The Things We Lost -- Update 6/13 - Eberron fiction.


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    The Things We Lost -- Update 6/13 - Eberron fiction.

    Quick Explanation: Greetings. This is my second foray into Eberron fiction. Wanted to get off my butt and flex some writing muscles again. I should be posting daily updates until its done. Please feel free to comment if you like (or don't like -- my skin is thick) what you read here. I think the story is unique, and I'm trying to keep it in the "Dent mode" of classic pulp.

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

    The Things We Lost


    Kath Orus stood at the barge rail and eyed the thick jungle brush at the river's edge a few hundred feet away. Even at near-twilight, the Q'barran air was oppressively hot and heavy. Her pearly white skin, shot through with stripes of silver, glistened with sweat. The silver mane of hair hung limp on her neck. She heard the rustling again, and a small deer stepped lightly down a steep path to the water. Kath's skin prickled, and her wide-flat nose flared. Narrowing her yellow eyes, she pushed down the animal within her, suddenly fearful. The Beast's desire to shift and kill had been an almost uncontrollable urge, of late.

    "Tiger-girl looks hungry," said the fat, hairy gnome further up the deck.

    "Pike it, Verloot," Kath said, whipping her head around. "You think I can't hear you?"

    Verloot attempted a bow, but he remained unsteady and slightly nauseous on the gently rolling barge and only managed to bend his neck. The gnome wore too many clothes for this climate, and they were all drenched with sweat. Thick black hair from his wig lay plastered to his forehead and cheeks. His whiskers, however, stood out like a porcupine's.

    "No offense, Kath," he said. "I was only making a little joke."

    "A little joke you cannot manage," said the thin warforged standing at the back of the deck. His rust-red plates looked almost black in the dusk. His green eyes glowed slightly. "They always fill your mouth and our ears."

    "Ah, Book has ears, then?" Verloot changed the subject, deftly, though he walked unsteadily toward the warforged. "I always thought the 'forged captured the sound of our voices in some other arcane mechanism."

    The knot of armored men slumping in the middle of the deck began to look from gnome to warforged to shifter with uncertainty. The barge captain, a scruffy, squat human, hunched over his controls, lost in his reverie with the elemental that drove the vessel’s small paddlewheel.

    "Just drop it, Verloot," Kath said, finally, returning to her survey of the way ahead.

    Even the steady splash of the churning barge couldn't take her mind off of the pulse in the deer's neck. Four moons, mere slivers, cut across the sprinkle of Siberys stones in the bowl of sky above her and reflected in the river ahead, a flat, dark sheet of glass.

    They rounded a darkened bend and before them the sluggish Whitecliff River shattered and traced the broad, flat floodplain with a thousand yellow-brown streamlets. Above and upon this shallow, weed-choked morass sat the town of Whitecliff. The main city etched a tracery of buildings, platforms and staircases into its namesake, the pearly buttress of a plateau that began the Q’barran upcountry. Below it, on the unsteady surface of the marsh sat the shanty-town additions that had grown since the refugees, prospectors, and those who prey on them washed up after the Last War. Most of lower Whitecliff comprised tin and waddle shacks perched on ever-sinking stilts connected by graying wooden walkways.

    "Lovely place," Verloot said then spat in the dead yellow water.

    "It's a hole, but the perfect place for our quarry to hide," Kath said.

    "Do you have contacts here, Lady?" Book asked.

    "I'm afraid I don't know much about it," she said, staring at the city's strange layout and even stranger collection of citizens.

    In the wavering orange light of torches, mud-spattered lizardkin drew themselves out of the water and mixed freely with hunched Cyrean refugees, hulking orcs, and the occasional over-dressed noble. What was absent disturbed her more. No city watch, or at least none in a common uniform. She surmised that they would get no help from the officials of this town.

    The barge bumped into a crowded dock, and the barge captain snapped out of the mental lock he'd maintained with the elemental. Verloot met his one good eye as the captain shuffled across the deck.

    "Fastest I've ever done it, I can tell ya," the man called before he'd even reached them. "Just like you asked."

    "Pay the man, Book," Verloot said before turning back to the town. "And tell those no account mercenaries that we'll no longer require their services. They can find their own way back to Newthrone."

    Kath watched her self-appointed master-at-arms, barely hiding her irritation.

    "You know, we could use a couple of them," she said. "They could probably pick up more information in a single evening in a taphouse than we would in a week."

    Verloot scoffed and spat again. "All they'd get us is another hundred pennies in debt and a case of swamp-rot.

    "Where do you suggest we start then?"

    "I know a few old-timers that settled up this way," the gnome said, stepping onto the dock. "I reckon I could find them."


    ###

    "Can't say as I know too much about that," a grizzled man said, pulling his clay jug closer to his chest. "Never heard of anyone named Thiel...or any of the other names he runs under."

    Verloot sat back in his chair with a sigh in the stinking dusk of the taphouse. Book shifted uncertainly, looking at the huddled shadowy forms all around them. Kath stood quickly and walked out into the heavy night air.

    She leaned against the walkway rail and stared across the still water to the looming black jungle, its denizens raising a cacophony of cries. The gnome's stomping steps followed her a few moments later.

    "Well, that's the last of them," he said. "What now, boss?"

    "Perhaps I could consult with the Temple of the Sovereign," Book said. "I'm sure that someone there knows something of the happenings in Whitecliff."

