The Reaver hunts them while they are awake. The Eater of Dreams stalks them while they sleep. In light of these and other menaces, how can Kara Kinfolk, Tal Stormgren, and companions new and old ever reach the elves? Old magics are awakening, most of them horrific, and none more so than the ancient, haunted city of Jorim-Sa. It lies between them and their salvation.
The Resurrection Tower lies in wait at the end of a long road, a journey between awake and asleep, life and death ... between the heavens and the hells. Through numerous wars on numerous planes, it has stood watch. No one knows why. Yet the tower must be understood if this world and others are to be saved.
Nasty Habits (sample chapter)
There's nothing here, thought Bander Stouthelm.
Twilight had died, and night had fallen. Come one, come all. It found the stalwart dwarf pacing (he called it 'patrolling') outside the walled fence of the estate, a ramshackle preponderance of non-ingenuity if the dwarf had ever seen one, and he had. His distaste was not so much for how it had been built, so much as there was such potential for so much more locked within. Even non-dwarves should be able to see that! Such waste! Ah, but that was humans for you - rush, rush, rush. It was sad that they could accomplish so much yet did so relatively little sometimes!
The dwarf could spare little time for the small castle's problems. He kept his pacing regimented, and his battleaxe in one hand, lightly tapping its rune-engraved blade with the other.
The Reaver was out there. Somewhere.
Round two with that buggering beastie? Oh, aye, I could do with some of that!
The battle-toughened dwarf tried not to mutter as he went. It was all tough talk, and he was worried that talk was about all he had left in his reserves at this point. Everything inside him hurt! By the pantheon, even his toes hurt! His blasted, friggin' toes! He was sure the others could tell, too, which made it all the worse! Would he have no pride remaining by the end of this ill-fated expedition? Dwarves were known for their boundless stamina, but the runecaster figured he was getting pretty close to uncharted territory. Here there be dragons, indeed. There and back again, his hairy arse.
The wind in the forest sang a lonely song as Stouthelm looked for the Reaver. At least the sound through the mass of black trees covered any embarrassing squeaks from his armor ... or his weary bones. The dwarf squinted his eyes under his bushy eyebrows this way and that. His eyes were different than Rinn's, saw in the dark differently, and he was not sure which of them was best suited for spotting the Daermornian predator. Orcs, they saw heat, whereas dwarves merely saw the world clearly even if only by starlight. Which would be better? More importantly, would either even work?
Fortunately, we've got the Stormgren lad's magic staff. It'll tell us when the Reaver's near. Ain't that just like an elf weapon, eh? Get spooked, tell everyone about it, and then let them do your fighting for you!
Everything about fighting Daermorn was guesswork. Fighting the machinations of a trickster god had no hard-and-fast rules, not unless you counted the rule about no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes, it made you reckless. Sometimes you had to be reckless, had to take chances, and that was coming from a decidedly non-reckless dwarf (at least by nature if not recent action).
Back in Kair-Thelbardin, Bander Stouthelm had had no choice but to be reckless...
...once he had been transported across the dwarven complex of Kair-Thelbardin by the powers of the Oracle, narrowly avoiding evisceration by the Reaver in the process! He had magically (How he hated that word!) appeared in a distant part of the underground city's empty halls.
"Too close..." the runecaster had whispered, remembering how the predator's talon-like fingers hand sunk into his very armor. The monster had been oblivious to - or more likely uncaring of - the roof of the Acolyte's chamber collapsing on them. It was a wonder that the whole church above the chamber hadn't come down on their heads! Then again, maybe it had...
Free of the Reaver, Bander had promptly hunched over onto his knees and retched. And retched. And retched some more. Followed by more serious retching with just a hint of drool. His world had been fading to black before his escape, and now he fervently wished unconsciousness would hurry up and claim him already! Apparently, that was not to be, despite the maddening rush of blood in his head that spotted his vision with dabs of red. There was nothing in his belly to come out in the jerky heaves, yet his body kept trying to excise! Did it want him to disgorge his entire stomach itself?
