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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Thirteen - The Lost Monolith)

Colin Frayn
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The group's first real adventure was now almost upon them. Preparations began in earnest, and excitement grew as the four adventurers, like children eagerly awaiting birthday celebrations, wished away the remaining few hours. Tarok spent the day wisely, turning to stone the four corner posts in the hill fort. He also learnt a few new spells that would help the group on their imminent journey, and spent some time training Carek, who had become quite an apprentice over the past few days.

While Tarok and Carek spent the day reading magical incantations, Doragon was placed in charge of storing all the money and valuable items the group possessed down in the secret underground room. He even packed Tarok's magical textbooks into a suitable box, and carried them down too. The room was easily large enough to contain all the equipment the group possessed, and still had plenty of space left for the treasure they hoped to obtain. Doragon replaced the concealed door, covering it with the usual camouflage. He felt sure that only the most cunning of invaders would be able to find it. Moreover, only the smallest could ever get through to the meagre treasures hidden inside. The ogres wouldn't stand a chance!

Athena spent several hours practising her crossbow skills, and Carek spent most of the day reading Tarok's spell books. Carek's healing abilities were beginning to improve, and Tarok saw a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed if the half-elf could just concentrate on that one sphere of magic and hone his talents there as much as possible. Carek's body, though innately well suited to channelling the required magical energy, was not trained like Tarok's, and consequently the half-elf could only summon very small amounts of magical energy at a time. He couldn't perform more than one or two spells per day without his body beginning to ache from head to toe, his energy totally drained by the rigours of casting.

After a day of hard study, Carek was more than ready for a long night's sleep. The group was now prepared for the journey ahead, their few valuable belongings stored safely underground. Tarok was proud to announce that he had discovered a spell that could create food for them to eat during their journey. That would certainly reduce the amount of equipment they would have to carry with them. Carek was especially pleased as this also meant that the group would not have to hunt so often, and instead they could spend their time elsewhere, and allow the forest's natural denizens to flourish in peace. However, no one was particularly anxious to taste Tarok's first incantations. The wizard was currently restricting himself to bread and water, though he knew that a little practice would bring more appetising meals. This restriction was, for the time being, more a matter of safety than anything else. His few attempts at fruit and vegetables so far had all gone horribly, revoltingly and in some cases, messily wrong.

As everyone settled down to their beds, they couldn't help but wonder what mysterious wonders they would find in the monolith the following day. Thoughts of gold and silver battled in their minds against all-too-vivid images of bloodthirsty orc warriors brandishing glistening steel blades. They had assumed so far that the land around the monolith was inhabited by goblins or orcs, but this was based only on Carek's outdated hearsay. Far worse creatures did tend to inhabit such places, and usually took quite an interest in any adventurers brave or foolhardy enough to disturb them in their lair. Carek knew a few names of which his father had spoken many years ago, but back then these were just myths and stories to him, nothing more. He never really thought that he would have to face these same creatures some day. But what was his life for, if not for living? The forest was a dangerous place, and Carek was its last guardian. He could not endanger his life unnecessarily, but if he never took any risks at all then the forest would surely perish.

That night, Carek dreamed once more about the future, the fort and the eastern forest. This dream was more pleasant than the last, though no less enigmatic. He dreamt of a time even further into the future when the fort was once more uninhabited, its builders long since departed. Thick forest vines crawled over the outer walls and the moat was all but dried up, packed with silt and mud. Carek wondered why he was still there, wandering around those derelict ruins like a spectre, aimless and detached from the material world. Was this the fate of the fort; to be swallowed by the very forest against which it was built to protect? And what of the four friends who built this magnificent stronghold? What of their other achievements? What of their many courageous victories against the evils of the forest? These thoughts spun round endlessly in Carek's mind, finding no comforting answer.

The next morning, all four woke up just as the sun was beginning to rise over the eastern horizon and bring life back once more to the clearing. They gathered what they would need for the quest ahead of them, though for once they had no need of any food or drink, which eased their burden greatly.

