The Box (Part V)

Far ahead of his companions, Joeshan continued to slink through the shadows as he scouted the path ahead.  His particular set of skills, as well as his many years of experience, made him the prime candidate for detecting and removing any potential traps.  

Though he would rather be sitting in the comfort his his home, resting before a cozy fire and telling stories to his nieces and nephews, he loved the thrill that his ‘hobby’ gave him even more.  

Joeshan was a hobbit, proud and true, but he was also a ‘collector’ of unusual things.  It was never so much about the value of the item.  Nor was it about any unusual properties that said item might or might not have.  He didn’t care about the history of the item; it didn’t matter to him if it was blessed or cursed .  What he lived for was the acquiring of said item.  

Oh yes, Joeshan was a hobbit through and through, but there was something wrong, deep inside of him.  Something was broken.  Rather than staying home, in the safety of his hole, and enjoying the many meals that his people usually did each day, he found himself becoming obsessed with the next big hunt.

He was as dedicated as a warrior to his studies.  Each morning, he went through a regiment of exercises, which he had designed himself, that kept him fast and fit.  Once he had finished his third meal, he studied with many different locks that he had found in his travels.  He practiced picking them.  He took them apart and categorized their mechanical designs within a special book that he carried with him at all times.  There wasn’t a lock that had bested him, and when the rare occasion presented itself that he found a lock he couldn’t pick, he used a special ring that had been given to him by a wizard, to get the job done.

The very same wizard tutored him in trap designs; how to set, as well as disarm them.  Though this was a trickier subject for him, he had done fairly well over the years with only the loss of but one toe.  In that case, he’d had little knowledge of the traps used by the wood elves.  He spent several weeks on the mend, and the loss of the small toe on his right foot hadn’t hampered him much afterward, but he had never made that mistake again.

His stomach grumbled angrily and the sound brought him back to the present.  His lips curved upward at the irony; the sorcerer had silenced the second loudest part of his body!  His smile was short lived, however, as he discovered yet another trap blocking their path.  

He moved quickly.  Because there was no proper way for them to communicate, not to mention the fact that he had been magically silenced, he had very little time to act.  Elladuer was only a few minutes behind him, which gave him precious little time to remove it before he arrived.

He knelt before the trigger line, admiring its quality.  If he hadn’t been actively searching, he would have easily missed it.  Slowly, he placed his finger upon the spider silk as his eyes followed it to each side of the corridor.  It looked innocent enough and could have been set by one of the many species of cave spider, but he knew better.  Each end of the line was fastened securely to a small magical box that, when triggered, would activate several hidden crossbows.  In most cases, the bolts were poisoned.  Rarely, they were magically infused to cause some form of greater damage.  

“Better not to think of such things,” he thought to himself as his fingers began to work on the device.  This trap only required him to trick the device into thinking it was still set.  It was just a matter of keeping enough pressure on the trigger.

He chuckled at the thought of such a primitive device being able to think, and as he did, he was suddenly reminded of the reason he had agreed to come on this quest.

The Gryphon Rider stood at the entrance to his hole, looking absolutely miserable in the pouring rain.  He had removed his helmet in introducing himself, and his golden hair hung matted to his head, doing little to hide the pointed ears that identified him as elf. 

“What is it that I can do for you, Sir Elladuer of King Altherak’s army,” he had asked.

“Please allow me shelter from the storm.  I will not require much and have food of my own to sup.  I only ask for a few minutes before your fire.” 

“Don’t be silly, dear elf.  My home is always open to the Riders.  Come in, come in!  As for eating your own cold rations, I shall hear nothing of it.  I have a nice rabbit stew simmering over the fire now.  By the time you’ve made yourself comfortable, it will be ready.  Please, make yourself at home!”

“I am grateful for your kindness…”

“Joeshan Bunce of Brockenborings, at your service.”  He had placed his forearm against his midsection and bowed gracefully, which  earned a nod and the respect of his guest, as he spoke.  

“Joeshan, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

It had taken the better part of an hour for the elf to remove and carefully dry each piece of his armor and by that time the stew was ready.  Joeshan, ever the gracious host, had also brought some rolls from the pantry, prepared some greens to cleanse the pallet and brought up two bottles of his finest wine.  While they weren’t the fine elvish wines his guest might be used to, he was confident that Elladuer’s palette would approve.

