Tsssschk.

Tsssschk.

Tsssschk.

Canloe Nusback carefully sanded the ledger page before permitting the curse that had been building for the last half hour to pass his lips. He'd tried so hard ... the first form broken up into small parties with the recruits from the Temple and sent off to supress the goblins camping along the Great South Trail and Port Road, the second form eigther off on Adolar's punitive expedition into the Clan Crushbone holdings, or escorting the latest shipment of ingot steel to Ak'Anon ... even the third form had been sent off to Shadowhaven on a diplomatic excercise. He should have had the entire guildhall, if not the Second Chamber of Kaladim, to himself and his long-overdue bookeeping. Instead ...

Curiosity finally getting the better of him, he closed his ledgers and set off to find out what that most irritating noise was. In the largely unused banquet hall, under Handaaf Orcslicer's mildly curious eyes, sat an unfamiliar red-bearded dwarf, honing a well-used axe. His ice-blue eyes stared off into the distance, and his jaw was hard-set ... his entire demeanor was that of a fellow at the very end of his rope, and deeply upset about it.

Canloe considered going and asking the worn fellow what had so disturbed him, but a warrior either learns when not to push, or learns to push mushrooms up from beneath. Nusback was an old campaigner indeed, and intended to get older. Catching Handaaf's eye, he indicated the seated fighter in a bid for information, and the old merchant beckoned him over.

"He wandered in last night, tossed his duffle into the bunkroom, and then wandered over to Darkfoam's Pub Kal. Emptied a goodly part of Hanamaf's latest brew into his gullet," Handaaf said with a wry grin. "Ne'er said a word t'entire night, 'cept "Top it up" ... don't rightly know where he put it all." He shook his head in minor awe.

Canloe looked over at the object of their discussion. He'd seen that cast of feature before, but where ... "Any idea who he is?" he asked. "Marte's boy, the one she had with that feller who moved up from Thurgadim a ways back ... Askaniisen, I think his clan-name is ... can't rightly remember his given name," Handaaf said, scratching his beard.

"Neihaera." The voice was as cold as the glaciers of the Velious wastes, about as welcoming, and the eyes never flinched.

The two guildsbrothers waited for the redbeard to elaborate, but the only further activity was the steady rasp of the hone. Canloe lowered his voice even further, and asked Handaaf how long this had been going on before he'd come out to investigate. "Let me put it this way," the merchant whispered, "If that axe gets any sharper, lookin' at it's gonna draw blood."

Out of the corner of his eyes, the flash of Bardic Guild blue caught his attention. The half-elf maid paced into the banquet hall with a worried expression on her face. Spying the battle-hardened dwarf at the table, she visibly steeled herself and approached, while Canloe winced and prepared himself for a scene ... icy eyes or no, if this Neihaera character thought he was going to get away with brutalizing a halfie in the Stormguard guildhall, he had another think coming.

"Master Askaniisen?" the bard asked, with a tremula in her voice. The redbeard cocked his head and peered up at her through his eyebrows. When no further action seemed to be in the offing, he exerted himself with a querelous "Aye" and a nod, to comfirm the identification. The young bard reached into her mailbag and pulled out a small package. "This was entrusted to the guild in Highhold Keep, with instructions to deliver it to you, here in Kaladim ... postage fees have been paid in advance."

"But a gratuity wouldnae be unwelcome, would it, m'dear?" Neihaera handed her several gold pence as he received the heavily creased parchement envelope. The messenger brightened considerably and offered a small bow in thanks. "Package recieved in good order, young postmistress," he continued. "Brell's blessings be upon you" the redbeard offered the fleeing bard, as he turned to his mail. Despite the kindness in his voice as he'd addressed the young half-elf, Canloe could see the veteran's already bleak mood darken as he considered the small parchement-wrapped package. What could cause such a wee thing to wiegh so heavily on such capable shoulders, Canloe wondered.

For several moments, the rough-hewn warrior glared down at the envelope where it rested on the hall table. When he finally slashed it open with his thumbnail, the other two dwarves craned their necks attempting to see what it had concealed. All they could see was a scrap of wine-red silk with a brocade crest, a silver ring set with a glowing sapphire, and a note. His jaw rippled visibly as he scanned the cursive script ... it was a short note, but even so, his attention was locked for several minutes. He swept up the crest and the ring, wrapped the one in the other, and pocketed them in his cloak as he stumped out of the guildhall, grabbing his leather duffle without breaking stride. The hone lay abandoned on the table ... along with the note. Canloe and Handaaf restrained themselves for a moment, then simultaneously dove for it.

Handaaf had to duck around his counter, he wasn't even close when Canloe snagged the vellum scrap and began to read it. The elegant script reminded him of correspondence he'd received from associates in Felwithe, and made deciphering the actual message more difficult ... Handaaf stood in silence for a commendable twenty or thirty seconds, then raised a gnarled fist and shook it under his old friend's nose. The wordless demand for information brought a grin to Canloe's face, and he began to read aloud.

"'Greetings, old friend. Know that these events have brought all of our old companions together ... thy pain is ours, as it has always been. For several weeks our best efforts have been without avail, but at long last, the object of our search has resurfaced. D'Spayre was no more accomodating than might be expected, but he did arrange a meeting ... if you are committed to this course, you will need to reach the gypsie camps south of Freeport, on or near the autumnal equinox.' It's unsigned."

"Not a real surprise, eh?" Handaaf replied. "That's private mails, chum, obviously not for the likes of us to poke our noses into." He grinned at his friend's consternation. "Still, gotta admit, I got a powerful urge to head off to Antonica for a couple weeks ..."

Canloe nodded in agreement, his brow furrowed. "This should probably not be left astray ... might be naught, but better safe than sorry."

"You and your files ... you'd file yourself if you thought it would have accomplished something." Handaaf shook his head in exagerated sorrow. "We gotta get out of here, mate, before we take root. Even if it's just a couple o' weeks."

"He's alone, he is."

"Dudn't mean we c'n take 'im."

"But he's alone ... gotta try."

"S'posed t'wait for Glub t'charge."

"Third one this mornin, Glub asleep or somethin'. Gotta try."

"... You first."

The redbeard jumped at the wordless scream from the bushes west of the Port Authority Road. It was the first time anything had broken his concentration since he left the guildhall in Kaladim, and, perhaps ... he overreacted. The first arrow left his bowstring before the goblin had fully cleared the shrubs, and all but cut the creature in half where he jumped. The other two goblins, crazed with rage, missed their fellow's fall, and raced out in attack. A second arrow screamed through the follower, and the leader of the charge ran into one steel-clad fist ... and dropped.

Three young dwarves surged out of the hollows to the east of the path at the sounds of combat, just in time to see the last goblin fall. Awestruck for a moment, they watched in silence as the elder warrior resumed walking down to the port. "Sorry about that, sir, we didn't notice that bunch ... we were keeping the ones on this side down," the dark-haired cleric offered in apology. "No trouble 'tal, young'un", Neihaera replied. "You're welcome to whate'er is left." He slid the powerful recurve into the half-case under his cloak without losing a step, and his abstract courtesy, while appreciated, did not invite further conversation.

The youngest of the trio watched him nonchalantly walking down a road that kept her checking for goblin sign every step, and grinned in appreciation. "Someday, that's gonna be me, walkin' like that", she said, shaking her thick blonde hair out of her eyes. "Bekka, the Warrior Optimist", the third, a rogueish male, snorted as he checked his dagger's edge for new nicks. "What do you think, Conn?" he asked the priest.

"This gobbie had a backpack ... you got the last one, Tork, this one's Bekka's."

"SPECTRE'S LOOSE!"

Brin MacCannoc blanched as he spotted the weirdling, screaming thinly as it rampaged across the sands of the Oasis. "O'course ... " he muttered tiredly, noting how the creature was between his small raiding party and the nearest safe path down into the deserts of Ro. Phiona Feathermoon cocked her eyebrows, and leveled an interrogative stare on the tall Barbarian.

"Get t'cover, Phi ... ye canna help with this." Phiona nodded, and drew a cloak of shadows around herself, fading into the sands. The half-elf's guarded nature kept her from saying it, but the whole team knew she hated not being able to offer any serious assistance. Her younger sister, Sangre, gulped audibly and asked "What're we gonna do, Brin?"

