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    Kyle Aarons
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Beyond the Crags - 2. Chapter 2

Adga fingered her rank pin, marking her as a full guardsman for probably the hundredth time since getting promoted only a week prior. She was at last an official Twin Spires guard; a dream come true. She was finally respected, at least as much as any Illorc ever was. In addition, she had passed her guild tests. This meant she also proudly wore a copper Warrior Adept pin. Under this, she had her primary Subfield of Outdoorsman. Her second Subfield guild pin, Ruinseeker, was kept on her collar under reinforced leather guardsman armor. While very proud of it, she didn’t want to display it.

All Ruinseekers could read. Most beings in the area couldn’t. As the biggest Illorc in the Spires, possibly the biggest talking being in them, and still a few years from her age of ascension, she already stood out. Flaunting she could read was not something she was ready to proclaim to her fellow bunkmates. She knew of only seven others in the central garrison inside the northern walls who could read well.

Adga moved to the edge of the rock formation and looked outward. She adjusted her head wrap as a strong hot wind blew from the south. The armor was still stiff and rubbed her wrong. With the additional metal plates covering vital areas, it was also heavier and hotter than the apprentice guardsman's leather armor. The additional weight of the blade over her back didn’t feel as comfortable as it did in her leather armor either. In general, it was less comfortable. However, she was a guardsman. This made up for almost everything.

The problem was, that Adga preferred to be out on patrol duty. It was more dangerous, the food always had sand in it, and there was more work. But it wasn’t boring. Guard duty at the top of the Spires was one of the most uninteresting duties there was, especially the early shift. She had been assigned to this to give her an easy week or two. She tried to refuse what was considered a reward, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

Dangers seldom came out of the Crags early in the day. Even if something did, all she could do was send an alert down to those below. Spire top guard stints were welcomed by most, but for Adga they led to long musings and lots of time for her mind to wander.

At least the view was good. The Crags spread out to the west before her. From her vantage point, she could see deep into the maze of natural brownish-red rock walls with paths between them. Some of the walls were over thirty meters high, dozens of meters wide, and hundreds of meters long, while others were shorter, narrower, and considerably less in length. Most slanted from southwest to northeast, but that accounted for only about half. The others ran in various directions, intersecting other walls, sometimes cutting through them. Often this made dead ends. Other times there were breaks where the walls intersected. There was no rhyme or reason to the wall patterns in the Crags stretching out for several kilometers to the west and even further to the north and south.

Off in the distance, at the far edge of the Crags, she could just barely make out the massive cliffs making the far edge of the Crags. A sandstorm was brewing way off the far side, but it wasn’t a concern. The jutting maze of rocks between Twin Spires and the Outer Cliff Wall filtered out all but the biggest sandstorms. Beyond was the Desert of the Dead. It was believed this was the source of the undead that came out of the Crags a few times a moon cycle, but that was the rumor. Adga bet no one really knew for sure. All she was certain of was the two, nearly forty-meter-tall, rock formations on either side of a natural pass into the Crags were a gateway into a deadly unknown.

Twin Spires, the largest settlement on the edge of the Desert of the Dead, was a major trade center. It dealt with exotic goods, metals, gems, and delicacies such as Rock Scorpion meat, Sand Berries, and spell ink components. However, Twin Spires was also a well-known destination for a seedier side.

Treasure seekers, desperate folk, and cutthroats of all shapes and sizes came to Twin Spires from near and far. For Twin Spires was a gateway into the desolate and deadly lands beyond civilization. In fact, Twin Spires was a known, if not infamous, final stop for bandits, loners, adventurers, and caravans determined to find their way through the Crags and into the deep desert beyond the Barrier Cliffs. Since being accepted into the Twin Spires guards as an apprentice, she had seen hundreds, probably upwards of a thousand desperate souls pass through the ten-meter-tall Gate Wall built across the pass into the Crags. Most never returned.

Adga snorted. That was not exactly true, many returned. The problem was they did so as dead walkers. However, enough came back alive with loot of coins, magic, gems, and jewelry to make others want to try. None claimed to have made it to the Outer Cliff Wall, let alone beyond into the Desert of the Dead. This didn’t stop a constant flow of others from trying. Also, since there were many caravans who disappeared to never be heard from again, rumors were there was a way into the deep desert. Somewhere out there, as the tales in the hiring hall proclaimed, were self-made merchant princes all because they got goods to settlements whispered to be out there.