The Stormgren lad had pointed out that magical transport - not exactly common in the Territories, but not exactly rare, either - had recently been disrupted somehow by the northern nation of Daermorn. It did not work the way it should. Was that the problem now? Or was it because the earth elemental at the heart of this dead complex was friggin' insane, to put it mildly? Thank the bones of all who had gone on before him that Rinn was nowhere near to see this! (Bander had complete confidence that if anyone was still alive at the end of this mess, it would be the powerful orc, blasted everlasting yap or not.)
Eventually, the vomiting and the dry heaves that followed subsided. Bander had wiped at his messy beard, drool and worse hanging down in long strands that would not give up the ghost, wishing his hand did not shake so. He made himself look around, survey his surroundings, and stand up.
This hall he found himself in was barren but for a few mongrel tables and a number of discarded chairs, all of which had seen better days. There were a few minor forges and their implements loitering in the corners, built into the recesses, but they could only have been meant for the most insignificant of repairs, in his earnest opinion. And if you knew Bander, he was all about the earnest.
The dwarf wasted no time, just in case he was not long for the world of the conscious. His innate senses and experience told him he was no longer deep in the rock. In fact, a statue residing upon a dais in the center of the hall marked an exit portal.
Bander stumbled over to it and quickly stood upon its surface, recognising its function, and waited for the mechanism to kick into gear. Ever curious like the rest of his race, he listened to see if the apparatus was hydraulic, rune crafted, or a weighted pulley system that they sometimes still used in -
'You are wounded, Delma,' said a disembodied voice, using Bander's official title in dwarven.
Strange that other than my title, it speaks to me in a human tongue, Bander thought, but did not give voice to.
Ever since Kair-Thelbardin's elemental had made itself into Devlin's Oracle, it had been all kinds of shaky, not right in the head. The runecaster, knowing he would have to come back this way to seek out Tal and Kara once he had ascertained that the coast was clear, did not want to upset the elemental's fragile mental balance any more than he had to. He would not have time to pick up the pieces if the eggshell of its sanity collapsed completely.
'You should not go on alone,' the Oracle continued, even as whatever mechanism beneath the dais clicked into place. Yet why had the crazy thing transported him here and not all the way to the surface? It had said it was blinded, but then, it had said all kinds of things. 'We are not meant to be alone, Delma. None of us are. Do you wish to speak?'
Magic never did anyone any good, thought Bander. Friggin' Thelbard was loony, too. But I feel for this elemental. What was done to it by that dwarf wizard?
"I have to go," is what Bander said aloud, only now realizing that he was leaning against the dwarf statue, his eyes closing, darkness welcoming him into its embrace. He snapped back to attention. "I need to scout the exit. But I hope not to be long, my friend."
The circular dais had begun to rise slowly into the air. It was picking up pace now. Machinery was churning and grinding, working to find leverage and then power through the miracles of water, weight and steam.
'You should not go,' repeated the voice of the elemental, and was there a threat in it? A hint of more than madness, of unbridled anger?
And was the machinery beneath the dais slowing?
"I will return," explained Bander, stern but not angry. He was a high ranking officer in the UnderTemple, but this lonely construct of Thelbard's would not care about that. "I have friends travelling the complex. You will spot them easily, but do not transport them, even if you can. I will go back for them once I know this way is safe. We together, you and I, must see them out of this place."
A pause - it went on for what felt like forever - and then the dais began to rise into the air again, carrying Bander Stouthelm towards the final exit from Kair-Thelbardin.
'Behold the Doors of the Rising Glow, traveller!'
"Whippee," muttered the dwarf, something he had heard the Kinfolk lass say with an equal lack of enthusiasm. Even against this little rumble of stone, he had to work at trying not to sick up again! He was leaning forward, his hands on his knees, his breathing laboured, bracing himself. By the pantheon, he had only been hurt this bad on a couple occasions in his past, and he had lived a long time!
A wide circular pattern in the ceiling opened with a flicker of dwarven runes. Pale light came flickering down. Up went dwarf and stone as the platform fit through the aperture seamlessly. The dais then came to a stop, shuddering.
