Bredan had decided that maybe collapsing right there on the edge of the deck was a good idea when he saw Sond appear along the rail on the upper deck. She grabbed hold of one of the stay ropes and leaned out over the edge, heedless of risk as she examined the side of her ship.
Kosk noticed it too. “Looks like we may not be clear yet,” he said.
“Damage control party below!” Sond yelled, stirring sailors who were still able to respond to her orders. After barking a series of quick commands to her helmsman and to Torrin, who had remained safely at their stations during the brief but intense clash with the dragon turtle, the halfling captain rushed down to the lower deck and hurried toward the aft hatch leading below.
Bredan followed her, curious despite his burns, which now that the fight was over were really starting to hurt.
Even after weeks at sea he still knew next to nothing about ships, but Bredan thought he could feel something wrong with the Gull. It was similar to the way that the ship had felt after the storm, wounded and limping. He followed Sond down past the crew deck, down to the cargo holds situated in the bowels of the ship. Bredan had gone down here to work the pumps that removed the seepage from the bilge. It had been difficult and exhausting work, but it was much preferred to the seamen who had actually had to crawl into the cramped and filthy bilge spaces to patch some of the holes that the storm had created.
This time, however, they didn’t get that far. He caught up to Sond on the steps that led down into the cargo hold. The space was already awash with water. Empty barrels that hadn’t been lashed down sufficiently were bobbing in the flood.
“That doesn’t look good,” he said.
“No,” Sond said. “We need light. Bring a lamp,” she ordered one of her crewmen. But even as the man started to hurry off, a bright glow filled the compartment. Bredan hadn’t realized that the others had followed him until he saw Quellan step forward, the glow of his light spell shining from his holy symbol.
“There were not many we could help,” the cleric said by way of explanation.
Bredan made room for the big half-orc to make his way down the steps. Sond, crouched at the edge of the water, quickly pointed across the hold. “There,” she said, pointing to a spot along the hull where a plume of water was just visible.
“Can we plug it?” Bredan asked.
“I won’t know until I can get a look at it,” Sond said. She started forward into the water, which was clearly already over her head, but paused as Quellan took hold of her shoulder. “I have a spell that may be able to help,” he said.
“All right,” Sond said.
The cleric closed his eyes and concentrated on his holy symbol. The glow that surrounded the sigil of the book flickered, but then it steadied and brightened. As it did the water that filled the cargo hold began to swirl and roil, as if caught in a whirlpool. Sond stepped up from the water in alarm, but she and the others watching could quickly see that the cleric’s spell was quickly lowering the level of the water that flooded the space. As it retreated, they could see that the source of the flooding was from a big hole in the side of the ship, right about at the level of the floor of the hold. The breach was big enough that even Quellan would have been able to squeeze through it without difficulty. From the jagged edges that surrounded the opening, it was obvious what had wrought the damage, even if the fight with the dragon turtle hadn’t been fresh on everyone’s minds.
Sond hurried over there even as the water continued to drain. Bredan was quick to follow her in case the flow caught her up, but she grabbed hold of some of the ropes that tied down the pallets of cargo and had no difficulty managing the awkward approach. Behind her, a few of her sailors came into the hold bearing tools and lengths of wood.
“Can you patch it?” Bredan asked.
Sond shook her head. “A hole this big, it won’t be fast,” she said. “If the patch isn’t anchored correctly the pressure will just blow it out again. How long can you maintain your spell?” she asked Quellan.
“Another seven or eight minutes,” the cleric replied.
Sond met Bredan’s eyes and shook her head.
“Do you have any stone?” Glori asked. Bredan turned to see the bard coming down the steps. She looked as ragged as the rest of them, but she still commanded the room. “It doesn’t have to be that thick, but it should be about the size of the hole.”
The sailors looked at each other and shook their heads, but after a moment Sond said, “The stove plate. In the galley.” She pointed to several of the sailors. “Get it, now!”
“But it’s attached to the floor,” one began to protest, but Sond said, “Get it here in five minutes, or the lot of you are going overboard!”
The sailors dropped their burdens and hurried out. “I’ll go with them,” Kosk said, pausing to pick up a claw-headed hammer.
Sond turned back toward the hole in her hull. The water was still flowing out, but she could see the rest of the ocean now, just waiting to rush back in. She reached out and ran a hand along the edge of the breach with a look of wonder on her face. “This is a magic I must master someday,” she said.
It could not have been more than the allotted five minutes before the sailors reappeared, but to those waiting it felt like hours. They were struggling with the weight of a stone circle about five feet across and a few inches thick. They’d been able to roll it along the deck above, but they all had to work together to get it down the stairs without shattering it. Kosk was in the center of the pack, directing them via sharp commands.
Quellan had stepped over to the side of the hold, his brow tight with the effort of maintaining the concentration on his spell. It was clear that he would fight to extract every second he could, but they all felt the inexorable passage of time as they maneuvered the slab to the breach in the hull. Glori directed them to lay it over the opening.
“We’ll never get it nailed over in time,” one of the men began to protest, but she gestured him back and then began to play her lyre.
Glori felt the magic gather around her as she played. This was a new spell for her, one of those that was part of the enchantment within Majerion’s lyre. She had practiced it a few times before they had sent out on this journey, but she had no idea if it would accomplish what she needed in this instance. But with Quellan’s spell already starting to fade, and the wall of water just waiting to surge back into the wounded ship, she cast herself entirely into the working of the spell.
The stone block began to ripple, then it started to swell outwards. It flowed into the breach, merging with the shattered boards that remained, binding them to itself and each other, reforming the hull of the ship. It did not take long, maybe ten, fifteen seconds, but when it was done the slab had become the patch, and the side of the ship was whole again.
“Okay, that one I need to learn,” Sond said. “Will it hold?”
Glori wasn’t sure herself, and it wasn’t until Quellan’s spell ended and he came forward to join her that she finally spoke. “It should be reinforced as soon as possible,” she said.
Sond nodded with a small smile that said she understood exactly the reason for the delay in her response. “A wise precaution,” she said. She gestured to her crew, who picked up their discarded materials and came over to the repaired breach.
“A creative application of that spell,” Quellan said to Glori.
“You too,” she said. “You’re still hurt.”
“Others are hurt worse,” he said.
“What about the rest of the ship?” Bredan asked.
“I’ll have to go over every inch of her,” Sond said. “I suspect that was the worst of it, but we still have a long way to go.”
“And hope that monster doesn’t come back,” Kosk said.
“I think we’ll outpace it,” Sond said. “But there are worse things in the Blue Deep.”
She hurried back above, but the adventurers lingered a moment, looking at each other. They didn’t say anything, but they all had the same thought on their minds. Worse than that?
Bredan blinked and pulled himself up. He was lying against a heap of rope and canvas on the foredeck. He’d only intended to sit down for a minute, but must have fallen asleep.
A sharp wind ruffled his hair as he made his way over to the forward rail. He couldn’t see anything on the horizon, but that wasn’t surprising; the lookout perched high atop the forward mast was a good twenty-five feet above him. The seas had picked up since he’d come up from below a few hours ago; it was a testament to his exhaustion that the bouncing of the ship hadn’t disturbed him in the least.
He made his way down to the main deck. His arms and legs still felt wooden and he was careful to hold onto the railing all the way down the steps. The few members of the crew he saw offered him nods of respect. He noted how the sighting hadn’t stirred any particular enthusiasm.
As he reached the main deck, he saw Rodan coming up from below. “Land?” the tiefling asked.
“Apparently so,” Bredan said. “Can’t see it yet from down here, but Sond’s been saying we’d hit Weltarin any day now.”
“Finally,” Rodan said. “I wasn’t sure this old bucket was going to hold together this long.” He gave Bredan a critical look. “You look like hell.”
“Thanks,” Bredan said wryly. “I finally got to spend some time in the bilges last night, helping the patch crews. We wouldn’t have been able to get in there at all if not for Quellan’s water-moving magic, but even so it was pretty nasty.”
A sudden gust of wind rushed over the deck from an unexpected direction, tugging at their clothes and flaring their hair around their faces. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who are tired,” Bredan said, glancing back at the high platform on the aftcastle.
“The seas are picking up,” Rodan said.
“Yeah, it seems like the Blue Deep wants one last crack at us before we reach dry land,” Bredan said.
The two men made their way toward the stern of the ship. The wind straightened out again and the main sail billowed once more to drive the ship toward the distant shore. As the pair made their way up the stairs to the aft deck, they could just make out the dark line on the horizon, offering at least a promise of safety after their multiple ordeals upon the ocean.
Captain Sond was at her station atop the platform, leaning heavily against the wooden post, a loop of rope around her chest holding her in place. She looked tired, and her arms hung limply at her side. Her first mate was just behind her, holding a spyglass, while Kosk and Kalasien were standing close by. The dwarf seemed to have finally gotten his sea legs, or maybe it was the thought of seeing dry land that had brought him up here to witness the final stage of at least this part of their journey.
As Bredan and Rodan made their way over to them, the ship cut through a steep wave and shuddered. A deep groaning sound came from the belly of the ship, loud enough to be alarming.
“Check below,” Sond ordered Torrin, who passed on the command to some of the sailors nearby. But from the look on her face she already knew what they would find.
“What’s happening?” Bredan asked.
“The keel was damaged in the dragon turtle’s attack,” the halfling said. “To be honest, I’m amazed it’s held together this long.”
The captain’s fatalistic mood affected Bredan more than all of his work over the last few days to keep the Gull afloat. “Will she make it?” he asked.
That question brought some of Sond’s usual pluck back to the surface. “She will, if I have to go over the side and push.”
Quellan and Glori came up onto the deck together. “We heard that land was sighted,” the cleric said.
“Aye,” Sond said, “But the Gull’s handling like a drowned bird, and I have a feeling that these seas are wrecking some of our patchwork below. Can you do that trick with the water again?”
“I will do my best,” Quellan said.
“Maybe I can help, with my mending spell,” Glori said. The two of them turned and headed quickly below.
“Anything the rest of us can do?” Rodan asked.
Sond gave him a quick look. “If there are any gods you’re on friendly terms with, you could put in a good word for us.”
With today's post, we come to the end of book 10 of the story. Book 11 is the last one, though it is fairly long (we have a whole new continent to explore, after all). I felt some Isle of Dread vibes while writing this one.
* * *
As the wounded Gull crept slowly closer to the distant shore, more details of the new land became visible to those watching on the ship. What they saw was not immediately encouraging. The landscape was anything but friendly, with steep cliffs fronted by jutting rocks along most of the coastline. Where the land actually descended to meet the water all they could see was dense jungle, again sheltered behind sharp rocks that shattered the breaking waves into plumes of white spray.
“That doesn’t look inviting,” Bredan said.
“The Black Coast,” Sond said. Bredan turned to find that the captain was looking right at him. After a moment she held out a hand, and Torrin handed over his spyglass to her. She held it to her eye, scanning the distant shore.
“Two points to starboard,” she said.
The Gull turned ponderously. Bredan stepped over to the rail and looked over the side. It was difficult to be certain, but it looked as the ship was sitting lower in the water now. Bredan had no idea where the transition between “settling” and “sinking” was, but it was clear that the Gull was getting closer to that point.
He returned as Sond was issuing more orders to Torrin. “Prepare the boat,” she said. “And start bringing up empty barrels and loose timber from below. Food and water supplies as well. Don’t clutter up the deck, but put it where we can get to it quickly if needed.”
“Aye, captain,” the mate said, hurrying off to implement her orders.
Bredan thought he should be helping, but all he could do was stare at the approaching coast. The cliffs were of dark stone, set off by the white froth of the crashing waves below and the pale sky above. Black Coast indeed, he thought.
The altered course put them at an angle to the waves, and the ship began to twist more as it continued forward. The mast creaked under the strain, but Sond kept feeding it wind carefully, keeping the ship on course and just under the point where mended canvas and bolstered wood would give way. Her face was slick with the sweat of maintaining that effort, and Bredan felt a renewed respect for the diminutive woman.
As they got even closer, they could see that what they had taken for just another stretch of barren cliffs was in fact a promontory that jutted out from the line of the coast. As they started to pass it a narrow sliver of white beach came into view, flanked by tall rocks that jutted from the sea like giant broken teeth. Sond barked another order and the Gull changed course again, heading for that narrow gap. To Bredan it looked like there was no way that they could possibly fit, but he knew that distances were misleading and trusted the captain’s judgment.
“It’s the only thing that offers a decent chance,” Rodan said, answering Bredan’s unspoken thought. He looked over at the tiefling and nodded.
The bustle of activity on the main deck was interrupted as the ship abruptly sagged and listed hard to the left. Sond thrust her hand forward, a look of intense focus on her face as if it was her will alone that was keeping the Gull afloat. Slowly the ship rightened again, thought it continued to tilt slightly left as it lumbered through the rising surf. Spray was crashing up over the decks now, dousing the men working to bring up cargo from below. Bredan, finally jolted out of his reverie, hurried down to join them. Heavy pulleys attached to the new mast were being used to lift barrels from the hold below, via the large cargo hatches amidships. Water from the surging sea was pouring from the deck into those openings, but Bredan doubted that would make much difference after all the tired ship had already absorbed. He could see the beach now, directly ahead of them, but the rocks too had grown, looming over them now as if eager for them to come within reach.
“Tie down that line!”
“Grab that barrel! No, don’t let it swing free!”