    "I still say we stay with the scum," Verloot countered, balling his fists and planting them on his hips. "Thiel's on the run and probably not supported. He's going to seek help from the dregs, and that may not reach the ears of the priests."

    "Book's right," Kath said, still watching the crenellated horizon. "We've wasted enough time here."

    "You're looking for Gruber Thiel, aren't you?" said a woman's voice in the steeping shadows near the bar.

    Kath felt the Beast leap into her, barely able to suppress it. As the wave of savagery washed out of her, she pushed Verloot's outstretched sword down with a trembling hand, and stepped up beside Book, who stood blandly as ever.

    "What do you know of him?" she asked, still shaking.

    "I can tell you," the woman said, inching forward.

    Her dark skin masked her features, though a wisp of mossy green hair drifted into the light on the sullen wind.

    "Who are you?" Verloot said sharply.

    "That's...that's not important," the woman retreated pawing at her hair. "If you have a bit of gold, I can take you to where he lives."

    "And why should we trust you exactly?" the gnome spat, stepping forward and raising his sword.

    Kath intervened and held up a hand.

    "This is the only lead we've had, Verloot," she said quietly.

    "Strangely after we spread our questions and silver all over this stinking pit, isn't it?" he growled.

    "I didn't say it wasn't dangerous," she replied. "Sheath your sword, but be wary."

    "I thought that was what I was doing," he said to her back.

    "You'll have to take us there first, I'm afraid," Kath said to the woman. "Please come out so that we can see that you are not armed."

    The woman stepped out and Kath gasped. The woman's very skin seemed to be etched from a fine grain of wood, though she moved with the supple grace of a sapling in a gentle wind. Hair like thick green moss fell to the creature’s waist.

    "A bloody dryad!" Verloot said, pulling at his sword hilt. "Never trust a fey, Kath. That's what I've always said."

    "I've never heard you say it." Book said.

    The gnome shot him a glare, as Kath spoke.

    "Where does Thiel live?" she asked.

    "I'll take you," the dryad said, her eyes jumping around to each of the three in turn.

    "We won't hurt you," Kath said. "We only want Thiel."

    "Look," she said, visibly shaking. "I need that gold, see? I need to buy something on the way."

    "Kath," Book said. "May I speak with you privately?"

    "Um. Of course." She looked from the dryad to Verloot.

    "Don't worry," the gnome snorted. "I'll keep an eye on her."

    The warforged stepped down the walkway several paces. The stench of the swamp and the ramshackle town sitting on top of it washed back over Kath's senses.

    "That creature is in the throes of massive withdrawal from addiction to some substance," Book said without prelude.

    "What?" She looked back at the dryad, noticing small things now like how she hunched in her shabby linen shift. "How do you know? Maybe she's ill or..." She could think of no other explanation.

    "I have tended to thousands on battlefields and in the guts of the largest cities in the Five Nations," the warforged said. "I would say either clubsnail ichor or burnroot. Most likely the latter given its prevalence in this clime."

    "Burnroot?" Kath breathed. "Well, there's nothing for it now. If she knows where Thiel lives, I'll give her a whole burnroot plantation."

    "Kath, I must protest. This is most cruel to use this...creature."

    "I don't really care about your protests just now, Book. House Tharashk wants this guy, and I’m bringing him back,"

    “Ah,” Book said. “Tharashk wants him. Nothing personal.”

    “Back off,” Kath growled, stalking back to the dryad. "What is your name?"

    Kath could see now some telltale signs of what Book saw. The dryad shook uncontrollably, but almost imperceptibly.

    "I'll get you what you need, Picea," Kath said, turning to the gnome. "Go back into that dive and get us some burnroot. As much as you can get with this."

    "Burnroot!?" Verloot said. "Are you crazy? This isn't any time to..."

    "Verloot." Kath cut him off by dangling a money pouch in front of him. "Now."

    The gnome snorted, snatched the money and stomped off into the bar. Kath kept an eye on the dryad. The fey had folded in on herself, crouching on the weathered boards of the walkway.

    "How do you know Thiel?" Kath asked, trying to keep the urgency out of her voice.

    "I've been his lover for the last few months," she said quietly.

    "Did he get you...on this stuff?"

    The dryad looked up sharply, her dark features darkening further. Kath let the question hang then looked away. She was tired of the job, already. Weary of finding these wastes of life clinging like lice to the underbellies of the thrashing animal that the Five Nations left in the wake of their wars. The whole of the Nations was infested with them....Cyrean refugees, manic ex-soldiers, cripples, widows, orphans.... Q'barra was thick with them too because of the empty promise of escape to a tropical paradise. She'd found the same dregs in Newthrone. She just wanted to stop and rest and get her own life back together. But, she had to find Thiel. Had to close this never ending book that started on the plains of Breland so many years ago.

    "What a wonderful experience this has been," Verloot said, returning from the bar. "I get to travel the world, see all the exotic places, and deal with the most interesting of characters. Here's your plant food."

    He held the loosely wrapped package out to Picea but Kath snatched it, and broke the package in half.

    "Here," she said. "You get the other half when we have confirmation that Thiel is where you say he is."

    The dryad grabbed the package and slid into the shadows.

    "This is obscene," Book intoned, turning his glowing eyes back across the sluggish water.

    "What part?" Verloot said. "The part where we have to scrape the muck off of our feet everywhere we go, or the part where we have to see a rust bucket actually cry?"

