:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Blackhill Saga, Part Seven ::

Part Seven - Exodus

Karnus strode past the trudging refugees, his quick steps outpacing their own weary march, his cape billowing behind him as he went. Stopping, the wizard turned to look behind him at the long column of people stretching out down the slope of the hill. Several hundred individuals had set out from the ruins of Eriadna, leaving behind them everything that they had known and stepping into an uncertain future.

Karnus’ mind involuntarily wandered back to the events of the previous day, replaying in an instant the hideous situation he had found himself in. He felt his composure break, and tears began to well up in his eyes, but casting his eye over the exhausted, starved, wretched people of Blackhill, his sorrow turned once again to anger, and he stopped the tears before they could form. Feeling his heart harden within him, he turned and stalked onward toward the head of the column.

He arrived at the head of the exodus in a foul mood, unwilling to deal with the petty considerations of these wretched, cruel people. Tanthalys and he had barely spoken since the execution, and the Shepherd followed Karnus approach with a cool look in his eye.

”What is it?” asked the wizard as he fell in step with the Shepherd.

”You’re pushing them too hard. The people are weak, they can’t keep up this pace – already the wagons are full of those who have collapsed.”

“We have no choice. Food and water are already beginning to run out. If we don’t press on you’ll all starve before we even get to Erewan.”

“Don’t you mean ‘we’ll all starve’?”

Karnus returned Tanthalys’ frown with a glare of his own. “No,” he replied, “I mean you.”

As the wizard turned to leave, Tanthalys reached out and caught him on the arm. “What’s the matter with you, Karnus?” he hissed, “How can you be so cold? It was you that rallied us to this exodus; don’t desert us now when we need you most.”

Karnus shook off the Shepherd’s restraining hand. “I have sacrificed too much already for you people,” replied the wizard, “and, frankly, I regret ever coming to this forsaken hell hole.”

The wizard stalked towards a nearby wagon that trundled along on poorly maintained wheels, his mood blacker than ever. Crackle was sat upon the back of the wagon, his legs dangling as he leafed enthusiastically through a book. Karnus took a quick step and jump and landed on the wagon beside his apprentice, who smiled up at his mentor. “I’ve finished,” said the boy.

Karnus looked down at him in shock “really? That was very quick.” The boy had been reading a small primer on magical theory, one of the books that Karnus had swiped from Almetherys’ lab. It wasn’t exactly easy going, though, and the wizard had expected his apprentice to struggle with some of the concepts presented. “What’s Tenser’s third postulation?”

The youngster cleared his throat, “the amount of magic in the universe is immutable.”

“Mordenkainen’s Paradox?”

“The power of the wizard is limited only by the power of the wizard.”

“Very good. Very good indeed…” Karnus regarded Crackle with a thoughtful expression, then reached into his pack and pulled out another tome, handing it to the boy.

”Another theory book?” asked Crackle enthusiastically.

”No. This is your spellbook.”

Crackle turned the slim volume over in his hands, leafing through the empty pages in anticipation. “I took the time to locate the ruins of a shop in Eriadna that stocked blank spellbooks,” continued the wizard, “and copied your first dweomers into it this morning.”

The apprentice eagerly flicked to the front of the book, finding there several pages covered with intricate formulae and hauntingly beautiful diagrams. “You’ll need to master this first spell before you can move on to the other” continued Karnus, indicating the opening page. “It’s called ‘Read Magic’ in my tongue, and is the foundation of all spellcraft. Study it well.”

“I will,” whispered Crackle, closing the book and holding it to his chest. Master and apprentice sat silently on the back of the wagon for a moment, looking back at the trudging column of refugees stretching out behind them.

Crackle broke the silence by saying “I miss the nice lady.”

Karnus closed his eyes as the pain in his heart came rolling back. “So do I,” he said, his voice nearly breaking as a lump appeared in his throat.

“Why didn’t you save her?”

“She didn’t want to be saved, Crackle.”

“Oh. Is that why you killed her.”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t she want to be saved?”

Karnus looked down at the inquisitive creature at his side. He knew that it wasn’t human, nor was it truly a child. Still, it had a child’s innocence, its questioning nature, its thirst for knowledge. Would it ever be able to understand? Karnus had no way of knowing…

“She believed that by allowing herself to be sacrificed, she could help the people of Blackhill.”

“How?”

“She wished to… inspire them. To make them question their beliefs that her kind were wrong.”

“Oh. So she chose them over you.”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Is that why you hate them?”