Bredan grabbed hold of a flailing rope and helped guide a barrel clear of the hold. It jolted free of his grasp briefly and bounced against the mast. Thankfully it was empty, but he quickly got hold of it and guided it onto the pitching deck. He pushed it forward to the lee of the foredeck, where others just like it had already been lashed down. He looked up to see a vast pillar of rock sliding past them—no, they were the ones that were moving, he reminded himself. They passed so close that he could have tossed a pebble and hit it without straining, then they were clear and the danger began to fall behind them.
He was starting to think that they might escape after all when the ship came to a sudden halt with a jarring crash.
Everyone on the deck was flung forward. Bredan bounced off the barrel he’d just unloaded and fell hard to the deck. A man screamed as he tumbled into one of the open cargo hatches, but the sound was abruptly cut off by a sick sound of impact.
Dazed, Bredan struggled back to his feet. The collision had knocked the wind out of him but he wasn’t seriously hurt. But even a casual glance told him that the Gull was far worse off.
He couldn’t see what the ship had hit, but the deck was canted at an angle that made standing awkward. It had turned somewhat to the side as it had careened to a stop, and waves continued to crash over the side that faced out toward the ocean. Fortunately, the list was to the right, so that was the raised side, offering at least a slight bulwark against the pounding surf.
But as the ship groaned again under him, he realized that whatever they had hit, they were anything but stable. The he remembered that his friends had gone below. “Quellan, Glori!”
“I’ll go,” Kosk said. Bredan hadn’t even realized that the dwarf had joined them on the main deck, and he quickly made his way to the aft hatch, which stood open at an angle.
Bredan’s instinct was to rush after him, but the situation on the main deck was approaching chaos, and some members of the crew had already thrown themselves overboard in a desperate attempt to swim to shore. He could see the beach, now just a few hundred feet away, with a dark mass of jungle rising up behind it. After their experience on the island, however, he was not in a hurry to rush over there.
Sond came down the stairs from the aftcastle, shouting orders that quickly restored at least some semblance of order to the confusion. The davits for the ship’s boat were almost useless with the deck canted as it was, but a group of men quickly went forward to begin lowering it down to the water. Meanwhile, Bredan began helping Rodan and a few others as they began using boards and rope to fashion a crude raft out of some of the empty barrels they’d brought up from below. It wouldn’t be much, but it might help them get some of the stores and supplies safely off the ship before the pounding waves and grinding rocks it was embedded on smashed it into kindling.
After a few difficulties, the crew finally got the small boat into the water. A few of the sailors, carrying weapons, joined Kalasien and Elias in the bobbing craft. Sond came over to where Bredan and Rodan were working. “I think you should be in the first party to go ashore,” she said to the tiefling.
Rodan looked up and met Bredan’s eyes. “Go ahead,” Bredan said. “We’ll be right along.”
The tiefling nodded, and after taking his bow from a niche in the still-forming raft he made his way over to the boat. Bredan looked around and saw Xeeta watching from over by the mast. “You should go with them, in case they run into something on the shore,” he suggested.
“All right. But be careful,” she said.
Once the boat had pulled away Bredan redoubled his efforts on the raft. Sond briefly went below and returned with a leather satchel slung over her shoulder and a small pack on her back. She came over and offered a few suggestions on the raft. Some of the sailors were attaching ropes to barrels that still had something in them, in the hopes that they could be tossed overboard and dragged to shore. Bredan realized that they might be stuck here with only the supplies they brought from the stricken ship to keep them alive.
The fact that time was not their ally was reinforced as a particularly large wave struck the ship and the entire hull shifted, the angle of the deck rising just a bit more. Bredan looked to the aft hatch just as Quellan, Glori, and finally Kosk reappeared. The three of them were weighed down with burdens, including several heavy sacks. Bredan let out a sigh of relief and waved them over.
“That doesn’t look exactly seaworthy,” Glori said, giving the raft a dubious look.
“It only has to make it to there,” Bredan said, indicating the beach.
“The whole side of the ship is caved in, captain,” Quellan said. “I’m afraid the Gull has sailed its last journey.”
Sond merely nodded, and Bredan realized she’d already come to the same conclusion. “Let’s just get as much as we can to that beach.”
The boat returned, with Xeeta and one of the sailors rowing. “Anything nasty ashore?” Glori asked.
“Not on the beach, at least,” Xeeta reported. “Rodan’s taking a look around. Kalasien’s taken charge and has the sailors setting up a temporary shelter for whatever we can bring off the ship.”
“You three should go ashore,” Bredan said to Glori, Quellan, and Kosk. “I’ll follow once I get this raft together.”
“We’ll go together,” Glori said. “Plenty of stuff to do here.”
The next hour passed in a blur. They finished the raft, and used one of the cargo hoists to drag it over to the water. The continued settling of the ship proved an advantage now, as they only had to drop it about five feet to get it in the water. Glori had been right, it didn’t look like much, but Bredan’s construction had been sturdy and it held together as they loaded it up with as much as they could before launching it toward the shore. Torrin boarded it along with several sailors, and with long poles they pushed off from the ship and rode the ungainly craft toward the beach.
Sond had those still on board begin gathering whatever they could possibly salvage from the ship. The cargo hold was already flooded, and the sea had poured in through the gash in the hull to swamp most of the crew deck as well, but they continued bringing up what they could from below until the rising water literally forced them out. They crept over the dying ship cutting away ropes and lengths of timber. Sond herself even ascended the mast and cut down the improvised canvas mainsail, rolling it into a more manageable mass before stacking it along with the other supplies along what was left of the port rail.
Bredan was pulling nails out of an irregular stack of boards when a voice pulled him from his reverie. “Bredan!” He looked up to see Glori standing in front of him. Only a few other people, including Sond and Quellan, were still left on the deck of the ship. The main deck was now half-underwater, and the waves that continued to hit the starboard side were sending a fresh deluge over the deck with each swell. Bredan was soaked and sore, with fresh scrapes that he did not remember getting covering his hands and arms. She gave him a knowing look, and said, “Time to go.”
Quellan was helping two sailors load the last of the supplies onto the raft. Now they were having to lift the stuff up onto the improvised vessel. The boat, which had come and gone many times while they’d been working, was already nearing the beach. Bredan and Glori joined the queue, helping them push a few more crates aboard before getting pulled up onto the bobbing craft.
Sond was the last to leave the Golden Gull. She placed her hand on the battered main mast, which had held after all until the very end. She lingered there a moment before joining the others on the raft. The water was already deep enough along the railing that it rose above her head before she reached it, but she leapt into the water and swam over to the raft with a few easy strokes. She refused Quellan’s offered hand and clambered up herself. Her eyes lingered on the ship as they set out toward shore, but as they hit the cresting waves close to the beach she turned decisively away and helped guide the raft safely into the beach.
A half-dozen crewmen met them in the shallows and helped them to pull the raft securely onto the sand. They began unloading the vessel immediately. Bredan could see where most of the supplies that had already been offloaded had been secured in a temporary shelter nestled in a cleft in an exposed rock face along the northern edge of the beach. It was hard to get a clear count, but it looked like there were only a few dozen members of the Gull’s crew left.
His gaze shifted to the jungle. It looked even less welcoming close-up than it had from the ship, a dense mass of green that appeared decisively uninviting. But they would have to enter that hostile expanse, he knew. Glori and Quellan came up to stand beside him, no doubt preoccupied with similar thoughts.
Sond leapt down from the raft and trudged up onto the sand. Without looking back at the adventurers, she made her way toward the camp.
“Well,” Glori said when she was out of earshot. “Welcome to Weltarin.”
Thanks for the kudos, carborundum! I will admit, I had to spend considerable time on Wikipedia while writing the ship-based sequences.
* * *
Book 11: A NEW WORLD
The temporary camp was looking less temporary by the minute, as the shipwrecked survivors from the Golden Gull made themselves at home on their narrow slice of Weltarin. The sailors stayed well clear of the jungle, approaching only to cut down trees that they were using to build a bulwark around the nook where they’d gathered the salvaged supplies. They had found a few trees on the forest’s border that produced globular fruits that Quellan proclaimed safe, which they augmented with crabs they captured in the shallows along the edge of the beach. Thus far they were keeping busy, knowing that their survival remained tentative, but there were frequent sour looks directed at their former passengers, and perhaps more troubling, some muttering about the captain who had led them to this outcome.
Sond noticed the covert looks but ignored them as she walked over to where Bredan, Glori, and Quellan were talking quietly about the supply situation. The cleric was explaining how he could invoke the power of his patron to conjure food and water, but it would not be enough to sustain everyone there. Food seemed to be plentiful enough, but fresh water was going to be a concern if they had to remain here for any length of time.
They turned as Sond walked directly up to Bredan. The juxtaposition of the halfling woman and the human warrior might have been amusing if not for the iron-hard edge in the captain’s eyes. “Why are we here?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” Bredan said.
“This is where you wanted to be,” Sond said. “The Black Coast. I saw you staring at this spot on the map, back in Li Syval. And here we are. I think I deserve to know why.”
Kalasien, who had been sitting nearby, quickly got up and joined them. “Captain…” he began, but she held up a hand. “I don’t want to hear anything from you,” she said, then pointed a finger at Bredan. “I want to hear it from him.” Her voice was steady, but she kept the volume low, so their conversation would not carry.
Bredan met her eyes for a long moment then sighed. “We’re looking for a place where a Syvalian captain landed, centuries ago. We know it’s somewhere along the mainland coast, north of Fort Promise, but that’s all we know. We were hoping to learn more at the colony, maybe secure a guide who knows Weltarin better.”
“And what’s so special about this place you’re seeking? Are you just treasure-hunters, after all?”
Bredan looked at Kalasien, but the Arreshian agent seemed content to let him do the talking. “It’s not a treasure, not really,” he said. “But there is a ruin there that holds something important, something it’s vital we find.”
Sond looked at him dubiously.
“We had nothing do with the storm, of the things that attacked the ship,” Quellan said. “We’re trapped here now, just like you, and we’ll only survive if we work together.”
“I know that,” the halfling spat back. She shook her head. “I know the story you’re talking about,” she said. “Every Syvalian captain does.” At their sudden looks of interest she made a gesture of negation with a slash of her hand. “But nobody knows where this famous lost city is located. There are as many tales as there are tellers, each one claiming to know exactly how to find the place. For a while there were even expeditions that set out to retrace his steps. They all found the same thing: a continent teeming with hostile tribes and weird monsters. I could have told you all this before, if you’d been honest with me.”
“It would not have made any difference,” Bredan said. “We still had to come.” He didn’t say what he’d felt deep within his bones, since they’d arrived here: that this was where they were supposed to be. He hadn’t even shared that with his friends. If those vague instincts had come with something useful, like a map or a compass, then he might have revealed more, but at the moment all he could do was drift blindly on the vicissitudes of fate like everyone else.
“Captain Sond, we have to focus now on more immediate concerns,” Quellan said. “We feel that it is important that we find out what’s in the vicinity, in particular a reliable source of fresh water and someplace more secure to establish a camp.”
“The sailors won’t be happy about entering the jungle,” Kalasien said.
“They’ll be less happy if something emerges from the jungle and starts eating them,” Glori said.
“I thought your tiefling scout was checking out the area,” Sond said.
“He is, but he’s too smart to go too far alone,” Bredan said. “We were thinking we’d take a deeper probe tomorrow, maybe head down the coast a bit. You and your men can wait here for us. Whatever we find, we’ll return here and report back. If there’s nothing, then we’ll try the other direction.”
“All of you?” she asked. “It would be more reassuring if at least one of the healers remained behind.”
Glori and Quellan shared a look, but Bredan shook his head. “We stay together,” he said.
Sond fixed her intense stare on him for a moment but finally nodded. “I don’t like it, but it’s a wise course of action,” she said. “If there was only a way we could…”
She trailed off as they all detected a commotion coming from the other side of the camp, along the boundary between the rocky promontory and the jungle.
They couldn’t see immediately what was happening, but a number of men had gathered around some of the fallen logs they had been clearing for their shelter, and there was a lot of shouting going on. But as they hurried in that direction there was a flash of flames as Xeeta, who had been over by the main cache of supplies, hurled a series of scorching rays into the forest.
“What’s going on?” Bredan asked as he ran up to her.
“I didn’t get a good look at them,” the sorcerer reported. Flames had engulfed one of the smaller trees, but the forest was so damp that it seemed unlikely that they would spread enough to threaten their camp. “I think one of the men was hit.”
The companions rushed over to the fallen logs. The sailors had taken cover behind some of the scattered rocks and smaller trees, and several were pointing into the forest. Only a few had crossbows, which they were quickly reloading. One of the sailors was on the ground not far from the fallen logs, with some kind of spear stuck into his belly. Quellan immediately ran over to him to offer aid.
“What happened?” Glori asked the others.
“They looked like cats, like bloody cats!” one of them said. “Walkin’ upright, like men!”
“Cat-men,” Kosk said dubiously.
“It’s true,” another said. “I swear it.”
“Well, we already had fish-men, so I suppose cat-men aren’t beyond the bounds of probability,” Glori commented.
“I think I hit one of them,” one of the archers said. “They ran off real quick, once the lady started throwing fire.”
Bredan, his sword in his hands, had gone over to check the trees. “They’re gone now,” he said. “I don’t see any blood or bodies, but there’s plenty of ground cover here. I’ll have Rodan take a look when he returns.”
