They walked in silence for a couple of hours, the dwarven Ranger leading them along a subtle path through the woods. Though, it was silence only in terms of words—Zakhin’Dakh’s passage through the underbrush could hardly be called quiet. Garkhen thought he occasionally caught glimpses of movement out of the corner of his eye, and thought it likely their passage was noted by other sentries.
In time they reached a place where the trees were spaced out more widely and the underbrush was cleared. Scattered through the area were three small wooden structures. Their guide led them towards the central one.
“Think you’ll have t’ stay out here, Zakhin’Dakh,” Almonihah said to his friend, patting him on the leg. The big griffon nodded in acknowledgment, with only a slightly disappointed-sounding screech.
The dwarf walked up and knocked on the cabin door. “Commander, I’ve got a couple fellows here that you should see.”
After a few moments, the door opened, and a human woman dressed in well-worn leather armor looked out. She looked Garkhen and Almonihah up and down for a moment.
“Well they’re certainly unusual, Karhin,” she said. “But why do they need my time?”
“The tall one says he’s from the Northern Rangers. He at least knew one of the calls,” the dwarf replied, “And he says the other one’s been attracting a lot of Madness-Touched.”
She narrowed her eyes, looking at Garkhen again. “I see. Well, come on then, you two.” She stepped back into the cabin, and their guide stepped aside.
Garkhen followed Almonihah to the doorway. Inside, the cabin was clearly a headquarters of sorts. A table covered with maps and a desk with several books and papers were the main furnishings, with the rest of the room taken up by shelves, chests, and other storage. One chair sat behind the desk, while three others were arranged hap-hazardly around the table. The commander took her chair behind the desk, then looked at the two half-dragons still standing in the doorway.
“I don’t know if the chairs will suit you, but I have a feeling you might be standing for a while if your story’s as long as it sounds. At least come in, though.”
Almonihah stepped in without hesitation, but Garkhen found himself hesitant. How much could he really trust these strange people? Certainly he had heard of Rangers, but rumors often lied, and the only one he’d met… well, he knew Almonihah virtually viewed him as his captive. And it was clear they viewed him with suspicion…
He shook his head. Why was he thinking such thoughts? They were unlike him. He did not think the Rangers were a threat to him. He stepped forward… or tried to. It seemed that his legs would not obey his mind. What was happening? A thought tickled at the back of his mind, but it slipped away as he tried to catch it… or was it being pushed away?
With a low growl, Garkhen threw his will into moving forward. Slowly, jerkily, he was able to take one step, and then another. As he crossed under the threshold, however, he found himself frozen in place. At the edge of his vision, he could see a green glow flare to life.
The Commander rose to her feet. “What were you trying to do? Did you think it would be so easy to bring Chaos-taint in here?” She shouted.
Garkhen gritted his teeth. Chaos-taint? What did she mean? Again a thought tried to rise to the surface, but this time, when it met resistance, it broke though.
The amulet from the castle.
With the suddenness of a dam breaking, the memory came flooding back into his mind, and Garkhen felt dull worry in the pit of his stomach. What had he been carrying? With a mental prayer to Bahamut for strength, he tried to move. His symbol glowed white, and he found he was able to slowly move his arms. It took great effort, as if he were pushing his limbs through thick syrup, but he was able to reach up and cut the straps of his pack with his claws.
Suddenly the magic that had held him in place released him. He tumbled forward onto the cabin’s floor with a crash.
“The amulet! The castle!” Garkhen gasped.
He realized that the Commander and Almonihah both had been talking, but he had not heard their words. But it seemed that his sudden release had silenced them.
Still struggling against some strange compulsion, the Warder forced himself to speak. “In… the castle. Demon-summoners. Found… an amulet. In my pack. But…” he growled, trying to force his thoughts and words to work, “Some kind of compulsion. Couldn’t remember. Can’t speak…”
The Ranger Commander’s expression had been one of anger, but now Garkhen saw a thread of doubt enter. She looked behind him. “Karhin! Go get Llitthos, Marik… anyone who’s nearby with some sacred magic! We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Almonihah was baring his teeth. “Knew I couldn’t trust you, blue,” he snarled.
Dully, Garkhen shook his head. He felt exhausted. Reflexively, he reached up and grasped his holy symbol with his hand. Seeing the motion, the Commander looked down.
“I doubted it at first… but you really are a follower of Bahamut, aren’t you?” she murmured, the doubt and concern growing on her face.
“Yes,” Garkhen rasped, nodding convulsively.
“Well keep praying to him. It seems like we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Grimly, Garkhen focused on his connection with his god. The fog over his mind and the stiffness in his limbs seemed to be slowly receding, but now he could identify the source of his fatigue—he was channeling more divine power than he had thought. Again he wondered just what the amulet was.
Voices behind him. “Llitthos! What can you do about that?” The Commander was pointing behind Garkhen… at his pack, he supposed.
Garkhen had never heard an elf swear before. “What is that thing, Commander?”
“That’s what I was hoping someone could tell me. This fellow says it was blocking itself from his memory.”
Another voice joined. “Whatever it is, Commander, it’s the most powerful source of Chaos magic I’ve ever had the displeasure of encountering.”
“So I’ve gathered.” She seemed to be more at ease now as she slipped into her role of commanding. “But I need to know what it is and what we can do about it. The wards seem to be holding, but I’ve never seen them flicker before.”
Garkhen could hear chanting, and the strain on him eased further. With a sigh of relief, he got to his feet and turned around. And elf and a human, both in green-and-brown robes, were chanting over his pack. The green glow came from flaring runes all around the doorway, but there was another glow—a sickly, shimmering light that seemed to flash through every color in existence leaked from his pack.
“Can you speak now, Bahamut-worshipper?” The Commander asked.
Garkhen nodded more easily now. “Yes. The compulsion is eased.”
“Any idea what’s going on?”
Garkhen hesitated. “I was involved in the recent unpleasantness in Ferdunan. After the war was over, I was searching through the former stronghold of the rebellion’s leader. In a corner, as if it had been discarded carelessly, I found an amulet. It seemed to be made of some sort of multi-hued gemstone, wrapped in chains. I did not recognize it, but… thinking back, I believe it encouraged me to pick it up.”
He shook his head, wearily. “I was suspicious of it, but… as soon as I had it in my pack, both myself and my companion at the time forgot entirely about it. Since that time, I have been attacked many times by Javni’Tolkhrah… Madness-Touched, as you say. But I could never think of why, even though there always seemed to be a thought in the back of my mind that I could not quite call up.”
The elven druid—he was fairly certain they were priests of Naishia—stopped his chanting. “Well, you are a fortunate… being. Carrying around this powerful of Chaos magic, I am surprised you are not an angry ball of tentacles and claws now.”
Well, you all knew that thing was bad news, now we’ll finally get to see something of why.