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A Debt - by Ratarko

They say no dwarf can truly be happy unless below tons of earth and rock, mused Ratarko, and he certainly was no exception.  Weeks of solitary travel on the surface, away from his home in Tharhalas, as beginning to take its toll.  His heart ached for the familiar feel of the cool rock walls, of the various subterranian fungi, which played counterpart to the flora of the surface.  To him, they were just as beautiful, each differing in pattern and coloration, a beauty lost on those that couldn't relate to the wonders that existed under their cities, towns, villages, feet.  The heartache was intensified when he daydreamed like this.  Daydreaming was dangerous on these roads; a howl from the north reminded him of this and he snapped back to reality.

There it was again - the howl.  Another joined it, this time from the west.

Casting aside sentimentalities, he drew his shortsword, holding a small Solarian War Drum in his offhand.  Shifting his shield slightly to allow a better, more complete view of the road before him, he considered his options - make his stand here, or try to outrun the pack.

With a glance at his stubby legs, in conjunction with another, closer howl, he realized he had no real choice, after all.  Bending his knees slightly, he made ready.



He knew they were near.  Why weren't they attacking?

His blood pounded, pounded in time with his heart, the adrenaline rushed into his system, trying to ready him for the danger at hand.

Still, nothing.

Were they toying with him?

He glanced to the left, nothing.  A look to the right, still, no sign.  He was breathing heavily, now getting nervous.  He made certain to keep up his guard.  To relax now was to invite disaster.

Again, he looked about him, and-

The silence was suddenly shattered as a glass before a hammer, for a snarling, hairy form launched from the high grasses to his right.  Instinctively, Ratarko raised his shield, blocking the vicious assault.  He answered with a clumsy swipe from his sword, designed more to drive the beast back, than to inflict actual injury.

The male wolf, deranged, landed on his feet but three yards before the dwarf.  How, foamy saliva dropped from yellowed canines displayed in a snarl that seemed bared in a hatred almost borne of intelligence.

The gaze of the defender locked with that of the attacker, each combatant waiting for the other to strike first.

They struck, instead.

Wolves from all directions, the pack as a whole descended upon the lone traveler, intent on the felling of their prey.  Steel flashed in the sunlight, blood spray painted the dwarf's vision red.  Canines rent flesh, the agony lost to the overwhelming quickness of Ratarko's heartbeat, the pain momentarily ignored for survival's sake.

Scan minutes that seemed hours later, the battle drew to a close, almost as suddenly as it began, with the final wolf dropping to the ground in a mess of blood and gore.  Before the dwarf laid several piles of bodies, still bleeding in the summer's sun.

Panting from the exertion of battle, Ratarko chanted the spidery words of magic.  A bright, pulsating shield came into being, protectively encircling the area.

Ratarko bit his lip as his wounds cried out their presence, the pain and blood loss making him lightheaded.  Calling upon the power of Vryce, he began to heal his wounds.  With each holy syllable, he watched as the flesh began to knit itself before his very eyes, as it had done numerous times in battles past.

His suffering eased, the dwarf took stock of the corpses strewn about him.  An absolute bloodbath.  Knowing wolves such as these were apt to eat just about anything they came across, he systematically began to gut the dead canines, in hope of coming across something material to show for this battle.  In the stomach of the fourteenth corpse, he discovered a map- slick with the half-digested contents of the wolf's stomach and accompanying bile.

Laying it flat on the ground before him, he blotted it with a warm scarf.  Incredibly, the maps contents were still legible.  A map to a dragon's lair!  It must have only recently swallowed the vellum map, he realized.  He bowed his head in respect for a moment, for the poor soul who'd lost it.  No doubt the map's previous owner could be found in the bellies of these beasts.

Ratarko called again upon the power of Vryce to further heal his wounds, but found himself spiritually drained.  He took some time to rest, meditating and praying to the pantheon of Medievia.  It was not long before he was again able to channel the energy divine.

Healing the last of his wounds, Ratarko resumed again his travels.  The sun hung low to the west, heralding the close of day, and approaching night.  Birds settled to perch, crickets began anew their song, as ancient as the mountains looming over the horizon.

The dark brought the creatures of the surface the opportunity to rest, an opportunity Ratarko could not afford.  He had to reach his destination before dawn; it was absolutely imperative.  He could not fail, or he would have to pay for his failure.  This he could not allow.

Through the dark of night he marched, the loose rocks crunching underfoot with each step.  Holding aloft his Tyche, he found comfort in its magical luminance, a lone beacon of familiarity in an unfamiliar- and unforgiving- land.

Through the night, he would commonly see out the corner of his eye, shapes moving in the bushes off the path, shapes he was unable to identify.  They caused no trouble this eve, however, for which Ratarko was glad.  He could ill afford further delays.

As dawn broke, he found to his disappointment, that he was farther from his goal than he had hoped he'd be.  On the horizon, a town stood in stark contrast to the forests around it.  Walls of ivory wound around the town, as coils in a serpent's embrace.

The sun neared its zenith by the time he finally approached to town gate.  His progress in entering the town proper was slowed by the masses of people gathered there; Prophets foretelling of doom, beggars requesting alms.  Merchants and tinkers announced their latest wares, deals that couldn't be passed up, items no civilized person could do without.  Pushing his way through the crowd, Ratarko reached the open streets.

Within a few minutes, he reached his destination. Before him loomed the doors of his clanhall.  Six inch thick oak, bound with iron, reinforced with magic, made impenetrable by the combined will of the Twilight Corsairs.  With a heavy heart, he placed a hand upon the door, feeling the wood, rough beneath his touch.  Inserting his Decree into the lock, he was rewarded with a 'click', as the tumblers fell into place.  After a moment's hesitation, he turned the knob, opening the door.

His only greeting was silence.  Before him lay the main room in the hall, his attention immediately taken by a large mahogany desk.  Behind this desk sat no other than Zark, clanleader of the Twilight Corsairs.  He showed no emotion, gave no clue as to his disposition.

After an awkward silence, he spoke.

"You're late."

Ratarko cursed himself silently.

"You know what must be done."  Zark maintained eye contact.

The dwarf sighed in resignation, adding an almost imperceptible nod.  Reaching inside his money pouch, Ratarko withdrew a single gold piece, its tarnished surface dull in the light.  Setting it on the desk, he pushed it forward with two fingers.  Slowly, the dwarf turned, and walked towards the exit.  As he closed the door, he heard Zark yell, with no little glee-

"I *told* you it'd take more than a month to walk here from Tharhalas!"

June 10, 2006

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