Chapter 1: Elm, Halfling Thief
Elm struggled to wake, to throw off this nightmare. He was drowning, buffeted by raging waters that tumbled him against jagged rocks. He grasped feebly at a branch...
"Easy there. Go easy," a well-remembered voice growled, and a strong hand gripped his wrist.
"Bartan?" His voice was a rasping whisper. Blearily, he tried to focus on the pale oval of a face that loomed over him in the darkness, blinking away the streaming rain.
"Yeah, it's me. Come on, up on your feet. I've carried you as far as I'm gonna."
He tried to stand, almost fell. The world spun, and he was glad of Bartan's strength. An angry wind slashed at him with fangs of sleety rain, and he sucked in the cold air gratefully. The light was fading fast, and he could see little beyond the narrow ledge beneath his feet. From far below, the grumble of churning waters sang counterpoint to the raging wind beyond the narrow ledge.
That churning of waters was echoed in his stomach, and a band of pain clamped his skull. Where was Darrick? He must have mumbled the Half-Elf's name aloud.
"He's here," Bartan assured him. "And Gwinny and Tarr. The Gem got to all of you, but you're coming around."
Yes, he could see them. Darrick's bony frame was folded into an ungainly bundle as he sat huddled against the side of the cliff. Gwinny and Tarr crouched with their arms around each other, the Goblin-wench comforting the equally miserable woman Spell-caster.
"Where's Baysil?" He strained to peer through the storm. "And Anji? What about Burdock and Kletta?"
"Don't know. Haven't seen them." Bartan shook his head wearily. "I had all I could do to get the four of you this far. At least, the others could walk. You took a bad knock on the skull when things fell apart. I didn't know if you'd ever wake up or not."
"I'm all right," he lied, pulling away from the support of Bartan's arm. "We need to find shelter."
"Lots of luck." Bartan shook his head. "We're stuck on this ledge for the night. I'll try to find us a sheltered niche."
Once on their feet, the five of them straggled on. Bartan led the way, moving slowly and carefully along the narrow ledge. Tarr and Gwinny steadied each other, picking their way between boulders. Elm brought up the rear, glancing over his shoulder from time to time in case something was creeping up on them.
Most of his concern was for Darrick, stumbling along behind Gwinny and Tarr. The Half-Elf seemed to be moving through an evil dream. His eyes stared blankly out of a face like dirty parchment, and his normally quick movements were stiff and awkward.
What had happened? Elm's thoughts were moving more easily as the flow of blood in his veins quickened. They'd found the treasure Darrick sought, the fabled 'Gem of Brightness', but their enemies had been waiting for them. They'd emerged from the ancient monastery to find the Dark One's minions arrayed against them. Baysil, the lame Cleric, had confronted the Dark One, threatening him with the power of the Gem.
That was where things had gone all hazy. Missiles had flown, he thought. No matter who'd set them off.
"Watch it!" He sprang forward to steady Darrick. The Half-Elf Cleric stumbled back from the brink, trembling.
"1'11 make..." His words trailed off and he pawed the rain from his face with a hand that had lost its sureness. With an effort he squared his shoulders and struggled on.
The Gem had fallen from Baysil's grasp, spilling from its shielding coffer. That he did remember! The fist-sized crystal had flamed, the fire in its heart writhing hungrily as it sucked all Magic from its surroundings. Beyond that moment all was blurred. The pictures in his mind fell into no kind of order...
Rain and darkness, and the fear of falling! The monastery was gone, sucked into an ebon vortex that drank the very air from his lungs! Or was that a dream of disordered wits? And that glimpse of a Wolf-leader, armor falling away as arms and legs twisted into new shapes and fur sprouted on bare skin. Something neither wolf nor man that ran howling into the night. Real or a dream?
The storm was dying, the wind's tortured wailing fading away. Still the rain pounded at them. They had to find shelter! The last shreds of twilight were long gone, smothered in the storm. He was moving mostly by feel, groping with his left hand for the face of the cliff, tapping the ground in front of him, using the sword in his hand like a blind beggar's staff.
"Here," Gwinny called from the darkness. "This way.
Tumbled boulders shut out some of the wind, but the rain beat down unchecked. He glimpsed the edges of tattered clouds overhead, and was able to see the outline of his fingers held close to his face.
"It's lighter," he croaked, and one of the nearby shadows nodded agreement.
"We'll wait out the night." Bartan's voice was deep and sure, a pillar of strength in a world gone all blurry. "Huddle together, share our warmth."