"Yer gonna do nothin', y'hear me? ... Other than get that drum o' yours out," the warrior grated out. "As soon as I get yon weirdling's attention, you and Fal make a run for that ridgeline t'the north o' us ... things won't cross it, and if I can keep my feet long enough, you two'll at least make it out." The high-elf cleric closed her eyes and bowed for a moment.

"I acknowledge the necessity ... nothing says I have to like it." Falesia Sorrowstar, cleric of Tunare, prepared to abandon the field. "Do try not to lose anything, I have had little chance to practice my resurrection spell."

As the spectre swooped down on them Brin tensed his shoulders, preparing for an all-out asault. No point in holdling anything back, he thought to himself. It's not like I'm gonna last long enough to take advantage of it. The thin shrieks of the monster rang closer and closer, almost hiding the whistle of an arrow flashing over his head ... but nothing hid the explosive shock of the arrow's strike.

For a second, both the spectre and Brin were dumbstruck ... the monster from the mere impact, the barbarian from the realization he just might survive this situation. As the spectre shook off the stun, it howled its fury to the winds and tore off after the archer by the water's edge. Brin ducked as it swooped past him, then whirled to follow its flight. "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!" Falesia shrieked in his wake.

"Got to get a look at t'fellow what thinks he can handle this ... 'sides, even if he does drop, we'll have a head start, the shortest path back to Ro is t'other way," Brin threw back as he pelted down the oasis-pool's beach. Phiona dropped her shadows and scampered off in his wake. Sangre cast a questioning glance up at the high-elf's face. Falesia cast a pained glance skyward in supplication before joining the race, beckoning the young bard to follow. A few choruses of bardic speed-song enabled them all to regroup short of what they expected to be an extremely ugly, if painfully short, melee. After all, only a ranger could possibly hit that hard with a bow ... and no ranger they had ever met could take the level of punishment the island spectres were known to generate.

Phiona's sharp eyes narrowed in speculation, and as she slowed, the rest of the team matched her. "Since when can a Dwarf be a ranger?" she muttered, mostly to herself. The stentorian bellow they heard next left them in no further doubt ... the only race that could out-thunder a dwarf in full cry were the ogres, and whatever this fellow was, he was not an ogre.

"HAAARRD ROCK!" The dervish whirl that followed was difficult for the young fighters to make out ... the spectre's mad flailings had been the fastest activity they had known, but for every blow the weirdling threw, the raging redbeard cast at least four back. Not only was he out-pacing the spectre's best efforts, but almost every second blow was accompanied by a flare of combat magic, cast by the weapons themselves. The monster was hurting him, surely, but it was taking a lot more damage, and as soon as it realised that, it tried to flee. The dwarf lowered his scimitar and hammer, and grinned over at Brin and his team.

"Got a fair harem going there, laddiebuck." The redbeard pointed at the retreating apparition. "Why don't you lot go and take care of that little problem for me, eh? Buggering thing interrupted me fishing." Sure enough, they could see a tacklebox and fishing pole sitting on the sands.

Brin goggled at the impossible dwarf for a few seconds, then stammered an incoherent response. He limbered his own bow and set off in game pursuit of the badly mauled spectre. The sense of accomplishment the small battlegroup attained over the next hour as they slowly whittled the monster down was no less welcome for all of their realisation the redbeard had basically handed it to them ...

"You do realise your preoccupation with these pathetic creatures is in no small part the primary cause of your split with m'lord, do you not?" The Erudite was actually sneering, Neihaera noted ... apparently the passage of time had not had any appreciable effect on his sense of courtesy. The redbeard beetled his brows at the necromancer and cast his line back into the oasis.

"Unlike some I could mention," he growled,"there are those who actually had to work for it ... who didna have family throwin' 'em cash and equipment at e'ery turn." A strike at the lure distracted him for a moment, as he reeled in his catch, and he continued. "There are e'en those who might remember a kindness, and pass it on in time ... worse things have happened." His audience seemed unimpressed. "Speakin' o' yer leash-holder ... just where is t'bugger, Blu?"

"M'lord has many demands on his time, oh esteemed savior of kittens, puppies, and other useless creatures," Blu D'Skyhe's reply was, at best, impolite in tone. "What could you possibly have to speak about, anyways? You left the Companions years ago." The Erudite's derisive attention was fixed on the evolving melee as the young fighters hewed the spectre down, inch by inch. The fishing lure's small splash was the only response for several minutes.

"Y'know ... I actually considered sendin' you back with a message," Neihaera began quietly enough, but the aura of menace in his voice almost palpable. Necromancers, however, are notoriously hard to impress, and Blu didn't even turn to face the warrior. "Then it came to me ... it'd make me point that much clearer if I sent you back, AS the message." As the words and the tone finally began to register, D'Skyhe's attention began to shift ... and the agony of a bone-hilted claid-hei-mor pinning him to the ground like a bug fixed it completely on his impending death. If he could have raised his eyes even a few inches higher, he would have noted as impressive as Neihaera had been dealing with the island Spectre, he had not been pushing himself to his limit ... the havoc he was wreaking on Blu's guardian would be enough to frighten a frost giant. The weirdling's fall was obvious enough, even to the Erudite's pain-ravaged senses, and the dwarf's quiet footfalls were the only sound close enough for him to make out. The last thing he heard was the whisper of a sharp blade leaving a scabbard.

"Bet that hurts."

Much later, when even the gypsie traders had closed up shop and gone to their bedrolls, the Erudite's body still lay by the shore of the oasis. Trudging wearily over the dunes, the Tier'Dal priestess glared at it as if it had personally insulted her. "Looks like the little sorehead hasn't softened over the years, at least," she muttered to herself. She bowed over the corpse, and summoned her power with the harsh syllables of Innoruk's spelltongue.

Blu D'Skyhe's agonised coughs and gasps brought an evil smile to her face. Innoruk may permit resurrection, but nothing said he had any reason to make it an enjoyable experience. "Took you long enough," he finally gasped.

"And just why didn't you take care of this little matter yourself, oh master of the mouth?" Sindhar Watershine's cheerful trill could bring shivers to a demon's spine when she was in a GOOD mood ... and for all the gentle turn of phrase, it had been a very long hike from Neriak. Even with the help of a teleporting mage.

"Whatever he pinned me with sapped all the mana from me, and locked me out." Blu shook his head in confusion. "I have no idea how it was possible to do that ... I've never felt anything like it." The experience had shaken even his towering confidence, badly. He glared at the tattered remains of his Spectre in disbelief. "He tore my Spectre apart in under three minutes. He DISMANTLED it ... How in Cazic's name did a damned DWARF get that strong?"

Sindhar arched her eyebrow to express polite interest in the question. "I take it he didn't want to discuss the upcoming Solstice Ball, then?"

"We didn't actually discuss anything, Sin ... whatever's bitten his tail, he's serious about it," Blu muttered as he contemplated the wreckage of his guardian. "Did you get any more information from those Koada'Dal fools?"

"Only that until that little ... unpleasantness ... on the Walls, no one had seen or heard from Askaniisen in over ten years," Sindhar replied. "Rumor has it he found a new Plane, or some other dimension to explore."

Blu stared at her, horrified. "Offhand, I'd say he spent his time exploring profitably ... he's definitely picked up a few new tricks."

Days had passed since the cloaked dwarf had taken the corner table in The Black Dog Pub for his own. He offered no confidences, and invited none ... the only persons invited to share the table were a succession of Bardic Guild messengers, each summarily sent off to the corners of Norrath: near, far, and in-between. He drank little (for a dwarf), and the owner began to reckon each day as profit lost ... eventually, an accounting would have to be made, the value of the lost trade balanced against the potential costs of reconstruction involved in dealing with an irate veteran warrior ...

Flushed with the thrill of accomplishment, Brother Tomas was in the mood to celebrate. So what if a few tables got broken, a good monk ne'er needed concern himself with petty details, like actually paying for damages. The common room of the Black Dog would ring tonight ...