    "Verloot," Kath said, as Picea returned.

    The dryad's eyes were misty and dark and her movements very precise. She seemed almost lifeless...like an animated wooden carving.

    "I can show you now," she said lazily.
    Last edited by ragboy; Thursday, 14th June, 2007 at 06:02 PM. Reason: Update...added quick explanation...

 

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    "This is it," Picea said, eagerly from the covered walkway across from a small dilapidated house. "Can I have..."

    "No," Verloot said. "Get back and stay quiet."

    Kath looked to her two companions. "Book: We're going to need anything you have to immobilize him. Verloot: We are not to kill him."

    "I have just the thing," Book said, pulling a wand from the case attached to his forearm, his thin frame creaking.

    "Well, there's always the direct route," Verloot said, stretching his sword arm and doing a few deep knee bends. "You. Is there anyone else in there with him?"

    The dryad, quickly losing the effects of the burnroot, seemed unresponsive until the gnome gave her a kick.

    "No....no," she said. "Can I..."

    "No," Kath said quietly.

    Suddenly a muffled crash echoed from the house they were surveying followed by a man's yell.

    "Dammit," Verloot said, dragging his longsword out. "Did you contact him in some way? Send him some arcane message?"

    "No," the dryad said, backing away fearfully.

    Another crash and several bright flashes erupted from the house.

    "We have to go now!" Kath yelled, leaping across the plank road toward the building's front door.

    She slammed into the doorjamb with Verloot close behind. Book moved in a crouch, his wand held at the ready.

    "Be ready to cover the room with that thing," Kath said. Already her blood pumped unnaturally and a growl settled into her words, unbidden. She looked at the gnome and nodded.

    He immediately stepped to the door and planted a heavy kick on the latch. The door sprung open to a scene of chaos, and the stench of squalor roiled out of the place.

    Three figures, all in matching, close-fitted white leather armor moved across a cluttered and darkened room toward a bedraggled half-elven man who cowered in the corner. Verloot bellowed as he charged forward with his longsword raised, followed closely by Kath. The Beast shifted her and she let out a full throated roar. Two of the figures turned, and even in Kath's raging mind, she could see that they were twins, a man and woman. Both had flowing white-blonde hair and incandescent blue eyes.

    The man blocked Verloot's longsword on the metal haft of his spear and kicked the gnome away effortlessly. Verloot smashed into the wall, one hand going through the window, and he fell to the floor with a grunt. The woman smiled as Kath charged. She ducked the shifter's jabbing rapier blade and dodging to the side. Fire raked Kath’s side, and as she rounded, she saw that the woman swung a chain dotted with ragged blades.

    "What's this, Desee?" the man taunted. "A pretty kitten for you play with?"

    "She has a pretty voice, brother," Desee said, then gestured to the door. "There's a toy soldier for you, Jasee."

    Kath stole a glance over her shoulder. The third assassin brandished twin curved short swords moving lithely toward its victim, Thiel. She could not determine if the third assailant was a man or woman. Though it had broad shoulders, it moved with a woman's gait and grace.

    The shifter feinted with her rapier, causing Desee's chain to swing wide then charged forward with a growl. Her clawed hand locked on the woman's throat, though Kath felt the rake of the blades across her back. With a grunt, she punched Desee, sending the white-clad assassin sprawling and tangled in her own chain. The shifter felt the heat of Book's first blast from the wand and dove toward Verloot and cover.

    Peeking back over a smoldering couch, she noticed that the androgynous assassin was gone and Jasee was huddled, screaming as the magical fire blackened his fine leathers. Book was also strangely absent.

    The small iron ball on Desee's chain smashed into Kath's shoulder and she spun, unconsciously catching the chain in her clawed grasp. The assassin smiled as she jerked the weapon, savaging Kath's hand on the blades. The shifter recoiled, yelping, never seeing the chain come around again. It connected with Kath’s neck and wrapped solidly around several revolutions.

    Pain shot through the shifter; hundreds of tiny blades dug into her neck, and panic rose at the thought of her breath bottled inside her with no escape. With her good hand, Kath fumbled at her belt. Desee flashed a wide smile at the shifter, and cocked an eyebrow as she caught Kath’s movement. The assassin imperceptibly tightened the chain, and Kath's arms flew out, hands wide to show she had no weapons.

    "Let...me...go," Kath wheezed, lightheaded. "My...fight...is...not..."

    "I don't care, little tigress," Desee said. "Your tin soldier hurt my brother. Now I'm going to hurt...urk!"

    "Shut up," Verloot growled, wrenching the blade that now protruded through the assassin's chest.

    Bright blood gushed from the assassin’s mouth, and she tensed, fingers grasping for the end of the blade.

    "The...chain," Kath said, reaching for then visibly repelling her hands from the jagged metal at her throat.

    "I know, I know," Verloot said, ripping his sword from Desee's lifeless body and kicking her corpse away.

    He staggered over to Kath and gently unwound the chain from her throat. She coughed fitfully and collapsed in a pool of her own blood.

    "Drink this," Verloot said, shoving the neck of a glass bulb between her teeth.

    Kath swallowed, choked and came up gasping.

    "Where's Thiel?" she said, shaking her mane of hair.

    "Him and his little dryad are fixing," Verloot said. "We've only managed to secure one of these...changelings."

