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   West of the triple-headed, Dwarven Mountain called Jebul, lie the Cracks of the Hora-medion.  The cracked plains were south of the haunted forest Kinderval, beyond the white beaches of the Great Sea.  It was a barren waste-land, where the rocky hills grew into the great heights of Mount Jebul, the jewel of the southern dwarf kingdom.  Seldom did it rain enough for any vegetation beyond brush to even grow as the earth never drank her fill.  Hence, were the large three foot cracks in the earth, where even the horses of unwary explorers, became ensnared.  Some cracks were bottomless pits and others were openings to greater doom.  Those sparse broken-lands were harsh and most inhospitable to any but the aborigines who lived there.  They were called Hora-medion: ‘the flesh eaters’.   The many disappearances were more than rumors to impede travelers, as shaken, scarce survivors could attest first hand.  Even the stout dwarven miners of Jebul bypassed that parched domain, out the uncertainty of overland travel.
   At the moment, all that Captain Traclee knew was that his ship and crew of fourteen had run ashore.  They had left the port city of Lindol only two days before under the hope of clear skies and promise of a safe dwarven harbor.  Neither was the case.  A sudden storm tossed The Grey Gull and her men and cargo upon the jagged rocks.  Unable to remain in a sinking craft the sailors quickly gathered their belongings.  They loaded as fast as possible, crates of: pipe weed, rum, bundles of boar pelts and what food provisions they could muster.   Only the lives of nine men were saved, and the barest of supplies filled a single dingy.
     Their overland travel had just begun.  The old seafarer surveyed the land before him, seeing only flat beaches to the left and right.  Traclee knew exactly where he was.  Despite the fear-laden rumors of where they beached, the Captain bellowed orders to disembark the smaller boat.  Off in the distance loomed the monster infested forest that appeared to float on the rays of the desert heat.  Many of his men were new and had never before witnessed such a frightening sight.  The barking Captain ordered them to keep moving.  The illusion before their fearful eyes would do better fixed on Jebul, and recalling that breaking a trade agreement with dwarves was a more dreadful thing.  Two men carried one of the rolled up sails at either end, with goods in the other hand as they all marched east.   Everyone was heavy laden with the burdens of commerce.  

   The weather worn Captain was three times the age of his men; yet his own experiences in these dark lands came rushing back to him.  His grey eyes held back the fear of what he knew lay before them.  The old man hoped that he had cheated death enough for his wisdom to keep his men safe.  But this trip felt like a replay of Traclee’s own maiden voyage sixty-three years earlier.   He prayed like never before to all the gods of Lindol that the journey ahead was not a repeat as well.  He kept those secrets to himself as he pushed his crew forward.  Pointing to the right, they headed east.  He aimed to round the back side of Jebul, heading north near the Gorge of the Talkers.  From there they would turn south and head for the front door of the dwarven kingdom.  Such was the plan and hope.

   A young boy, carrying a pack on his back and an oar as a staff, called out up ahead to the Captain, “Sir, why do they call it the Gorge of the Talkers?”
   It was the First Mate who replied, “So, the cabin boy is the first to conversate, and what a topic, eh Cap’n ?”
   Traclee did not answer but kept pressing forward without looking back.  He kept his thoughts to himself.
   “Jonas, it is called that because the very rocks themselves speak.  Now, do you believe in such tales boy?”  The First Mate asked playfully.
   “Yes I do, Mister Sanders.  I believe in the Prophet Kyon too, sir.”  Against the men’s laughter, the twelve year old held to Kyon’s strength and determination as well; dismissing them with his own smile. 
   “Good to believe in something, boy.  You will all need as much faith before this day is done.”  The Captain’s voice silenced everyone.
   Two hundred yards north of the beach they came upon a crevasse, then another hole in the ground and then another.  Like a lizard, a little man squeezed his way out of one of the holes.  He sprang to his feet making the intruders halt.
   The tiny, mud caked figure had a broad nose that covered its wide face.  Soulless black, deep set eyes peered at each of them in turn.  With a downturned mouth that muttered its own speech, he chattered through tarnished, sharpened teeth that demanded attention from the hearer, “Deeda motta uba su-ota ma ha-tuma?”
   Looking at one another, the sailors did not know how to respond to such a coded message.   Then, astonishing everyone, the Captain answered the thing back, “Noa u-oma wda sayeis Deedo.  Keta Lindol, yeta mama du-ma.”
   The first mate was going to ask Captain Traclee what was going on, but he could tell from the look of the old man’s face there was nothing good being exchanged between them.  The seafarer’s introduction agitated the man that stood half their size; yet, as the two spoke several more crawled from the cracks encircling the nine lost men.  With their growing numbers the tiny, odd looking aborigines took on a more fearsome appearance, each armed with side blades and spears.  Wearing just loin cloths their dark bodies were coated in colored mud; war paint to be sure.
   Suddenly, the first one that had appeared and begun speaking first burst into laughter, at which all the others aimed their weapons at the new comers.  More concerned with commerce than war, none of them were armed except for the Captain, and he left his sword in its sheath.  Traclee removed his hat and bowed.  His men followed his example.  The Captain stayed bent down for a long time, when the leader yelled out, “Ka Demo!”
  When the old man slowly rose up, Captain Traclee saw that he and his men were all alone on the deserted beach, and then ordered, “March.”  They did so, all the while silently heading east, making their way about the ever widening cracks of the growing desert.   After sometime, the first mate commented to the cabin boy. “That was no garden gnome mind you, and if they do not get us these cracks will!”

