Welcome to The Lutin Chronicles, a fantasy series based on the collaborative series Metamor Keep.
This site still has a few rough edges. Pardon the digital sawdust.
The Lutin Chronicles, conceived by Oren Otter, is based on Metamor Keep, a story series conceived by Copernicus, owned by Chris O'Kane, and written by a myriad of writers.
The Lutin Chronicles focuses on Captain Kayrok, an officer in the lutin army whose defeat in battle has disgraced his name throughout the lutin army. Assigned a company of rejects and misfits, Kayrok has been shipped off to the furthest reaches of the forest darkness and given the impossible task of digging a pass through the mountains into the southlands, a task at which he is expected to die trying.
Penance and Retribution is the story from Metamor Keep which introduces Kayrok and the first members of the Omega Company. The story of The Lutin Chronicles picks up after the events in Penance and Retibution**. **[Noted by Webmaster. Requires author confrimation.]
The Lutin Chronicles
Darkness from Beyond
by Oren Otter
Tajna moved silently through the streets of Chai Enu, gliding from shadow to shadow, trying very hard not to be seen. Bare feet made no sound against the street's stones. Down a darkened alley she darted, eyes looking everywhere for signs of danger. Opening a hidden door, she slipped inside. In the darkness beyond, a pair of hands grabbed her. Tajna felt the blade of a knife pressed against her throat. "Are you prepared to die?" asked a raspy voice.
"You've been eating onions." replied Tajna.
The hands of the captor relaxed and the blade was sheathed. "That is the stupidest password ever." he complained, his voice suddenly soft and melodic.
"I'm happy to see you too, Zangrik." came the reply. Tanja removed her hood to reveal the coal black face of a drow elf. "Do you have it?"
Zangrik turned up the room's only lantern, allowing his companion to see his face as well, the face of a lutin with an unusual red color. "Many people died for this." he said. "I am not so fond of my life that I would be the one to let that sacrifice be in vain." So saying, he reached into his vest pocket and produced a small, white crystal.
Tajna took the crystal and gingerly placed it inside a cushioned bag in her hip pocket. "If we pull this off, their sacrifice will be well worth it." She replaced her hood and turned to go.
"Wait!" whispered the lutin, grabbing her arm. He pointed to a ring on his left hand which emitted a very faint glow. "Someone is watching the door. The ring will stop glowing when the coast is clear." But the ring didn't stop glowing. The glow remained constant, and the conspirators began to worry.
"Is there another way out of here?" asked Tajna.
"Chimney." said the lutin. No sooner had he spoken than the drow was in the fireplace and scaling the inside.
The door burst open. Framed by the doorway stood an imposing figure, a draconian. He was dressed in severe-looking red armor partially covered by a black tunic. His face was relatively smooth, devoid of horns, whiskers or other protuberances, save for a frill which hung loose around his neck. His scales were so dark that they just seemed to swallow light. Only his frighteningly red eyes reflected anything. "Where is the woman?" he demanded.
"Commander Vahisi. So nice to see you." said Zangrik. "Exactly what species of woman are you looking for?"
"Do not toy with me, goblin." growled the draconian, stepping in and grabbing Zangrik by the lapels. "Where is the dark elf?"
"Oh, you don't want an elf." said the lutin. "Much too delicate for a man like you. But I know a few vampires I could reccommend. Always a blast and they work cheap. Ten silver and any bodily fluids you may let loose."
Vahisi slammed Zangrik against the wall. "I will kill you without hesitation if you answer thusly again. Where is the elf?"
"I don't know." said Zangrik, suddenly serious. "She used a teleport spell. She said something about heading south to Wadogo. That's all I know."
Vahisi put the lutin down. "That wasn't so hard, was it?" he cooed greasily. Stepping outside, he told two other draconians "Scan the roads going north out of Chai Enu. Capture any elves you find." Then to a third, he said "You may eat the goblin."
Tajna cringed as the screams of her friend filled the night behind her. There was no stopping, now. Ahead was a caravan, waiting to pull out. Seeing her, the men in the last wagon motioned for her to get in, then hurriedly covered her with blankets and clothing. Tajna prayed to remain undiscovered as the wagon set off to the south.
"Halt." came the voice of a draconian border guard. Who goes there?"
"Hey there!" came the voice of the human in the lead wagon. "Pheobus Slater, center bishop of the Slayers."
"Hey, I love you guys!" said the guard, suddenly sounding very friendly. "I saw you playing against Lsar Fen last year. When you did that sommersault over their rook, that was priceless."
"Always a pleasure to meet a swackball fan."
"Where are you headed?"
"Down to Wadogo. We're playing against the Malozi in three days. So are we free to go, then?"
"I'm afraid not. I have orders to search every vehicle coming through here." Tajna prayed vehemently to not be discovered, but it wasn't long before the blankets were pulled away and she was gazing fearfully into the eyes of the draconian. "What's this?" he demanded.
"Oh, man, don't tell the coach about this!" Slater begged. "We all went in together and bought her. She cost a fortune. If the coach finds her, he's going to make us send her back. He's so paranoid we're all going to catch some vile disease from sharing a woman."
"Yuck." the guard commented. "All right, fine. Just make sure no one else sees her before you reach Wadogo."
"Thanks, bud." said Slater, shaking the draconian's hand and slipping him a gold coin.
Zangrik's ruse had worked. Certain that the lutin had been lying, Vahisi never bothered to check the road to Wadogo. The swackball team and their precious cargo travelled unmolested through the night.
* * *
Calor smiled as he stepped into the clearing, a basket of bread and cheese in one hand and the hand of his girlfriend, Yakina in the other. In front of them stood Qlin's tower. It was well over ten stories tall, now, and yet Qlin continued to build it. "There it is." said Calor, flashing a big, green smile.
"Are you sure we aren't going to get into any trouble?" asked Yakina. She wasn't very keen on doing anything that might incur the wrath of one so close to the council chairman.
"No, he's cool with it." Calor explained. "Qlin lets people climb the tower all the time." So saying, he opened the door for Yakina. The two young lutins ascended the stone staircase, stepping out onto the wooden floor of the second level. Out the window, the view was mostly foliage. On the third level, however, more of the forest came into view. With each new story, Calor and Yakina could see further and further, and by the time they reached the topmost floor, which had only just been started and was almost completely open, the view was breathtaking. "Look over there." said Calor, pointing to the west. That little bunch of buildings, that's Point Grove."
"Wow." sighed Yakina. "Oh, look there! You can see the train!" Indeed, the train was there, to the south, making its way east toward North Hunger.
"Even better than that. Look right up there. See that little dark spot up on top of the cliffs?"
"That's Sky Valley."
"It's so beautiful, Calor!"
The lutin boy parked himself on top of the low stone wall and opened the basket. The couple dined on their bread and cheese in relative silence, just enjoying the beauty of the moment. "I wonder what it will be like when the tower is finished." said Calor. "I'll bet you'll be able to see all the way to Wadogo."
"Do you think that's possible?" asked Yakina.
"I don't know. Mum and Dad say that how far you can see has something to do with the world being round. I don't think I'm ready to believe in a round world yet."
"It might be. If you look out at the horizon, it looks very round."
Calor conceded that point. As the last of the bread was eaten, he packed up the knives and napkins in his basket and led the way down the stairs. Still smiling and slightly giddy, the couple headed toward the path back toward Foxtooth. At the edge of the clearing, Calor paused. "Hang on just a moment." he said. Then, picking up a rock from Qlin's rock pile, he carried it over to where Yakina was and set it down.
"What did you do that for?" asked the girl.
"I don't know. I just felt like I had to." He then went back and did it again.
"Calor, we should get back to Foxtooth. If we dally, it will be night before we get home."
"Just one more." said the boy, who set down a third stone. While he felt compelled to keep going, he knew Yakina was right. It was a long hike back to Foxtooth. Off they went into the woods. Then, when night had fallen and everyone else was asleep, Calor set off through the woods again, came back to the clearing and continued laying stones.
* * *
Sen very much enjoyed coming to Wadogo. It was always a pleasure to spend an afternoon shopping in the open air markets. Now that she was starting her new job, it would be even better, since she'd have a regular salary to spend instead of a paltry allowance. Speaking of employment, it was time for her to get going. It wouldn't do to be late for her first day of work. Sen gave the merchant before her two copper coins for the necklace in her hand, then made her way over to the teleport station. There was a short line, so the lutin girl queued up and waited her turn. As she waited, a tall, dark skinned woman came running through the station and plowed right into her. Both ladies wound up on the floor, somewhat disoriented. "I'm so sorry." said the dark skinned woman. Rising to her feet, she helped Sen to hers. Then, bending down, she whispered in Sen's ear. "See that Kayrok gets it." She then took off as fast as her feet could go.