Adga let out a breath. She knelt and tossed a rock off the edge of the North Spire. Off in the distance, a caravan snaked through the desert on the marked path leading toward Twin Spires. The colorful flags on the lead wagons flapped in the breeze. This told her the wind below wasn’t as bad down on the desert floor. She shook her head as she studied the caravan. It was being pulled by Water Deer. While strong and able to go long distances without water, they were not something a seasoned desert caravan leader would use this deep into the desert.

On the other hand, it might mean it had trade goods from far away. There was even a chance, it had a stock of sweet sticks. A rare treat indeed. She would have to check it out. Her focus returned to the Crags and what might be beyond. The idea of settlements of living beings surviving out in the Desert of the Dead was one of the dumbest stories floating around the hiring halls and bars of Twin Spires. She had personally taken down half a dozen who had passed through the Gate Wall into the Crags and had returned with skin sloughing off them, smelling of rotten meat, with a hunger for living flesh. Her recent battle had been a prime example. A few of the guardsmen recognized the tunic. It belonged to a man who had entered the Crags with three wagons of goods and fifteen other men and women only five days before Adga had sliced off its undead head. On the plus side, the body held a charmed knife. It was lightly magical, with a very sharp blade and it always glowed. It now hung on her hip. It was her choice of loot. She had been given first pick and she didn’t hesitate. Not many had a magical weapon!

In addition, she had been awarded the clearly strong shield of the dead walker, the old mace, and a couple of other minor items.

Adga glanced toward the settlement on the ‘safe’ side of the Crags. In actuality, it was two settlements. Each one was a self-contained walled community tucked up against the two spires. The Spires provided shade from the intense afternoon sun, giving relief to those who would otherwise bake under Zeris’ fiery daylight.

In between was open desert and the Gate Wall cutting off most access to the Crags and the horrors within and beyond. The wall, an ancient massive structure, was rumored to date back to the downfall of the Mythlings and the rise of the gods worshiped by nearly all for thousands of years. The stones of the gates were immense. Each was over two meters tall and three meters in length. From what she could tell, they were also over a meter thick. She often wondered how they had gotten there. The bigger question was how they got stacked and by whom. Surely it had to be the work of the gods.

The gate itself was a marvel. It was stone, without any wood, and worked with gears and counterweights hooked to massive chains of Gnome Stone Steel. The gate descended into the desert in mere minutes and came back up just as quickly. Adga had seen the inner workings but a single time, but it amazed her anything like it could have ever been built.

The wall was in stark contrast to the two settlements. The north side settlement was where the majority of the inhabitants lived. The protection barrier was made of stone, but the blocks were less than a hundredth the size of the Gate Wall stones. The wall around the north was only half as tall as the Gate Wall.

There was a small river cutting through the walled section. It flowed out of a cave in the Outer Crag Wall just to the north of the Northern Spire. It provided most of the water to the northern settlement. Over eight thousand beings of all races called it home. Another ten thousand or more who lived in the surrounding lands depended on it for goods, services, and protection. Many, if not most, worked in the gem, silver, copper, and tin mines located in a set of arid hills to the northeast. The northern section was dirty, crowded, and smelled of under-washed bodies, sewage, trash, and had a bad rat problem. Rat mitigation, as it was referred to, was a common task given to guards who had minor infractions such as showing up for a shift drunk or being late too often.

The underground sewers were washed out by diverting the river once a week. The water then ran out an exposed stone channel into a rancid pool several hundred meters to the northeast of the walls. Fortunately, the filthy water disappeared into the sands, and Zeris’ intense heat baked what was left quickly. But it was still an area no one went to. At least no one who was living. It was not uncommon for dead walkers to come out of the pool after the sewers were flushed. This led many to believe there was a sizable number of undead in the sewers. Adga had often been told the worst punishment handed down to city guards was to have to go down and clean out the dead walker infestations. In the years as a guardsman apprentice, she had never encountered any who had been forced to do so. For her though, the thought of being given such a detail was enough to make sure she followed the rules of the guard commanders.

The south side of Twin Spires was for the wealthy. Most never saw the inside.

This was where Adga looked most when stuck on morning spire guard duty. She could only dream of one day owning a home inside the southern walls. Unlike the north side, she could see estates, nice shops, and blocks of individual brick homes. Most city blocks had wells and carts came up to homes every third day to take away chamber pot waste and trash. The carts then took the waste out to a deep ravine five kilometers to the southeast where it was dumped. The waste pit was often picked over by beggars and squatters who lived outside the walls and in some natural caves close to Twin Spires.

