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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty-Four - Ancient Secrets)

Colin Frayn
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Tarok could hear the necromancer's footsteps as he paced across the room. Such an ill-conceived hiding place had clearly failed to confuse the powerful sorcerer. Tarok held his breath in an attempt to remain undetected, but Rakrath was far too intelligent to be fooled by such a puny novice. Tarok looked in horror as the cupboard in front of him was wrenched from the floor and hurled the aside, crashing across the room. Rakrath stood directly in front of the young wizard, his bright eyes blazing fiercely, a dark cloak covering most of his face. He stared at the frightened wizard, reaching forward a withered hand, palm upwards. Tarok scrambled to his feet, trying to avoid the necromancer's burning gaze. He could feel it piercing his mind, and penetrating right into his very heart.

Rakrath smiled gently towards the frightened wizard. His voice was calm, though growing more powerful than before, "Give me the stone!" Tarok was petrified. He fumbled the broken crystal in his pocket. He had two choices; give up the crystal or refuse. "Never! This half of the Tharin stone is mine now. If you want it then you'll have to take it from me." Rakrath was quick to reply, "It will be a pleasure." His eyes flared, the gentle smile fading away. A bolt of energy flew from his hands and struck Tarok squarely in the chest. A sharp, agonising pain shot through the young wizard's body, surging right to the end of his toes and sending him writhing in convulsions, dropping to the floor. Tarok had never known such magic. He was not prepared for this.

Tarok reached out his hand and began to summon a ball of flame but was too slow, for Rakrath had already hurled a table at the helpless wizard. Tarok braced himself against the crushing impact, then stumbled out from behind the heavy wooden desk and quickly scrambled over towards the trapdoor. Tarok reached out his hand towards the wooden door, desperately trying to shut it before Rakrath found the body of Eldoran.

Rakrath walked towards his struggling adversary and reached out his hand. Tarok suddenly felt a sort of cold grasp around his neck. He turned around to see Rakrath standing only a few yards away from him. Tarok held his neck and tried to prise the invisible hand away from him, but could not. Rakrath was no longer smiling, for he was growing thoroughly annoyed with those who fought against him. He was wasting too much energy on these fools. Tarok began to run out of breath. He reached towards the table next to him and grabbed Eldoran's ornamental paperweight. Struggling for the last of his energy, Tarok hurled the heavy ornament towards the necromancer, striking him on the side of the face.

Rakrath let out a muffled yell and stumbled backwards, releasing his grip. Tarok knelt down and breathed again. Rakrath turned to face the young wizard, his eyes ablaze with fury. He reached out his right hand towards Tarok and summoned a surge of energy towards his brave foe. With a mighty yell, the necromancer flung Tarok across the room and against the far wall with a crash. Almost immediately, the room around him fell dark as a sharp pain ran through Tarok's head, and he felt himself falling to the ground. Then all was black. Rakrath reached up and felt the side of his face. The young wizard had drawn blood. He summoned a small surge of magic to seal the wound. This Tarok was a brave, arrogant young man. Why would he even dare to stand up to the might of Rakrath? He could not possibly have thought he could win. The necromancer calmly wandered over and took the crystal from Tarok's lifeless hand.

Down below there was a gasp from the crowd as the bright magic suddenly stopped, and the noises coming from the room above became silent. Athena looked over towards Carek, and lowered her eyes. She feared the worst. Tarok had no chance against such a powerful, evil opponent.

Rakrath now possessed both halves of the crystal. He carefully took the other half from his pouch and pressed the two pieces together. They fitted perfectly, and began to glow with a dim, reluctant radiance. Rakrath could feel the power growing inside him. Finally, after so many centuries, the Tharin stone was his. The crystal grew brighter as the necromancer coaxed yet more power from within its fragile shell. Then it suddenly grew hot, searing his hands. Rakrath dropped the stone to the floor, watching it roll to a stop, resting against one leg of Eldoran's writing desk. Its colours had dimmed once more and it sat still against the cold floor. Rakrath reached down and carefully touched the stone. It was cold as ice. He picked it up carefully and placed it on top of the table. He had dreamed about this day for so many years. Soon, his army would be ready again to storm the dwarf caverns. This time, he would not fail.

