An enormous, black and purple, muzzle appeared over the edge of the plateau above. "Hello? Is everyone alright down there? Sorry, I have a case of the sniffl..." There was a sudden intake of breath, and the muzzle disappeared. The sounds of someone stifling a sneeze came down the path, followed by said sneeze and another gout of searing flame.
They all looked up at the top of the path.
"There seems to be a lot of colds going about." Said Kralla.
"Aye. Was that a females voice I heard?"
Master Tellerick started forward. "Only one way to find out."
They watched as the mountainside appeared to slip, as a single piece, down into the valley below. It disappeared in a cloud of gritty snow that coated everything around them.
After the bone-shaking noise had died down, they looked up the path. Above them, where the path vanished into a small plateau marking the cave, there was the briefest glimpse of a tail and a wing.
"Was that a?" Shouted Barnabas, the roar of the mountain still ringing in his ears.
"Aye! I think it was!" Came the equally loud reply from Skaran.
"I hope not." Grumbled Master Tellerick.
Kralla stood, hefting her pack onto her back. "Come on all. Let's get this over and done with. Then we can go home. The taste of my last beer is beginning to fade from my memory." She looked up along the snow-covered path. "Thank goodness the undead avoid the cold. It slows them down something terrible. So we should be... " As she spoke the word 'Alone' an enormous gout of flame erupted from the peak above them.
Alongside them, across from the path, the snow started moving as a single, monstrous, entity.
"Avalanche!" Shouted Skaran and Barnabas simultaneously.
Barnabas brought his own, ragged, brush around. "Maybe I should get one?" He smiled. "At least my fur is beginning to grow back now. Which reminds me!" He started rummaging in his pack, finally bringing out a small silver compact. He opened it and started applying the thick cream to the more naked parts of his tail.
Skaran clasped two paws over his nose. "Good goddess! What in hells name is in that?"
"I don't know. I daren't ask in case I find out. I do know is that it's working really well. I think there's something magical in it?"
Kralla snorted the water she was drinking from a flask when she turned and saw Skaran standing defeated and forlorn. "Let's get it over with..." He said. "I promised my old mum that I'd wear it if I went out in the cold. And let's face it, it's going to get cold."
Barnabas smiled. "That's erm, that's... Well. You don't see one of those every day. How do you, er, keep it on?"
"It's got some buttons that attach to my coat." He pulled at the woollen tail guard covering his tail.
"Well. It'll certainly keep it warm." Smiled Tellerick.
The path turned to fine scree, making the footing treacherous, and finally to partially melted snow. The sun shone brightly above the clouds below them as the path moved from rock and ice to proper snow.
They stopped briefly to allow William and Master Tellerick to put on warmer clothes for the final climb.
Skaran stood to one side, looking pensively at his personal pack. What looked like a woollen scarf was visible where he'd partially pulled it from the pack. Sighing heavily he took it out, along with a pair of gloves and put them on. "OK, I know..."
Kralla looked back down the trail. "Tamryn, and the Order, must have been trailing us since we left."
"Aye" nodded Skaran. "But he knew damn well that there were undead up here. He could've told us!"
"He used me as his bait. I shine brightly to the undead. He knew that I'd draw out whatever was controlling them. That's why he sent me with you." Sighed Barnabas. "He knew I'd be safe with you all."
"What's done is done. The cave of the Oracle is a little way above the snowline. We shall be there soon, hopefully." Said Master Tellerick.
Skaran, deftly sprang up, popped the daisy into Kralla's hat and barely managed to avoid her playful swipe on the way back down.
"Aww! Why so grumpy cat? If anyone should be feeling hard done by, it should be our boy Barnabas!"
"That's true rat." Kralla turned to the fox, while re-arranging the daisy to stay put. "Are you alright Barnabas?"
"Oh, I'm fine thanks. I'm not the first to be thrown beneath a cart by Master Tamryn. I'll wager I'll not be the last either! He's kind'a known for it. He's also known for taking care as well."
The ground became difficult as they started to climb the mountain proper. Emerging from the mists that clung to the peaks above like a skirt, they were almost blinded by the brilliant sunshine. The air here was clear, crisp; a splash of ice-cold spring water to the face.
Kralla pulled her hat out of her pack and jammed it onto her head. Her cookie shaped ears poking through the bespoke covered holes.
"A flower for your hat dear lady?" Asked Skaran as he waved a daisy at her, grinning insanely.
"I'll flower you..." She growled back, baring a fang.
Skaran put his hand to his head. "So... You know Master Tamryn as well Master Tellerick?"
"It's a little hard not to know about the order in these parts. And we may have gone on a few trips in the distant past."
"But when we went to see Master Tamryn..."
"We were always more acquaintances than friends Skaran. Like nodding to someone you see on the street regularly."
"Oh. And there I thought that you had some juicy tales to tell."
Kralla's ears twitched. "You already know far too much rat."
Skaran grinned. "You should know cat! Oh the tales..."
Safely away from their close encounter with the Lord of Misery, Kralla finally managed to get a grip on her rage. Around her, the group had remained silent as they worked their way up the mountain.
"Master Tellerick," She growled. "Do you have any idea what happened back there?"
