First Quarter Moon (on or about Nuwmont 7, 998AC)
The dwarf slid from the back of the mule, landing with a heavy, metallic jangle punctuated by a snarled curse as he staggered, favoring his right leg.
A thick-fingered snap brought a brightly polished staff to his grip, a length of ebonwood, adorned with knots and strange gnarls, spots and seams leaking a subdued, smoky blue light that pulsed in a rhythm suggesting a steady breathing. The dwarf’s breath, I noticed, slowed to match the tempo set by the staff, and the lines of pain eased from his brow, the snarl in his lips relaxing.
He turned towards Sera and I, leaning on the staff, his hold on it not so much a grip as a caress.
“I can do the same for you,” he said, gesturing towards the magically held twins, “unless you speak an Oath not to raise your magics against us.”
At Gilliam’s snicker, the dwarf arched a bushy eyebrow. “You may get one or two bits of magic off, before the Torenwhyr riddle one or the other of you with bolts.” He chuckled. “Which do you think it is worse for, the collared, or the other wearer?”
Ice shivered up my arm, and Sera’s hand worked its way into mine, squeezing. The warm glow of her Power fell away, replaced by a hollowness born of fear. It, more than anything, banked the beginnings of the Druidic flame I’d been holding at the ready.
“And you, sword-bearers,” the dwarf continued, regarding Varis and Gilliam. “Unless you can cut a storm of quarrels from the air, you will likely be dead before you can finish drawing your steel.”
With a glance at each other, the two men’s hands eased from the hilts of their swords, and they clasped their hands behind their heads.
“I know better than to ask an oath of you,” the dwarf said, giving Demarra a sneer. She simply smiled sweetly back at him.
“And you, mistress?” the dwarf said, his gravelly voice climbing in pitch, smoothing out as he turned to Ana. “Will this one need to bind you in silence, as it did for the Syharwehrven?”
We marched, wrists clad in thick iron manacles, dozens of automaton-wielded crossbows pointed at our backs. Despite the bad leg, the hunch-backed dwarf made surprisingly good time, neither of the other two having to slow their own pace in the least.
My knowledge of dwarvish was not the best, and they spoke an archaic, dusty dialect, but from their banter back and forth, I was able to discern that the taller of the three was the governor of the mineholt Kurest Hurgon. By the way the other two dwarves spoke to him, it was plain that they were agents of some even higher agency or authority.
Three hours’ march brought us to the mineholt’s entrance, a wide, deep opening under the crags of the Black Peaks. The shadows, though, clung as we walked through them, as would a mass of cobwebbing. Ana gave a choking cough, which drew a chuckle from the hunch-backed dwarf.
“Are these illusions more to your liking, mistress?” He’d dropped the high voice he’d used as Pyrklist, but the mocking tone still rang in his gravelly tenor.
We walked through a dusty, crumbling ruin. Dust rose beneath our steps, but I had to blink. We left no tracks. I looked again at the buildings. Though the slightest of breaths of air wafted into the great cavern from the ravine path, the cobwebs that hung from the ruined doorways and hollow windows did not move in the slightest. The closer I looked, the more slight inconsistencies I saw: duplicate piles of rubble, spiders that did not skitter away from our approach. Everything was still, silent. Too still.