Horn Gate


Back: Horn Gate

5 - To the Tunnel

Their preparations complete, the heroes await their guide at the White Lady's shrine. He turns out to be a bent-limbed, twisted old man who calls himself Shorj. He chews on something, green spittle dribbling down his cheek, whilst waiting impassively for the warriors to shoulder their gear, then leads them out of the healer's compound. After a moment he begins to speak in a hoarse, hacking voice, gesturing to the fallen ruins that surround them.

"In the Goldentime all this place was green, all the way to rivers and sea. You only had drop a seed on the ground and a tree would sprout and give fruit for you to eat. The Cloud Boy came and pissed at the right time, and the Hot Yellow Swan flew at just the right height to warm the crops and not burn them, not like now. The people were fat and happy, and had many children and servants. They had a king, named Hasalar, who was a son of the Great Maker. He saw to it that everything stayed as it should be.

"Then Darkness came and the world changed. A net laid by evil devils caught the Hot Yellow Swan one night on her flight under the earth. Good King Hasalar caught a being made of fire and pinned him to the roof of the sky so that the plants would carry on growing. The crops didn't grow so well as before, but the people still had food. Then Good King Hasalar heard that the Earth Women had seen visions of a new kind of evil that could not be defeated, and they planned to run far away under the earth to hide. Good King Hasalar pleaded with them to stay and feed his people, but they refused. He enticed one, named Eriala away from her mother and aunts with words of love, and then he tied her down and spread her body all around this place. She screamed and resisted, but he was too strong and her sisters and aunts were too far away to hear her. The people were worried about defiling her body in this way, but King Hasalar said to them, "She would have left you to starve; this is the act of an enemy. Do not mourn her fate, but be pleased I am here to keep you safe from harm." So the people took up their hoes and planted their seed in her body, and she grudgingly yielded food.

"Evil kept coming, and it changed everything in the world. Each time something changed King Hasalar did what he could to keep things the same, but each time he failed a little. The land became weaker, and evil pressed right up at its edge. Things became so weak that people began starve, and Disease came to the land. Finally a new thing called Death came and started to take the people from the land to another place deep under the earth, deeper even than where the earth goddesses were hiding. King Hasalar fought the thing called Death with all the tricks he had and won half the battle. King Hasalar built a new palace under the ground, so that the people had somewhere to live, halfway between the land and Hell. The souls of the people stayed there with their families and continued to serve the King. These souls did what they could to be the same as they were before, but they found it very hard. King Hasalar filled the palace with wonders, a starry sky under the earth, winding rivers that nurtured Eriala, who he had bound once more, and he brought Mostali to construct birds made of fine jewels to sit in silver trees. But the people grew listless and thin, for they cared not even to pretend they had the desires of the living.

"King Hasalar sat in his pleasure dome, tended by the shadows of his people, and brooded on the doom that he knew must come. He feared the devils that roamed the lands above, and this fear tore and wounded him. He began to hate his subjects, for their living death reminded him of his failure to protect them and the lost lands above. Their passivity began to feed his anger, and he, perhaps to prove that some strength yet remained to him, arranged intricate ways to demonstrate this anger to them. His palace became filled with the screams of torment and the cries of his subject.s shattered souls.

"Death heard these screams, the cries of those he considered to be HIS subjects. The Earth Women heard the screams of Eriala now that she was deep in the Earth. Together the Earth Women and Death came to the gates of Bad King Hasalar's palace, and they tore them down. They came to the room where Bad King Hasalar sat, and they judged him, and they took his strength from him, and they scattered his ashes in the Void.

"The Earth Women released Eriala and took her up to into their bosom. Death gathered the whole souls that were left and showed them the proper place to be. The palace was left only with the fragments of people, and the jewelled birds in the silver trees. At night, if you go near the mouth of the tunnel, you can still hear the screaming.

"The people who live here now are the children of those who were the servants of the people of Hasalar. We were not taken down into the earth: we had our own gods and secrets that helped us survive the Darkness. Since the Hot Yellow Swan returned we have served the Animal People. Even slaves have knowledge, and we are the only ones who know this story that I tell you now, but everyone knows it is a bad place, that tunnel to Bad King Hasalar.s palace. Long Ago a Great Spirit of the Animal People, the one they call Waha, placed two great horns at the mouth to ward of evil and warn people away. That is why this place is still called Horn Gate. But in the Second Age foreigners came who counted everything and pried everywhere. They laughed at Waha's horns and tore them down. They walked into the tunnel saying that they would find great treasure and wonders, and they did not come back."

Carried away by Shorj's words the heroes belatedly realise that he has led them to the edge of the ruined town, where a dark, forbidding cave lurks in the side of the bluff, partially hidden by foliage.

The old man looks directly at the heroes for the first time when he says, "You should not go there. It is a forbidden place."

"There is no place where Death is forbidden, old man," Enfrew says, disgusted with old man's fear.

During Shorj's story Hrolf concentrates intently, trying to imagine how the events the old man recounts may have been distorted over time and listening for embellishments and falsehoods in the teller's voice. Yet despite Hrolf's initial suspicions there is nothing in Old Shorj's manner that allows the warrior to sustain them. It is clear the old man tells the truth, at least as he knows it.

To Dori he whispers, "I hear hints of Zorak Zoran in this tale, for he too had undead servants, and he too abused an earth godess. But there is also a resemblance to another corruption, which I will not name but which we have faced twice already. If the old man speaks true, we cannot refuse this task, for Our Lord has marked the way for us. Perhaps, however, we should ask the help of an earth cultist for it appears He was not to proud to do so."

She nods. "I was just thinking that. Kristen? Are you with us on this little trip? Down into some tunnels to rescue Earth from Darkness: ah well, we've done it before, we can do it again. And we're in better company this time."

"I wonder if we're trying to repeat the original defeat of the King, or deal with a new situation? The warning was that he awakens again, so we may well be trying to defeat him again, and by the same methods. But if just the remaining "fragments of people" were enough to make this place cursed, before the dead king started to wake, they may well be a greater threat. And they weren't shown to their proper place by Death, the first time round."

The group of still sleepy uz perk up visibly at the sight of the tunnel knowing there is respite from light and heat inside. They are all carrying a wide assortment of useful tools for underground travel, all familiar equipment to uz even if the design may be strange. They chatter a bit among themselves for a while before their leader turns his attention to the humans.

Absently scratching his neck the Kargani peers into the blackness of the tunnel before turning to speak with Hrolf who seems deep in thought.

"More filth that walks" he says rather jovially considering the circumstances, but then more serious, "I see the Lord's hand in this matter", and nods to the endless expanse of sand. "Why else would we march this fly blown desert."

Aelfwyrd takes a long swig from his canteen before offering it to Hrolf. "These tunnels would make a good hiding for all manner of pre-dark", and eyeing the warrior's neck wound, "I pray a true path has been revealed and that Undeath lies beneath", then slapping him on the back, "for the Legion has a score to settle my friend!"

Hrolf's face darkens in memory. "That we do. But we cannot be sure who we face; there were hints of the Dark Hater in that story, too. In any case, I cannot rest while these enemies of Humakt pollute the earth."

Standing the Far Walker takes up his weapon and shouts across to his students impatiently ,"Come, while there is time I will tell what I know of tunnel fighting", then gesturing over at the Elkozi with a grin "Then a professional will teach you how it's really done"
Both Korol and Yrsga look at the lead plated Uz with a mix of confusion and fear.

As the talk of tunnel fighting tactics draws to a close Aelfwyrd takes his students to one side, the conversation short and to the point.
"We venture into the belly of the beast and will strike down those who would stand against the Lord. Had you stood before the Lord in all his majesty then I would not need to question your hunger for this task. But you are not dead yet and so must have a choice in this matter."

As the old man finishes telling his story, Jamal turns to regard his followers evenly. "This, it seems, is the task that we are to perform to fulfill the debt to the healers and their folk. I will go, and I ask that you would follow, I will not command those unwilling to walk into hell's maw, but I ask for your assistance"

Jamal's followers nod grimly and busy themselves ready their gear. Not one is willing to remain behind.

Hrolf turns to his followers. “I will undertake this task for the Chalanna Arroy healers, for not only is it a bond of Humakt’s sacred friendship with the White Lady, but it concerns the foulest enemy of the Lord of Swords.