The novice fighters combined the percieved invincibility of youth with the assurance of being under the militia's protective arms into a spectularily dangerous brew. In their scipt, steady needling of the odd fellow in the dusty cape would, sooner or later, result in an agrieved challenge, to be followed by an exiting grand brawl, and conclude with the ejection of the annoying dwarf. If only someone had supplied the star of the piece with a copy ...

The dwarf moved with the speed and assurance of machined metal gliding in a bath of oil, faster than they had ever seen. A flickering wrist, and THOOM! The entire pub froze as the thunderous impact rocked the walls ... the redbeard calmly resumed his seat and picked up his pen to complete his latest missive. Brother Tomas could feel the throwing iron vibrating in the wall at his back, and the cold metal rested against his ear. Without looking up from his letter, the dwarf broke the silence with a curt request. "Are ye goin' t'bring it back, or am I goin' t'have to get up and fetch it meself?" He closed his letter, and sealed it with a thump of a ring into the small puddle of wax.

Tomas carefully eased the iron out of the beam, and crossed to the dwarf's corner table. "Another pitcher here, lass, and a spare mug", the redbeard calmly ordered, and slowly the pub began to return to normal. After all, no dwarf worth his axe would waste a fine brew ... if he intended to slaughter the youth, he wouldn't be wasting ale on him, now would he? This thin reassurance calmed the crowd, and the publican reckoned himself let off with a fair warning. So what if the fellow seemed to have permanently staked out a whole table to himself, he DID drink enough to cover it, even if it was not as much as might be hoped ... and as long as he was drinking, he wouldn't be breaking anything that might interrupt the flow of the dark brown foam.

"Pull up a stump, youngker." The words were innocuous enough, and the tone actually kindly. Perhaps, thought Brother Tomas, I might actually survive this. Thus emboldened, he pulled out a chair and lowered himself into it. The redbeard poured for both, and inspected the young monk for several minutes, the three-armed throwing iron on the table between them.

"Lighter than ye thought it would be, wasn't it." His attention had been so tightly focused on the dwarf, he was lost for a second, and then remembered his invitation. Not sure of his voice, he settled for an agreeing nod.

The redbeard continued. "Metal's mined as a pure ore on a world where dragons are thicker than dewdrops on the ground. I spent near six months learning t'work it, and most of a year figuring how to make it as an alloy of lesser metals. Well, it, or as near as makes no never-you-mind." He took a pull of his mug. "That odd sheen comes from a tempering agent I picked up on a world locked in a perpetual three-cornered war between the forces of Order, Chaos, and the Burning Legions of Hell, itself." His eyes measured the impact of his words on the young monk. "The pattern for the thing was taught me by a fellow on a world with no trees ... none at all, nothin' higher than a blade of grass. Y'see, with no trees, no one e'er came up with the idea of a flat spring, so the only weapons they thought of that had longer reach than their fingertips were thrown ones ... stones, knives, that sort of thing. He proved its effectiveness by takin' down a bison with it. You ever seen a bison, son?" Brother Tomas was spellbound, and shook his head to indicate he'd never even heard of the beast. The dwarf went on.

"Picture a beast as big as the rhinos wandering 'round the Overthere, faster than a running horse, seemingly designed by nature for the express purpose of plowin' through brick, or even stone, walls, without so much as slowin' down." The monk's eyes widened in horror at the image his mind conjured up. "Twice a tall man's height at the shoulder, with a head bigger than most o' those kegs ... it has horns, but they're 'mostly an afterthought. It even has a grand, thick wooly cape o'er it's foreparts so the falling brick, stone and timber leave naught but bruises, at most." Emptying his mug with another long pull, the dwarf summoned a fresh pitcher with a wave of his hand, and continued. "He broke both of it's front knees with one of these things," he pointed at the iron on the table, "and slit it's throat, clean as a whisker, without takin' a mark." The dwarf drummed the table softly for a few moments. "Good eatin' on a bison. Hump-steak with fried onions, bit o' herbs for accent, 'taters baked in clay ... You see where I'm headed, son?"

What Brother Tomas saw was a dwarf who could, quite literally, have been everywhere ... with the shock of the iron's impact opening his eyes, he could see how the object of his attention's every motion was a study in combat readiness. The calm, glacial-blue eyes had measured the capabilities of every being in the pub, finding nothing of threat in anyone. The plate armour he wore as casually as the monk wore his own sash, the weapons-heavy red scabbard at his back, the bowcase within arms reach, the cord-hilted hammer at his belt ... if the redbeard couldn't take the entire pub on at once, Tomas saw no evidence to suggest it. There were many lessons here, but which was the dwarf referring to ...

The dwarf sighed and took another long draught of his ale. "Perhaps, youngster, you might want to think on this little puzzle ... is it not better to be silent, and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt?" Thick red brows beetled in consideration. Brother Tomas, remembering the scene which led to this, reddened in embarrassment. Seeing that his lesson had been understood, the dwarf rewarded his pupil with a gentle grin.

"I am sorry to have disturbed you, sir," the monk apologised, bowing as deeply as his chair permitted. If he crawled fast enough, perhaps he could make his escape with some scrap of dignity recoverable ... the dwarf's grin smoothed out into a genuine smile.

"Oh, I think I'll let ye live, pup," the redbeard answered, in a now-kindly voice. "The point is, have ye learned anythin' from all this fuss ... ?" Seeing acknowledgement in the monk's face, he continued. "Then it was not a waste of good ale." He was silent for a moment, then he pointed at the iron, still sitting on the table between them. "So ... what do you think of it, then?"

Brother Tomas thought a moment, then answered as honestly as he could. "I wish I had one." The redbeard thought about that for a moment, then beckoned the monk closer. "Gi'e me yer throwin' hand, lad," he said. Tomas jerked as the iron's edge bit deeply into his palm, but the dwarf's grip was harder than the metal he held. The redbeard carefully pressed the throwing iron against the bloody palm of the monk, praying all the while. For a few seconds, Tomas felt as though his hand were on fire.

"There you go, son." The dwarf poured the last of his current pitcher into the two mugs on the table. "To Life," he toasted the young monk, as Tomas stared at his unmarked palm in deep confusion.

"What was that all about?" he asked. The redbeard chuckled softly.

"One of the more curious aspects of that temperin' agent I told you about," he replied, "is it's ability to actually soulbind a weapon to it's owner." The dwarf drained a long swallow of ale, and continued. "It's yours now, lad ... no matter how hard ye throw it, one way or another it'll return t'yer hand." He grinned at the monk's widened eyes. "Ought to make target practice interestin', eh?"

The cheerful trill of wood-elf laughter diverted the redbeard from his victim. "There y'are, lass," he grumped. "Was beginning to wonder if any of ye ever read yer mail." He turned back dismiss the young monk, only to see that worthy had already offered his chair to the mail-clad ranger now standing at tableside. He offered an offhand salute to the youth's parting bow, and waved the barmaid over again.

"New recruit?" the auburn-haired elf asked. "With a little seasonin', who can say?" he replied. "The Oasis was a waste o' time, by the way ... don't know what himself was thinkin', sending that damfool necromancer in as his whipping-boy." The ranger cocked her eyebrow in curiousity.

"D'Skyhe would not have been a 'whipping-boy' to you before your little expedition," Katyun Maplerose offered. "Perhaps he simply didn't realise how the paradigm had shifted." Neihaera beetled his brows back at her.

"'Paradigm', is it now? Someone's been spendin' far too much time in t'company of persons of dubious character ... librarians, or some such." He grinned at Katyun's sticking out her tongue at him. "'Nough foolishness ... I've been back for o'er three months, and ye are the only person not a blood relative I've met that I actually want to see. What's everyone up to?"

Katyun lowered the level in her mug by a careful inch as she considered where to begin. "Well ... the Order holds Highhold Keep now, that's fairly important." She peered through her lashes as Neihaera's jaw dropped.

"What do you mean, we hold Highhold?" The redbeard's growl rattled cutlery on nearby tables. "We were only supposed to be passin' mail through it, bein' central to the continent and all ... Why in mercy's sake did t'Council decide to take the whole bloody Keep?"