Karnus sat in silence for a second, the numbness within him spreading throughout his being. “Yes,” he finally said.

Crackle was quiet for a moment. He drew his legs up, leaned against the side of the wagon and opened his spellbook. “I don’t think she would have wanted that,” said the boy.

Karnus continued to stare, unspeaking, at the weary people following behind him. He jumped down off the wagon and moved off, not daring to look back at his apprentice.

Night fell quickly, and the few wagons that the exiles had were drawn together to provide some small shelter while they slept. Fires were lit and guards posted, and the refugees tried to sleep, nursing their blisters and exhausted bodies.

Karnus was staring into a fire, alone with his thoughts, when he was interrupted by a young woman carrying a plate of food. “You need to eat, my lord,” said the woman, kneeling by Karnus and offering him the food. The wizard was surprised; since his outburst at Anora’s execution most of the population had avoided speaking with him, a situation he had been more than happy with. He looked at the woman who had approached him and recognised her as one of Anora’s most trusted assistants from Alpharyn. She smiled at him and again offered the plate.

Glancing around, Karnus nodded to the woman to join him and took the proffered food from her. That morning the wizard had ensured that all the people imprisoned for their association with Anora had been released, their crimes pardoned by Faralymr. Karnus had derived some small revenge from hypnotising the Shepherd, who in addition to feeling a merciful urge to pardon the criminals, had been plagued all day by an inability to walk more than ten steps before falling over.

The young woman sat down beside the wizard and watched as he ate the scraps she had brought. “I wanted to thank you, on behalf of all of us,” she said.

Karnus swallowed the mouthful of hard tack that he had been chewing. “It was nothing,” he said.

“No, it was something.” The woman sat in silence for a moment. “And I want you to know… she would be grateful too…”

Karnus looked away from the woman, staring into the fire, saying nothing.

“You spared her a horrible death, Karnus,” the woman reached out a hand to rest upon the wizard’s shoulder, “you have all our thanks for that. We loved her, too, you know…”

Karnus continued to stare into the flames. There was so much he wanted to say, but he feared were he to try he would simply break down weeping.

”Her sacrifice will not be in vain,” continued the woman. She reached into her robes and pulled out a small, crudely carved wooden rose, holding it reverently before Karnus then clutching it to her breast. “Know that her love will spread.”

The woman tucked the rose back into her pocket, stood, then, with a final glance at the wizard, walked away. As she moved off, Karnus turned to her. “Be careful,” he said in a voice close to breaking.

“We will be.” She smiled and moved away, leaving the wizard alone with his thoughts, staring once more into the flames before him.

Morning found Karnus roaming the perimeter of the camp, yawning from lack of sleep. Crackle paced alongside his master, fresh and alert as ever. The boy had been up all night studying his new spellbook, cross referencing it with the theoretical text and occasionally waking Karnus with his enthusiastic exclamations as he pieced together the secrets of his first spell memorisation.

Come first light, the boy had eagerly cast Read Magic, flicking through his spellbook to the second dweomer inscribed therein. Karnus looked on, half asleep yet pleased for his apprentice – the first moment of unlocking the magic within one’s own spellbook was a special moment for any student. Karnus couldn’t help but wonder at how fast Crackle had mastered this first spell – most apprentices would require years to do what the boy had accomplished in two short days. What potential lay within this boy, and his strange connection to the force that had reanimated him…?

While the refugees around him broke camp, Karnus wandered towards the guards whom Ryndathilar had posted to watch over the exiles in the pre-dawn. The night had passed without incident it seemed, though the wizard had been worried that more monsters yet roamed the no-mans-land through which they passed.

Soon, the exiles were back on the road again, setting off ever eastwards towards the haven of Erewan. As Karnus paced alongside the leading wagon he heard a thumping sound behind him and a cry of pain. Turning, he found Faralmyr sprawling at his feet, Tanthalys beside him trying to help him to his feet.

The wizard stopped and looked down his nose at the prostrate Shepherd. “Faralmyr,” he began, “having trouble?”

The Shepherd picked himself up to stoop before the Wizard. Karnus could see the front of his robes were filthy and covered in gashes, the flesh underneath bruised and broken from frequent impacts with the ground. He panted heavily, exhausted from the effort of having to continually clamber back to his feet.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said Tanthalys in a desperate tone, “he keeps falling down!”

The elder shepherd leaned upon his younger companion, nodding and panting. Karnus looked to the pair, raised an eyebrow and asked “why does he not ride in one of the wagons, then?”

