The gathering ... Drewen makes his speech
The Mirror Crack'd
One hour later, a sizeable crowd amassed in what might have passed for a town square, had Hell been civilised enough to be considered a town. From this area the towers of Skarda's citadel could be made out, silhouetted against the shimmering black heavens, high and imposing atop the Mirror Plateau at the far end of the realm. A makeshift platform had been erected in the square, upon which the five outsiders now stood while they surveyed the expectant mob. Many of the slaves had pulled rags and shawls over their heads in a half-hearted attempt to remain inconspicuous, lest the gathering should turn out to be a trap of some sort. Yet in the hearts of many, the newly arrived outsiders represented the greatest chance of liberation many of the Mirror's inhabitants had dared to entertain for decades. Decades which for some had been a lifetime of captivity inside a lightless domain, never knowing freedom or the world beyond the Mirror Portal. So it was that all were ready to lend their efforts, so that their seed of hope might blossom into reality. Perhaps Skarda would finally be overthrown.
"People of the Mirror!" called Drewen, taking the initiative. "We have -"
There were shuffles and grumblings within the crowd, as all present strained to see where this booming voice was coming from. Despite standing on the platform, the four-foot-tall Drewen could not be made out by anyone other than those at the front of the crowd. With a few words of magic, however, a magical disc formed beneath Drewen's feet and rose, elevating the dwarf the extra feet required to give him sufficient height to be noticed by all. The crowd murmured in astonishment as the bearded speaker floated majestically into sight.
"People of the Mirror," the dwarf began again, his eyes darting through the se of attentive albeit exhausted faces, "we have come here as your liberators! We too were taken captive by Skarda's guards and were ordered to spend the rest of our days in in the dark dungeons, but we refused. We broke away and fought for our freedom, since this is no way to live! We found the strength to escape, and we ask that you lend us your strength also, so that we might as one great army overturn Skarda's reign and return to our homeland of Karameikos!"
Murmuring spread through the crowd while Drewen's proposal was considered. The risks involved would be great and the plan's failure would incur unthinkable punishment at the hands of Skarda's guards. Noting this, Katarina stepped close to Drewen and whispered a few words in the dwarf's ear.
"Another factor presses upon us," Drewen announced, after conversing briefly with the grey-armoured guard. "As many of you know, Skarda has been greedy in his demands upon the magical resources of this realm, and he has exhausted the mineshafts which supplied mirror stone for his constructions." Many of the faces within the crowd turned grave at the mention of the mineshafts. "Excavations have spread too deep into the earth, and the shafts have become inundated by a surge of water. Our fears are confirmed," Drewen glanced dourly at Katarina, who nodded sadly, "and the flow of water is unstoppable. Soon the water level will rise above the roofs of your homes and there will be nowhere to escape to. Skarda himself plans to leave the Realm, and in doing so condemns the rest of us to a watery end. Do we deserve this fate?" Angry muttering came from the throng, which seemed to have doubled in size since Drewen had first spoken. "No!" came the angered responses.
"Then lend us your strength!" the dwarf bellowed. "The time is now, for our very surroundings are beginning to crumble around us. Our fight will be hard, but we will reap reward in the return to our homeland, in knowing that Skarda's long reign of terror will come to an end through our efforts. Will you lend your efforts to those of my companions?" Deafening cheers went up from all around, so forceful that surely the noise must have been heard in the faraway Citadel.
"Then we fight as one!" Drewen called, triumphant and overjoyed. "Onward, to the gates!"
The army presses on
The horde surged through the slums of Hell, growing in number at every crossroads or turn of the road; more and more denizens were roused from their indifference at the prospect of an army to fight alongside. Drewen surveyed the result of his speech with pride, as more than two hundred slaves armed with stones, clubs, picks and hammers, pressed on toward confrontation with Skarda.
At last the mob came to a stop at the city walls - which marked the boundary between between Hell and the remainder of the Realm - where Skarda's Citadel and other magnificent buildings had been constructed. An immense set of gates stood here, flanked by looming guardhouses which would need to be breached in order to locate the mechanism which would open the gates and permit entry onto the Mirror Plateau. Moreover, the Portal back to Karameikos lay beyond those gates. At this point cries of astonishment arose from all around. One by one everyone present felt the soles of their feet grow damp, as rivulets of water began to seep along the very street in which the army had amassed. The mines had indeed with water and had burst their barriers, meaning there was little prospect of stopping the rising of the water! This grim reminder of the slaves' fate should they fail served only to strengthen their resolve to overthrow the tyrant Skarda and leave the Mirror Realm far behind.