“Assuming he didn’t run into them first,” Sond said. By the look on Bredan’s face the thought had occurred to him, but he said nothing.
“Should we go after them?” one of the sailors asked.
“We’d only end up getting lost, or ambushed,” Glori said.
“Think they’ll be back?” another sailor asked.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Sond said. “All the more reason to quickly build up our defenses here, gentlemen.”
The sailors all nodded, their earlier grousing forgotten in the face of this new threat.
Quellan helped the injured sailor to his feet. The wound in his belly was gone now, healed as if it had never been, but he was still a bit tentative as he rejoined his comrades. The cleric held out the spear. It was fairly short, maybe four and a half feet long, with a head of sharpened stone.
“Primitive,” Glori said.
“No less deadly for it,” Kosk noted.
“All right,” Sond said. “Make sure that fire goes out, the last thing we want is half the forest burning down right in front of us. Everyone else, back to work.”
Scattered rays of sunlight drifted down through the gaps in the forest canopy high above. It was almost noon, so those stray beams actually made it all the way down to where the companions were gathered. They sparkled on the rippling waters of a small pool fed by a tiny brook that any of them could have stepped over without straining. They had all refilled their water bottles, after Quellan had purified the water with a minor spell. Running water was usually safer than stagnant, but the half-orc had recited a long list of tropical diseases and parasites that made them all grateful for his intervention.
There was only a bit of muted conversation as the companions ate a quick meal and rested. They had gotten an early start that morning, setting out even before the sun had become visible over the rocky mass of the promontory that sheltered the narrow beach. The dawning glow had revealed that the remains of the Gull had sunk even lower in the water, the outline of the ship permanently shattered by the pounding surf. Sond had been organizing parties to row out to the ship to see if they could salvage larger timbers and other useful materials from the wreck.
Kosk stepped up on a low rock next to the edge of the pool and looked up at the sky above. It was the first time they’d seen the sky since they’d left the beach. The jungle formed a dense web of life around them. He wondered if they’d covered more than a handful of miles since they’d left the beach. Heck, it was likely only Rodan’s skill and instincts that kept them from walking in circles. Kosk had considered himself something of a woodsman in his past life, but his skills were not up to the challenges of this place.
“Nice to see the sun,” Kalasien said.
Kosk turned to look at the Arreshian agent. With the dwarf standing on the rock they were almost eye-to-eye. Kalasien had insisted on joining the rest of the original party on this first exploratory trek, though he’d ordered Elias to remain back at the camp as a salve to the fears of Sond’s crew. Though Kosk doubted how much difference one warrior would make if one of the horrors the captain had warned them of emerged from the jungle.
“It’s too bad that this place is so far from the beach,” Kalasien noted, gesturing to encapsulate the whole area around the pool. “And indefensible.”
“Too open to attack,” Kosk agreed. “At least at the beach there are those rocks.”
“A tactically sound position,” Kalasien said. “The tiefling still out scouting?”
“He said he was just going to check the next stretch of trail ahead.”
“That’s a generous word for it.”
“How long have you known him?” Kalasien asked.
Kosk looked along the shore of the pool where the others were resting. Bredan and Xeeta were sitting on a fallen log, talking quietly. Glori and Quellan were just a few feet away, the bard slumped against the mass of the cleric in exhaustion. She had it better than the men, as both of them had to be sweating rivers under the bulk of their heavy armor. But none of them had complained, which was to their credit as far as Kosk was concerned.
“Not especially long,” he said to Kalasien. He’d hardly shared ten words with the Arreshian spy since they’d set out from Severon, and he wondered why the man had decided to open up to him now. “From what Xeeta told us, they don’t exactly stick around to raise their offspring.”
The other nodded. “I should hope not. I’ve traveled a great deal, but I admit I haven’t encountered many tieflings. Strange, to have a demon or other fiend as a parent.”
“I suppose,” Kosk said.
“I do find it odd, though.”
“How he just happened to be plucked out of the air, transported halfway around the world, right to where we are. And now he’s a part of this mission.”
“He didn’t choose to be brought here,” Kosk said. “Unless you’re suggesting otherwise?”
“I don’t know enough to be sure either way. I just wanted to gauge your thoughts on the man. You strike me as a good judge of a man’s character, and you’ve known him longer than I.”
Kosk snorted again. “I say something funny?” Kalasien asked.
“Never mind. If you have evidence for why Rodan shouldn’t be trusted, then speak it clearly. Otherwise, I’d not bring this up again, at least not where Bredan or Xeeta can hear you. Both of them speak for Rodan, and that’s enough for me.”
Kalasien held his hands out in a placating gesture. “So noted. Ah, here he comes now.”
Kosk turned to see Rodan approaching out of the jungle. From the look on his face and the speed with which he was moving, he’d found something on his scout.
The two men came around the edge of the pool to meet him, but Bredan got to him first. “What is it?” the warrior asked.
“There’s a clearing up ahead, it’s not far,” Rodan reported. “There’s something moving around there, it could be more of those cat-people.”
“How many?” Glori asked, grimacing as she thrust herself to her feet.
Rodan shook his head. “I couldn’t get close enough to tell. Figured I’d better come get you first, in case it’s an ambush.”
“Wouldn’t be the first of those,” Quellan said. “Shall we, then?”
They quickly gathered up their gear and set out again, following Rodan back into the forest. Within five steps of leaving the clearing the growth swallowed them up again. Kosk thought back to Kalasien’s joke about the trail, or lack thereof. He had the hardest time due to his height; in most places he could barely see beyond the next person in line, let alone further along their route of march. He had dismissed the spy’s not-so-subtle innuendos, but now his mind could not help but whisper its own doubts. Why had Rodan insisted on joining the expedition, instead of returning to Voralis? Was his role in the cult only that of a victim, as he had insisted?
The dwarf finally shook his head and focused on bullying his way through the tangles of undergrowth. Letting his mind wander in this place was a good way to get killed.
Fortunately, the clearing that Rodan had spoken of was only a few hundred yards from the pool. They could see it as the jungle began to thin ahead, once again letting the full light of the day reach them. The clearing wasn’t that big, maybe fifty or sixty feet across, but it created an actual gap in the forest canopy, and the sunlight that reached its center was bright and whole rather than the scattered rays that had penetrated to the space around the pool.
The clearing was dominated by a single large tree on its far side. The tree was unusual; it looked as though it had started to grow upwards and then changed its mind. Parts of its branches had dropped down to burrow back into the soil around the central trunk. They formed a nest of columns that gave the whole the look of an enclosed hut or other structure.
“Aerial root system, how unusual,” Quellan noted.
“I think it would be better to focus on the potential ambush,” Xeeta said dryly.
“By the central trunk, on the right side,” Rodan said quietly. The tiefling had his bow out, an arrow fitted to the string.
They followed his direction and saw what had first looked like a clump of vines or some other outgrowth of the strange tree. But then it moved, and they could see that it was a creature of some sort. It might have been one of the cat-men, but it was difficult to see clearly, both because of the obstruction of the dangling roots and the fact that it was wrapped up in some sort of snare that suspended it a good four or five feet above the ground.
“It’s injured,” Quellan said. He started forward, but Glori grabbed his arm. “It could be a trap,” she said. “Rodan?”
The tiefling didn’t turn around; his attention had been focused on the tree and the surrounding forest since they’d arrived. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I suggest that the rest of you remain in cover here while I circle around.”
The trapped figure shifted again and made a soft, plaintive sound. “I can’t just stand here while an intelligent creature needs help,” Quellan said.
“All right, together then, but slowly and carefully,” Rodan said.
They rose up out of the brush and made their way carefully into the clearing. As the sunlight hit their faces they were acutely aware of how exposed they were. Quellan kept moving forward, however, forcing Rodan to advance a bit faster than he otherwise might have liked. The tiefling’s crimson skin seemed to glow in the bright light.
As they got closer, they could see that the creature hanging from the tree was in fact one of the cat-men. It was wrapped in some sort of rope harness that was wrapped around its legs and lower torso. It was watching them, but it was also clearly hurt; dried blood stained the ropes and the shredded remains of a fibrous wrap that it had worn as clothing. It didn’t appear to have any weapons on its person but there was a small spear lying on the ground close to where it hung.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Quellan said as he approached. The creature tried to move, but its struggles only caused it to sway slightly. Fresh drops of blood fell to the forest floor as its wounds were reopened. They could see now that the snare that had caught it included barbed hooks that had gotten embedded in its legs, inflicting a number of nasty injuries.
“That looks painful,” Xeeta said.
“Yeah, but who set the trap?” Kalasien said.
After a final look at Rodan, Quellan hurried forward. The cat-man tried to recoil but could not escape. “I will get you out of there,” the cleric said. “I can heal you, but first we have to get you down and get those hooks out of you. Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”
It was obvious that the creature did not understand him, but he kept speaking, trying to soothe it with his words. Either the cat-man realized it could not escape or the loss of blood was weakening it, for its struggles eased.
“Bredan, your dagger,” Quellan said.
Bredan started forward, but before he reached the creature they all heard something; a soft swish of something moving through the brush at the clearing’s edge. The companions instantly tensed and lifted their weapons.
A sound emerged from the bushes, a soft twittering trill. It was echoed a moment later by another from the opposite side of the clearing, on the far side of the tree. Then a third, back in the direction from which they’d come.
“We’re surrounded,” Kosk said.
“Defensive ring,” Bredan said, summoning his sword. Quellan remained by the imprisoned creature, so they gathered around him, forming a circle. Xeeta summoned mage armor, while Glori strummed an inspirational melody on her lyre, gathering its magic.
“There!” Kalasien said, pointing with his rapier. They all turned to see a blunt, reptilian head rise up out of the brush. It belonged to a creature that looked to be about as tall as a man, as it rose up on its hind legs. Its jaws cracked open to reveal the sharp teeth of a carnivore, and a certain animal cunning shone in the eyes that regarded the seven defenders.
“What is that thing?” Glori whispered.
“Some sort of dinosaur, I think,” Quellan said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that on Voralis.”
“There’s more of them around us,” Bredan said.
“Pack hunters, probably,” Quellan said.
“Is there any reason why we’re not killing that bastard right now?” Kosk asked.
“Maybe we can scare them off,” Bredan said. “Xeeta?”
The sorceress lifted her rod, but before she could summon her magic the thing let out a sharp bark, and half a dozen of the creatures burst out of the bushes and charged into the clearing.
The dinosaurs moved incredibly fast, closing the distance between them and their prey in just a few bounds, but the adventurers were ready.
Glori summoned the power of her magical lyre, evoking a wall of fire that erupted in a blazing arc across the center of the clearing. Two of the creatures shrieked and recoiled from the unexpected flames, while a third, too close to evade, leapt up and passed through it. It landed on the far side of the barrier, scorched but still alive.
On the other side, the creatures were too close for Xeeta to do the same without engulfing the tree and risking themselves in the process. Instead she fired off a series of scorching rays that pummeled one of the creatures until it fell to the ground. A second one leapt at her, but was intercepted by Bredan, who deflected it with a shield and then chopped it heavily with his sword. The creature stumbled to the ground, a deep gash in its left side pouring blood onto the ground, but it managed to recover enough to snap at the warrior with its jaws.
Another of the monsters sprang at Kalasien. He managed to stab it with his rapier, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from knocking him hard to the ground. It pinned him with a taloned claw and then snapped at his neck, but the Arreshian agent somehow was able to catch hold of its head and barely keep the powerful jaws at bay. It seemed impossible that he would be able to hold it off him for long, but Kosk intervened before the issue could be decided. He battered it in the side with his staff, then spun into a kick that cracked it in the skull. It stumbled to the side, freeing the trapped agent. Kalasien scrambled back as the dinosaur turned its rage upon the dwarf.
The first creature joined the fray last, darting between the fringe of dangling roots to join the furious melee. It seemed to be targeting Quellan, who stood in front of the helpless cat-man with his shield raised. But before it could get close enough to leap Rodan shot it with an arrow that burrowed deep into its chest. The creature shrieked and turned instead toward the tiefling. It covered the ten steps that separated them in a single bound, driving him to the ground. Its jaws snapped down at his unprotected face. Rodan got an arm up, but it seized hold of the limb in a powerful, crushing bite.
“Rodan!” Xeeta cried, but she could not immediately move to intervene as the creature that Glori has scorched rushed her.
But as the dinosaur’s savaged the tiefling’s arm, dripping streams of blood onto his face, a fire blazed in his eyes. The power that was part of his heritage exploded in response, engulfing the creature’s head in a wreath of blazing fire. The dinosaur screamed and jerked back, releasing its hold as it struggled to escape the hellish rebuke. It never even saw Quellan as the cleric came up from behind it and smashed its skull with a single blow from his mace.
The dinosaurs kept pressing their attack, but even their sheer ferocity could not overcome the magical and mundane power of the defenders. The two that Glori had blocked with the wall of fire persisted, circling around the barrier, but the bard was waiting for them. The first one spotted her and leapt at her, trying to bear her down, but it passed harmlessly through the illusion she’d created and landed in an awkward tangle in a heap of roots that had looked like clear ground just a moment before. The second one hesitated, suddenly suspicious as a fresh copy of the half-elf woman stepped into view and waved at it.
