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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

And now for something completely different

Today I'm going to give you guys a glimpse into a story I started.  This was written years ago, and it was mostly to serve as a background for Mantarok as a character in my table-top DnD game.   Then I kind of shelved it and created other characters I wanted to expand on.  The problem now is that almost all of those people are NPC's in my home-brew world and all current stories that I write take place in that world.  The next couple of entries you should consider as stand alone little tales.  I may incorporate them into actual canonical stories eventually, but for now just enjoy the story as-is.

Chapter One

The leaves in the bush shuddered.

Mantarok's eyes narrowed as he continued to wait, a drop of sweat slowly etching a trail across the dust on his forehead. The leaves continued to shift, branches rubbing against each other and against the hide of whatever creature lay waiting. Mantarok stared at the ground in front of him, his grip tightening on the handle of his hoe as he tried to not let the panic welling in his heart consume him.

Suddenly, in an explosion of leaves and furs, a small creature leaped forward from the bushes. Its body was short and squat, with dark brownish skin. Its head looked almost human, but the skull was obviously thicker with an elongated forehead. Its eyes came close together and were completely black. Mouth curled in a snarl and with a small dagger in its hands, it charged at Mantarok with a shrill war-cry. Mantarok, not unprepared, is quick to draw his sword, moving forward and swinging at the fast moving creature. It ducked under his attack and responded in like manner, swiftly trying to slide it's small dagger up into the larger man's stomach. Mantarok turned and tried to avoid getting stabbed by the creature. Unfortunately, he is unable to move fast enough and can feel the knife point stab into his belly. A sickening feeling ripped through his body as the creature removed its knife and Mantarok fell to his knees from the pain.

Holding his hands against his wound, he could feel his blood seeping out and dripping to the ground. The creature, a gloating look to its face, raised its dagger and let out a triumphant laugh. Mantarok was surprised to suddenly see an arrow appear almost as if by magic in the creatures throat. The laugh ended abruptly with a burbling gurgle as the creature fell dead to the ground. The last thing Mantarok remembered before the darkness enshrouded him was a man looking down at him and yelling for him to hold on.
Mantarok awoke with a start. He tries to sit up, and feels a sharp pain in his side. Looking down, he was startled to see a large bandage wrapped around his midsection. The surprise subsided quickly, however, when he remembered what brought him here. It was at this point that he noticed that he didn't know where he was. Looking around, he quickly came to the conclusion that it was the home of a woodsman. The whole thing had a quickly put together feel to it, from the dirt floor to the uneven wood that made up the walls. Various animal furs were stretched out on the walls, and assorted herbs and plants hung from the ceiling. The furniture was made out of wood and hides, including the bed he was lying on. Feeling the pain in his stomach growing, he fell back gently onto the bed and stared at the ceiling above him.

With a creak, the door to the house opened. Blinded by the the light outside compared to the relative dimness of the windowless room, he raised a hand to shield his eyes. The shadowy form entered the room and closed the door. Mantaroks eyes adjusted and he saw a slender man with long blonde hair and a large bow strapped to his back. The man approached him and said, "Glad to see you up and about! I almost thought you wouldn't make it.". Mantarok nodded weakly and attempted to get up again, only to collapse back under the pain. The man shook his head and put a hand on Mantaroks shoulder, "You should continue to rest, good sir. You aren't out of danger yet. My name is Omaren, and you are safe. Sleep for now, I'll wake you when your medicine is ready." Mantaroks mind slowly drifted back into sleep, only momentarily registering that Omaren was an elven name before he fell back into sleep.

He awoke again to Omaren gently shaking his shoulder. Groggily, Mantarok opened his eyes and Omaren smiled. He offered a small, steaming bowl to the man, saying "I'm sorry to bother you, but you need to drink this. It will help with the pain and give you some strength back." Mantarok nodded weakly again and took the bowl from him. He delicately held it to his lips and sipped at the hot broth. The taste was awful, but Mantarok wasn't in any position to complain. As he sat up to sip at the medicine, Omaren took that time to pull the redress the wound. Pulling the bandages off, Mantarok was annoyed to find a number of small herbs stuffed against the wound. 'Not much of a woodsman if he can't even clean a simple wound off before bandaging...' Mantarok thought as he glared at the bottom of the bowl, trying to keep his anger in check.

