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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty-Five - A Welcome Explanation)

Colin Frayn
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All eyes were on Tarok as he stood forward, scarcely able to believe the events that he was about to retell. A nearby flight of steps helped to raise him above the crowd, who were now huddled together, eager to hear the story of their timely redemption. Tarok turned to face his audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, dwarfs, elves, halflings, I have the unparalleled pleasure of introducing to you the great elven mage, Eldoran!" There was an emphatic round of applause and cheering. Eldoran bowed graciously but remained silent, allowing Tarok to continue.

Tarok shook his head in disbelief. This had been a strange day. Staring out over the crowd of awe-struck onlookers, he noticed the profound silence that had now fallen over the elven city. All eyes were on him, so he began to recount his fantastic tale.

"My friends, today a great battle over the forces of evil has been won. Rakrath lies dead, and the Tharin stone is once again complete. Eldoran, who once was lost now lives again."

Tarok tried desperately to recollect all the puzzled images of the past hour or so. It was so fresh in his mind, but the confusion of the battle had rather jumbled everything into an incoherent whole.

"Well, some of you, indeed perhaps the vast majority of you, may well be wondering how of these mysterious events came to pass." That was true enough. Tarok was not in the habit of making long speeches, and his head was still spinning after such a painful and draining battle. He rested against a nearby wall, steadying himself as he continued with his story.

"Well, my tale begins with the invasion of the undead horde. As you all know, Rakrath saw me disappear back into the tower and followed after me, but I managed to escape and reach Eldoran's laboratory first, thanks to your bravery." Tarok thought especially of the elven mage who had given his life for that purpose. He wondered what might have happened if that brave old elf had not been so courageous.

"The next you saw of either of us was twenty minutes later when I ran back from the tower, and the two wizards appeared high above the city locked in a battle of magic. I am sure that the following events are still fresh in your minds." That battle would remain in the lives of those present, and their descendants for hundreds of years. It certainly isn't every day that you witness the beginning of a legend, which was surely what had happened there in that abandoned elven city.

Tarok started to fill in the unknown parts of his story. "Well, let me explain the story from my point of view." He considered embellishing the events a little, but the truth was already fantastic enough.

"As soon as I clambered back into the tower, I ran as fast as I could up the stairs to the very top. Rakrath was close behind and I tried in vain to kill him with a flask of burning fire, but he was too strong. I piled up all the furniture I could find behind the door, and then ran and hid in the far corner of Eldoran's study."

"I'm not sure quite what I planned to do. I knew that my feeble defences would not shelter me from the mighty necromancer. Sure enough, the door burst open with a fearsome crash, and there stood Rakrath. His eyes were bright like fire, furious with rage." Tarok raised his voice in a dramatic crescendo as he recounted the story. He was met with gasps from the crowd as the tale of his escape began to unfold.

"As I watched on in terror, the necromancer scattered the bookshelves and hurled aside tables looking for me. Eventually he found me, hiding behind a cupboard in one corner of the room. He demanded the second half of the crystal and I foolishly refused. We fought briefly, but my magic was no match for his and eventually he flung me to the wall with a brief flick of his wrist. I felt a sharp blow to the back of my head, and then I fell unconscious. He must have taken the second half of the crystal straight out of my hand."

The crowd gasped once more. How could anyone have defied Rakrath? Eldoran smiled. He admired Tarok's courage, though knew more than anyone else how lucky the young wizard was to be alive. Tarok continued his tale with the audience listening attentively.

"When I regained consciousness I looked cautiously around the room. I knew that even the slightest noise would reveal that I was still alive, and then I would surely be killed. Rakrath had assembled the crystal on the table, and now seemed to be looking for something. He threw many tomes across the room in rage, and overturned bookcases, scattering their contents on the floor. I seized my chance, and began to levitate the crystal silently above the table. My powers had been mostly drained by this point, but somehow I managed to draw the strength to cast this simple spell, and I knew that it was going to be my only chance."

"Slowly, I brought the stone towards me, and I felt almost as though it was encouraging me to do so. I ... I don't think the stone was too impressed with me before, but now it realised that I was perhaps the better option."

Eldoran laughed. The Tharin stone had been created by the greatest of the elven mages. It was designed to be wielded only by the most powerful of the magical elite, and yet it had fallen into the hands of a naïve young human wizard. Tarok smiled, for he knew exactly what the great elf was thinking.