The normally sturdy dwarf staggered and fell, a wave of dizziness and nausea overwhelming him. There was no way he was going to be transported anywhere ever again! Never! Magical travel - or whatever in blazes they wanted to call it - was like asking to be killed! Particularly when the magic of the northland might be interfering, not to mention the looming insanity of your device!
'Welcome,' continued the frightfully mad Oracle, 'to the Gates of Kair-Thelbardin! There you will find the Stone of Kuurôlth which marks our borders. This is the summit of High Hill to the surfacers. To all, it is a place of ascension. Be well, traveller.'
"Sod off..." uttered the dwarf under his breath. If that set it off, so be it.
Wiping his eyes, trying to get a hold of himself, the bleary dwarf saw a bunch of shelves, which he dismissed, and a winding stairwell, which he did not. There was daylight up there, and fresh air, two things this particular dwarf had learned to appreciate far better than most of his kin!
Somehow, Bander had made it up the stairs and into the light atop High Hill. The morning's radiance was clear to the east, and it shone into his eyes. A welcome sight, but it was never completely pleasant for someone who had been raised underground. Nighttime to a dwarf could be daytime to a human, but daytime to a dwarf could be glaring. Middle-of-the-desert glaring, if you let it get to you. You never got quite used to it, even a veteran like Stouthelm.
Not far away stood a stone pillar. It was a dark shape in an otherwise brightly illuminated world, and the runecaster could see old symbols traced upon it. Daermornian writing that had been cleverly hidden amongst other runes. This would be the Standing Stone of Kuurolth, one of five possible anchors to a barrier holding them inside the domain of Arrow's Flight, waiting for the harbingers' ritual to claim them. Close to these stones, it was easiest to make out the faint tracings of the barrier that surrounded the region. It passed through the Standing Stone like it was a fencepost.
Eyes squinting, axe at the ready, the armored dwarf had advanced, not knowing how much power the Acolyte of the Kuurolth had accumulated in the short time since their last battle...
...and it had cost him his health, and very nearly his life.
"Still might," Stouthelm wheezed, wishing it had not come out so weak.
The Acolyte had beaten him senseless immediately upon his exit. He had never been able to return to the Oracle or Tal and Kara. How long he had sat unconscious after that, propped up like bait, the dwarf had no clue. Probably most others would have been dead after such a beating, yet he had survived. A near thing, but fortunately, healing medicine had been found by the ranger, enough at least to stabilize him. If Bander had been a cat, he had used up all nine of his lives, Stormgren had said. Odd lad, comparing a dwarf to a cat. But that was all over and done with, no point stewing, and Bander did feel some of his strength finally returning.
"Daermorn won't be keeping me out of this fight so easy," Bander promised the newly night sky and its stars, taking a deep breath, truly feeling invigorated for the first time since the Saint's Hall. This time, his voice was strong.
Stouthelm kept his two-headed axe tapping in his hand, but it was secondary. He was keeping his fingers loose now that he had successfully animated his first complex rune since High Hill. The ranger had given him parting instructions before stalking off into the descending night, and the runecaster was prepared to carry them out.
"I'll be friggin' ready. Oh laddie, laddie, round two with that buggering beastie is on me! I'll -"
Suddenly, there was sound! Behind him!
The dwarf whirled, only to see Cro-Rinn watching him from out a nearby copse of trees. Or, rather, he whirled to see Rinn's glowing red eyes watching him. Bander still did not know how the giant orc stayed so blasted silent! How exactly did a green giant hide in the dark? For neither the first nor last time, even knowing that Rinn was special for his race, Bander had a serious pause at the thought of fighting an entire orken army ...
"Still talking to yourself, Bander? Nasty habit. Ranger's got it lately, too."
The orc's eyes flashed a muted red, then became hidden in the shadow, the only telltale sign that his vision had switched spectrums. Most warriors could probably guess that in that brief moment when an orc switched their vision, it was the best time to strike. Most of those said warriors close enough to notice this, however, were generally disembowelled by that point, making it rather moot.