A few hours after dawn, the four adventurers left the fort, setting off to the northwest with Carek leading the way as ever. The fort looked so fragile now that it was left alone. Tarok decided that he would try to change all the wooden posts to stone before their next adventure, as this was sure to make the walls much stronger and also less prone to damage from fire and water. He knew that it would be a long and boring task, but that seemed to be his role at the moment and he certainly needed the experience. The only way he was going to train his mind to handle larger amounts of magical energy was to practise as much as he possibly could. Musicians would spend many hours each day repetitively playing the same notes over and over again. Archers and swordsmen incessantly trained their fighting skills. Tarok turned wood to stone. Strangely, it didn't seem too bad, now that all of this practice actually had a useful function.

As the morning sun rose steadily through the dense canopy above, the four adventurers began to make their way through the undergrowth to the north of the clearing, in the direction of the enigmatic monolith. The journey was only a short one, but they estimated that it could take at least two hours even if they knew the directions. The route took them along the side of the great valley, climbing slightly towards the east. After a few miles of leisurely travelling, Carek was hoisted up a tree to see if the monolith was near. He spotted the tall stone structure only a mile due north, so they set off once more through the trees.

After another thirty minutes of travelling through the thick undergrowth, they finally arrived at a large clearing, in the centre of which was the monolith, built of finest white marble. The golden sun pierced through light cloud, resplendent on the polished surface of that spectacular monument. The monolith stood almost thirty feet tall, dominating the centre of the clearing. It rested on a large rectangular slab of rock that formed the roof to a large room underneath. A series of stone steps dropped down into the darkness below, through an ornate doorway in the southern face. This room was perhaps twenty feet on each side, and seven or eight feet tall. The soil surrounding it had been cleared away to leave a walkway all around the edge, and steeply sloping banks leading back up to ground level. All four sides were covered with mysterious runes and pictograms in an unknown tongue.

This place had presumably been built long ago by a civilisation that once roamed these forests. It was certainly not built by orcs, as their language was far too crude and their workmanship thoroughly inadequate. Perhaps a group of human druids passing through the forest decided to erect a monument to a long forgotten god, or maybe an older elven community wanted to create a meeting place for their people as a sanctuary amongst the trees. Neither Carek nor Tarok could recognise any of the mysterious runes, meticulously chiselled out of the bright stone all round the sunken room, and adorning the four sides of the giant obelisk itself. Its message, for whatever purpose, clearly meant something to someone, but was sadly lost on its current admirers.

Carek and Tarok explored round the edge of the clearing while Athena and Doragon decided to descend the steps and explore inside the underground room. Doragon relied on his good eyesight and the bright morning sun, cautiously peering inside the darkness. Four strong pillars in the centre of the room supported the roof against the weight of the enormous stone column above. The room itself, far from being lavishly decorated, seemed empty of whatever furniture it originally contained, and instead was covered in a liberal scattering of broken swords, rusting armour and burned-out fires. Carek descended shortly afterwards, and recognised the signs. "The orcs have been here for sure." He looked around more carefully. "None of these remains look particularly recent though, so they may have left some time ago." Doragon was mildly disappointed not to find a small handful of the creatures guarding absurd amounts of treasure, but in the depth of his heart, he didn't really expect to find great riches in such a lonely place. He turned to his half-elven friend.

"So what do you think this place was used for?"

Carek shrugged. "Rituals perhaps? I'm not sure. My people often celebrated festivals at certain times of the year, and on special days, anniversaries and the like. Perhaps this was some sort of sacred site. I know for sure that my parents never came here, or at least not when I was alive. They warned me about it in fact. I never really paid much attention."

Tarok had just entered the room and was squinting to see the far walls in the darkness. He was intrigued. "Do you think your parents had visited this place?"

"Maybe. Perhaps they had just been told by the elders in the village. That would certainly fit in with this being some kind of sacred site."

Tarok nodded. "Indeed, but it would also fit a great deal of other explanations." The enigma seemed to show little sign of a solution.

Suddenly there was a call from Athena.

"Come and have a look at this!"