"Blame your brother for that, not us," Katyun replied. "While we're on the subject, just where did he get that new hammer of his? Amberlynne was asking, she seemed excessively impressed by it."

Neihaera threw back his latest mug and answered. "Made it for 'im, I did ... picked up a whole slew of masterwork patterns for sichlike, one o' the main reasons I went walk-about in the first place ... and that's NOT an answer, luv." He drummed the table a few seconds. "McCabe's held Highpass for ages, what did he have to say 'bout this?"

"Technically, we hold the lower levels, and the town ... McCabe's never cared much for it, he still has his casino revenues, and now someone else has the admin worries." The ranger took another careful sip, and continued. "Basically, last month we had enough together in the Pass to hold a Council meeting, for the first time in an age, so ... we did. You know how the mines beneath the Keep were abandoned to the goblins when they broke in?" Neihaera could remember several occasions where he had joined the ongoing attempts to suppress the creatures. "Well, the Highholders still haven't found the goblin's entrances, and they were unusually ... active, that day. The third time the uproar broke through, Dahven lost his temper." Katyun peered thru her lashes, gauging the redbeard's reaction. Neiheara's rapidly paling face seemed to amuse her.

"Maker bless ... How long did it take for 'im t'calm down?" Neihaera whispered. The ranger broke out into open laughter.

"For all I know, he's fuming still. Interesting how quickly you realized what I was leading up to ... of all the guildsibs who where there, only Mychelle didn't seem to find what happened at all surprising."

"He's my brother, and she's my sis ... the Askaniisen temper is the sort o' thing legends are made of, the only reason Dahven's not made a name for it is 'cause I tend to lose it first. Dahven has a lot more patience than I ever claimed, but 'e holds a grudge long enough to have it die of old age ... then has it stuffed, and mounted, so as not to be parted its company"

Katyun grinned at the image. "He turned the tide of the last rush by himself, then charged the steps down into the mines, with the Highpass guards in hot pursuit. Said guards returning up the stairs shortly thereafter, whiter of face than the crests on their tunics; and when we made to support your apparently berserk sibling, they actually RESTRAINED us. Captain Bosec himself told me, and I quote 'Nothing a sweet lady like yourself needs to see down there, no ... ' And while I tried to argue the point with him, a Pickclaw guard tried to escape the mayhem UP the stairs, apparently thinking it had a better chance of making it past the guards in lower Highhold than it did of surviving in the mines his people had held for living memory. All I saw of what happened next was a bloodied gauntlet snagging the poor creature by one ankle, followed by a positively bestial growl. I suppose it could have been a dwarven voice, since what I heard COULD have been 'No, you don't' in Dwarfspeach, but it sounded more like one of the autofactories in Ak'Anon tearing itself to bits, or possibly several granite blocks being repeatedly smashed into one another." She took another careful sip, and held her hand over the mug when Neihaera offered to refill it. "No one dared go down the steps until the sound effects started to fade, which did not occur for some time. Neihaera ... " Katyun paused for a moment, unsure how to continue. "perhaps I flatter myself, but I think I have seen a lot of this world, and I have some experience of the planes beyond it ... not as much as you, maybe, but some. I've never seen devastation on that scale, not by the hand of one being ... at least, not short of a god."

The redbeard ran a weary hand over his pate, scratching gently at the fringe behind his ears. "Poor sod ... he did eventually calm some?"

"Suppose so ... he did manage to smash open at least one of the goblin's secret entrances, though." She fiddled with the mug for a few moments. "We're not entirely sure what happened after that, but Dahven did come back, with a Pickclaw chieftain in tow. He frog-marched the creature all the way to Carson's offices on the top floor ... oddly enough, none of the guards seemed to think it a good idea to bar his path." She smiled at Neihaera's rueful chuckle. "They were closeted together for over an hour, before he escorted the goblin back down into the mines. As soon as he let go of it, the creature bolted down the no-longer-secret tunnels, followed by Dahven's snarl of 'And you know what will happen if you don't' ... a statement he STILL has not clarified, by the way (not that anyone is all that anxious to push for an explanation)." She lowered the level in her mug another fraction. "Carson announced the change of management that evening ... to the Highholder's, we found it something of a shock."

Neihaera mulled that over for a few moments. "What did Loreat and Cait' have to say 'bout it?" he asked, thoughful stare in place. Katyun found his restraint surprising ... in times past, she thought to herself, he could be counted on for at least an hour of ranting over similiar situations.

"When I volunteered to carry the precis of the various reports to you myself, Caittune was working with the Highpass Guard, and Loreat was still mewed up with McCabe, working out the details ... had been for several hours." Neihaera's eyebrows quirked at the mention of new reports, and she slid the thick parchement packet over to him. "The gist of what I had heard suggested that, for now at least, we weren't going to be contesting it ... Dahven was swearing in three languages at the same time when he heard what had happened, and the first thing he said when he calmed enough to be coherent was that he would handle the matter himself, if he had to." The woodelf wasn't normally a heavy drinker, but the ale was soothing her throat ... she wasn't normally a heavy speaker, eigther. "Loreat, Caittune, and McCabe all paled a bit when he said that, and on Loreat, that's more than a little frightening."

Not, perhaps, as frightening as the scowl that crossed the redbeard's face, but Neihaera could understand how a Tier'Dal mage's concern could daunt the unexpecting spectator. "Damme," he grated out, "just when we were finally gettin' 'nough of the old gang t'gether t'actually ACCOMPLISH summat, now two in three are gonna be locked down, guarding that bloody-be-damned excuse for a goblin's midden-mound, just 'cause it HAPPENS to straddle t'only realistic junction 'twixt East 'n West Antonica." Neihaera's rant foundered on the merry twinkle of the ranger's eyes. "Somethin' tells me that this ... abortion isnae t'only bit o' news y'have fer me ... ye'd nae be snickerin' in yer ale if ye didnae have summat else t'trip me up with." The dwarf's eyes bored into Katyun's, and her unrepentant urchin's grin only inflamed him further.

"When was the last time you spoke with your other sister ... the one with all the pointy objects?" The change of subject alarmed the warrior.

"Mum, Da, all o' we young'uns, cousin Dahle, t'aunts and uncles ... we all met in Thurgadim, first week I was back on Norrath," Neihaera replied. "Why d'ye ask?"

Katyun couldn't help herself ... she actually snickered. "Because the main reason Caittune was working with the Guardsmen was because Neiperie wandered up to the Keep's front gate at the head of a short platoon of gnolls, the captain of which, in plain Commontongue, offered armistace terms ... " she trailed off as Neihaera's spluttering threatened to drown out the pub-noise, and possibly the dwarf himself. The realisation it was more laughter than rage threatened to start her off again as well. "Cait' was trying her level best to talk the guards into a hypnotic state, and doing a fairly good job of it ... If Neiperie really brought a whole gnoll clan into the fold, manpower will not be a major concern." Katyun took another sip as she waited for the dwarf to recover some of his own equilibrium. "Any idea how she might have done this?" she asked, after he calmed enough he no longer risked choking on his ale.

"Long ago, I and all the rest o' the clan gave up any attempt to explain, or understand, how or why she did anything." Neihaera snorted in return. "I can hazard a guess or two ... she always did have a fondness for what she called 'fuzzies' ... Frankly, it boggles t'mind considerin' how she THOUGHT of it ... " The redbeard shook his head tiredly, trying to think of some way to explain his sibling's odd fascinations ... even if only to himself. The thought of gnolls actually being of use, instead of being an obstruction ... Trying to put a leash on his sister almost seemed a good idea, assuming some method of accomplishing it could be devised. Then again, maybe she'd like one ... Neihaera snapped that chain of thought off at the knee. "Forget 'bout tryin' to find t'bottom o' this situation from letters ... looks like I'm off to Highpass, next." He cocked a weather eye at the door, to guage the wisdom of setting off immediately.

The ranger measured him up with a well-practiced eye. "The morn will be soon enough, old boot. Thou might make it as far as the city gate before sleep claimed you, but only an ogre would be strong enough, or brave enough, to try and rouse you ..." She grinned at his mimed outrage. "And I, for one, am far too weary to even bother with the attempt." Neihaera grinned back at her.

