“You were there as well?” Vhindr asked curiously and the Nevārancien warrior nodded.
“When your brother Vythe and his companions were killed by the Goddess, Nen’on flew into such a rage,” Bel’eak replied, “Such power I have never seen before or since. Once he killed the Goddess, your Gods Dhror and Melenduil appeared and took away Nen’on and the others.”
“I told you Vythe didn’t die Vhindr.” Legin said with a smile.
“That’s incredible.” Valianna breathed, her eyes sparkling. “So Vythe could be alive somewhere, and he might return.”
“It is of little consequence now.” Vhindr stated and looked back to the fire.
“That Lieut guy, or Nen’on, he’s not like you is he Bel’eak?” Legin asked before gulping down some more of his dinner.
“No.” Bel’eak stated.
“Well what is he?” Legin pressed curiously.
The Nevārancien winced at the question and looked very hesitant to reply.
“Bel’eak?” Valianna inquired.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now,” Bel’eak sighed, “He was genetically engineered. He and the three others created through gene samples acquired from the very first High King. We called them ‘The Brothers’. They were created to be faster, stronger and more intelligent than the average warrior. They healed quicker than usual and were designed for the soul purpose of killing. But never did they have independent thought.”
“What do you mean?” Legin cocked his head to the side curiously.
“We controlled their thought patterns through programmable biotic entities,” Bel’eak replied and took a sip of his tea.
“I’m confused,” Legin scratched his chin, “Did you guys want him to kill the Goddess?”
“Of course not,” Bel’eak was quick to reply, “Our reports indicated that Nen’on, Lieut, was consumed by the Fog which destroyed the PBEs and allowed him free thought.”
“Nevārance sounds weird.” Valianna said, “The fact that you can control someone’s mind through means not of magicks is ridiculous.”
Bel’eak smirked, “We can do a lot more without the magicks over in Nevārance.”
“Let’s travel over there Vhindr,” Valianna smiled wide to her brother. “Vhindr?”
“What?” Vhindr looked up from the fire in surprise.
“Never mind.” Valianna sighed, “What has you so distracted?”
Vhindr’s eyes glazed over slightly and he looked back to the fire.
“Vhindr?” Valianna said irritably.
“What?” Vhindr shot his sister an annoyed look.
“Forget it.” The youngest Varrintine sighed loudly and stood up before heading over to the horses tethered on a tree.
Vhindr did, and his blank stare returned to the dancing flames of the fire. Legin and Bel’eak started their own conversation and he noticed that Rhalin was similarly distracted as she too gazed into the fire.
“The assassin’s not baiting us,” Bel’eak said, catching Vhindr’s attention.
“But why is he going to Gaianaus?” Legin wondered as he lounged back against a log. “It’s so cold up there.”
“What do you mean Bel’eak?” asked Vhindr seriously.
“Well you said that he was challenging us by appearing in Port Ly’cath,” Bel’eak clarified, “But that doesn’t make sense to me.”
“You think he is leading us into a trap?” Rhalin stated more than asked.
“I doubt it,” the Nevārancien shrugged, “He’s making a very definite statement. He was showing you that he knew exactly where you were in the city. He was clearly displaying his powerful abilities with magicks being able to teleport from a ship into the city and summon with him over a dozen Djarcs. With that level of ability why would he bother luring you to Gaianaus? And for that matter why would he use a bow and arrow to kill the Baron of Issia when he could have used magicks? This assassin is goading you. Why he is doing that I cannot say. But I would tread very carefully on this chase if I were you.”
Vhindr did not reply and with concern he looked back to the low fire. Bel’eak’s words lingered in his thoughts long into the night and before he realised all of the party was asleep. The fire was now nothing but dying embers and Vhindr rubbed his tired eyes. Strangely wisps of the Fog began to drift up from each of his sleeping companions and it was as if he could see the very breath within their lungs. A strange glow emanated from each of them and curiously Vhindr looked down to his own hands, Fog seemed to drift from his very pores and his magickal rings and bracelets burned brightly.
