he heard more hissing and more voices. The only words he could make out were 'chest' and 'armor.' Then, as Gelvin walked up a slightly inclining mound of earth he recognized one of the voices.
Narus! It had to be.
Gelvin motioned for the others to lie down on the ground as he did the same. Flynton and Slade reluctantly followed Gelvin's lead and the group slowly prostrated themselves and crawled their way to the top of the dirt embankment where they could view the people talking on the other side.
Gelvin and Thraxus peeped their heads over the top and saw a small grassy clearing where the trees did not form a complete canopy and bright rays of sunshine filled the air. The clearing was only a few paces below the mound and Narus was there! Even though he only saw the top of the wizard's head, Gelvin was sure it was him. Narus did not move, with Tong at his side, while Lizard Men stood across from them.
Lizard Men were creatures of little intelligence and inhuman appearance. They walked erect, like a man, and even wore their armor and spoke man's language. But that was where the similarities ended. Lizard Men had thick green tails that they drug along the back of their bodies. Their skin consisted of sharp scales and slimy secretions. They had razor sharp teeth and yellow eyes that never closed. Even though they spoke like men, they could not rid themselves of the hissing that characterized most reptiles.
There were four Lizard Men standing a few paces across from Narus, carrying a large wooden chest that was reinforced with iron. On the front of the chest there was a thick lock that rattled against the wood as he Lizards held the box up for Narus to examine. Behind the Lizards stood another erect creature chained around the neck. It did not speak and stood there motionless. It had a brown hairy face, like a dog, but was large. Almost the same size as Tong or Thraxus. Two long fangs protruded from its mouth to its chin like sabres and Gelvin hoped that the creature would never get a chance to sink the incisors into his skin.
Gelvin and Thraxus backed away from the edge of the mound and huddled with the others. "It's Narus and Tong with a group of Lizard Men and some other creature," Thraxus whispered.
"Narus!" Slade whispered in shock. "What's he doing?"
"It looks as though he is receiving a chest from the Lizards," Gelvin responded as he covered his mouth to stay as quiet as possible.
Fyndon slowly pulled herself up to the top of the mound and got a look at the scene for herself. She inched her way back down and informed her friends, 'That's a Howler with the Lizard Men."
"A what?" Flynton asked. Gelvin was about to ask the same question because he never recalled reading about such a beast.
"A Howler," Fyndon whispered. "They can scream very loudly to disable anything that threatens it."
"Then why do the Lizards have it on a chain?" Gelvin wondered aloud.
"I don't know. I've never seen one captured before, but somehow the Lizards have it."
"Tobah!" Flynton suddenly whispered in excitement.
"What?" Thraxus asked.
"Tobah. It's what Narus said when the goblins attacked us. I knew I'd heard that word before," Flynton said as his eyes became lost in the memories of his magical texts.
"What does it mean?" Fyndon asked as she took Flynton by the arm to focus his attention.
"Tobah is a magical cant used for conjuring."
"You mean Narus conjured those goblins," Gelvin said as he realized what Flynton was thinking.
"Probably, but he also used the cant to send them away. Tobah is a powerful word."
"You mean that Narus created and destroyed a hoard of goblins just by saying one word?" Slade asked skeptically.
"Not entirely," Flynton explained. "Tobah is a puissant word, but a wizard needs a magically endowed artifact to harness and channel its power."
"His staff!" Gelvin said.
"Exactly," Flynton replied as he pointed at Gelvin. "The staff channels his magic and allows him to conjure other creatures out of thin air."
"Good, then we know how to defeat him," Thraxus said confidently. Gelvin became scared because he knew what Thraxus had in mind.
"You're not going to attack him," Gelvin said rhetorically. He knew Thraxus would. It was part of the spirit of a soldier to confront a battle head on and Gelvin was slowly realizing that Thraxus would always chose to fight when presented with many options. Especially when the soldier had an opportunity to face an opponent that had once escaped him.
"We're all going to attack Narus," Thraxus said as he slowly drew his sword. "Just separate him from his staff."
Gelvin was content just to let Narus be. He didn't like the idea of attacking a wizard when it wasn't necessary. He put his hand on Thraxus arm and said, "Wait, let's think about this. We don't have to attack them."
Thraxus stared menacingly at Gelvin's hand and his eyes told Gelvin to remove his palm. "Narus might lead us back to Koraz," Fyndon said as she pleaded with Thraxus not to attack him. "We could follow him."
Thraxus was furious. He was a warrior and prided himself on facing every battle and he had special reason to want this conflict. He regretted that Narus got the better of him last time they faced. Gelvin, a simple Spriteleng, saved him from Narus' staff and that embarrassed Thraxus. None of the others even remembered that Gelvin had saved him, but Thraxus would never forget. He wanted revenge and, even though he would never admit it to his companions, he also wanted to know what was inside the chest. "We'll capture Narus and force him to lead us to Koraz. He'll have no choice," Thraxus explained.