“For know that Hasalor’s decline into evil began with a lie. Hasalor knew enemies were coming and he was afraid. We have all felt fear, but he surrendered to it. He tried to deny the fundamental truth that he must one day die. And as he turned away from the truth, he lied to and betrayed the earth that had given him sustenance. Like a broo he raped Eriala, and encited his people to do the same. Later he enslaved his people, and when they displeased him he turned to Ikadz to torment them. But in the end he could not defeat death, because he had abandoned the Truth. His lies had smeared everything in his world together so that everything was tainted by its opposite and his people lived only Unlife. His lies denied the principle of Separation, which is the deep meaning of Death.

“Know that to master Death, a warrior must love Truth and face it, embrace it, even when it brings searing agony or ultimate silence. The sharper the line of Truth, the sharper the warrior’s sword, for Truth emerges from Separation, and Separation is Hu’s word for Death. This is why the sword is Humakt’s preferred weapon. In the blade’s endlessly moving cuts and slices, the line between the false and the true, the dead and the living, is made and remade.

Hrolf suddenly realizes he has diverged on a tangent, and attempts to clarify. “Death is the Separator that cleanses Truth from falsehood. There can be no Truth without Separation, and there can be no Separation without Truth.

“If you go into this tunnel with me, you must be prepared to die. To feel fear is acceptable, but you must embrace it’s icy touch and face your death to defeat the foe we face. If you cannot do this, it is better that you stay here with the healers.” Hrolf looks each of his followers in the eye. “Now. Who is with me?

(Editor's note: that was a series of attempts to get our followers to come with us. Can you tell who was augmenting with Orate, and who wasn't?)

Angus, Blackbeak and Hughie look at each despairingly, then grin and shake their heads. Blackbeak speaks for all of them; "Bothth, we're inspiwed alweady. We'we wawwiowth - you twying to inthult uth? Fer Humakt'th thake, let'th get on with it."
Vernharl is less cocky but equally sure. "I didn't take your token lightly - if I wanted to stay behind with the healers then I never would have followed you," he says. "And in this you serve Life, so how could I refuse to come?"

(Editor's further note: And can you tell who just rolled a critical?)

Hrolf looks at his followers with wonder, starts to reply but then bites his tongue, shaking his head in amused admiration.

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6 - The Gatekeeper

The tunnel mouth is broad and high, and it leads into a dark passage way wide enough for ten men to walk abreast. There is no light. The featureless tunnel slopes gently downward, stretching off into the darkness. From far ahead faint echoes occasionally reverberate, but they are so distant as to be unrecognisable.

Guided by Deathlight, Darksense, and torches, the heroes venture down into the Earth's belly. The walking seems interminable - all sense of time is lost, although the Uz appear to have confidence when they say, "we walk six hours now", or "we rest here more than one hour - we move again now". The others learn to trust these statements as their open-sky references for time no longer exist.

As it becomes clear just how long this tunnel is, Dori calls on the Legion's wyter to turn their Deathlight into full illumination of the darkness by which all can see, and orders the torches dowsed, to be saved for later need. She sends the North Wind ahead of them down the tunnel, for while her control is not yet good enough for the wind to report as accurately as the scouts, it can travel faster and with less danger. A few hours later, she is starting to have personal regrets about this. Keeping magic going for this length of time is new to her, and the concentration required in both "looking" far ahead and keeping track of where she's putting her own feet is tiring. Still, Hereward's blessing will help her keep Hereward's magic going.

By Geran's reckoning the party have been moving for about a day, and have covered over fifteen of the human key-miles, when scouts report a presence ahead. It snuffles in the darkness, a grotesque and monstrous assortment of limbs that sits across the broad div of the tunnel ahead. Despite the scouts' careful attempts to move stealthily the creature apparently sensed their presence, for it began to flail around and cry, "Rooroagh, who there? Who want Good King Hasalar's House, Palace of Plenty, Mansion of Marvels, City of Splendour and Spectacle? I defend it - me! Mighty Rooroagh! And I won't let you past."

Spotting the aberration ahead Aelfwyrd recalls the Ambush at the Weeping Vale when Kargan fought for seven nights and seven days against the Filth That Would Not Die. Mastery alone could not slay the beast, only cleave steaming fillets of flesh from it loathsome body. It was on the last night that Kargan leanrt to become The True Death and with a single blow parted body from spirit dispatching its tainted soul to Hell.

Calling out to the underworld the Far Walker murmurs a fell prayer to his Seven Dragon and with a distant almost whispered dirge its blades blacken with doom laden sheen. Nodding to the gathered Herewardi Aelfwyrd smiles and prepares himself for battle.
Trying to figure out exactly how to engage this strange beast the Far Walker buys a little more time. "Aelfwyrd seeks an audience with the Good King for he carries a message of great importance from the Gods themselves. Stand Aside."

Enfrew stands next to Aelf. "I stand with Aelf, as do the others. I, too, request audience, and we shall pass only together, whether you like or not!"

Dori listens with interest: for a tentacled monstrosity, this thing is unusually well-informed. "We should find out what else it has to tell us, if we can", she comments softly. Then she remembers her earlier difficulties dealing with the White Ladies, and turns to the back of the group. "Hrolf...?"

Hrolf comes rushing forward from the rear of the party, where he and his team had taken rear guard. Seeing Aelfwyrd and Enrew prepare for combat, he hisses in Heortling, "Hold, comrades! In this place of mixed up life and death, a misplaced cut could be as disastrous as cowardice."

"You honour us with a greeting, oh Rooroagh, and we will return you the honour, for in this place truth and honour are precious and - some would say - rare. I am called Hrolf, and my comrades and I are a proud band of warriors who bear death in our hands and truth in our hearts. We seek entry to this domain, Rooroagh, for it seems there are those here who have need of our gifts."

Hrolf pauses, gauging the reaction of the guardian and weighing whether to continue. After a few moments, he sighs. "It is the time for truth, so I will tell you now that we claim entry here in the name of Humakt, Deathbringer and Truthcarver, and also in the name of Ernalda Earth Mother and all her sisters. And finally, in the name of Ernalda's daughter, grim Babeester, the Earth Avenger."

"We ask that you grant us passage, for though we claim the right to walk here, your permission would be a welcome gift. But pray, first tell us why you guard this place and who or what you guard it from, Rooroagh-Who-Honours-Warriors-With-A-Greeting."
Geran stands silently in the shadows and gives Hrolf a bemused look as he reveals who they are. He gestures to his followers who take up position behind him and steps up to Aelf and Hrolf.

"Karrg Elkozi Warlord of the dark places and scourge of the hurtplace, also stands here with his friends. Let him pass."

As Hrolf speaks a shudder runs through Rooroagh's flesh. "Humakt? Ernalda Earth-Woman? Babeester Gor? Noooooo! You must not come here - very bad! Good King Hasalar not in! Very busy! Come back tomorrow! No see Good King Hasalar without an appointment!"

And with that Rooroagh's thirty hands grow razor-sharp claws, his seventeen feet become hooked with talons, and teeth jut from his mouths like swords. Blocking the passageway, limbs outstretched, the monster roars again:

"I am Gate-Keeper! Leave or I call security! Roooooroaaghhhh!"

"Then submit now - or die!! For we are the Truth That Cuts, The Sword That Returns, the Righteous Anger of Avenging Earth!!" Hrolf bellows, as the piercing cold of Hereward's wind billows from his mouth.

Hrolf had a mastery of words rarely found amongst the Humakti but it seemed that even the Hu could not talk this beast around.

Slapping him on the back Aelfwyrd smiles and seems rather pleased at the way this has panned out.

Signalling for the Herewardi to advance the Kargani watches closely as the guardian moves to defend the passageway. Without saying a word he rushes headlong at the beast spinning his draconic blade like some insane whirlwind. Dodging the flailing talons the Far Walker leaps towards the creatures head and calling out to the God drives his dread weapon into one of its unblinking eyes.
Screaming with battle-frenzy Geran rushes forward to join the Kargani in the struggle. He makes little effort to dodge the slapping tentacles of the strange guardian but uses his shield to brush away any that attempt to reach for him. His heavy mace traces a dark arc in the still air and descends with a deceptively soft thud in the flesh of the defender.