Whether or not he noticed Mantaroks reaction, Omaren didn't show. He simply removed the leaves and placed some fresh ones, talking as he placed fresh bandages over it, "These herbs will help stop the bleeding, and they will also provide some slight dulling to the pain.". Mantarok regretted his earlier assumption, and simply finished off the medicine. As he finished off the last bit, he had to admit that he certainly did feel much more awake then earlier and he also felt less of a pain in his middle. He finally found his voice and managed to get out, "Thank you very much for saving me. My name is Mantarok, and I'm just a simple farmer out here with my family. I'm sure they are very worried for long have I been asleep?"

Omaren smiled and said, "Don't worry, my friend. I informed your family after I brought you here and stabilized you. You have been out for several days now though." Mantarok nodded at the answer and sat quietly for a moment before finally asking in a timid voice, "So...your name is an elf name. Are you an elf?" Omaren laughed and said, "Yes, I am, my friend. I am far from my home, but I prefer a solitary life over one lived in cities...even if those cities are in the trees." Mantarok nodded, again sitting in silence before asking the next question that burned in his mind, "What was that...that creature that attacked me?"

Omaren's face clouded and his eyes sank into darkness. "That was a goblin. You were very lucky as they normally attack in packs. This one however was alone." Mantarok smiled and said, "Guess there isn't much to worry about if there is only one." Omaren shook his head, " all alone this far from the heart of the forest is not a good sign, Mantarok. If one is wandering alone, that must mean that they are either looking to expand their boundaries again, or it was a scout that will have friends not far behind." Mantarok's eyes went wide in surprise and quickly asked, "You mean there is more than one of those things? I've never seen anything like it! I've never even heard of anything like it." Omaren raised an eyebrow, "Time passes much faster for your people, but many lifetimes indeed have gone by if goblins and orcs are no longer remembered by mankind."

Mantarok felt a knot tightening in his stomach, which did not feel pleasant when mixed with his already pained midsection. "Orcs? Goblins? Those are creatures from fairy tales that my mother would tell me to keep me in line. I thought they were all killed off in the last great war, when mankind united with the elves and dwarves." Omaren shrugged, "That was centuries ago. The dark wizards who created such beastmen have not been asleep all this time doing nothing. Yes, you speak true of our achievements in the great war, but we were unable to kill all of the people involved with the creation of such beasts. And even if we had killed them all, the art had been discovered once and would be discovered again in a matter of time. There will always be people who want to destroy and control the lives of others."

Mantaroks head was swimming with all this information. Trying to wrap his mind around it was very difficult, but he felt comfortable enough to venture a question. "So this goblin means that some dark wizard is creating goblins again?" Omaren laughed and shook his head, "Dear me no. We were able to accomplish a great many things in that war, but wiping out an entire species was well beyond our abilities. While they are naturally violent and chaotic, they still were victims and not guilty of anything other than being used by very evil men. We let them go free and they built communities in either the deep places of the earth or the dark places of the forests. A few had even built great cities and built up civilizations...though they eventually crumbled under their own violence. Though the orc empire to the south still stands." Mantarok stammered out, "Orc empire! That's impossible, how can I have never heard of such a thing?"

Omaren shook his head, "You are but a poor farmer, you can't possibly think yourself to know everything about your world. How far south have you been in your life?" Mantarok's face flushed red and he angrily replied, "I've been as far south as Barton Keep!" Mantarok pauses then added, "That's as far south as you can get. The only thing further south than that is the sea." Omaren nodded in agreement then added, "Correct. But what is past the sea?" Mantarok raised an eyebrow in confusion and said, "What do you mean? The sea is the sea...there is nothing past it." Omaren grinned and said, "No, that's not true. Past the south sea is another continent. The continent of the Dragul. The Empire of Dragul is the orc empire. In that place, elves are but a whispered legend and humans and dwarves toil endlessly to create elaborate palaces for their dark masters." Mantarok's head was beginning to swim and he cried out with a chuckle, "Stop, stop! This is too much for a simple farmer, Omaren." Omaren nodded and said, "I agree, my friend. I have kept you up much longer than I anticipated. You will be safe here for now, so rest. I must go search for some answers to the questions that your attacker has presented to us." With that, Mantarok lay back down on the bed and fell into a restless sleep, plagued by goblins, orcs and ogres.
"Wake up, Mantarok! Hurry!" Mantarok's eyes snapped open to an unexpected sight. Omaren was gathering supplies into a pack, his hair streaked with mud and leaves. "Quickly, get dressed and drink this vial of medicine." Omaren said over his shoulder, indicating a small vial filled with crystal blue liquid on the table. "I don't know if the orcs followed me here, but there is much worse in my woods right now. You were half right, my friend...there is a new dark wizard." he continued to talk as Mantarok quickly pulled his pants on and struggled with his shirt. He finally got it on and moved to the table. Omaren cautioned him as he pulled a few quivers of arrows off the wall, "Hurry up, we don't have much time." Mantarok looked in the vial at the crystal blue liquid. "What is this stuff?" he asked as he quickly drank it down. Omaren answered, "A friend of mine in the church made it for me, and I never had a need before now. Don't worry I have several. Go ahead and remove the bandage, you won't need it anymore."