"That was weird." Sen muttered to herself. But the event had passed as quickly as it had happened. Everyone in the station was getting on with their day, so Sen also resumed her place in line and when her turn came, teleported to North Hunger. It was only a short wait for the train that would take her to Dimtorch.
The weather was beautiful today, and the ride was most pleasant. When she stepped off, she was pleased to see the other new recruits standing there. Sen was one of twelve young lutins who had enlisted in the military upon completion of their schooling. Even though Nasoj' lutin army was officially disbanded, Kayrok maintained his own troop. They didn't wear uniforms, but they were nevertheless soldiers. They had been trained over the summer in basic combat and survival skills. Now it was time for advanced individual training. Each of the cadets would be placed with an adult in the troop to learn a specialized skillset.
"Hey, Sen." greeted Tor, one of the Yarasa boys. "Guess what. I just found out I'm being assigned to Redfoot. He's going to teach me to be a ranger."
"That's great, Tor." sen replied. "Hey, Gaff, did you get the assignment you wanted?"
A somewhat stocky tragso boy turned to face her. "I don't know yet. I'll find out today."
"I'm sure you'll get it." said Sen. "You're the only goblin I know who actually ASKS for KP duty."
"What about you?" asked Tor. "Have you heard, yet?"
Sen shook her head. "I'm probably going to get paired with Barga. After all, I'm the only girl in the class."
Sytet exited the CQ and crossed the square to where the cadets stood. "Cadets, Attention!" he barked. "As I call your names and assignments, please report immediately to the location you are given. Mange!"
"Present, Sir!" replied a shaggy amitok.
"No need to respond, cadet. Just go where I tell you. Sentry duty. Report to Zin and Zan at the pass gatehouse. Gaff, assistant cook. Report to Splim in Mountainshade. Boog, special infantry. Report to Sgt. Oof in Punishment. Tor, ranger. Report to Redfoot in Point Grove." One by one, Sytet read off the assignments and the cadets went their ways, until Sen was the only one left. He then turned to go back to the CQ.
"Excuse me, Sir!" shouted Sen. "Mister Sytet, you haven't given me my assignment."
"What's your name, soldier?" asked the second in command.
"Sen, Sir. Of Spiritfell."
Sytet looked at the clipboard he was carrying. He could find no mention of any Sen until he realized there was a second page to his list. "Here you are. Engineering. You're to report to Fugu in Cephas."
"Engineering?" Sen echoed. "There must be some mistake, Sir."
"No mistake. According to this, you scored extremely high in mechanical proficiency."
"But I was expecting to be a warrior."
Sytet smiled weakly. "You'll get your chance." he said in a melancholy way. "Don't be so eager to go into battle. It's not as glorious as you might think. For now, be content with more constructive duties. Now off with you. Fugu is waiting."
"Aye, Sir." said the young lady, firing off a salute which Sytet returned a little bit sloppily. feeling extreme disappointment, Sen made her way to Cephas.
* * *
Algene felt very frustrated as he observed the charts in front of him. Everything was so jumbled, and it was his job to make sense of them. He picked up one of the documents and examined it. This chart showed the relationship between bovine gas emissions and weather patterns in Irombi. The seer turned the chart sideways so that it would function properly. He then cross-referenced it, filed it under "burp" and declared that part of his task done. Having completed said paperwork, Algene took his next breath of air.
Chara took the wet napkin from her husband's head and replaced it with a clean one. The cyclops took another deep breath, rasping and gasping as his ursine wife did her best to care for him. Poor Algene. He hadn't seen this coming, and that was a fact. There were very few things that Algene could not see with his unique psychic abilities. The two biggest obstacles to his powers were heavy magic and events which might result in his own death. Other cyclopses had the power to foresee their own deaths and nothing else, but for Algene, this was his biggest blind spot, and the sickness he was now experiencing was bringing him uncomfortably close to death. Chara, however, had forseen it, for she, too, was a seer, though not as powerful as Algene. She had thus been able to prepare and help her husband to make it through the ordeal. It was nevertheless still a very worrying ordeal for her and extremely uncomfortable process for Algene. As she took his hand in her paws, the cyclops finishd another bit of paperwork in his dreams and drew another breath. He opened his eye and saw his bear bride. "Chara..." he moaned.
"Yes, my love?"
"You must tell the lutins that the moon is going to fall from the sky on Tuesday. It will land in a pine tree at the bottom of Gerf's teapot."
"They already know." said Chara. "Kayrok has placed a guard at the entrance to the teapot."
"Oh good." said Algene, who went back to sleep and began the tedious task of putting in an order for a fresh moon in his dreams before drawing another breath. Chara sighed and took Algene's cup from his bedside table to fill it with fresh water. He had made a number of predictions like that since he fell ill. Some of the predictions seemed to make sense, like the one about Marai-Uthra being burned. Some were complete nonsense, like the one about a weasel being born from a seed while her twin sister was sewn from cloth. There was no way to distinguish a real vision from a fever dream, so Chara simply played along with each one as she waited for her husband to get well. As she replaced the water cup, Algene opened his eye once again. "The sea!" he rasped.
"What about the sea?"
"The lutins. They are going to be attacked by the sea."
Chara knew this was impossible, since they were in the middle of the largest continent in the world. "I will let Kayrok know." she assured him.
"They're going to die. The sea will batter them and drown them. Chara, you must warn them not to mine the sea!"
"Yes, dear." said the bear. "Now get some rest."
Algene fell asleep again, going back to his fevered dreams. This time, he had to warn ten lutins of the impending tidal wave before taking each breath. It was a most unpleasant way to dream.
* * *
Smallbeard enjoyed getting down and working in the mines. It was good exercise and it got him away from the more tedious work of being the mayor of Cephas. Down here, he didn't have to think. He only had to dig. Currently, he was working a platinum vein with his only companion being a dwarf named Sunny. Sunny was so called because he was never known to frown. A smile remained permanently plastered on his face as he swung his pick at the platinum ore. Smallbeard started to feel a bit dizzy. He leaned on his pick and said "I think perhaps I ought to stop." Much to his surprise, his words sounded like they came from a small rodent, high pitched and almost like a quack.
"Hey, Smallbeard." said Sunny with a similar sound. "What in the world happened to your voice?"
Smallbeard could not help but laugh. The two of them sounded ridiiculous. "Listen to me!" he giggled. "I'm Smallbeard the hamster!"
"Ooh, I guess I must be a squirrel!" said Sunny with a laugh. "Or I don't know. Maybe I'm a duck."
"Whoa." Smallbeard held his head as the room began to spin. "Sunny, we'd better get out of here. Something is really wrong."
"I know what this is." said Sunny. "We've struck helium. And you're right. We need to get to fresh air or we're going to die."
Stumbling and fumbling, the two dwarves quickly made their way to the main pass.
* * *
Sen tightened the last bolt on the machine and turned it on. Steam poured into it, causing it to rumble and sputter. It ejected a cloud of soot, but afterwards, the pick head began to pivot in and out of the device's barrel just like it was supposed to. "There. The auto-pick if fixed, boss."
"Good work, Sen." said Fugu without looking up from his work on the train engine. The cadet reached into her back pocket for a rag to clean the soot off of her hands. As she did, something fell of the floor. It was a small shard of crystal. Sen picked it up and examined it. "What's that?" asked Fugu, turning away from the engine in curiosity.
"I've never seen it before." said Sen. "It must have fallen into my pocket this morning when that elf lady ran into me."
"An elf ran into you?"
"Yeah. A drow. I guess she just didn't see me."
"Elves don't just run into people." said Fugu. "They're renowned for their agility, grace and awareness of their surroundings. They don't have accidents."
"Well this one did. We both ended up on the floor in the teleport station."
"Did she say anything?" Fugu inquired.
"Yeah. I didn't understand it at the time. She told me to make sure Kayrok gets it. I guess she must have meant this."
"Well then..." said Fugu. "I suppose we ought to go give it to him."
* * *
A pack of wolves ran across the bridge and into the city gate of Prendor. One wolf in particular, a white furred female wearing a small red cape made her way toward the palace. Upon reaching the throneroom, the wolf transformed, taking on the stately form of a young woman. Clothing appeared upon her frame and a tiara upon her head. The short cape lengthened, reaching down to her knees, and though it was obviously a traveling cloak, the woman wore it regally. "Bunson!" she called. "My shoes!"