He thought again to the time he and Rhalin were talking with Sārlien in the Rat Trap back in The Port and remembered the beating heart he had seen inside the snow elf’s chest. Vhindr grabbed his forehead as a painful throbbing had begun. But strangely his thoughts became sharper and he could feel the alertness building within himself.
“What’s going on?” Vhindr asked softly as he rubbed his eyes and tried to suppress the ache at his temples.
Slowly the throbbing subsided and Vhindr breathed a sigh of relief as he looked back to his companions for they seemed normal once again. His eyes locked with Rhalin’s, she looked at him curiously as she lay on her bedroll opposite the fire pit. He could see the many questions behind her blue eyes but she did not ask them and turned her gaze back to the stars.
Vhindr tried to dismiss this concerning development of the injury to his eye as he lied down on his bed. But as he fell into an uneasy sleep the thoughts persisted.
The next morning came quickly and as Inüer peaked above the eastern mountains Vhindr and his company were on the move again. The skies were clear, a gentle breeze drifted in off the Western Oceania across the grasslands, and ahead of them the barren peaks of the Scarred Mountains loomed.
Little vegetation grew on the brown rocks of the Scarred Mountains revealing their jagged outlines and broken feet covered with strewn boulders. Similar large pitted rocks were scattered about the grasslands north of Port Na’brath and stood like statues amid the tall grass.
As Vhindr rode in the lead along the dirt path that ran parallel to the coast line his thoughts remained on the concerns of his damaged eye as well as the assassin he was chasing. Riding beside him was Rhalin who similarly seemed engrossed in her private contemplation. Behind the two of them rode Vhindr’s sister who had been grumbling about the early hour they had risen, but now as they were moving into the foothills of the mountains her grumbles turned to other things, annoyingly distracting Vhindr.
“You two are boring, you never talk about anything.” Valianna said loudly, “At least Legin and Bel’eak are entertaining. Where are they anyway? They’ve fallen behind. Why couldn’t they have ridden a horse? At least that way I could talk to someone. By the Abyss, I am so bored.”
“Start writing your thesis then.” Vhindr sighed heavily, “Or return to The Port if you wish.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easy.” Valianna was quick to say, “And I have been keeping mental notes. How far is it to the dwarven halls in these mountains?”
“I cannot say,” Vhindr replied honestly, “I have heard that the dwarves of the Scarred Mountains have opened their halls for trade, but I have never been. I should say we will be there between midday and late afternoon.”
“Joy.” Valianna remarked sarcastically, “Can we ride a bit faster then?”
“You are not enjoying the scenery?” Vhindr glanced over his shoulder at his sister.
“On the contrary I absolutely love watching brown rocks slowly drift by,” said Valianna dryly, causing Vhindr to chuckle slightly.
“What do say Miss Rhalin Ragnarr? Shall we up the pace?” Vhindr asked their other companion and without a word of reply the investigator from Gaianaus urged her horse into a canter.
Vhindr and his sister were quick to follow and they took off at a swift pace. The horse’s hooves clattered loudly on the stony ground and the rocky terrain flew past them as they headed further into the mountains. Wildlife scattered before them and the wind whistled in Vhindr’s ears. The breeze still held a cold bite to it causing their noses and cheeks to go red and become numb. The grassland that dominated the region of Sesserrech disappeared behind them and the brown mountains closed in around them as they followed the wide pass along the barren vales.
Vhindr noticed two people ahead of them on the road and as they approached they slowed their mounts.
“How did you two get here?” Valianna exclaimed as they stopped their horses before Legin and Bel’eak.
“We ran,” Legin stated.
“Been here a while actually,” Bel’eak added as he sat on a large rock.
“With some company it seems,” Vhindr remarked as he looked to the half dozen Grinlock corpses lying about the area.
“The Grinlocks weren’t very good company though,” Legin added with a grin.