"No wait," Gelvin said, but it was too late. Thraxus leaped over the mound and landed in the clearing with sword in one hand and Kenyson's shield in the other. Thraxus screamed a warrior's rage, scaring Narus and the Lizards if only for a moment.
Gelvin did not hesitate. He had no wish to fight, but he also wasn't going to leave Thraxus to clash with Narus alone. Gelvin unsheathed the Defender and charged up the embankment. Flynton, Fyndon, and Slade all followed his lead.
They jumped down into the clearing and created a panic among the Lizard Men. They were easily frightened by well armed humans and their only instinct was to run. They dropped the chest and left it, and their Howler, as they ran for other parts of the valley.
Narus and Tong quickly recovered from the initial shock of seeing Thraxus and the wizard struck his staff on the ground causing the earth to quake. Gelvin was the only one who kept his balance as the others stumbled, and he helped Thraxus back to his feet.
Narus opened his mouth and prepared to form the magical cants with his wrinkled lips when Thraxus charged him. Thraxus was a veteran of many battles and he knew how to disable any opponent, especially a wizard. As Narus filled his lungs with air to shout his mighty 'Tobah', Thraxus took the broadside of his enormously thick sword and smashed it across Narus' mouth.
As the sword impacted with Narus' face he tried to shout 'Tobah', but all that emerged were bits of broken teeth and viscous crimson blood. Narus fell to his knees, dropping his staff, and screamed in pain. He looked at the ground around him and saw what was left of his broken teeth scattered everywhere. He put his hand to his mouth to ease the flow of the gushing blood, but it was no use. Thraxus stood tall above him and turned his sword back to the sharpened edge. Then he pulled it down from above his head and split Narus' skull in two.
Gelvin's jaw fell open in shock as Thraxus screamed triumph over his prey. He pulled his sword out of Narus' head and wiped the blood onto his leather armor. Tong became enraged and flung himself at Thraxus, who caught him in mid-air and pinned him to the ground. Thraxus held Tong down with his large thick boot as he raised his sword again in a piercing fashion.
"NO!" Gelvin screamed as Thraxus thrust the blade downward with all his might. He drove the sword straight through Tong's heart and the ogre did not even have a chance to scream before he died.
The commotion of the battle frightened the Howler and it slowly crept away from the battlefield as Thraxus killed everything in sight. Slade watched the monster trying to escape and he ran towards it, not realizing just how dangerous a Howler could be when threatened.
The snarling Howler crouched down as Slade charged at it with his dagger in his left hand and the beast reacted as it always did. It wailed a thunderous roar that ripped through the air, deafening everyone in sight. Slade, who received the brunt of the scream head on, was knocked backwards and to the ground from the impact. He lay there motionless, and the Howler, confident that it had killed the human, moved towards Slade with its fangs exposed.
Gelvin saw what was happening and he acted on instinct. He ran at the beast and prayed it wouldn't scream again. Flynton pulled out his red stone and wiggled his fingers as Gelvin moved closer to the animal. Flynton threw the stone on the ground in front of the Howler creating a sparkling red flash, which blinded it for a mere second. But that was long enough.
Gelvin dove past the ferocious animal as it snapped at him with his jaws. Gelvin landed behind the Howler and saw that it was taking a deep breath to scream again. Gelvin knew he only had one chance. He grabbed the chain that was slack behind the Howler and jumped for its neck. Gelvin moved as quickly as possible and hugged the beasts shoulders from behind as he felt the Howler's chest fully expand. Gelvin took the chain and wrapped it twice around the beast's throat as it began to exhale. Gelvin pulled back on the chain with all his strength and the beast emitted a choking cough instead of its deadly scream.
Gelvin pushed his knee into the Howler's back to give himself more leverage as he continued to pull on the iron links. The Howler spit and coughed and then it finally slumped to the ground. Gelvin was confused because he did not feel the creature's throat break, nor did he intend to really hurt it. Then Gelvin looked up from the ground and saw Thraxus pulling his sword out of the creature's belly.
"Why did you do that?" Gelvin shouted as he jumped to his feet.
"It might of howled again. We couldn't risk it."
"It was just scared!" Gelvin shouted in rage. He respected Thraxus' strength but he no longer feared it. Gelvin realized that in the end, Thraxus was not a leader. He was just a brutal killer and Gelvin decided that he was correct the other morning. Eventually, Thraxus would act rashly and jeopardize them all. The only question was when, and Gelvin wondered what he would do when that moment came.