"Och, aye ... these weary old bones will be needin' thy strong young back to make it all the way, they will," he quavered. Katyun chuckled to herself, and held her eyes. "I suppose a few hours more willnae make a difference," he continued. "We'll make better time for t'rest, anyways." He polished off both his last tankard and the last swallows from the pitcher, and headed up to his rented room.

Four Tier'Dal clung to the shadows of the Kithicor Woods pass, eyes gleaming as they watched a non-descript pair of Faydwerites lope towards them across the low rises of the Commonlands. Kizdean Gix seemed overly exited, even to his companions ... the two dragoons had been wondering what they were doing so far from their posts, and looked to their captain hoping he would elicit an explanation from the driven necromancer.

"What are we doing here, Gix?" Captain N'Viros ground out ... not out of concern for his troops, of course, but his own curiousity was getting the better of him. Kizdean's eyes gleamed with feral appreciation.

"The dwarf I do not know, but that Fier'Dal bitch ... she raced past me without even slowing for a glance, and I remember meeting her before ... she's involved with that nonsense Guildmaster Quexill is researching for those heretics, I know it." The necromancer muttered under his breath for a time, and continued. "We will wrest whatever information she has out of her for him, and finally be realeased from this wretched posting ... how weary I grow of these pathetic militiamen." N'Viros' few doubts regarding Gix's sanity were dispelled, at least. Dragoon Zytl wasn't as easily satisfied, however ... "Orders, sirs?" he asked.

The necromancer glared balefully at the pair as they approached ... "I care not what you do with the dwarf, but the elf must be taken ... I WILL have her, dead or alive, for my master's experiments."

Katyun glanced sidelong at her companion as they loped onward. I'm not going to be the one to mention it, she thought to herself. I'm not going to be the one to mention it, I'm not going to mention it, I'm not ... oh, dragonscat. "Hmm ... you did notice that Tier'Dal toadie wasn't lurking around the toll road, right?" The redbeard's only reply was a noncommitall grunt.

Not quite the opening she had been looking for, but ok ... "You know, the Indigo Brotherhood actually set a tripwire camp of agents here in the Commonlands after you left on your quest for new frontiers ... he might have friends." Another sidelong glance ... my, those teeth look surprisingly sharp. Yes, it would seem young Kis's contention that smiles evolved from a threat display might have some basis in fact. "Too bad we don't know of any clerics nearby ... would be a good chance to teach them a sharp lesson, eh?" Still nothing. "Ah well ... even if they are there, we'll be past them and into the woods before they can blink." Was he ... yes, the crazed creature was actually slowing, slightly. "Neihaera, I'm good, but there's only so much one can do without clerical backup, and we're outnumbered, two to one at best." Resignation filled her as she saw the pride of the Askaniisen clan reach for his scabbard ... weal or woe, it was beyond her to affect matters eigther way. The broad chest's expansion sealed her suspicions, and she stoppered her ears.

"KHALAH'DHUM, WEI HEAH!" The steep, rock-scaled walls of the pass ahead rang with the thundrous battlecry, hammering in the narrow space with sufficent force to loosen several pieces of shale and start a small avalanche. Four dark elves stumbled out of the blind corners, staggering in shock at the auditory assault, and Neihaera hit his stride in a full-on charge. Katyun Maplerose, veteran ranger of the Order of the Black Rose, survivor of scores of battles, master hunter, archer, and scout, had an arrow on the string of her bow before she made another step, but even so ... the champion of Clan Askaniisen beat her to the punch. For the first time, she was witness to the effects of pan-dimensional training on a truly determined personality, and the war between the Indigo Brotherhood and Clan Askaniisen was fully and publicly joined.

Kizdean Gix didn't even see the blow that felled him ... Neihaera thundered past him mid-cast, and tore him in half without breaking step. N'Viros was next to feel the warrior's wrath, the redbeard's charge pounding him into the walls of the defile and stunning him into insensibility for several moments. He shook it off just in time to see Dragoon Zytil's best defense crumble under the chillingly single-minded onslaught, and the younger trooper fall to his knees. Lieutenant N'Xyr was next under the dwarf's hammer ... he gave the best he had, but the shocking-swift switch from hunter to hunted had caught them all short. The battle-hardened dwarven soldier was a maelstrom of edged steel, an elemental force that would not be stopped ... N'Viros tried to rescue his sub-altern, but the final insult came in the form of a mithril-headed arrow sped with the impact of a falling columnwood oak. The shot had been deliberately placed to stun, and his sight cleared only to reveal complete disaster ... both of his subordinates downed, the necromancer who had set these events in motion dismembered, and himself, pinned to the sloped wall of the pass between the dragon-blades of a veteran warrior. The redbeard's pitiless glacier-cold glare held nothing of hope, and the realization of just how easily three Indigo Brotherhood soldiers had been handled shocked the Teir'Dal to the core. "... what ... are ... you?" he choked out, scrambling desperately to keep the bitter edges from the flesh of his neck.

In a voice that carried the chill of the most merciless Velious winter storm in its depths, Neihaera replied. "I am Brell's Left Hand, come to smite the unholy. I am Fury, given form. I am every nightmare your parents e'er threatened you with, cast in flesh and steel." He leaned forward, and lowered his voice to a near-whisper as he continued, "And, most importantly ... I am within arms' reach." The full force of Neihaera's rage held the darkelf pinned more thouroughly than did his swords, and when he judged N'Viros' terror to have peaked, he spoke again.

"There is but one thing I want t'know from ye ... I dinnae truly care how y'came to be here, nor what y'felt would be accomplished. Just tell me this: who set you here?"

The dragoon captain shuddered at the tone. "Necromancer," he sputtered, trying to hold himself still on the shifting slope. "Recognised the ranger, thought interrogating her might help his guildmaster on some research they've been commissioned for, that's all I know."

The tableau held for several moments, the dwarf glaring down at the battered darkelf, with the ranger's bow nocked and ready. Neihaera's withdrawing his blades came as a shock to both of the others, and Katyun's ready pose almost faltered. Captain N'Viros collapsed to his knees, coughing. Even with the evidence of its futility, he felt he had to attempt to save face. "The Indigo Brotherhood will not forget this insult, dwarf," he coughed.

Neihaera's ice-tempered eyes never flinched. "The Indigo Brotherhood has a wide selection o'reasons they might use as a pretext to come after me. Price o'doin' business, I calls it." The paired swords slid back into the scabbard with a steely hiss. "So long as it stays business, fine by me ... Bring friends, mate, I'd purely hate havin' t'drag yer sorry arses all t'way back to Neriak meself." A flickering motion, and the dwarf held the dragoon captain's nose in a bitter pinch: N'Viros jerked back, agonised and barely able to breathe, pinioned in the glare of the warrior's gaze. "And as long as it stays MY business, also fine," Neihaera ground out, bearing down. The dragoon captain's eyes began to roll back in his head from the pain of the warrior's grip, but he could still hear the shattered-stone rumble in his captor's voice. "I hear of any of you lot takin' cheap shots at me mates in my name, and I WILL be 'round, t'balance the account." N'Viros' head thumped off of the stony slope as the dwarf's pinch released. "Comin', luv?" Neihaera cast back over his shoulder.

Katyun eased off her bow, and tucked her arrow back into her quiver as she rejoined her traveling companion in the pass. "Just waiting for you to finish with your games, old friend," she said, putting a brave show up. The shocking power and speed he'd displayed was unlike anything in her experience. The four waiting in ambush were not really up to her and Neihaera's rate, but all four at once should have been a serious problem. The sudden start she felt as the younger dragoon choked, coughed and began to rouse was only just concealed. Lieutenant N'Xyr's rolling over and vomiting helped to hide it, and the darkelf captain's open-mouthed shock was complete.

"You ... didn't kill ..."

Neihaera didn't lose a step, or even turn to face him. "Did I have to?" he replied.

