Chapter 20: Well Met Friends?
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Sharn nudged his horse into a canter, his eyes barely registering the grotesque Dei-Xhan territory markers slowly decomposing around him as they swung by their ankles in the wind moaning through the mountain passes. He was barely twenty leagues away from the City of Lun, the largest smuggling and merchant center of the Dei-Xhan principality of Lunland as well as a Holy City to the worshippers of Lun. This new matter was taking him away from collecting the bounty on a highly prized sorceror from Outland being given refuge by Prince Keilun Dzar. The sorceror had the bad habit of smuggling fire gems and ice diamonds without a license from the junta of Outland.
But that was no longer his concern, apparently. Sharn cursed as he kicked a little more speed into his horse's gait, galloping towards Mount Gyru and hoping this young fool and his sorcerous guide were worth his time and trouble.
Maseryk first realized he had a problem when he led his new traveling companions down to the building housing his mounts. The instant young Jonar entered the outer chamber, the scent of his Gnath so woven into his own scent he had by now gotten used to it wafted into the huge vaulted room. The four elph-tors the sorceror kept for long distance trips into the wilds went completely hysterical with fear and fear-triggered hatred. Hearing this sound, the young Gnathar's companion came thundering into the building from where they had left him by the library, causing the elph-tors to cower back, lashing out frantically in self-defensive gestures through the bars of their stalls in the makeshift stable.
Maseryk closed his eyes, trying very hard to close out the sound of the shrieking animals, and motioned for them all to exit the stable. "We have a problem," he said in Gnome, the only language all of them spoke, or at least understood, fluently, as soon as he closed the huge doors. "I do not have any mounts Gnaths do not prey upon in the Netherlands. They will all react the way those four did just now."
Donnar turned on him with a frown. "Well, what do you suggest?" the Gnome demanded sarcastically. "None of our horses will carry your overgrown frame and Gnusyl doesn't really like you."
The sorceror tried to ignore the little man and stared up into the lead gray sky in thought. "I may have a mount, but you probably won't like it any more than the Gnath will."
Maseryk motioned for them to back away from him as he raised his arms and bowed his head. A low, guttural chant echoed from within the confines of his voluminous hood and a stingingly chill wind kicked up the snow covering the walk. The clouds overhead began roiling, with fitful flashes of lightning throwing the sorceror's shadow out before him. Jonar and his friends fled back towards the library as bolts of electricity rained down on top of Maseryk's position, hiding him in clouds of sparks and flying rock and snow. The Jotnari Dei-Xhan's voice was becoming more and more distinct, despite the noise of the pyrotechnics.
" ... Yvatchtigar vonommiskar djanivitsh-ahfganinal!" the usually airy voice boomed in a strangely compelling language. Jonar clutched at Gnusyl as he felt the power being built up by those words, almost able to understand them and fearing that he very well might translate them. He closed his eyes and shut out the sound even as he felt two supple bodies clinging to him. "Ovzir daschnomizahn kürnöch'Itchfondarmaar Skjaarnovf diyachjan'Afknjaerd Hoenifandinon! Ev yoch jonifficar mond Yu fok lievaar nichtawajq!"
With that final, terrible syllable booming out over the plateau of Lunivo-Vaslaria, a blazing column of energy slammed into the earth, throwing Jonar and his friends to the ground and staggering Gnusyl. Jonar's head rose to see what the sorceror had done only to find himself looking into the empty sockets of a juvenile gabressi. It stood nearly three and a half feet in the shoulder and was well over seven feet in length with smooth, snow white skin, a long, tapered head filled with dagger-sharp teeth, and scythe-like claws on its feet. The deadly lizard hissed, shaking its huge, tooth-filled head angrily as Maseryk stumbled over to the gaunt beast. He muttered something in Dei-Xhan and waved his hand at the young gabressi's back. A riding harness materialized, causing the vexed creature to lash its tail even harder than it already was.
"Have you lost your mind, sorceror!" Donnar exploded, leaping to his feet, battle-axe at the ready.
"Not really," he replied wearily, hauling his body onto the monster's back. "I killed this young one a few seasons back. This is the only other mount I could summon which would not suffer from fits at the presence of a Gnath. See?" A black gloved hand rose to point at Gnusyl. The great Gnath was baring his teeth at the hissing gabressi, his claws striking sparks from the paving stones beneath him as he snorted aggressively. "I understand killing a gabressi is considered a heroic act among the Gnaths of the Empire but even this young one understands caution around them. Shall we gather your possessions and start out? Mount Gyru is a three week journey in the best of seasons and this isn't one of them." He nudged the huge white lizard and it scurried with surprising speed towards the rear of the library, leaving Jonar and his friends to hurry after them.