    "Changelings?" Kath stood shakily, looking down at Desee's corpse. "Oh."

    "The androgynous aspect went through the window," Book said. Kath noticed black liquid leaking from the warforged's chest. "I couldn't catch him."

    "I thought you had something to immobilize our quarry, not set him on fire," Kath said grumpily as she rose.

    "Fire stops a man faster, and surer, than other magicks," Book said, pushing a toe at the dead changeling. "If he is burning, he has no other thought but to stop."

    "An admirable philosophy, I'm sure, but we have other business," Verloot said, nodding toward Thiel and Picea huddled in the corner.

    "Wait," Kath said. A gleaming badge in the folds of Desee's armor caught her eye.

    She pulled the badge loose and held it up to the moonlight streaming through the window.

    "Traveler's shrakin' sandals," she breathed.

    "What is it?" Verloot said peering up at her hand.

    "The Cabinet."

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    "I'm not Thiel," the half-elf said, dazedly. "I used his name after he...left me here."

    "Then who in the Soverign are you?" Verloot said, crouching in the corner sharpening his long bladed knife.

    "Fen Rigis," he said. "I served with Thiel in the war. Was a mercenary in his division, actually."

    Kath paced, her wounds still aching despite Book's attentions. She glanced around the room absently, trying to contain her thoughts. The dryad lay coiled around a sickly cypress tree that grew up through the floor of the house. Most of its crown was sawed off jaggedly. This gets more twisted the farther we come, she thought. What interest could the Cabinet of Faces have in Thiel?

    "Is he on your list?" Verloot asked Kath, breaking her reverie.

    "Who? Rigis? No."

    "Then we can kill him without rankling the House?"

    "Look." Rigis rose shakily, bracing his weight against the wall. "I've done nothing wrong. Thiel dragged me here with him. He was looking for Daergoth. When I got here, I...met Picea and we stayed. That's it. If he's done something..."

    Kath froze, her face almost a rictus.

    "Daergoth?" she said, quietly, a wave of dread washing over her. "What made him think it was here?"

    "What's Daergoth?" Verloot said, looking from Kath to Rigis.

    "He had...communed with something...someone. He wasn't himself, that much is sure," Rigis said, his face haunted and strained. "He was convinced that it ended up in Q'barra after the...."

    "I can see you two are having a 'war moment' here but, what in the Pit is Daergoth?" Verloot cried.

    "It's a city," Rigis began hollowly.

    "A fort." Kath cut him off. "One of Breland's experiments in small, mobile troop platforms, like Argoth, but much smaller and faster."

    "Okay," the gnome said. "Why is it beyond the pale that it could be here? It moves, right?"

    "It was destroyed at the Battle of the Mounds. Utterly destroyed," Book interrupted.

    "Why does everyone but me know about this?" Verloot threw up his hands, stomping toward the front door.

    "Those that spent the war fighting, rather than profiteering picked up a few tidbits," Book said.

    "I hope that was a joke." The gnome froze, bristling. "Your people can make jokes, right?"

    "Stop it. Both of you," Kath said, then turned to Rigis. "Why did he think it survived the battle?"

    "He's obsessed. Claims that the spirits of the dead led him here," Rigis said.

    "That follows with his ties to Vol," Verloot said, still shooting dark looks at the warforged.

    "But why does the Cabinet of Faces care?" Kath murmured, thinking: There are many dead in the wake of that battle. Uri. Uri disappeared in Daergoth's destruction. "That's the question."

    "So, where did he go from here?" Verloot asked.

    "Downriver. Near a Poison Dusk village called Y'Vori'k," the half-elf said.

    "We passed that village on the way here," Book put in.

    "So we go back?" Verloot snorted. "Perfect."

    "Conveniently after we dismissed our infantry," Book said.

    "You're just full of gigglers today, aren't you," the gnome said. "You should take up the lute and woo tavern wenches with that material. It's priceless."

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    Kath lay under a canvas lean-to on the barge’s deck trying to block out the gods-awful heat. The constant chatter, chitter, and scream of the jungle gave her comfort somehow and she thought of the long trail that had brought her here. Ages it seemed, but Uri’s face still burned in her, his wolfish grin and loping gait alongside gave her comfort as their troop descended into Breland scouting defenses and causing mayhem for their masters in Karrnath. He never had a loyalty that couldn’t be changed with enough gold and she was the same, back then. Not any more. She was beginning to understand why Tharashk didn’t send a marked member of the house. If Thiel sought Daergoth, her masters knew before they sent her. The brand on her shoulder seemed to sizzle as sweat pooled under her shoulderblades.

    Verloot’s scent preceded him, even before she heard his heavy tread across the deck. At least he’d bathed during their three days of waiting in Whitecliff.

    “These half-spear ruffians seem unhappy about going into the lizards’ territory,” he said gruffly as he plopped down next to her makeshift tent. “The one that passes as their captain claims that their in some religious frenzy. Eating everything that smells like food, it seems.

    “That’s to be expected, I guess,” she said. “This is still the frontier. It’s cheap to escort a party up the river. You separate the chaff when they actually have to trudge into this.” She gestured blindly at the surrounding jungle.

    “Oh they’ll go,” he said. “And at the price agreed. But, they’re just not happy about it.”

    “Have you ever known a soldier to be happy unless he’s drunk and in garrison?”