Xeeta gave ground as the scorched dinosaur harried her. It had been burned twice, once by Glori’s wall of fire and then again by a spray of burning hands she’d unleashed from her rod. The thing’s head was a blackened mess, but it kept coming, trying to get a hold on her so it could pull her to the ground and tear her to pieces. Thus far her mage armor had protected her, but she knew that it wouldn’t save her if it got a good grip.
Her foot hit an exposed root and she stumbled. The creature sensed it and lunged forward, but even as its jaws snapped open a brilliant arc of steel came chopping down into its neck. The dinosaur crumpled, its neck nearly severed by the powerful blow.
“Thanks,” Xeeta said to Bredan. “Looks like Glori needs some help.”
“I suspect she’s got it under control,” he said, but he lifted his sword and rushed over to where the bard had finally been chased down by her two foes. The dinosaurs had fought their way past her illusions and had her trapped against a particularly dense tangle of roots. They came at her from both sides at once, giving her no chance to slip away.
But Glori was not interested in escape; she merely waited until they were both within reach before she unleashed a thunderwave. Both dinosaurs were knocked backwards. One fell to the ground and did not get up, while the other managed to stagger into a swing of Bredan’s sword that put a decisive end to it.
That swing also marked an end to the battle. Kosk had finished his foe, and Quellan was already healing Rodan’s wounded arm.
“Is everyone all right?” Glori asked.
“Kalasien was knocked down,” Kosk said. Glori started toward him, but the agent shook his head. “Just a few minor scratches,” he said. “Save your healing, we may need it later.”
Bredan went over to Rodan. “You okay?”
The tiefling held up his arm and twisted it through a few exploratory motions. His bracer and the sleeve underneath were shredded and soaked with blood, but the damaged flesh had been restored by Quellan’s healing magic. “Not an experience I’d care to repeat, but I’m fine,” he said.
“Something new for your books,” Kosk said, prodding one of the bloody corpses with his staff.
“Later,” Quellan said, heading back to check on the imprisoned cat-man.
The creature had lost consciousness during the fight. With Bredan’s help, Quellan cut it free and gently lowered it to the ground. Concerned that it might not survive the removal of the barbs from the trap, he laid his hands upon its chest and summoned his magic. The blue glow of a cure wounds spell seeped into its body, and it stirred. Its eyes flashed with renewed pain as it looked up at him.
“Hold still,” Quellan said. “We still need to get those hooks out of you. Bredan, be ready to hold it if it starts to struggle.”
But the cat-man didn’t move; either it had realized they were not enemies, or it was too weak to resist. It flinched as Quellan drew out the hooks—they appeared to be made of some kind of horn or bone rather than metal—and tossed them aside. Once they were all out, he cast another cure wounds spell and the vicious gashes slowly sealed themselves. Now restored, the cat-man looked up at them warily.
“Now what?” Xeeta asked.
“If we keep it with us overnight, then you can use your spell to communicate with it,” Glori suggested.
“I don’t think that holding it prisoner is the best way to begin a relationship,” Quellan said. “If we set it free, it might communicate to its peers that we are not their enemies.”
“Or it could brief them about where we are and our abilities,” Kosk pointed out.
“Bredan?” Quellan asked.
The warrior blinked as if surprised to be asked, but after a moment he nodded. “Let it go,” he said.
Quellan stepped back, gesturing for the others to make some space. As soon as an opening appeared, the creature spun onto its feet and darted off. It vanished into the jungle undergrowth as rapidly as the dinosaurs had appeared.
“Well, that’s that,” Xeeta said.
“Rodan, can you tell anything about whoever set that trap?”
The tiefling examined the remains of the snare. “The materials may be primitive, but this is pretty sophisticated,” he said. “I got the impression that these cat-men are pretty good hunters. Even after the clash back at the camp I couldn’t find many tracks. Whoever set this trap knew what they were doing.”
For a moment they all stood there in silence, digesting the scout’s words. Finally, Glori said, “So should we turn back now?”
Once again, they all looked to Bredan. This time the warrior looked more prepared to accept that weight of responsibility. “A little further,” he said.
“A feeling?” Glori asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Well, we can go another hour or two and still make it back to the beach by nightfall,” Rodan said. “Not sure if anyone’s eager to spend the night out here.”
“I certainly don’t,” Glori said. “I had enough creepy forest for a lifetime in the Reserve.” She looked over at Kosk, who nodded in agreement.
Rodan led them out of the clearing and back into the jungle. He was especially alert now, looking for hints of additional traps. They found no trace of the cat-man or whoever had set the snare under the root-tree. They did find some of the tracks left by the dinosaurs, which was at least reassuring in that not every predator of the jungle was able to creep through its fastness utterly undetected. Rodan reported that the creatures had come from the west, deeper into the interior.
They continued south, for now intent on staying at least relatively close to the coastline. They occasionally caught glimpses of the sea when the land rose up or the ground grew rocky enough to thin out some of the jungle growth. The shore here seemed even more rugged than where the Gull had wrecked, if such a thing was possible.
Bredan was about to suggest that they turn back when they came to a low rise, punctuated by a crest of exposed rock. Rodan reached that crest and signaled to the others that he’d spotted something interesting.
They joined him to see that the slope on the far side of the rise descended to a sheltered cove or river mouth; they could not determine which from their vantage. The expanse of placid blue water extended for maybe four or five hundred feet before the jungle resumed on the far side. But more notable what was stood on the near shore, on a rocky shelf that extended almost to the water’s edge.
“Is that a building?” Glori asked.
“It might have been at one point,” Kosk said. “But it hasn’t been for a long time.”
The structure was in ruins, now little more than a foundation and the outline of some walls. The adventurers made their way toward it, still alert for an ambush or other hazard. But nothing stirred from within at their approach.
As they reached the place, they saw indications that there had been other, smaller buildings around the central ruin at one time. The decay was even more pronounced close up, and they could see where the jungle had clawed back its due, with greenery sprouting from even the smallest cracks in the stone.
They went inside, through an opening that looked like it had once held a wooden gate. The tallest remaining bits of wall did not even reach Kosk’s height, though there were a few that were slightly more intact on the other side, the side that faced the water.
“This might have been a fort of some sort,” Bredan suggested. “Look how thick the walls were.”
“Hard to blame them, after what we’ve seen of this continent’s residents,” Xeeta said.
“But who built it?” Glori asked.
None of them had an answer, so they continued to explore, spreading out a bit to conduct their search. There was nothing left other than the crumbling stone of the walls and floor, no artifacts or other clues as to what purpose the rooms they strode through might have served. They found a gaping pit choked with growth that Rodan said had probably been a cistern, and an exposed trough that might have once been part of a sewage system.
“Quellan, come take a look at this,” Kalasien called from one of the side-chambers along the western edge of the ruin.
The others followed the cleric over. At first glance it looked like the general decay had progressed further here, but the bits of stone debris scattered across the floor suggested that there might have been a collapse or breach here at some point. In any case, the feature that had drawn Kalasien’s attention was immediately evident.
“Oh, boy,” Glori said.
A cracked, uneven slab of stone sat in the center of the space, which from the remains of the interior walls might have once been a room about ten paces across. The initial purpose of the stone was as mysterious as the rest of the place, but in its current incarnation it functioned as a grim altar.
A collection of skulls had been placed upon the top of the stone, with an assortment of other bones arranged along its sides. The skulls varied in size from those of small birds to creatures that were twice the size of a man. Some appeared to be humanoid, but even a cursory look suggested that none had been even close to human.
“Someone’s been collecting,” Kosk said.
“Yeah, but who?” Glori asked, poking at one of the skulls with her sword.
Bredan had circled around to the far side of the slab. “Over here,” he said.
They all joined him and saw a small, square plaque of green-crusted metal embedded in the stone. Someone had carved markings in the slab around it, but they just looked like shallow gouges, not written language. But even in its current state they could see that there was writing embossed upon the plate.
“Bronze,” Quellan said. “From the looks of it, I’d say it’s hundreds of years old.”
“What language is that?” Glori asked.
The encrusted verdigris made it difficult to read the lettering, but after a few moments of close study Xeeta said, “Syvalian. It’s Syvalian.”
Quellan looked at Bredan. “Do you think?”
Bredan had felt the same surge of excitement, but he forced himself to keep his voice measured. “It’s not necessarily him,” he said.
“Who?” Kalasien asked. Bredan looked at him strangely, but before he could say anything a word from Rodan drew his attention back around. “Guys.”
The others turned around, the concern in the tiefling’s voice causing them to reach for their weapons. But there were no enemies stirring in the ruin or in the jungle behind it. Instead, they followed the scout’s raised eyes toward the northeast, back in the direction they had come.
The plume of black smoke rising up over the jungle was instantly visible.
The sun had already dipped behind the crest of the jungle canopy when the companions returned to the beach, so it was in deepening twilight that they explored a scene of destruction.
The fires that they had spotted from the Syvalian ruin had burned out, leaving just smoldering wreckage where the camp had been. Bredan walked through the debris, his sword resting on his shoulder, kicking over bits of charred wood that were half-buried in the sand.
“There was an explosion here,” he said. “And look at these gaps… someone took some of the supplies with them.”
“Magic-users?” Quellan asked. Bredan just shook his head; he had no way of knowing.
“There’s some blood, but not enough if the crew were all killed,” Glori said. “No bodies. It’s like Sond and her crew just… disappeared.”
“We know where they went,” Kalasien said. They all looked over to where Rodan was scouting along the forest’s edge. The tracks were obvious enough that all of them could see them, a channel cut through the sand and soft earth that connected the beachside camp with the forest beyond. Xeeta was with the scout, her rod at the ready as she covered him.
Kosk bent down and pulled up an object that had been buried in the sand. It was one of the crew’s crossbows. It had been roughly shattered. “It doesn’t look like they put up much of a fight,” he said.
They all gathered again as Rodan returned to present his report. “Who did this?” Glori asked. “The cat-men?”
“I don’t think so,” the tiefling said. “They were definitely humanoid, and big, larger even than Quellan. Their footprints were odd, three toes, taloned. A little bit like lizardfolk tracks, but not like the ones we have back in Voralis.”
“First cat-men, now lizard-men,” Kosk said. “Great.”
“How many?” Bredan asked.
“I’d say no more than two dozen,” Rodan said.
“So they didn’t outnumber the crew,” Kosk said.
“Most of them weren’t warriors,” Quellan pointed out.
“After the skirmish with the cat-men, they should have been expecting trouble,” the dwarf persisted.
“From the tracks, it looks like they approached along a broad arc of jungle, surrounding the camp before they moved in,” Rodan said.
“Is there any way of knowing how many of the crew survived?” Glori asked.
“I can’t be sure from the tracks, but based on the bloodstains I’d say they gave up fairly quickly,” Rodan said.
“Elias wouldn’t have yielded without a fight,” Glori said, glancing over at Kalasien. The agent was staring into the jungle as if he could penetrate its secrets through the sheer intensity of his gaze. “And Sond’s magic is fairly powerful.”
“They may have been taken by surprise,” Quellan said. “Or maybe the attackers were so overpowering that they had no choice but to surrender.”
“We won’t learn the answer standing here,” Kosk said.
“We do know that whoever took them, they’re dangerous,” Xeeta said.
“We can’t just leave Elias and the ship’s crew,” Glori said.
“I share your sentiment,” Xeeta said. “But they might be more than we can handle. For all we know there’s a whole city of these things somewhere in that jungle.”
“We don’t have a lot of options,” Glori pointed out. “There’s not much left of our supplies, and it’s hardly safe just to stay here.”
“Which way did they go?” Bredan asked.
“Northwest,” Rodan said. “They may have gone anywhere once they were in the jungle, of course, but they went northwest from here.”
“So we could possibly avoid them if we return to the south,” Kalasien said. “We have the bronze plaque, but there may be other clues about the Syvalian expedition and where they went.”
“Elias might be alive, Sond might be alive,” Quellan said. “Not to mention the rest of the crew. We owe it to them to help, if we can.”
Kalasien looked like he was going to say something, but Rodan cut him off with a raised hand. “Do you hear that?” he said.
They all were silent, and after a moment they did hear something over the sound of the surf rolling up into the cove. It was faint but distinct, a sound of footfalls scraping over bare rock.
They turned together toward the exposed rock of the promontory, weapons and spells at the ready. But the figure that came into view was too bedraggled and pathetic to be a threat. It was Kavek, the sailor from Sond’s crew who had narrowly escaped being killed by the giant crocodiles on the island where they’d put in for repairs.
On seeing their raised weapons, the sailor threw up his hands. “Don’t shoot! It’s just me!”
“That guy has too much luck for his own good,” Kosk said as the sailor scrambled down over the last stretch of rocks and made his way over to where the companions were gathered.
“Thank the gods!” Kavek said. “I was starting to think that maybe they’d gotten you too.”
“Who did this?” Glori said.
“Dragon-men. Really and true! They were huge, seven feet tall at least, very strong. They were everywhere… dozens of them.”
“How did you manage to escape?” Kalasien asked.
Kavek blinked at the Arreshian agent. “I ran away. I was… I wasn’t at the camp when they attacked. I was over in the rocks, looking for food. I heard this huge ruckus… I came over the rocks and saw those things everywhere! The others were already throwing down their arms, there was nothing I could do.”
“Did you see Sond, or Elias?” Glori asked.
Kavek shook his head. “I didn’t get a chance to get a good look. One of them saw me, and I had to run for my life. I hid in one of the deeper pools, they didn’t think to look there. When I came out, they were gone. They took most of the supplies and burned the rest.”