The terrain throughout the Netherlands is rugged and mountainous, making travel between any two points difficult, especially in the winter months when snow piles up by the foot. Travelers can, however, move relatively easily so long as they keep to the north-south passes which run the width of the Nethar Mountains. Jonar and his companions, however, were not going exactly north-south and the location of Mt. Gyru in relation to Lunivo-Vaslaria and the various passes was not making travel any smoother. The passes tended to be nothing more than huge, miles long gorges with few or no outlets. To get to Mt. Gyru, Maseryk informed them they would have to wend their way across not one but three of these passes, lengthening their journey significantly and adding to the danger.
"Gribble dung!" Donnar snorted when he heard this. They were out of the Valley of Lunivo-Vaslaria and riding up the first pass. "I know a way through which we will actually cut down on our time and decrease our danger!"
Jonar groaned as they rest of them greeted this statement with enthusiasm. "He means to take us to the Gnomes and their caverns," the young man said with a shudder.
"What's wrong with that," Maseryk demanded, "other than the fact that Gnomes are not the most cheerful race to be around? If the Gnome can get us around, or under in this case, several companies of Dei-Xhan warriors and sorcerors, I say let's do it that way."
Jonar shuddered again as Donnar barked a harsh laugh. "Longshanks gets a little uneasy underground. Starts to hallucinate that the mountain is about to crush him. Last time I took him into the Justicar regions, my cousins wound up knocking him upside the head with the butt of an axe and dragging him back out into the open," the little man told the sorceror, grinning at the giggles coming from the ladies. "They almost got themselves eaten by that big brute for their troubles," the Gnome pointed up at Gnusyl.
Maseryk hid a smile with a cough and asked, "How far would we have to travel until we would encounter the Nethar Gnomes?"
Donnar snorted. "The only reason we have not been stopped already is probably because you claim this valley and its region for yourself and do a better job of keeping the Dei-Xhan away than they could. The Nethar probably take a note from the Dei-Xhan and avoid your territory like the plague," the Gnome replied, looking up and over at the sorceror riding several yards from the rest of them. Jonar and Gnusyl stalked along on the other side of the horses, the Gnath keeping one of his large eyes on the white lizard-mount at all times. "If I were the Nethar, I would have patrols set up as close to your borders as possible."
Maseryk nodded and pointed to a gorge leading into the first of the passes through which they would travel. "Then the mouth of that ravine would be their starting point. I have marked all of the land within a league of my valley and that gorge is where the last of my markers are. No Dei-Xhan comes through that gorge unless they have pressing business of some powerful overlord," he told the merchant. A grim smile flickered quickly across his ugly face. "The ground between Lunivo-Vaslaria and there used to be littered with the bones of Dei-Xhan and Gnathar bandits and sorcerors."
"Used to be?" Kyftassa inquired lightly.
The Jotnari Dei-Xhan chuckled. "The creatures in the Netherlands do not pass up any opportunity for a meal and the marrow found in bones is quite nutritional," he replied blandly. "Since I settled into Lunivo-Vaslaria, the Lunlanders and Outlanders have found it more profitable and much healthier to go around me. They tried for almost two years to go through me but all that did was make me stronger. They lost some of their most powerful sorcerors and warriors in those early years. I don't get nearly as many people coming through here anymore. I have had to range quite far from my home in order to find good foes to fight."
Myka looked over at him. "So that is all you do?" she asked sadly. "Kill Dei-Xhan sorcerors and their lackeys?"
Maseryk shrugged. "It's something to do," he replied glibly before smiling. "But I also get in time to study and practice."
"Magic, weapons, certain other things of interest to me," was his vague reply.
"And never a visitor or friend do you have?" Illyana surprisingly asked from her place in front of Jonar.
"It is the nature of a sorceror," a new voice answered. A tall, powerfully built, mottled gray stallion walked soundlessly from around a massive boulder concealing a grotto. Mounted on its back was a leanly muscular, oddly featured Ce'al male dressed in finely made and well worn leathers dyed a camouflaging pattern of greens, browns, and grays. Across his back was slung a bow and full quiver and a slim, beautifully crafted sabre was sheathed at his hip. The muffled jingle at each of the charger's steps gave evidence that the strange Ce'al was armored and he gazed grimly at Maseryk with shockingly blue eyes. His red hair waved in the sudden breeze and a red brow rose questioningly as he stopped his strangely placid horse a few feet from the white gabressi. "Sorcerors must hunt out new skills to steal in order to get stronger."