    “Good point,” the gnome said. “So, are you sleeping?”

    “Not anymore,” she answered, stretching lazily and dragging herself out onto the deck.

    The sun beat down like a super-heated hammer. She pulled a soft straw hat from her bag and slid it on, but still had to shade her eyes to see the far bank through the bright haze. They had seen a few of the tiny Poison Dusk lizardkin shadowing their progress earlier in the morning, but at this high hour, nothing moved.

    “Ma’am, I must speak with you.”

    Kath turned to face the whip-thin man that led her troop of mercenaries. His thick moustaches dripped with sweat. She could smell fear leaking from his stained leather armor.

    “Talk to my majordomo, Captain Teech,” she said, brusquely.

    “A ‘forged?” he said without trying to hide his disdain. “Ma’am, surely…”

    “Book!” Kath called, still eyeing the banks sliding slowly by. “Captain Teech wishes to speak with you.”

    The dark-plated warforged rose from the back of the deck, placing a set of tools and a half-finished project into his bag.

    “Captain Teech,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

    The man eyed Book up and down, a slight sneer on his face. He looked to Kath and then back to the warforged, finally saying, “The men refuse to go into the jungle, and I agree with them. The Blackscales are in an uproar, as I’m sure you’ve heard. We’d like half our pay for taking you to the drop-off point, but we’ll not venture into that…”

    Across the water, something dropped from an overhanging branch with a splash and sped across the river undulating like a great snake. It swung wide and ahead of their boat making for the other bank. Kath moved to the barge rail watching the odd patterns on it skin, alternating dark and light.

    “Captain,” Book began. “As I’m sure you know, we agreed before leaving port as to the duties of you and your men. We certainly can’t pay you unless you fulfill the terms of this agreement.”

    Another splash. This one closer and on the other side of the craft.

    “Verloot,” she said quietly and pointed.

    The gnome glanced over the side, spat, and then shrugged looking back at her.

    “Snake,” he mouthed.

    “Well, I tell ya, bucket-head,” Teech began, hand going to the heavy sword at his waist. “We aren’t going to go into that jungle. It’s certain death in this season. I don’t expect you to understand, being as your…not from around here. And we will have what’s due us.”

    Behind him, the knot of armored men rose as one, hands clutching a collection of pole-axes and spears. Kath’s growl froze the lot of them.

    “You will stand back from my companion, Teech. And take your hand away from your weapon.” she said savagely. “Our agreement is null and void, as of right now. If you persist…”

    “Kath?” the gnome said.

    “Not now, Verloot!” she shot over her shoulder. “If you continue with this shakedown…”

    “Yes, now!” Verloot yelled, as he thundered back from the edge of the barge, jerking his sword from it sheath. “Look alive you rabble!”

    Over his head, Kath saw twin banded tentacles shoot from the water, one wrapping itself around the barge rail and the second grasping blindly for the fleeing gnome.

    The barge tilted crazily from the other side, and Kath rounded to see a horror pulling itself out of the water, its serpentine appendages bunched like eyeless snakes. A feral crocodilian head rose out of the water, eyes slightly askew, grasped the rail with one massive hand and vaulted onto the deck. Water streamed off of its bulky humanoid body covered in dark iridescent scales. It moved languidly across the deck, uncoiling tentacles preparing to strike. The barge shifted back toward the other side and Kath could see a second creature rising from the water.

    Ripping her thin rapier from its sheath and deaf to the yells of those around her, she charged. The creature’s eyes registered surprise as the blade took it in the neck, a fountain of dark blood spraying across the shifter and the wood planks beneath her. One of the ridged tentacles seemed to relax only to lash at her, knocking Kath onto her back. She rolled to see grasping tentacles latching onto the barge at every quarter.

    Verloot, his longsword swinging, yelled for Book, who stood in the shadow of the barge captain's cabin.

    "Give us some support, you rust pile!" he bellowed, slicing away one grasping tentacle.

    The gnome rushed another of the creatures as it vaulted onto the boards, jamming his sword into its tough scaly chest. The croc-man collapsed back, smashing the rail. The dark water sucked it down with a splash, the unnatural appendages spasming.

    The men-at-arms shouted fearfully, crouching in a circle and brandishing their weapons at the grasping creatures. Verloot stomped toward them.

    "On your feet you gibbering fishwives!" the gnome shouted. He kicked the nearest in the gut, threw down a bag of coin, and hauled him to his feet. "You took our gold, now do your jobs!"

    The shifter rolled away from another attack, nearly losing her footing on the wet boards. Already tiring, Kath attempted to duck a second strike from the creature. Cruel barbs along the tentacle's edge sliced across the thick leather cuirass on her back. She rolled with the pain, feeling the animal rise into her throat, and sliced the tentacle in two. The creature roared, advancing like a thundering bull on her prone form. Its remaining serpentine appendage raked her across the chest, then wrapped around her sword arm like a feeding python, dragging her into the air. Her rapier fell away, and she dangled helplessly before its toothy maw. The crocodilian's fetid swamp breath washed over her and she fought the urge to vomit.