A small, well dressed man appeared carrying a pair of shoes and proceeded to place them onto the woman's feet. "It seems you had a good run, my queen." Bunson observed.
"Indeed. And I apologize for having to give you this duty, but as you know, I only recently became a werewolf and my skills at morphing clothing are not yet complete."
"It is no trouble, my queen." replied Bunson. "Did you manage to gather any new information?"
"More than that. We engaged the Burning Sun just this side of the region of snatcher plants. They are becoming much bolder. Ever since their first attack last year they've been getting stronger."
"It has definitely not gone unoticed by the people of Prendor." said Bunson. "How fortunate for us that we were reconciled with the wolves before the barbarians arrived."
"Where is Kalo?" asked the queen. "He must be informed of these events at once."
"The king and the cubs are presently at Mountainshade, attending the swackball tournament."
"That's right, I remember. The tournament won't be over for several more days."
"If your majesty pleases, we do have a radio."
"Radiant." the queen corrected.
"Of course. I merely use the slang term that has become popular among the young lutins. I can radiant Dimtorch and ask them to have King Kalo contact us."
"Do so. and Bunson?"
"Yes, your majesty?"
"Go ahead and say 'radio'. 'Radiant Dimtorch' just sounds wrong."
"Very good, Madam."
* * *
Vort was not a genius of an ogre, but he was brighter than most of his kind, and his eyesight was unusually keen. "I see eight men on the city wall." said the ogre. "Four are armed with crossbows, two with longbows. The ones nearest the northwest tower look especially sleepy. That's going to be the weakest spot in their defenses. Just below them, there's a spot where the wall has been damaged but not repaired. There are a number of loose bricks. If we can't go over the wall, we might be able to go through it."
"Very good." said Ithuba, staring at his map of Prendor. "Telmar, give me your report on potential targets."
A large lutin stepped forward. Pointing to the map, he gave his leader his information. "There's an armory here. Food stores are here, here and here. Royal residence here. If you want to strike unarmed civilians, your best bets are the church, the school and the theater. If you want to cripple their industries, there's the ironworks here, the fish packing plant here, and the coal plant here."
"Good work." Ithuba praised again. "Shadowfox, what have you learned?"
No one was aware that the strange creature had been in the room. Such was his weird magical ability. He pulled back his hood, revealing a horrid face that was a mix of all the worst qualities of human and fox. "The queen remains in the city with a small personal guard. The rest of the wolves have gone. The king also is gone, taking a personal holiday in Mountainshade."
Ithuba smiled to himself. "And you all thought we were wasting our time killing off all of the local prey. With no animals to hunt, the wolves have been forced to seek food abroad."
A particularly burly human dared to ask "Chief, we have been trying to conquer Prendor for a year now. With or without the wolves, what makes you think this time is going to be different?"
"Are you challenging me?" Ithuba bristled.
"No, no. Just asking.
"This time, we have a secret weapon." The small man who was standing in the shadows in the corner of the tent stepped into the light. It was Sujan. "This lutin is one of the most brilliant strategists ever born. He will help us achieve victory today. Now go. get your gear. We attack in five minutes."
Barry was bored. He'd been up here on the wall on guard duty all day. That was guard duty for you. Weeks and weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic. Half-heartedly, he looked out over the crenels at the forest. It was very quiet. There wasn't even any birdsong. Suddenly, Barry was wide awake. "Scott!" he called.
One of the men armed with longbows responded. "Yeah?"
"Listen! No birds!"
Scott aimed an ear at the forest. "You're right. Something's up. Sound the alarm bells."
Barry moved to obey, but he never made it to the tower where the bells were housed. An arrow pierced his neck and felled him. A second arrow struck Scott in the side.
"ATTACK!" cried Ithuba. The roving warriors of the Burning Sun poured out of the forest. They dashed toward the wall, throwing grappling hooks up over the crenels. Little resistance came from within the city, but in mere moments, a howling cry was heard and an army of werewolves flooded the area. Many of the Burning Sun stood staring in alarm at the sheer numbers. This was far more than they had ever seen before.
"Retreat!" shouted Ithuba. For all of his bravado, he knew that his people didn't stand a chance against so many werewolves. Many of the invaders fell, ripped by the claws and fangs of the wolfmen. One of them was closing in on Ithuba himself, but the chieftan picked up a nearby dwarf from his ranks and cast him backwards at the wolf. Ithuba thus survived to return to his tent and lick his wounds.
"What happened?" demanded the men of the Burning Sun. "You said we would have victory today! You said you had a brilliant strategist! You have failed us, Ithuba!"
Sujan calmly stepped between Ithuba and his men. "Men of the Burning Sun, do not be distressed. All is going according to plan."
"According to plan?" Vort the ogre bellowed. "We just lost scores of men, and the werewolves may be tracking us back here at this very moment!"
"They will not follow you here." said Sujan. "King Kalos will not risk any of his wolves on the chance that our raid was a distraction or a trap. They will remain close to Prendor. Kalos is no fool. He knows that we overhunted this forest in order to drive the wolves further afield. That was why he sent out messengers to recruit help from neighboring packs."
Ithuba glowered at Sujan. "You knew this would happen!"
"Indeed I did. But hear me out. Prendor expected us to make one last big push. We made it. They beat us. They will not expect us to try anything soon. Their defenses will be down, and we can take advantage of that."
"How?" demanded Ithuba.
Sujan began to explain his larger plan. As he did, he felt something stirring inside him. It was that trace of rare emotion that he craved so badly. It gnawed. It twisted. It clawed and bit at his heart. He loved it.
* * *
"What is it?" asked Kayrok, turning the small crystal over in his hand.
"I have no idea, Sir." replied Fugu. "I was hoping you would know."
"And you say a drow elf gave this to you?"
"To one of the cadets, actually, while she was visiting Wadogo."
Kayrok held the crystal up to the light. "What's so important about you?" he said. On the off chance that it might be waiting for some sort of activation command, he told it "Speak."
"Activate. Go. Begin. Abracadabra. Alakazam. Hocus Pocus." The crystal, true to its nature of being a rock, sat unmoving between the captain's fingers. "If its purpose isn't obvious, there's a possibility that it may be some sort of wooden horse."
"Sir?" Fugu asked in confusion.
"A story Qlin told me about. It's an underhanded way of getting something dangerous into the enemy's camp by disguising it as something innocuous. On the off chance that this is the case, would you mind keeping it?"
"You want me to hold on to something that could be intended to kill you."
"That's the thing. The instruction was to bring it to me. If there's any kind of harmful enchantment on that, it's much more likely to go off in my presence. Besides, we don't know that there is."
"True. Very well, then, Sir." Fugu took the crystal, saluted and left. "What could you be?" he asked the stone. Again, the object behaved itself perfectly and said nothing. When Fugu reached the workshop, he found Sen rather busy building something.
"Sen?" he asked. "What are you doing? Work is done for today."
"I know, Sir. I just had this idea." was sen's reply.
"Idea for what?"
"It's... well, I don't know, but the idea won't leave me alone."
Fugu looked at what Sen was making. It looked a bit like a clock, filled with all sorts of large gears. "Seems like it's going to be intricate, whatever it is. Anyway, Kayrok had no idea what to do with the crystal, so he asked me to hang onto it."
"That's too bad." said Sen. "I was starting to get curious. Both lutins were silent for a while, then Sen started to sing in a low voice. "All the towns are falling down. Burning burning, to the ground. From the north the dragons fly. From the south they came to die. Land of ice and land of stone, land of fruits and pony's home. Land of hunger, Land of Steam, all will burn and all will scream. When the castle comes to play, all the children fade away. When the dark shall fill the sky, Run! For now the end is nigh."
"Where did you hear that?" asked Fugu.
"I don't know." replied Sen. "Probably from one of the older lutins. You know how they like their songs of death and conquest."
Fugu thought nothing more about it. It was the sort of song one might hear in mainstream lutin society. "Lock up when you leave." he said, placing the crystal on his work table.
* * *
Knockwart didn't know what to expect at the hospital, but this was not it. When he heard that he had become Doctor Hornbeam's apprentice, he was ecstatic. He'd had visions of himself in the emergency room, performing life-saving surgeries as the casualties rolled in from the latest battle with the wood elves or the Qor horde. Instead, he was folding laundry. "At least we don't have to do it all be hand." he told himself as he transferred the next load from a steam-powered washing machine into a steam-powered dryer. Now if Fugu would just invent a steam-powered folding machine.