Guards often watched fights break out as beings went after the discarded remnants of the rich. In fact, it was a common form of amusement for the guards on the Spires. When a large fight was seen, guards would stand on the Spires and put down copper bets on who they thought would come out the winner. It was fun and challenging since all they could really see were specks off in the distance. Bets had to be placed on the obvious clothing color. For most, this was non-dyed white to tan sackcloth roughly stitched together to make something wearable. However, those in the waste dump often found discarded colorfully dyed garments. These were incorporated into the rags they normally wore. It made them stand out. Since the bone walker fought at the pit, the guard's presence kept such fights down. She hoped the pits would be deemed safe soon, so she could at least look forward to seeing something interesting happening on spire top guard duty.

Until then she focused on the southern settlement. Not only was the area inside the south walls much nicer to look down into because it was less crowded, but there were plenty of other reasons to gaze down and wish. For Adga it started with the clothing. Many dressed in fancy colors and much higher quality linens. Even younger ones appeared to be well-dressed and were colorful. Each of the five noble houses had their colors. This was intermixed with other wealthy folk who seemed to flaunt their prosperity with color and shopping.

Over the years she managed to identify several structures. Six were bathhouses. They were very busy. There were a dozen bakeries, almost as many meat smokeries, and scores of shops selling everything, from bottles of wine to fruit, to spices. All the shops had storefronts. Most put out tables in the early morning and late in the day to sell goods during the cooler parts of the day. As best she could tell, no one tried to steal from the open displays. There were no fights over produce, and guards seldom had to intervene. Yet there were always people buying. How did they get so much coin? She really wanted to know.

There was no doubt in her mind the southern settlement smelled a whole lot better than the mass of small hovels, shops, and large structures with scores of single-dwelling rooms that made up most of the area behind the northern walls. However, she had never been inside the southern walls, so all she could do was look down and dream about what she guessed it was like to live there. The smallest homes in the South were bigger than what most of the wealthy lived inside the North.

The other thing different about the southern side of Twin Spires centered on who lived there. Humans and Dwarven made up the majority. However, it had a section of Elves and Halfelves. In addition, there was a smattering of other races. But there were very few, if any, of what was considered lower races. Those who did live behind the southern walls tended to live in sections of their own races, but they all mingled in the streets together.

None were poor. That wasn’t totally true, Adga reminded herself. There were slaves and indentured servants. As best as she could tell from her vantage point looking down into the south settlement, even the servants and slaves looked to be better off than many free beings living inside the northern walls. The obvious difference was they had plain colored clothing and slaves wore a black sash. It hung down from their slave collars. Most had embroidery marking who they belonged to.

The southern settlement also held the central keep and several large walled estates of the elite. The noble families who ruled Twin Spires were mostly Highmen, a more magically inclined race of high-Humans. The nobles were also the only beings she had ever heard of with two names. All the nobles of Twin Spires had a second name of Oldsurn, Avery, Kandahar, Vylevin, or Shunral. Although, the Shunral family all had dark skin and light-colored hair, leading to rumors they were at least partially Drow.

While this led to some misgivings about the Shunral nobles, it had been a Shunral-led detachment who had rescued Adga and her two younger siblings. A detachment of Twin Spires warriors decimated a slaver raiding party. Adga had been one of their latest victims. Her small village had been all but wiped out. Some had been killed, most captured, and a few managed to flee. Two days after being locked in shackles and shoved into a cart, the banner of Twin Spires appeared over a hill. The slavers tried to run. They even abandoned some of the slaves.

However, it was in vain. The Twin Spires war party ripped into the slavers with every bit as much viciousness as the slavers had done to Adga’s village. Most fell. Survivors were shown no pity. A few were tagged as captures and taken. The slavers became slaves. The rest were stripped down to loincloths, forced marched over blazing hot ground to a hill over two kilometers away, and shoved down the embankment. Guards stood watch and occasionally one would lose an arrow at any who tried to climb the hill. Adga bet, even hoped, those who ran off had died of thirst or worse.

While the raiders were brutally dealt with, those in the caged wagons, including her and her siblings were released, fed, and given water. As soon as one of the guards noted Adga had Training Echelon Warrior Adept pins, she was taken before the noble. Alagor Shunral talked to Adga for several minutes and then made an astonishing offer. The Shunral family would sponsor Adga as a guard trainee under the condition she worked for Twin Spires for ten years after making Primary Echelon and being promoted to guardsman. As part of the deal, Alagor agreed to find spots in a forge for Adga’s brother, and in a Healthman shop for her sister, completing their apprenticeships. It was not something many could or would have done. Especially not for lost or orphaned young Illorcs. Because of this, Adga was extremely loyal to both the Shunral nobles and Twin Spires. She was certain she would die to protect her adopted home if needed.