The other three adventurers walked over to where she was sat, beside the north-facing wall. Nothing was obviously out of place, though Athena pointed out a small hole in the wall, surrounded by a selection of undecipherable runes.

"What do you suppose it's for?"

Nobody knew the answer, though Doragon had one idea. He stood with his back to the wall in which the hole had been found, and then measured carefully along the edge of the western wall, counting his short steps out aloud. He reached the opposite wall, stopped and frowned. "Eleven paces. Strange." He wandered outside, the other perplexed members of the group watching on.

"One.. two.." Doragon began to pace out along the outside of the wall.

"Fourteen… fifteen.. sixteen. Sixteen paces outside, and eleven paces inside."

Carek frowned. "How thick are the walls?"

Doragon smiled. "Precisely what I was wondering. One thing is for sure, the wall by the door is reasonably thin; certainly no more than one pace wide. That leaves four paces for the back wall. Does that seem a little much?"

Tarok nodded. "Indeed it does. I believe I know what you're thinking and I agree."

Tarok wandered back over towards the forest outside, and picked up a short branch from the floor, returning down into the small sunken room. He wandered over to where Athena was still sitting, examining the hole in the wall. She was poking around inside with her sword.

"The blade seems to fit in quite nicely. Perhaps there's a hollow wall?"

Tarok nodded. "My instincts exactly. Allow me!"

Tarok poked the branch he had found through the hole, and pushed it until it hit a solid wall the other side. He pulled it back.

"The gap is over two feet wide!"

Tarok rolled back his sleeves and reached into the hole with his right arm.

"There's some kind of metal behind here. It feels like a cog-wheel perhaps."

Doragon smiled. "Or a lock?"

"Indeed. Let me see if I can move it."

Tarok drew his hand back and began chanting some magic words. He reached out his hand, and bolts of energy surged from his fingertips towards the hole, feeling around inside like spindly magical fingers. Tarok moved his hand slightly, and then began to rotate it, seemingly encountering some resistance. Then there was a loud clunk, and the wizard stepped backwards, releasing the magical energy. An inch-wide gap had opened up in an adjacent slab of stone. Athena wandered over to the displaced slab, and gave it a solid push. The expertly crafted door swung slowly open, revealing a dark corridor behind, and a set of steps leading downwards into the heart of the earth. She gasped, and the others ran over to look for themselves. Tarok clicked his fingers, and his right hand began to glow with a faint yellow luminescence, slowly increasing to a brighter, white light, which pierced into the heart of the darkness below. The steps led downwards as far as any of the group could see. Doragon's eyes widened and a smile crossed his face. Finally, they were going to embark on a real adventure. They didn't know what was down there, but it was certainly worth exploring. It was the whole purpose of their expedition, after all. The monument's secrets were beginning to unfold.

Carek went first, as his superior vision meant that he could scout ahead far better than the rest of the group could. He was followed by Athena, Tarok, and Doragon shortly after. Tarok reached out his hand, illuminating their path with a magical light. The staircase continued downwards for well over one hundred steps until it opened out slightly, and a level passage lay ahead. Doragon estimated that they had descended almost fifty yards underground. Quite what the original purpose of these tunnels was, none of the group could imagine. However, they now seemed deserted, lined with cobwebs and suchlike and dusty from years of abandon. The walls were perfectly hewn, carved from the very rock by expert hands and finished meticulously by many talented craftsmen.

The passage was four feet wide and seven feet high, which thankfully dispelled Carek's fears that this may have been the forest ogres' stronghold. An ogre would never be able to fit through such cramped tunnels, or at least not without significant discomfort. However, there was still the threat of orcs. Where there were orcs, there were probably goblins too. Goblins were very distant relatives to the orcs, being similar in many ways except most obviously for their diminutive height.

Whereas orcs were of similar height to the average human, perhaps slightly taller and sturdier, goblins were far shorter, perhaps only four feet tall or less. They were even more stupid than the orcs, which was difficult, and possessed even fewer social graces, which was even more difficult. They preferred to take orders from their larger cousins and scavenge whatever leftovers they could. Both orcs and goblins had excellent eyesight, which was well adapted to living in such dark subterranean lairs.