"Oh, Slade is fine by the way," Fyndon said sarcastically as she rubbed a handful of water on the thief's face to waken him. Slade's head rung like a bell and Fyndon had to tell him what happened.
Flynton recovered his stone and examined Narus' staff. As soon as the wizard perished, the staff splintered and withered like rotting wood. He placed it next to Narus' splattered body, certain that it no longer posed a threat. Meanwhile, Gelvin scowled at Thraxus who was determined to ignore him and find out what was in the chest.
Gelvin kneeled down next to Slade and Fyndon as Thraxus pummeled the lock with his sword. He was still trying to learn how Thraxus could become so enraged. Gelvin thought his leader was loosing control, and that frightened him. "I guess I owe you thanks for saving me," Slade said reluctantly.
"Forget it," Gelvin said as he watched Thraxus pound away at the lock. "Something's wrong with him. Did you see the rage in his eyes?" Gelvin did not have much experience with bloodthirsty warriors like Thraxus and he didn't was not confident that he wanted to learn anything more about them either.
"Nothing's wrong," Fyndon responded. "I've seen many warriors enter a berserk rage when they face battle. Maybe Thraxus revels in the rage too much."
"And there's nothing wrong with that? He lost control," Gelvin quietly said as Thraxus finally knocked the lock off the chest.
"I mean to say that Thraxus' actions are natural, not necessarily correct. To be honest, his rages frighten me too," Fyndon said worriedly.
Thraxus pulled the lid open and smiled in awe at the contents. Gelvin and Fyndon stood up as Thraxus reached in and pulled out a jet black suit of armor. Gelvin thought it looked darker and more consuming than any blackness he had ever seen. Thraxus held the suit high in the air and grinned as the sun reflected white light off the smooth dark surface. Thraxus let out a solitary laugh and started to put the plates of armor on.
"I don't think you should do that," Flynton said as he approached Thraxus to look at the armor more closely.
"Why not?" Thraxus asked as he fixed the breastplate across his chest.
"We don't know where it came from and my guess is Narus was receiving the armor for Koraz," Flynton explained.
"We can't be sure of that," Thraxus defended himself as he slid on two chain mail gauntlets.
"We could have been sure if you hadn't killed Narus," Gelvin poignantly stated to remind Thraxus that his rage had cost them their only link to Koraz.
"We'll find him," Thraxus confidently assured Gelvin as he attached the final plates to his armored frame.
"But we don't know anything about this armor. It is too big for Narus and I thought we all agreed he worked for Koraz. Who knows who it was intended for or what kind of evil powers this metal contains," Flynton pleaded. He was right, Gelvin thought. If this armor were forged for Koraz, then it must have some properties of evil. Fyndon felt concerned as well. She looked at the menacing plates and something instinctually told her that the armor was not normal. Then they all watched and learned what properties the armor held.
Thraxus was looking at his arms, admiring his find, when he started to fade. "Thraxus, what's wrong?!" Fyndon shouted. Thraxus expression was one of terror. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound emerged. He was being erased from existence as his entire body slowly disappeared. Suddenly, Gelvin could see right through Thraxus, as though he were a ghost or a spirit. Then Thraxus face calmed as his substance slowly returned. He smiled and looked up excitedly at the others.
"I can control it," he said. "I can become non-corporeal at will."
Again Thraxus began to fade and then slowly reappear again. It was an eerie unnatural sight and Gelvin turned his head as Thraxus shifted between substance and nothingness.
"By the Gods, what is that doing to your body?" Gelvin asked in terror. Thraxus picked up a rock and tossed it in the air. He began to fade and when he tried to catch the stone, it fell right through his hand on an uninterrupted course. Thraxus' substance returned and he smiled devilishly. He was like a child with a new toy.
"I'm fine," he said as he returned to the top of the mound and threw everyone their packs. "Come now, we'll continue this way," Thraxus said as he started to march south out of the clearing. Gelvin shook his head in disgust but he knew that they had no choice but to follow.
They moved along uneventfully as the adventurers tried to map their way though the lush valley. The armor scared Gelvin and he tried not to think about it. He knew there would be no talking Thraxus into taking it off. Instead, Gelvin focused on the trees and concluded that even though they were not too tall, they were very old. The rings along the branches were very thin and the trees seemed able to survive in the dry ground. Gelvin hiked upon an area of trees that were much shorter than the rest. He knew that he could climb them easily as he tried to judge how high up the tops reached.
"They are beautiful," Fyndon said as she noticed Gelvin staring at the trees.
"Yes, I've always loved trees," he responded. "When I was a child I climbed them all the time."
"And lived in one I'd venture," Fyndon said with a smile because she knew she was correct.
"I did," Gelvin replied, realizing that Fyndon really did know a thing or two about Spritelengs. "How have you learned so much about Spritelengs and the forest?"