“Did you see where they went?” Xeeta asked.
“No. Back into the jungle. I saw tracks, but I wasn’t going to go in there alone!”
“So they didn’t leave anyone behind to keep an eye out,” Kosk said.
“Not that I saw,” Kavek said.
“If they did, they could be fifty feet away and we’d never see them,” Rodan said. “The jungle’s just too thick, and there are too many places to hide.”
The others turned their gazes toward that dark green expanse, which had taken on a suddenly malevolent air.
“At least now we know what we’re up against,” Kalasien said. “The question still remains, what do we do next?”
“Either way, we’re not going to get there tonight,” Kosk said. “Even I’m not crazy enough to try to follow those things at night, and we all need rest, especially the spell-casters.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to camp here?” Xeeta asked.
“I don’t think anyplace is safe here,” Rodan said. “But there are some places up in the rocks where we can shelter for the night. If Kavek could hide there, so can we. If anyone, lizards or cats or something even worse shows up, we can make it hard for them at least.”
“And in the morning?” Kosk asked.
Bredan lowered his hand, letting his sword blink back to wherever it went when he wasn’t using it. He’d spoken with Quellan about it, but still didn’t have a very clear idea of how it or his other abilities functioned. But the power was clear in his voice as he said, “We don’t leave our people behind.”
Galendra’s head was throbbing. She could still taste the iron tang of blood, though it was somewhat overpowered by the rank flavor of the gag pulled painfully tight across her mouth. Her arms were tied behind her back, and her shoulders felt as though someone had jabbed hot needles into them. But even her lengthy litany of hurts paled against the uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to the rest of her crew.
The enemy had come upon them by surprise. They moved stealthily despite their size, their clawed feet making barely a whisper as they had materialized out of the jungle and atop the rocks that formed a backdrop to their camp. By the time someone had shouted several of her people were already down, tangled in nets or knocked senseless by blows from knobby clubs as tall as she was.
The creatures had ignored her at first, perhaps not considering her a threat due to her size, or maybe even thinking her a child. The things were fearsome, their muscled bodies covered in dull scales tinted in shades of black and green. Their faces were monstrous and reptilian, with feral expressions that she could tell showed pleasure in their task as they subdued her crew.
She saw three of them surround Elias, who had his sword out but was clearly outmatched. Without thinking she’d summoned her power, the magic that had been a part of her ever since she’d first began to experience the transition to adulthood. Careful not to catch the struggling warrior in the blast, she unleashed a lightning bolt.
The spell had been effective—too effective, she thought wryly. She’d hit several of the creatures, but the bolt had continued into their camp, hitting one of the stacks of crates piled there. Her face still burned at the thought of it; it was lucky that she hadn’t killed one or more of her men with her foolishness. In the end it hadn’t even accomplished much; none of the creatures she’d hit had fallen, and within moments something hard had hit her from behind, knocking her unconscious. You didn’t even try to evade, she berated herself. You acted like a raw deckhand.
She’d come to briefly on the trail. Her first thought had been that she was back on the Golden Gull; it had felt like she was floating. But then memory came flooding back in on a wave of pain, and she remembered what had happened. Someone was carrying her, and it wasn’t one of her people.
She’d tried to lift her head, to look around, to catch sight of any of her crew or any hint of their surroundings. But apparently even those feeble movements had been enough to alert her captor. She was shaken, roughly, and in her diminished state that had been enough for consciousness to flee once more.
When she finally woke up again, she’d been here.
It still wasn’t quite clear where “here” was, but she presumed it was in the camp of the reptile-men. She was inside a cage of wooden bars within some sort of simple hut or similar structure. There were cracks in the walls but they let in only the faintest light, suggesting that maybe night had fallen. A thick oily scent tinged with just a hint of rot hung over everything. She found that she was ravenously hungry despite that, and her throat felt as if it had been packed with fluffy balls of cotton.
Gingerly, she tried to move, but even the slightest shift caused waves of nausea and pain to surge through her. She gave up and focused instead on breathing slowly through her nose.
A few minutes passed. Galendra sank into a sort of fugue state, but stirred from it when she heard the distinctive sounds of someone—or someones—approaching. She hadn’t spotted a door in her brief examination of the hut, but a flap of heavy fabric swung aside to allow two figures to enter.
Even in the bad light she had no difficulty identifying them as members of the same race that had attacked their camp. Galendra remained still as they came over to the cage. One fiddled with the restraints that held it closed—it looked like just a few strips of leather, she noted—and then lifted her out.
She forced herself to remain quiet and calm as they carried her out, feigning unconsciousness while covertly scanning their surroundings. They were somewhere in the jungle, but the area had been cleared enough to make room for dozens of assorted structures. A handful of torches and crude oil lamps pushed back the surrounding night enough for her to make out a few details. Her heart sank as she spotted dozens of the reptile-men, almost all of them armed with clubs or spears. What she didn’t see was any sign of her crew, or where the creatures might be holding them.
Her captors carried her toward a particularly large wooden structure that appeared to be their destination. It had a peaked roof, and mounted across the front was an alarming sculpture made of wicker and bone. Galendra almost betrayed herself as she looked up at the thing. It was a dragon, its broad “wings” stretching almost from one edge of the roof to the other, its head a bleached skull that hung from the highest point. She thought that she could have walked into its open jaws without ducking.
The dragon-hut was perched atop stilts that lifted it about five feet above the forest floor. Her captors carried her up a short flight of steps to another door made out of woven fronds. The one holding her growled something. After a moment an answering growl came from within, and the other creature pushed the door open.
The interior of the hut appeared to be a single large room, although curtains hanging from the rafters partitioned parts of the back into side-chambers. Galendra could only make out vague details, as a metal brazier in the center of the room holding glowing coals was the only light. But it was enough for her to see the creature that ruled here.
The dragonborn was seated in a throne that rose more than halfway to the peaked roof above. Even seated it was imposing; Galendra doubted that she would have come to its knee. Its coloration was somewhat different than that of the guards, its scales a dull red that gleamed like gemstones in the ruddy light of the brazier. A massive stone war-axe rested against the side of the throne, within its easy reach.
The creature’s appearance was so impressive that Galendra failed to notice the giant lizard lying next to the throne until it lurched up and shot its forked tongue out, tasting the air. She started in surprise, ending her ruse. Not that it mattered at this point, she thought.
The reptilian chief gestured, and a figure maybe half its size shuffled forward out of the shadows. This one was one of the green creatures, but despite its alien features she could instantly tell that it was old, perhaps ancient. It was draped in an odd robe fashioned of vertical strips of fabric, with copper bangles around its wrists and neck that clinked together softly as it moved. Its hide was spotted and when it opened its mouth she could see that most of its teeth were missing, but it fixed her with an intense look that swallowed up her attention. It spoke, but she could not understand what it was saying. She felt something stirring in her mind and tried to turn away, to break the connection, but with the guard still holding her she could not even move her head.
Then it spoke again, but this time she could understand its words. It felt almost like it was whispering in her mind, the words she heard not matching the movements of its lips.
A magic spell, she realized.
“Do you understand me, creature?” it asked.
Galendra tried to say something, only to remember the gag. She nodded.
The dragonman priest came a step closer. “I will now remove your gag. If you speak a word of magic, one of your people will be brought her and flayed before your eyes. Do you grasp the meaning of this? Its skin will be removed—slowly—while you watch.”
Galendra felt the gorge threaten to rise in her throat, but she met the loathsome creature’s eyes and nodded.
The priest removed her gag. Galendra gasped in relief, accepting the pain the movement cost her. “Where are my crew?” she asked.
The chief barked something. The priest said, “They are alive, for now. You are their leader?”
“I am their captain.”
“It is common among your kind for the smallest and weakest among you to lead?”
“Ask the ones I blasted if they found me weak,” she said.
The priest spoke to the chief, obviously relaying her words in its language. The look the chief gave her showed its doubts, but it said something else and the priest asked, “Why have you come here?”
“My ship was caught in a storm and blown off course,” she said. “We suffered damage and were wrecked on the shore where you found us.”
After another exchange with the chief the priest asked, “You say that your coming here… it is an accident?”
“Go look at the wreck of my ship if you don’t believe me.”
Another exchange followed, this one slightly longer. “We know of your people to the south,” the priest said. “And your visits to these lands in the past. We know that your people covet these lands.”
“That was centuries ago,” Galendra said. “As I said, we did not mean to come here.”
“You ally with the tabaxi?”
“I do not know what that is.”
The chief spoke before the priest could translate, suggesting either that he knew more than he let on, or he could read her answers in her manner. Either way, it told her not to underestimate him. “The tabaxi were spotted near your camp, before our arrival.”
“The cat-men? They attacked us too,” she said. “We drove them off.”
“Tell me about the others. The ones who went into the jungle.”
“They went into the jungle to scout. To look for fresh water, and food.”
“And to seek the old fort of your people, the ones who came before.”
Galendra shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The priest leaned in closer, close enough that she could see the smoky film that clouded its eyes. “Your words are like snakes creeping in the mud.”
“I’ve told you the truth. If your magic can translate my language, then surely it can tell you that as well.”
The priest did not bother passing that on to the chief. Instead he reached up and pressed a stubby claw against her forehead. “Know this, little creature,” it said. “You have trespassed here. Your kind are not welcome in these lands. You and yours belong to us, now. When the Great One summons you again, you will answer our questions.”
“I want to see my men,” Galendra said.
“What you want is of no concern,” the priest said. “Understand me now. The Great One’s favor will determine whether you and your people serve him as slaves… or are served to him at the upcoming feast.”
Galendra’s face twisted with revulsion, and the aged creature let out a hissing laugh. He made a gesture, and the guards replaced her gag before she could say anything else. Her struggles were useless as they carried her back out into the night.
Morning brought with it a sharp wind that blew in off the ocean, swirling through the jungle and causing the dense greenery to sway as it passed through. Gray clouds streamed ashore to the south, though it looked as though they would not come close enough to threaten the expedition as it set out in pursuit of the creatures that had captured the survivors of the Gull’s crew.
The companions made their way single-file through the jungle, though they remained close enough to offer reassurance against its unseen dangers. Rodan took the lead, staying far enough ahead that he might detect a threat before the loud trudging of Quellan and Bredan reached it. It seemed a foolish hope; to the tiefling’s ears, the sounds made by the others sounded only incrementally quieter than a herd of elephants. Glori and Xeeta remained near the center of the line, ready to unleash their spells against an adversary that threatened the group. Kavek brought up the rear, the sailor tightly clutching a dagger loaned by Glori.
They had no difficulty following the trail. The dragon-men might know their way through the forest—the longer he followed, the more Rodan respected their woods-lore—but the prisoners they had brought clearly had no such skills. They kept their eyes open for things that they might have dropped, or other signs left behind to help guide pursuers. They didn’t find anything like that, but they found plenty of bloodstains, as well as places where heavy burdens had been dropped or shifted.
“It looks like they had a rough time of it,” Glori said as they examined one such spot where the surrounding jungle had been matted down. She pointed to a broad leaf that was spotted with tiny points of red.
“Let’s just hope that’s from the bodies they were carrying,” Quellan said.
“It does not bode well that they made them bring their dead with them,” Kalasien said.
None of them wanted to ponder the significance of that thought, but it became inescapable just a short while later. Rodan had paused along the trail, staring into a small depression that had formed between two large trees that had grown almost together.
“What is it?” Bredan asked. He didn’t wait for a response, but came forward to take a look.
The warrior had come a long way, seen a lot of things since leaving Crosspath, but he still grew pale as he looked into the dell. He stared until he heard Glori and Xeeta coming up, then he quickly turned and moved to block them.
“What…” Glori began.
“You don’t want to see that,” Bredan said, shaking his head.
Quellan came up with Kosk and took a look. The cleric briefly went forward into the dell, and came up a minute later with a grim expression on his face. “There were two of them,” he said. “I believe they were killed in the attack on the camp.”
“I hope they were already dead when the dragon-men decided to stop for dinner,” Kosk said. “I imagine it had quite an effect in terms of motivating the rest of their prisoners to cooperate.”
“How far behind are we?” Bredan asked.
“They came through here yesterday, probably before nightfall,” Rodan said. “We probably won’t catch them before they get to where they’re going.”
Bredan nodded. He’d already thought as much. “Let’s get moving,” he said. “I don’t want to linger here.”
They pressed on, their mood darkened by the grim discovery. At the few places where they came to a breach in the jungle canopy, they saw that the sky had become overcast, making it difficult to tell how far the day had progressed. Quellan had reserved a portion of his spells to create water for them, relieving them of the need to search out fresh sources, but they had already encountered several streams along their course of march. Most of those were small enough to step over, but they were still wary of any local wildlife that might be stopping by for a drink.
They came to another waterway a few hundred yards after their encounter with the victims of the dragon-men. This one was a stream that had worried out a shallow gully about twenty feet across. At the moment, however, the softly gurgling brook was only about four feet across.
“Good thing we didn’t come during the rainy season,” Glori said.
Rodan had started forward toward the stream but came to a sudden halt. “What is it?” Bredan asked.
“We’re not alone,” the tiefling said.
The others all reached for the weapons. “Dragon-men?” Quellan asked.
“I don’t think so,” Rodan said. “They wanted us to know they’re here.”
“Who?” Glori asked.