Tarok stirred, cautiously opened his eyes and gazed around the chamber, careful to remain absolutely still. Rakrath was standing by the gem on the table, reading a few old scrolls. Tarok's back was searing with pain and his legs felt numb underneath him. Rakrath had not finished him off, as he could easily have done. Perhaps he considered Tarok dead. Tarok gazed over to the trapdoor, which was still half open, then looked on as the necromancer strew Eldoran's books around the room in a rage. He was overturning tables throwing back cupboards and scattering parchment. He was looking for something. Tarok began to think about his predicament, and the necromancer's strange behaviour. Eventually he realised - Rakrath now possessed the most powerful magical device in the mountains, but did not know how to use it! He was looking for one of Eldoran's parchments. Tarok began to think again. His mind had been stretched to the limit already, and he had a splitting headache from his painful battle, but knew that he remained the only chance that the dwarfs had. He was going to die anyway, so guessed that he might as well do all that he could now while he still had a chance.

If he moved, he would be heard - that was simple enough. He looked over at the crystal again, and desperately racked his brains for an idea. The bright gem glowed with inner warmth as Tarok admired it. He watched carefully as Rakrath turned to look in his direction again, and Tarok feigned death once more, holding his breath for what seemed like an eternity. The necromancer turned away and Tarok let out a silent sigh of relief.

Tarok had a plan. Not a great one, but about all his tired brain could devise. He concentrated hard, for he now knew what he had to do - his levitation spell! He fixed his gaze on the crystal and tried to summon the necessary energy. His body was weak, and his powers greatly drained. He stared intently at the crystal, channelling all the magical force he could summon into the stone. Slowly it began to rise above the table. It glowed even more brightly, as if it were encouraging Tarok on, willing him to succeed. He dared not breathe for he knew that if Rakrath discovered that he was not yet dead then he would kill him for sure. The crystal began to move slowly towards him, hovering a few feet off the hard, stone floor. It was now only a few yards away.

Suddenly, Tarok noticed a silence; Rakrath had stopped turning over the furniture and looked as if he had had found something. It was a scroll. Tarok panicked; he only had a few seconds left. He quickly jumped to his feet, grabbed the crystal and dived for the trapdoor. A rush of blood shot to his head, sending him dizzy and clouding his eyes. He felt a sharp blow to his shoulder as he struck the cold stone floor and rolled clumsily down the steps into Eldoran's rest chamber.

Rakrath spun round as he heard the commotion, and immediately saw Tarok with the crystal, disappearing through the hole in the floor. Bolts of lightning shot from his hands, and narrowly missed the wizard as he dived headfirst into the burial chamber and rolled to a painful halt. His vision was blurred, but he knew he had but one chance to survive. Quickly he scrambled to his feet and firmly shut the trapdoor above him. More bolts of energy shattered the floor around the trapdoor and incinerated several of Eldoran's precious tomes. Tarok locked the door shut with a metal bar, and ran over to Eldoran's body. Rakrath was pounding on the heavy wooden planks above him, but the bar held firm.

At the base of the tower, the onlookers could only gasp in horror as flashes of light spat from Eldoran's room. Tarok was still alive, but possibly not for long. They dared not cheer as the undead army still stood dangerously close, and the four mysterious figures who had accompanied Rakrath before were standing perfectly silent beside their minions, carefully surveying the scene before them for any hint of insurrection. Athena's heart skipped a beat. Her dear friend was up there, battling bravely for the one hope they all had. She closed her eyes and silently wished him strength.

Meanwhile, Tarok was struggling to work out a plan. He looked down at the crystal again, and examined it as another of Rakrath's powerful bolts of magic shattered into the trapdoor above him, rocking the very tower beneath his feet. Tarok needed to think quickly - how should he use his new possession? What powers did it hold? The trapdoor started glowing above him. It was obviously protected well by Eldoran's magic, or Rakrath would have broken through in seconds. It glowed more, and started to burn. The smell of smouldering wood soon began to fill the chamber, along with billows of thick, black smoke.

As the smoke filled the room, Tarok noticed four faint beams of light projecting from the statues around the room, focussing in the centre right where Eldoran's body lay. He had not noticed them before, but now with the smoke filling the chamber, they were quite visible. Tarok frowned. What was their purpose? It was then that Tarok realised what to do. He realised exactly what the stone was for, and how he was to use it. It was all so simple.

