The Hateful Wars: Chapter Twenty-Four
Fanfare sounded in the high-arched council chamber of dazzling Gilmorack. The monolithic carved stone doors swung wide, opening the way into the audience of the undermountain king, the august Thane Redmod Buddoken. All the court stood to welcome the honored guests, save the undermountain king himself. The herald called out the names of each guest as he or she passed through the doors and under the arch of lances held aloft by the flanking guard: “The Princess Kristryd Olinsdotter of Dengar and Ulek.” Adorned in her mithril-threaded tabard, Kristryd carried herself with all pomp appropriate to her station. She cast a cold eye across the assembled court.
“Bagbag, Loremaster of Balnorhak.” Kristryd’s trueheaded advisor hobbled along at her side, mumbling to himself and nodding to the notables and chieftans in attendance.
“Bamadar Kadarel of Thunderstrike, Infantryman of the Royal Army of Ulek.” The bombastic Bamadar swaggered into the council chamber as if accustomed to such circumstances and as if he held such pomp and ceremony in little esteem.
“Father Alton Chubb Quickbread of Prinzfield, priest of the Sylvan Lady.” The halfling cleric of Ehlonna scuttled into the audience hall dressed in clerical finery that ill-fit his diminutive stature. He bowed and nodded awkwardly with every few steps he took.
“Father Furduch of Tulvar, Kron priest of Ulaa.” The elderly gnome, clad in shimmering armor and with a holy mace at his side, tripped along, bowed low, danced a little jig, and winked at the king flirtatiously. The king scowled at the gnome. Father Furduch likewise returned the scowl, furrowing up his brow so deeply that his eyebrows collided above his nose.
“Xaxalander Deravnye of Urnst.” A low murmur of disapproval audibly rose from the assembled court as the rogue elf sauntered casually into their midst. The tension inspired by his presence became all the frostier as the herald announced the last name of Kristryd’s party: “Prince Peralay of Celene.” Peralay the hunter passed under the arch of lances gracefully, nobly, but without ostentatiousness. He bowed before the undermountain king and took his place beside Kristryd. All eyes fixed upon the two elves.
“Is this an embassy? Or a party of adventurers?” the undermountain king sneered sarcastically. “I cannot remember the last time one of olvenkind stood beneath our vaulted stone ceilings. Or was it never?”
“These are heroes of that recent battle that took place in the Ulek Pass,” Kristryd explained. “I have brought them for the festival and to the undermountain king’s halls to regale his majesty with stories of the battle and to encourage noble Gilmorack to press our advantage in this hour of war.”
“The undermountain king has no need to have his ears filled with the idle boasts of olve, noniz, and hobniz,” Thane Redmod grimaced with the old name of each race. “Nor does he desire to hear their songs. The court will hear the business of the alliance in the morning, and then you will take your honored guests and hurry back to Dengar … or Enstad if you prefer.”
“Perhaps her majesty the queen would enjoy the telling of a few tales for Growfest,” Kristryd suggested. “But I have not seen her majesty since our arrival. Fares she well?”
“She fares not well,” Redmod replied curtly, “Nor will the sound of olven voices bring health to her bones.”
“May Ulaa strengthen her bones,” Kristryd offered in sincerity. “Might we be permitted to look in upon her? I have brought healers with me.”
“Nay!” Redmod replied even more irritated. “You shall not see the queen. We do not need your healers, nor your minstrels, nor war heroes, nor tellers of tales, nor spies and thieves!” The king fixed his gaze upon the two elves with the words “spies and thieves.” He added, “The sooner you have concluded your affairs here and gone your way, the better I like it.”
“Surely his majesty means no such insult to his guests,” Kristryd returned evenly. She momentarily locked her eyes with the undermountain king, a thing not permitted. Redmod only returned the stare.
“Tell him we shall leave his majesty’s fair halls as soon as the business of the alliance is concluded,” Peralay interjected in elvish. Neither of the elves understood more than a few words of the old dwur dialect, but they could comprehend the gist of the conversation easily enough.
“One knows when one is not wanted,” Xaxa added.
Suiting Up for Action
The undermountain king’s servants escorted Kristryd’s party to a wing of the king’s palace reserved for visiting dignitaries. Kristryd had stayed in those lavish rooms on previous visits, but this time it seemed to her that the palace staff went to extra lengths to provide for their needs as if by way of apology for their cold reception before the king. They spread a generous Growfest banquet before the visitors, and waiters stood nearby to offer what service they might. Kristryd dismissed the servants, saying, “What we now covet is our own privacy.” Furduch checked the halls for any listening ears stationed behind the doors while Xaxa searched for spyholes, listening posts, and concealed entrances.