“People who try and kill you never are,” Bel’eak chuckled.
“How far are the dwarf halls?” Rhalin asked seriously.
“Not too far,” Bel’eak replied, “Another hour or so, depending on your speed.”
Rhalin nodded and Vhindr looked ahead to where the wide path vanished in between the rugged hills.
“But seriously,” Valianna said loudly, “How did the two of you get ahead of us?”
“Cross country of course,” Legin smiled, “The flat road is no good for building lung and muscle endurance so we went along the hillside paths. They are actually more direct than the main road.”
Valianna looked to the rocky and steep hillsides and shook her head in bewilderment.
“How fast can you run?” the young Varrintine girl wondered aloud.
“Super fast.” Legin was quick to reply before he suddenly sprinted off along the road.
Bel’eak was quick to follow and very quickly they began to disappear down the road. With a smile Vhindr kicked his horse onward and with Rhalin and Valianna close behind him they chased after Legin and Bel’eak. Hooves thundering they tore passed the two on foot and galloped through the mountains. Legin called after them but Vhindr just smiled and urged his mount of faster.
Water splashed into the air as he raced through a shallow stream that ran down from the mountains and joined the river that had come alongside the road. His strong horse pulled at the reins wanting to run more freely and Vhindr let him, glad to see his steed was enjoying the ride as much as he was.
Vhindr soon slowed his swift pace as the road was becoming more narrow and windy as it began to turn up the mountain side. Riding at a trot once again he led the way around a slight turn to see the path curve up the hillside and to a wide area in front of a grand castle built into the rock. Vhindr’s mouth fell open slightly at the magnificent site of the doors to the dwarven halls and glancing to Rhalin and Valianna he could see that they shared his amazement.
Tall towers carved into the side of the mountain framed two massive doors with a parapet above it. Flags flapped in the breeze from the rampart and dozens of the bearded folk mulled about the area before the gates. Wooden frames and supports stood alongside the carved stone creating ledges for the dwarves to work on craving the rock. Many constructed housings sat about the area where the builders were discussing their jobs and others were creating specific items to add to the doors and towers later.
“It looks as if they are still building,” Vhindr remarked to his companions as they rode up the path and into the wide area.
Both Rhalin and Valianna nodded their agreement as they continued to look about at the bustling activity.
“Here now, what d’you lot want?” demanded the leader of a trio of armoured dwarves as they walked towards Vhindr and his companions. “We ain’t open for business yet. I already told that Lord o’ Ly’cath that. Trade will start when we say it will.”
Vhindr chuckled slightly as he dropped down from his saddle.
“We are not here to trade,” Vhindr replied calmly, “My name is Vhindr Varrintine, of Port Na’brath. I heard an old friend of the family, Maul son of Borga, was living in the Scarred Mountains and I thought to stop by to see him.”
“Ye know Maul ay,” the leader of the trio said more friendly, “Yeah he’s livin’ here now days.”
“That is wonderful news,” Vhindr smiled wide, “Is he in good health?”
“How should I know what kinda health he’s in,” the dwarf snorted, “Ye can go an’ see for yerself. He’s over in the small tent to the left o’ the gates. But no roamin’ about ye hear me? An’ that goes for all three o’ ye.”
“Thank you, Master Dwarf,” Vhindr bowed slightly, “We have two more companions coming behind us. Would you be so kind as to point them in our direction when they arrive?”
“Ye what?” the dwarf balked as Vhindr led his horse passed the trio and across the area.
With Rhalin and Valianna close behind him they weaved through the tents and wooden buildings and to the small tent to the left of the gates that the dwarf had indicated.
Tethering his horse outside Vhindr moved into the tent to see a white bearded dwarf sitting at a large desk. Looking through a set magnifying glass he was carefully etching small symbols into the face of an ebonite stone disc. The elderly dwarf looked up from his work and peered at his guests through small round glasses.