Following his kinsman and the Uz, Enfrew rushes into the melee seeking to end the miserable life of obviously mad creature. His sword will deal Death again.

Jamal has listened impassively to Hrolf's ranting and Aelfs threats, and the creature's response.

He glances in Boltar's direction, but his Uroxi follower does not seem to be as vexed as he usually would be if this foe was chaotic.

He draws Bull Spike, calling for strength and protection from his Lord Bisos, he launches to the attack..

With a roar Rooroagh meets the advancing warriors in a blizzard of slashing claws and ravaging fangs - but the centuries have left the monster weak, and he is no match for the battle-hardened swords that come and hew him limb from limb. Moving into the thick of the battle Vastyr swings Bane in sweeping arches, like a dark scythe cutting bitter wheat. He protects the back of his more flashy comrade, those showboating Kargani!, by turning aside the claws with his shield and drawing bubbling blood with his blade. Bane drinks deeply on Rooroagh's thigh. The monster soon begins to despair and, mewling horribly, flees back down the corridor towards the dark depths of King Hasalar's Palace, leaving severed limbs and a trail of bloody ichor behind him. The heroes, once they have recovered their breath, are astonished to find none of the party suffering from anything worse than superficial scratches.

Watching the beast retreat into the darkness the Kargani curses loudly, annoyed that the creature had not been slain outright. Finding himself and his sword kin surprisingly unharmed he motions for the scouts to move out. "Come, let us find this Good King"

Jamal resheaths Bull Spike, checks his followers and makes sure his light source is still plentiful. "Agreed" he rumbles, and starts to trek off down the tunnel

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7 - The Hall

Following Rooroagh's trail down the passageway, the heroes come before long to a mighty double door of gold inlaid with black stone. The doors are slightly open, hanging brokenly on a cracked frame. A fissure runs under the door and someway up the tunnel. It is the work of a few moments to open the doors enough to pass through, step through and begin wandering and wondering.
Beyond the doors lies an immense hall, dimly lit by eerily glowing braziers and tubes of light. The walls are decorated with strange, abstract carvings, and the entire effect is one of an otherworldly, alien beauty. Several passageways lead from this hall, there is no indication where any of them lead.

Soft noises float on the air. There is a musty smell.

Enfrew looks around the hall in awe. "Humakt give us strength! This place is unnatural!"

Malan quickly strides to near the front of the group, he'd been hanging back when the talking with Rooroagh began and was consequently to far away to take part in the fight and doesn't want that to happen again.

The Far Walker is still clearly irritated that the guardian beast evades him still until he finally he notices the immense hall. Staring in awe at the sheer magnificence of his surroundings he is silenced. Eyes wide with wonder at the great broken gates his thoughts eventually return to the matter in hand and he speaks aloud.

"We know that Death travelled with the Earth and that they struck down King Hasalar in his palace."
Upon hearing the Kargani Vern breaks off from examining a nearby carving and repeats Old Shorj's speech at the tunnel entrance word for word:

"Together the Earth Women and Death came to the gates of Bad King Hasalar's palace, and they tore them down. They came to the room where Bad King Hasalar sat, and they judged him, and they took his strength from him, and they scattered his ashes in the Void."

Rubbing his forehead thoughtfully the Far Walker continues "and the Gods have told us that the body of an Old King stirs"
No answer forthcoming he shakes his head; riddles and puzzles was just not his bag. Distracted he looks at the enormity of the hall and recalls his old Humakti master's teaching about the fyrd battle; alarmingly Braggi did not speak about underground fighting in large open spaces.

Shrugging his shoulders he spits.

"The Old King must be down here somewhere. Let's hold in this hall and make good our defences. Once a watch is in place we will form a scouting party and explore the rest of this palace."

As the warriors begin to set camp he gestures at Vern and the other non-combatants. "Those of learning should take a close look at his hall and these carving for such beauty must tell its own tale."

As the last breezes of the North Wind return to her from the corners of this strange place, each bearing their own tale, Dori hears this summary echoing her own thoughts and is rather surprised to find who it is speaking such obvious good sense. "Quite right" she says. "Malan, would you see to the camp, please? Aelf...." she eyes him speculatively, wondering just how far this attack of intelligence can be stretched, "You've obviously got this all planned out. Go ahead and sort out some careful exploration once the camp is in place. The winds tell me there's no immediate danger, but there may be useful information here."

Aelfwyrd nods and walking over to the gathered Herewardi begins discussing scouting tactics and who will form the group.

"Enfrew, do you sense any undead nearby?", Hrolf says.

"I don't think that Undeath would keep something living in its service, like that thing we fought," Efnrew explains, "but you are right, I should always be watchful..."

Enfrew has a premonition of evil, a feeling of things wrong, but one that he cannot place. The feeling is not strong, but nags at the edge of his awareness. "I...I don't really know...there might be something, but maybe I'm wrong. We should be careful nevertheless."
Hrolf catches the expression on Enfrew's face, and frowns. "Looks like there is at least some undeath here, then, but not enough to guide us to its source. What else could we look for? Water, athough I don't know if any of us have the skill to find it. Sorcery, although that is likely all around us. Life? Vern, can your learning aid us here?"

"I hesitate to split our party: the base camp is vulnerable to ambush by a party that knows this place better than we."

Vastyr props his pack against a wall and takes a look around. The halls and caverns are indeed impressive... but more impressive is the fact that the Grim One has already been in this place and brought his Justice to its perverted inhabitants.

Vastyr kneels on the cold floor with Joran at his side and cuts his hand with Bane to bloody the blade. He murmurs a short prayer to the Deathwielder, so that He would guide his warriors in this evil place. They must be ever vigilant against ambushers and other such scum.

Deciding to rest in the entrance hall the heroes busy themselves establishing a camp and exploring their immediate surroundings. Malan oversees this effort - the preparation of a guard roster, organising magical defences, and setting several followers to cooking food.

Some scouting around reveals that the heroes occupy a grand hall with many strange features apart from the bizzare carvings on the wall. Tubes line one of the walls, strange materials embedded in them. A grand table of some unknown metal stands towards the rear, covered in etched runes. Jamal walks with Vern around the hallway, pausing by each of the passageways as if to sample the air, looking for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary. As he does this he regards the strange markings on the walls, discussing them with Vern, trying to acertain a meaning or pattern. Vern is happy to accompany the burly warrior, taking notes on his parchments all the time.

Resting before one particularly random-seeming series of engravings, Vern begins to ask Jamal questions about his opinions of them. The warrior can see no meaning in them, and says so. Vern agrees that the purpose of the patterns is unclear, but that one may see many things in them if one looks at them without searching for meaning. Jamal scratches his head. Vern shows him a special way of looking at the patterns such that Jamal sees without seeing, and understands without thinking. Jamal sees, understands, and is enlightened.

Jamal sits with Dori, after leaving Vern to make sketches of the walls. He seems confused, rather distracted and his head hurts. As he rubs temples he regards his Ten Thane speculatively.

"Well Waleesha, here we are, but we have yet to find this 'King'. Young Aelf seems keen on a scouting expedition, but pehaps Sir Herw'Ard can show is the path to take ?"

Swallowing his last dried date Aelfwyrd calls over to Yrsga and motions for her to begin packing kit ready to move out. Walking over to where Geran and his mob are camped he smiles and greets the hulking Uz warmly, slapping his plated back.

"Scouting duties my friend!" and nodding in the direction of the large rune covered table he grins broadly "Best that we leave these scholars to pour over their puzzles"

Gesturing over at the Herewardi on scouting detail to begin moving out Aelfwyrd takes a swig from his canteen before offering it up to the towering darkman.

Geran grins and accepts the canteen, gulping greedily before he returnsit.

"Perhaps we can find something for the scholars to puzzle over eh?" The uz finishes with his preparations and before he leaves to scout he turns to Dorinda with a respectful look on his face.

"Ten-thane" the word sounds a little strange coming from the darkman," how do we bring back the water? Should we not all search for the cause?"

He pauses for a heartbeat "Shall I ask the Dark?"

Lifting the top of the canteen up to his eye it's soon clear that the darkman has completely drained it once again. Thankful that he had remembered to drink before Geran this time Aelfwyrd chuckles to himself and hooks the empty canteen back onto his kit.
As talk turns to contacting the Gods for aid the Kargani listens closely for such an undertaking was a serious task and not one undertaken lightly in this forsaken place.