The elder Shepherd stared off into the distance and said, in a monotone voice “the Shepherd must walk with the flock. He shall not ride while the people march.”

Karnus nodded. “Well said.” The wizard smirked at the Shepherd, pleased that his final hypnotic suggestion of the previous day was holding so strongly. He turned his back on the struggling Shepherds and moved to catch up with the head of the column.

During the afternoon, Karnus found a comfortable place to sit and watch as the column of desperate refugees ambled past him. Crackle had joined the wizard, having concluded his studies for the day, and looked on with wide eyes and an open mouth as the exiles trudged past. Karnus, for his part, was enjoying the sight: his hatred for these people had grown stronger, and he derived a sadistic pleasure in watching the pathetic remains of Blackhill march in exhaustion.

A woman stumbled and fell to her feet nearby, crying out in weary frustration. Those around her seemed not to notice, and the woman stayed on her knees, sobbing deeply. Karnus watched the scene dispassionately for a second or two before Crackle, glancing up at his motionless master, jumped off the rock and ran to the woman’s side. He laid a hand on her shoulder and said “get up. Please get up,” but the woman could not bring herself to stand.

“Crackle!” Karnus’ voice rang out through the wind. The apprentice’s head snapped round. His master had not moved, and was beckoning the boy back to his side.

“Why don’t you help her?” asked the boy. Several of the other refugees stopped and stared wearily at the wizard. Karnus met their gaze and saw the array of emotions expressed upon their face: confusion at the wizard’s change of attitude, fear of the future, anger at the turn their lives had taken, sorrow for those they had lost…

“Apprentice, come here,” commanded the wizard, still casting his gaze around at the assembled mundaners. The boy detached himself from the fallen woman and moved to his master’s side. “Why are you being so mean?” asked the child. “Anora would have helped them!”

“You said you weren’t like the other wizards,” continued Crackle, “but you’re being mean and not helping.”

Karnus knelt and looked into the boys eyes. He glanced over Crackles shoulder at the people behind, watching as one of them finally helped the woman to her feet and the group resumed their march.

“Crackle,” said the wizard, “I can’t. You don’t understand.”

The boy held Karnus’ gaze for a moment. “No, I don’t,” he said, before moving off with the passing refugees, leaving the wizard alone once again with his thoughts, and the memory of Crackle’s confused gaze.

That night the exhausted refugees once again circled their few wagons and tried to get some rest. Karnus paced through the crowd, passing Ryndathilar, deep in conversation with some citizens. The guard captain glanced up as Karnus passed by, excused himself from the conversation and moved to walk with the wizard.

“How are you?” asked the warrior. Karnus stopped in his tracks and glanced round in shock. Since he had known Ryndathilar the man had hardly ever initiated a conversation, much less inquired after Karnus’ health. “I’m fine,” replied the confused wizard, moving off again, away from the crowd.

“You are not fine. You are hurting. And angry. I know how that feels.” The captain followed Karnus past the perimeter of the camp.

Karnus stopped and glanced once more at the captain. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m just tired.”

“Do not think me an idiot, simply because I wield a sword and not magic, Karnus. I saw you and Mistress Pellagi, I watched as you executed her,” Karnus flinched at this statement, “I think I understand where your anger comes from.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Karnus moved away hurriedly.

“You dishonour her memory.” The wizard stopped in his tracks, rounding on Ryndathilar with fury in his eyes.

“Don’t dare say that,” cried Karnus as he stepped towards the fighter. “You didn’t know her. You have no right to…”

“I knew her well enough. Whatever the Shepherds may say she was a kind and noble woman. She spent the last days of her life looking after these folks. She saved so many of them from death, and she trusted you to lead them to safety.”

Karnus stood, rendered speechless by the captain’s words.

”You are angry. That I understand. You blame these people. I understand that too. But if you loved her, you need to honour her memory. Deliver these people from this nightmare.”

Ryndathilar stepped up to the mute Karnus and put a hand on his shoulder, “I think that we have both lost someone we cared for in this place.” Karnus nodded, staring at the ground between the two of them. “You are a good man, Karnus. You came here to save people. Don’t let Anora’s sacrifice go in vain. Complete your mission, honour your love.”

The captain released Karnus’ shoulder and stepped back. The wizard panned his eyes up and met the guardsman’s gaze. “I can’t forget what they did to her, what your laws forced me to do… every time I close my eyes I see her face in that final moment.”