"It was then that Rakrath found what he was searching for and went to look again at his prize. He noticed that the crystal was missing and spotted me in the corner of the room. I quickly grabbed the crystal, diving down the stairs to the secret vault and locking the trapdoor firmly behind me."

"I was trapped in the chamber where Eldoran's body lay on a polished marble slab, covered with a thin white cloth. Rakrath was furiously beating against the trapdoor, and smoke was billowing into the room. It was then that all the clues suddenly pieced themselves together. I finally realised what had happened during that battle many centuries ago, and I understood at last the awesome capabilities of the Tharin stone."

"One thing had been puzzling me from the stories I had been told of that battle. Why did Eldoran just lie down and die when all around him his town was being overrun by goblins? Why did he not fight on, to the death? Well now the final piece of the puzzle was in place and I knew exactly what I had to do."

"Earlier, I had seen a small semi-circular hole cut into the stone where Eldoran lay. I realised that the hole was directly in line with the gaze of the four eagles at each corner of the crypt. I thought nothing of it at the time, but now noticed that the hole was the shape of the crystal and had two runes underneath it - the elven runes of life and sleep. I placed the crystal in the hole and it glowed with a supernatural radiance. The eyes of the eagles glowed too, and they began to light up the dusty chamber. I stepped back, only hoping that I had guessed correctly and that I had not unleashed some terrible trap, or worse."

"Beams of energy shot from the eyes of the four guardian statues and focused in Eldoran's long dead body. Another bolt of lightning shook the chamber from above as Rakrath pounded more strongly on the magically sealed door. I watched on nervously as Eldoran's body began to move and he started breathing once more. As I watched, the great mage began to rise from his slumber. Slowly his eyes opened, peering round his dusty sepulchre with tired gaze. Rakrath was almost through the trapdoor and it was glowing red-hot with magical fire. Eldoran saw me standing beside him, and then sensed the great power of the necromancer above. He rose from the slab, casting aside the grave sheet which had covered him for so many years, and together we rushed into one dark corner of the crypt to wait in ambush."

Tarok's tale was almost at an end. Were it not for the fact that the onlookers below had seen the fire and heard the explosions far above their heads, they probably wouldn't have believed him. Of course, on this particular day Tarok could have said just about anything without fear of being doubted.

"Rakrath broke open the trapdoor and entered the crypt. He was shocked to see Eldoran, but nonetheless seemed to think that he would be victorious. They began to fight, exchanging fierce spells and counter spells all around me. I sensed my cue to leave, and escaped as they fought. I ran back out of the crypt, through Eldoran's study and down the great staircase." Then he turned to Carek and Athena. "And that is the next time you saw me, when I ran from the base of the tower and called for you to attack the necromancer's evil horde." Tarok surveyed the scene. Bodies lay everywhere, and a large number of bones from the skeleton warriors had been piled up near the gate. "As for the rest, well you probably know that story better than I do!"

The audience applauded Tarok's tale, and he bowed politely. "And now, I think that Eldoran also owes us an explanation." The elderly elf stepped forward and stood next to Tarok, also clearly weakened from his ordeal. The crowd fell quiet once more, as the great elf began to speak with a voice that had not been heard for centuries. The elves listened intently as Eldoran told the story of the great battle they had fought so long ago.

"My friends, Tarok has explained most vividly the events of this day. I will now cast back the sands of time and tell you what happened in this very cavern, centuries before most of you were born. Almost three hundred years ago to be exact." Some of the elves bowed their heads in remembrance. Most could remember the battle where their relatives or friends were all slaughtered. Eldoran also paused for a moment in respect, before beginning his tragic tale.

"Before Rakrath arrived in the mountains, the elves and dwarfs lived in constant battle with the armies of goblins. The halls above this fair city were home to a small goblin community, poorly organised and crudely governed. Then Rakrath arrived and soon put a stop to their slovenly ways, turning them into a deadly fighting force. Within years, he had transformed a haphazard group of raiders into a formidable army, uniting several tribes under his powerful leadership. The elves feared his influence, so we prepared for the battle which we knew would cause the end of our peaceful way of life."