Point, shaft, two twists and some resin to hold, same with the nock on the other end, line up and set the fletches in the jig ... jigs are why one carries a fletching kit, after all. Keeps everything straight and true. Two more twists of the gut at the ends of the fletches to hold them in place, a couple seconds near the fire to soften the resin, quick finger-spin to seal everything down ... one more hunting point in the quiver. Katyun Maplerose had been doing this sort of thing since her days hunting giant wasps under the platforms of Kelethin, and could fill a quiver without ever thinking about it. Two days out of Freeport, one more to Highpass Hold ... her only concern lay on the other side of the low campfire, restlessly stirring his blankets and muttering in his sleep. She didn't remember anything like this from their days before the redbeard had left; he had always slept like a log. "Sign of a clear conscience," he'd say, the next morning. "Or no conscience at all," one of the rest of the group would riposte, to his amused grin. It was a good thing woodelves didn't really sleep, or she'd be a basket case ... he hadn't passed a night in peace.

"REUBEN!" Neihaera roared to his feet, blankets flying, his hammer in his hand before he was fully awake. He groaned softly, and settled back to a sitting position by the fire, cooling his brow with the side of his hammer, before setting it down next to the rest of his kit. To her credit, Katyun hadn't managed to burn herself, or glue herself to one of her own shafts.

"That was a bad'un," the dwarf muttered to himself. He reached into one of the lesser pockets of his cape, and removed a curious flask from it. He spun the cap off, and held it up in a brief toast before tossing back a slug of the contents. "Absent friends." He grimaced slightly at the bite of the liquor, and resealed the flask, returning it to his cape.

This was beyond the pale ... something was deeply wrong with the old hardcase. "Anything you feel like sharing?" she asked. Neihaera stared into the flames for a few more seconds, and sighed.

"How long was I gone?" he asked, still focused on the dancing flames.

"Odd question .. hmm, you left the spring Captain Silverwind had his first great archery contest ... eleven years this spring, I think."

Neihaera's jaw rippled slightly, thousand-yard stare still locked on the firepit. "Time ... doesn't pass the same, other planes ... spent over six years in the jungles, alone. Four holding the lines in some dustup, never did really get told what it was about. Mud up to my knees at the best o' times, e'ery dam thing could go wrong, doing it at t'worst moments ... still better than t'other mess, men starin' across the battlefield at blood-kinfolk with murder in their hearts." He shook his attention back to the present, and looked straight into Katyun's eyes for the first time. "Didn't win, all the time, neigther. Hell, it wasn't even the most common event."

Katyun could see the pain in the dwarf's eyes. "Who's Reuben?" she asked. She wasn't sure she even wanted to know the answer, but she was sure Neihaera needed to say it. Neihaera grimaced, and stared back at the flames.

"A kid," he answered. "A good kid, but so green he squeaked. Tried t'follow the damned rules, but there were so bloody many o'them. Ten thousand ways the buggers we were fightin' had thought of t'kill ... no one could keep 'em all straight. 'I can do it, Harry' he says ... last words out of 'im. We didn't find enough of 'is body t'send back to his folk ... they got fourteen stone o' sand in a wooden box, wit' instructions not to open't." Tears fell down the redbeard's cheeks in a gentle rain. "If it'd been worth something, I could forgive, but ... " He drifted to a halt, wandering in his own memories. "Marine-duty with the Duncruigh, 'till they sunk t'damned ship out from under us. Caravan guard with the Faziri for a season, 'till the sultan pissed off e'en 'is own house-troopers ... spent t'next two years runnin' with t'nomads I'd been guardin' t'bloody caravans against. Made more with t'nomads." He stirred up the coals, and set a kettle to heating water for tea. "Three trips down what t'folk I was workin' with called the Silk Road ... doesn't sound like much, but when each was a two-three year tour o' t'back of beyond ... adds up. Commando raids on dragon-hoards, airborne combat a-dragonback ... learned a bit here, a bit there, 'till I couldn't see any reason t'stayin', then I'd call the winds down again, and ride on." The kettle began to hiss, and he pulled it off to the side to steep. A great deal calmer than when he awakened, he beetled his brows at the young ranger. "Did ye e'er wish ye'd come along, like I asked ye?"

Katyun's own brows peaked, and she considered the thought. "I will go so far as to admit, I did see why you left ... and as far as that goes, yes, I did occaisionally wish I could have joined you." She was surprised at herself ... she had thought she was well-satisfied with her lot. "A ranger's life isn't often an easy one." Neihaera poured out the tea, and handed her a mug. He considered her statement for a time, then started rummaging in his duffle. The search took him a few minutes, but he eventually started pulling out a ... well, she wasn't quite sure what it was, other than a good deal longer than the duffle was deep. The dark wood gleamed, drawing the eye deep into the complex whorls of the grain, and she found it oddly compelling. She reached out almost unconsiously as he handed it to her.

The sun was high in the sky when she came to, curled around the stave. Neihaera had put out the fire, buried the ashes, and replaced the turves while he waited. He handed her a cup of cold tea and a sprig of mint, and helped her sit up. Her mind whirled with dozens of new skills, techniques, and abilities. She wanted to know, but she couldn't think of a question to ask that would cover the situation. The dwarf seemed to understand without it.

"She thought it was a grand idea. I told her, at great length, all about the various trials and tribulations of the Norrathian ranger, and she agreed, easily, that Something Needed To Be Done. Together we sought out the great drakes of her homeland, and laid the problem before them. See, that was the thing, I wanted not only t' patch the holes in my own skillset, but I knew ... not suspected, but KNEW, there had to be some way to give the same gifts to others who needed them." He pulled her to her feet, and they started walking north, along the winding ridgeline path leading into the pass. "The dragons were impressed by my devotion to this self-imposed quest, but more importantly, dragons being the way they are ... they were amused." The redbeard shook his head in mute chagrin. "They wrestled the problem around for a time, and then they hit upon a grand Plan. They actually pronounced it that way, you could hear the capital letters. Bloody irritatin' critters, drakes."

Katyun suffered in silence for several moments, and then kicked the dwarf in the shin to get him started again. "Ouch ... violent female," Neihaera snorted with a grin. "Anyways, the dragons offered a bit of a challenge ... they'd help me so far as to make it possible to carry such nebulous things as complementary skills, if I would collect suitable talismens 'pon which t'carry them. In short, they set me on a treasure hunt. I had to find items which suit the skill sets I wished to collect, and people from whom to collect them, and the dragons would put the two together ... object of the whole exercise bein' t'entertain the beasties for a few years, watchin' me stumble from task to task." Neihaera could brood, there was not a doubt about that, but there were few things in life he liked as he did a good tale. "First came me own learning ... those goat-buggerin' droods attacking the Port Authority guards day and night have long been a thorn in my side, and t'lads needed a hand up. I searched hill and dale, shore to mountain-peak until one fine day, I comes across this troll shaman, guarding a ruined temple in the hills. With a little ... persuasion, he started teaching me how to make the first Talisman ... the Axe of Storms."

"And what, pray, is this wonder?" Katyun had regained some of her usual insouciance, and wanted to let the dwarf know she had begun to recover. Neihaera let his beard hide the greater part of his smile, and reached under the scabbard into the heavy-weapons harness over his shoulder. With a mighty fllourish, he swept a massive two-handed war axe into salute. The four-flanged blade took the shape of a whorl, and runes swept around the complex curves, into the heart. Altogether, the thing looked more like the product of a deranged sculptor than of any honest smith, and the dwarf smirked at the look on Katyun's face.

"'Tisn't as bad as it looks, luv." Neihaera chuckled as he hung the unweildy-looking thing back onto his weapons harness. "For one thing, just the sight of it tends t'terrify the unsuspectin'." He gave up at Katyun's tongue-poke, and laughed openly for the first time since she had met him in the Black Dog's common room. Relieved at this first sign of her old friend's normal humor, she joined him.