The captain nodded. “Nobody is asking you to forget, nor forgive. But to honour her you need to set that aside. If you can’t her sacrifice is for nothing. The choice is yours.”

Karnus nodded. Ryndathilar returned the nod then moved off back towards the exiles. The wizard stood alone for a while, sighed, and then strode back towards the camp.

The third day of their march dawned as dimly as the others, the light barely reaching the exiles through the dense cloud cover which yet lingered over the land. Karnus stared up at the dark clouds, wondering how far they spread across the continent, and how long they would last.

Under the guise of a scouting mission, Karnus transformed himself into a hawk and soared off eastwards, relishing his solitude. He coasted through the turbulent air, soaring on the updrafts and manoeuvring through the chaotic air flows.

Above him rolled the endless cloud, an unbroken blanket of darkness covering the landscape. On a whim, Karnus beat his wings hard and climbed upwards, struggling to gain altitude. Unsatisfied with the power of the hawk’s wings, the wizard stopped for an instant, tumbling end over end towards the ground as his form shifted. Seconds later a blue dragon resumed the struggle upward into the sky, beating it’s mighty serpentine wings against the chains of gravity.

In moments the dragon reached the bottom of the dark clouds, thrusting headfirst into the cloying dust. Karnus coughed and spluttered as he fought onwards through the cloud cover, beating his wings until his chest heaved in exertion. Time lost all meaning as the dragon pushed upwards through the clouds – how long had passed? Moments? Hours? Karnus couldn’t tell.

Eventually, just when the wizard thought that he could take no more, the dark, dusty clouds above him began to dissipate. Karnus punched through the black cloud to find himself in the crisp, clean air above. The sun shone brightly up here, its warmth and light seemingly penetrating Karnus very soul as he glided over the dark dust cloud which now stretched out beneath him.

The dragon beat his wings once again, soaring upwards, relishing the sun, the warmth, the clean air. He drifted on the wind, soaring under the white clouds that drifted occasionally above him. After a time the dragon banked around to regard the dense, dark cloud beneath him. Hovering in the air, Karnus was struck for a moment by how easy it would be to simply soar away, to find a place where the air was always this clear, to leave the remnants of Blackhill to fend for themselves.

But then there was Anora. Ryndathilar’s words still echoed around the wizard’s mind. For a brief few days, Karnus had known what it was to love someone. For that time, all the concerns of the world had seemed so irrelevant. Now, the crushing weight of reality once more draped itself around Karnus’ shoulders. With a shudder, the dragon-form wizard leapt into the air, clawing for altitude before pirouetting, folding his wings against his flanks and diving headlong into the darkness. Karnus closed his eyes as the dust cloud whipped past him, stinging his flesh and blotting out the bright light above. In mere seconds the falling dragon plummeted through the cloud, shooting out of the bottom of the dense cloud layer and back into the gloomy, shattered remains of southern Glantri.

Karnus continued to fall, watching as the ground raced towards him. Several hundred feet up, he unfurled his wings and soared, banking in the turbulent air and racing off towards the column of refugees.

As he approached the exiles, Karnus could see that all was not well. Instead of the regular bedraggled line of marching refugees there were scattered groups moving chaotically over the landscape. It looked as if they were fleeing from something…

Karnus saw that most of the column had come to a stop along the road, and was surrounded by activity. He redoubled his speed, swooping towards the head of the march. As he drew close he could see that the refugees were beset by a small army of humanoids. Here and there roamed bands of Kobolds, yipping excitedly as they overtook fleeing exiles. A bunch of orcs were busily fighting against Ryndathilar and his men at the head of the column, while another group moved round to encircle the embattled refugees.

As Karnus approached he saw the occasional lone magic missile burst from the entrenched refugees camp and strike an oncoming orc or kobold. The wizard saw Tanthalys, standing atop one of the wagons, gesture at a nearby group of kobolds, who all immediately dropped to the ground. The Shepherd’s sleep spell did not go unnoticed, however, and Karnus watched, unable to intervene, as several dozen archers targeted the Shepherd and loosed their arrows. Tanthalys cried out in pain as several of the arrows caught him in the chest, and he fell roughly from the wagon.

Karnus soared over the combatants, eliciting gasps of shock from both sides. He alighted atop the wagon which Tanthalys had been standing on and quickly transformed back to human form before the few archers on the field could target him.