"Knockwart." called Doctor Hornbeam.
"Coming, Sir." replied the cadet. What was it now? Sweep the cafeteria? Wash out the barf bowls?
"I just got a call from Chara the seer. Algene is very sick. I'm going to go give him a once-over. Do you want to come?"
"Anything to get away from laundry duty." Knockwart answered honestly.
"I thought you might be getting bored." said the doctor. "Tell you what. You drive."
Now this was more like it! Finally some action! Knockwart abandoned his laundry and ran to the ambulance. The garage was very warm, as usual. The hospital had its own steam supply so that should the steam pipes cease to function for any reason, the hospital would still have power. The furnace was accessible from the garage and in it were kept several metal plates. Reaching inside with a pair of specialized tongs, Knockwart pulled out one of the plates and placed it into the engine of the ambulance. The red-hot plate ignited the pre-kindled furnace and immediately began to provide steam. The ambulance was ready to go in a very short time. Out of the garage and down the road they raced at a breakneck thirty-five miles per hour.
When they arrived at the home of Algene and Chara, Hornbeam knocked politely before letting himself in. It must be serious, he thought, for Chara not to meet them at the door. "Chara?" he called.
"In here!" the bear called back. This was followed by the sound of vomitting.
Hornbeam followed the sound and found Chara on all fours, standing over a toilet. His first thought was that Chara may have caught whatever it was that Algene had. His second thought was "Of course they already have indoor plumbing. Leave it to the seers to be at the forefront of technology." "Are you all right, Ma'am?" asked the doctor.
"I'll be fine in a moment. I've been having nausea for several weeks, now. The episodes always pass quickly."
Hornbeam went to the sick cyclops and examined him. "Influenza." was his diagnosis. "He'll be fine in a couple of days as long as you make sure he gets enough to drink."
"Hornbeam?" croaked Algene.
"Yes, what is it?" replied the lutin, a little absently.
"They're going to drown."
Chara sighed. "He's been saying that for hours. He's delerious."
"No, no!" Algene insisted. "They're going to break the sea."
"Who is?" asked Hornbeam.
"The diggers." Algene replied. "They're going to drown."
The doctor turned to his helper. "Knockwart, get on the radiant. Call Dimtorch and tell them what Algene just told us. I would rather be humiliated if the seer is delerious than guilty if people die."
"Aye, Doctor." replied Knockwart, who returned to the ambulance.
Hornbeam produced a pair of tablets from a small bottle in his bag. "Give him one of these every twelve hours. They'll make it easier for him to breathe. I also recommend putting a kettle of soup on the fire. The steam produced will have a profound influence on his recovery."
"Thank you, Doctor." said Chara.
"Now, I'd like to find out what's wrong with you."
"I'm fine." Chara assured him, but Hornbeam insisted. He took a Y-shaped device from his bag and put two of the ends into his ears. "What is that?" asked the bear.
"It's called a stethophone." replied the lutin. "The healers in Marai-Uthra use these to listen to their patients' insides. Now be quiet for just a moment." Chara sat quietly while Hornbeam listened to her intestines, then with a surprised expression, announced "That explains it."
"What is it?" asked Chara.
"A second heartbeat. Mrs. Cyclops, you are pregnant."
Chara almost fell over. "But how is that even possible?" she asked. "I haven't been unfaithful to my husband! He's a cyclops and I'm a bear!"
Knockwart was re-entering when Hornbeam remarked "It might have something to do with the fact that your ancestors were both giants. No one really knows how genetics work, so I suppose anything is possible. In any case, you're going to be a mother."
"I remember Doctor Gitch talking about a case like that." said Knockwart. "A lutin and a lioness, I think it was. The lioness got killed by a monster and they found out she was pregnant when she died. The baby was half lion cub, half lutin."
Chara looked down at her gut. Inside her was a creature that was half bear, half cyclops. The thought filled her with revulsion. Then, as seconds passed, the revulsion drained away, and love grew to take it's place. "It's a boy." she predicted. "And he'll be great, someday. He won't need to build a house. His castle will come to him. He will fly with the bat and the deer, and he will rescue the seeds from the fire."
"You got all that from looking at your stomach?" asked Knockwart.
"What does it all mean? He'll fly with the deer? Deer don't fly!"
"I don't always know what my predictions mean." said the bear. "But I do know this. He will be called after the greatest star in the sky. His name will be VY Canis Majoris."
"Darling, that's awful." croaked Algene.
"All right, then, you pick a name."
"That's the closest. Not the greatest."
"I'm too tired to think." said the cyclops, who cast his senses forward in time. "Vycam." he whispered. "His name is Vycam."
* * *
Wezen the wolverine couldn't sleep. There was something nagging at his senses. Something that he had to do. Unable to shake off the feeling, the mustelid decided to go for a walk and hopefully clear his head. He thought he might go over to Singing Pony. There was a place there called the insomnia house. Inside were games, books, snacks, things to occupy someone's time when they were unable to sleep. When more than one person shared the problem, the company was always welcome. It was nearly an hour before Wezen realized he was headed in the wrong direction. How could he have made that mistake? But as much as Wezen wanted to visit the insomnia house, he felt compelled to see where the road he was on led. He didn't remember turning right back in town, but now he found himself heading north into the forest. Before long, Wezen came to a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was Qlin's tower, now eleven stories tall. On the ground, however, all around the tower, people of many species were moving stones. Silently, he looked around. There was a Yarasa boy handing rocks to a human girl. A halfling was mixing mud and gypsum into mortar. Two ponies were hauling boulders on a cart out of the woods. A dwarf was cutting logs into floor planks. It seemed very strange for all of these people to be working on a construction project at this hour, but here they were, and Wezen knew he had to join them. He didn't know why, but there was a space on the east side of Qlin's tower that had no one working there, and he knew that he had to be there. Picking up a stone from the ponies' wagon, he began to build.
* * *
Pentagruel yawned and stretched as the new day dawned. He was always up early, for he thoroughly believed in the value of hard work. "Out of bed and into the fray" his father always taught him. The first thing on the agenda today was swordfighting lessons with his nephew, Myrslok. Taking a breath of fresh air, he collected his gear and went out to meet his pupil. Pentagruel was left waiting for some time, for Myrslok did not show. After fifteen minutes, the half-ogre king stormed to his sister's house. "Myrslok!" he called as he banged on the door. "Myrslok, get out here!"
"Your majesty!" said Orzo, the king's brother-in-law sleepily as he opened the door, almost getting his face knocked upon. "Why do you bang on my door at this hour?"
"It is time for Myrslok's sword-fighting lesson, and he has kept me waiting. MYRSLOK!"
"Sire, Myrslok is not here."
Pentagruel raised an eyebrow. "He's not? Then where is he?"
"He left the house before dawn. I assumed he would be with you now."
Irritated, the king went in search of his pupil. Asking around, he discovered that his nephew had gotten on a train in the early hours of the morning. The same conductor was still on duty, so Pentagruel rode the rail to where he was told Myrslok had disembarked. The lad was in Cephas, and it didn't take long to find him. Only a few places in the city were lit at this hour. A restaurant, a hotel, a stable and a workshop. Trying them one by one, Pentagruel caught up with the wayward goblin in the workshop. The room was stiflingly hot, with fires burning like the very blazes of Everdark itself. There, standing next to a dwarf who was giving him instructions, was Myrslok. He was blowing into a long tube with a bubble of hot glass on the far end. "Myrslok!" exclaimed Pentagruel.
Myslok whirled around. "Uncle!" he exclaimed.
"Why were you not at sword practice today, nephew?"
"Oh no. Did I miss it?"
"Miss it? Do you have any idea how much of my time you have wasted this morning?"
The dwarf excused himself, saying "I'm going to go... check on the... thing."
"I'm sorry, uncle." said Myrslok, timidly.
"Why are you here?" asked Pentagruel.
"I could not sleep." said the boy. "So I went out and rode the train for a while, hoping that a train ride would help me tire. The next thing I knew, I was here. I walked around, and saw Mister Huff blowing glass. I was curious, so I asked if I could try it. I guess I let the time get away from me. I am sorry, uncle."
"See that it doesn't happen again." said Pentagruel, taking his leave.
"It won't, uncle." Myrslok promised. But it did.