"All Comwens study nature, but I studied Spritelengs because I like them. You are a such a peaceful race of creatures that are in harmony with the world."
"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked.
"Just as I said, Spritelengs are in harmony with the world. You are tranquil, good spirited, and loved by nature," Fyndon explained.
"How are we loved by nature?" Gelvin asked because he always assumed the relationship was reversed. Nature was loved by Spritelengs.
"Not every tree would let a race inhabit them," Fyndon said. "The trees like Spritelengs and thus allow you to live in them."
"What do you mean?" Gelvin cried in disbelief. He had never spent enough time among his Spriteleng village to understand what Fyndon meant. "How does the tree let the Spriteleng inhabit it?"
"Many trees are alive," Fyndon began. "More so than most plants. Trees have feelings and can communicate. I've even met some trees that can uproot themselves and move around."
Gelvin was fascinated as he accepted every word Fyndon said. Slade was more skeptical. "Trees cannot move around," Slade said skeptically. "That's ridiculous."
"And how much time do you spend in a forest?" Fyndon asked the silent Slade as a smug grin covered he face.
Gelvin enjoyed the conversation and Slade's debate until he noticed a glinting out of the corner of his eyes just above the tree line. Gelvin squinted and he saw what he believed to be the top of a tower, just a few paces away. The sun was reflecting off some kind of carved wood. "I see something," Gelvin said as he pointed at the barely visible tower. Fyndon stood close to Gelvin and trained her eyes to follow along Gelvin's outstretched arm until she too saw it.
"Yes, there it is," she said excitedly. They hadn't seen any signs of life since the clearing and even if this tower were not Koraz, it was at least something different than the monotony of the trees. "I think it's a tower."
"Me too," Gelvin agreed.
Thraxus looked up at the tree tops and saw the structure as well. "We'll have to examine it," he said as he led the others towards the landmark. The party reached the structure moments later and confirmed that it was a tower. Not a very sturdy one though. It was barely as tall as the short trees and it was constructed out of poor wood. It was free standing without a base and Gelvin thought that it was abandoned.
"It appears deserted," Fyndon said as she had the same thoughts as Gelvin. The wood was rotting and there were no tracks of anything coming or going from it. There was one wooden door at the bottom of the tower and a small square window on each side of it near the top. There was no light coming from the windows and Thraxus, who didn't see any evidence of gold or Koraz, decided they would leave.
"Heh heh heh! Hah Hah Hah!" a laugh wafted downward from the upper level of the tower.
"What was that," Flynton asked as he rapidly reached under his robe and firmly gripped his shortsword.
"Hah Hah Hah!' the laugh boomed and echoed throughout the valley. The laugh was maddening and Gelvin thought back to what Kenyson had told him about Koraz.
"A maddening laugh!" Gelvin shouted as he made eye contact with Thraxus. The two looked at each other and no words were necessary. They both knew it had to be Koraz. Thraxus charged at the large door of the tower and kicked it in with one swift boot.
Gelvin was the next to rush in behind Thraxus and he was surprised by what he found inside. The tower was nothing more than an open air shaft. An empty shell. It smelled dank and musty, as though the door had not been opened in years. Green mold and mildew grew on most of the rotting wood. Gelvin glanced to the southern corner and saw a dilapidated staircase leading to the next level of the tower.
"Hah hah hah!" the laughter echoed down on Gelvin from above. Koraz was upstairs and the rotted staircase looked like the only way up there. Thraxus went first and steeped on the initial landing of the stairwell. The old wood creaked as Thraxus eased his weight onto it, but still held firm. "It's safe," he shouted and the others followed behind him.
As he rushed up the stairs, Gelvin looked straight above him and saw a platform. He assumed that the platform was the landing to the next level, and above it he saw the ceiling of the tower. He thought the tower was a strangely constructed building, but then he learned why it was basically nothing more than an open shaft.
Half way up the flight of stairs, a tremendous forceful wind blew down from the top level and knocked Thraxus to his knees. The wind howled like a thunderstorm and Gelvin felt particles of dirt flecking at the skin on his face and hands. The force became stronger and they all lost their grips along the thin banister. Gelvin felt himself falling as the wind threw him from the stairs. He looked to his side and everyone else was falling with him. Panic set in as nobody knew how far they far from the stairs. "Please don't let Fyndon be hurt," Gelvin prayed to the Gods unselfishly for his friend.
Fortunately, the floor was not too far away and nobody landed on each other. Thraxus was the last to crash with a large thud, but he jumped back to his feet quickly, as the wind halted.
"Heh heh heh!" the laugh mocked them.