Mantarok raised an eyebrow and said, "I feel a lot better, but I think..." Omaren quickly interrupted him, "I don't have time to argue! Do as I say or the undead will be upon us!" Mantarok's eyes swam at the word 'undead', but he was quick to comply to his friends orders. He stripped off the bandages, amazed to find that the wound that had been so grievous an hour ago was completely healed over. "H-h-how could that heal so fast?" he stammered out as Omaren shoved a light mace into his hands. "I don't have time to explain everything to you, Mantarok! Can you use this?" he asked, exasperation telling on his voice. Mantarok numbly nodded a yes and Omaren said, "Good. Hopefully you won't need to, but if we get separated it would be best if you can defend yourself. But don't try to fight these things. Just run, okay?" Mantarok again nodded dumbly.

Omaren nodded back and said, "Good. Now, be careful...we'll go slow at first and try to sneak our way out. But if they find us, we are due east of your home. Run there, get your family and run to the nearest town." He firmly grasped Mantarok's shoulders and said in a serious tone, "If I don't make it, you must. Someone must warn King Barnet of this danger. I will try to draw the creatures away, so that you'll have a chance. Remember, due east." and with that he disappeared into the underbrush with Mantarok following close behind. The next few hours were tense and quiet. Their progress through the woods was slow and laborious, but they made good distance between the house and themselves. Several times Omaren would stop Mantarok with a gesture and Mantarok would crouch in terror as several creatures born of nightmare walked past them. Shuffling corpses brought to unholy life and clattering skeletons were wandering the woods in some macabre horror show.

As they got closer to areas that Mantarok knew, a smell of smoke began to filter through the air and a crackling noise began to become audible. As they came into the clearing where Mantarok's house was, the cause of the fire became evident. The house was a burning pyre, with several mutilated bodies scattered outside of it. Mantarok felt his stomach drop as he ran forward, ignoring Omarens cries of caution. He knelt beside the dead body of his mother and looking out he recognized the bodies of his father and sister. Sorrow swelled in his breast, and hot tears streamed down his face as he numbly held his mothers dead body to himself. Unable to think, unable to even feel; he didn't notice the dead corpse that was shuffling towards him until Omaren shot it and it let out a groan of pain.

Scrambling away from it on his hands and knees, Mantarok realized with horror that it was the dead body of his grandfather that had been buried in a small grave nearby. With growing dread, he saw another corpse come shambling from around the house as his grandmother as well. A new noise began, and the dead bodies of his family slowly began to come to life. Mantarok stood on the brink of insanity, his mind refusing to accept what he was witnessing. His mind raced for an explanation...anything to bring some semblance of reason to the situation, but he was unable to. Omaren, seeing the young mans plight, quickly grabbed him and said, "They aren't your family anymore, we have to escape!" as he took Mantarok's hand and dragged him away towards the small road that led out of the woods. Mantarok sobbed and tried to keep up, but his mind was slowly shutting down as it tried to deny what it had just witnessed. Omaren tried to speed up, but Mantarok was slowly falling behind. Finally, Omaren stopped and slapped him hard across the face. "Snap out of it! We need to hurry to the King or this fate will befall every man in this world! Come on Mantarok, you are made of sterner stuff than this."