He and Geran discuss who should join them on their scouting mission: Hrolf is, as Aelf points out, a cunning scout. But Geran disagrees. Quietly (for a troll): "That duck brain would probably shout something into each tunnel that we're here, giving our names and ancestors to the seventh generation and that we're looking for trouble."

With a snort Aelfwyrd burst out laughing, "You must stop beating around the bush and speak your mind my friend!"

Catching his breath the Kargani eyes the huge Uz thoughtfully and is serious for a moment before speaking his mind.

"We are Humakti. We are the Living Death. Yet we more than War and Death for Hereward himself teaches that Honour Is The Goal."

"Honour is a true path and one well trodden by Hrolf"

Geran looks around to see if Hrolf is nearby: but perhaps fortunately, both he and Blackbeak are out of earshot.

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Hrolf ponders the Legion's next step while he helps Malan and the others set up the camp. How to find this king and the trouble he has stirred up? The underground halls are huge and the Legion could well run out of water and food before finding any enemies - let alone pinning them down on their home ground. It looked as if Halasar had evaded Humakt the first time by hiding himself like a needle in a haystack.

Hrolf searches his memory for answers in the myths of Humakt and teachings of Grimbeak. He had dim memories of a story called Humakt the Inquisitor, or was it Humakt the Justicebringer? But that would not help against an enemy who hid. When Humakt had sought the truth he had found it in battle and conflict, but here there were no enemies to fight - at least none they could find. Should he and his comrades re-enact the Humakt and the Truth myth to gain knowledge of their enemy? Hrolf knotted his brow in contemplation.

Perhaps a clue to the enemy could be found in the matter of his hiding place itself. For what is a hiding place other than a lie? Hrolf remembers an unnamed story of a monster who lived in a maze. The maze confused and misled the monster's prey, for only the monster knew the traps and dead ends it held. But the contortions and blind alleys held an attempt to decieve and distort, and this was like a lie. And further, the lie was made out of fear: fear of facing an enemy directly and honestly. And this of course is exactly what Hasalar had done, for Hasalar was afraid of Death.

And what is Hasalar but the source and prime mover of this lie? Hrolf and the Legion had already made their presence and purpose known; erhaps if they confronted the king's lies and cut the truth out of them, they would find a solution.

Hrolf's brow clears and he stands, then makes his way to the others and Dorinda. "It's all lies!" he says, waving his arm at the surroundings. "We must cut the truth from the lies to find the source of our problem." Then he proceeds to explain his theory.
The Herewardi discuss their options at length and after much debate it is agreed that a full exploration of the Palace is order. As the scouting party moves out every sense, natural or otherwise is bent on revealing the truth that lies hidden. Those most devoted to their god find that calling on his magic is the most natural option, while Yrsga and others with keen vision search the caves physically.
This place is confusing, and, in parts, revolting. Too many distractions, too many partial clues, hiding the truth. Around their camp, the Darkness has been driven back, but elsewhere shadows flicker and strange shapes seem to move. Dori closes her eyes, ignoring the distractions. She needs the truth of what is happening here, not half-guesses and riddles. Just the truth, simple and unadorned, with all irrelevancies cut free. How would Hereward deal with this? Easy.... she's been doing this for most of the last day. Occam's wind. She calls the chill breezes again, sending them searching down the twisting passages of deception, all different and yet in the only ways that matter, all alike. One of them will contain the truth she seeks: that is the only difference that matters here.

Aelfwyrd likewise is using his magic to search the caves. Closing his eyes the Kargani breathes deeply. Softly whispering a prayer to the great Hereward Truewind he reaches out to the Wyter.

Immediately his mind swims with flickering images of warriors and battles from times long gone. Thousands of battle worn of soldiers, fluttering standards and iron shod shields. Armed with courage and honour they march throughout the lands of the world. Battle after battle, wreathed in black, they fight against their enemies. Marching onwards they merge to become one; they are Hereward, they are his Legion, they are his sword, they are unbreakable.

Feeling its familiar icy chill in his bones and the taste of fresh blood in his mouth the Far Walker's prayer is at an end. Calling out he bids the Unbreakable One to scour the hall and reveal its truths.

Malan stares at the strange carvings and uses the ways of the god in an attempt to Know the Truth about this place.

Not really apt in this kind of rituals, Enfrew tries his best to help and not stand in the way of the Herewardi.

Exploring the Outer Palace takes a day. As they pass through the caverns of the outer palace the heroes find find wonders - beautiful buildings, bizarre automata that run out of control and walking machines built by mostali, sections of corridor suddenly vanish, rooms turn themselves inside out. Vern mutters and frets over the map he is making, worried that it has little relation to the continually shifting and changing halls of the palace. One room is filled with ancient documents that Vern excitedly declares will be of great value to any knowledge cultist, and he lets out a crow of delight when he discovers what appears to be a map of the entire palace.

Soon after the heroes begin their exploration, the Dead begin to press in, torn between the frustration of empty rage and their fear of Death's Servants. They probe the heroes' defences, reeling back in howling misery, cowed but not yet willing to give up. They gather courage and skill in their attempts, until several Humakti are forced to attend to the defences rather than to the search. It is clear that danger threatens, and it is with considerable tension that the heroes continue the exploration. Yet despite the haunting of the shattered souls, and the bizzare automata, there is no sign of any other presence. The Palace is empty and dusty, eerie after all the ages. The Humakti begin to realise that their first impressions about this place have been mistaken - the Dead are present, but their power is not as great as might be expected, and the warriors nerves feel edgy, as they often do when Humakt's Truth magic is revealing an unconsidered danger.

Most ways through are barred, and others are rendered impassable by huge fissures that leave gaping spaces through the earth. One way in particular, a large corridor ending in ebony gates, is dread and forbidding. Approaching it fills the marrow with apprehension, and Vern confirms everyone's expectations when he declares it a gate to the Godsworld, impassable without major preparation. Choosing to avoid that until all other options have been exhausted, the heroes head downwards to lower levels of the Outer Palace.
Vern is unsure as to the relation between the map and the current layout of the palace. The fissures are new, for example - they all appear to be the result of the Earth Goddesses' assault, and Kristen confirms this. However, at several points the tunnels appear to relate the map only in very odd way. Vern thinks that the way back may be the same as the way in was, even if you tried to follow it back on the map. He admits to being puzzled.

All the while the mourning sounds of the shattered souls can be heard.

"We've been all over those parts of the Palace we have access to," says Vern, consulting the map. "Apart from the gate to the God World, these lower levels are all that remain to search - but we must hurry!" The sound of roaring water lures the heroes on and, pursued by the hungry Dead, they race towards the noise.

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8 - The Chasm

Their progress is halted by yet another crevasse that cuts in half the hallway. On the other side, water pours through the most part of the hall, plunging into the fissure's depths below. The crack is wide, but just close enough to leap given sufficient strength and courage. A slope in the opposite floor offers to the promise of a dry landing near the raging waters. The only alternative is to fight back through the ranks of the Dead, which have now grown and press in behind the heroes as though they can taste their flesh already.

Looking at the map, the sage says that the tunnel through which the water is racing, on the other side of the fissure, leads down to what appears to be a major waterworks; "the sewages in Notchet, only much, much larger," says Vern. The water does not appear to have been running long. the tunnel floors here are soft rock and earth, and it would surely have eroded the opposite passage by now.

At the rear Blackbeak breaks off from holding the Death Wards and shouts, "Bothth, we can't hold them much longer - they'we pweththing in hard!"

Turning to face the mourning spirits the Kargani reverses his grip on the strange draconic weapon. Beginning to mouth a prayer he presents the Seven Dragon blade with a straight arm to form a makeshift symbol of Death.

"The Lord of Death rebukes you!" and then advancing boldly into the ranks of the Dead "In the name of the Sacred Divider I command thee: Return to the Underworld!"

Canyon behind him, Enfrew turns towards the Undead swarm and stands his ground with his brave comrades.

Their backs to the fissure, the heroes battle the horde of shattered souls with the fortitude of true warriors. At the touch of their blades, at the sound of their sonorous chanting, the ghosts writhe in pain and flee. Yet there are too many of the wraiths, maddened beyond time and reason they clamour for breathing bodies and press in against the defenders. As the cold frost of the ghostly touch chills the heroes blood, their companions begin to waver and fall, wounded, it is clear that the souls cannot be overcome - "We must leap the fissure and trust to Orlanth's favour!" calls Fynn, desperately warding off another shade.