Thraxus became enraged at the laughter and he flung himself back up the stairs again, only to be blown back down. He was ready to charge a third time when Gelvin said, "Wait. Let's use our rope."
"Brilliant," Fyndon said as she reached in her pack and pulled out her strand of twine. Everyone else did the same as Gelvin went around and tied each piece together.
"I can get up there," Gelvin said confidently. "I'll lower the rope and the rest of you can use it to help against the wind."
"You'll never make it through those gusts," Thraxus protested.
"Just watch," Gelvin said and he ran up the first couple of steps. Just as reached the spot where the wind had knocked him down, Gelvin grabbed the rickety banister and swung himself underneath. The wind burst forth with gale strength, but Gelvin was shielded by the stairs.
The rotted wood provided ample openings where Gelvin could grip and climb. He crawled up the underside of the stairs one hand over the other. Gelvin was an excellent climber and the stairs reminded him of trying to get out of the knot hole in the tree trunk when he was a little boy. "Another gymnastic challenge," Gelvin thought merrily as he momentarily forgot what waited for him on the next floor. Gelvin pulled and strained until he reached the top of the staircase, just below the platform. He waited for the wind to stop blowing and he swung himself back to the topside again.
"Incredible," he heard Fyndon say as he looped the rope around the top of the banister and dropped the slack to the floor below him.
Gelvin could not wait on the others because he wanted to know where the laugh had come from. He had not heard it since he started climbing the stairs and that worried him. Gelvin jumped up to the platform and entered the top chamber of the tower.
"Koraz," he thought to himself as Gelvin realized how stupid it was to charge in there against him. But Koraz was nowhere to be seen. Instead, all Gelvin saw was a short dwarf standing in a corner grinning. This floor was smaller than the other, but just as empty. The dwarf was the only thing in the room besides dust and dirt. The dwarf was no taller than Slade but he had large arms and stout legs. Gelvin knew this was an older dwarf because his white beard almost stretched all the way to the floor as did his mussed and unkempt hair. The dwarf was filthy, with dirt coating his long and broken fingernails and with smudges spotting his face. The dwarf held an axe between his crossed arms, but he did not move as he sized Gelvin up. Gelvin thought that maybe he'd never seen a Spriteleng before. Perhaps he could talk to him instead of fighting which he slowly feared might become inevitable. "I am Gelvin. Who are you?" he asked politely.
The dwarf's lips parted and he began to laugh quietly. "Your friends can't defeat my magic," he said as he waved his arm in the air. Suddenly, Gelvin heard the sound of the wind barreling down the staircase again. Before Gelvin could help his friends though, the dwarf declared, "You can't have my guardian. I won't let you take it." The fierce dwarf then charged at Gelvin, laughing as he lunged across the room.
The dwarf moved quickly and Gelvin narrowly avoided the sharp edge of his axe. Gelvin raised his Defender and looked deep into the eyes of the dwarf. Gelvin sensed his confusion. The dwarf seemed consumed by a madness it could not control. He lunged at Gelvin again but the Spriteleng stepped away. The dwarf hit the floor with a loud thud and his foot became entangled with the breaking and rotting wood. Gelvin seized the opportunity and smacked the dwarf on the back of the head with the hilt of his Defender. The dwarf fell unconscious and the wind stopped, just as Thraxus, tied off to the rope, reached the top of the platform.
"I've subdued him," Gelvin declared as Thraxus shimmied the rope off his waist. Thraxus didn't care what Gelvin said and the memory of the dwarf's maddening laugh was still burned into his thoughts.
"I won't let you laugh at me ever again," Thraxus maniacally thought as he drew his sword and crushed the dwarf with one blow, before Gelvin could stop him.
"What did you do!" Gelvin shouted as he grabbed Thraxus' wrist that wielded the sword. "He was subdued." Thraxus pulled his wrist away and pushed Gelvin aside. Thraxus almost hoped he'd start a fight, because he was thirsty for battle even after killing the dwarf. Gelvin was not a fool though, and he walked away from the seething warrior.
"Did you get Koraz?" Flynton asked with excitement as he and the others reached the top of the stairs.
"No, it was just some strange dwarf. We had to kill him though," Thraxus said as he looked down upon the bloody dead body.
"You liar," Gelvin whispered under his breath from the other end of the room as he felt rage start to burn away at his soul. Gelvin was peaceful at heart, even though Pithian trained him to be violent when necessary. But something new was emerging from Gelvin as he spent more time with Thraxus. Gelvin had never experienced rage or hatred. He started to hate the warrior though, not for the kind of person he was, but because Thraxus brought out the worst in him. Gelvin felt hatred and rage for the first time as he watched Thraxus murder the poor dwarf. They were feelings he did not like as a small part of his innocence slipped away forever.
"You had to kill him?" Fyndon asked suspiciously.