The dwarf chuckled. He really was feeling better, so long as he did not look at the wounds beneath his armor. However, so long as they stopped hurting him, or at least slowing him down, that was all he would let it matter for now.
Looking into the trees more carefully, Bander could just make out Rinn's outline now. Yes, the orc was indeed becoming exceptional at avoiding even the most meagre of light when he wanted to. A young Bel-Rinn had come from Daermorn cocky and seeing little need for stealth, but reality had caught up with him quick, not to mention a former compatriot who had gone by the moniker of 'Unseen', a man who had taught the orc much by example. The orc was ever a keen study.
"You see anything out there, Rinn?"
"Nothing. It's almost like we're on an island. An island in the trees no one comes to see."
Bander chuckled. "I have heard legends, lad, of finding houses in the woods at night, houses with the windows all lit and the doors open. Houses full of friends, welcoming you in. But if you go in, you find that your friends are really strangers, and you wake in the morning to find that you are in naught but a desolate ruin... if you wake at all."
Rinn's red eyes flashed again, the orc still surveying their surroundings. "Have you been going to different woods without me? You two-timing whore of a dwarf."
"I was trying to make a point, you oversized leprechaun. We should not trust all old places. Especially those that are deserted in the middle of a forest... a forest with a real monster in it, I might add."
"Bander, all you do is make points. Which is funny, since you're so round."
The dwarf grunted. He didn't have to see the orc's skull-faced smile to know it was there. "And I know girls with better beards than you, orc!"
"I'm not sure what point you're trying to make there, but you win. And, might I add, lose."
The orc paused, as if in contemplation. He was a poker and prodder, sometimes, but Rinn's heart did not seem to be in it. Not surprising, giving the circumstances, but apparently there was more to his melancholy than that:
"We need to talk, Bander," Rinn said seriously.
"About?" No, this was no joke. They knew each other well enough to tell the difference. They were all that was left of their own original little band of adventurers. Hunting the Stormreaver hammer and the Elder Blade all the way to Arrow's Flight had not only been about the magic weapons themselves ... they were the weapons of Cro-Rinn's and Bander Stouthelm's fallen comrades-in-arms.
"We need to talk about why we went to Arrow's Flight. For the Stormreaver and the Elder Blade. We need to tell the others."
"We told them, Rinn."
"Because we don't know everything, Big Green. I mean, can you remember?"
A pause, disgruntled. "No..."
"Neither can I, lad. Neither can I. And I stopped believing in the trickery of Daermorn long ago."
"What about now, with all that has happened?"
Now it was Bander Stouthelm's turn to look back out into the woods, surveying for the Reaver or any other threat that might come their way. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But it had to be out there somewhere!
The dwarf had no good response for his orken companion. Truth to tell, the events in Arrow's Flight had unnerved him something fierce. Not the kind of fright that made you back down from a fight, but the kind of higher concept fear where you worried for your very world itself.
"I don't know, Rinn. Mayhap - friggin' accent - maybe you've got a point. But I have no wish to complicate our lives with old tales that may have no impact on our present predicament." The dwarf scratched at his shaggy, red-brown beard. "Although I concede that our Stormgren lad has a good head on his shoulders and a knack for legends. Maybe we run it by him? What do you think?"
No response. What was the orc up to now?
Stouthelm immediately hefted his battleaxe. Something was wrong! He turned to look back at the shadows where Cro-Rinn had expertly stationed himself.
"...run..." uttered the orc.
There came upon the air a strangeness, a tinkling sound not unlike icicles falling and breaking on stones in winter. The sound of metal claws announcing themselves.
Even with his dwarven sight, Stouthelm could still barely make Rinn out. But something even better at stealth had come up behind the orc, ever so quietly, and had impaled Rinn through the weapon-shoulder with a long, slender midnight-black talon. The metallic talon of the creature's other hand was sliding along the front of the orc's throat in warning. Finally Bander caught the briefest of glimmers of silvery teeth displayed in a too-wide smile, and only because their owner wanted them to be seen.
The monster said just one word, but it was enough:
The Reaver had found them. And the best hunters in all the worlds still used animals to flush out their prey from the woods, did they not?