As if in response, the growth on the far side of the gully stirred, and a figure stepped out into view. It was one of the cat-men. Its coat was a deep brown tinged with gray. It wore a sort of wrap with a leather harness that carried several spears across its back. A wooden spear-thrower that could have doubled as a club in a pinch hung from a throng at its side. It held up hands that were empty, but the gesture also highlighted the slightly-curved claws that tipped its fingers.
“Nobody make any threatening moves,” Quellan said.
“It’s not alone,” Rodan said, careful to keep his bow at his side.
Bredan stepped forward, almost to the edge of the stream. The cat-man didn’t react, but there were faint rustles all along the far rim of the gully, enough to suggest that the creatures at least matched the companions in terms of numbers. “Careful,” Glori whispered.
“We mean you no harm,” Bredan said. He held up his hands in an echo of the creature’s gesture. “We are looking for some of our people who were taken prisoner. Do you understand?”
The cat-man regarded Bredan for a long moment. Then its lips drew back and it hissed, “Mrrrhrrr, rawrrr.”
The bushes shifted again, and a second cat-man came into view. This one was slightly smaller and darker than the first, but more notable were the obvious scars that covered its legs and lower torso.
“That’s the one we helped out of the trap!” Glori said.
“It looks quite recovered,” Kosk said.
The new arrival came up next to the first. The bigger one growled something, and pointed to the companions. The other one growled back.
“Quellan, can you use your magic to understand them?” Glori asked.
“That spell is within my abilities, but I do not have it prepared at the moment,” the cleric said.
“I’m not sure they’re going to sit here and wait for morning,” Kosk said.
“We don’t have time to wait,” Bredan said. He trudged forward through the stream and approached the two cats. Both tensed slightly, but the armed one made an obvious effort not to reach for its weapons. But they could all sense a slight stirring within the undergrowth.
Bredan came to a stop a pace away from the larger cat, which he gauged to be the leader. “I am Bredan,” he said. “Bredan,” he repeated, tapping his chest.
The cat watched him closely but did not otherwise respond.
“It is difficult to communicate meaning via pantomime,” Kalasien said.
“Perhaps that might not be necessary,” Quellan said. “Glori. Your illusions.”
The bard nodded and took up her lyre, careful to move slowly so as not to provoke the watching cats. She began to play, a soft melody that seemed to drift up into the forest canopy above.
Shapes of light began to take on form above the waters of the stream. They took on solidity, forming an image of the Golden Gull. The two cats watched, seemingly entranced, as Glori used her minor illusion cantrip to show a series of scenes, from the wreck of the ship and the subsequent landing to the attack on the camp and the capture of the crew. The dragon-men were a bit abstract, since Glori had only Kavek’s descriptions to go off of, but the cats clearly got the idea; both hissed when they saw them.
When the illusion finally faded, Bredan made a gesture toward the tracks in the muddy ground around the stream, then pointed toward the forest. His expression made his intent unmistakable.
The lead cat looked at him for a long moment. Then it reached out and pointed a claw toward the warrior’s chest. “Breh-dan,” it said.
“Bredan,” he echoed.
The cat pointed toward its own chest. “Mrr-ikk,” it said.
“Looks like we’ve made some new friends,” Quellan said.
“Or at least someone who’s not going to immediately try to kill us,” Xeeta qualified.
Sometime in the recent past, a local calamity had toppled one of the ancient giants of the forest. The tree had sagged into the grasp of several of its neighbors, forming an awkward ramp slick with clinging vines and damp lichens.
The violent death of the tree had torn up its roots, leaving behind a muddy hollow. Fresh growth had already begun to reclaim that space, but it sufficed as a shelter for Bredan and his companions, both new and old.
The warrior kept shifting his gaze from the cats standing along the edge of the hollow and the scene at its center. Quellan was kneeling there, heedless of the mud that slicked his steel armor. His shield and mace were laid carefully at his side, within easy reach. Glori was crouched next to him, but the cleric seemed completely unaware of his surroundings, with his eyes closed and his lips moving slightly.
Bredan looked back over at the cats. Mrrik and Graaka, the cat they had recused from the trap at the root-tree, were paying close heed to the priest’s spell-ritual. The other four were spread out in the surrounding jungle, keeping watch. Bredan couldn’t help but crack a smile at the thought of them. They were the entirety of Mrrik’s force; the rustling that the companions had sensed back at the meeting along the stream had been a ruse to suggest a much larger group. It was a reminder that for all their apparently primitive nature, the cat-men should not be underestimated.
More evidence for that was visible in front of the cleric. There was a map there, sculpted in the mud of the hollow. It showed the camp of the dragon-men to a surprising level of detail, down to tiny huts fashioned out of leaves and twigs. The cats had created it in a matter of minutes.
The cat-men had also proven their worth in other ways. They had already led them past several traps, including a pair of deadfalls that would have created quite a bit of noise had they been triggered. They hadn’t seen any sentries yet, but Bredan had no doubt that the cats would have warned them if there had been any along their route of approach. Mrrik had taken them on a roundabout route to this point, gesturing to indicate that they were getting close when they stopped here to make their plans.
Quellan finally came out of his fugue and blinked. “Did you find them?” Glori asked.
The cleric nodded. “I found them.”
He described what he had seen through his arcane eye. As he spoke, Glori strummed her lyre, conjuring another minor illusion to place the features he mentioned on the map. Mrrik and Graaka had accepted the workings of the spell—the latter cat had earlier touched the figures, confirming that they were not real—and leaned in to get a better look as the blank canvas of the map took on added levels of detail. Bredan took a step closer so he could look over their shoulders.
What he saw was not encouraging.
“So, there’s an outer ring of four sentries, and then pairs stationed along the inner perimeter here, here, and here,” Kosk said. Quellan nodded in confirmation. “How many altogether in the camp, would you say?”
“A few hundred, at least,” Quellan said.
“That’s not good,” Xeeta said.
“Not all of them appeared to be warriors,” the cleric amended. “But most carried at least something that could be used as a weapon.”
“Can’t blame them for being vigilant, not after what we’ve already seen in this place,” Kosk noted.
“And the sailors are being held there?” Bredan asked, pointing to a complex of pens that had materialized near the center of the settlement. Glori had crafted her illusion with such fealty that he could even make out tiny hands clutching the bars.
“I saw about a dozen being held there,” Quellan said.
Mrrik growled something. When they looked up, he pointed to his chest, and then the slave pens. “I think he’s asking if there are any of his people being held there,” Glori asked.
Quellan nodded. “I only saw a few, but yes,” he said. “They were being kept separate from the humans.”
Glori modified the illusion, placing a handful of cats into one of the pens. The cat made a feral noise and drew back its lips to reveal pointed teeth.
“We’ll get them out,” Bredan said. He waved to get Mrrik’s attention, then made a gesture to the pens, snapping his hands together to simulate breaking bars. “We’ll get them out.”
“What about Sond?” Glori asked.
“I didn’t see her,” Quellan said. He pointed to one of the huts off to the side of the main cluster. “But that hut there is being guarded. She could be inside.”
Glori strummed, and a sentry shimmered into being in front of the hut.
“What about this place,” Kosk said, pointing with his staff toward the large hut in the center. Mrrik had clearly given the spot emphasis in the design of his map, and his model showed it to be at least twice the size of the surrounding structures.
The cat leader matched Kosk’s gesture, pointing at it with his spear-thrower. “Natak,” he said.
“Natak?” Kosk asked. “That some kind of dragon boss?”
The cat man spread his arms and puffed up his shoulders. “Natak.” He twisted his face into a harsh and obviously hostile expression. He feigned swinging his thrower down in a violent arc. “Natak.”
“Okay, obviously someone we’d prefer not to meet,” Glori said.
“We may not have a choice,” Xeeta said. “There’s no way we’re going to get in there unobserved, let alone get the sailors and Mrrik’s people out.”
“We’ll need to split up,” Kosk said. “It’s the only way. One force to cause a distraction, while the other sneaks in to break our guys out.”
“Risky,” Glori said. “These dragon-men are clearly bad news. With hundreds of them in there, either force could get overwhelmed before the other could come to help.”
“It’s a good plan,” Rodan said. “Given a big enough distraction, I could probably get to those cages unseen.”
“The cats can go with you,” Glori said. “They are obviously good at stealth.”
“Xeeta, you should go with the sneak force as well,” Kosk said.
“I think my spells can be of more use to the distraction group,” Xeeta said.
“Glori can fulfill that role,” the dwarf said. “Obviously Bredan and Quellan won’t be sneaking in, and Rodan might need some firepower to cover the escape.”
“You can use your necklace to look like one of them,” Quellan suggested. “Might help you get in, maybe cause some confusion.”
“I can use my magic to help cover our escape,” Glori said. “Assuming a wall of fire gives them pause.”
“Okay, we hit them hard, draw them off, then circle back around the rejoin the others,” Bredan said.
“Lot of things that could go wrong,” Kalasien said.
“Yeah, there always are,” Kosk said. “But I’ve planned a few raids in my day. This may be our best chance.”
“Glori, show the cats the plan,” Bredan said.
Glori conjured up another illusion, this time showing the two-pronged attack on the dragon-men’s camp. Mrrik watched intently as the scenario played out. To Bredan it was like some kind of game, with the illusory figures representing pieces moving back and forth acros the board. But he knew only too well that those pieces represented his friends, and fragile flesh and blood.
The cat absorbed the scene, then pointed to Glori and growled a command.
“I think he wants you to do it again, Glori,” Quellan said.
Glori repeated the illusion. This time the cat suggested a change; he pointed to his chest, and then at the distraction force. Graaka said something, a query, but the larger cat shook his head and pointed again at the tiny figures approaching the side of the camp opposite the slave pens.
“What’s that about, do you think?” Xeeta whispered to Bredan.
“I don’t know, but I agree that we should have at least one of the cats with us,” he said. “They know this jungle a heck of a lot better than we do.”
Glori made the change, and Mrrik hissed in approval. He gestured with his spear thrower, plotting two courses out from the sides of the dragon-man camp that met up at an exposed root a few feet away.
“A rendezvous point,” Kosk noted.
“We’d better do everything we can to keep at least some of them alive,” Rodan said. “We’ll have a lot harder time linking up again without their guidance.”
“I’d like to focus on keeping all of us alive,” Xeeta said.
“All right,” Bredan said. “It sounds like we have plan. Let’s do it while we still have daylight.”
“Be careful,” Xeeta said to Bredan. “All of you.”
“We’ll keep them busy,” Glori said. “Just get our people out of there.”
The two groups separated, with Rodan and Xeeta heading over to join the cats. Mrrik and Graaka engaged in a quiet discussion next to the trunk of the tree.
Kalasien came to Bredan as he watched the exchange. “You know that they’re just using us to get their own people out of that camp,” the agent said.
Bredan looked at him and shrugged. “What does it matter?” he asked. “We need their help.” He let out a tired sigh. “I understand what you’re saying. We’ve only just met these creatures, and we’ve already had one armed clash with them. But thus far, they seem a heck of a lot better than those dragon-men. So for now, we have no choice but to trust them.”
The young black snapped the butt of his spear against the ground as he walked, expressing his displeasure with each loud crack of the weapon. It was a gesture of pique and he hated himself for that, and for the fact that he’d only started doing it when he was outside of the central ring of huts that made up the core of the village.
The breeze was following him as he departed, and so he could still smell the tantalizing scents of the feast that was being prepared. It was not fair. First he had missed the raid, and now he was going to miss the feast celebrating the unexpected bounty. He’d only gotten a brief look at the creatures the hunters had brought back—so hideous looking, like hairless tabaxi! But they’d had great riches with them, weapons and tools made of metal, strange garments, and other things that had been claimed by Natakaskinderoth himself. Draz hadn’t seen those things, of course, but the rumor mill was already churning. There was even a report that the leader of the pink-skinned things was a tiny imp who possessed powerful magic.
Draz’s expression soured further as he saw who was at the outpost. Zharasavakkar saw him approaching and tapped his brother, Zhavekadranas, on the arm. Zhavek had a new dagger displayed prominently on his belt, his share of the riches won on the raid. The big green noted his attention and grinned as he tapped the hilt of the weapon.
“Too bad you missed the raid, Draz,” Zhavek said. “A rich haul, rich indeed.”
“And now you are going to miss the feast,” Zharas added. “Such misfortune.”
The two greens let out a hooting cackle that was only about their tenth most annoying feature, as far as Draz was concerned. He shouldered his spear and started past them, but Zhavek said, “Hey, Draz. Don’t be sour. Here, I saved you something from the raid.” Draz stopped as the green produced something from his hunting pouch.
“What is it?”
Zhavek grinned. “One of them was wearing it on its foot. Go ahead, take it! See if it fits!”
The two greens laughed, but Draz took the item. The awkward thing could not possibly fit him, of course, but the leather-work was quite good; he could maybe make it into an arm-wrap or a pouch.
Zhavek’s mirth faded a bit as he realized that Draz intended to keep the joke-gift. “Go on,” he said. “Shrevak will be happy to see you. I know he’s eager to be back in time for the feast.”
“I wonder how those things taste,” Zharas said.
“Hopefully better than they look!” Zhavek said.
The two laughed again. “Go on then, kinless,” Zharas said.
Draz had started to turn away but froze, then slowly turned back. Zhavek seemed to have realized they’d gone too far, for he touched his brother on the arm and then shifted his hand to rest on the handle of his new knife. Their wariness was unnecessary, as all of them knew that Draz would earn far worse if he brawled while on guard duty, but the moment of tension stretched out nevertheless.