"Storm the keep!" the mob chanted, hungry for action. Karnus and Lana decided to lead the attack. After invoking Fly spells, the two soared toward the tall gates, alighting atop a seemingly empty stretch of the battlements. With a crash however, a nearby pair of doors were flung apart and a battalion of hobgoblins burst onto the ramparts. Despite keeping the creatures at bay for several rounds of combat it became apparent that the two mages could not hold out for long against so many armoured foes, therefore Karnus invoked a second enchantment as the two retreated to the air. A blazing fireball engulfed the battlements, causing those hobgoblins caught in the blast to howl in final agony.
Once the flames cleared, Karnus and Lana swooped back down onto the platform, through the double doors which the goblinoids had opened, and down a long, curving staircase. The pair soon found themselves at the base of the gates, with the winch mechanism in plain view! Drawing her enchanted dagger from its sheath at her belt, Lana sliced the blade clean through a supporting rope and at once the machinery was set into motion. The gleaming black gates inched open fraction by fraction, until the horde waiting beyond was able to surge through like the very torrent of water which threatened to engulf them. Indeed as the gates edged apart, water more than a foot deep swept through and into the gatehouse.
Through the Gates of Hell ... battle begins
"Onward!" Lana cried, "to the Citadel!" The first wave of denizens tore past her, beginning the trek toward the base of the plateau barely half a mile away. The way ahead was not without obstacles however, as between lay Skarda's assembled minions, their grey armour gleaming in the artificial, sunless light. Word had evidently reached the archmage of his slaves' revolt; he did not appear to be present but nevertheless his troops would be a force to be reckoned with. Undeterred, the mob surged ahead and within seconds the sounds of swords clashed against farming tools could be heard throughout the Realm ... the battle for freedom had begun.
Drewen spun on his heels, parrying a swordthrust from behind before returning with a heavy swing of his warhammer. The battle raged on all sides. Despite the benefit of his enchanted platemail the hardy dwarf barely found time to catch breath in the midst of the fray. Behind him Lana was keeping up pace, dodging the blows of slashing steel which were all around. From the corner of one eye, Drewen became aware of a large mass detaching itself from the shadows of the citadel base and closing to join the skirmish. Glancing in that direction his suspicions were confirmed - the hulking mass was that of Kogrin, the half-ogre jailer who had doused the companions in sewage that morning. The bile began to rise in the normally-tolerant dwarf's liver.
Drewen nudged Lana, distracting her enough to direct her attention toward Kogrin some two hundred feet away. Without a word she read Drewen's mind, and gestured for him to mount the invisible Floating Disc which was still in effect after his speech less than an hour ago. Her Fly spell was also as strong as ever; within the blink of an eye the two companions were soaring skyward, across the battlefield and along the base of the plateau.
Kogrin could be seen hefting a cruelly barbed double-handed broadsword, as he advanced toward a group of poorly armed youths on the edge of the combat. This served to further fuel Drewen's ire; the dwarf leapt from the floating platform, his brawny form balling into a blur as he spun toward the ground. Closer he came, driven faster and faster by the momentum he gained, until at the final instant one hammer-wielding hand was seen to detach itself from the remainder of the ball.
Kogrin never saw the blue-and-silver blur coming. The resulting clang however would reverberate for days in the eardrums of all those standing within a mile radius.
Watching from her high vantage point, Lana winced but could not suppress a chuckle. Catching her breath, the mage prepared to return to the melee beneath but decided she would cast a defensive spell first of all. The words of Mirror Image came to mind. How appropriate given the surroundings, she thought. As she began murmuring the familiar incantation, just as she had done a hundred times before, something seemed amiss. The air around her pulsed in response to the magic, and the young woman could feel the magical energies pulsing around her with extraordinary force, almost beyond her control. With anxious determination Lana forced herself to complete the chant.
In a blaze of amber magic, the sky was lit as bright as day, causing hundreds fighting beneath to pause for a moment and turn their gazes upward. There hovering in the sky were not two figures, nor three or four, but twenty identical images of Lana! Revelling in this unforeseen interference by the Mirror's own magical energies, Lana took hold of her dagger and the horde of green-robed magic-users swept down into the fray!