* * *
Sopok was enjoying an early morning flight. All of his fingers and toes were grown back now, and the experience of losing them to frostbite had helped the lad to appreciate his complete body all the more. Bodies, actually. Plural. He had been enjoying activity as a lutin just as much as his flights as a bat. Below him at this moment was a strip mine where snotlings had been collecting coal during the winter. Sopok had always thought of coal as dull and black, but the anthracite below him was surprisingly shiny, like metal. The werebat was mesmerized by it for just a moment too long and nearly collided with Sualocin. The surprised looking reindeer hung in the air, a dredge piled with logs levitating behind him. "Are you okay?" asked Sualocin.
"Fine. Fine." replied Sopok. "But... what are you doing way out here by the snotling mines?"
"Hauling lumber." Sualocin answered. "Taking it back to Qlin's tower."
Sualocin thought for a moment. "I don't know." he said. "I went for a fly this morning and found some amitoks sawing down trees. Moving the logs just seemed like the thing to do."
"I see." said Sopok, who had taken a moment to perch on the logs and inspect them. There seemed to be nothing unusual about them. "Well, good luck with that."
"Thanks." said Sualocin, who went his way, leaving Sopok to go his. The werebat boy looked down at the strip mine once again. The coal was so shiny. He swooped down to pick up a piece in his claws. It was surprisingly clean. He decided to carry the coal with him as he travelled northeast, distantly following the reindeer.
Similar things were happening all over the Federation. The young of every species were wandering off for reasons they themselves did not understand, collecting wood, coal and stone, making devices with purposes they did not know, bringing everything back to Qlin's tower. And the adults were starting to freak out.
* * *
Smallbeard turned a valve on a pipe while the dwarves and goblins all around him looked on. A hiss was all that betrayed the presence of the gas coming out until he lit it with a candle. A lovely flame then burned brightly at the end of the pipe. "I don't have a name for it, other than 'natural gas'. The primary component appears to be methane, the same gas that causes the tremendous stink in pig manure. Only in this form, it's much more flamable. I estimate there's enough natural gas in that cavern to run every furnace in the Federation for twenty years. We've already sealed the cave and run a line out." He turned the valve again, extinguishing the flame. "All we need to do is pump it."
"This is excellent news." said Gwyn, the mayor of Halfway.
"There's something else I want to show you, though." said Smallbeard. He produced a large bladder bag from under a box. When he placed it in midair, it stayed there, drifting lazily. "This vessel is filled with a second gas that we extracted from the cavern. This gas is called helium, and it's lighter than air."
"Amusing." said James. "Is there a practical application for this?"
Sunny was now in the front of the crowd. "There is!" he declared, unrolling a scroll with a detailed drawing on it. "I've been crunching the numbers all night, and though it may seem impossible, this could work. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the airship!"
There was a great deal of oohing and ahing, and some dirisive scoffs, but in the end, the dwarves in the group were dwarves, and building new things, whether they would work or not, was what dwarves loved to do. The workshops of Cephas were starting the project in minutes.
* * *
Qlin had awoken early the next morning. He hoped he might be able to get a bit of building in before having to report to work. In actuality, there was no need for him to even be at Dimtorch. If Kayrok needed him, the radiant provided instant communication. Anything that needed to be looked up or archived, he could delegate to an underling, and if it needed his personal attention, the train could have him there in minutes. But Qlin was nothing if not consciencious, and wouldn't think of failing to report for duty in person. He would place a few stones this morning, then make his way to work.
When the archivist arrived at his tower, his jaw just about hit the ground. The area was filled with all varieties of young, able-bodied people working hard. Six towers in various stages of completion surrounded his own. They were all smaller than his, but promised to be impressive edifices nonetheless. "What's going on?" he asked no one in particular as he wended his way through the bustling construction site.
"MISTER FJORDSTORM!" someone shouted. Qlin cringed. No one used his tribal name. Ever. Not unless trouble was about to ensue. He turned around to see a dwarf woman approaching him. Her hair, which included a wisp of a beard, was shocking white and emphasized the redness of her flushed face. "Mister Fjordstorm." she said again, her voice half as loud, but twice as menacing for it. "What is the meaning of all this?"
"If I had to guess, I would say that your current skin color meant you were about to hack someone up with a battleaxe." Qlin joked. The dwarf was not amused.
"What do you mean dragging our children out here to build towers for you?" Others were now entering the clearing, walking up behind the dwarf with equally disapproving faces.
"Madam, I did not drag anyone out here." Qlin insisted. "I just arrived and found all these people here."
A bhuka stepped forward. "Mister Fjordstorm," Oh, there was that surname again! "My son has been coming out here every day for a week. He collects stones in a wagon and brings them here. When anyone asks him why, he claims he doesn't know why he's doing it. This behavior has me extremely worried."
"Aye, and me young Greggor has been saying the same thing." said a gnome. "He claims he just feels like he has to come build these... things."
"Qlin," asked a tragso. "You were the first one to start building your tower. I remember you saying that you felt compelled to build."
The lutin nodded. "That's right. I did. I still do."
"He's infecting all the others with his madness." said a pony. "He's the cause of all of this, I guarantee!"
"Now hold on!" Qlin objected.
That was the last moment anyone had any semblance of control. The adults began to shout Qlin down before he could appeal to their reason. The children and other workers came up to defend Qlin. Voices were raised. Someone threw a rock. From there, things just spiraled downward into chaos.
* * *
Fugu crossed his arms and snorted in frustration at the crystal before him. "What is your secret?" he demanded of it. "What must I do to get you to tell me?" He had tried everything he could think of. He had subjected the crystal to water, wind, stone, fire, light, heat, cold, lightning, music, magic, incantations, potions, toxins and even bugs in hopes of getting it to do something. He even placed a drop of the captain's blood on it in the hopes that if it were a wooden horse, it might be thusly activated. The crystal just laid there, perfectly calm, as if it were enjoying all the attention.
Sytet flew into Fugu's workshop. Not bothering to transform, he perched upside-down from a rafter. "kayrok sent me to ask if there is any news on the crystal." he said.
"Nothing." Fugu sighed. "It makes no sense. Why would someone go through so much trouble to get this to him if it weren't going to do anything and we have no idea what to do with it?" He rapped upon it angrily with the end of a probing stick.
"What was that?" asked Sytet.
"What was what?"
"Do that again."
A puzzled look on his face, Fugu struck the crystal. Sytet's sensitive bat ears heard a sound much too high for normal lutin ears to hear. "Let me see if I can match that." he said. The werebat opened his mouth and as far as Fugu could tell, nothing came out. However, many of the nearby animals began to yowl. The crystal glowed. An image began to form in the air next to the stone. It was sideways at first, until Fugu held the crystal upright. The image was of a woman speaking. Her voice was raspy and difficult to understand, but what she said sent chills through both Fugu and Sytet.
"My name is Fanthmiter. I am a friend. Captain Kayrok, this message is to inform you of a terrible danger to your young federation. The Lom Shi'un have not gone without noticing your great prosperity, and are preparing to move against you. Already, the first waves of an invasion have been sent in your direction."
Fugu and Sytet listened raptly as Fanthmiter explained what was about to happen, and when she finished, Fugu turned to Sytet and asked "Where is Kayrok?"
"Near Progress. He's checking out some newly discovered mineral veins."
"Let's go there. We need to get this to him at once."
* * *
Sven and Otar finished loading the last of the rocks into the train. Digging operations had been going very quickly since the kilikantzaros arrived. Without a question, they were very good at cutting through rock. Not only had they made significant progress on the pass, but they had also expanded the mines and discovered brand new minerals. Kayrok was busy inspecting some of them now.
"So, what do you think?" asked Sven. "Getting tired, yet?"
"A bit." Otar replied. "But I want to get another foot or so. We're getting bonus pay for distance this week and I want to bring home enough to get the wife a new coat."
"What's wrong with her old one?"
"Not a thing." Otar explained. "But I'm learning a thing or two about this weird practice of treating women as equals. It may be bizarre, but they love it, and they make their appreciation known in very tangible ways. Last week, I took a turn washing the dishes. She kept me in the bedchamber for six hours the next morning."
"Say no more." Sven said. "Seriously, say no more. I don't need that mental image."
It was at this point that Fugu and Sytet came speeding down the tunnel. "Hey!" said the engineer, rather out of breath. "Have you... seen... Kayrok?"
"Yeah." Sven answered. "He's inspecting the mine tunnels."
"No telling." said Otar. "He could be anywhere. If you go looking for him, you're sure to miss him."
"And don't even think about the radio." said Sven. "It won't penetrate solid rock without a hard wire."
"He should be back soon." said Otar. "You might as well wait here."
Fugu was forced to admit that the kilikantzaros were right. Sitting on a flattened stalagmite, he waited.
"I'm going to go look anyway." said Sytet. "Maybe I can hear him."