“Maul,” Valianna smiled as she pushed passed Vhindr and around the desk to wrap the dwarf in a great hug. “It is so good to see you. It feels like an Age since we last spoke. How have you been? Well I hope?”
“Young Valianna,” Maul exclaimed, “Do my old eyes deceive me? My word you have grown so much. And your brother Vhindr is here as well, unless I am mistaken?”
“You are not mistaken my friend,” Vhindr smiled at the dwarf, “It has indeed been too long since we swapped stories.”
“It seems you have quite a few stories to tell as well,” Maul grinned and ran a finger over his eye mimicking Vhindr’s wound. “What happened there laddie?”
Vhindr subconsciously touched his scabbed-over injury and smiled, “It is quite the tale to tell, if you have the time?”
“By all means,” Maul replied haughtily, “Find a seat where you can. Shall I call for some food and drink?”
“Let me introduce my companions first,” Vhindr was quick to say, “This is Rhalin of Gaianaus. And, with impeccable timing, this is Legin and Bel’eak.”
As he spoke both Legin and Bel’eak came jogging up to the tent, breathing heavy from their run.
“Already?” Valianna exclaimed, “There is no way you could have done that without the use of magicks.”
“I don’t use magicks, remember,” Bel’eak smiled and wiped his brow.
“And I didn’t,” Legin laughed before looking to the dwarf, “Has Maul agreed to take us through the mountains?”
“What’s this?” Maul was quick to say and raised a bushy white eyebrow at Vhindr. “Not just a social visit ay?”
“So, you hadn’t got to that bit yet …” Legin said awkwardly and scratched the back of his head sheepishly.
“No.” Vhindr sighed.
“Well this is awkward,” Rhalin remarked dryly.
“Do not mistake us Maul,” Valianna smiled at the old dwarf, “We are overjoyed to see you again. But the main reason we came this way was because of the trouble on the borders between Gaianaus and Sesserrech. We thought you might be able to help?”
Maul smiled back at the young woman, “Of course I would love to help. But a journey through the halls to our northern gates, that’s asking a lot.”
“You have heard of the assassination of Baron Elengar of Issia?” Vhindr asked seriously and the old dwarf nodded. “We are tracking the murderer northward hoping to catch him and stop the war between our realms.”
As Vhindr continued to explain the situation, including how he received his injury, Maul listened intently as he played with one of the many braids in his large beard.
“I understand your predicament, Vhindr,” Maul nodded slowly once Vhindr had finished, “More than you know, for a rider from the new Baron of Issia, Barrgarah, came several days ago proposing an alliance with our King Drait, son of Dranner. He refused the alliance of course. But we all learnt of the tense situation between your realms.”
“A war between Sesserrech and Gaianaus would prove to be detrimental to the halls of the Scarred Mountains,” Vhindr said emphatically, “All this you are building to open trade with our cities and towns will be set back many years. Help us stop this war, Maul. Please.”
The old dwarf took a deep breath and scratched his chin.
“I’ll talk with King Drait,” Maul decided, “But I can’t do anymore. It will be his decision after all.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Vhidnr smiled with relief.
“You’re the best Maul,” Valianna smiled wide and kissed the dwarf on the cheek.
“Go on you,” Maul said with embarrassment and seemed to blush under his white beard. “You lot will have to wait out here. I’m not sure if the King’ll see me right aways so I’ll get some food and drink for you lot.”
“Thank you again,” Vhindr gave a slight bow to the dwarf, “I am glad you understand the need for haste.”
“Right’o, right’o,” Maul mumbled and he left the tent heading for the large gates.
“That was fortunate,” Bel’eak remarked once Maul had left, “Especially when Legin almost ruined it.”
“What? I didn’t-” Legin began to protest.
“Don’t even bother trying to argue that Legin,” Vhindr cut in causing Legin to shut his mouth in a pout and cross his arms in front of his chest.
“But seriously, you two,” Valianna said as she pointed at Bel’eak and Legin, “How did you get here so quickly.”