"Steal?" Myka asked after regaining her composure at the appearance of so strange-looking a Ce'al male. "Steal from whom?"
The newcomer smiled grimly. "That all depends of whom we are speaking, my Lady," he replied with a bow. "Most weaker sorcerors hunt down those with divine gifts and steal rather weak strength from them. Stronger sorcerors prey on weaker sorcerors to gain the even greater strength they are able to give."
Donnar glared up at Maseryk. "And which type is this one?"
The Ce'al snorted. "So far as I have been able to prove, he is the later," he answered with irritation.
"But not for lack of trying, eh, Prince Sharn?" Maseryk said flatly, his black eyes and ugly face showing no pleasure at seeing the stranger. He turned to the others and smiled. "May I introduce my fellow ranger, his Highness Prince Sharn Jenni of Auley out of Tran Kor. Prince Sharn was probably sent to aid us in our most glorious quest."
Donnar snorted with amusement at the sardonic tone in the sorceror's voice. "I take it you two know each other."
"I was the first bounty the Prince tried to collect on when he entered the Netherlands," the Jotnari Dei-Xhan confirmed, amusement returning to his eyes. "I am quite valuable in both Lunland and Outland and Prince Sharn occupies himself as a bounty hunter while ranging through these mountains."
Prince Sharn did not look amused. "If we are going someplace, I suggest we get there before the next storm arrives," he advised seriously. "There were several sorcerors chanting up something serious when I passed by Mt. Darkov on my way here."
Donnar nodded and nudged his pony into a walk. "I think-"
"I think your journey has ended, Slamfist," a raspy voice echoed down the gorge in strangely accented Gnomish.
Even as Jonar and Donnar whipped out their weapons, four score Gnome warriors appeared all around them, causing Gnusyl to snort and growl warningly. Three Gnomes mounted on strangely eyeless lizards skittered from the mouth of the gorge. All three lizards were covered in mail and the Gnomes on their backs wore fine breastplates and carried massive battle-axes. Angry gray eyes peered at the party from beneath shiny helms crested with an odd, translucent hair.
Donnar growled deep in his throat, though no expression showed on his stony face. "You would think Slamfists would know better," one of the mounted Gnomes spat.
"Who cares?" another said angrily. "Let's kill them and be done with them!" The Gnome warriors surrounding them grinned viciously and took a step closer to Jonar and his companions.
The Gnome in the center shook his head warningly, eyes narrowed as he looked at Maseryk and Prince Sharn. "I think more is going on here than meets the eye, Ahbnaar. The bulky Ce'al is Prince Sharn Jenni of Tran Kor and the ugly one is Maseryk Dame'marin," the little warrior told his fellow. "We are on his land and he is the Dark Sorceror the Dei-Xhan wet themselves over when they come into these parts. There is much more going on here than the Lawgiver alluded to. We must take him to Cousin Kondil'Ahbnifficus. It is for him to decide if the Slamfists die and what fate his friends will face. Disarm them and form up around them! Mind the Gnath!"
Jonar kicked the two Gnomes that came to take his weapons from him, sliding off Gnusyl's back and ripping his axe from its sling on his back. The Gnomes separated his friends from him even as Gnusyl began pawing the air around him and angrily shaking his head at the Gnomes surrounding him.
"Jonar, no!" Donnar bellowed even as he was thrown to the ground and his axe taken away. Kyftassa, Prince Sharn, and Alyssa raised their hands placatingly, their weapons still in their sheathes as they were roughly pulled off their horses and prodded away from the belligerent Gnath. Maseryk was more courteously guided away from Jonar, his gabressi hissing warningly at the little warriors who gestured for his rider to move.
The leader of the Gnome patrol dismounted, walked over to where Donnar lay with his face in the dirt and glared down at him. "What is that child's problem?"
Donnar turned his head so one of his eyes could look up at the patrol leader. "You have threatened to take his weapons away from him," he replied. "He won't use them on you unless you try to harm him, harm one of his friends, or try to take them away."