"Yes, he attacked us."
"But his foot is trapped," Fyndon said as she pointed at the boot caught between the cracking floorboards. "Was it like that before or after you split his head open?" she asked sarcastically. Everyone looked at the dwarf and saw that she was right. Silence filled the room and Thraxus felt their condemning eyes staring at him. But he did not care.
"Let's search this place," Thraxus ordered. He did not expect to find any gold from this reclusive old dwarf, but Thraxus decided that it would be worth the effort to try. After all, he had four other people to do most of the searching for him.
Gelvin was still upset about Thraxus murdering the dwarf, but still, he pushed himself away from the wall and joined his comrades in searching the tower. He only felt repugnance for Thraxus, but Gelvin followed his order for his own reasons. He hoped to find some clue, anything that would tell him who this dwarf was. Then, maybe, he could the poor soul's family or friends and let them bury the wretched thing.
The upper level was a dusty barren room, much like the bottom floor, but Gelvin noticed that it wasn't as large. From the outside, the tower appeared symmetrical and Gelvin noticed that there was no window on the east wall. He distinctly remembered seeing one window on each side of the tower from outside. Gelvin tapped on the wood of the east wall and it rang hollow. "Over here," he shouted to the others.
They all gathered around Gelvin as he knocked on the wood. Thraxus smiled and pushed everyone back. He ran at the wall with all of his speed and burst through it, into a small room on the other side. The hollow wall shattered into tiny splinters as the secret room was revealed. It was a small chamber, comprising the rest of the tower, but it contained a contraption like nothing any of them had seen before.
A large metal machine occupied the entire room. It looked like a toy top that Gelvin remembered playing with as a child, only thousands of times larger. Instead of having a pointed end for spinning, this top had a rounded bottom so it could not be turned over. The machine was many paces in width, with four rounded corners on opposite sides. Each corner had a rung built into it, so a person could pull himself up to the top of the machine and see what was sitting on it. Even from his vantage point, Gelvin saw that there was a dark green glass bottle of liquid sitting atop the contraption.
"It must be important," Flynton said as he, along with everyone else, stared at the device and the elusive bottle.
"What is this thing?" Fyndon asked. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Neither have I," added Thraxus.
Everyone paused for a moment, not sure what to do next. Slade quickly grew bored with the indecision and took it upon himself to act.
"I can get that bottle," he said as he threw caution to the wind and reached up to one of the rungs. Slade pulled himself up and the top drooped to the side with the extra weight. Suddenly a blade sprang out of a slot right below the rung and Slade released his grip just before the razor had a chance to sever his hands. He landed on the floor and counted himself lucky to be alive.
"Are you unhurt?" the concerned Fyndon asked as she reached over to help lift Slade up.
"Just a little shaken up," he said with wide eyed fright. Slade realized how stupid he was for acting rashly and he decided to stand behind everyone else. The blade slowly retracted and disappeared back into the slot.
"We'll never get it!" Thraxus declared as he turned his back and started to walk towards the staircase.
"Don't be so hasty," Fyndon said. "I think we can still retrieve it."
"Yes, I see a way," Gelvin said as he guessed how the contraption worked. "It's based on weight."
"More precisely, uneven weight," Fyndon added. "The blade shot out when Slade's weight pulled the top down on one side."
"So we just have to keep the weight balanced," Thraxus said as Fyndon nodded. He was starting to understand their plan.
"Each of you grab a different rung and keep the top steady," Gelvin said as he dropped his sword and pack. "I'll get the bottle." Gelvin's companions surrounded the top and placed their hands firmly on the four rungs. Slade was reluctant, but as long as Gelvin climbed from the other side of the machine, he agreed to do it.
Gelvin reached up and gripped the rung Fyndon was holding. He called out to Thraxus at the opposite corner, "Get ready." Gelvin took a deep breath and cautiously pulled himself up the corner. Thraxus and the others strained, but the top remained steady. Gelvin knew he had to be more careful and deliberate than when he climbed the stairs and he concentrated on reaching out to the middle of the machine where the bottle rested. His hand could not reach, so he climbed another step higher.
The top slowly started to tilt in Gelvin and Fyndon's direction and he yelled, "Have you got it?"
"Yes, just hurry!" Thraxus called back as his muscles began to tire.
Gelvin stretched again and he was barely able to touch the bottle with the tips of his fingers. The floor below the top creaked from Gelvin's added weight and he thought it would be ironic if, after being so concerned with the blades, he fell through the floor to his death.
Gelvin took a final deep breath as stretched with all his might and his fingers grasped the narrow neck of the bottle. "I've got it!" he yelled and Gelvin slid his way back down to the floor very quickly. Everyone breathed more easily as they released the device and backed away from it into the other room.