Fugu nodded and waved Sytet on his way.
"Say, would you mind looking at this drill?" asked Otar, indicating one of the large, wheeled, steam tools. "It's been spinning really slowly for the last couple of days."
Fugu decided he might as well, since there was no telling when Kayrok would return. "You lads seem to have picked up our language pretty quickly." he observed.
"We've been taking classes." said Sven. "That whole 'improve yourself' philosophy is something we've both been really getting into."
Otar swung his pick and was surprised when the rock appeared to bleed. "Whoa. That is not normal." he proclaimed.
Sven leaned in close and sniffed. "That's water." he declared. "Mineral water. Hey, everybody, come look at this."
Other workers who were nearby came to inspect the odd find. "What do you think it is? An underground river?"
* * *
Algene woke suddenly from his fevered dreams and screamed in horror. "GET OUT OF THE TUNNEL!" he shouted. "GET OUT OF THE TUNNEL!"
* * *
The trickle of water soon became a stream, and the stream a spray, then the spray, a gush. The foremen rushed to get everyone as far up the pass as they could go, but it was too little, too late. The rocks holding back the water exploded and the entire wall collapsed. Water raced into the tunnel, sending dwarves and goblins hurtling forward, carried along by its mighty current. Many fingers, toes and noses were broken as they were dashed repeatedly against the rock walls. The last thing Fugu saw was the opening to the lanthanil chamber, against which his head was hurled. Then, blackness.
* * *
The ugly confrontation at the seven towers had turned into a full-fledged riot. Angry parents, convinced that Qlin had somehow infected their children with a madness, were tearing structures down. Qlin tried his best to protect himself, but even though he was a soldier, his skills were never those of a great warrior. A fist struck his stomach, stealing his ability to breathe. A board hit him in the leg, taking away the power to stand. Blow upon blow rained down upon him, until finally, a blow to the temple brought merciful unconsciousness.
* * *
Kayrok and the two kilikantzaros accompanying him stood staring into the dark tunnel, not knowing what to do. The path was completely flooded, and as it descended significantly for some distance before rising again, it was going to be impossible to dive through it. A Koalinth or a Kol-k'su could make the trip easily enough, perhaps even an amitok, but lutins and kilikantzaros would surely drown. Neither was there much chance of anyone coming to rescue them. These tunnels were a maze, and no one had any idea where they were, or even that they were alive.
"We could try digging." said Jurgen, one of the kilikantzaros.
"Not likely." said Lars, the other. "There's no place to put the displaced dirt and rock."
Kayrok looked around at the tunnel. "How much air do we have in here?"
"Few days' worth." said Jurgen. "We're not going to suffocate any time soon."
Lars surveyed the water. "There's a chance this mess will drain away. I give it about three days before we need to worry."
Kayrok crossed his arms and leaned back against the tunnel wall. It was going to be a long wait.
* * *
It was a chaotic scene as the train pulled out of the pass and into Dimtorch. Some of the miners were still alive. Some had drowned. Some had been beaten so badly against the rocks that they weren't recognizable. The medical staff worked feverishly to determine who was still salvable.
"Dad?" called Sopok as he approached the train. "Has anyone seen my dad?" Unable to see through the crowd, he went into bat mode and flew over the heads of the others, but Kayrok was nowhere to be seen. "Dad? Where are you!" He did, however, find a badly injured Sytet. "Sytet!" he shouted, rushing to his fellow werebat's side and returned to lutin form. "Are you all right?" Immediately, he realized it was a stupid question.
"Both arms and both legs are broken." Sytet informed him. "It will take me a few days to heal."
"Do you know where my dad is? He's not on the train."
"He was in a mine tunnel when the flood happened. He might still be okay."
Someone touched Sytet's shoulder, causing him to spin around in alarm. It was Urik. "Sorry." said the soldier. "I didn't mean to alarm you. Benji is putting together a dive team to look for survivors. He'd like permission to set up a base of operations at your place in Progress."
"Of course." said Sopok. "Anything."
* * *
Algene was stumbling as he hastily dressed himself. Chara was ineffectively trying to get him back into bed. "You need to rest." she told him. "You're not well, darling."
"I'm well enough. I need to get to Progress right away. The search team needs my help."
"They can manage fine without you." Chara said weakly.
"Kayrok is missing. He's trapped in a tunnel, and I have to be the one to find him. If I don't, he could die, as will be confirmed right about... now."
There was a knock at the door. Grubstain, a local lutin who lived nearby, let himself in. "Algene! Chara! I just heard on the news that there's been a terrible accident in the pass! It's all over the radiant!"
"What happened?" asked Chara, her extrasensory powers already telling her the awful truth.
"The diggers hit an underground lake. The pass is flooded almost all the way back to the lava cave."
"And Kayrok?" asked Algene.
"I have to get to Dimtorch." said Algene. "I can help."
"You can barely walk!" Chara argued.
"Then carry me! If I don't get there, Kayrok will die!"
Chara knew better than to continue arguing. She picked up the cyclops in her enormous bear arms and carried him to the train station.
* * *
Rose concentrated her telepathic powers, but was unable to locate any survivors. "It's the lanthanil." she explained. "The energy from the lanthanil cave is creating too much interference."
"We'll just have to go in blind, then." said Benji, the hipocampus. "Koalinths, take the lower left tunnels. Otters, the upper left. Penguins, upper right. Jabar, you and I will take the lower right. If anyone finds anything, don't attempt a rescue on your own. Get back and report to Rose as soon as possible."
Back beyond the flooded area, a crowd of lutins, dwarves and assorted other people stood by, ready to help at a moment's notice. Among them were Mara and Urik, whose son was leading the search. Neither one was aware that as the hours went by, the sun was beginning to set. Urik's curse took effect, causing him to change. The lutin's legs disappeared as a long, muscular tail and fluke took their place. Arms became long flippers. His head flattened and became absolutely huge, easily as big as the rest of his body. Urik was becoming a humpback whale.
Mara just about panicked. Though very large, the tunnel was not big enough for a full-sized whale. Urik would be crushed. At that moment, Algene ran up to her. "Two miles!" he shouted, pointing straight ahead.
Mara knew exactly what he meant. The unicorn pressed herself against Urik and teleported, taking him with her two miles into the flood zone. There was a huge splash as Urik and Mara fell into the water. At first, Mara was extremely disoriented, being completely blind in the darkness. Urik, however, wa able to navigate using his sonar sense. He lifted her up with the top of his head and carried her to an island in the middle of the cavern. Once Mara was on dry land and had her wits about her, she shook her coat and caused the tip of her horn to glow- a spell which she had only recently learned.
The cavern was absolutely vast. An entire pod of whales could be lost completely in here. Although she turned her light up as bright as she could, Mara could not see the ceiling of the cavern. Making herself as comfortable as she could on the rock, Mara lay down to wait. She would not be able to teleport again tonight.
* * *
"Anything?" Benji asked impatiently.
"Patience." chided Algene. "Clairvoyance isn't exactly easy. Yes... there he is. I see Kayrok descending into a side tunnel with two kilikantzaros. The tunnel is on the left side, about a mile and a half beyond progress. there is a sign over the entrance. It says... hold on... 'Armadillo'.
"Armadillo?" Chara echoed.
"We've been naming the tunnels the same way we would name streets." said Sopok. "It really helps when it comes to finding your way around down here."
"All right... I'm following them..." said Algene. "They're taking a right turn. There's several ribbons hanging there."
"What color?" asked Sopok.
"Green, purple, light blue, dark blue and black. Now they're going left. Now straight... and right."
"Are there still ribbons?"
"Yes. Two. Purple and dark blue. They're passing underneath the dark blue one."
"Armaddillo tunnel, blue sector." said Sopok. "That narrows it down a lot."
"Wait, wait... they're heading back... Turning right..."
"Our right or their right?"
"Theirs. They're passing a purple ribbon. Going down... down... That's a long stairway. Down... down... And now coming up again. Going forward... and up... There's the flood. And they're sitting still, now. Aaaaand we're up to the present."
"That's going to be quite a dive." said Benji, who was resting up from his previous foray. "I can do that easily, but I don't know of a way to get an air breather through that. They'd drown for sure."
"What about magic?" asked Sergeant Oof. "Could we turn them into fish?"
It was Count Dupris who answered. "That type of magic is problematic at best. Our magic charms create a superficial change. We can make a lutin look like a fish, but he would still need air."
It was then that Gerf arrived. He was pulling a large wagon with a strange-looking machine inside and what seemed like miles of hose "The pipes told me to make this." he said. "They said it was important."