One of the Gnomes came too close to Jonar, feinting to try to get through his defenses. Jonar swung high with his axe and just as the Gnome tried to dart under the swing, the young Gnathar flicked out a huge foot, sending the little warrior sailing through the air to land with a crashing thud atop two of his comrades.
"Stay back, damn you!" the Gnomes commander bellowed. He squatted down before Donnar with a grimace. "I can't have that barbarian running through our caves armed, Slamfist."
"Then I suggest you let him go," Donnar advised with a grin, "because you won't get those weapons away from him without losing at least half of your men. And his Gnath won't let you take him away from him, which is what you will have to do to take him prisoner."
The Gnomes scowled, looking up at the huge beast pawing at the air with claws large enough and sharp enough to slice even an armored Gnome in half. He stood and looked over at the three Ce'al, and then checked his mental description of them. One was a Ce'al but the other two were half breeds.
"Didn't Lawgiver say something about the Gnathar youth being married to two women; once to a Gnathar girl and once to a Meikari half-breed?" he asked one of his subordinates.
Even as they nodded, Donnar pushed himself up to his knees and glared up at the Gnome with a raised brow. "Were you idiots not listening when I told you he will kill you all if you try to harm him, his friends, or try to take his weapons away?" he asked with disbelief. Shaking his head, he looked over at Alyssa standing shoulder to shoulder with her brother. "What do you think will happen to you and your entire gens if you threaten his mate?"
"So she is his wife!" the Gnomes exclaimed, walking towards Alyssa.
Even as Kyftassa pushed his sister behind him, a ball of fire flashed out of the sky to explode in front of the Gnome, sending him flying through the air. He landed with a grunt, eyes glazed. "I think things have gone far enough, Gnome!" Maseryk grated irritably from his place near his still-hissing gabressi. "If you are taking us to your Dominari, do so. If you are going to try to coerce and threaten us, I will simply dispatch you so we may continue our lengthy journey."
Prince Sharn flicked a hand at his guards, sending them spinning to the ground, and stepped up to stand in front of the fallen Gnome. "I can't allow you to do that, sorceror."
"Enough!" another, greater voice bellowed with a crash of lightning and a flash of smoke. As the smoke cleared, a glowing apparition stood blindingly amidst them. It glowed brighter than any of the Illuminants Jonar had yet seen and what he could see of its face was very unhappy. "I was told this divine quest was imperiled, but this is the height of idiocy! You Nethar will lead us to your Dominari. These are allies and diplomats, not enemies." Then it looked over at Jonar. "And you will put up your weapons. These puny foes will not harm you or yours. They are but some of the allies of which Lord Wolvero spoke. Now let us continue into the domain of the Nethar."
"What possessed you to threaten one of the virtuous, Maseryk Dame'marin?" the ranger Lord Bzas Ozzytia demanded in Old Jotnari as they trekked through the darkness of the caves brightened only by the greatly diminished glow of the Illuminant ranger. "I have been your assigned watcher for going on a decade now and you have never come so close to going over the line."
The Jotnari Dei-Xhan snorted disdainfully, casting a meaningful glance over his shoulder at Jonar. "I seriously doubt your young warrior back there would agree with you," he replied in the same language. Then he snorted again. "And virtuous, you say? I don't consider anyone who thinks that threatening an unarmed woman who has done naught to you or yours simply to demand the surrender of someone who also has done nothing wrong very virtuous. Those Gnomes were on the brink of killing themselves anyway. Had they touched that Gods-touched fool's wife, they and their entire Dominari would have been his first target when he finds that damned axe."
Lord Bzas looked over its shoulder at the scowling Jonar Telansson and silently concluded that the sorceror was regretfully correct in this assessment. Gnathar, in general, do not take kindly to those who molest their womenfolk. Jonar, Lord of Telanar, appears to be more Gnathar than most of his kind, from all accounts. He will take careful watching and management by the Clerics of Light and the priesthood of the God of Justice, the Illuminant thought.
"I wouldn't get your hopes up on that score, glow brain," one of the Gnomes closest the two rangers whispered in Gnomish. "That one's mind is closed to me, but I can see he is not the managing type."
The shocked rangers gaped at the Gnome in outrage. "You can hear what I am thinking!" the Illuminant exclaimed even as Maseryk muttered a spell under his breath. "How?" the now brilliantly glowing ranger demanded.