Finally Draz relaxed and showed his teeth. “Perhaps I will see you again, after the feast, Zharas,” he said.
The green recovered quickly, but there was something forced in his laughter. The two resumed their banter as Draz started ahead toward the far sentry post where he would spend the entirety of the feast on watch-duty.
But Draz had only gotten a few steps away when he came to a sudden stop. He stood there, holding his spear, trying to discern what had alerted him. He was young, the veteran of only a handful of hunts, but he had the instincts of his ancestors, a race of apex predators. The jungle quickly grew thick beyond the edge of the village, so he couldn’t see anything beyond about a dozen steps, let alone all the way out to the sentry post.
The greens had started bickering over something and didn’t even notice that he was still there. Draz toned them out, focusing his senses on the forest.
Despite his concentration, he still started a bit in surprise when the creature emerged from behind a tree a scant fifteen steps ahead.
It was instantly obvious that the thing was another of the hairless beings that the hunters had captured in the raid. He had no idea where this one had come from, or how it had gotten past Shrevakalosar. It truly was hideous, with pale skin lacking both scales and color. It was small and thin and looked almost frail. It had something in its hands, and as it lifted it Draz tensed and raised his spear. But the object didn’t look like a weapon; it resembled a tabour, of all things. That similarity was confirmed a moment later as the creature ran its fingers across the front of the object and a stream of music came out.
The melody was haunting, even beautiful, but Draz barely heard it before a wave of pure and utter terror came over him. He let out a scream and ran back toward the village. The green brothers stared at him in utter shock, but he hardly noticed them; all he could feel was his fear and the urge to get away.
The terror didn’t begin to ease until he was back at the edge of the village. He could now hear the signal horns, and as he came to a stop the echoing call of the war drums summoning the tribe to fight. As the fear ebbed it was replaced with a massive sense of shame. He didn’t even have his spear; he must have dropped it as he fled.
Hunters were emerging from the outer huts, armed with hastily-grabbed spears, war clubs, and axes. Most were blacks, with a few greens from the inner huts beginning to join them. One of the former stopped him and called out a question: what was the threat? Draz couldn’t speak, he just shook his head. He fell in with the hunters as they made their way back toward the outpost he had left just moments before. One of them saw that he was weaponless and offered him a light throwing spear. Draz took it with a bark of thanks.
As they approached the outpost he didn’t see either of the green brothers, but the jungle was a scene of major confusion. It looked like there was some fighting over by the northern outpost, but he couldn’t clearly make out anything through the dense growth. Some of the hunters with him headed in that direction. More were coming from the village, but Draz didn’t see any sign of Natakaskinderoth. The drums continued to pound, their deep pulsing beat like a throbbing within Draz’s skull.
One of the blacks in front of him suddenly staggered and nearly fell. As he turned, Draz saw that there was a tiny spear with a feathered end sticking out of his shoulder. He turned and saw enemies moving in the jungle to his right, not thirty steps distant. He recognized the fast-moving outlines of tabaxi, but then his jaw dropped as he saw a bulky figure, almost as large as he was, clad in what looked like a coat of metal. As he moved through the jungle stray beams of sunlight struck the plates, causing them to blaze brightly.
Draz belatedly opened his mouth to shout a warning, but several others had already spotted the new threat and were turning to face it. Half a dozen hunters charged forward into the brush, only to suddenly freeze and then scatter in every direction, screaming. Draz felt a cold feeling clutch at his gut in memory. He scanned the nearby jungle and finally spotted the creature with the tabour.
A huntleader had joined the group at some point during their approach, and barked a command. Draz lifted his spear, but hesitated. He did not want to admit that he was afraid of drawing the creature’s attention, but there was no denying that it was true.
But there were plenty of other hunters who obeyed the command and hurled their spears. But even as the barrage of missiles was unleashed the strange creature was playing its instrument again. The air between the two groups began to shimmer, and Draz heard a deep rushing roar. As the spears hit that disturbance they were caught and flung high into the air. They vanished into the jungle harmlessly. Not a single one had come anywhere near its target.
The huntleader was shouting new commands, urging them forward. Draz saw that he wasn’t the only one hesitating this time. He heard a loud bellow behind him and almost sagged with relief.
He glanced back to see one of the hukkar surging toward them. The hulking red wore fresh graa-markings upon his crest, a warning to both friends and foes that he had embraced the blood rage triggered by the ritual plant. He carried a huge axe in both hands, sweeping it back and forth as though it was a bamboo switch. Draz was only too happy to get out of his way. He crouched low as the berserker rushed past, careful to present nothing that could be interpreted as a threat or challenge to the red’s drug-addled mind.
Once the red was clear Draz rose up again. He hefted his throwing-spear so it looked like he was doing something, but he knew that it would only be a waste of his weapon to attempt a throw while the barrier of rushing winds was in effect.
The hukkar did not hesitate, plunging through the barrier. For a moment Draz though that he too would be thrown up into the air, but the hulking red’s bulk carried him through with just a slight hitch in his stride. Draz couldn’t see the metal-clad creature, but another foe had stepped forward to face the raging berserker. This one also wore metal, though it was of a different sort, a flowing garment that clung to the outlines of his form. It was so amazing that Draz didn’t at first notice his weapon, a straight bar of metal that was almost as big as the hukkar’s axe.
The red shrieked a challenge and rushed forward at his foe. The creature held its ground, itself an impressive feat with that berserk hulk charging toward it. It moved well, avoiding the first massive swing of the axe and then swinging its weapon in an arc that bit into the hukkar’s hide and unleashed a spray of blood that Draz could see clearly even from more than thirty paces away.
But he doubted that the metal-clad warrior knew that by claiming first blood, it would drive the hukkar into a frenzy.
Draz could only watch spellbound as the two foes engaged in a wild melee. There was other fighting going on around them, the strange warrior’s friends fighting with some of the hunters that had braved the wind-barrier, but those battles seemed to fade into the background as the two titans exchanged blows. At first it seemed as though there was no way that the smaller creature could withstand the hukkar’s rage, but somehow it did. At one point it avoided a swing that should have chopped it in half; Draz knew all too well how sharp those huge blades were. There was something, a flash of reddish light that he didn’t quite make out clearly. But the result was obvious; the berserker staggered to the side, off-balance, and the alien warrior was countering with his own weapon. Time seemed to slow down as Draz watched the glittering metal slab come swinging around. A stray sunbeam caused it to glow, and for an instant it seemed that it had become a stream of fire. The hukkar was struck a blow so mighty that Draz thought he could almost feel it in his own body. He stumbled back. Draz waited for a final effort, but watched in stunned shock as the berserker toppled to the ground.
“Fight!” a voice shouted in his ear. “Fight, you cursed piece of dung, or I’ll kill you where you stand!”
Draz started and looked up to see the hunt leader standing over him, his war-club raised threateningly. He flinched and hefted his spear. He hesitated for an instant, but the shimmer of the barrier was gone. He targeted the warrior standing over the fallen hukkar and drew back his arm for the cast.
But before he could release the weapon, a bright beam of light slashed past him, blinding him for an instant. He heard a grunt of pain and saw the hunt leader, his chest scorched black. The veteran hunter was staring down at a glowing aura of sparkling light that surrounded his body.
That was enough for Draz. He took advantage of the distraction to seek cover. He didn’t run far, moving maybe fifteen paces to an old stump substantial enough to offer some concealment. He slowly popped his head up to take a look.
He was surprised to see that the enemy was retreating, falling back into the jungle. The reason became obvious a moment later when Draz heard a guttural chant coming from the village. A full cohort of half a dozen hukkar, accompanied by one of the underpriests, was emerging from the outer ring of huts. More hunters accompanied them, but they trailed behind the wedge of berserkers. The chant was coming from the underpriest, who was adding markings to the huge reds as they marched, throwing handfuls of powdered graa into their faces. The powder was not as potent as the concentrated juice that was extracted from the plant, but it worked faster. Draz could see the berserkers pick up their pace as the drug took effect. He looked back at the intruders, who were now almost invisible within the jungle. He could almost feel pity for them. He glanced back at the village, but there was no sign of Natakaskinderoth or his shaman, Rukakaverok. That was strange… why had the tribal chief not joined the hunt?
Such musings did not distract him from watching the pursuit of the intruders. Curiosity drew him out of his cover, and he fell in with the other hunters who were following a safe distance behind the berserkers. The six hukkar were now rushing forward toward the jungle, deep growls of anticipation coming from their throats.
But as they approached the wall of green the reds came to a sudden stop. Draz tensed, expecting some other disaster to be unleashed upon them. But the berserkers just stood there. The hunters likewise stopped, not sure what was happening, warily scanning the jungle for danger.
One of the reds suddenly clutched at his head and unleashed a terrible scream. A second one turned and without warning drove his axe down into the shoulder of his neighbor. The injured hukkar staggered but managed to get his own weapon around, slashing his attacker’s leg open. Another of the reds suddenly turned and sprinted into the jungle, while the last two drew back, apparently bewildered by what was happening.
The underpriest rushed forward, trying to restore some kind of order to the situation. He ran up to the screaming red, trying to calm him. But as the berserker turned around the priest must have seen something in his eyes, for he suddenly stopped and began to retreat. That didn’t help him as the red leapt forward and buried his axe deep in the priest’s skull.
Draz abruptly realized that he was only a few paces away from the closest of the hukkar. Most of the other hunters had pulled back further, as confused as the berserkers by the look of them. Draz turned and ran back to the village. This time he didn’t stop until he was back in the dubious shelter of his slumped and leaky hut, where he crawled under his bed pad and covered his head with his arms.
Tightly bound in her tiny cell, Galendra tried to ignore the competing complaints of her body and think.
Her head still throbbed, and even the tiny slivers of light that made it through the cracks in the walls of the hut made her eyes water. She could hear the sounds of activity outside, occasionally punctuated by the sharp barks of the dragon-men. The continued pain in her skull made her think that she had a concussion, but there was nothing to be done for it now.
They had given her food and water last night, after her “interview” with the tribal chief. The water had been a blessed relief, but the food had been a foul-smelling paste that one of the guards had shoveled into her with a broad spoon that barely fit into her mouth. She had seen things squirming in the bowl, and the rancid taste had almost made her gag, but not knowing when she’d get another meal had forced herself to swallow all that she was given. The stuff hadn’t sat well, and stomach pangs had kept her awake for most of the night.
When she’d finally woken up, she’d felt only incrementally better. Her captors had ignored her requests for a bathroom break, so she’d had no choice but to piss herself. The stink of it was just another in the long list of humiliations inflicted upon her.
She had first held out hope for rescue, but her view of the dragon-man camp had squashed that hope. There had to be hundreds of the creatures there, and the priest’s presence had confirmed that they had potent magic. Her former passengers were powerful, she knew firsthand, but she doubted that even they would have a chance against such an imbalance of numbers. She wondered where they had gotten themselves to. Clearly staying at the beach was no longer an option. Or maybe, she thought in a moment of despair, their bones were already cluttering up the nest of some jungle predator.
She heard something, a ruckus that rose over the general background din of the camp. When it continued, she lifted her head to try to hear better, ignoring the sharp stabbing pains that the motion caused. She couldn’t see anything through the narrow gaps in the walls of the hut, but a moment later she heard the low drone of signal horns. That created a greater stir, and she could hear dragon-men shouting at each other, some of them sounding like they were right outside her prison.
She pulled herself up, groaning against the gag at the fresh waves of agony that shot through her skull. Her arms were numb, and while that was a mercy compared to the pain from before, she was genuinely worried that she might have suffered permanent damage. She had already tried to twist around so that her arms were in front of her, but the bindings had been too tight to allow even her small body to contort sufficiently. So instead she rubbed her face against one of the bars of her cell, trying to loosen the gag enough to get it off.
As she worked at it, she heard more horns, accompanied by a deep booming sound that she thought at first was a distant explosion or earth tremor. Only after the sound had continued for a few moments did she realize that they were drums. The agony in her head seemed to pulse in echo to them as she struggled to escape from her bindings. The already raw skin along the side of her face split as she rubbed more aggressively, but she ignored the pain. If she could get her gag off for just a few seconds…
The panel “door” to the hut swung open, and a figure stepped into view. For a moment the increased intensity of the light blinded her, but there was no mistaking the identity of the new arrival, even before it growled something unpleasant at her.
Blinking back tears, she met its stare and saw her fate reflected in those dark orbs.
The dragon-man lifted his spear and took a step toward her.
Galendra made one last effort to break free, but only managed to fall back onto her side. The bars of the cage that had so stymied her would be no barrier at all to the dragon-man’s spear, she knew.
She tensed as it lifted the weapon to strike, but the expected blow did not come. Instead the creature just stood there stiffly. Galendra blinked at it in surprise, but her confusion transformed into something else as the guard suddenly went limp and toppled to the floor. A figure that had been concealed behind it caught it and eased it down, even managing to shoot out a foot that interrupted the spear before it could clatter on the hard floor of the hut.
The familiar figure shot her a quick grin. It was Rodan, the tiefling scout and archer. He finished easing the dead guard to the floor, then quickly wiped his bloody sword clean before sliding it back into its scabbard. He produced a dagger as he crossed to the small cell.
“Just hold on, I’ll have you out of here in a blink,” he said. Galendra, blinking back tears, nodded.