Yes, the clouds were parting, and surely the sheets of rain were not as fierce. He hissed a warning! Was that the rasp of metal on stone? A darker shape moved against the night.
"Urruk!" Gwinny snarled hatred. Elm could see it now, one of the Great-Orcs that the Dark One had gathered to himself. The Orc stumbled, went to its knees. Panting harshly it crawled to the brink of the canyon. Strangled retching sounds reached them over the noise of the dying storm. The Orc struggled erect and turned toward them. A stone shifted underfoot, and with a choked cry it was gone!
Elm listened, but no sound reached them from the canyon depths. He relaxed, loosing his grip on sword-hilt. "One less to worry about!" His chuckle died in a rasping cough.
"Here, share my cloak."
He accepted Tarr's offer gratefully, no longer fighting to stay alert. The sound of churning waters was louder, as the canyon accepted the sky's bounty. Bartan was just another shadow in the gloom as he kept vigil over them.
The hand that gripped his throat was no dream! His toes barely touched the ground as an Ogrish face peered down at him. He let out a startled squawk as the clawed fingers tightened, and then he was thrown roughly aside.
"Corr-Lannth!" Bartan's sword gleamed faintly blue as he warded a blow from the Orc's mace. Gwinny sprang to her feet, drawing her sword to face a smaller Goblin-warrior. Elm groped for the hilt of his own sword, drawing it barely in time to ward off another Goblin's attack. His world narrowed down to the mace that threatened him. The Goblin's weapon rang against his shield, rang again, then shattered against a boulder even as Elm's sword drank its owner's life.
Then he faced a sword, wielded by a Goblin in leather armor. The lighter blade snaked in past his guard, drawing a line of blood and fire down his arm. He pressed his attack, dimly aware that Gwinny had dispatched her second foe and turned to help Bartan. Again the Goblin-sword drew blood, but the Goblin's snarl of triumph was drowned in blood as Elm's sword ripped through its lungs.
He stumbled, going to one knee as he tried to go to the aid of Gwinny and Bartan. He could only watch as they moved apart to take the Orc from both sides.
"Affradd'n KILL!" The Orc screamed his war-cry in time with swings of his mace. Bartan faded back, as Gwinny harried the Orc from the side. Bartan's sword wove a net of death that drew the Orc's attack. Gwinny's shorter sword flashed, blood making darker splotches in the gloom. The Orc reeled, collapsing as she struck a final lethal blow.
"Are you all right?" Tarr knelt at his side. Darrick only now seemed to rouse himself, belatedly aware of the tumult of battle.
"I think so. Ow!" His leg crumpled as he tried to stand. Tarr helped him to a seat on a flat rock, and bent to bandage his thigh.
"I was supposed to be on sentry-go, wasn't I?" He looked up guiltily as Bartan approached. "I remember you waking me..."
"No real harm done," Bartan answered curtly, but his voice held no anger. "We survived. How's Darrick?"
"I'm better." Darrick answered for himself, his voice still uncertain. "My head hurts, and my stomach..."
"That damned Gem of yours just about turned all of you inside out," Bartan growled.
"It didn't do much to you." Elm grinned a bit sickly. "What makes you so different?"
Bartan shrugged, but Darrick's eyebrows quirked.
"Not his strong muscles, I'm afraid." Darrick's voice was stronger. "Look at us. Human, Halfling, Half-Elf, and Goblin."
"And me," Tarr murmured.
"And you," he agreed. "Whatever your ancestry, you're not pure-strain Human. No, what the rest of us have in common is a certain amount of Magical heritage."
"But Halflings aren't Magical," Elm protested.
"What is resistance to the effects of Magic but a Magical trait? The Gem affected that part of each one of us. Only Bartan escaped."
His fingers had been moving over Elm's wounds even as he spoke. He bent his head and whispered a phrase of a healing spell.
"My own Magics are of little help right now," he sighed. "But that should still do some good."
Elm tried his weight on the leg. It held, and he limped over to the bodies of their attackers. Gwinny joined him, pouncing with a chortle of glee on a gleaming shield that had belonged to one of the Goblins she'd killed.
"Yeah, you can keep it." Bartan grinned at her unashamed squeal of pleasure. "The Orc's shield is even finer. Here, Darrick. You take my old one. Yours has about had it."