“That was not the undermountain king, not as I know him,” Kristryd complained. “He suffers under deviltry or bewitchment. I could see it in his eyes.”
“Often I have been his guest in times past, and never have I been so abused as this last,” agreed Father Furduch.
Kristryd removed the silver-framed mirror from her bag and gazed into it, as if considering the reflection of her own fine-featured face. “Something is amiss,” she mused.
“Whether bedeviled or bewitched,” Peralay remarked as he hung the sheath of Gnoll-cleaver from his magical belt, “We can help him best by slaying this witch of yours. I only want for my hounds. They would surely sniff her out.”
Bagbag shoved aside platters of food to make room on the tabletop. He spread out a map of royal district and its lower delving. He pointed a stubby finger at a chamber far in the depths, near the treasury, and he declared, “Here we find the Hall of Scrolls where I wager we will find our witch. Ever a lover of ancient books, that one. But remember, do not let her speak. If her lips move she is incanting a spell with which to smite us, a charm to snare us, or a lie to deceive us. Do not let her twist the truth.”
The party quickly unpacked the bundles they had brought for their task. Bamadar did so between mouthfuls and draughts of mead, trying to attend to the business at hand without neglecting the feast spread on the table. The party donned armor, hooded cloaks, weapons, and magical items. Bagbag cast a spell of powerful illusion upon the two elves and the halfling to make them appear to all beholding eyes as if they were guardsmen of Gilmorack such as commonly patrolled the halls. Alton invoked blessings of Ehlonna on the party and spoke powerful wards of protection over them, and Furduch offered his own potent versions of the same. Then leaving most of the food untouched, they made their way out into the vaulted streets of Gilmorack.
The Hall of Scrolls
At that late hour, torches sputtered out and lamps burned dim. Most dwarves were home at meal for the first night of the festival. Those they did encounter gave the party not a second glance. Kristryd and Bagbag were familiar faces in those halls. The gnomes kept their own quarter of the city, and many could be seen in the streets coming and going at any hour. As for the elves and the halfling, they magically appeared to be a common escort of guards, trailing along behind three dignitaries. No one challenged them, not until they arrived at the entrance to the Hall of Scrolls. Here they found the way blocked by two guardsmen.
“The library is forbidden except by permission of the undermountain king,” the first of the guards said.
Father Furduch, who spoke the dwur tongue, commanded the guards by the hand of Ulaa, “Stand aside! Open wide!” The guards stood aside without a hesitation and swung the doors wide.
Kristryd stepped first into the brightly lit library hall, a bell-shaped chamber, encircled by three tiers of balconies connected by two stairways which wrapped about the interior of the hall. Alcoves and niches honeycombed the walls. Each one housed a sealed stone jar, and every jar contained a scroll or codex of great value: histories, sagas, songs, genealogies, deeds, titles, covenants, spells, and the lore of other lands. Great chandeliers lit with magical undying light spells illumined the room. Their light gleamed on furnishings of polished stone tables and ornately carved chairs. Elegant carvings and statuary adorned the walls; ornate scrollwork laced about the balconies rails. Heavy swag festoons hanging from the balconies spoke to the gaudy ostentatiousness of dwarven royalty.
No one was in the hall except a few old scholars, pouring over piles of texts strewn on a stone table, and one comely dwarfess in a decorated craftsman’s apron who looked down on them from a balcony on an upper tier. The scholars paid them no attention, but the dwarfess introduced herself in hissing tones, “I am the keeper of the Hall of the Scrolls. Do you come by the word of the Thane Redmod?”
“We come by the word of Ulaa, who binds you, Banished One!” Father Furduch said unexpectedly, producing his flashing holy symbol. The dwarfess shrieked and transformed before their eyes into a nightmarish visage of a six-armed naga-like woman whose legs converged into the body of an enormous, twisting serpent. In each of her hands she held a deadly weapon. At the same moment, the three old scholars jerked upright and took shape as similar horrors. They looked like lossels with tusked maws, bloated bellies, bandied legs, long arms, and shaggy hair. The librarian lurched over the edge of balcony, half leaping, half diving to the floor, breaking her fall with a levitation spell.
The light in the room extinguished into darkness. Kristryd felt herself hurtled through air and slammed against a wall. Stone jars toppled down onto her. She heard shouts and demonic screams, but she could see nothing in the darkness.
Read the next chapter: Black Ichor
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