They continued up the track leading into the Highpass. After several moments of companionable silence, Neihaera continued with his tale. "Needless to say, I intended to be the first subject, so, once I had the thing, I buckled down ... studied the techniques of the finest warriors of t'land, sparred wi't the champions to polish all I had learned, all the different schools of combat, into my own personal blend of mayhem. You know me, I've ne'er been the heaviest metal ... but none who've faced my steel have enjoyed the experience. Rattler-fast, and sure as hope ... just not t'hardest hitting, or t'thickest skinned. Well, a tour under the grandmasters of a score of lands, finishing up under the gentle tutelage of Lord Steelbeard, himself ... anything THAT hasn't fixed, isn't fixable. M'proud to say, wasn't all one-sided ... I taught Kelv the Younger more than a few things, and made a name for my own self in t'schools. Then Chesch and I took ourselves back to the dragons, carryin' the tale of all I had done and the Axe. The drakes ... well ... they kept their part of the bargain."

The ranger mulled that over for a few moments. "But if that Axe is the Talisman, how does it confer anything onto anyone else?" She inspected her new battlestaff as closely as possible without tasting it, having already determined it was soulbound. Neihaera gave her a wry grin, and held the flap of his duffle open for her inspection. "Wasn't t'weapon they enchanted, luv ... I did that much on me own, completin' it." Looking into the bag, Katyun could see the butt of another staff, identical to the one she now recognised as a powerful bowstave, resting in her own hands. Quirked eyebrows begged the question, and Neihaera expressed his pity on her by continuing the tale.

"My old Rallic pack ... the dragons enchanted it, so that I could carry one sample each o' the Talismans I was creatin'. The only thing anyone else sees when they look within is the Talisman that would best serve their own needs." The redbeard closed and re-tied the rainguard flap. "I can see each one, but only remove one at a time, and as soon it's out of it's pocket, there's no room to put it back." Katyun carefully stepped and strung her new bow, and twanged the string gently to hear it's tone. Spying a dreadwolf down the narrowing pass, Neihaera pointed it out to her. "Give it a shot, luv."

As she pushed out the bow to her full extension, she could feel a power building. Setting the target firmly in her sight, she breathed out ... in ... held ... and finally ... released. The hunting point screamed off the string as a veritable thunderbolt, and if the wolf felt anything, it didn't last long enough to complain. The dwarf's expression could be best described as a smirk. "Don't think you'll see that one again, sweetness," he chuckled at her awestruck expression. The hum of the bowstring sounded almost ... sated.

The pair of gnolls at the head of the pass watched the two travellers approach. "Faydwer-folk, I've the thought," one muttered in his native tongue. The other shielded his eyes and squinted for distance before he spoke. "More to the point, the taller one is that ranger the Shadow-Maid's war-clan sent east, to the human's shore-hold." The senior turned to the guardhouse and barked ... no words, just a simple alert. The stockier gnoll turned a pained glance on his companion. "Why do you keep doing that?" he grimaced at the ruddy-coated plains-gnoll's wry chuckle.

"Because small minds are easily amused," the Highhold guardsman interjected in Commontongue. "What is it this time, Jaarl?" he asked at he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "You two kept me up most of the morning with those damned puns."

"Got vis-it-ors come," Kivith, the junior gnoll answered instead. The humans were learning to understand his own language surprisingly quickly, but it never hurt to practice, and the words of human-tongue were so hard to keep straight. Guard Tobin shaded his eyes from the late-morning glare and tried to identify the oncoming pair.

"And, since they at least seem to be human-form, I get to be the one to break the news about the Treaty?" Tobin grumbled and turned to the water barrel, scooping up a generous amount in his helm and pouring it over his head in lieu of kinder methods of regaining alertness. The taller gnoll growled a chuckle, asking "Don't that make mailshirt rust?" Tobin sputtered and shook residual drops off his moustache.

"I didn't pay for the silver-wash because I liked the colour," he replied. "I hate working the third watch, you never can catch up on your sleep. That buggering Captain Ashlan knows it, and makes damned sure I'm always on." He turned back to the parapet and cupped his hands to act as an amplifier. "Halloo, Travellers," he bellowed. Despite pronounced reservations, the Treaty of Highpass Hold wouldn't be broken on his watch ... he had a lifetime's experience of fighting gnolls, far too much to lack respect for them, and occasionally enduring multi-linugual punning contests shed a lot less blood.

"Halloo, the gate" the faint cry carried back, dwarven timbre just carrying up into the defile. It would be a bit before conversations could be carried out, but at least the incoming pair knew they had been seen, and would be somewhat less likely to attack on sight.

As the pair ambled within easy speach range, the young guardsman swept into a now-practiced spiel. "Yes, I know there are two gnolls standing behind me, if I'm not bothered by this I fail to see why you should be, they're as much Highpass citizens as any of the other folk now, and as long as no else who lives here is objecting to it, no traveller's objections will be suffered. No one starts anything, no one has to chucked out, that's how we're looking at it. You can take any problems you have with this up with the new administrators of Highpass at the Keep, just don't expect to find much sympathy with any kind of violent thoughts or tendencies, we have a Treaty in place, the law's the law, and anyone who feels like breaking the law may as well turn around and hike back to wherever they came from. It's business as usual from here to the Plains of Karana, just DON'T start a fight, and we'll all be happier." The two, an auburn-haired woodelf ranger leaning on a bowstave as tall as she was and a dwarf in plate that looked like he had seen as much war as Rallos Zek, seemed amused by his vehemenence. The dwarf's poker-face, what was visible through the nasal of his old-fashioned one-piece helm, was admirably blank, but his eyes crinkled in a well-suppressed grin. He gravely perused Tobin's expression for several moments, then turned his attention to the two gnolls.

"Jaarl Laughs-in-War, I presume?" The redbeard warrior directed his question to the taller gnoll, in clear gnoll-speach. He had an accent one could cut with an axe, but was perfectly fluent otherwise. The rangy gnoll's ears shot up in surprise, and shared amusement, and his whuffed affirmation was almost a gnollish chuckle. The dwarf turned his attention to the stockier woods-gnoll with his eyebrow raised. "My sister likely mentioned you in her note as well, but her definition of 'description" and my own differ in several critical respects," he continued, with an interrogative note. The shorter gnoll flattened his ears and tipped his chin up in a wolfish nod. "Kivith Takes-the-Bow, formerly of Shadowpaw Clan." he answered the redbeard's implied question with the brusqueness typical of his people. The dwarf expressed curiousity much as another gnoll might have, with a tipped ear and body language, and the respectful nature of the gesture soothed his defensive reaction. "Short version: there was a war ... we lost." Kivith found even with the warrior's efforts to defuse his reactions, he couldn't face the dwarf directly, and tipped his head down and left to expose his throat. The redbeard acknowleged his answer without wasting words on useless comfort, and turned his attention back to the nonplused guard, permitting the dusky gnoll to recover his bearing.

"I think we'll be ok, lad," the dwarf switched back to Common. "Any other news us 'random travellers' need to be appraised of?" Tobin had to consider a bit before he replied.

"Nothing comes right off the top of my mind," he said, with a scratch at his mustache as he mused. "I'm supposed to try and answer any questions you have about these jokers, but you seem to have a better grasp of the situation than most already. Oh, there's a buck-dwarf paladin, up at t'forge, most like, with a temper right off Innoruk's left hand you might want to steer careful around, and if you see a red-headed doe-halfling dealing blackjack, just take your money to the bar, it'll hurt less."

The redbeard coughed what might have been a muffled chuckle into his left hand. "Thanks, lad, I'll keep that in mind." With a casual salute and a nod to the two gnolls, he beckoned to the ranger and stumped through the gate. As he did, Jaarl and Kivith offered formal salute, gnollish-style, with bent knee and bared throat. Tobin manfully wrestled his curiousity to a standstill, at least until the travellers had passed out of easy earshot, around the first set of corners. Finally, he had to ask, "You know those two?"

Kivith snuffed gently, and deferred to his senior partner ... less for protocol's sake, than for Jaarl's need for practice. "Elf was courier-send to Freeport. Made fast trip, must," Jaarl replied. "Never met dwarf before, but by scent he Shadow-Maid-kin ... Shadow-Maid only have two male-kin, he must be WarChief." Tobin paled a bit as he wove through the ruddy gnoll's tangled syntax ... if he'd understood what Jaarl was saying, he'd just lectured one of the mid-level officers of the Black Rose, and the SENIOR officer of Clan Askaniisen's soldiers. Some days it just didn't pay to get out of the bedroll.