“I told you,” Legin smiled back, “I’m super-fast.”
“Tell me what magicks you used,” Valianna protested and Vhindr turned his attention away from their conversation.
Taking a deep breath he looked to Maul’s desk and to the many carving tools strewn across it amid the chips of black stone and intricately carved ebonite discs.
“I have never seen such remarkable runes,” Rhalin remarked as she too looked at Mauls’ work, “Nor do I understand any of it.”
“Neither do I,” Vhindr replied, “And Maul never taught me, despite how much I pestered him.”
“The secrecy of Dwarves,” Rhalin said with a slight laugh and Vhindr agreed with a smile.
“Here’s the food an’ drink Maul sent ya,” said a gruff dwarf as he entered the side of the tent and roughly placed a large try on a chair by the entrance.
Vhindr’s thanks were caught in his throat as he looked upon the dwarf with curiosity. The dwarf had a shaved head, deep scar on his scalp, thick black beard and vivid blue eyes, but what Vhindr was intrigued by was the axe that grafted onto his right arm. Vhindr had never seen such a sight, and the grey and light brown rippling of the axe’s steel was truly remarkable.
“Kōrrin,” came a sudden call from Legin as the young man raced into the tent and wrapped the dwarf in a strong hug as he lifted him off the ground.
“Put me down ya daft monkey.” Kōrrin roared angrily, “Or I’ll cave ya head in.”
Legin was quick to put the black bearded dwarf back on the ground and release him from the hug. Without a word of warning Kōrrin punched Legin heavily in the cheek, sending him tumbling to the dirt.
“What was that for?” Legin protested as he rolled into a sitting position.
“So much for meetin’ me in Pentra, ya crazy monkey boy,” Kōrrin roared angrily, “I was sittin’ around in that damn city for days ‘til I finally packed it in an’ headed off.”
“That’s right, I said I’d meet you there,” Legin grinned sheepishly, “But in my defence I was kind of otherwise engaged finding out why I was the only person around with a tail.”
“Yeah?” Kōrrin’s demeanor quickly changed, “What ya find out?”
“Nothing good,” Legin replied dimly.
“Well it’s good to see ya boy,” Kōrrin laughed suddenly and moved over to help Legin to his feet. “Is ya friend still around?”
“You mean Bel’eak?” Legin asked in reply and pointed to the Nevārancien who nodded politely.
“Well no,” Kōrrin replied awkwardly, “I was actually meaning ya other friend …”
The dwarf’s voice trailed away as he looked about strangely.
“It’s okay Kōrrin,” Legin said, “Pip’s not here anymore.”
“I see,” the dwarf said hesitantly.
“You never said anything when we were travelling together,” remarked Legin curiously.
“Well, that damn bunny, Aurora, said not too,” Kōrrin was quick to reply, “Said it would destroy you. So I didn’t.”
“Thanks Kōrrin,” Legin smiled wide, “But it’s okay, these are my real friends now: Bel’eak, Vhindr, Valianna and Rhalin.”
Legin pointed to each of them in turn and Kōrrin gave them a slight wave with his axe hand.
As Legin and Kōrrin continued to talk between themselves with Bel’eak and Valianna joining in, Rhalin moved closer to Vhindr.
“What was that all about?” asked Rhalin curiously.
“Legin had a friend called Pip,” Vhindr replied softly, “Pip was his best friend, they had been such since childhood. But after what happened in Pentra …”
Vhindr paused and took a steadying breath.
“With Magi Stinfry, the murdered women and Captain Arell Starak?” Rhalin asked causing Vhindr to regard her curiously.
“How do you know about that?” Vhindr asked seriously. “My report to Chairman Starak of the High Commission has not been released.”
“I have my sources,” Rhalin replied casually.
Vhindr clenched his jaw and looked back to the others.
“Yes, it is about that.” Vhindr stated.
“You have read my report,” Vhindr replied stiffly.
“It does not mention anything about this Pip,” Rhalin said with the slightest sense of irritation.