   The day was edging toward evening, and still they had not yet reached the foothills of Jebul, or their turn north.  Overhead a mass of crows flew by.  Looking up Sanders spoke his thoughts, “I dare say that is never a good omen.”
  On those words one of the crewmen asked, “Shall we be making camp soon, Mister Sanders?”  Then adjusted the pack on his back, and switched loads from one hand to the other.
   Answering instead, the Captain ordered, “Mister Aleens, only when you spy the painted split rock shall you set camp, understood?”
   “Aye sir.”
   Then to another he said, “Neldo, you can teach the boy how to strike flint and start a fire as you two will begin our first watch of the night; on the second, we march.”  He complied; but they all exchanged glances of disapproval to the lack of real sleep.  They had yet to see a reason for such haste.  Still they marched on in the heat of the setting sun.  The flatlands looked more like a dry river bed with its scales of curling mud that stretched for miles in every direction.  The cracks deepened even as they spread apart.  Still they followed in single file.
   Six and a half hours after they made landfall, Aleens called out, “Captain, a painted split-rock lies up ahead!”
   “Very good, sir. Rest as you will, for in two hours we turn north.”  Moments later their gear was dropped where the stood, a fire made and brief rations eaten with sips of water.  Beds made from cloaks.  Traclee did not sleep.
   Moments after the Captain’s snoring was heard, Jonas whispered to Neldo, causing the old man’s eyes to open wide, “Sir!”
  Looking up from the campfire the older sailor noticed what the boy was pointing to.  A fog had appeared all about them as if they were in the open sea.  The others woke, jumping to their feet at the sound of the Captain’s sword being withdrawn.  Sanders too, stood with a dagger at the ready; retrieved from his boot.  All that could be heard was breathing, in-between held breaths.  Fear was in everyone’s eyes.  Even Jonas was armed with his oar, ready to club whatever came against them.  Yet, all that was heard was the howling of a lone coyote, off in the greater distance.  No reply came as moments later even it fell silent.  Uneasily, one by one the crew found themselves drifting off back to sleep as the Rig-man and cabin boy watched over them all.  Even the Captain snored away beneath crossed arms, with a rock as his pillow.  The cloudless night wore on.
   With a half hour to go before their watch was up, a horrific scream terrified everyone awake, scrambling them to their feet.  Mister Sanders was floating overhead, wrapped in the coils of a huge tentacle that rose out of a deep crack, mere feet from the camp fire.  Jonas furiously began beating at it with his oar.  Traclee shoved the boy to the ground and began hacking away at the beast with his steel.  A growl and squeal filled the air just as the great arm retreated back into its crevasse.  Sanders vanished into the black silence.  Benso and Medane, the two men who carried the rolled sail, suddenly became the next targets of two other great arms.  The four other men: Jacob, Nora, Franal and Seth had each pulled a broken-crate plank from the fire as a torch.  Waving off any other arms they hurried to gather what they could and continued on, this time heading north about the base of the eastern mountain.
  They were wide awake now.  Sleep and food were the farthest things on their mind.  Each step forward was measured with caution and haste.  There was no need to go back in search of their three stolen companions.  Their screams had been snuffed out even as the ground beneath the men’s feet shook.  The underground beast would have no other meal made of them as they fled in the night.
   Nearing daybreak, the silhouette on their left showed itself to be the eastern edge of the forest.  Like the southern wastelands they were now leaving behind them, Kinderval was no place to be wandering in either.  Before them were the great hills that made up the Blue Mountains, that ended with mount Jebul on their right.  A great gap stood like a landmark for the Grey Gull’s last crew to turn east, rounding the triple dwarven peak.  They were nearing their journey’s end and a change of mood allowed the men to breathe easier.   Yet, the stoic Captain pressed the forward in his silence. 
   Two huge faces were carved in the sandstone where the adventures took a moment’s pause.  The bearded portraits were of forgotten kings of a lost people who had been separated ages ago, so the stories went.  Both carvings had hallowed eyes; their missing spheres gave rise to more questions than answers.  Had they been jewels waylaid by highway men?  No one knew.  The mouths of the two great faces were poised as if they were talking.   The approaching men stood there like they had interrupted the stone conversation. 
   Jonas stood leaning on his oar-staff, amazed at the detail of the ancient kings.  Those guardians were only two of the many carved faces with the winding, rocky-gorge.  The winds of time had softened their once fine lines, but even now the workmanship showed character of personality. 
   Jacob asked Jonas, “Do you really expect them to start talking to you boy?” 
   Franal injected, “After what we have witnessed so far, anything is possible.”

   Jonas replied, “Legends are all founded on some kind of truth, sir.”  With that they began heading east along an almost hidden trail as the morning light abated the shadows. 


[5]  HINT:  Go the the front fence, look near the ground.  Middle bar, Brush covered.


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