"Rakrath attacked our city as his tunnels joined up with ours. Floods of goblins poured through the passages, killing the miners and heading straight for our homes. A great army was ready for them at the city walls. They charged, scores of elves clad in bright armour. A rain of arrows blackened the air, and the pale subterranean light glistened off a thousand polished swords and spears. Hundreds of brave elves perished and the goblin losses were far worse, but they simply outnumbered us and we could do nothing against them. Within an hour, the battle was lost. Some of the more powerful elven champions killed twenty goblins each, but were eventually overcome by the sheer number of the necromancer's forces. We were outnumbered five to one, perhaps more, and there was no hope for victory. Realising all was lost, we sent as many of the women and children as we could down the river to the outside world. Hundreds of them took what belongings they could carry, and sailed off down the fast-running stream through the mountains. I wouldn't like to guess where they ended up, and I can only hope that they managed to find a more peaceful place to live."

"I managed to flee back into my tower and sealed it from the attacking forces. The goblins had broken through in several places now, and the town was being overrun from all sides. They were dragging off the men of the city, and slaying the few women and children who had not managed to escape in time. It was too terrible for me to bear."

Eldoran's voice trailed off as he was speaking. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes and bowing his head in grief. The pain of that day was still too great for him, and a gentle tear was forming in his eyes.

"I ran to the top of the tower to protect the Tharin stone. At this time, Rakrath had no idea of its existence, though that was soon to change. The stone was a most powerful item and I knew that the only chance we had to recover our city was to make use of its powers. Tharin himself was a very great elven mage who lived long before my time. The stone was passed down to me from my predecessors as leader of the magi. Tharin knew the potential the stone held, but realised also how terrible it would be were it ever to fall into the hands of evil. He designed it with a clever trick to prevent this. To make use of the crystal's powers, one must first sacrifice a part of oneself to fuel it. The crystal then takes this energy and amplifies it many times, to be shaped as desired. I had tested this before when the crystal first came into my possession, and used the power of the stone to amplify my own magic many fold. I spent almost a month recovering from that particular misadventure, confined to my bed as my energy slowly returned."

"As I gazed out onto the streets below, I knew that the crystal was our only hope. My son was with me, so I commanded him to obey my final wishes. I was to transfer all of my energy into the stone, and harness its powers to destroy the goblin horde. After this, he was to place me to rest in the crypt at the top of the tower, and split the stone in two. He protested at this, but eventually accepted that he was duty bound to obey me."

"He was to take one half of the stone out through the tunnels to the outside world where he would search for help amongst the other tribes. I would keep the second half, its powers preventing me from slipping finally from this mortal world and into the darkness of death. My son was to bring back help from across the world, and then the crystal would be reunited and I would live once more."

"I knew my duty, standing out on that balcony as the goblins poured into the cavern. My heart was heavy, and my mind greatly troubled. I had no idea what I was about to do, and I could only guess how the powers of the stone would affect my mortal body. I lifted up the crystal and summoned all my energy as the last defences of our beautiful city began to crumble into the dirt. I channelled my powers into the stone, continuing until my strength was all but spent and the pain was too much to bear, but still the stone took more from me until I felt my very life being pulled from my chest. I collapsed to the floor as the great crystal of Tharin left my hands and rose into the air, a bright light building within. Inside it was forming such a maelstrom of energy that the mountains had never before seen. My eyes were heavy and I could barely watch as the crystal burst into a furious storm of magical energy. Countless forks of lightning shot forth, blazing through the cavern and tearing through the goblin hordes. The screams resounded in my ears for a moment, and then gradually fell silent as my world faded away to blackness."

"I collapsed then, drained of all my strength. My son must have placed my body that cold slab, as I asked. I can only assume that he obeyed me and split the crystal, taking half with him and leaving half in my cold hands. I fell into a deep, immortal sleep - not dead, but barely alive. My body lay cold on the slab, but still a tiny thread of life linked me to this mortal world. I was conscious, but the passing of time began to mean nothing to me as my mind grew to acknowledge my fate. I felt a part of me torn away shortly after I fell asleep. I could only assume that this was my son, slain by Rakrath's minions as he tried to flee. I lost all hope at that point and slowly became detached from the physical world, wandering the outer planes in search of a way to return to the life I once knew. Hours turned into days, days into weeks. I barely noticed the years as they passed by; I only feared what I would find if I ever finally returned."

Eldoran stopped for a moment, glancing round at the troubled elven faces before him, mixed with others from the dwarf and human communities. How the mountains had changed when he was asleep. Some of the elves could remember it all. They remembered the battle, and the great storm of magic that had shot from Eldoran's tower. They remembered the coils of lightning surging through the goblin troops. They remembered the chaos, the confusion, the terrible cries of anguish as the great power of the Tharin stone was unleashed. Before their very eyes, goblin soldiers were burned to ashes, vaporised, flung towards the cavern walls with bone-crunching ferocity. Now they knew the secret of that magical storm of fury, and one man's sacrifice for his people. After the battle, Rakrath quickly ordered that the cavern be sealed up, together with the course of the underground river so that the last few remaining elves could never escape. Their only option then was to surrender to the necromancer, and watch as the last entrance to their great city was sealed for eternity.