Trying to concentrate on the job in hand, the group continued onwards down the cramped passage. After twenty yards, the passage ended in a T-junction. To the left, the passage continued for as long as they could see in the dim torchlight, but the passage to the right turned sharply after only a few yards.

Not wanting to split up, the group decided to go left, turning away from the entrance and heading still further into the darkness. Carek held out his hand and, concentrating all his limited magical energies, managed to get it glowing softly, gently illuminating the passage in front of him still further. Tarok had been coaching him most expertly for the past few days, and Carek had improved greatly in his magical abilities.

The tunnel continued for another twenty yards before opening out into a small room, six yards square.

Carek suddenly stopped. He had seen movement in front of him. In the corner of the room were five small figures, sitting huddled around a table. Moreover, there was a nasty smell about that room, which made breathing rather uncomfortable. Carek looked closer. These creatures were goblins, presumably having mistaken the intruders for their orc masters, and cowering with fear. As soon as they recognised the true nature of their visitors, the greenskins immediately leapt to their feet and attacked with their crude short swords. Each one wore darkened leather armour, and typically dirty goblin clothing underneath. They hissed in surprise as the adventurers piled into the room. Athena drew her sword, and stepped forward. Carek joined her, his spear ready to attack. Two of the goblins cried out, and charged forward. They were quickly attacked by the two fighters, whose superior size and strength proved overpowering. Athena sliced with her sword and Carek hacked menacingly with his spear, felling the creatures in a few brutal strikes.

Doragon, spotting a fight that he could win without much trouble, drew his short sword, and charged in too. Tarok stood well back, concentrating on providing some much needed light by which his friends could fight.

The remaining two creatures fell swiftly to their determined attackers, Doragon finally disarming his foe with a powerful slash and finishing the creature off with a somewhat clumsy forward thrust.

The group quickly piled up the bodies in one corner whilst Tarok kept a look out in the corridor. Searching the room, Doragon found a key and twenty silver pieces, which he placed into his purse for safety. There were no other exits from the small room, so the group left the way they came in and returned to the T-junction that they had passed earlier, taking the other branch. They proceeded in absolute quiet, though each one of them was now excited at the prospect of finding something truly interesting in this fascinating place. It was becoming clear that these tunnels were far from empty, though their true purpose was still a mystery.

After turning the sharp left corner, their way was barred by a door after six or seven yards. Doragon pulled out the key that he had found with the goblins, pushed it into the lock and turned it. The key fitted, and the door opened with a rusty clank. This apparatus had clearly been made to last and seemed to fit in with the rest of the exquisitely crafted tunnels.

Cautiously, Carek opened the door, and peered into the room beyond, half expecting another group of goblins waiting in ambush. The room was about twenty yards long and ten yards wide. It was also quite high, certainly higher than Tarok could reach. It was obviously of some importance, perhaps a store room of some sort, but it was currently empty as far as they could see, except for another similar door on the opposite wall. They decided to search around nonetheless.

Tarok walked forward and, before he knew what he was doing, had stepped on a small rock that immediately slotted down into the floor with an ominous 'click'. The four spun round as portcullises dropped down over both exits, dropping to the floor with a loud crash. Doragon ran over to the door through which they had just come, trying to force the bars open, but there were no apparent weaknesses. The bars were made from sturdy iron, able to resist the halfling's frenzied bashing. He turned to his three friends, a look of horror in his eyes.

"We're trapped!"

Just then, there was another sliding sound, and a stone panel began to rise in the walls opposite.

Tarok smiled. "Perhaps not!"

He stepped forward towards the opening, but was soon stopped dead in his tracks by a low growling sound from deep within the shadows. A pair of fierce red eyes lit up in the darkness behind, and Tarok began to step backwards once more, reaching out his glowing hand to identify the mysterious hidden predator.