Maces smote, hammers clanged and sapphire and amber missiles streaked across the sky. At last the fighting fell apart and the slaves cheered their own victory. Pouring through the gates, the crowd pushed onward and reached the base of the plateau. A long climb began, as freedom and the portal home were known to lie at the top.
A battalion of guards appeared atop the plateau, hurling rocks and missiles to keep the climbers from reaching their goal. Extending one hand in their direction, Lana cast the adversaries' minds into magical Confusion with her sole remaining spell. The denizens resumed their climb unhindered while the dim-witted guards were left brawling amongst themselves.
As the last of the slaves began to climb, there came a fearful shaking and tremors spread through the ground underfoot. The rumbling continued, as all present realised that this could mean only one thing. The Mirror was collapsing! On the horizon, an immense wall of water came surging toward the plateau. It seemed little might be done to prevent a catastrophe, until one figure was seen striding forward, wand in hand. Halia stood in ragged robes before the gates of Hell as the wave rolled closer and closer. She outstretched her wand and uttered a word of command. A cone of frost issued from the wand's tip, freezing the wave solid where it threatened to push through the open gates.
Amid much cheering, Halia shouted that this was only a temporary measure, for the water behind the gates was continuing to rise and would soon rise above the level of the gates. Then there would be no stopping the deluge, as truly the Mirror could no longer hold itself together and was collapsing.
The hardiest of the slaves had reached the top of plateau and were sprinting forward toward the Mirror Portal - a huge golden gateway not dissimilar to the Mirror's frame itself. The Portal's glassy surface was glittering, and when examined closely bore ripple marks like the surface of a pool. Behind the enchanted glass lay not the reflection of the plateau, but... a villa could be seen instead, surrounded by dense woodland. Figures could be seen darting to and from various parts of the villa in apparent panic.
Caught up in the mob of freedom-crazed slaves, the companions became separated from one another and entered the Mirror individually. The tremors grew stronger and as the plateau itself began to rend apart, the denizens pressed forward like madmen, knowing the Portal to be their only hope for salvation.
Through the looking glass, again
Caught up in the rushing sea of slaves, Lana's first instinct was to back away from the Portal, wary of whatever magic lurked beyond its calm exterior. Her fingertips lightly brushed the surface and in that instant she felt herself moving in a thousand different directions, as her very being was stretched across time and space, toward a faraway pinprick of reality...
Threy found himself being deposited onto the tiled floor of a corridor, surely within the villa which he had glimpsed before being sucked into the Mirror. The corridor was crowded beyond belief, with bands of men clashing weapons in all around, the floor underfoot was sticky with sweat and blood, and the air filled by shouts of anger and the incessant clashing of steel. As Threy staggered to his feet, it was only the tingling hairs on the back of his neck that allowed him to dodge a lethal swordswipe from behind. Staggering along the corridor, still disorientated, the bewildered cleric flung open a set of double doors and emerged into a courtyard beyond. Where, he wondered, could the rest of his companions be?
To her delight Lana's battalion of images remained intact and she pressed forward, zooming over the sea of helmets in search of her companions but more importantly the fleeting form of Skarda. If the Portal had been activated recently, surely the archmage had come to this place. She or one of her comrades would bring the madman to justice.
"Karnus!" Vasily bellowed as a trio of sapphire missiles erupted atop a nearby staircase, but by the time Vasily had brawled his way to the top of the stairs, no trace remained of the blue-robed mage other than three incapacitated guards. Vasily too was stranded, alone in this foreign place. Fighting onward, Vasily burst into a long chamber where a screaming serving girl was being pursued around a dining table by a short-sword wielding thug, no doubt one of Skarda's mercenary minions. Enraged, Vasily bore forward hefting his warhammer in one gauntleted hand. The girl dove for cover under the table as blows rained, until with a final smite the thug's unconscious form was sent skimming headfirst along the wooden surface of the dining table. At this sign of calm, the maidservant leapt to her feet and threw her arms appreciatively around the young cleric's neck, showering his neck with kisses before swooning in the embarrassed cleric's arms. Taken aback, the Bishop of Specularum laid the girl in a concealed corner of the hallway, and returned to the thick of combat.