Mantarok blinked, the shock slowly bringing him back to his right mind. "O-o-okay. I...I just can't believe it. It's too horrible, I can't accept this!" he sobbed to himself as Omaren slapped him again. "Pull yourself together, Mantarok. We'll be okay, just calm down." Mantarok took a deep breath and slowly started to calm himself down. Omaren nodded gravely and said, "There will be a time for mourning your loss, but now is not that time. You must be brave and you must carry on, so that we can reach that time. We must warn people, and we must do it now." Mantarok nodded numbly. Omaren began running again, but this time Mantarok stopped him. "Wait! We have to go back." Omaren stared in shock at the man and said, "You must have lost your mind, the undead is back there!"

Mantarok shook his head. "Yes, but the barn wasn't on fire. We have horses in the barn and we can use them to get away. Those..." his voice choked for a moment then he continued, "Those things can't move very fast, we'll easily out distance them on horseback." Omaren stared for a moment and finally nodded. "You are right. But there is no need for you to relive that horror. I'll go alone and get the horses and bring them back here. You just stay hidden and safe next to the road here." Mantarok nodded again and climbed a nearby tree. Mantarok called down to Omaren, "Be careful." The elf grinned and disappeared into the woods.
Time passed, and Mantarok began to feel uncomfortable in the tree's branches. Worry welled in his chest and he felt madness still grasping at the edges of his mind. But he bravely shoved those feelings aside and waited. A few undead creatures wandered underneath his hiding place, but none noticed him. Just as he was about to jump down to search for Omaren, he heard the sound of approaching hooves. Down the road, he saw a saddled horse slowly approaching. His heart dropped when he saw that it was alone and riderless. 'Omaren...' he thought as the horse slowly came to a stop underneath the tree. It pawed at the ground and whinnied up at Mantarok. Mantarok swiftly dropped down and into the horses saddle. Tears ran down his face as he grabbed the horses bridle and gave it the signal to run. As the horse galloped down the road towards town, he closed his eyes and held tightly to the horses neck. Whispering to the rapidly diminishing woods, "Thank you Omaren. I won't forget your sacrifice. I will warn the king and be brave."
The horse thundered down the road.

Chapter Two

The night was ominous.

Though in fairness, all nights had become filled with terrifying images to Mantarok. The man had ridden for several days before he arrived at the closest small town. Unfortunately, already the undead menace had begun to spread there, and the town as embroiled in turmoil. Mantarok felt it better to avoid it altogether and had ridden his horse around the outskirts of the town. The next town hadn't been affected yet, but they had scoffed at Mantaroks warning. 'Who could blame them?' Mantarok bitterly thought as he sat staring at small fire he had made.

He had ridden into town in a daze, babbling about skeletons walking and corpses alive again and killing people. He was sure that the monsters had likely caught up with that town by now. He seemed to be riding at the edge of a storm, proceeding it by scant few days. At first he hadn't bothered to stop at night, but after the last time he had fallen asleep on his horses back and almost fell off he had decided it would be prudent to stop at night.

He poked at the fire, wishing he was back home. His heart ached with pain at the thought of his family lying dead. Then it sank quickly into his stomach as he realized they most likely weren't lying dead anywhere, but were shambling about killing any they came across. He sighed and threw his stick into the fire. "Damn whoever caused this plague. And damned if I couldn't have been taken by it." he bitterly whispered to the fire. It hissed and popped in response, the light flickering softly against the trees.

Mantarok's eyes began to slide shut, the day catching up and exhaustion setting in. Almost before sleep took him, he suddenly felt a sharp point in his back and a gravelly voice saying, "Move and I'll kill you." Snapping back into alertness, he follows the mans directions and stays perfectly still. The voice, keeping the knife point sharp in Mantaroks lower back asked, "Who are you and what brings you to my woods?".

Mantarok stammered out, "My name is Mantarok. I'm a simple farmer attempting to escape from the horrors of the northern plague. I'm trying to reach the king and warn him of what happened." There was an uncomfortable silence and Mantarok could feel the knife point dig a little deeper into his back before falling away. Mantarok crawled quickly away from his attacker, moving to put the fire between himself and the unknown.