The steady clang of the forge was a breath of home. Neihaera paused just outside the slate-roofed overhang guarding the hearth and watched the blond dwarf pulling wire for new mail. From the way the apprentices were jumping, Tobin might have been understating the situation, not that the steady beat of the hammer gave any indication of it. Finally, he coughed once, just to test ... sure enough, the grey-blue eyes flicked back. The smith knew he was there, he just wasn't letting it interfere with the job at hand. With a good length in hand, one sure tap with the hammer snipped it off, and the billet was tossed back into the flames to reheat. "You've got enough to wind out for a while, surely," the blond male barked, glaring at the first apprentice. A frantic nod was the only reply, as the smith grunted and turned to walk out of the open wall of the forge. He stumped past the redbeard without so much as a glance, and dunked his head in the outgoing millrace. "You knew about this?" he snarled over his shoulder as he pulled a towel out of the framing and swabbed the worst of the forge-dust off. Neihaera tossed his head back and barked a laugh.

"Since when has she bothered explaining anything?" The redbeard figured the only thing the other could have been referring to was the situation with the gnoll refugees. He nodded over at the industrious bustle in the forge, a spark of query in his eyes. The blond snorted, and snapped in command to the swarming apprentices, "When you lot finish up with drawn stock, run some more ore through ... it's not worth the energy, tryin' t'patch up what you pull. And don't let that fire die out." He marched off in the general direction of the inn without waiting for a reply. Neihaera could see the apprentices visibly relaxing as their (tor)mentor stalked away, and carefully hid his own grin as he ambled after his brother.

The blond was already well into his first pint by the time Neihaera entered the pub, and his steady glare didn't offer much hope of getting a share of the pitcher. The redbeard calmly ambled over to the bar and snagged his own, slipping the publican a goldpiece with an apologetic wink, then pulled a loose chair over to what appeared to be the other's regular table. "How're they shaping up?" he asked, thinking a quick deflection might lower the other's volatility. The yellowbeard threw back a shot of Halas-brewed uisge with a glare.

"Twouldn't cause me to die of embarrassment, bein' called their instructor," he admitted with a shrug. "Mostly knockin' out the mollycoddling at this point, really. One or two might even make decent armourers, if they put their attention to't." His pride in his class of apprentices was hard for anyone who didn't know him to see, but Neihaera was the elder brother, and had known of Dahven's love of teaching for most of his adult life. Sure enough, the paladin was visibly calmer ... of course, some of that might have been the anesthetizing effect of the distilled liquor. Grumpy he might be, but he couldn't hold a grudge on such matters long enough to measure. He saved his serious hatreds for far more important issues. The redbeard thought about it, and decided it was safe to jump in. "So ... what DO you think about Little Sister's current pet project?" he asked. Dahven's brow furrowed in consideration, and he took a slow pull of his current pint before he replied.

"Seriously, brother ... what do you know of this?" The yellowbeard's brow showed the inquiry was serious, and if that wasn't evidence enough, his switch to Dwarfspeach was. Neihaera held his eyes long enough to be sure before offering to reply in the same tongue.

"Right now, you likely know more than I, brother ... all I have to go on is a three-line poem Neiperie sent me after Thurgadim, and what was in the guild precis Kat carried down." Dahven narrowed his eyes in thought at that, holding his peace for several moments.

"Well, the precis wouldnae have had everything in it, some details we didn't find out until after Katyun headed east. One thing most of note, brother mine ... there are gnolls here from every clan I've e'er heard of, and a few none of us had. E'en Loreat couldn't recognise all the clan names, and that's sayin' something."

Neihaera rocked back in his chair to consider that. Interesting information to be sure, but there had to be something the warrior wasn't seeing ... a paladin of Brell Serilis didn't shake easily, and Dahven was obviously deeply concerned. A cocked eyebrow was his only response, as he waited for the other shoe to drop. Dahven snorted, once ... proof he was smarter than his older brother always amused him, at least slightly.

"Not only that, but two-thirds or better are the females ... how often have you even SEEN a female gnoll?"

Neihaera even managed a small chuckle at that one. "Was starting to wonder if there were any ... for all of me, I didnae have evidence t'prove such even existed." Dahven very pointedly didn't laugh along with him.

"And not a one showed up here with ought but what they had on their back ... such a pack of starvelings you ne'er wished to see. If Brell Himself had stood before me and told me I would be feeling sorrow and pity on behalf a pack of gnolls, I would have been hard-pressed to avoid laughin' in His face, but that would have been before Nieps led the first pack to the gates of the Keep." The blond paladin bemusedly shook his head, and poured the last pint from his pitcher. Alert barmaids smoothly replaced the empty while he pulled a good swallow down. "And what equipment e'en the fighters among'st them had wasn't worth melting down for the metal ... all that wire we've been pulling down t'the forge is going to wind up on the backs of gnolls we're employing to bolster the local militia ... " From the tone in his voice he was speaking to convince himself as much as he was trying to explain the situation to the redbeard.

Neihaera was seriously working things over in his mind. "How's the temper holding out?" he asked.

"We've got a regular supply caravan, working the old dungeons and tombs, gathering materials," Dahven replied. "Caittune and I talked some of t'young bucks into the job, keeps them out of trouble. Concentrated mostly on the ones that were having the hardest time leavin' the poor furry folk alone ... this way they are not only 'out of temptation's way', so to speak, but they know they're workin' t're-equip the poor buggers, so hopefully they're gettin' used to the idea." He cocked his head at the redbeard and waited.

Neihaera polished off his current stein and thought the situation over. "Somethin' pretty serious must be goin' on in the gnoll-tunnels."

"Worse than you seem to be thinkin', brother-mine ... never knew of a gnoll clan t'have any use for our kind of folk, as anythin' other than dinner ... and amongst themselves, clan-to-clan, they've fought even harder. And yet, these are clinging to each other, and to us ..." the paladin trailed off, holding Neihaera's eyes until he was sure his brother was understanding the full import of what he was saying. "Clinging, like a beaten dog to the first kind hand it feels." Dahven focused all his thought on trying to reach the driven redbeard. "Something's happening, brother ... one might want to weigh ones actions according to need."

The hard nightmarewood stave in his hands turning slowly from simple branch to powerful bowstave, shaping under plane and mithril-bladed knife ... such acts always soothed the soul. Bringing use and beauty out of dross ... a worthy task, even for something as simple as a new bow. The woodelf fletcher concentrated all his attention on the task at hand, turning his mind from the unpalatable tales of his Companions. Sindhar had been watching him at his work for hours without a word, hoping he would rouse without further action on her part, but such was obviously not going to happen. She sighed once, in frustration, and straightened her hair. "Is there anything you would like to talk about, m'lord?" For once, she kept the sarcastic bite out of her speech ... that, and the familiar 'you' instead of the more formal 'thou' was a message of sorts. If he would only listen ...

"The drakes of the high mountains are rousing in wrath, the gnoll tunnels are wracked in battle ... even the seas are storm-tossed and loud in strife. What is the worth of words?" There was no more tone to his voice than the barest minimum to differentiate it from the voice of the gnomish golems. The TierDal cleric clenched her eyes tight, to deny the incipient tear ... ah, the Prince of Hate was laughing hard, surely. For such as she to lose her heart to a FierDal ranger; that was a jest fit to amuse him for an age, at least. She waited until she could be certain of her own voice's steadiness before she replied.

"He cannot know the whole of the tale, surely," she spoke with a gentle tone no one would have credited to her. "He wasn't within a dozen planes of Norrath when everything went bad, and he's not been back more than a few months ... the Order only collected itself back together this spring."

"And none save those few here were anywhere near the Walls when they fell, I know ... and still he comes." The toss of his thick white mane and the flash of sun-bronzed skin gave her heart a hard thump as he spoke, and again she schooled her face to the stillness of stone. "We stood back-to-back against the hordes of undead frogloks, against the frost giants of Velious ... we hunted the drolvarg and the drachnid, the sarnak and the giants of Kunark. And he comes now, with a heart full of rage." Those beautiful, long fingered hands for whose touch she longed stilled on the bowstave, and his silver eyes clouded in confusion. " ... and I don't know why ..."