“Pip never existed,” Vhindr stated, “He was a manifestation of Legin’s thoughts. Magi Stinfry showed this to Legin and almost destroyed him. That is all there is to know.”
“I see,” Rhalin remarked thoughtfully before she moved over to the group and began talking with them, leaving Vhindr with his painful memories.
The day continued on slowly as the group lingered about the small tent talking among themselves. Most of the conversation surrounded Legin and Kōrrin telling stories of their adventures. But all the while Vhindr remained apart from the group sitting to the side of Maul’s desk and reading a book to distract his troubled thoughts.
Many hours slipped by and just as the working dwarves were beginning to pack up their equipment Maul returned to the tent looking tired.
“Kōrrin, I see you have made friends,” Maul remarked offhandedly as he entered.
“Older friends than ye know Maul,” Kōrrin replied haughtily, “Me an’ the monkey boy go back to the Gaia Prison. I have him to thank for losing me hand.”
“What is the word from King Drait?” Vhindr asked as he stood up and walked over to the elderly dwarf, returning his book to his extra-dimensional pouch as he did.
Maul looked to Vhindr and took a deep breath.
“After much debate by me I convinced him to let you pass through,” Maul said and a smile came to his face.
“Thank you Maul.” Valianna exclaimed as she jumped to her feet and raced over to give the old dwarf another big hug and kiss on the cheek. “I knew you could do it.”
“Yes, yes,” Maul blushed and wiped away the kiss. “Well gather your things, you can go right away. Although, you cannot take the horses, I’m sorry.”
“What will we ride when we get to the other side?” Rhalin asked seriously and Maul shrugged apologetically.
“King Drait said it was not his problem,” Maul said, “We have no mounts to offer you either.”
“That’s alright,” Legin announced as he got to his feet, “We can run.”
“I can’t run,” Valianna replied despondently.
“Don’t despair my child,” Maul said to the young Varrintine, “For there are some farms not too far from our northern gates where you might buy a horse.”
“Shall we be off then?” Bel’eak asked as he stretched his shoulders, “All this idleness has got me edgy.”
“Right’o follow me then,” Maul said loudly and moved from the tent.
Vhindr and the others were quick to follow the old dwarf across the wide area towards the massive doors that were glowing in the afternoon light from Inüer.
“I got ‘em covered fellas,” Kōrrin said to the dwarves at the gates who looked uneasy as they watched the group enter.
“Watch ‘em closely then ay,” One of the guards grunted in reply.
Inside the gates was no less grand with a high ceiling and many tall pillars lining the entrance hall.
“This will be the main area where outside merchants will come to trade,” Maul remarked over his shoulder, “There is still much work to be done, but it will look incredible once finished.”
“Maybe I’ll go over the mountains while you guys go under,” Legin remarked suddenly as he glanced to the high ceiling.
“What do you mean?” Bel’eak asked curiously.
“It’s just … I don’t feel that comfortable with underground tunnels.” Legin replied as he nervously played with the white fabric of his gauntlets.
“What are you talkin’ about boy,” Kōrrin snorted, “Ye went into our tunnels in the Gaia Prison.”
“And they got flooded, and I nearly drowned in them,” Legin snapped back, “Can you see why I have an issue with this?”
“Don’t worry lad,” Maul chuckled, “These halls built by dwarves. No safer place.”
“That’s exactly what Kōrrin said before the whole tunnel flooded,” Legin replied seriously.
“Ya still alive ain’t ya?” Kōrrin snapped, “So nothin’ to worry about.”
“Come on Legin,” Valianna said with a smile, “This is the quickest way through. And Maul went to all the trouble to allow us access.”
“Just try not to think about it.” Bel’eak added and slapped Legin on the shoulder.
Legin took a deep breath and glanced nervously at the thin columns that held up the rock of the ceiling as they passed by.
“Easy for you guys to say,” mumbled Legin as he continued to clench his jaw with discomfort.