Gelvin held the bottle up in the light that was streaming in one of the windows. The green glass was adorned with runes carved into each side of the square base. Gelvin did not recognize any of the elaborate designs, but he found them fascinating. He uncorked the bottle and took a deep breath of the contents. It was not like any liquid Gelvin had ever smelled. It was neither foul nor sweet, but simply unknown.
Gelvin passed the bottle around but nobody could identify the black liquid sloshing inside. "Why don't you have a drink," Slade joked with Fyndon as she sniffed the contents.
"Oh no, I insist you go first," she retorted.
"Yes, but my mother taught me to show deference to ladies," Slade spoke eloquently as a joke.
"Did she teach you that lesson before or after you stole all her money?" Fyndon asked and even Slade laughed.
"Let me see the runes," Flynton said as he took the bottle from her hand.
"Do you know about runes?" Gelvin asked. He was curious as to how one went about studying such things, and he hoped to have the time someday to do it himself.
"I know a little," Flynton said as he held the bottle in the light. "See these markings," he said as he pointed at a curved line with two flags coming off of it. "It means to curse with insanity." Flynton turned the bottle around and examined the markings on the obverse side. He looked at another rune shaped like an eye with wavy lines crossed through it. "This mark means cure."
The last word seared through Gelvin's mind as he looked down at the deceased dwarf. "A cure for insanity," he said as he turned his eyes away from Thraxus. he could not stand to look at him. Gelvin felt his rage returning because they had an opportunity to help this dwarf, but didn't. Gelvin hated Thraxus for killing him, but he hated himself even more for letting it happen. "He was cursed! And we killed him. It wasn't his fault," Gelvin said as he slowly walked over to the dead body and sat down on one knee beside it.
Tension filled the air as everyone knew that Gelvin was disturbed by the events. Thraxus didn't say a word but actually regretted killing the poor dwarf. It was too late though, and Thraxus solemnly walked down the staircase to exit the tower. The others followed him, but Gelvin and Fyndon stayed behind for a moment. He shed one tear for the dwarf, but could not bring himself to provide anymore. He was exhausted and said to himself, "If this is adventuring, then I have had enough." He hoped they would find Koraz soon, so he could return to the temple where the world made sense to him.
"I'm sorry Gelvin," Fyndon said as she held his hand.
"Its not your fault," he replied as he jerked his palm back. "I should have stopped him."
"You couldn't have," Fyndon pleaded. "Thraxus may have hurt you instead."
Gelvin's eyes lit up with concern. "You really think Thraxus would hurt one of us?"
"Not intentionally," Fyndon said without much vigor. "If he were in a rage though, I'm not sure what he's possible of doing." Gelvin squatted in silence as he looked at the poor dwarf. The idea of Thraxus turning on them was inconceivable. Right? Gelvin was not so sure. "I'll leave you," Fyndon said as she walked down the staircase.
Gelvin sat still for another moment and then he got up to leave when he noticed a small square bulge under the dwarf's shirt. He reached under it and felt a small book attached to the dwarf's belt. Gelvin pulled it out. It was a thin journal, with thick paper for covers, but no name on it. Gelvin placed it in his pack and thought, "Maybe I'll find someone to give this to." He covered the broken mass that was the dwarf's body with its shirt and exited the tower in remorse.
Gelvin decided that this valley was either gigantic, uninhabited, or maybe both because he and his companions saw no other signs of life the rest of the day. As darkness fell, they found a secure circle of thick and lush trees where they made camp. Gelvin used some small stones and the surrounding twigs to build a campfire. It had been a day of realizations and everyone seemed content to eat in silence and let the time slowly pass. Their moods had changed from the two previous nights where Slade joked and Flynton performed tricks. Gelvin felt their somber dispositions had something to do with all the killing they'd seen. This quest was no longer an interesting adventure as Gelvin felt when he set out. It was serious and Gelvin feared it would only get worse as they moved closer to the dark future that held Koraz.
"I'll take the first watch," Gelvin said as everyone else laid down to sleep. They were the first words anyone had spoken since they made camp, but nobody felt like responding. As the others drifted off to sleep Gelvin looked skyward and realized that he may never see the stars again. The canopy of the valley obstructed his view and Gelvin began to think about what would happen if he died in this place. Would Pithian come looking for him? Would he be eaten by some monster with a taste for Spritelengs? Those thoughts started to scare Gelvin and he needed a distraction. He reached in his pack and pulled out the dwarf's journal.
He opened it to the first page and saw that it was a personal journal. Gelvin quickly closed it and looked away. The dwarf's memories weren't any of his business. Then he had second thoughts. The dwarf was gone and who would it hurt if Gelvin read his journal. Gelvin wanted something to do while he stayed awake and that book was all he had to read. He opened it again and read the name on the first page, 'Rexel Tyras'.