    Twin yellow fires suddenly burned from her eye sockets and the Beast changed her. Her free claw sliced across the croc-man’s eyes and it roared then back-handed her out of its own grasp. Landing lightly, she rolled to retrieve her fallen weapon, tearing her sight back over her shoulder. The creature came anew, thundering blindly across the deck. Brushing the whipping tentacle away, she kicked out at the last instant, one leg entangling the croc-man’s legs and the other catching him in the chest as he lurched forward. She thrust the rapier deep into his guts even as she braced, rolled back and kicked him over her body and over the barge rail. The thin sword snapped in her hands as he passed, bloody froth gurgling in his throat.

    The men-at-arms, their numbers more than halved, managed to take down the last creature with their pole-arms. Teech drew back his heavy spear for the killing stroke.

    "Wait!" Kath called, standing slowly. The wounds across her back and chest burned and blood flowing freely to pool at her feet. She felt shaky, but pushed this down.

    The captain shrank from her as she approached but she ignored his fear. Relaxing her breathing, she willed away the beast, only to have it seize her more tightly. Not wanting to show the struggle to her companions and hirelings, she flung away the broken rapier hilt and called in a throaty growl.

    "Verloot, Book. Have the prisoner bound." She backed away toward the prow of the vessel until she could calm her nerves.

    "Careful of the railing, Lady," Book said, following her. "Perhaps you should stay near the center..."

    "Don't." She tried to say this softly, but her snarl stopped Book and the men-at-arms cold. "Just give me a moment."

    An unnatural shudder moved through her, and she struggled to remain standing. Her wounds burning anew, Kath placed both arms on the railing and pushed at the Beast. It finally yielded, melting away. She felt her features soften and the claws on her hands retracted into her skin again leaving her shaking and cold.

    "You must let me treat your wounds, Kath," Book said, his voice close by her ear startled her.

    She nodded, looking up at the racing moons. Tiny Olarune had passed Barrakas, brighter points arcing across the bright bright sky.

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    Nice. Very nice.

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    Thanks! Unfortunately, I broke my finger this weekend, so updates will be a bit slowed... Can't friggin' type....

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    Finally dug this back out and started working on it. Don't know if I still have readers out there....
    -----------------

    "How many were there, Verloot?" Kath said, still feeling light-headed.

    A shaky, expectant feeling gripped her, as it always did after her feral form washed itself out of her mind.

    "Four of them," the gnome said. "All but this one was killed."

    "We don't know that," she said, looking closer at the prisoner.

    She was struck again by its skewed features. The head was slightly lopsided, the ridges on either side of its eyes uneven. The creature breathed easily, though still had not regained consciousness. The ropes binding its arms suddenly seemed too thin. Verloot had bunched the tentacles into his arcane net, a prized possession.

    "Poison Dusk lizardkin, most likely," said Teech, officiously. "We've seen an increase in raids over the last season."

    The big man brushed his long mustaches down with one hand, trying his best to look officious.

    "Lizardkin with these?" Verloot scoffed, pointing to the banded and ridged tentacles. "There's a reason you were slumming around Whitecliff without a job. I'm seeing that now."

    The captain opened his mouth, eyes strayed to Kath, and then stepped back.

    "These aren't Poison Dusk," Kath said, trying to smooth the situation over. "They’re too big, for one thing. Something else. Maybe another lizardkin species some Khyber-touched mage has altered."

    The creature's eyes suddenly popped open, and it went into a frenzy, straining against its bonds. The tentacles thrashed inside the net, but were held fast. As it struggled, its face seemed to soften and melt. Kath watched in horror as the reptilian features faded to only hints of a snout and jagged teeth. The tentacles seemed to draw into the body, becoming on vestigial bumps on the shoulders. The man before her was obviously a shifter. Or once had been.

    "Let me out of here," he snarled, wide yellow eyes glimmering.

    Verloot stepped on his stomach.

    "Stop your yapping until we have something to ask," he said. He lay the point of his sword on the shifter's chest. "Otherwise, we'll forget we care what you have to say and pitch your corpse over to the chawfish with your brothers."

    The shifter ceased his struggle.

    "What has happened to you?" Kath asked with more empathy than she intended. "What...are those?"

    "We've been perfected," the shifter said, his short sharp teeth glowing. "The Beast has changed us for the better, sister."

    Kath recoiled from his words. Images of her shifter kin dying at the hands of the Brelish army assaulted her. And Uri's painful wounds and disappearance bubbled to the surface of her thoughts. Her breath caught in her throat at his memory. The last days of the Last War took much from her.

    Verloot took Kath's silence as his cue to continue the interrogation.

    "We're looking for a hunted war criminal, Gruber Thiel," the gnome said, pressing slightly on the hilt of his sword. "He was a Grand Dracolan in the Karrnathi army, and was known to slaughter whole villages to the last child and raise them to supplement his undead forces."

    Book, who had drifted up, added: "He goes by a number of aliases, Bebin Durn, Haight, Grogan the Black."

    "I don't know anything about him," the shifter said, sullenly. He grimaced as the point of the sword dug deeper into his chest. "We are a small tribe. Lost and forgotten. Driven out from the lands of men and elves and all you other softer races." His feral eyes settled on Verloot's.

    "I'll show you soft, you..."

    "Verloot," Kath said. "I'll talk to him alone."

    The gnome turned a surprised look on her, then shook his head. Sheathing his sword, he gave the prisoner a solid kick in the ribs before stomping away. Kath watched him go, then bent over the shifter.

    "Who did this to you?" she said.

    "The Beast has clarified all that is right in us," he said, voice straining suddenly. "You'll know his power, too, soon enough."