Meanwhile, Rakrath was furious, and energy flowed from his hands in torrents into the wooden door. This time, that meddling wizard would die, and the necromancer would make sure of it, hurling him from the tower himself to smash into the floor beside his powerless friends below. That would teach them a lesson. The arrogance of this weak adversary was becoming infuriating. Full of rage, he channelled still more of his power into the disintegrating wooden planks.

Finally, the door melted and burst open with a violent cacophony of splintering wood. Rakrath looked down into the darkness below. "Come out, wizard. You cannot hide." There was no answer. Rakrath summoned a sphere of protective energy around himself and began to make his way down the stone steps. The shadows seemed to part for him as he stepped out into the room, gazing through the smoke. His hand glowed, and illuminated the shadowy crypt. Tarok had come this way, and there was no other exit. Rakrath peered into the darkness, gazing through the smoke with his deep, red eyes. Suddenly, a pale form appeared in the corner of the room. "There you are, fool. Where is my crystal?" Tarok stepped forward into the dim light of Rakrath's glowing magic. "The crystal is in a safe place, and so are its powers." A second figure stepped forward to join him. Rakrath at once recognised the sickly pale form, the white beard, the pitiful goodness. It was Eldoran. Rakrath stood back, shocked. "Eldoran. You are not dead?"

Eldoran spoke, his voice was calm but forceful. "Rakrath, leave this place - you are not welcome. You cannot take what is rightfully mine."

"You are a fool, Eldoran. I have defeated you once before, and I can defeat you again. Give me the crystal!"

Eldoran stood still. Rakrath grew angry, and his hands glowed. A great beam of power shot forward, but was deflected by Eldoran's cloak. The elven mage replied with a bolt of flame, which sent Rakrath back to the wall with a powerful force. Eldoran summoned a great wall of ice that froze him there but Rakrath was not so easily defeated. The ice splintered, scattering diamond-sharp shards at Eldoran. The wizard stood firm, and melted them with a roaring shield of flame. Rakrath stood forward once more.

Tarok seized his opportunity and ran for the steps, jumping up them as quickly as he could whilst Rakrath was otherwise pre-occupied. He ran out of the turret room and down the main staircase, two at a time. Deafening crackles and bangs could be heard from the chamber above. He didn't look back and just kept running, jumping bravely over the place where his firebomb had shattered earlier, and stumbling down the uneven stone stairs. He ran on and on as fast as he could, until he could see the light from the street below shining in through the front door. He reached the entrance room, and sprinted out into the streets, shouting towards the dwarfs. "Eldoran is alive! He is fighting Rakrath as we speak! Attack now as the necromancer weakens!"

Carek gasped, and ran towards his wizard friend. "Are you alright? We had given you up for dead!"

"We have greater problems. Come, let's fight!"

The dwarfs let out a deafening battle cry, lifting their heavy axes and charging towards the skeleton ranks. Randor lowered his visor and began to blend in with the buildings and roads behind him. His magical armour was now active. It was blessed with the legendary rune of the chameleon, one of the rarest and most complicated of all the dwarven runes. It required vastly expensive ingredients and many months of preparation. This honour was granted only to the finest warriors, and Randor had earned it.

The skeletons searched the spot where the dwarf had vanished and were soon struck by a sharp blow from behind, smashing to splinters. Randor shouted out a great war cry and the dwarfs sliced into the skeleton ranks in an arrowhead formation. Carek lead the attack from the rear with Athena, Tygard and all the slaves wielding their pickaxes and swords that they had looted from the defeated orcs. The skeletons had an advantage in numbers, but they were soon split into smaller groups, and the sheer ferocity of the dwarf assault struck home. Many slaves fell to sharp skeleton swords and scythes, but soon the undead monsters were overwhelmed and beaten back into a retreat out through the city gates.

Carek and Athena broke off the assault to attack a legion of zombies, which were driving back another group of slaves near the base of the great tower. Athena charged in with her sword aloft and the runes on her great dwarven shield glowing brightly. She sliced through one of the creatures and impaled a second. Carek thrust his spear into a third, and then lead the slaves in a great charge through the zombie ranks, strewing the creatures to either side as the necromancer's power began to wane. Rakrath was growing weaker, and his minions were beginning to suffer.