Just as the light from Tarok's magic illuminated the blackened pit, a dark form charged out from the shadows. It was a large muscular beast, at least seven feet in length, and four feet tall at the shoulders. It was a large, bloodthirsty hound, but more powerful and fierce than any Carek had every seen. Its skin was darkest black, and its strong legs ended in sharp, piercing claws. Three giant bounds and it was upon the group, roaring loudly and showing off two rows of sharp teeth which looked like they were built for ripping apart flesh, and little else. Tarok was caught off-balance by the beast, and thrown backwards onto the floor. The light in the wizard's hand dimmed for a moment as his concentration was broken. Only a swift spear-thrust from Carek stopped the deadly attacker from pouncing on the dazed wizard and finishing him off with its sharp claws.

Tarok scrambled to his feet and jumped back out of the action. Athena ran in front of him while he fumbled around in his pockets for a flask of fire oil, which he lit with a click of his fingers. The beast took a step back when it saw the bright light, roaring loudly before charging once more at the intruders. This time it sought out Athena, her glistening sword catching the creature's fiery eyes. Athena dodged the strike, slashing the beast on its side and drawing blood. Doragon stepped back into the shadows, his short sword ready. Carek stood forward with his spear, and tried to keep the creature away from him, pushing it into a corner.

Tarok hurled his flask of oil at the creature's feet, sending the beast reeling back in pain towards the far corner of the room where Doragon was waiting in ambush. He sank his sword deep into the creature's back, then let go of it and ran as the enormous beast turned to pounce. Athena had drawn her crossbow, and loosed a quarrel squarely into the creature's neck just as it jumped towards the agile halfling. Doragon dived to one side, and scrambled away as Carek charged in with his spear and finished the creature off.

The four adventurers gave a rousing cheer as the beast staggered to the floor, and then they wandered over towards the pungent den where it had been lying in wait. Carek led the way to check that there were no more surprises left lurking inside. They couldn't risk walking into another trap, and the best way to do that was to ensure that they checked everywhere carefully before they stumbled clumsily in once more. It turned out that 'adventuring' was not a natural ability, but more of a skill that one obtained after a great number of near-fatal mistakes.

Carek stepped forwards towards the large stone block and examined it carefully. It seemed secure enough, presumably needing to be reset by some other lever elsewhere before it dropped back down. Carek nervously stepped underneath the block, and into the foul smelling lair. He beckoned for Tarok to come in with his magical light, and the wizard obliged, illuminating the darkness. Carek gasped, and one by one the other three adventurers wandered in after him, gazing at the incredible scene inside.

Peering into the shadows the four saw an amazing sight. There were bones strewn everywhere, the remains of many less fortunate adventurers. Some looked as if they had been there for quite some time, and all had been thoroughly gnawed by the den's vicious inhabitant. In the far corner was a small pile of weapons and armour, which had presumably been stripped from the deceased and put to one side for when the creature's owner came to collect his bounty. Presumably, whoever had set the trap had long since left, as all this equipment remained uncollected. The goblins evidently knew about it as they had the room key, but judging from the number of goblin-sized remains scattered around the den, it appeared that they weren't always quite as careful as they should have been.

Tarok wandered over to the pile of weaponry, and examined it. He kicked the pile apart to try to separate the rusty weapons and armour, and then scattered them round the floor of the den, looking for anything of interest. It was then that he saw one of the swords, a fine ornate blade which had been lying near the bottom of the pile. It was gleaming just like new, and Tarok was sure it had a magical aura about it. He turned to his friends, who had come over to look, and spoke, "It may be magical." Doragon gasped in glee. Tarok shook his head, "The problem is that it may also be cursed. I suggest that you all stand back!"

Tarok approached the sword, and reached out his hand, taking care not to touch the weapon, but moving his palm over it, a few inches from the blade. He seemed to be concentrating, and was clearly examining the weapon's aura. He scanned along the blade a few times, and then checked the hilt, still taking care not to touch anything. Some magical curses were extremely potent, being able to drain a man of all his life with just a single touch. Fortunately, these were rare, as the more community-minded mages of the world tended to destroy them whenever they were found. One of the first things that Tarok had ever learned about magical items was to be extremely careful before touching anything. That piece of advice, as his tutor was fond of reminding him, would save his life many times.