Seeing the waning strength of her troops, Dori nods. "You're half right. Get going, everyone." She can feel their Death magic pushing at the spirits, some more strongly than others. "Malan, Enfrew, get across, then see if you can use your magic from the other side of the fissure. Hold them off us from there."

"Get ready!" The huge uz shouts to the others and taking a step forward, away from the fissure to cover the retreat of the Herewardi calls on the powers of his god. A mighty roar fills the cavern as the group of uz in what must be a practiced move press the lost souls into a momentary confusion as they all bite their foes. The enemy magics falter for a few brief moments as they are swallowed by the hungry darkmen, enough to let the others escape to the fissure.

"Nice work!" Dori calls to him. "See if you can get those ducks across?"

Because of his customary Sartarite magic, Enfrew volunteers to jump first and attach a rope to help the others. He gathers all his courage, calls on his God to help him, and starts his run...

For a moment Malan looks at the dead he is fighting and then the fissure, as though trying to make up his mind. Well, an order is an order. Suddenly he turns and takes a running leap.

Remembering the Cradle, Dori wonders just how many are going to argue this time round.
Turning quickly the Far Walker sprints towards the edge of the fissure and at the very last moment leaps high above the rushing water.

Well, at least Aelf isn't wasting time on useless heroics. In fact, the amount of common sense he's been showing since he was healed is quite startling. Dori makes a mental note to congratulate Korlmar. Then again, maybe he's just growing up.

She turns her attention back to the spirits, the Death rune on her cheek glowing with a black light like that coming from her sword. The spirits cringe from both, but surge back in moments. If there are too many here for the entire troop to hold, her chances of doing so alone are not good. Not for long. Better hope the others don't take too much time escaping. She spares a moment to glance back over her shoulder. Only three gone? "Go on, that's an order! Move! Now!"

As the Legion prepares to cross the chasm, Hrolf turns to face the shattered souls, drawing his twin blades and snarling the undead-fighting chant. The ghosts have been harrying him and his troops for hours, and he is tired and irritated. He has no soothing words of the peace found in true death for them: only challenges and insults. To his surprise, he does not feel the usual diamond-sharp clarity of the chant’s magic rise within him; instead, there is only emptiness … and a sliver of cold that he recognizes now as a scar from Vivamort’s touch. Shocked and surprised, Hrolf hesitates in his attack on the ghosts and is driven back to the chasm before he can recollect himself.

It is a great distance to leap and the heroes clatter against the far side of the fissure, their legs dangling over the chasm. Thankfully no-one is lost to the fall, but everyone is hurt and several of the heroes' followers appear to have broken ribs from the impact. Many are only saved by Malan aiding them in landing safely.

As soon as Enfrew reaches the other side, he prays to Humakt to aid him and throws his spears infused with True Death at the Undead across, driving them back for long enough that the last few warriors, and finally Dori, can make their leaps.
Beside them, the great torrent of water cascades into the depths below. Before them lies a tunnel from which comes a deep, rumbling sound.

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9 - The Pump Room and an old friend

Slowly the heroes collect themselves after their great leap. The chamber they find themselves in is half flooded with torrential waters that sweep into the depths below. Making progress through some of the passageways is obviously impossible, but others appear dry.
Vern consults his beloved map and decides that the heroes are not far from two places that might be worth investigating. The first appears to be a large hall Vern describes as a 'pump room', whatever that might be - the scholar explains that it has to do with pumping water.

The second room's function is unclear, but on the map it is marked in different colours and many areas - including Vern's pump room - appear to be directly connected to it.

The Pump Room seems to be the place to investigate first, and fortunately the undead do not seem inclined to follow the group across the chasm.

The heroes trace the route Vern has laid out on his map. There are a few obstacles, such as when they have to find another way around a flooded passageway, but these are easily overcome. It is not long before they find themselves at a threshold to the Pump Room.

This is a large place with a high vaulted ceiling, filled with arcane and sorcerous instruments - tanks, pipes, large cylinders that rise to the roof, and dials. The room is half flooded with water which rages around and flees down several corridors that lead elsewhere in the lower palace. From their vantage point the warriors can see a mighty fountain in the room's centre, a-midst whose tumult chips of rock rebound like hail. The fountain's roar and spray fills the room, soaking the heroes and forcing them to shout in order to be heard. Evidently this is the source of the mighty river which now flows through the lower caverns of King Hasalar's fantastic palace.
As they watch, aghast, a familiar, otherworldly voice fills the hall, a voice pounding with the fountain's force.

"Friends, you keep your good vow
Come to free me.

"Freedom flows close
After five thousand years;
Thraldom is a bitter spring-well.

"I hold no grudges,
Only wish to join
My cousins of distant memory;
Kor Ajin and Zola Fel.

"Sunder the seals that bind me
To these forgotten tunnels,
I will reach my proper place,
And a final rest.

"Sunder the seals that bind me
And I will show you true friendship."

"Free on three sides,
yet bound on the fourth.
For the Hero that will finally free me,
I vow friendship, power and gratitude."

"Greetings Elmeh Saif," says Hrolf. "Surely we will keep our vow to you, though it may not be in our power to free you this day," he continues, looking doubtfully at the unholy equipment surrounding him."Can you help us find what binds you here?"

To his comrades, Hrolf comments, "How sad, yet how fitting, that our task for the Chalana Arroy priestesses should bring them dehyration and death. Truly the path our Our Lord is full of unexpected truths. ... Although ... it may be possible to convince Elmeh Saif to provide for Horn Gate in some way. Perhaps we can persuade," here Hrolf fingers his sword hilt, "whatever it is that stirs here to free our river friend - or perhaps it would be better to attempt to free the waters first before challenging the evil that no doubt lurks beyond this hall."

Jamal joins in the greeting of an old friend. "Again, well met Elmeh Saif, we owe you a debt as without your aid we would have surely fallen to the follower of the Wounded God from my homeland. Alas Sir Herric, the worthy who partially freed you has since fallen, we still mourn his loss."

He turns to the rest of the Legion. "It would seem that we are on the sword's edge, a conflicting debt of honour, do we aid Elmeh Saif who has aided us in the past and to whom we have made a binding promise, or do we aid the White Ladies, who have cured our comrades and to whom we have also made a binding promise ?"

Jamal shakes his head. "I must admit to being torn, and would need some of Idovanus' divine light to be shed on this situation..."

"Waleesha" he calls to Dori, "It seems to me that if we are to free Elmeh Saif without destroying the community that has served our compatriots so well, that we will need to convince him to allow at least some of flow to service the needs of the community here"

"He will be reluctant, after being bound here so long, and I don't want to put conditions on his freedom, but perhaps he could be persuaded. My companion Elnor has a sweet tongue, which may help in this. Or perhaps our good relations with his brother, Zola Fel, may help us"

Geran looks in awe and wonder at the strange room, and mutters curses about mostali. When the voice speaks he ignores it and turns to Dorinda.

"Do not listen to slaves, mother. Your duty is to your own, the healers, the sick and wounded, the people at the oasis, not some old enslaved water spirit. Will you let them die of thirst, let them see their food wither under the Evil Emperor's unmerciful glare. We must return the water to its proper course."

"The proper course for the water is wherever the water chooses to flow, Geran. As Hrolf says, we have met Elmeh Saif before. He aided us then, and we promised to free him in return. We succeeded in part, and it seems that in doing so, we unwittingly caused the drying of the wells in Horn Gate. We have promised to free him completely should we be able to do so, but where he chooses to flow after that is up to him."

She turns to address the fountain. "Elmeh Saif, it is good to meet you again. We will indeed free you completely if we can find the means to do so, as we promised.

"But we have discovered since that the tunnels to which you were bound are not as forgotten as you had thought. It seems that you have been giving life to an oasis, known as Horn Gate, where dwell a group of Healers. They aid many, including ourselves, and our purpose in coming down here was to find out why their wells were drying up. If they dry completely, the Healers will die, or have to move to distant lands, leaving the folk of the plains without healing.