Hopping down to the ground, Karnus rushed to Tanthalys’ side. The Shepherd was grievously wounded, and blood flowed freely from his mouth. Karnus knelt by the man, afraid to look into his eyes. Tanthalys reached out, and took Karnus’ hand, managing to speak between his bloody gasps. “Karnus… You must lead the flock now,” the Shepherd smiled as Karnus’ eyes met his, “you can do it. Forgive us…” the man’s voices trailed off as his eyes fixed on infinity, and he slumped, lifeless to the ground.

Karnus reached up with his free hand and closed the Shepherd’s eyes, then stood and surveyed the battle scene before him. Ryndathilar and his men were holding their own in combat against the orcs, but the second group were rapidly approaching the undefended flank of the large huddling mass of fearful people. Karnus broke into a sprint, determined to reach this undefended flank as fast as he could.

As he ran, Karnus saw a small figure step out from the huddling masses to stand opposed to the oncoming orcs. The wizard watched as the boy raised a finger and pointed at the lead orc. Chanting filled the air, and the child was suddenly surrounded by a glowing aura of magical energy, visible in the gloomy daylight. As the boy completed his spell, the aura surrounding the boy coalesced towards his outstretched hand, then shot at the orc in a bolt of crackling electrical magic that struck the creature full in the chest. The orc grunted, faltered in its charge, then howled in defiance and leapt forward once again.

As Karnus reached his apprentice, the boy slumped to the ground, his glowing aura barely visible. He smiled wearily up at the wizard as he caught him. Karnus returned Crackle’s smile, and the boy wearily said “you have to help them.” Karnus nodded, not taking his eyes from his apprentice, and said, “I will.”

He laid the boy gently to the ground, turned, and stretched out a hand. With a few words, a small bolt of flame shot out and blossomed into a fireball, engulfing the closest of the orcs. The remainder continued to close, and Karnus quickly unleashed another spell. A second fireball, this one smaller than the first, blossomed around a second group of orcs, who fell, thrashing to the ground. Another spell, and a bright point of light formed in the midst of the orcs, bursting into a coruscating explosion of light, leaving the humanoids clutching at their eyes and writhing in confusion.

Karnus had by now taken care of the closest of the assailants. The huddling exiles stood to watch the wizard cast his spells, awed by his power yet terrified by his expression – it seemed as if the wizard was taking out all his frustrations on these creatures, such was his face set in a look of grim determination. The crowd began to cheer as Karnus lashed out with yet more magic.

More orcs pressed in to replace their fallen comrades, but the wizard continued to unleash his spells. Gesturing at a patch of ground in front of him, Karnus spoke yet more words of magic. From the ground sprung a swirling column of thick, green gas, which quickly spread out over several feet. With a grin and pushing gesture, Karnus sent his Cloudkill out to intercept the incoming orcs, who spluttered and gasped within its embrace. The cloud passed on, leaving only dead and dying humanoids behind. As Karnus swept his hand through the air the cloud followed, moving through the ranks of the orc force and decimating their number, leaving the survivors to flee in horror from the choking death which stalked them.

Between swords and sorcery, the remainder of the attacking humanoids were routed, leaving the survivors to struggle onwards toward Erewan. Karnus flew around the surrounding landscape, gathering up those who had fled as best he could, but by the time he abandoned his search, he estimated that nearly a hundred people were dead or missing from the attack. That took the number of survivors to just over four hundred.

And so it was that on that evening, four hundred bedraggled people descended the last of the hills of Blackhill, descending into the broad, forested valley that marked the beginning of the Principality of Erewan.

Karnus walked beside the lead wagon, talking with his apprentice who rode within. Crackle was exhausted from casting his first spell, yet exhilarated from the channelling of his magic. Karnus was worried that the boy had drawn from his own reserves of power to fuel the spell, but it didn’t seem to have harmed him. Still, it was something to watch…

Alongside Karnus strode Ryndathilar, bloodied from his fight against the orcs but otherwise upbeat. Karnus cast his gaze around the other survivors, as they looked down on the leafy forest below them. The Shepherd’s were both absent, Tanthalys’ noble death contrasting with Faralmyr’s cowardly flight during the battle. Karnus had searched for the other Shepherd, but could find no trace of him. When he had scried for the elderly Shepherd he had seen only the man stumbling through the dusty landscape, crying out in desperation.

Karnus shook himself out of his reverie and nodded to the cart’s driver. The wagon rumbled down the hill followed by the survivors of the meteor. At their head walked the blue robed wizard, his spirit still weighed down by grief, but his mind once again focussed on the tasks that lay ahead.

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