1- A Message From Below
"The sisal roots are worth twice that price! You're a dirty thief!" Urdam snarled.
The elf remained stoic. "My offer is fair, bruiser. You'll find no one who will pay more."
Urdam cracked his knuckles and furrowed his brow, locking his cold stare upon the scholar. He was taller than the elf and much more imposing, but he knew this tactic was doomed from the start. High elves who are centuries old simply aren't intimidated that easily.
"Fine!" he relented. "I'll take your pitiful offer, Eledran."
"Excellent," the elf replied, handing him the gold. "I am always pleased to acquire rare finds from your side of the world."
"What you pay isn't even worth my time," Urdam scoffed. "If it wasn't for the valuables I come across on my journey here, I wouldn't bother. Fortunately there are plenty of opportunities to obtain artifacts around Antonica that fetch a high price back in Freeport."
"You mean you can find easy marks from which to steal," Eledran countered.
The bruiser shrugged. "My buyers don't ask questions. They know I'm something of a collector of rare finds. Consider this amulet I liberated from its previous owner. Let me show you." He opened his bag and shuffled through the contents, placing a number of items on the counter in front of the alchemist.
A tattered parchment caught the old elf's eye. "What is that?"
Urdam glanced at it. "It's a scroll that a pair of gnomes dug up. They claimed to have found it among some recently unearthed rubble in the Thundering Steppes. I don't read the language, so I was going to see if one of my buyers at the Academy would be interested."
Eledran's lithe fingers gently unrolled the parchment. "Odd," he murmured. "I haven't seen this dialect of gnollish since before the cataclysms."
"I don't run a library," Urdam growled, sensing an opportunity. "If you want to read more, you'll have to buy it."
Eledran frowned, knowing he made a mistake by showing interest. "Very well," he sighed, offering several more gold pieces to the bruiser.
"Hmm," Urdam said, rubbing his reddish beard, "I am sure I could get more from my friend at the Academy."
"Do not press your luck. The scroll is a curiosity, nothing more. If this offer doesn't cover the minor effort you went through to steal this from two tiny gnomes, you can take your things and head back to the realm of your Overlord."
Urdam scoffed and took the coins. "Fine! I didn't want to bother hauling it all the way back with me anyway. I have other clients to attend to, Eledran. See you next month."
The elf nodded as the human turned to leave his shop, but called out before he reached the door. "Urdam, did these gnomes show you where they found this?"
He paused. "I suppose they did."
The elf raised an eyebrow at him. "I'll double the gold I've paid you today if you'll show me the exact spot."
The human gave Eledran a sly smile. "Get your things. And don't forget my gold."
"I wouldn't have guessed an alchemist would own armor of that quality," Urdam mused.
"Do not assume my current profession is the only one I have known," Eledran said. "I have stood in realms you will never visit in your lifetime, and witnessed beings that have not strode upon Norrath in ages."
The bruiser shrugged. "No need to get defensive. I was just saying."
"You're sure it's this way?"
"Positive. We passed the crater mine a while back, and I found the gnomes' camp just over this hill. We should be close." They climbed to the top of a small hill and Urdam pointed toward some rubble. "There."
As they reached the rocks, the elf studied his surroundings. "So much has changed. The terrain is unrecognizable, but the shape of these tusk-like stones seems familiar."
"Care to clue me in on what you're talking about?" the bruiser asked.
"Use those muscles you take so much pride in and help me move these rocks. It looks like tremors might have loosened them."
Urdam crossed his arms. "Forget it. I've brought you this far, but gold or no, I don't lift another finger until you tell me what it is you think we'll find. Just what the blazes was written on that scroll?"
The elf furrowed his brow. "Very well, I suppose you've earned that much. The parchment you gave me was written in the tongue of the Splitpaw gnolls. Have you ever heard of them?"
He shook his head. "I've pounded the hides of a lot of gnolls around these parts, but never that clan."
"No, you could not have. The Splitpaw had a huge den located in the southern part of the Plains of Karana, which is what this region was called before the Rending. Fearing the cataclysms, the Splitpaw retreated into their lair, the entrance of which collapsed in a massive quake. It was assumed they were all dead and buried."
Urdam stroked his beard. "And something in that note makes you think otherwise?"
The elf nodded. "Despite its tattered appearance, the note isn't very old. It looks like part of a journal of some kind, and the writer talks about needing to seek the surface once again. It says the ones from below do not honor their traditions, and wish to eradicate them."
"The ones from below? And they would be..."
"I have no idea. Can we move the rocks now?"
Urdam scowled. "Please explain why I would want to help you dig up an ancient gnoll den that has the potential to unleash some mysterious menace?"
"The Splitpaw gnolls were known for hoarding rare artifacts and treasure," Eledran replied.
Urdam nodded. "Best we start digging, then."
They dug away at the debris, clearing rocks until they saw what almost looked like an archway.
"Yes, this looks right," Eledran said. "Just a bit farther."
"Wait," Urdam said, pausing. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" the elf asked.
"It sounds like someone else moving rocks nearby," the bruiser said, looking around behind them. "But I don't see where anyone could be digging except..." Urdam stopped and looked at the rubble, then at Eledran. He stood and drew his mace and his katar. "Something is coming up from below."
Eledran walked over to his pack and drew his sword. They both stood back and watched. Pebbles and dirt shook loose as rocks were pushed forward from within the ground. Finally a larger rock rolled forward, revealing a darkened opening. All was silent for a moment.
"Be ready," the bruiser whispered. "Here they come."