"We had hoped to restore the previous supply of water to Horn Gate: but it seems that this is not to be. I would not re-bind you into thralldom even if I could. Where you choose to flow after we free you is of course up to you, but it would be sad if such good people should die as a result of your freedom. Still, the choice is not mine to make. I can only give you the information, and leave the rest to your honour."

Elnor joins in with Dorinda's speech "We would not want to but we would ask you to consider the effects on the innocent dweller of Horn Gate, surely the return of Elmeh Saif should be rejoiced as the bringing of life, rather that cursed as the cause of suffering and death"

Jamal concurs, "I was taught that with freedom comes balanced, as at the sword's edge, with responsibility, we ask as friends and comrades that you excercise your freedom wisely"

Hrolf nods respectfully but emphatically as Dorinda speaks. "It is as our Tenthane says. We take responsibility for our actions, and humbly ask for your help. Though death will anyway one day come to those who have drunk from you at Horn Gate, it is better that they live. They have a chance at redemption now, for they will learn they accepted life from a great river god, but did not thank him or recognize him. Give them a chance to prove their honour. Among them you may find much gratitude for your generosity, and still join your kin in the end."

The Far Walker listens thoughtfully before speaking aloud to the godling, his voice all of a sudden clear and commanding. "Know this Elmeh Saif. It is only by the grace of the White Women of Horn Gate that we stand before you. It is by their insight that we venture deep within the earth to find you here. By sundering your bonds we honour our debt to you and in return ask the Water Sword to heed our call; nourish Horn Gate once you are freed."

Kristen stares at Dori as if she can't believe what she's hearing. "You're not really going to leave all those women: priestesses, too! to die, just because you gave your word to some male? Leave him bound, best place for any of them."

Dori half-smiles at the predictability of the response, but it's strained. "I don't have to like it. But yes, that's what I gave my word to do, so that's what I'm doing. And if you're going to class our friend here as male, I suggest you think very carefully about just how you'd apply your usual methods. Water isn't as simple as that, you know."

"Those White Ladies were stuck-up bitches anyway", Elendala remarks. "But I thought Brenna was a friend of yours?"

"She was," Dori says quietly. "She still is. And you're right about some of those... ladies. But that's just my personal feelings. I can't let that be relevant, either way."

Elendala regards her thoughtfully: once again, Dori has the uneasy feeling that she's being judged against some unknown standard.
"Is there anything or anyone you wouldn't sacrifice in order to keep your word?"

"No, of course.... yes. Come to think of it, yes." Dori's expression clears as she realises a truth behind all of this. "If I bind others, deprive them of their freedom, in order to help me with my responsibilities to people in my care, then how am I different from King Hasalar? That's what he did. And we know what Humakt thought of that. That's what the Lunars do, they even say it's for the good of the people they're binding. And we know what we all think of that. No. No thralldom. I'd be freeing Elmeh Saif even if I hadn't given my word to do so."

She considers the question again, trying to get to the heart of it. "I think I'd sacrifice anything that's mine to give. But not things that I don't have a right to. I'm not going to break my word, not ever. But sometimes I have to keep it the hard way. Like this. I'll pay back the White Ladies, somehow. But not with someone else's freedom. We'll just have to find another way."
After the merry chase that the lost souls gave, Vastyr has kept his blade ready. There is no obvious threat here, but he still stands ready. Although he wasn't with the Ten when they encountered Elmeh Saif the first time, but he is with them now and he feels that there is only one thing they must do...

"Ten-thane," he says moving to Dori's side, "we have given our word to this water daimon to set him free, so that we must do. Justice and Honour demand that this slavery must end. But we must also find a way to help the healers for we have given our word to them also. I do not know how we can convince Elmeh Saif here to keep the waters of Horn Gate flowing, but I can help with cutting these unholy bounds that imprison him."

The scarred warrior lifts his sword for all to see, "This is Slithering Bane, and during our quest on the Giant's Cradle it was revealed to me that it was crafted to combat enemy magicians. I believe it could find and cut these enchantments and give freedom to our friend."

Jamal continues to talk with Dori and the others (quietly) over the Legion's options.

"Waleesha, if we are convince Elmeh Saif to continue to supply then we may need more than mundane means to convince him. My Lord Bisos, when he defeated the King of the Blue People of Orinin may have used some of his strength to redirect an channel to the river to the service of his people. But that would be to rebind, and would be a dishonourable breach of our oath. Does the teaching of Sir Hum'Akt give us guidance on this..."

"Humakt always gives guidance," says Dori with conviction. "It's just that recognising it can be difficult... there's something, I'm sure there's something I should be remembering. Rivers..."

She frowns, trying to brng back an elusive memory. "Rivers.... underground rivers.... the Styx? Ah, yes, that's it. I think so,anyway...".

She turns to the others as well as Jamal, her voice probably only audible to the Legion over the thunder of the water. "Do you remember the tale of Humakt's Oath? How he sought all the parts of Death that he could find, and finally came to take the last part from the River Styx?

"We, too, seek to convince a river to give up an aspect of Death: that of death by drought. Not that I think we would wish to use such a power ourselves, but we would wish it to be in safe hands: the same reason, by that point in the tale, that Humakt had for seeking Death.

"Humakt had to convince the Styx, not that he could overpower her, but that he was sufficiently honourable to be trusted with the power of Death. He did this, and she gave him Death, a hall, and friendship. And he learned from Styx that Severance and Binding are two faces of the same mystery.

"That's a mystery still to me, I'm afraid. But the rest seems to fit quite nicely, I think?"

"Hrolf, you're good at theology: any ideas?"

"Yes, our ancient bonds with the river tribe do seem important here" Hrolf replies, looking thoughtfully at Dorinda. "And Elmeh Saif has already said he agrees to be bound to us, if only in friendship, if we sever his sorcerous shackles. A new and deeper bond with him would be an honourable thing."

"I think however that our healer friends and that oasis folk rabble must also prove their honour and earn Elmeh Saif's friendship. To be sure, we owe the healers a debt - but Elmeh Saif does not. It may even be that THEY owe HIM. And anyway, a new relationship would be stronger if all parties are committed and contributing. This is the law of the sword: hilt and guard must be strong for the blade to be wielded effectively."

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10 - Examining the trap

Around a short length of corridor from the flooded chamber lies a smaller room, filled with bizzare and strange equipment. Tubes and cylinders cover the walls, attached to which are wheels and levers. To one side are a number of large, obviously enchanted, multi-coloured discs. The red colours on several of these discs pulsate, whilst the other hues lie dormant. By contrast, three other discs are lit by a warm green light.

A harsh, shrill sound fills the room when the heroes enter. It is perhaps some defensive magic, for it sets the heroes teeth on edge and sends shivers up their spines, but otherwise it has no effect.

Malan looks at the pulsating red discs and asks "Lunar magic?"

Vern nods hesitantly. "I am reminded of the sorcery that bound Elmeh Saif when we first found him, buried under Caravan Alley. Do you recall how Herric severed the strange talismans and thus freed the godling?"

Yes, there were strange shapes, forged in metal, similar to those seen here. Wheels with teeth, levers and strange devices. Evil magic.

"I know little enough of the God Learners, but it seems that this work must surely date from before their time - before Time even, if Old Shorj is to be believed. Might not this be Dwarven work? That old-timer told us the Bad King used the Mostali to create his pleasure palace, and this looks similar to Dwarven craftsmanship we have seen elsewhere - the evil weapons we encountered on the Cradle, for example. Does this not seem reasonable to you, Jamal?"

Jamal looks at the metal structures with a new appreciation.

"Mmm" he mutters "not vile god-learner thing then, but a product of the clay men, this becomes more of a challenge"

The in a louder more resolute voice "Vern, Malan, let us get more of an appreciation of this thing."

He wanders over to the tangles web of metal and start to inspect its workings.

"Great Herw'Ard of the True Wind," he calls " true servant of the divine Idovanus, breath me the truth the functioning of these things"

Saying this Jamal steps forward and peers into the complicated tangle of metal and flashing lights. His initial look of enthusiasm quickly fades into deep thought, then frustration then complete despair, before he turns to the Grey Sage at his side.