Much later, Fyndon woke up when she heard the loud crackling of the wood burning on the fire. She rubbed her swollen and tired eyes and looked over at Gelvin. He was intently speed reading each page of the journal and was nearing the end.
"What are you doing," she asked Gelvin with a sleepy yawn as she rolled over to her side and propped herself up with one elbow.
Gelvin held his hand up and paused because he was intently reading the final page. Moments later he looked up from the book and Fyndon observed that he was out of breath from reading. Her eyes widened and she suddenly felt more awake, "What's wrong Gelvin?"
"This is the dwarf's journal," he said as he scooted next to Fyndon and placed it in her lap. "He knew Koraz!" Gelvin said as excitement danced in his eyes and an expression of joy filled his face.
"What do you mean?" a confused Fyndon asked as she sat up. She looked at Gelvin's face at she could sense his excitement. It jumped off his face and consumed her, as Fyndon felt ecstatic.
"He knew Koraz. Even when Koraz was still young," Gelvin said rapidly.
"I don't understand," Fyndon said shaking her head.
Gelvin slowed down and summarized from the beginning what he had just read, "Remember when Kenyson told us that Penzant sent Koraz far away to train as an assassin."
"He passed through these lands. Koraz met this dwarf, Rexel, and became fascinated with a magical guardian the dwarf wore."
"What kind of guardian?" Fyndon asked.
"The journal doesn't say. All Rexel wrote is that it was a talisman called the 'guardian' and it extended life." Gelvin thought back to what Rexel said when he entered the room. Rexel was trying to protect the guardian from Gelvin.
"Perhaps we should go back and look for it," Fyndon suggested.
"No, its not there anymore and besides we wouldn't want to."
"What do you mean?" Fyndon asked as she became intrigued by the story.
"The guardian extends life, but with a price," Gelvin explained. "It drives the wearer insane."
"So that's what happened to Rexel," Fyndon said excitedly. She finally understood what cursed the dwarf.
"Not exactly. Let me finish. Koraz had heard of the guardian and went to find it. He discovered that Rexel possessed it. Koraz challenged him to a duel which Rexel, with the help of the guardian, easily won."
"He defeated Koraz?" Fyndon asked in astonishment. All this time, every story they had heard characterized Koraz as an invincible assassin. Fyndon gained some hope that they could defeat him when Gelvin told her Rexel's story.
"Yes, Koraz was defeated but he vowed to take revenge someday on Rexel. During the years before Koraz returned, Rexel learned the curse of the guardian and he gave up wearing it. Instead he vowed to hide it from the world so its power could not corrupt anyone. He moved deep into this valley and built the tower. Then one day Koraz returned."
"On the unfinished business Kenyson spoke of."
"Exactly," Gelvin confirmed. "Koraz returned to steal the guardian. He was successful and he devised a revenge against Rexel worse than death. He cursed him and drove him insane. Then Koraz constructed the machine which held the antidote as a way to torture Rexel. The cure was right next to him, but he could not reach it."
Fyndon felt fear creep into her mind and she wondered what kind of a black heart would devise such a cruel scheme. "So Koraz has the guardian?" she asked.
"Yes, he stole it."
"Then we must tell the others," Fyndon said in a panic. Gelvin took her hands and gently caressed them. He waited for her to calm down and told Fyndon, "No, we can't. Thraxus is driven by lusts of greed and power. If we tell him he will surely seek to take the guardian from Koraz. He won't be able to resist the temptation of using it and that could doom us all." Fyndon listened to Gelvin and imagined what Thraxus would be like if he were invincible and insane. Nobody would be able to stop him and anyone who tried, he would kill.
"Perhaps you're right," she said quietly.
"Trust me for now Fyndon," Gelvin pleaded and she nodded in agreement. "Besides, Rexel never said what the guardian looks like. For all we know, it could be a ring Koraz wears around his toe or a band he uses to pull back his hair."
Fyndon knew Gelvin was right as she looked into the fire. Then she stared at Gelvin's innocent and tired face. "Get some rest. I'll relieve you."
"Thank you," Gelvin said as he tucked the journal back into his pack and rolled over onto his blanket. He was asleep as soon as his head touched the ground.
In the writer's own words:
"My name is Allen Woods. I am a 22 year old writer from Nashville Tennessee who enjoys writing adjectives, adverbs, the occassional noun, and science fiction. I am an affiliate member of the HWA. I have written two dozen short stories, some of which have been published in "Pablo Lennis", "Art:Mag", "Lost Worlds", and "Pleiades". I am finfishing work on a novel length space opera and I encourage readers to give me feedback via e-mail: NAAllen@aol.com"
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