Tarok stopped, lifted his hand and turned back to the group. "It seems fine. I certainly can't detect any curse." Tarok reached out and picked up the weapon, half expecting it to spring into life and turn on him, or maybe just give him a nasty shock. Fortunately for him it did neither, so he handed the fine blade over to Athena so that she could examine it more carefully.

Athena cautiously grasped the handle of the sword, and lifted it up. It seemed lighter than usual for a weapon of its size, and was expertly crafted. Swiping it in the air, she seemed able to manoeuvre it much more quickly, and with far less effort than her old sword. It was certainly magical, she was sure of that. Perhaps it was guided by some subtle, unseen force, just like Carek's bow. Athena placed her old sword in her backpack, and slid the new weapon carefully into her scabbard, extremely pleased with her fortuitous acquisition.

Looking around the straw in the den, Carek noticed a small bundle of rags, which had been hidden carefully in one corner. He carefully opened them up, finding a small purse inside. Emptying out its contents he found, much to his amazement, four small gem stones, which had presumably belonged long ago to some unfortunate adventurer. They were beautiful, richly coloured, and perfectly cut by an expert hand. One was a deep blood red, one was black as night, one was a fiery orange and one was a swirling mix of deep blues and vibrant, rich greens. Not knowing much about gem stones, he showed them to Tarok, who recognised the red one as a bloodstone, but didn't know the rest. Doragon leaned over, and examined Carek's find. "Well, that's a black opal" he announced, pointing at the jet black one. "That orange-yellow one there is amber." He paused for a while, "And as for the fourth, I have no idea, but I'm sure we could find out easily enough."

Clearly the halfling knew his gem stones well. Tarok was certainly impressed. Doragon seemed pleased with himself. This was the treasure that he had been searching for all along. He began to smile, and his smile broke out soon enough into laughter. Tarok stared at him, and frowned. "What is it?" he enquired, as Carek placed the stones carefully back in the purse.

Doragon managed to compose himself, and then spoke in an excited manner, "I don't suppose you know how much these stones could fetch at a jewellers, do you?" The other three shrugged their shoulders. They had no idea, least of all Carek who knew next to nothing about anything to do with money. Doragon paused for a moment, looked round at his perplexed friends, and then continued, "No, I didn't think so!"

Carek seemed anxious, "How much?"

Doragon laughed. "In that case you will be in for a pleasant surprise when I tell you that we could probably get at least two hundred gold pieces for these three alone. Perhaps even more! And I don't even know what the fourth is, so that could be worth even more!" His statement was met by an initial stunned silence, and then jubilation. They could hardly believe it - over two hundred gold pieces! This was an outstanding find. They would have enough money to buy more or less whatever they wanted.

Carek laughed out loud, "And what are we going to spend this fortune on then?"

Doragon shrugged his shoulders. "You can pay me and Athena a bit more for our work, for a start." He laughed again. "And then perhaps we could send some out to the eastern towns to help them fight against the orcs over there. I'm not sure how far it will go, but I'm sure they would probably appreciate all they could get!"

Tarok was impressed with the halfling's thoughtfulness. Doragon grinned. "Or we could always keep it all and spend the lot on food and wine next time we went to Tarnadon."

Tarok chuckled. "That much money should keep us entertained for quite a few weeks."

Doragon shook his head. "You underestimate me my friend!"

Anyone who could burn away all the earnings from one of the most successful books ever written by a halfling in the space of a few years certainly had a gift for spending money.

After checking the remains of the lair, the four excited adventurers stepped cautiously back out of the darkness, and into the main room. As they did so, the stone wall began to slide back into place over the entrance to the den, and the portcullises lifted from over the doors. Doragon had got the taste for treasure, and wanted to see if he could find any more. Athena wanted to try out her new sword, and Carek wanted to see if there were any more goblins, or perhaps even orcs hiding somewhere deeper underground. Tarok, though bruised and shaken from the previous encounter, reluctantly agreed, and followed his friends through the door that led further into the tunnels. They at least knew now that they did have a way out, and that all they had to do was retrace their route and they would be back in the forest before they knew it.