Out of the shadows, stepped the most heavily armed man Mantarok had ever seen. His clothing was a blend of browns and greens, with a heavy hooded cloak covering his head. His eyes were a piercing blue, but his lower face was masked by a green wrap pulled up over his nose. His hair was a dark brown, and his skin was fairly pale. But what caught Mantaroks attention was the veritable arsenal of weapons at the mans waist. Several daggers adorned his belt, along with a morningstar and a bastard sword. Across his back was a large composite longbow with several quivers of arrows with differently coloured fletching.

He looked at Mantarok with an glance that indicated that he could kill the man at any point, so Mantarok decided to stay where he was and asked, "And who are you to attack innocent travellers this close to the king's city?" The man chuckled, a dry, raspy noise, and said "I am Allen, and I live in these woods. Whether the king attempts to lay claim to them or not doesn't matter to me." He sat down next to the fire, "You would do well to remember that the laws of the king doesn't apply to everyone. Especially those that wish to not be found."

Mantarok nodded quietly and waited for Allen to say something else. After a moment of time of silence, Allen asked, "So you flee from the undead from the north? I'm surprised a simple farmer such as you claim to be could survive for very long." Mantarok grimaced, "I had help from a very good friend. An elven ranger named Omaren..." Allen raised an eyebrow at the name and interrupted him. "Omaren? I've heard of him. One of the better rangers to the north. I'm surprised you took up with him. Most of your kind don't like us rangers." Mantarok shrugged, "Yes, I admit most of the people in the village nearby did not like the rangers. My family owned a small farm on the edge of the forest, so we knew the dangers that you rangers keep us safe from."

Allen again raised an eyebrow and chuckled, "Interesting, Mantarok. You continue to surprise me. Well, so old Omaren helped you out of the undead. Where is he then? I imagine if he was still with you I wouldn't have gotten anywhere near you before running into him." Mantarok sighed, "Yes, I'm afraid I don't know what happened. He went back to get horses for us to escape on, but never returned." Allen shrugged and pulled a pipe out of his pack. Stamping the tobacco into the bowl, he lit it and slid the mouthpiece under the scarf. Puffing lightly on it, he sat looking thoughtfully at the fire. Muttering around the pipe, his voice had an edge to it, "Very unfortunate for us to have lost Omaren when we need him most. But we'll have to make do, I suppose."

Allen settled in to smoke his pipe and Mantarok watched him with curiosity. Allen was certainly a puzzle and finally he decided to ask the biggest question that had been bothering him. "Excuse me, I don't mean to be rude..." Allen looked up at Mantarok and waited. Mantarok paused slightly, "Well, why are you wearing that scarf over your lower face? It's not really that cold of a night, so it is rather unusual." Briefly, a rage flitted across Allens face and Mantarok felt a chill of fear. But the shadow of anger passed quickly and Allens eyes smiled as he said, "It serves many functions, the least of which is keeping my face warm and my mouth protected from dust. Mostly it helps keep me hidden in the shadows." Mantarok nodded, content with the answer and certainly not willing to bring back the anger that Allen had first exhibited at the question.

They continued to talk for a while and Mantarok learned quickly to avoid asking any personal questions of Allen. The man either didn't answer them, or simply ignored them and changed the topic of conversation to something else. At first, Mantarok had been frustrated by the mans reticence, but eventually he reasoned that Allen was entitled to his secrets just as any other man is. It just seemed that Allen had an unusual amount of secrets he wished to keep. Finally though, Mantarok drifted to sleep with Allen assuring him that he would keep an eye on him through the night.

Mantarok awoke in the morning surprised to find that Allen was nowhere to be seen. With a dejected sigh, Mantarok went about setting up his breakfast. He had privately wished that the resourceful ranger had stuck around long enough for Mantarok to ask him to go along to the capital. 'Oh well.' he thought as he finished packing up his camp and saddling up his horse. Swinging lightly up into the saddle, he called out, "Thank you Allen. I wish you the best, but I think you should get the away from here before the undead arrive."

Mantarok rode quickly down the road, and soon broke from the forest and found himself looking over miles of farmland. In the faint distance, built into the craggy side of the mountain stood Barton Keep. The castle had been the residency of the royalty of Trimera for generations. At its feet, the town sprawled out over the foothills. Close to the castle resided the elite and nobility. Further out lay the places of business and various merchants homes. And in the outskirts was the slums, home to the poor and destitute of the city.

