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Arkmar and Ryel debated for a little, to no particular effect. Neither of them felt especially committed to a particular point of view. The spell was minor league: they both, though they were not primarily magic users, had spells well above that level. But on the other hand, the victim was weak enough that he couldn’t resist such a spell, and it was not a nice way to die: wasps conjured from thin air just to cause damage. The act itself was mean and petty: it was hard to believe the bastards really needed to do it, and indeed one of the two bastards had apparently felt it unnecessary or unwise. But there was always the intimidation factor: someone willing and able to do that, on the spur of the moment, to a mere insubordinate teenage hireling, would be a dangerous and unpredictable enemy.

“And then there’s what we’re looking for,” said Ryel. “What I’m looking for. I don’t know what you’re looking for. What are you looking for, Arkmar?”

“Trouble, I guess,” the dwarf replied. “Because I’ll tell you what. Whatever it is you’re looking for, those guys want it too, and if they want it, it’s probably not good for them to have it.”

“So what do we do?”

“Head on up,” said Arkmar. “Let’s try following them, what do you say?”

“Did we decide who won the bet?” asked Ryel.

“Sure. I did.”

“I doubt it. You’re probably the only dwarf loudmouth I’ve ever met.”

“Funny, that,” said Arkmar, “coming from you, the Elven Lady of Chit Chat.”

“We make a good team,” said Ryel. They scanned the climb ahead of them. Mount Ngranek was so enormous that it was hard to conceive: its footprint was roughly circular, but must have been a hundred miles across. The slope, above the tree line, which was oddly low, on Ngranek, was at least twenty percent, but that would make the peak ten miles high. Looking up, Ryel and Arkmar both concluded that was an underestimate.

So here they clung, tiny bugs on a gigantic boulder, vast volumes of air all around them, behind and to the sides, unimaginable volumes of stone beneath and in front of them. They scanned across the grey vista of rock. Far up there, perhaps a thousand feet ahead of them, two tiny figures moved, slowly, deliberately, but somehow nervously, as if sneaking up on the mountain.

“Over there to the right,” said Arkmar, just as Ryel said, “Let’s try to the right there.”

“That long outcrop,” said Arkmar. “Is that what you mean?”

“Great minds think alike,” said Ryel.

So the elf and the dwarf moved laterally until they could climb over and jump down behind a long crack in the mountain, where the rock on the left side had pushed up about eight feet above the rock on the right. Covered on their left flank, the two made good time, chatting in low voices in the Common Tongue with occasional forays into the Dwarves’ own Common Tongue or the easier parts of Sindarin for the purposes of language puns. The clouds flew above, around and below them, charging about in at least five different levels and directions beneath a sky of deep blue hinting at space or aether beyond. Half an hour later they reached the upper terminus of the rock crack and paused for water.

“We’re catching them up,” muttered Ryel.

“We don’t want to do that, do we?” replied Arkmar. “Good excuse to rest a bit.”

They stood there, elf and dwarf, sipping their water skins and looking around. They looked up, they looked out, they looked about, and then they looked down.

“Oh crap,” said Ryel. “Orc shit,” said Arkmar. “Things just got more complicated.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been simple, could it?” said Ryel, as they watched three more figures slowly scaling a long slanted face of rock a thousand feet below them.

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