There came an almighty explosion from the top of the tower, and the roof shattered, hurling rocks, books and smouldering furniture into the streets below. The armies glanced up from their fighting briefly as two cloaked figures flew into the air above them, surrounded by bright, swirling mists of magical energy. Eldoran and Rakrath were still fighting, and to the death. Bolts of lightning streaked through the dark cavern and streams of energy in reply. Rakrath was already weak, having used much of his power to find the crystal, but Eldoran was growing in strength as the battle progressed. Tarok looked up, willing on the elven wizard before returning to the battle at hand, incinerating another zombie warrior with a burst of magical fire. His powers almost entirely spent, Tarok stepped backwards, then drew his cloak around him, summoning the last of his powers to transport himself away from the scene of the battle, and safely up onto one of the nearby roof-tops.

Meanwhile Eldoran soared around above them all, fighting ferociously against the evil necromancer. They both glowed with raging magic as they conjured up all manner of shields to counter each other's spells. Then Eldoran seemed to stop, as if he was summoning some sort of powerful magical force. Rakrath flew angrily towards the great elf, summoning a bright magical spear. Eldoran began to glow with a bright blue radiance, and sent forth two streams of powerful energy to surround his foe, squeezing him tightly. Eldoran flew further towards his stricken enemy, and reached one hand towards the helpless necromancer. Rakrath fought back with a coil of lightning, but his energy was almost gone. Eldoran stretched his hands out towards Rakrath's blood-stained head, and summoned one last pulse of energy, which passed through his fingertips and into the necromancer's body.

Rakrath let out a cry of anguish, which filled the cavern, echoing from every wall as his life force suddenly eked away. The bonds surrounding him vanished, together with the magical mist, which had held him so far above the rooftops. With a chilling yell, he fell down through the dusty air and onto the cavern floor, landing with a fearsome crash on the stony ground outside the town walls. As the skeletons and zombies began to feel his death, they tried to flee but the energy holding them together slowly dissipated and they were soon cut down by the dwarfs and the angry slave force, still wielding their pickaxes with ever increasing ferocity.

Carek charged forward yet again and added another three kills to his total. He was scything through the zombie ranks now. The creatures were more or less defenceless, barely sentient and lacking the strength to wield their weapons. Many of them stumbled and fell onto the stony floor. Slowly, the skeleton warriors began to crumble away, the powerful force that had held them together for so long finally ebbing from their bodies, and the bones falling to the floor with a chorus of crashing and chattering. The zombies began, one by one, to stumble, their life force now drained from their animated bodies. Eventually the last skeleton fell to vengeful dwarf axes, and the battle was won. There was a sudden silence of victory, which soon gave way to a monumental cheer. The slaves were free; Rakrath's reign was over!

Carek knelt down to regain his breath and Athena followed suit. Tarok was still troubled however. He managed to clamber down from the rooftops, and wandered in the direction of his half-elf friend. The necromancer's bodyguard - where were they? They must have slipped away somehow during the commotion. They could not be left to escape! Suddenly he felt a sharp blow to his spine, and collapsed to the floor. Carek and Athena turned round. They had, it seemed, found the bodyguard - or at least the bodyguard had found them! Carek drew his spear once more, holding it in front of him as the mysterious warriors attacked.

The first ran forward and flipped twice on the ground before somersaulting neatly over Carek's head, and landing a nasty kick in his back. Athena charged at the masked foe but he simply dodged, and flipped away backwards, drawing a deep black dagger from his belt, and slicing it in the air in front of him. The other three joined in. As soon as Carek stood up again, he was immediately felled once more as one of the warriors dodged round his side, and kicked him sharply to the back of the legs. Athena stumbled backwards, deflecting a dagger blow with her shield. Her sword was too slow and clumsy for these foes.

Randor charged into the fight and managed to injure one of the warriors with his axe, but he was soon to join his two friends on the ground. These warriors could see straight through the dwarf's magical armour, chameleon rune or not, and they seemed imbued with superhuman dexterity. They could dodge even the swiftest of blows, and could jump several yards in height, cleanly evading the clumsy attacks of those fumbling below them. Tarok regained consciousness for the second time in the last hour, but was powerless to do anything - his energy was all spent. He gazed over at Eldoran, who had floated down to the cavern floor, but was now lying exhausted beside the body of the dead necromancer, desperately trying to regain his breath. The elven mage had used the last of his powers in defeating Rakrath, and would be of no use to them now.