"What? Beyond us being used as bait to draw out Marakel? No, not really."
"It... Tamryn and Marakel knew each other?"
"They have a history. I know that much." Sighed Tellerick. "And it's a long one too. I really don't know the details Kralla. It's not something he ever talked about."
Tellerick placed a firm hand on Kralla's shoulder. "This isn't our fight Kralla. We need to get out of the way. Now!" She snarled at the ancient figure.
"Oh, I'm sure we will meet again oh Queen of Swords." Smirked Marakel. "Maybe next time we can waltz on the battlefield?"
"Stop goading her Marakel." Shouted Tamryn. "You still haven't told me what you're doing out of your cramped little stone crypt."
"Bah! Run along now little kitty, and take your friends with you."
Tellerick firmly pulled at her now. "Come on Kralla. We don't want anything to do with this."
Marakel looked at the group. "It seems, Tamryn, that I have quite a good bargaining chip in play."
Tamryn laughed. "Seriously Marakel?" He turned back to the tree-line. "Lads!?" Through the brush came the monks of the Order of Sadrymar.
Marakel glowered at Tamryn as he turned back to face the Lord of Misery.
"You were always a downer Tamryn. Never any fun at all." He graciously bowed, flinging his arms out wide.
Suddenly, the weight pressing them to ground disappeared and Kralla bunched to pounce.
"Ah! No! Kitty! Maybe we will meet again after my words with Tamryn."
Marakel drifted over to Barnabas. "You... You... Ah..." It reached into Barnabas' clothes and brought the fetish into the light. "Here, yes..." It brought the fetish to its nose and sniffed deeply. Suddenly, eyes ablaze, it drifted back. "I smell Tamryn!"
"Guilty as charged." Came the voice of the old badger from behind them. "It's been too long Marakel! Who's been a naughty lich?"
"You!" Hissed Marakel
"Don't make me, make you, release them. Let them go. They have a different destiny. You and I on the other hand... We need to talk. I need to know why you're here."
The figure drifted closer, just above the ground, before stopping in front of the group.
"I also smelt..." Marakel pointed at Barnabas. "You! I can smell your power. It is masked, but I can still..."
"Back away creature." Snarled Kralla.
"Silence!" Screeched Marakel. "You will bow in my presence!" It pointed a bony finger at the ground, pulling the parchment skin into a grimace of a smile.
They all felt the power of Marakels compulsion grip them like a vice. Crushing them to the ground. Kralla grunted, as she resisted.
"I said KNEEL!!"
Kralla dropped to one knee and bowed.
A figure stepped out of the mist clinging to the upper part of the mountainside, stubbornly resisting the sun's power.
"Apologies, brave adventurers. I should announce myself." The figure threw its arms wide, revealing bone clawed hands wrapped in parchment skin. "I am the Lord of Misery. His unholiness, Lord Marakel." It screeched before a withered arm swung about to point directly at the group. "And you are not only trespassing, but you have somewhat upset me by destroying my local forces. What the bloody hellfire are you doing on my mountain?!"
"Uh oh." Mumbled Skaran, quickly gathering his things.
Tellerick sighed heavily. "I understand that our recent luck has been poor, and we are likely going to push it further than anyone would like to. However, we need to carry on!"
"Your commitment is commendable Master Tellerick, but you know that I have to raise this. It's my job to keep you all safe. That's what you paid me to do, and I will do it." Replied Kralla.
"Bravo!" Came a voice from farther up the mountainside. "Bravo! To you."
They all turned towards the voice. "Can I suggest that things have gone from bad to worse to... Boned?"
"And what might that be?" Whispered Tellerick. His face grey with dust and weary from channelling so much energy. "Whether we turn around and go back down the mountain?"
"We do have master William to consider." Said Skaran.
"We are here for him Skaran. We're not returning until we have seen the Oracle."
"Need I impress upon you the folly of ignoring what we just encountered Tellerick?" Replied Kralla as she paced the camp.
"I am not ignoring it Kralla." Sighed Tellerick. "But we must carry on..."
"I am contracted to escort you. But I don't have to like it."
"Are there any more?" Snarled Kralla as she arrived back with the others. Everyone was covered in dust, powdered rust and leather dust.
"Barnabas is making sure now." Replied Skaran, wiping his nose and cleaning his whiskers.
"There's nothing for miles." Said Barnabas, finishing his chant. "Thank goodness. I'm not sure that we can do that again too soon."
"Aye... That was more than a bit rough." Said Skaran.
"Rough? Rough!?" Snapped Kralla. "Where the hell did that number of undead come from? Where did that trip spell come from? We have a very serious decision to make." She growled.
Kralla charged at the remaining skeletal warriors. Her twin swords were useless as cutting and slashing weapons in this case, but as crushing bludgeons?
The first skeleton exploded in a mist of chards and broken bones, as she parried the next, and danced into the middle of the group. Swords singing, and Kralla roaring at the top of her voice, she span and dodged. Landing crushing blows, she quickly whittled them down in a breathless tornado of spinning swords and curses.
Panting heavily, as the last one went down, she turned back to her charges and stamped back to them.