The door creaked open, and Carek peered round to check for monsters. He knew that all the commotion would probably have attracted some inquisitive creatures to this area, and he decided to be even more careful than before just in case. However, this time there was nothing to be seen except another short, empty passageway, which soon ended in yet another identical door. Carek beckoned for his friends to catch him up, which they did, and then they listened carefully for any sign of life the other side.

Carek went first as ever, and peered round the door into the darkness beyond. The room was about fifteen yards square and had a towering ceiling at least four yards high. The first thing he noticed was the fact that it smelt like a sewer. The second thing he noticed was that hanging from the ceiling were the shrouded bodies of five giant bats. Carek estimated their bodies to be almost two feet long, which meant that their wing-span would have been be five or six feet. The group stepped cautiously out into the room, trying to tread as silently as possible towards the door opposite, avoiding the numerous tables and chairs scattered all around.

Carek and Doragon crept silently across the floor, but unfortunately their two human friends were not so quiet, and the sleeping creatures awoke from their slumber. As the first of the bats dropped down, the group split up and prepared themselves for battle. The four other creatures soon joined in the attack, their terrible screeching filling all four nervous friends with terror.

Ducking and hiding under tables, the adventurers managed to avoid the foul creatures on the first attack. Athena rolled to one side and stood up, hacking at the enormous winged beasts as they swooped ever closer. Her sword sliced through the air effortlessly, and she cut down one of the creatures with a powerful overhead slash. Carek readied his bow and fired two arrows into the midst of the remaining four. He knocked another bat from the air, which landed with a painful thud on the floor.

Athena was now slicing furiously with her new sword, and jumped up on a table to cut down another of the creatures. Carek backed into a corner, and poked his spear around to try to fend them off. He yelled as one of the bats swooped down silently behind Athena, but it was too late, and the winged attacker smashed into her back, hurling her painfully to the floor. Before she could get up it sank its sharp fangs into her arm, and then flew off before she could slice at it with her sword. Athena crawled back to safety under the table, and Tarok examined the wound. The fangs had pierced quite a long way into her arm, and Athena was already having great difficulty moving it around much. Tarok feared that the creatures may have been poisonous, so he cast a quick healing spell on her just in case. He then sat down, getting some ingredients out of his backpack for the full 'cure poison' spell, which would be more effective.

Doragon ran from under the table to help Carek, and hurled his short-sword, which landed in the wing of another of the bats. The huge creature flapped chaotically, smashed into a wall and fell stunned to the floor. Doragon ran to retrieve his sword, and used it to finish off the injured creature. As only one bat remained, Carek stepped out from the corner and started swiping with his spear. He was lucky and managed to hit the bat just as it was swooping towards him. Doragon bravely finished off the giant beast with his sword, then ran back to check on his friend. Carek stood as lookout at the door while Tarok sat at the table preparing the spell that he needed.

As Tarok was just finishing the spell, Carek called out for him to cast it quickly. He had heard footsteps out in the corridor. It might have been orcs and it sounded like quite a number of them. Tarok quickly cast the spell on Athena and she stood up, her strength returning to her rapidly as the magical energy had its effect.

The four adventurers dragged the remains of the bats out of view and stood silently behind the door. Athena picked up one of the huge copses and lifted it above her head, ready to throw at the first creature to enter the room. Doragon whispered that he could hear orcs coming down the passage outside and in silence the four prepared to ambush.

The door opened, and the first of the greenskins came in. Athena decided to wait until a few more had entered. By the time four had entered, she slammed the bat down on the head of one of the unfortunate creatures with all her might. The dazed orc stumbled to the floor, and Carek thrust his spear into its abdomen.

The other three orcs span round, saw the ambushers and, realising that they were outnumbered, called for help. Athena meanwhile charged at another two of the creatures before they could draw their swords. She managed to fell one of them with her sword, then felt a sharp pain to her side as the other struck a first blow.