Everyone turned to stare at the odd thing. It had a large wheel on top and was obviously intended for several people to turn it together. There were lots of moving parts, including a propeller and some sort of piston. On one side, a hose coupling jutted out. "What is it?" asked Sopok.
"I dunno." Gerf replied.
Pushing her way throuh the crowd came Sen, apprentice engineer. "I think I know what it does." she announced. "It's an air pump."
"Air pump?" Sopok and Benji echoed.
"Oh my Stormhaven, Gerf! This is brilliant! ...and it's exactly what we need!"
"Benji!" Sopok shouted. "Take the end of that hose and go find Armadillo purple sector!"
Algene collapsed into Chara's arms. His energy had been completely spent while using his psychic vision. "Kayrok will be all right." he announced. "Everything... Oh. Oh no." he said as if he'd spilt tea on the rug.
"Darling? What is it?"
"Qlin. He's going to die." With those words, the seer passed out.
* * *
Fugu woke to a serious coughing fit. James was immediately at his side, helping to calm the spasms. As soon as he could speak, the engineer said "The crystal! I lost the crystal!"
"You nearly lost your life." said the nilbog. "You're more important than a crystal."
"No. COUGH COUGH! Not this crystal. Thousands of lives depend on this crystal."
Sytet, who was laying in the next bed with all of his limbs splinted, nodded. "He's right. That little crystal could be more important than any of us."
The conversation was interrupted as paramedics brought in a new patient. This one was wet only with his own blood. Sytet and Fugu were horrified to see the battered face of Qlin the archivist.
"What happened?" asked Gitch, running to examine his new patient.
"He was lynched." said the paramedic. "He would have died if Algene hadn't tipped us off that he'd been attacked."
"Lynched?" echoed Fugu, incredulously. "Qlin? He'd never COUGH harm a sparrow. Who would lynch Qlin?
"I couldn't get a lot of details." said the medic. "But apparently, it was people from all over the federation. It was a riot, literally."
Gitch thoroughly examined Qlin, probing his wounds, listening to his breathing and checking his pulse. "Pulse is weak." he commented to a nearby nurse. Then, in a more alarmed tone, "His heart just stopped. James, get over here. Nurse, get me a syringe of Moosewart essence. Knockwart, I need you to breathe into his mouth after every fourth chest compression.
Qlin, meanwhile, was feeling very confused. He stood in the middle of the emergency room, watching Doctor Gitch feverishly work to restart his heart. "How can I be here..." he wondered aloud. "...and there."
"Isn't it obvious?" commented one of the injured diggers. "You're dead."
"I can't be dead." said the archivist. "I don't feel dead."
"Oh? How do you know what being dead feels like?"
"Good point. But if I'm a ghost, how can you see me?"
"I have a lung full of water and a brain that's been beaten like an egg. If anyone is close enough to death to see inside, it's me."
Qlin tried to place a comforting hand on the digger, but his fingers went right through the other man's shoulder. Time seemed to be slowing down, now. Gitch's ministrations became slower and slower. When time was moving at a crawl, Qlin heard something outside. He stepped through the hospital wall.
"Qlin." someone said. The lutin did a double take. Standing before him was none other than Onju.
"Why merciful Stormhaven. Is that you, Onju?"
"It is. I wish I could say 'in the flesh', but that is a comodity I no longer possess."
"Am I really dead?" asked the archivist.
"Only for a moment." said Onju. "Come. Look to the north. What do you see?"
Qlin looked into the sky and described what he saw. "I see a great cloud." he reported. "Black as the night and roiling like rapids."
"There is a great evil afoot." said Onju. "A darkness that seeks to devour everything. We have been put here for a reason. That reason is to hold the line against the darkness. You, Qlin, will play a very, very important part in that mission."
"Me? but I'm a nobody. I'm just an egghead, as the humans say."
"But you made yourself available to be used. You have become an agent of Stormhaven, Qlin. That is why you must remain here. Remain and finish your work."
Qlin cast his eyes down. "I can't do such a thing. I'm just one lutin."
"Come with me." said Onju. He took Qlin's hand and the two of them were immediately elsewhere. Before them were the seven towers. The mob was gone, now, but someone else was there. Many someones. Surrounding the tower was a ring of heinous evil spirits who seemed to want nothing better than to rush in and tear down his tower. Perhaps they would have, if not for the soldiers guarding the tower. The soldiers were beautiful. Each one appeared to be a lutin wearing silver armor and brandishing a sword that gleamed as if it were made of light. They seemed simultaneously gentle and fierce, like a lioness protecting her cubs. "Don't be too hard on those who attacked you." said Onju. "They were deceived by the forces of darkness, those you see here who want to destroy your work."
"And these?" asked Qlin, indicating the defenders.
"The army of Stormhaven. These spirits are here to protect, advance, and guide your work."
"But what IS my work?" asked Qlin. I just got the urge to build a tower. I don't know why I'm doing it."
"Vertarbna doesn't always explain His plans to us. Do you remember the day you were in worship and you told Vertarbna that you were willing to serve in whatever capacity He desired?"
"This is what He chose. And in time, you will understand. Now... Gitch is working feverishly to revive you. Return to your body, and wake up."
Qlin gasped as a sudden burst of pain wracked his whole body. He was back. His heart was pumping once again, and everything hurt as though a dragon had been chewing on him.
"Welcome back." said the nurse. "We thought you were gone."
"I was." Qlin groaned. "I was... with Onju."
* * *
Urik was busily exploring the cave, occasionally returning to the island to keep Mara from getting too lonely. As a whale, he was still highly intelligent, and felt a great deal of concern for his wife, who must surely be lonely, cold and hungry. As the entrance to the cavern was still flooded, he could not ferry her to the exit. There was no life in the cavern, which meant there was no food, so he could not help her there, either. All he could do was continue to offer her his own presence.
The cavern was immense. It stretched for miles in every direction, dotted here and there with islands which appeared to be the tips of gigantic underwater stalagmites. The floor of the lake deep down, further than any lutin could ever dive. The water was surprisingly clear. Even the little light that eminated from Mara's horn reached deep down into the depths, so that Urik was able to see objects on the bottom. There were some interesting things down there, relics of an ancient civilization. There was a vase made of gold, the golden hilt of a sword whose base had long since rusted away, and a lovely cut crystal. Something in the back of his brain told him to remember that. It might be important.
* * *
Benji and Jabar swam carefully along the tunnels leading to Kayrok. Even with Jabar providing magical illumination, it was difficult to see. The dust and dirt from the freshly dug tunnels made the water extremely cloudy.
"Stalactite!" cried Jabar. Benji barely avoided slamming into the stone structure.
"Thanks." said the hippocampus. Several koalinths had been carrying the great lengths of air hose behind the two of them, leaving Jabar to hold the helmet as they kept feeding his the length of tube to which it was attached. Suddenly, Jabar stopped. "What's wrong?" asked Benji.
"The hose won't reach." explained the ghast. "It's not long enough."
"We're almost there. Wait here." said the equine. He swam up the tunnel, poking his head out to see Kayrok and company in the dim light of a lantern. "Ahoy!" he greeted.
Kayrok squinted. "I know that face. Benny, isn't it?"
"Benji, Sir. I'm here to rescue you."
"We have air for you, but it's a distance away. How long can you hold your breath?"
"About two minutes." Kayrok replied.
"Three minutes, maybe." said the kilikantzaros.
"That's enough time. Captain, climb on my back, take a deep breath, and hold on tight."
Benji was taken aback. "No?" he echoed.
"Take the workers first. I'll go when I know they're safe."
Of course. Kayrok wouldn't be Kayrok if he thought of himself first. That was why he was the counsel chairman. Benji agreed and took Jurgen into the water.
* * *
There was a tangible sense of relief when the first kilikantzaro, Jurgen, rose from the water. Serveral lutins and dwarves helped him out while some human women brought him some dry blankets. Lars was next and met with a similar reception. Several long minutes passed. The water remained calm and silent. Then, a few bubbles broke the surface. There were Benji and Jabar, helping Kayrok to safety. There was jubilant cheering.
* * *
I keep telling you I'm fine." said Kayrok.
"And I keep telling you you're not." answered Hornbeam. "You're suffering from hypothermia. Now be quiet and drink your chota." The captain highed, laid back in his hospital bed, and drank deeply of the bittersweet beverage. Its warmth seeped into his bones and felt incredibly good.
Sytet smiled. "It's good to have you back safe." said the second in command.