Threy came tramping out of the villa's stables, bleeding on the cheek from a skirmish he had just been dragged into between two of Skarda's guards and a group of stablehands. Across the courtyard an icy blast seared the air before a pair of men went flying through the air. That would be Halia and Retameron, he mused...
Hearing sounds of weapons clashing, Lana and Drewen tore up a staircase to find an armoured veteran keeping six guards at bay through use of a heavy broadsword, with the greatest of ease. The auburn-haired swordsman swung his steel blade as if it were no heavier than the lightest rapier, a look of effortless control gracing the man's face. Pure technique, it seemed, as he was barely breaking a sweat. As Drewen and Lana joined the melee, the six guards began falling one by one until with a swing of Drewen's hammer the final combatant was sent smashing through a nearby window. The armoured swordsman gave a nod of acknowledgement. Lana was unable to hide a bashful smile as she deduced the nobleman's identity. Seeing her look of amazement, the man passed one hand through his immaculately trimmed beard. "Well," he said gruffly, "it was about time somebody turned up. Forgive my abruptness but introductions shall have to wait. My family may well be in peril, so if you will excuse me..." The man gave a further nod, then raced down the corridor in search of new quarry.
Through the broken window the pair of friends spied grey robes flitting across the courtyard below, surrounded by armoured guards. The crowd of slaves was closing menacingly around this individual, their fear having dissipated now that they had been liberated from the Mirror. Drawing forth a slender rod of wood however, Skarda invoked the wand's power to disperse the mob, creating a clear path for him and his guards to reach the villa. Lana and Drewen cast one another silent glances, sharing the same thought. Skarda could not be allowed to enter the building for fear of harming the owner of the villa, or his family. The two used the remnants of Lana's Fly spell to swoop down to the courtyard, where Vasily, Karnus and Threy had also regrouped.
As the five charged across the courtyard toward the archmage they hastily discussed tactics; they would need to take out Skarda's guards before they would be able to attack him directly. The guards would need to be taken out quickly before thus there was a need to quickly dispose of the guards before the wizard could deploy too much of his potent magic. The wizard, however, had caught sight of the advancing companions. He stopped in the centre of the courtyard and crossed his arms in a bothered fashion.
"No, no, NO," the old wizard booed, "this is not what I had in mind! Why did you meddle in my plans, could you not simply have stayed on the Mirror where I left you?"
"The Mirror no longer exists, Mallek," Karnus returned. "As well you know. As a result of your greed the place can no longer hold itself together and as we speak the Mirror is falling apart."
"You may surrender to us, if you wish, but your fate is sealed," interposed Lana. "You exploited an Immortal artifact for your personal gain and caused its destruction. You have much to answer for."
"I used the place properly!" the wizard hissed. "If the unorganised people of Karameikos are too stupid to organise their own lives, then you can hardly reproach me for doing them a favour and organising it for them."
A scowl crossed the wizard's face, as it became apparent that Skarda was coming to the surface, "If you cannot simply stay out of my way... then I shall dispose of you by my own means. Guards - kill them!" The armed guards sprang forward upon the heroes, while Skarda withdrew components from a pouch and began dreaded chanting.
Lana's alertness allowed her to sense the air beside her tingling, as a hideously familiar feeling crept across her. Where and when before had she felt this, she asked herself. There came a sound as if the very air was being wrenched apart, and for a split second the mage thought she could make out a coalescing figure ... Skarda had summoned an Invisible Stalker! The young woman danced wildly, doing all she could to dodge the lethal assailant. She knew of no way to dispel the creature, but then there came the sound of chanting a short way off. Threy unfurled the scroll he had taken from Korak's lair and read aloud the Dispel Evil enchantment. As the cleric stretched out one hand, the fabric of the air ripped asunder once more, and with a whooshing, inward sound the creature was banished to its plane of origin.
Meanwhile Drewen and Vasily had each felled two of the elite guards, and with a swing of the Staff of Hutaaka, Karnus felled a fifth assailant, but not before the archmage unleashed another spell. Extending one scrawny finger toward Drewen, the dwarf found himself caught in mid-charge amid the torrent of a lightning bolt. The dwarf's magical plate cracked from the heat of the blast, but amazingly Drewen remained standing. Staggering for a few seconds and with gritted teeth the dwarf overcame the effects of the magic to strengthen his grasp once more on his warhammer.