Eldoran continued with the final part of his tale.

"Tarok realised that I was in immortal sleep. I can only guess that my half of the crystal was still warm when he took it from my hands." Tarok nodded. This was one of the last clues he needed.

"Then Tarok saw the keyhole in my stone bed, which finally solved the puzzle for him. When he placed the re-united crystal in the correct place it glowed with an enriching light. I could feel the pull of its magic, dragging me back from my troubled contemplation and into the physical world. Tarok risked his life to restore mine, and not one moment too soon, it seems. Had Rakrath learnt the stone's secrets then his power would have been truly unmatchable."

Eldoran looked around the cavern, and smiled towards the assembled crowd. Now that the necromancer was dead, this place would be beautiful again.

"I intend to rebuild the city, and I shall re-name it 'Tur Cistell' - 'The City of the Crystal Tower'. Elves will be joined by men and dwarfs, and every one of you may live here in peace until the end of your days. The great elven domain will be restored to its former majesty, and the two kingdoms of the elves and the dwarfs will be reunited to rid the mountains of evil for eternity. The crystal stream shall once again flow clear, and the legend of the Tharin stone will be joyfully re-told from generation to generation."

With that, Eldoran reached into his pocket where the stone had been securely stowed away. He lifted the crystal towards the crowd so that the assembled warriors could marvel at its splendour. Holding the crystal in one hand, the great wizard stretched out his other arm towards the dried river bed, summoning the powers still bound within.

Suddenly the air in the cavern grew charged, sending a shiver through the assembled crowd. Then the ground began to shake, gradually building until the entire cavern was filled with a deep thunderous resonance, which rocked the buildings surrounding the great tower and sent several stalactites crashing from the roof down onto the cavern floor. Then there was a heavy rumbling sound from the distance, followed by a loud roar and the crashing of rock upon rock. The roaring grew steadily louder until suddenly there was a great gust of wind from the opening in the side of the cavern and a torrent of crystal clear water gushed forth, crashing along the dried river bed, splashing through the centre of the cavern and flowing out through the wall of the cavern opposite. The water leapt playfully at the river banks, frothing over onto the long dead soil and eventually settling down to a calm, strong current.

"The two kingdoms shall be united through this river, joining them together at last. We shall trade happily, and the prosperity of the mountains will be restored. The last of Rakrath's minions have died or fled from the passages above, and many years shall be spent clearing the place of all evidence of his presence. Such tyranny must never return to this place, and I will spend the rest of my days ensuring it. To work! Clear the city of the remnants of war and rebuild it! This is your home once again!"

There was a great cheer from the crowd, and the victorious warriors set about piling the bodies of Rakrath's fallen servants outside the city walls. The many of their number that had also fallen were taken to a more peaceful part of the cavern, ready for burial. Some workers began to tear down damaged sections of buildings, and a small group set about scouting the various passageways that led from the cavern walls. Carek, Athena, Tarok and all the dwarfs assembled, and Randor brought news of the battle. "Unfortunately one of our number died in the battle. Several more are injured, but I believe they will survive. Let us journey back quickly to the dwarf caverns to tell Grom of our news."

Bidding a temporary goodbye to Eldoran, they set off swiftly, returning through the necromancer's empty caverns. The body of the dead dwarf was carried solemnly by four of the soldiers, eager to return their brave comrade's body to its rightful resting place. Randor lead the way back through the sloping mines and they soon reached the room where the goblin tunnels had led them many hours earlier. Instead of returning through the tunnels, they decided to search the other passageway leading from that room, and found themselves on a far more spacious path through the lower caves and up through a series of stairways to the surface levels, rejoining familiar tunnels before too long.

Every so often, they found some of Rakrath's servants lying strewn around on the floor, their life forces having long since flowed away into the surrounding rocks. This place would have the taint of dark magic for many years, but now at least time would be able to heal the damage that the necromancer had done. No doubt there would still be a few remaining goblins and orcs, but the greenskins would soon flee the caves when they learnt of Rakrath's demise.