“It’s not by coincidence that I find myself in your home tonight,” Elladuer finally said.  They were each sipping their wine from the crystal goblets that Joeshan kept for such occasions.  

“Do tell.  What brings one of the gryphon riders to my humble abode?”

Over the next two hours, the two finished the bottles of wine as the elf told him his story.  He spoke solemnly of the fate of his friends, during which time he came as close to tears as he had ever seen from an elf.  

When he had awakened, the Death Knight was gone and he was the sole survivor of his company.  The evil being had slain them all, along with every one of their mounts.  The only thing that had saved him had been the rubble from the building which had collapsed upon him, thus obscuring him from view.

After returning with the news of his defeat, King Altherak had fallen into a deep state of despair, for Diona had been his daughter.  It would be many weeks before the kingdom had finished grieving and by that time, Elladuer had begun to formulate a plan.

“So…  Where do I come in,” Joeshan asked inquisitively.

“Many have heard the name of Joeshan.  In these parts, many hold a deep admiration for the hobbit who studies the arcane arts,” he began slowly.  “I have need for someone like you.”

Joeshan finished his wine as the elf was speaking, careful not to accidentally reveal his excitement.  An elf, asking for HIS services?  It was unheard of!

“I really just help the old man clean his tower,” he answered sheepishly.

“I care not for what you do, so much as I do that you are renowned for having an uncanny way of finding things.”

“Okay,” he answered thoughtfully, “so what is it that you wish to ‘find’, my pointy eared friend?”

“I cannot say the name of that which I am seeking.  However, I have full authority to allow you to keep everything else, to the extent of what you can naturally carry.”

Now THIS was interesting!  Where could they possibly be going that he would find such treasures?!  He quickly echoed his thoughts aloud, but the answer would offer him no comfort whatsoever.  

 

“A red dragon,” he murmured as he disarmed the trap.  “Joeshan?  What have you gotten myself into?”

   

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The Box (Part IV)

The sounds of his armor had been nullified, as had those of his companions, and while this allowed for them the peace of being able to approach quietly, it did nothing to quell his thoughts.  

Elladuer thought back to the last time he had rode with his company, the Gryphon Riders, before they had fallen.  He did so with a heavy heart, one that was near its breaking point, and he fought silently to keep his emotions in check.

Every member of his company had been like family to him.  He had known them since their mounts had been fledglings, and had flown by their sides through countless missions for nearly a century.  They were the fiercest warriors in King Altherak’s army, and during their long tenure, they had never met with defeat.

Until, that is, the night that the Death Knight, Faomyr, arose from legend and began spreading a plague of death across the countryside.

It had been a night like any other.  The only sound was the soft beating of wings beneath them as they glided across the starlit sky.  Each of the three moons were at various points in the sky, with Nanthuur being the closest, giving them plenty of light by which to see.  The landscape rolled by beneath them, deep in the slumber that came with these late hours.  Only the darkest of souls were awake at this hour, and it was the Gryphon Riders job to defend against them, if need be.

“Elladuer, my brother!  Come near, that we may speak easily!”

The voice belonged to his oldest sibling, Sartha’ak, his closest and most trusted friend.  Together, they had trained as riders.  They had shown a natural affinity for their beasts, and it was through their instruction that the next generation of riders had been born.

Like himself, Sartha’ak had trained to be a holy warrior.  Their techniques were very similar with the blade, making it very difficult to tell the two apart on the battlefield.  If one didn’t know it was Sartha’ak who preferred to use the great sword, it was nearly impossible to do so.  

This was something of their own design.  While they excelled with their arms of choice, each could ready trade with the other and still fight with more competence than most.

With a gentle nudge, he guided his beast towards his brother.

“What troubles you, brother,” Elladuer called out once he was near.

“There, over the hills.  Do you see that?”

He followed his brother’s direction and looked ahead.  He could see it.  There were several columns of smoke rising in the air.  While he couldn’t see what was burning, he already knew that they had to be coming from the small farm community that resided there.  It was mostly populated by humans, but it was one of many such places that lived beneath the protection of the Riders.

“I do!  Praise Torm, I hope we’re not too late!”