Another figure stepped from the crowd to challenge the masked warriors. It was Tygard, who had survived the fight with the skeletons, had dropped his pickaxe and was now standing his ground in front of the crowd of scared onlookers. The first of the bodyguard attacked him with a flurry of lightning quick attacks, a few spinning kicks followed by a lunge with his dagger. This time, however, Tygard managed to block the attacks, and landed a lightning-quick punch to the side of his attacker's head. The hooded figure staggered backwards and Tygard charged forward, kicking the stunned warrior twice more. The bodyguard stumbled to the floor, and Carek thrust his spear into the stunned assailant's side. Athena charged back into the fight, impressed by the newcomer's bravery and skill.

Tygard stood forward once more as two more of the bodyguard jumped into the attack. Tygard took Carek's dagger and ran forward at them, engaging them in deadly combat. The first attacked from the rear, his lunge skilfully blocked and countered with a vicious kick in the stomach. Tygard followed through with a powerful front kick, knocking the assailant backwards onto the stone floor. The second attacker punched Tygard in the stomach and the brave warrior stepped back, winded.

As Tygard stopped to catch his breath, Carek and Athena took over, charging forward, weapons slicing through the air. Carek hurled his spear, catching the masked warrior off guard, and piercing his leg. The bodyguard let out an agonising yell, but was soon silenced by a powerful strike from Athena's sword. Tygard had returned to the previous attacker and was now fighting back, parrying blow after blow with his dagger until he finally managed to push his injured foe back towards the dwarfs. Randor charged in and soon felled the assailant with his axe. Only one of Rakrath's henchmen remained. This last bodyguard tried to flee but was soon cut down by a pair of accurate arrow shots courtesy of Carek's deadly bow.

A second round of applause met the brave fighters, loudest of all for Tygard whose bravery and skill had helped to defeat the masked foes. After so many years working in the cavern, the young warrior had managed to hone his fighting skills, building up his stamina with the back-breaking mining work whilst training his strength and flexibility while the orcs were out of sight. He wandered forward and shook Carek and Athena by the hand. "It's been a pleasure working with you."

Athena laughed. "Likewise. We must do this again sometime."

Randor walked towards the group, his bruised body aching from a good, solid fight. "I think I might finally be getting too old for this adventuring life, you know." He dropped his axe down on the floor. "But you, young man, seem to be just beginning!"

Tygard shook his head. "I was an adventurer once before. I trained for several years with the army and then afterwards with my uncle in a small farming community outside Lanwyn. I ventured into the mountains a few times and sometimes fought against the orc invasion parties." He looked around at the remains of Rakrath's evil horde. "Now I'll hopefully be able to return to my adventuring life." Tarok smiled. "We wish you well. Adventuring has become my life now too, and I would have it no other way."

Carek limped over to the bodies of the four masked bodyguards, and gathered their weapons. Tarok called over, "I wouldn't keep those! Rakrath has probably woven some kind of magic on them. Throw them away!" It seemed such a waste, as the daggers were of very fine workmanship, but Carek reluctantly followed the advice of his wizard friend, and threw them in a pile where he collected the bodies. That mess would all have to be cleaned up in due time! For now however, there were more important matters at hand.

Many of the elves were running towards the tower in jubilation as Eldoran floated slowly over to congratulate them on a hard-fought victory. Few people could believe what had happened, and all those who could remember Eldoran fell down to kneel in respect. Everyone looked at the elven mage, and then at Tarok, who had managed weakly to crawl to his feet, and was now standing at the base of the great tower beside his friends. Tarok smiled painfully, limped forward and addressed the crowd with a tired, but victorious tone.

"Victory is ours, my friends. Rakrath is dead." He was met with another rousing cheer. Tarok turned to Eldoran, who was smiling warmly towards him, clearly grateful for his return to life, but badly injured from a truly fierce battle of magic. Tarok turned back to the slaves and spoke again, with a slightly more apologetic tone. "It appears that I have a little explaining to do!"

It was a grave understatement.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 24 - Ancient Secrets © Colin Frayn

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