Eventually the group reached the entrance tunnel, and swung open the gate to the outside world. Bright beams of sunlight reflected off the white mountain faces opposite and shone into the gloomy caves for what was probably the first time in centuries. Randor lead the way back along the mountain path and the dwarfs chatted amongst themselves about the wonderful victory that they had won. Before too long, they neared the familiar entrance to the dwarf caverns, singing triumphant battle songs. The guards at the gate left their posts and ran to meet their returning heroes. "It's them! It's them!" A solitary voice pierced the quiet. Soon others joined in, and eventually, by the time that the battle group had reached the entrance, dozens of dwarfs were standing cheering by the passage sides, applauding the victorious warriors and rushing to catch news of the events that had taken place.

Randor led the group forwards, and down once again into the familiar darkness of their mountain home. They strode proudly onwards past lines of cheering dwarfs, holding their axes high and roaring with delight. Before long, they found themselves at the entrance to the great hall, its immense doors flung wide open to reveal a crowd of onlookers who had run from the lower levels to greet the returning warriors. The cheering was still growing and crowds of dwarfs had now joined them, marching proudly behind, singing and laughing amongst themselves.

The proud warriors, lead by Randor, entered the hall and made their way through the cheering crowds to the high table. In the centre on his throne sat Grom, flanked by a few of the wiser dwarfs of his council. Grom rose to his feet, and ran to congratulate his returning champions.

"Randor, my friend. Am I to understand that the mission has been completed as planned?"

"Sire, we bring far better news. Rakrath is dead, and his forces are destroyed. That is but the beginning."

"Excellent! Excellent! Ah, this is most tremendous news, my friend. Tarok, Carek, Athena, come forward and join me in a mug of ale!" Carek cringed. "And I shall propose a toast." Grom banged loudly on the high table with his fist, and the room fell quiet. The great dwarf king lifted up a sizeable tankard and called out to his assembled subjects. "Dwarfs of the mountains, our battle is over!"

There was a deafening cheer. Carek tried to cover his ears with one hand whilst steadying an overfull mug of ale with the other.

Grom continued. "Our heroes have returned! Rakrath lies dead! Let us rejoice like never before. We are victorious!"

The second cheer was even louder than the first, and was accompanied by a large amount of mug-clashing and toasting of the returning heroes.

Grom turned to Tarok. "Well, Mr Gallantin. I presume you have some stories to tell."

Tarok laughed. "Like you would never believe."

Grom took another large gulp of dwarven ale and then gave a hearty laugh. "Those are the best kind, my friend. Those are the best."

Between them, they told their stories to the great dwarven leader, and recounted their tales for many hours. A great feast was set up which ran through the night and well into the morning, until the adventurers no longer had the energy to stand. Many barrels of ale were emptied, and the workers all listened intently to the courageous warriors who had saved them all from the horrors of Rakrath's tyranny. The only solemn note was the one brave dwarf who had died in the final battle. His funeral was arranged to coincide with Doragon's as that seemed the most suitable way to remember them both.

Grom seemed greatly excited about the elven city, and planned to go and greet them as soon as possible. He could remember the elven kingdom when it was great, and the elves helped the dwarfs to fight the goblins of the mountains. Those were the days when the mountains were a tremendous place, as they would no doubt become once more now that there was no obstacle left in the way. He returned to his chamber that night more relieved than ever before in his long life. He was probably more drunk than ever before too, though perhaps time would tell.

The following day, Grom ordered one hundred dwarf labourers to return to Rakrath's caves to lend a hand in the rebuilding. They were accompanied by two units of soldiers, whose task was to flush out the last remaining orcs and goblins from the passageways and restore peace and order to that place. A further group of miners were ordered to begin work on the canal that would link the two kingdoms underground. The great river flowed near the dwarf caves, so all that was required was for a small tunnel to be built to join the two kingdoms. Grom ordered ten canal boats to be built in order to trade between the cities. Carlon came up to the upper caverns to greet the brave wizard, and Tarok had one of the proudest times of his life recounting his tales to the venerable wizard. What a long way the frightened young apprentice had come in such a short time.

It made Tarok shudder to think what would have happened if they had not searched for the dwarfs, or if they had failed to defeat Rakrath and his evil hordes. Maybe Doragon would still be alive, but hundreds or even thousands would have died in his place. Tarok knew that Doragon's great sacrifice and the skill and bravery of his friends had saved countless lives, and that was a feeling that he would never forget.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 25 - A Welcome Explanation © Colin Frayn

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