A steady breeze fought against the summer noonday blaze and swept across the gentle slope at the feet of the Chornauren Mountains. Unfazed by the heat, a small form in tattered clothes struggled on its way, one foot dragging behind, twisted, making a rasping noise as it slid upon the rocky ground.
Must… reach… Khordûn…
There were a few leagues to go yet. This was the difficult part, the part where Neldon had failed so many times before. The northern end of the Chornaurens was dotted with mines, property of the dwarvish kingdom he wanted to reach. He had to avoid them as long as possible, to delay contact until he could reach the city gates.
But many other creatures made their homes in mountain caves, creatures much less reasonable, far less diplomatic.
Less reasonable than dwarves… Neldon thought with a chuckle.
Save energy. Don’t think. He gave himself one more thought, goal in mind once again. Khordûn.
The twisted foot scratched through dirt and gravel as Neldon struggled on.
The ‘Marches were mostly wide open spaces, untamed, difficult to traverse safely by day, perilous by dark. He had been lucky last night; the moon was waning, but it was still near full. Even that limited light kept many of the mountain’s denizens in their caverns, and so he had shambled along all through the night.
There was no pain, no sense of the withering heat, no thirst or hunger. There was only the next step forward… never turning, always pointed for the gates of Khordûn.
The word had come to mean “hope” to Neldon, and so much more than that. If he was to survive, if he was to escape his daily torment, Khordûn would be the answer. The elves of Lanaloth were too far away to the south, and the human settlements across the plains were too small to help– what few survived the Bloodsworn invasion during the winter. Aelwyn might hold an answer, but that was a day’s travel past Khordûn at a healthy pace.
In the distance, Neldon thought he heard the sounding of a horn, and he scanned the sparse growth for cover. A few paces to his left, the stony ground rose sharply about half his height, and the tangle of bramble there would help. He turned hastily, lurching forward.
His injured foot caught on the sharp rocks, taking him off balance. Unable to fully catch himself, he slammed into the ground and thought he heard another bone break, this one in his arm.
A second horn sounded, and he heard shouting, too distant to make out. He had no time to worry about the injury, let alone get back on his feet. Crawling forward, pushing even with his misshapen foot, he half-lurched, half-skittered into his chosen hiding place.
Panic set in as he listened for approaching voices. He hadn’t expected to be spotted this far out. Had he attracted too much attention on his last few attempts?
The deep voices drew nearer, and he would have sighed in relief if he could. At least they were dwarves, and not goblins or worse. Dwarves of Khordûn. My only hope.
If they would listen this time.
“…saw it over there, I think!” one voice called.
“Sure moved quick if it were one o’ them again,” said another, a female with a tone of authority. “Spread out, lads. Be lookin’ out for others. They raid in packs.”
They raid at night, fool. I come each time alone in the light of day.
Stop thinking so much! Above all else, Neldon knew he must not be detected. A few stray thoughts here and there would not arouse Palla-Nel’s suspicion… or so Neldon hoped.
“Ya see anything?” the leader called out.
“Just rock and thistle down here,” a voice replied from nearby. “Strange, don’tcha think it, Ma’am?”
“What’s that, Torhalin?”
“Well, as ya said, there oughtta be a pack of ‘em about these slopes if there’s a one. But there ain’t. An’ you heard Hammerhelm’s patrol talk how they saw just one the other day too.”
“A scout, then,” she replied tersely.
Neldon peered through the bramble looking for the source of the nearby voice. The dwarf stood four paces from Neldon’s little refuge.
“I just–“ the dwarf continued. “It ain’t good sense, to come scout in the daylight across open ground.”
She ignored him and stamped further up the incline. The dwarf shook his head.
My chance… Neldon thought. Khordûn…
The raspy whisper was just enough to get Torhalin’s attention, and the dwarf looked about as Neldon whispered again. “Help… me… …please…”
“…quietly…” Neldon whispered, but it was too late.
“It’s over here!” the dwarf yelled, and the others came lumbering down the hill, chainmail clinking, axes and hammers drawn.
Neldon knew this attempt had also failed, but he clung to a small hope. He rose from hiding, and spoke as clearly as he could muster.
“My name is Neldon Darowdin, from the town Delfindor. Our town was destroyed by a lich, who is now attacking you by night. He has–“
“Shut up, ya bag o’ filth!”
The squad leader roared as she sprang through the air, hammer swinging down toward the decayed form. Neldon tried to dodge, but the stroke connected with his right arm, tearing the skeletal limb from his ravaged body, scattering pieces of rotted flesh down the hill.
“The lich, Palla, is–“ he continued, salvaging what remained in this opportunity. But her next stroke tore through his jaw, shearing skull from spine. As his head fell away, she spun back around to plant the spiked end of her hammer deep in the undead creature’s ribcage.
By luck, the skull landed upright, and as the sickly green glow of undeath faded from its eye sockets, Neldon watched the other dwarf closely. Torhalin stared back, lips parted as with something to say, brow furrowed considering this strange event. Perhaps the message would get through this time. Someone would recognize the name from decades earlier.
Neldon returned to the black, the empty void. There was an advantage, however small, to the psychic bond formed when Palla consumed Neldon’s body and became Palla-Nel.
Neldon reached out tentatively, listening for any reaction from the lich at the loss of one of its slaves. Palla-Nel’s focus remained fixed on digging deeper under the mountain, seeking… always seeking. Seeking what, Neldon did not know, but while Palla-Nel’s attention was diverted elsewhere, Neldon could take another husk and send it on his fool’s errand.
This was the easy part. Just one simple, overriding thought filling the new husk’s head as it lumbered off. Khordûn. Must… reach… Khordûn.