Carek was having a slightly harder time against an orc armed with a spear. Seizing an opportunity, he swiped at the creature's weapon, sending it out of line for a while. As his opponent was off-guard, Carek struck the orc smartly in the face with the side of his spear. Doragon ran over and obliged his friend by stabbing the creature before it could recover.

Several more orcs had now entered, more were coming up the passage and the fight was spreading out to cover the whole of the room. Despite the three casualties, there were still at least another half-dozen orcs left, and more on the way. Tarok wasn't particularly happy about the way the fight was going, so decided to do something constructive. Summoning all his energies, he concentrated at the door, reached out his hand and summoned a great wall of ice, which suddenly flashed into being in the door frame, blocking off the entrance from the passageway outside. No more greenskins would get through that for a while!

Athena was now in a bit of trouble. As she regained her breath from the first strike, she only narrowly managed to parry a second and third, and stepped back as a second orc entered the melee. Athena swiped a few times, but didn't manage to hit the well-trained warriors. Suddenly, a flash temporarily blinded her. As she opened her eyes again, she saw one of the creatures lying on the floor with burn marks all over its body, and flames dancing from burning oil on its armour. Tarok called from over the other side of the room, "Bull's-eye!" Athena smiled, and lunged at the remaining creature, slicing it deeply with her sharp blade.

Meanwhile, Carek was managing quite well with his spear. He cut down another of the orcs after it had managed to hit him with its club. He stepped back from the melee for a while to summon some of his limited magical energies to limit the bruising.

Tarok was now summoning up all his magical powers, and created a bright green globe, which appeared in his hands, illuminating that part of the room with a mysterious magical radiance. Carefully aiming, he threw it over to where the two remaining orcs were fighting with Doragon. A vine suddenly grew up from between the tiles, entwining their feet and piercing their armour with long, barbed thorns. Carek joined his friend, and between them, they had no trouble killing the helpless creatures as they struggled to free themselves.

Just then, the wall of ice shattered and the fragments flew out into the room. Two more orcs came in to join the fight accompanied by larger one, which was evidently a chieftain, wearing thick metal armour and carrying a vicious black felchion. Then there entered a much older orc, cloaked in black with a string of skulls around his neck and a gnarled staff in his hand. The evil creature surveyed the room, and the bodies of its dead servants, and then immediately turned its attention towards Tarok. Tarok immediately knew what he was facing - it was an orc sorcerer! Never before had he faced another magical foe, and he knew this would be a great test of his powers. He raised a shaking hand towards the door, and began to summon some more of his rapidly diminishing magical energies.

As Carek and Doragon attacked the orc warriors, Tarok stepped forward to challenge the sorcerer, and Athena attacked the mighty chieftain. Doragon picked up a small stone from the floor, and hurled it at one of the greenskins, but it just bounced off the creature's armour. Meanwhile, Tarok began to summon yet more magical energies in his mind, shaping them into the desired effects. He guessed that orcs had an inferior brain, so they weren't nearly as good at magic. He was proven wrong as the sorcerer sent forth a bolt of energy, which shattered Tarok's concentration and sent him flying backwards across the room, a searing pain shooting through his limbs.

Athena was also having bad luck with the chieftain. She hit him once, then missed clumsily after a skilful parry. The chieftain smashed her strongly, sending her to the floor as she only just managed to dodge out of the way of a second sword blow. Athena parried two more strikes, then scrambled back and stood her ground once more.

Carek gazed over to where Tarok lay dazed on the floor. He called encouragement over to his friend, and the wizard slowly climbed to his feet again, facing his adversary with a look of grim determination. The sorcerer had turned away and looked to be helping the powerful orc chieftain. That was something Tarok could not allow, so he sent a magical dart whistling through the air at great speed, striking the sorcerer and disrupting an imminent spell. The wrinkled old orc turned back towards his adversary and growled deeply. Tarok stared into the creature's eyes, and began to formulate a plan. Once more, the magical battle commenced.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 13 - The Lost Monolith © Colin Frayn

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