Adga’s musings ended as she noted the shift change start to make its way up the spiral path leading up the southern spire. This meant her replacements were moving up the northern spire. She smiled. Once per moon, she had three days off, while the rest of the time she only had one per seven days. This was the last day before her three days. It was also payday. It would be the first time she would get pay as a full guardsman. Twenty-five copper for a week of work, a full silver increase from her position as a senior guard apprentice. The extra coin would buy her some figs out of the market and leave her with extra in her pouch. She licked her lips at the thought of her favorite treat.

She stroked her chin and briefly fingered her chipped right tusk. The pain lingered, but it was certainly better than it had been a week ago. Her actions, however, were praised universally. Many, including the Vylevin knight, told her repeatedly there would have been no shame in running. However, single-handedly taking down four dead walkers had earned her not only the promotion to guardsman but also respect. Everyone knew her by name. It went beyond her fellow guardsmen. Random people in the streets gave her nods. The baker outside the garrison barracks even tossed in an extra roll at no charge when she bought additional rations for herself. While she hated to admit it, it felt good. It almost made taking the shield to the face worth it. Her one question centered on what had happened to the junior apprentice who had run off. He had never been found. Because she stayed and fought, he was now listed as a deserter. There was a bounty out on him. It was one she would like to collect.

Knowing her shift was going to end in less than two turns of a sandglass, she adjusted the bastard sword she kept over her back and scanned the Crags again. Nothing west of the wall moved. Another boring shift was drawing to a close. She started to turn back to the small guard hut when something in the distance caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She paused, turned back to the west, and took a knee at the edge of the spire. The area below remained clear.

A few years ago, she would have turned away and shrugged it off. With experience came wisdom. She had learned one didn’t stay alive this close to the Desert of the Dead by ignoring things. The right corner of her lip moved downward exposing more of the crack running down her damaged tusk. At the same time, her eyes narrowed. What had caused her to turn back to the Crags?

She stayed perfectly still as her eyes darted over the uneven, mostly sand-covered and sometimes jagged paths below. She focused close to Twin Spires and scanned outward. Because of this, it took several minutes for her gaze to settle on what her subconscious had picked up on. The sandstorm was growing closer to the outer cliffs and was snaking downward into the Crags. The problem was, it wasn’t what she was normally used to seeing. First, the storm was still well back from the Outer Cliff Wall. Second, the sand over-washing the far cliffs wasn’t brownish grey. Instead, ribbons of red; blood red, mixed with black were rolling downward. They moved oddly, reminding her of a pit full of striped vipers. It was kind of pretty. However, she realized it was the red ribbons twisting downward into the Crags that had first gotten her attention. It wasn’t normal.

She turned with concern, “Watch Corporal!”

A Human, accompanied by a Halforc, and a Dwarf came out of the shack. The Human spoke first, “Problem Adga?”

“I’m not sure, but I’ve never seen nothin’ like this before.” She pointed off into the distance.

The Dwarf moved up. His eyes scanned in the direction Adga was pointing. When his eyes took in the red streamers rolling over the far cliffs, he let out a gasp, “Corporal! We gots Blood Tendrils comin’ down the Outer Cliff Wall!”

The corporal rushed up to the edge, followed by the young Halforc apprentice guard. He looked outward even as Adga exchanged confused glances with the much younger Halforc apprentice.

The corporal took a few uneasy breaths, “I’ve heard of this… but…” He paused and stared at the Dwarf, “Koralm, you sure?”

“Been alive most a 350 year, and seen dis only three other times, last time be over eighty year ago. Me knowin’ what them evil whiskers look like be why they have me up here with ya. Them be Blood Tendrils!”

Adga turned and cocked her head to the side, “Blood Tendrils? Are those things alive Corporal Donabal?”

“Some say they is,” Koralm stated. “Other talk of ‘em bein’ dried blood from under the desert stirred up by Warvon’s winds. All me know is when the Blood Tendrils roll down the Deadland Cliffs, the storm we sees brewin’ behind is gonna be big enough to totally overwash the Crags. We’s gonna get hit and the dead is gonna come out of the caves from the Crags in number.”