"I wish it were under better circumstances." Kayrok replied. "How are you feeling?"
"Getting better. The skin on my leg has grown back, and I think one of my arms has mended."
"I envy you." said the captain.
"Sir..." said Fugu. "I have bad news to report. The crystal..." Fugu was interrupted by the arrival of Mara and Urik. The shape-changer was completely naked and his usual lovely forest green color had been replaced by an ashy blue.
"What's your story?" asked James as he took Urik from Mara and helped him into a hospital bed.
"F-f-f-freezing!" chattered Urik, pulling several blankets over himself.
"We had no way of knowing when the sun was coming up." said Mara. "He was in the middle of the underground lake and deep down when he changed from a humpback whale back into a lutin. The poor dear was almost frozen by the time he made it back to where I was and I teleported him out."
Fugu continued the sentence he had begun earlier. "Sir, the crystal... I lost it in the flood."
"It's all right." assured the commander.
"It's not all right." Fugu argued. "That crystal turned out to be very important."
"Crystal..." said Urik. W-was it ab-bout th-th-three inches l-l-long, p-pointed at both end-d-ds? Kind of p-puplish white?"
"That's the one." said Fugu, surprised.
"I s-saw that. It's on the b-bottom of the lake."
* * *
The next two days were very busy. Sergeant Oof took over Kayrok's duties while the commander and his second were recovering. This unfortunately meant a funeral for all the victims of the underground flood. The pass had to be drained, which meant pumping a large volume of water uphill to dump it in the underground river. Princess Kapik led the search for Kayrok's crystal, leading not only her own werepenguins, but otters, beavers, koalinths and even a kol-k'su who volunteered when he learned of the ancient treasure laying on the lakebed. The most trying event, however, was the continued requests by irate villagers to bring Qlin to "justice". Oof lost his temper more than once, going so far as to begin clubbing a recalcitrant gnome who refused to leave the CQ until Qlin was delivered.
On the morning of the third day, Kayrok addressed the entire federation. With help from Jabar and Rugi, he broadcast his voice and image over every radiant within a hundred miles. "People af the Alpha Omega Federation" said the chairman. "This is Captain Kayrok Fireseed, high king and council chairman of the Federation."
"This must be important." people started whispering to one another. "He never uses those titles."
"This past week had been marred by somne extremely tragic events, including but not limited to the drowning of fifty nine miners in a terrible flood. Even more tragic, however, is the recent attack on one of my men. More tragic because while the flood was caused by something which we could not foresee, the attack was performed with malice by those once counted as upstanding federation citizens.
My fellow beings, I want you to know that neither I nor my archivist bear any desire for vengeance. Your fears, though they caused many of you to harm an innocent man, are understandable. You were faced with something strange and new that you did not understand, and feared for the safety of your children. However, I have in my possession something which will explain everything. Please give the next speaker your full attention." He placed the crystal into a holder. Sytet stood next to him and cried out with a sound far too high for lutin ears to hear. The crystal glowed, then a face appeared. It was the face of a woman, apparently human. Her voice was raspy, like the voice of one who had been distressed for a very long time.
"My name is Fanthmiter. I am a friend. Captain Kayrok, this message is to inform you of a terrible danger to your young federation. The Lom Shi'un have not gone without noticing your great prosperity, and are preparing to move against you. Already, the first waves of an invasion have been sent in your direction."
The first threat you will face is a tribe known as the Burning Sun. They are murauders and raiders. Their raids weaken the lands on the edge of their territory, after which, they move in and take over. In their wake, they leave a broken land which the Lom Shi'un annex and build up as their own. Because they profit heavily from the activities of the Burning Sun, the Lom Shi'un do all they can to strengthen the raiders. Already, they have moved against the walled city of Prendor, a trading partner of yours if I am not mistaken."
"It is likely that you are already aware of the Burning Sun, but there is another army that you do not know about. An army of darkness. This is not a metaphor. There are creatures in the giantdowns, terrible creatures, who are literally made of darkness. Mages within the Lom Shi'un dynasty have been summoning and collecting these creatures, preparing to unleash them upon you in the same way Nasoj once sought to unleash them upon Metamor Keep with the help of Devil's Strand. The attack may have succeeded, were it not for a special weapon. That weapon was a lighthouse. Its beam washed over the keep, destroying the creatures of darkness."
"This is not a rare occurrence. Our people have learned of numerous such attacks upon bastions of civilization. In each event, there arose at least one individual who was compelled, always without knowing why, to build such a weapon againbst the darkness. Wherever the towers were finished, the attack was thwarted. Wherever they were stopped, the darklings destroyed everything."
"Captain, I cannot stress enough that you must allow the lighthouse to be built. If it is not, your nation will not survive. That nation, a rare and wonderful nation where humans, dwarves, elves and goblins live side-by-side in harmony, is destined to change the world forever. It must survive."
"I will contact you again as soon as I am able. Be strong, Captain Kayrok, and may the scarred one watch over you until we meet."
The crystal went dark once again, and the entire Federation as left scratching its collective head in a mixture of confusion and awe over what they had just heard.
* * *
To their credit, the federation responded well. Those who had attacked Qlin now sought his forgiveness. Many were too ashamed to show their faces, but others began to back him with the same ferver they had summoned to oppose him. Qlin imagined the evil spirits he had seen during his death would be cursing their loss. A village had grown up around the tower, which had been appropriately, if unimaginatively dubbed "Seven Towers". With new workers added to the project, Qlin finished his tower, making it reach high above the forest, even higher than the cliffs to the south, so that the top of the tower was almost even with the Sondshara capstone.
Sen brought Qlin the device which she had built. The machine fit over a fire pit an turned. The reason for this was not clear until Myrslok brought his contribution, a gigantic, ringed lens, which fit neatly into the machine. A parabolic mirror donated by a bhuka silversmith fit into the other side, finishing the machinery.
Similar devices were installed in each of the smaller lighthouses. They would be able to sweep the forest on their own, or add their light to the main lighthouse.
There were a few features which no one really understood. A drawbridge on the fifth floor seemed completely pointless, and no one knew the reason for the elaborate mosaic on the floor of the ground story, which just seemed to be made up of squiggles and circles.
Still, Qlin could not help but swell with pride at the dedication of the finished towers, which also served to make official his appointment as mayor-general of this newest member of the federation.
The patial draining of the underground lake had taken years off of digging. Of course, now there was a new problem. A series of massive bridges would have to be built in order to allow passage across the lake's new surface. This effectively trippled the work available in the pass, as it meant that the bridges could be constructed from both sides of the lake, and digging could simultaneously continue from the far side. From that far side, the shortest route through the mountains was now directly south. To avoid long commutes, a village was built on the south shore and dubbed "Southbend".
* * *
In a not-so-far-off part of the woods, a small, furry creature was making his way through the brush. His coat was matted with a combination of mud and blood. Having just survived an attack by gnurls, he was glad just to be alive. The creature was an otter by the name of Jair. He looked around with a frustrated glare. "Should be there by now!" he squeaked. "Why it not here?"
A second otter, as battered and filthy as the first, came up beside him. "Jair," he said. "You've been gone a long time. There's no way to be sure it's even here."
"It here!" Jair insisted. "It needs be here!"
A small, female otter joined the other two. "I know this place." she said. "Look over there!" Pointing to the mountains, she called their attention to a stately tower. "That's Sky Valley. We're in Kayrok's country!"
"Wait..." said a raccoon who was just catching up to the other three. "The goblin captain? Are you insane? Fraternizing with goblins was what got us all into this mess!"
"Not Jair." corrected the first otter. "Jair is free beastie."
"Relax, Dan." said the girl. "Kayrok is okay. We can trust him."
"It's not him I'm worried about." Dan groused.
"Must be here." said Jair. "Must be... must be..." As Jair stumbled about, his foot struck something. He cursed for a moment in some obscure lutrine tongue, then suddenly realized what he had hit. clearing away the overgrowth of weeds and vines, he revealed a door in the side of a small mound of earth. "It here!" he squealed. "Jair found his home!"
The second otter inspected the door, which had a series of deep scratches. "What is this?" he asked.
"Silly Bubba no read! This name of Jair house! Welcome to Laughter! (Laughter is name of Jair house.)"
The little girl otter stepped forward onto the road. As she did, she began to grow, becoming more humanoid and less female, until she assumed the form that was obviously an adult male anthropoid. "Dan, go get the rest of the romp and bring them here. Tell them we've found safe haven. Bubba, Jair, stay here and make camp. I need to go find Captain Kayrok and let him know that Oren of Hipocc is back in town."