Mantarok had been to Barton Keep once as a child with his father. The King had placed a tax on the northern farms and the other outlying farmers had made his father their representative to the King. Mantarok and his father had arrived and gone straight to the castle and back home, so he was slightly subdued at the thought of trying to navigate the city by himself. But he figured that as long as he stuck to the main road he should be okay.

Slowly the city grew closer, the castle consuming more of the horizon as he approached. The castle had been built into the mountain by the dwarves, as a symbol of the eternal peace between the humans and the dwarven kingdom. The majority of the castle was outside of the mountain, with a few halls and rooms being hollowed out of the mountain itself. The building of the castle had been a massive achievement, taking many generations of humans to come to fruition, but only one of the long-lived dwarves. On the castle ramparts, thousands of gardens bloomed, bringing bright flowers to the otherwise stark and foreboding walls.

As Mantarok got closer he began to see cattle and various small farm houses spotting the fields. Occasionally the rounded hills that indicated halfling homes would stand in stark contrast to the wooden houses built by the human farmers. It took a lot of food and resources to keep a city the size of Bartons Keep running, and the farmlands here provided a major share of it. Mantarok felt a chill at the thought of the undead destroying what these simple folks had worked so hard to build.
Above him, he heard an noise which caused him to turn and look up. His eyes widened in shock at the sight that met his eyes. A small boat with a bizarre rod in the middle was crashing rapidly towards the ground. At the tip of the rod there was four wide pieces of wood, spinning around rapidly while smoke belched out from a small engine that was strapped to the bottom of the boat. At the helm, desperately trying to steer the vehicle a gnome wearing a helmet and goggles was trying to steer while screaming "Get out of the way! Out of the way! You are on my runway!"

Mantarok quickly pulled his horse to the side of the road and the boat crashed into the dirt road, leaving a deep furrow as it plowed ahead for a few feet. Stumbling out of the wreckage, the gnome giggled and said, "Perfect landing! Perfect! Now if I could just figure out a way to land without needing to make a new one every time." Mantarok stared in unabashed curiousity at the bizarre contraption of wood and metal before him. The gnome brushed some of the dirt off of his pants and shirt, then walked up to Mantarok and said, "The names Gimble! Gimble Gemhoarder, at your service. Glad to see you liked my heliobob. It's a work in progress. I'm an inventor, and this is one of my better inventions. My wife would have a fit if she'd seen me though!"

Mantarok had never interacted with a gnome before and was amazed at how fast the creature talked. He was also amazed at the way Gimble completely brushed off almost dying. Gimble however simply kicked the engine, causing it to sputter and spew out some oil before finally dying. "Good engine! Runs even after the rest has died out. Perfect!" He then looks at Mantarok and says, "You're big, help me out with this. I want to keep the engine and the propellers. The boat can rot for all I care, I need to still work on that." Mantarok thought for a moment to just brush off the obviously insane gnome and continue on to town, but he then thought that Gimble most likely knew at least some people in town, and probably knew the place better than he would.

After Gimble and Mantarok had loaded the engine and the propellers onto a cart that Gimble had left nearby, they headed into town. Gimble happily agreed to showing Mantarok around town, saying "Always a pleasure to introduce someone to town. I find I almost always find something I hadn't seen before, or am reintroduced to a place I haven't been to in a while." The gnome looked to be in his late thirties, and seemed to know everyone they came across. Though some of the greetings were short and less than courteous, others were long drawn out affairs that had Mantarok beginning to wonder if they would ever move on.

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the small house. Next to the house however was a giant warehouse, that looked like it had seen better days. Various coloured trails of smoke drifted up from the ramshackle building. Gimble nodded and waved at the building, “My workshop and my home. Lily will be glad to...” he was quickly cut off however by a voice screaming, “Gimble Bartemous Wilhelm Carter Mendilson Cavan Metoran Gemhoarder!” Gimble shuddered and groaned, “Oh gods, my full name.”

A young-looking gnome stepped out of the house and ran up to Gimble, screaming and railing at him about being dangerous with his flying contraptions. Gimble attempted to plead his case, but she refused to let him get a word in. After several minutes of ranting, she threw her arms around him and kissed him hard. “But I’m glad you came home safe, darling. Now, who’s your cute friend?” she asked as she let go of Gimble and extended her hand. “Lillian Gemhoarder, pleasure to meet you sir. But you can call me Lily, handsome.” Gimble glared at Lillian and Mantarok, blushing lightly, took her hand and said, “My name is Mantarok Kandrik. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, ma’am.” Lillian laughed and shook her head. “Ma’am? I’m far too young to be a ma’am.” She grinned and headed back to the house, saying over her shoulder, “Come in, come in! I’ve just made your favorite Gimble, and an apple pie is cooling on the counter. Don’t touch it, Gimble or I’ll have your fingers.”