The little warrior shrugged with a self-deprecating smile as he turned a knowing look on Maseryk when the sorceror's spell was cast. "I am a justicar of the Nethar. Sol has seen fit to grant me a divine gift to aid me in my duties. Unfortunately, in this instance, those who employ me do not always listen to the advice I impart," he explained, his smile turning into a grin at the welter of thoughts that flashed through the Illuminant's complex mind before it got itself under control enough to close its mind to the gifted Gnome. "I suggest you take my warning about the barbarian Slamfist seriously. He is not even remotely tractable and you will incur his wrath even as we almost did this day should you try to force him into the role you see as his. He will do only what he deems fit and right, nothing more." With that advice, the Gnome slackened his pace to walk beside the Gnathar youth and the Meikari prince.
Prince Sharn, who had been walking in front of his fellow rangers allowed them to come abreast of him in the wide tunnel through which they were traveling. "I do not know the young Gnathar even as little as Maseryk does, but I do know this Gnome justicar," the Ce'al ranger told them. "He is considered among the wisest judges in the Nethar Dominari, despite his youth. Heed his words in your dealings with this Gnathar barbarian. I saw his eyes when the Gnome suggested harming the Meikari and I would not wish to be on the receiving end of that kind of wrath. Had you not arrived, Lord Bzas, I have no doubt I would have seen my first true Gnathar berserker in action. Probably to my great regret."
The three rangers trudged on through the rocky underworld of the Nethar Gnomes for what seemed like hours with nothing but the faint drip of water and an occasional tectonic groan to break the silence of their trek. The Gnomes, evolved over the eons to both the subterranean world and the world of light, led the way confidently. Their glowing red eyes chilled Jonar's companions but he and the rangers had seen Gnome eyes in complete darkness before and so kept their eyes on their guides for signs of trouble in this lightless world where time seemed to stand still.
After traversing several large caverns, the party passed into yet another tunnel. At the end of this one, however, enough light to be able to see by was emitted by a steady white source not unlike the Illuminant's glow. A noise none of them had been consciously aware of soon shattered into its component parts and the companions realized they were approaching a large number of people seemingly speaking near the top of their lungs. They slowly walked to the mouth of the tunnel and stepped into the light, shocked and amazed at the sight beyond.
Gnusyl, not happy with being cramped into tunnels barely large enough at places to fit his bulk, pushed through into the light. His nostrils were flaring and he charged down the slight incline, causing the Gnomes to suddenly quiet and then break into shrieks of panic as they rushed to get out of the Gnath's way. The behemoth did not waver in his course, however, and made straight for the closest of the large lakes of crystal clear water scattered through the middle of the massive cavern into which the Nethar Gnomes had led them. Around those lakes was a city nearly as large as Hynost-Qaanzyr but with a technological and architectural sophistication the Ce'al's beautiful city could never hope to match. The buildings soared to the roof of the cavern to tower above the lakes in awesome majesty and filled the cavern near to overflowing. Huge towers and massive domes riddled the roofline of the city, giving evidence that there were probably more Gnomes living in this one cavern than there were people living in the entirety of Meikar.
"It is seven miles across and nearly a half mile high," Juni Netharguard said proudly of the cavern. The leader of the Gnome soldiers started down into the city, ignoring the astonished glares his fellow citizens shot him, since it was obviously he that had brought the Gnath into their city. "Come. My cousin will wish to dispose of your case as soon as possible. He does not want you barbarians in his city any longer than necessary."
As the Nethar Gnomes walked on, Myka walked up to Donnar with a scowl on her pretty face. "To whom is he referring when he says 'barbarians?'"
Donnar chuckled. "All of us," he quipped lightly. "The Nethar are under the grand delusion that they are the center of the universe and that the rest of us revolve around them. This city is what they refer to most often when they try to present this case to other people, including other Gnomes. And since most other races don't have anything that comes close to this wonder of theirs, they usually win those arguments."
"You don't sound particularly offended by this opinion of theirs, Gnome," Prince Sharn noted sourly, looking around at the wondrous buildings as they walked along a perfectly smooth, arrow straight street.
He shrugged, a knowing glint in his eye. "We Gnomar allow them their delusions because we know better."
"The Nethar are an offshoot of the Gnomar Dominari," Lord Bzas told them in Ce'al. "They broke away from the Gnomar only about three thousand years ago. They had to start from scratch when they started their Dominari and so theirs is the least sophisticated of the Gnome societies. The Slamfist Dominari is reputed to have a cavern city five times this size with marvels of machinery and styles of architecture you could not even imagine in your wildest dreams. It is a secret of the Gnomar, however, so this is unconfirmable."