"Perhaps, friend Vern, this is better suited to your experience" he mutters somewhat ashen-faced "I'll help in any way you tell me...."
Vern nods happily and takes a deep breath. "Right, Malan - it would help if you could trace the source of that pipe there, yes, the one that flows into the big red dial. Jamal, you try to trace the pipe that flows next to it. When you've done that we'll try the other pipes. I'll draw everything out on my map, and we'll see if we can't make sense of the layout of the thing first."

The pipes are laid out in a winding, intersecting mass that is very difficult to follow. It takes every dram of concentration for the heroes to follow Vern's instructions, but eventually he is happy that all the obvious machinery has been accounted for. After an extended period of gnawing his stylus, the sage is ready with his pronouncement.

"Most of the pipes flow into the room in which our comrades are talking to Elmeh Saif. It would seem that they somehow control the flow of his waters, and the machinery in this room may even be the focus of the sorcery binding him. This is borne out by the flashing red lights - obviously a danger sign, as every knows that red is the colour of wrongness, such as the evil Rufelza - that connect to the largest of these pipes.

"So, if we wish to free the water godling, this is the sorcery we must sever. If we wish to bind him, this is what we must somehow repair. It will be a difficult, and lengthy task I fear, and destruction will be easier than repair. It may be that the magical rites, such as the WaveKiller that Aelfwyrd speaks of, would repair the machinery, but I know not."

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11 - Convincing the godling

As the Humakti bicker with the enslaved water godling, Geran stands silently pretending to guard the entrance. His body language is clear to anyone who knows him however, his feelings are obvious. Disgust. The wonder of the place cannot drive away his impatience with his companions and their indecisions, their weakness in dealing with this situation.

His broad back is a testament to his unwillingness to be drawn into this nonsense.

The godling is turbulent in his excitement. "After thousands of years I can taste freedom in my waters. A river without its bed is as a human without legs, I long to return to it. It is far away, these were never my shallows."

"Would you not consider staying, at least enough to give life to the healers?" Dori asks. "You would be free to flow elsewhere as well, after all: we would ask only that you pass through their oasis."

"Do you not hear my words, walking people? At last my chains wear thin, I can taste freedom, and you would bind me here with oaths and promises? I thought you my friends! Do you not understand my desire to return to my proper place? Foolish are mortals indeed. So long has passed I had forgotten your obtuseness!"

"Shame on you! You scold us for trying to help those people! At least show some respect and give us polite refusal!" It seems as if an aura of Honour spreads around Enfrew as he tries to force the godling to face its error.

There is a hushed silence as those present wait for the godling's anger to rebound on this impetuous mortal, yet the reply, when it comes is surprisingly mild. "You care for your own kind, warrior, and that is as it should be. But why should I care for the fates of these, the descendants of those who have profited from my enslavement? Mortals die, and that is the way of it. You of all should know that."

"Do you suppose any of your younger and lesser cousins might be willing to stay here and keep the healers of the oasis alive, if you were to ask them? Surely they would listen to so great a river," suggests Dorinda.

There is a slow silence from the river godling. "And why should I ask one of my brethren to take up such chains on my behalf? I have not lingered, bound, for millenia to easily thrust such a fate upon another of my own kin."

Geran snorts in derision.

"Oh, I wasn't thinking of chaining anyone," Dorinda says mildly. "Merely of a useful opportunity for one of your relatives to form an mutually beneficial agreement with the people of Horn Gate. In Sun County, for instance, the people have such an agreement with a daughter of Zola Fel. They give her their love, protection, and any assistance she cares to ask for, and in return she waters their fields. If any of your relatives would like the benefits of such an arrangement, the opportunity is there for them. And if not, the healers of Horn Gate will die: but as you say, this is something that happens."

Enfrew makes a grimace at the mention of Sun County and stands aside. His interference with Dori's explanation about the customs of her former people would probably hurt more than help.

Aelfwyrd's expression sours as the Godling stubbornly refuses to listen to reason. The Kargani gestures with a nod of his head that he wants to speak the Company away from Elmeh Saif. Once they are away from earshot he flushes with anger

"We offer our honour and ask for aid yet we are treated like lowly stick pickers. Elmeh Saif will have his freedom and Horn Gate will have its nourishment, the WaveKiller ritual will put an end to this matter once and for all"

The Far Walker looks expectantly from his Ten Thane to the rest of the Herewardi.

"It's an idea," Dori says slowly. "But I don't see how that leaves Elmeh Saif free. Free from his old bonds, yet re-bound by us, surely? And that would break our promise to him in spirit if not in words. Or did you mean something else?

"And remember, Aelf, compared with him, we are lowly stickpickers. If he's the brother of Zola Fel, he's a god. Not as great as our own Lord, but a god none the less. He's worthy of respect: and I doubt if the Wavekiller rite would be as easy as you seem to hope."

As Aelf speaks, Hrolf's eyes go wide and he turns to face the Farwalker. But before he can voice his disapproval, the Tenthane intervenes. Hrolf nods his head at her wise words.

The Far Walker listens closely to the words of his Ten Thane. "As the Lord struck down the Sea Tribe so we will bring Elmeh Saif low. With the WaveKiller upon him he will be forced into submission. Then we will agree what is to be done for Horn Gate and he will know his freedom"

"You speak the truth that Elmeh Saif is powerful but he is already bound and such bondage makes him weak. With our Company of Swords the WaveKiller will have potency enough to break him"

"I say again, our cause is just and within his power to grant. Would he honour our call I would ensure his freedom today. Yet as he refuses Horn Gate suffers."

Vastyr looks from Aelf to Dorinda with open disbelief on his face. How can this be!?

"Swordkin, I will have no part in this. By our word the Legion has vowed to liberate Elmef Saif. Not blackmail him for concessions. Not re-bind him with new promises. Certainly not subject him to a fatal ritual! I call this plan madness and will have nothing to do with it!"

He turns to address Aelf: "Brother, were you not a prisoner of your enemy, and gained your freedom?"

Then to Dorinda: "Thane, I am not a man of many words or kennings, but this I know: If Horn Gate dies, then it dies. I will do all that I can to prevent that. But this," salutes Dorinda with Slithering Bane, "is all I can."

With a shove he sheaths Bane and turns his back on Aelf.

Staring at his sword brother's back for a moment the Far Walker moves around the Hu to continue the conversation.

"You have the truth of it Vastyr for I was a prisoner, held within the great Arena at Furthest. I fought, spilling blood of good men, to entertain those who bow before the Sky Cancer. But it was the Exiles that that made good my escape and once rested within their camp I oathed to honour their call to stand against the moon. You are right, I would not wish such bondage upon any man"
Then gesturing towards the bound Godling. "This too is a matter of honour; for we must make good our word and release Elmeh Saif yet are treated like some mewling infants when asking for aid in return."

"The White Healers lifted the pre-dark curse inflicted upon me and I for one will make good on our word to nourish Horn Gate. If this means forcing Elmeh Saif to see reason then so be it!"

For a moment Vastyr regards his companion in silence. Then: "You made your oath of your own will as a free man . I wonder if you would have made the same oath had they placed a collar of slavery upon you."

Vastyr places his hand on Aelf's shoulder: "Brother, this is indeed a matter of honour for us. But you are letting his words incite anger within you, and that anger will lead you down the dark path. Your honour, like mine, rests in your sword hand, your word, and with the Grim Lord. It is not in Elmef Saif's words or in his actions. To me they are like mumble in the wind."

Vastyr moves his hand and puts it over Aelf's heart: "Honour is not something that others can give or take away. It is something yours and defined by your actions alone."

Dori nods approvingly. "You speak well, Vastyr. Honour demands that we keep our promises: all of them. We promised to attempt to free Elmef Saif, and we will do so. It would be pleasant if he would aid us in keeping our other promise, that we would seek the cause of the trouble afflicting Horn Gate and aid them as we can, but if he will not: well, life is full of setbacks. We do not have a right to demand more aid of him than he has already given, and allowing our disappointment to control our honour would be the act of children, not warriors."

His eyes flaring with anger the Far Walker drives his glittering trident-cum-sword into the dirt. Looking from face to face it seems that his companions are of a different mind. Turning to Vastyr and Dori his expression hardens.
"I hear truth in your words but I know my mind. I will honour those deserving" and pointed a gloved fist at the next other room "and no others"

Spitting impetuously on the floor the Kargani takes up his weapon and stalks off towards Elmeh Saif.