    His shift was almost instantaneous, tentacles ripping from his flesh and shredding his bonds. One of the appendages encircled Kath's throat in an instant, dragging her into the air. Polearms thrust in from every direction, and Verloot's charging swipe took the thing's head off. Kath dropped heavily to the deck, her head lolling. Book crouched by her side.

    "Kath," he said softly. "Lady, are you okay?"

    She stirred finally, pushing herself up and nodding. The fresh wound on her throat oozed blood.

    "Let's just get that bastard Thiel," she said.

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    Book folded his right arm across his chest and then extended his hand to the receding barge as it rounded a bend downriver.

    “What in the Pit are you doing?” Verloot complained, struggling up the soft bank. “You think those dregs are long lost sword brothers or something?”

    “Merely offering my blessing to safe travel,” Book intoned, turning to the task of reaching slightly drier ground. “It isn’t often you find an honest barge captain plying these waters.”

    “If twice the price and half the speed are honest, I’ll take a cheat anytime.”

    “Quiet you two,” Kath hissed. “And look alive.”

    She gestured to a collection of skulls decorating lances thrust askew into the soft ground at the trailhead. Some of the heads looked a little too fresh for her liking. The sweet scent of rot sickened her.

    The fresh-faced mercenary, the only one to accompany them off of the boat, looked wide-eyed at the display.

    “Another warm welcome,” Verloot snorted. “Well, get your jaw off the ground, sell-sword. You’re not exactly giving us good feelings about your martial prowess with that reaction.”

    The young man hefted his spear and followed as the gnome rushed ahead of them, turning the corner on the trail.

    “Don’t mind him. He’s always a bit on edge,” Kath said, keeping pace with the man. “What is your name, by the way?”

    “Staver. Morren Staver, and I don’t mind him, actually. I’ve had sergeants that would kick my tailbone up between my ears for less,” the man said. “It’s an honor to continue to serve you. I watched the Battle of the Mounds from the infirmary tent.” He gestured to the thick, ugly scar running from his shoulder to the crook of his elbow. “Your unit distinguished itself well on the field.”

    Kath held her tongue, not because she didn’t agree, but that Morren surprised her. He didn’t look old enough to have been out of his mother’s arms during that battle.

    “Thank you,” she finally said, then patted the heavy sword at her side. “Your captain was kind enough to part with this, but we can use every sword we can get.”

    “I’m sure he didn’t let it go for less than thrice its worth,” Staver snorted. “Teech wasn’t much of a soldier, but he’s nothing if not a pennywise.”

    “If only it were pennies he demanded for it,” Kath said, smiling.

    Up ahead, they heard the gnome gasp and then grunt.

    “Verloot!” Kath called, edging around the bend in the trail.

    The fat gnome stood with his hands above his head surrounded by deep black lizardkin. The lead lizard’s head fan expanded as it spotted the shifter, then croaked a command and three of the heavily muscled creatures swiveled their spears to meet her. She stopped and held her hands out, the young mercenary bringing his spear to bear beside her. Book continued past without a care, pushing the man’s spear into the mud as he uttered a few phrases in the creatures’ tongue. He gestured as he continued walking toward the leader of the band. As if mesmerized, the hooded lizard gave a barking hiss that could pass for a laugh then his voice rose an octave to a piercing chirp. Three times the lizardkin made this call. His companions melted into the jungle, and he turned and trudged on up the trail without a backward glance.

    “So?” the gnome asked, his hands still above his head.

    “They are Blackscale. The T’eck tribe…or clan. I can never keep their organizations straight.” Book said.

    “I don’t care about their family history. What are they going to do?” Verloot murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

    “What did you tell them, Book?” Kath asked, lowering her arms and resting her hand casually on the hilt of the sword she’d purchased from Teech. She was aware of the yellow eyes still watching from the jungle.

    “That I am a scholar of Morgrave seeking enlightenment on the various tribes hereabouts,” Book said. “And that the gnome is my servant.”

    “Servant, eh?” the gnome grunted, straightening his wig. “Do I overstep my station if I tell you to go jump in the thrice damned river?”

    “Probably. But, walk three paces behind me lest they see through my ruse, tear your throat out and plant our heads on their pikes.” Book said, following the lizardkin’s path up the trail.

    By the time they arrived at the first mulch-mound hut, a steady hot rain began to fall. Lizardkin, large and small, moved about village clustered in the shadows of massive trees and cluttered undergrowth. A large mound rose near the center of the sprawling camp and a covered firepit smoked dismally in the rain. A cluster of larger, fanned lizardfolk crouched in the mud there. Kath recognized the patrol leader who was engaged in animated conversation with a huge specimen of his kin, obviously a chieftain. She noticed the chief’s left arm ended in a ragged stump and a badly healed wound scarred his chest and side.

    The patrol leader leapt up and moved toward them, beckoning Book to the firepit. Kath followed, though she kept her distance and crouched under the boughs of a heavy bush nearby, letting the heavy pack full of supplies drop to the ground. Book hissed a stream of words and the lizardfolk all replied with various grunts and chirps.

    The scarred lizardfolk began speaking. Book, who remained standing, bobbed his head similarly to those that clustered around their chieftain, before replying and executing an awkward twist of his head.

    “He says that there are four major clans of Blackscale near the river here,” the warforged said without turning his eyes away from the creature. “Theirs is the largest clan, though he could be lying. They are an arrogant lot.”