Adga gulped, “Is this the beginning of a Dead Storm talked about in the hiring halls?”

Donabal nodded, “Yeah… A sandstorm straight out of the Desert of the Dead. It’s also why every spire guard shift has someone who has seen the tendrils. We need someone who can verify.”

Koralm snorted, “Us Mudanes be worth somethin’.”

Donabal shook his head, “You’re a Healthman, so you ain’t totally Mundane…” He watched as more red ribbons of sand snaked over the far cliff walls. “Do we wait to see what happens or sound the alarm?”

“Yer the boss,” Koralm stated, “but there ain’t never been Blood Tendrils without a Dead Storm dat me’s heard a. Adga spotted it early, so we’s probably got nine to eleven turns of a sandglass… no more den twelve. We’s gonna be in dem fer sure. We hunker down and covers up from head ta toe till it be done!”

Adga cocked her head to the side, “Cover up from head to toe? Why?”

Koralm spit off the side of the spire before responding, “Durin’ the height a the last one, the wind be so strong the sand peel uncovered skin right off the bone!”

Donabal gulped, turned, and pushed the Halforc back from the edge and toward a large pile of wood, “Mog, pour the red powder over the pile and light it!”

Koralm licked a finger and held it up, “We’s got strong south wind. The warnin’ smoke ain’t gonna get seen in Scorpion Falls, and prob’ly not in Bladed Sands neither.”

Even as Koralm spoke, Mog dumped a large glass bottle of red powder over the pyre. The young Halforc then fought to light a torch with flint.

Adga took a few steps away from Donabal and Koralm, “Mog, back up!" She gave the junior apprentice a couple of seconds to get clear before she stuck out her hand, rolled her fingers, and spoke a single arcane word. A small ball of hot sparks shot out of her extended hand hit the very dry wood and ignited it. Seconds later the smoke coming off turned a bright red but was quickly pushed to the north.

“Koralm’s right!” Adga stated with concern. “The southernmost settlements will never see our warning smoke!”

Adga watched the smoke billow up and quickly get pushed north. She also noticed Donabal had moved to the backside of the spire, opened a box, and pulled out a heavy knotted rope. He looked over the edge and dropped the unsecured end. “Adga, take the fast way down. Let the guard lieutenant know Koralm has confirmed we have Blood Tendrils. Also have him look at the smoke from down there, ‘cause we don’t think the signal will reach the southern settlements!” He then turned to Koralm, “Hit the warning gong! Maybe we’ll get lucky and the southern spire isn’t getting this strong of a wind!"

Adga moved over and glanced down. She cringed. It was a long way to climb down on a rope she didn’t even know existed until this moment. She hoped both the rope and the two metal spikes she saw holding it in place had been checked recently. The last thing she wanted was to find a section that had dry rot halfway down.

Adga secured her pack, pulled it over her bastard sword sheath, and grabbed the knot at the edge of the cliff. She looked down, found the next knot down with her feet, and slid over the edge. By the time she hit the fourth knot down, the sounds of a large metal hammer smashing into a thick plate of bronze cascaded over the area. As she looked down, she could see torches being lit all along the walls of both sides of Twin Spires. Before she was a third of the way down the smoke coming off the torches turned a bright red. As this happened, those outside the walls bolted for the gates. Beings of all types further out stopped whatever tasks they were doing and either made for the north side of Twin Spires or turned to head toward wherever they called home.

 

Copyright © 2023 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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We learn about Adga's background  and some of the social divisions at Twin Spires. She has advanced to guardsman and is helped by Lord Shunral's sponsorship. Most have hard lives and Adga fits in with the poor. She is unaware of how the wealthy live, but dreams of a better life. Let us see how Adga leads and acts on her next missions. I expect she wise rise to the challenges she faces in an outstanding manner.

The area is often dangerous. Now , a seasoned guard has seen a huge disastrous sand storm approaching, Exposed people could be killed. Adga needs to find a safe place. Finding out what happens during and after this disaster will be very illumination.

I see some threads with Sands of Time. Adga is a very large illorc. Could she have some Orakin blood? There is mentioned in this chapter of a rumor that the Shunral's have drow origins given how they look. Xaviers' drow bodyguard could answer the drow question given his mast name, if the Lord and the bodyguard ever meet.

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Adga's valor has paid off and she is no longer an apprentice guardsmen. Now she was alert enough to spot the Blood Tendrils early, giving them extra time to prepare before the Dead Storm. This may lead to more advancement. Either way this massive storm will shake things up.

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