"Let us free this Water Sword and then act quickly for we must aid the White Women before they perish"
Vastyr almost yells "are we not deserving?" after Aelf, but shuts his mouth at the last moment. Words are meaningless. At least when no one is willing to listen. There is no need to give Aelf more to be angry about.

Jamal walks in to the room from the Pump Room with Malan, leaving Vern to finish his map, just as the argument between Vastyr and Aelf reaches its crescendo.

"What is this fighting amongst ourselves again? Is there no discipline here?"

"I take it that Elmeh Saif will not be persuaded", says looking at Dorinda.

She nods.

"Then", Jamal states flatly, "we free him"

"You have found the enchantment in the other room?" Vastyr asks equally flatly...

Jamal watches Aelf display with the resigned look of a parent who has seen it all before but doesn't have the inclination to go over the same ground again. A minor flicker of annoyance occurs when Vastyr speaks, almost as if he finds it uncomfortable agreeing with him. Still this is but a momentary phase, which an outsider may see as being part of his western strangeness.

"Well, of course we're going to free him!" Dori sounds slightly surprised at the idea that she might do anything else. "We're just going to talk to him first: or rather, while we look at those bindings. He may well have some good ideas on some other river that can help Horn Gate to their mutual benefit, and we might as well talk about that as anything else while we sort out how we're going to deal with all that sorcerous mess in there. It'll be quite hard to discuss anything with him after he's already flowed away, after all, and this isn't going to slow anything down."

Then she follows Aelf, and motions him away from the river god's fountain again. "Aelf, think through the consequences." Dori sounds tired: she's said this many times before to him, usually when discussing tactics beyond "charge!".

"Truly, we all want to save Horn Gate. But would binding Elmeh Saif do that? Think of the consequences. A powerful and resentful river, bound in part by the remains of sorcerous workings and in part by our own rituals, as the only source of water for the oasis? Think what harm he could do, and no doubt would do, if any part of those bonds failed to contain him utterly. Poisoned water? A sudden flood? Either would be trivial for him, and he would feel himself justified in using any such means to take revenge. No, that is no solution.

"Also, think of what the Healers would truly want. They take vows never to injure another being: they would willingly give their lives rather than do so. Yet you would save them by doing harm on their behalf. Would they want that? Their honour has to be considered here, as well as our own."

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12 - Severing the bonds

Gathering round in the room of pipes, the heroes prepare to fulfil their oaths of friendship by freeing the river godling.
Jamal, Vern and Malan return, looking over Vern's shoulder at the complicated 'map' of the various pipes and flashing lights.

"Friend Vern here " Jamal announces, "has mapped out the layout of the dwarven magic which confines Elmeh Saif, this is what we must shatter to free the godling"

"Vern", he says "show us how you think we may break this thing"

Vern sucks in his breath and regards his map and diagrammes. They are covered in obscure symbols connected by drawn lines. Each of the symbols appears to represent a different function of some part of the sorcerous machinery, and there are lots of one kind of symbol in particular. It looks like this: '?'.

"Hmmm," says Vern. "Well, the simple answer would be to smash it all up, but I think to be truly confident it will free our friend Elmeh Saif, a ritual of separation might prove beneficial."

"I have an idea," Hrolf says. "If this sorcery is a kind of life or process, then Enfrew's Death may be brought to bear on it. If it is a binding, then Separation will cut it. But if we do this, let us first see if we can discern the fatal flaw in the sorcery."

"And a ritual would help", Dorinda agrees. "We were told the tale of how Humakt and the earth goddesses originally freed the slaves, perhaps we could base something on that. But mainly, as Vern says, we will have to destroy this machinery. Hitting things with swords is a valid answer for Humakti after all, we don't have to get too clever."

"Vastyr, if you're going to be using Bane to break up all this metal and sorcery, we'd better ask the wyter to strengthen it. You haven't been with us long - were you shown how to call it up, or do you want me to lead?"

"I've been briefly instructed, but this is too important a mission to do half-heartedly." He presents Bane to her.

She pauses before starting the magic going. "Were you ever told why it's so good at making swords unbreakable?"

"They did not."

"No matter. You don't need to know why to use it. Imagine Hereward's Sword as you last saw it. Think of the essence of what makes it a sword." She holds her hands out as if gripping an invisible hilt. "Then call it to you." A black shadow of a sword starts to flicker between her hands, and Vastyr feels the pressure of another plane building as something immeasurably ancient starts to take form. Her grip closes over his, as if guiding his hands on a practice blade, and the flickering black light sinks into Bane and surrounds it. The presence is in his hands now, enigmatic and protective.

"Feel it, get to know it. Then you'll be able to call it up yourself."

He reaches out to it with his mind, testing just what has been added to the sword he has carried for so long, that can make even that ancient blade seem young and fragile. "It's not iron." He looks to her, doubtfully, for confirmation of that initial insight.

"No, it's not. It's older than that."

"The original Death in Darkness... Thank you, Thane."

She glances around at the non-Herewardi who surround them. "That's enough secrets for one day, let's get on with this."

Others come forward to add their magics to the sword, Aelf first. Slicing the plam of his weapon hand the Far Walker begins to murmur a dark prayer. Blood flowing freely he caresses Slithering Bane drawing forth the Death encased within. Vastyr cradles his sword and croons to it gently, summoning the magic cleaving power for which it is famed.

Beside him Aelfwyrd and Enfrew hold their own weapons, ready to wield them against the lifeless, sorcerous machines that bind Elmeh Saif. Malan and Dorinda stand ready to support their comrades with their own magics, and Dorinda softly recites the stages of the myth, reminding them of their purpose here.

"Together the Earth Women and Death came to the gates of Bad King Hasalar's palace, and they tore them down. They came to the room where Bad King Hasalar sat, and they judged him."

Jamal and Hrolf stand forward, for they have taken the responsibility of pleading for judgement in this case. Hrolf plants his sword in the ground, and asks Humakt and Hereward to weigh the Truth of the matter at hand. There is one, he says, who has been chained and fettered and imprisoned away from his rightful place. There is one who has been captive since before Time began. His jailer is gone, scattered in the Void through the Gods' own judgement - should not Elmeh Saif go free?

Jamal now speaks. Was not King Hasalar called Bad King Hasalar? Did he not defy Humakt's will? Did he not rape the Earth, chain the stars and air and dead, as he also chained Elmeh Saif? Should the River God not go free as did Hasalar's other captives?

Ritually the pleaders lay out the case against Bad King Hasalar, and as they reach their climax both ask Hereward, "Do we not speak Truth?". And they ask Humakt, "Should we not bring justice?"

Hrolf's sword stays fixed in the ground, point down, and glows only black in response. The God has spoken. The Truth stands as it has been planted. This is His will.

There is an awed silence as their actions are confirmed, then Dori continues. "And they took his strength from him, and they scattered his ashes in the Void. The Earth Women released Eriala and took her up to into their bosom."

As the augury is received the heroes take their swords to the enchantments of Bad King Hasalar. Every pipe is split, every dial is smashed, every seal is sundered. With great blows the warriors destroy the room, all the while chanting words of Power that sever the seals binding Elmeh Saif to his gaol. Kristen, terrifying in her appearance as the vengeful Earth Goddess, rents and tears at the room's magics with her axe. With one last blow she shatters a complex device that flies apart, scattering sparks.

The lights in the machines die. For a moment all is still. There is only one final action left to take. Her voice shaking slightly, Dori repeats the final line. "Death gathered the whole souls that were left and showed them the proper place to be."
Vastyr rests Slithering Bane and calls out. "Godling, Lord Elmeh Saif. Your chains are shattered, the seals are sundered. Take my hand, for through Death you have found your final rest."

There is a terrible roar. The air in the room becomes thick. Ears become clogged and painful, breathing is hard and heavy, and in this thickness the roar increases in volume and scope until it seems the world itself is shaking.

There is a voice, terrible and deep and dark. It says, "I am coming, friends, I shall take your hands."

Water explodes into the room, carrying the heroes down passageways and tunnels with its sheer exuberant force. Debris and rocks bound along in the tumult, yet to the warriors it seems the current is holding them true and safe, clutching them close to its bosom. Hard and fast the waters run through caverns measureless to man, never slowing, never ceasing, until at last a dark, lonely chasm rears before it, the chasm where not long before these same heroes had held off the dead.

And now they fall.

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