    “Fantastic,” the gnome said, but Kath cautioned him with a look.

    “Any word of another party moving through here or of the shifters we fought?” Kath asked.

    Book did not answer, but began speaking to the chieftain again. The conversation became animated, and the massive Blackscale rose, its tail thrashing. His minions, all fairly large for their size and similarly scarred rose with him.

    “Book?” Kath said easing to her feet.

    “It’s fine,” the warforged replied, waving her down. “They are passionate, nothing more.”

    He exchanged a few more words with the chief, and the creature seemed to calm, settling back to a crouch. Book chanted a handful of arcane words. Two images appeared next to him: A thin older man in Karrnathi armor and one of the tentacled horrors they’d fought. Though the chieftain appeared nonplussed by the illusion, his minions jumped, hands going to their spears. The Blackscale chief issued a grunt-hiss laugh and offered a skewer of what appeared to be giant sewer rat to the warforged. Book took the gift and bit off a hunk. Raising the rat in a kind of salute, he passed it to the next lizardkin in the circle and without pretense turned to his companions.

    “He says that a large party passed through his lands about three weeks ago,” Book said, pulling Kath to her feet. “Stay behind me, Verloot,” he said sharply to the gnome’s grunt.

    “What about…” Verloot began.

    “No!” Book said, rounding on him. “Speak only when I speak to you.” He then continued. “The shifters are recent invaders of their territories. Many Blackscale have died trying to drive them off. They don’t seem to have a singular location or home, but wander the woods and rivers.”

    “And our quarry,” Kath asked, warily walking beside the warforged. Burning yellow eyes followed them as they made their way through the village.

    “The man leading the party is indeed Thiel, though Kthe’etch says that he had an odd smell.”

    “We all have odd smells after a week in the damned jungle, ‘forged,” Verloot put in.

    A troop of smaller Blackscale, obviously adolescents, loped into their wake, then overtook them and fanned out into the brush ahead. Each carried a long javelin in their throwing hands and a lumpy bag over their shoulders.

    “What’s this?” Verloot said watching the lizardfolk all but disappear into the jungle.

    “Our guides and protectors. These creatures are a little more sophisticated than you think,” Book answered, as they reached the edge village. “They tracked the party to the next clan territory and followed them deeper into the jungle.”

    “Where?” Kath asked, eyeing the last moldering hut as they stepped into the rainy jungle.

    “To the Mountain that Ate the City,” Book quoted.

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    Kath struggled up yet another muddy embankment. Her vision swam for a moment, and she paused. The sweat soaked bandaged around her throat slipped a little, and she pushed it back into place, a circle of blood staining the cloth. Book said the wound did not fester, but she still felt it even after a week of trudging through the jungle.

    She drove the walking stick that Morren had cut for her into the mud and tied back the sodden silver hair plastered to her face. The mercenary paused at the top of the rise and smiled back at her as they both stretched their backs. He’d definitely held his own, carrying the heaviest loads all day and taking the longest guard shifts at night, she thought. And he was cute, even through the grime. She pushed this thought down. There had been no one since Uri. Long long years. The ephemeral sound of his laugh still gave her phantom pain. She pushed this down, too.

    “Resting again?” Verloot said, breaking her reverie. “That Karn will have what he’s after and be gone before we get to him at this pace.”

    Kath threw a look over her shoulder, then realized that the gnome was grinning good-naturedly.

    “You seem in a good mood for all this,” she said, taking up her stick and slogging on up the slope.

    “It’s a good day,” he returned, keeping pace with her. “We have fresh river rat for dinner tonight. Our little lizard scouts have already found a nice campsite near a river strangely devoid of toothy swarms of voracious fish, and I think I’m in love with our ‘forged interpreter.”

    Kath snorted, making the last of the climb. She turned back to give the gnome a hand.

    “You know you shouldn’t be so hard on Book,” she said. “He’s saved your butt many times.”

    “I know he has, Kath.” Verloot looked at her, his eyes strange in the jungle half-light.

    “What?”

    “Are you okay?” he said, suddenly concerned.

    She felt woozy again, but had dismissed it as poor table fare and too much walking, but the gnome’s expression scared her. She felt the Beast behind her eyes begin to panic.

    “What is it?” she asked, too forcefully.

    “Your face is very pale. Do you want to sit and have a drink?” he took her hand. “You’re skin is like ice. Book! Call a halt!”

    She was sitting before she knew it and surrounded by her companions. Staver’s eyes hovered over Book’s shoulder as the warforged bent to examine her. Verloot knelt by her side.

    “She seems taken ill,” Book said.

    “We can see that, you…” the gnome began, and then stopped at the warforged’s sharp look.

    “It’s not a malady I’m familiar with, I’m afraid, but it could simply be exhaustion.” The warforged stood and turned to the gathering lizardfolk scouts then barked a few words in their tongue. “There’s only a few hours of daylight left. We’ll stop here for tonight.”

    “Book,” Kath said, struggling to stand. “I’m fine. We have to stay on this trail while it’s still there. Every day it rains…”

    “The T’eck know where Thiel is heading,” Verloot put in, pushing her gently on the shoulder. “Book is right. We’ll not lose much time, as it is.”
    Last edited by ragboy; Tuesday, 24th April, 2007 at 11:09 PM.

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    Nice story so far.
    Subscribed.

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