Gimble grinned and mimed eating the pie to Mantarok. “You distract her, and the pie will be ours!” Mantarok laughed and followed him into the house. He was glad to have met some new friends, especially in such a foriegn place.
“And that is what brings me here to Barton Keep. The undead seem to be systematically wiping out farmlands to the north, and Omaren said that someone had to warn the king. I only wish he was still here with me, because I really don’t know what to do now that I’m here.” Mantarok finished off his slice of apple pie as he finished his story. Gimble nodded gravely and Lily shuddered.

Gimble thoughtfully stroked his goatee and finally said, “Well, you are right in trying to warn the king. This is definately a very bad spot the kingdom is in if a necromancer has risen again to try to take over. I’m not sure what we’ll be able to do to stop this, but I suppose we’ll have to try. I have some connections, Lily’s uncle is a high-level ambassador for the gnomes here in town.” Lily nodded and added, “I think he could get us an audience with the king. Or at the least, we’ll be able to warn the gnome king.”

Mantarok nods. “Yes, we should warn as many people as possible. My only hope is that we can save our kingdom from falling into the darkness brought upon by this evil.” Gimble stood and said, “Well, it’s getting late now and there won’t be much we can do until tomorrow when the royal court gathers into session.” Mantarok agreed and again thanked them both for their hospitality. Lily giggled and said, “Nothing is too much for you, cutie.”

Mantarok grinned nervously and blushed again as Gimble grumbled something and Lily giggled again. Gimble led Mantarok to the guest bedroom and said, “I’m glad we paid the money to get a human sized bed in here.” Mantarok thanked Gimble and Gimble shut the door. Mantarok lay down on the bed, exhausted from a long day and from recounting the horrors he had seen. As he lay in a comfortable bed for the first time in a month, he allowed himself a small smile and mumbled to himself, “I think everything will be okay...” as he drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, Gimble and Mantarok headed deeper into the heart of town. Gimble spent most of the morning rambling about various aspects of inventing, telling Mantarok of his various spectacular successes and even more spectacular failures. Mantarok listened for the most part, occassionally laughing at some of the funnier parts of the stories but for the most part lost in thought. His reticence to join the conversation didn’t seem to phase the gnome, however. As they approached the gates that led into the castle proper, he quieted down.

Serious looking guards looked at the two men as they made their way deeper into the heart of the keep to the section that housed the foreign ambassadors. Gimble’s family connections made it fairly easy to make their way through the halls however. A few of the guards recognized the inventor and simply let him lead Mantarok through the keep unquestioned.

Finally, he stopped Mantarok in front of a small door. On the door in bright gold letters was the name “Humphrey Quentillion, III” Gimble knocked on the door shouted out, “Quen, I have to speak with you!” There was a commotion inside followed by a blusterous roar. Soon the door open and a very fat, very old gnome blinked out. “Gimble? Is that you my boy?” the the fat gnome asked, staring at Gimble than at Mantarok. “What brings you here? And who’s your friend?”

Gimble introduced Mantarok and the gnome nodded. “Well, come in, come in. I’m in the middle of tea, you see. Nasty way you get attention at the door, my boy. You should be much more polite, much better to be polite about it.” Gimble rolled his eyes and walked into the room. Mantarok joined him and was surprised to see that the room was very lavishly furnished. Every item glittered with jewels and gold. Humphrey sat down at a small table, and offered two chairs for them to sit in. He poured some tea into a small gilded cup and offered some to Gimble and Mantarok. Gimble immediately poured himself a cup, but Mantarok politely declined.

Gimble cleared his throat and began, "Quen, we've got a story to tell you. This may mean trouble." Humphrey raised an eyebrow and said, "Dear me, dear me. You always were excitable Gimble." He looked at Mantarok and chuckled, "I doubt it's as dire as he makes it out to be." Mantarok shook his head and said, "No, it's much worse. I come from the North..."

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