Elm rummaged through belt pouches, his eye cocked for anything of value. There were a few pieces of gold and silver, and he chuckled to himself as he remembered how precious they once would have seemed. He already carried more gold in his pack than was really wise. Too bad they'd found so few really valuable pieces of jewelry.
"Ahh!" This was something different, and it looked to be valuable. He clutched it to his chest as Tarr spoke from behind him.
"What did you find?" Her soft voice was amused. "No, I won't take it from you."
The habits ingrained by long years of thieving were hard to break. Shame-faced, he showed it to her. A slender tube of bright metal as long as his index finger, it hung from a delicately wrought chain. In the gray light of dawn he could just see that it was inscribed with spidery designs, perhaps the runes of an unknown language.
"Do you know what it is?"
"I'm not sure." She worried her lower lip between even white teeth. "Darrick, what do you think?"
"What? Oh, sorry. I was thinking about... Yes, pretty, isn't it. Looks like a miniature temple chime. I'd hang onto it, if I were you."
"Is it Magical?" Elm eyed it dubiously.
"I think so. I used to know a Thief who had one like it. Claimed that its sound would open anything that was locked or bolted, but he'd never work it for me. Said it was old, and would crack if he used it too many times."
"So, what do we do now?" Bartan looked to Darrick for guidance, now that he seemed more in control of himself.
"Nothing else on those bodies worth keeping? Then toss them over the side and let the floods take them. The rain has nearly stopped for now. We'll rest until it's fully light, then eat and push on."
The clouds were closing down again, making it darker instead of lighter. Elm stretched out on the wet ground, and was surprised to have Tarr join him.
"Here, our cloaks will keep us warmer together than apart."
He looked in vain for any spark of warmth in her manner, but she gave no sign that she even noticed his inquiring gaze. He shrugged his shoulders and accepted her offer, hiding a rueful smile for what might have been.
"Darrick, you'd better take another look at his wounds."
Elm shrugged his shoulders, wincing as bandages pulled against torn flesh. Darrick closed his eyes, gathering his strength, slender fingers barely touching the crusted rags. A tingling warmth spread through Elm's arm and leg.
"My powers are still weak," Darrick apologized. "I should regain my strength as time passes."
"I wonder how far the Gem's effects were felt." Tarr voiced her worry. "There are others who would seek to master its powers if they knew of its existence."
"Does it still exist?" Elm asked as the thought occurred to him. "Or did it get sucked up into that black sphere with all the rest of the stuff?"
"It exists," Tarr answered. "Not all of my spells rely on my own strength. Knowing what to look for, I can still feel its effects. Baysil may still carry it, or else some erstwhile minion of the Dark One. I do not know more, but it is closed within its casket not too far from here."
"Can we go after it?" Darrick's eyes sparkled for a moment as his interest was caught, then went dull. "No, there's no way."
"No, not now." Tarr's hooded features showed no emotion. "I only know that it still exists. I cannot tell even which direction it lies from here. We must regain our strength, avoid enemies. When we've grown stronger, then perhaps we can return and search for it once more."
Bartan got to his feet, impatient to be on his way. "We'd better get moving, or we'll never get anywhere. The rain's about stopped, and it's light enough to see the trail."
They picked their way along the ledge. It was littered with boulders large and small, almost impassable where an ancient slide had once blocked the stream below. They made poor time, covering less than half the ground they would have a few days before. Shadows were growing long by the time the trail angled down to the floor of the canyon.
The sound of rushing water tumbling and churning among the boulders grew louder as they descended. Bartan gestured a warning as they rounded a bend in the trail.
"Deer!" he grinned. "Fresh meat!"
The breeze was toward them and the noisy stream covered their approach. The deer milled about, jostling and pushing to drink at the water's edge. Bartan pointed out a plump yearling as their first target. It fell to his crossbow bolt. The rest of the herd stampeded wildly, bounding and leaping across the stream, up the trail and out of sight.
"Missed!" Gwinny shouted a string of curses after the fleeing deer. "Missed the whole damned herd!"
"Take it easy," Bartan soothed. "You weren't the only one. Elm didn't do any better."
"I sure didn't," he agreed. "But we did get one. Let's gut it. Then we can worry about finding a place to camp for the night."
They crossed the stream, picking up dead branches that had washed down from the forested hills, and pushed on until the light was almost gone. They found a spot where scattered boulders offered scant shelter. Venison steaks, charred on the outside and bloody within, were soon gobbled down and they huddled in their cloaks to await another dawn.