Lana's array of offensive spells had been depleted, and only one course of action remained. Grabbing a tube from her belt, the woman uncurled the scroll she had taken from the bridgehouse on the trek to the Valley of Hutaaka, and from it recited the incantation which she had been saving for so long. A trio of magical arrows took form in the air, and blazed trails of amber fire toward Skarda. Hissing with contempt as the bolts impacted into his robes, the wizard prepared a spell to retaliate.
Drewen charged forward, having regained his senses after the shock of the lightning assault. The magical blade found its mark in Skarda's side but too late, as a spell of holding took effect on Threy and Vasily. The clerics stiffened, frozen in their tracks. In annoyance Lana hurled her own magical dagger and the blade hit home, biting deep into Skarda's flesh. The man howled in agony but refused to give in, raising his scrawny arms in defiance and to prepare magic to finish the whole sorry affair...
Fall of the evil wizard
The words never left Skarda's mouth, as Karnus took aim and hurled a blade, sending the blur of steel straight across the clearing and into the ancient wizard's neck. A look of pure confusion overtook the old man's face as he dropped, in disbelief that his plans to wrest control of Karameikos would never be fulfilled. After years of plotting and scheming, the old wizard had never contemplated the possibility of his own death. His eyes stared questioningly at each of the companions in turn... then glazed forever.
Cheers resounded from all around - the evil mage had been vanquished! The Wand of Fear fell from his nerveless fingers, while at the same moment a crystal orb rolled from a pocket of his robes, miraculously not breaking but coming to rest at Karnus' feet. As the mage's body slumped to the ground, there came a sound like glass shattering into a million shards. For a few moments no other sound was heard for many miles around. Then, with a rumbling like no other ever heard, the sky was filled by a flare of golden light, its intensity blinding all who were present. When the glare cleared, the surrounding landscape had altered substantially. Huts and hovels, houses and shops, the gatehouses and Citadel were all present, alongside great heaps of mined mirrorstone. The Mirror had expelled its contents as a prelude to its own destruction. Skarda's fate for having meddled with an artifact so powerful as the Mirror would surely be a matter for the Immortals to decide.
The crowd closed around the five victorious companions - together they had achieved victory, just as Drewen had promised that morning before the Gates of Hell. Now this crowd were slaves to no man, and had returned to their homeland to start new lives for themselves and their families. The companions too were overjoyed to have escaped the Mirror, but were they truly back in the Grand Duchy?
No further proof was needed, when a lone individual emerged from the crowd, the way parting before him. The auburn-haired man applauded the companions' efforts, a congratulatory smile upon his bearded face. "May I bid you a welcome return to the Grand Duchy," spoke the noble, "and permit me to introduce myself. My name is Stefan Karameikos."
It transpired that the companions had been transported to the Duke's hunting villa in the Marilinev estate, some distance southwest of the capital city Specularum. The five were allowed only a brief exchange with the Duke, before he was rushed off to attend to further developments within the grounds. It seemed small fights were being waged by Skarda's surviving mercenaries. There was talk of a banquet later that evening, however, at which the five companions would enjoy the status of honoured guests for their efforts in the protection of the Duke and his subjects.
It was at this gathering that Stefan extended his profound thanks once again and offered to grant each companion one wish which, should the request be reasonably within the Duke's power to grant, then he or his descendants after him would fulfil. Threy and Vasily took time to reflect on their choices, and begged pardon from the Duke to place their demands at some later date; Karnus too was undecided as to his wish, though title to the ancient hutaakan sites dwelling within the Duchy crossed his mind; Lana requested assistance with the construction of her wizard's tower, therefore the Duke pledged a coffer of coins and gems to assist in her endeavour; then finally Drewen asked that the Duke might grant him the use of a magical weapon such as Threy, Lana and Karnus all benefited from in battle. Teldon was therefore commissioned to enchant a special hammer, uniquely crafted for the Drewen's use!
A final matter remained, as the Duke presented Lana with a ribbon-bound scroll. Motivated by praise from Patriarch Sherlane Halaran referring to the gnoll attack on Threshold several months back; for this and other services the Duke saw fit to confer upon Lana the noble title of Court Lady. The companions enjoyed the Duke's hospitality for a week within the settled and peaceful coastal area of Marilinev.
Read on - The Republic of Darokin
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