Elladuer again nudged his gryphon, gently coaxing her to return to formation.  It wasn’t long before they could see the orange glow of the flames.  They were too late!  The flames had hungrily consumed most of the structures and were now dancing in celebration as they began to crumble.

Each of the five riders looked on with grim expressions, all noting the absence of those who should be fleeing to safety.  Their mounts began to tense beneath them, screeching uncomfortably from the heat that was now beneath them.  While they were flying over a hundred feet above the flames, the heat licked at them as if they were standing right next to it.

“Brother, look,” Sartha’ak yelled.

Elladuer, who had been concentrating on not only keeping his mount calm, but had also been searching through the haze for any survivors, snapped his attention ahead at the warning.

Standing in the main road through the community, between two of the brightest fires, stood a huge man wearing full plate armor.  The metal was the color of midnight, a darkness so black that to stare at it too long was to invite oneself in.  The wearer’s head was covered as completely as the rest of him, by a horned helmet.  Two glowing red eyes gauged their approach from the shadows behind the eye ports.

As one, Elladuer and Sartha’ak silently agreed to land and meet this one on the ground.  Leaning forward, each softly whispered to their commands to their respective mounts, the latter of which were immediately obedient.  Following suit, the others set down as well.  

“Stay here.  I will determine if he is friend or foe.” 

Elleduer nodded and turned to the other riders as they dismounted and approached.

Diona, was the first to reach his position.  Unlike the other riders, she was the only one who wasn’t a pure blooded elf.  Her mother had fallen in love with her human guardsman and it was their union which had brought her forth.  While many of the other elves treated her with indifference, it was Elladuer who had first seen her skill with the bow.  

Maurir was next to reach him.  Though haughty at times, Maurir’s knowledge for things magical was unmatched.  He had learned all of what his masters had taught him with-in half the time his peers had taken and it was rumored that he had surpassed them in skill long before being released as a Wizard of his own right.

Last to approach was Lynneth, their healer.  She was the most soft spoken of the three, but one would be a fool to think that this made her the least powerful.  Elladuer had seen her faith heal those on the brink of death, as well as take others beyond it, with only a few simple words to her goddess.  Unlike the others, who were adorned with magical weapons, armors and various other items to aid them in battle, she wore only a simple white robe, tied at the waist by a golden, braided rope.

It had only taken a few seconds for them to come together and each watched as Sartha’ak approached the dark knight.  

“Ho there, stranger,” he called out in greeting.  His words were friendly, but guarded.  Each of the company noticed that he, at some time, had removed the strap holding his sword in place.  

“That’s close enough,” came the hollow reply.  It was a sound that none were familiar with, with the exception of one: Lynneth.  As soon as the Death Knight spoke, her training took over.  Before the others could react, she was shoving past them and running toward Sartha’ak; the beginnings of a prayer on her lips and her hands outstretched.

It was too late.

With a snarl, the Death Knight drew his blade; one that all immediately recognized as an unholy Vorpal.  

Sartha’ak never saw it coming.  His head flew from his shoulders with a warm smile still frozen on his lips.  

“NOOOO,” Elladuer and Diona screamed simultaneously.  He jumped from his mount, pausing only to strap on his shield, and began to run to his brother.  Everything was happening in slow motion.  He could see the robes of Lynneth billowing out before him, so white and pure.  As he reached up to close his visor, three arrows sailed overhead from behind him.  To his right, light green magical arrow sailed toward its target.  It sizzled, dripping acid onto the ground that ate away whatever it touched.

And then it happened.  

The billowing robes suddenly burst red from a crimson spray.  Lynneth sudden stopped in her tracks, frozen by the hand of death.  She slowly turned and met his eyes with a look of sadness that he will never forget, and he watched as the upper half of her body slid free from the rest of her and fell to the ground.  She had been sliced from her right shoulder to her left hip.

He screamed with pure visceral rage and charged, but he never made it to his intended target.  The last thing he saw was the bright explosion of a fireball as it slammed into the chest of their aggressor.

He was thankful that he wore his helmet with his visor down, even in these shadows of the underdark, for it hid well the tears of sadness that now wet his cheeks.  It wouldn’t do for either of his companions to see this sign of weakness during a time when both were counting on him the most.