The leather throngs that held the cage shut parted after a few strokes of his knife. Galendra winced as he lifted her out of the cage. She flushed at the thought of how she must look in her current state, but he only touched her face lightly and then carefully cut her free.
Fresh pain shot down her arms as blood flowed back into them, but this time she welcomed it. As Rodan cut away her gag she said, “My crew.”
“Xeeta and Kalasien are getting them. We have allies.” He handed her his waterskin, and she gratefully accepted it.
“The others are making a distraction?” she asked when she’d finished clearing the worst of the nastiness from her throat.
The tiefling cocked his head toward the continued sounds of confusion coming from outside the hut. “Trying to, anyway. Can you walk, or do I need to carry you?”
Just the thought of walking sent slivers of pain through Galendra’s body, but she shook her head. “You’ll need your hands free. I can walk. And do more, if needed.” She dug in the pockets of her soiled trousers. The dragon-men had taken her spell-bag, but it was a habit to keep a collection of items in her pockets, and she quickly came up with a small piece of mica that she clutched tightly in her hand. “You have an exit strategy?”
Rodan nodded. “Sneak as far as we can, then run like hell.”
“Works for me.”
Galendra had expected confusion from what she’d heard inside the hut, but that hadn’t prepared her for the chaos she witnessed when Rodan took her outside the hut. He quickly led them around the base of the structure, pausing for a moment under its supporting poles as a couple of the dragon-men rushed past. With both of them concealed under the shelter of his dark cloak they were almost invisible unless someone looked right at them. Galendra swallowed as one of the creatures passed no more than five feet away, but it didn’t even glance in their direction.
Once the tiefling judged the way clear enough they rushed forward again, this time into an alley between two larger huts a stone’s throw away. There was a lot of smoke in the air, and as they moved forward Galendra glanced back and caught a glimpse of the raised roof of the chieftain’s hut. The entire place was a pyre, with flames shooting up under the eaves in an eerie echo of the wings that had spread their before. Rodan tugged on her sleeve, and with a final inner curse directed at the dragon-man chief and his priest she followed him onward.
The layout of the village was complicated, with rings of huts punctuated by animal pens and other enclosures, but the tiefling seemed to know where he was going. Dragon-men were still visible everywhere they looked, but most of them seemed to be gathering around the central hut or hurrying off toward additional disturbances on the other side of the camp. Galendra could hear noises that sounded like fighting coming from that direction, and she hoped that her rescuers hadn’t bitten off more than they could chew.
They got as far as the outermost ring of huts without being detected, but as they came around one last raised structure to see the jungle ahead their luck ran out. Galendra caught a hint of movement and hissed a warning, but Rodan was already spinning to meet the dragon-man that was lunging at him with a knobby club. The tiefling avoided the swing that would have cracked his skull if not worse, but before he could counter the creature lunged forward and drove its shoulder into his chest, knocking him off his feet.
Galendra didn’t hesitate. Clutching the bit of mica tightly in her hand, she unleashed a shatter spell that exploded with a roar of sound. The impact of the spell knocked the creature backward into a pen of wooden stakes that extended round the base of the hut. It toppled through the wall and didn’t immediately move.
Rodan had already rolled to his feet. “Well, they might have heard that,” he said. “Nothing to do now but make a run for it. Let’s go!”
They sprinted toward the jungle. The cleared space around the village hadn’t looked that big at first glance, but now that they were running for their lives it looked like an eternity. At first Galendra didn’t hear any signs of pursuit, but they were only halfway across the gap when shouts issued from behind them. She glanced back to see two of the dragon-men rushing after them, one holding a spear, the other another of those nasty clubs.
Galendra started to slow, but Rodan urged her forward. “Keep going,” he said. “Don’t stop until you get to the trees.”
“But…” she said.
“Just go!” he yelled. To her amazement he turned and sprinted back toward the two creatures. She almost stumbled at the sight of it; he was fast. The two dragon-men seemed taken aback at first, but they quickly closed upon their adversary.
Galendra kept on running, hoping that the tiefling knew what he was doing. She rushed past some old stumps where the forest had been cleared back, but didn’t slow until the resurgent growth had begun to thicken around her. The actual edge of the jungle proper was still a good thirty feet ahead, but she stopped to take a quick look behind her to see if Rodan was all right or needed her help.
What she saw only confirmed that her passengers were no ordinary travelers. She’d seen that in the encounter with the giant crocodiles and the fight with the dragon turtle, but now she saw it again in action. One of the two dragon-men was already down, flames blackening its body. The other one was trying to keep Rodan at bay with its spear, but the tiefling darted and weaved around its wild thrusts. Even as it started to retreat, he dropped into a crouch and sprang forward, rolling past it and stabbing it in the side with his rapier. The blow did not look that serious, but the dragon-man was knocked off its feet. It fell and rolled to a stop a few feet away. When it stopped moving Rodan was almost back to where Galendra waited.
“That was impressive,” she said.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Rodan said. “Or into them, as the case may be.”
They continued their flight. The jungle slowed their progress considerably, but Galendra was happy to exchange that for the cover it offered. If there was a trail here, she couldn’t see it, but Rodan was careful to blaze a path that she was able to follow.
As the forest swallowed them up, the sounds of violence and confusion behind them diminished somewhat. Galendra didn’t hold any illusions that this meant that they were safe. Her lungs burned with the effort of their brief but intense dash from the dragon-man camp, but she forced herself forward to catch up to Rodan. He was moving at a more or less normal speed again, but his longer legs made it difficult for her to keep up with him. “Crew,” she said.
He came to a stop and said, “Why don’t you see for yourself?”
Galendra looked ahead and belatedly became aware of figures moving in the trees just ahead. At first she tensed reflexively, but then rushed forward as she recognized the members of her crew. There were several of the cat-men with them; those had to be the allies that the tiefling had mentioned. They were clustered around a few others of their kind that looked horribly abused, and she realized that they must have come from the camp of the dragon-men as well.
The men of her crew gathered around to greet her. Their faces showed a mix of relief and shame, and she forced herself to put on a reassuring smile. She greeted several of them by name, then walk over to a figure sitting slumped against the protruding root mass of a large tree.
“Torrin,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, captain, just fine… thanks to these cats and our… passengers.” He coughed weakly.
Galendra stepped up next to him. “Just take it easy for a moment,” she said.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry we let you down, captain.”
“You didn’t let me down.” She looked at the gathered survivors; there were fewer than a dozen of them visible. “Is this all that’s left?”
“I’m afraid so. Those things… they… they’re monsters, feral monsters!”
He coughed again, but before she could say anything more one of the cats came over and growled something. “We have to keep moving,” Rodan said. “We’re too close to the camp.”
The former prisoners dragged themselves up again, the stronger ones helping those less able to continue on their own. Rodan brought up the rear, and she saw Kalasien talking with him. The Arreshian blended into the shadows of the forest with the skill of someone who had carried out these kinds of missions before.
Their escorts finally paused at a small clearing a few hundred yards from the dragon-men’s camp. Galendra wasn’t as bad off as some, especially the ragged-looking cat-men that had to be virtually carried from the camp, but she slumped to the ground with the same relief as the others. A cat came around, offering a gourd of water and small balls of some kind of root paste. She nodded at it in gratitude and quickly consumed her portion.
Her body demanded that she stay right where she was, and maybe even lie down for a bit, but she forced herself up and went over to Rodan. The tiefling was looking back the way they had come, possibly checking for signs of pursuit.
“See any of them?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he reported. “But Kalasien said that the break-out at the main pens won’t go unremarked for long.”
“You’re hurt,” she said.
He glanced down at his right arm, where the sleeve of his tunic had been burned away, leaving his skin scarred with ugly gray blotches. “Yeah, some of those bastards can spit acid, apparently. I’m good for now.”
“The cleric and the singer?”
“They’re with the other group. They can tend to you and your injured men when we all get clear, but there was no way that the half-orc could have gotten into the camp undetected.”
“I wasn’t second-guessing your plan,” she said. “But shouldn’t we get further away?”
“We’re waiting for someone,” he said. He looked back in the direction of the camp, but the dense jungle growth made it difficult to see more than a dozen yards away. He looked over at the cats, but they were focused on tending to their injured companions. “All right, you all had better get moving, I’ll stay and…”
He was interrupted as a burst of flames erupted in the center of the clearing. The sailors and cats all fell back in alarm, which only intensified as a figure stepped through the fire. Galendra had her magic ready to cast at the intruder, but she managed to catch herself just in time as she recognized the newcomer.
Rodan was even faster. He was at Xeeta’s side even as the flames of her dimension door faded, easing her down as she slumped to the forest floor. Her clothes were bloody from several wounds, and a dragon-man spear was embedded in her side.
“What happened?” Rodan asked. He quickly took a bandage out of his pouch and carefully pulled the spear out of the wound. Thankfully the dragon-men didn’t barb their weapons, but even so it was a nasty injury.
“Apparently they got upset when I set their big house on fire,” the sorceress said.
“Were the others with you?” Galendra asked.
“No, the main distraction was on the other side of the camp,” Xeeta said. “Good to see you intact, captain.”
“And you, but I think we’d better save our reunion for later,” Galendra said. “Those creatures seem like the sort to bear grudges.”
“She’s not wrong,” Rodan said. “Can you walk?”
“I don’t think I’ll be managing any feats of acrobatics, but I can move,” Xeeta said. “Makes me wish we hadn’t drunk all those healing potions back in Li Syval.”
“Well, maybe we’ll find a friendly temple where we can buy some more,” Rodan said, helping her up. She grimaced a bit, but was able to remain upright.
Kalasien suddenly burst out of the underbrush a few feet away. “Bad news. We’ve got a party of trackers coming after us, looks like about twenty or so.”
“Looks like I didn’t draw them off as effectively as I thought,” Xeeta said.
“This could be another group,” Rodan said. He unlimbered his long bow. “You all go on ahead. I’ll hang back, see if I can delay them a bit.”
“Those are not good odds, Rodan,” Galendra said.
Xeeta straightened, pressing her hand against her wounded side. “I am almost out of power, but I have one more surprise left for those bastards.”
Rodan met her gaze and then nodded.
“I should stay as well,” Galendra said. “I can manage a few spells.”
“No,” Rodan said. “Your place is with your crew. Keep them safe. We’ll catch up.”
Kalasien looked back toward the jungle. “Whatever you’re doing, better do it now,” he said. “They’ll be on top of us in moments.”
The battered survivors of the Golden Gull and the cat-man prisoners dragged themselves to their feet and reentered the jungle on the far side of the clearing. One of the cat-men, who was being all but carried by Graaka, briefly turned around and gave the two tieflings a measured look. Then they were gone, swallowed up by the forest. Even as the sounds of their progress faded, they were replaced by the crash of the dragon-men quickly approaching.
“What did you have in mind?” Rodan asked.
Xeeta went over to the far side of the clearing, choosing a spot somewhat off to the side from where the others had disappeared. She tapped a large tree with her rod. “This will do. Get their attention.”
Rodan took an arrow from his quiver and set it against the bowstring. He had been recovering his shafts whenever possible, but he was down to fewer than a dozen. “Right,” he said.
They didn’t have long to wait; they’d barely taken cover behind the tree when the bushes on the other side of the clearing rustled and the first dragon-man appeared. It was one of the green ones, its face flanked by a flaring crest that added to its ferocious visage. It carried a pair of long spears.
Rodan stepped out from behind the tree, his bowstring taut, the feathered end of the arrow close to his cheek. The creature saw him and let out a cry of warning, but before it could lift a spear his shot slammed hard into its chest. It staggered back into the undergrowth, but others were already coming at its call, black and green forms taking on substance from the surrounding jungle. A few of them unleashed attacks as they came into view, spears hurtling across the clearing. One spat a stream of acid at the tiefling, but he’d already stepped back behind the cover of the tree, and the missiles either shot past or slammed into its trunk.
Rodan concentrated and summoned a globe of darkness that engulfed the area of the jungle where the dragon-men were concentrated. The two tieflings could hear them crashing around, shouting questions at each other.
“Nice,” Xeeta said. “I was wondering if you’d picked up that trick.”
“One of the less repugnant gifts of our common ancestor,” Rodan said. He cocked his head. “Some of them are circling around, no doubt trying to flank us and cut us off.”
“We need to draw them in,” Xeeta said.
Rodan nodded. He leaned around the reassuring bulk of the tree and shouted, “Hey, you cowardly reptiles! We can’t wait all day here!”
The dragon-men couldn’t understand his words, of course, but the mocking tone of his voice clearly made it through, based on the furious roars that answered. The crashing noises intensified, and a moment later one of the dragon-men stumbled clear of the darkness. Rodan immediately shot it, but this time the arrow hit something hard and didn’t fully penetrate.
“Now might be a good time!” he said, ducking back.
“I can only do this once,” Xeeta said. She took a quick look and only narrowly avoided having her head impaled by a spear that shot past. More of the dragon-men had emerged from the black globe and were rushing forward, while the sounds from the jungle to either side of the clearing had intensified. A gout of caustic gas hit the tree, causing the leaves on the surrounding bushes to instantly wilt and turn brown.
“Now?” Rodan suggested.
Xeeta didn’t respond, as she was already summoning her magic. Her eyes flashed with fire as she unleashed the Demon, and those flames spread until they formed a blazing halo around her. She lifted her rod, and a sheet of intense fire rose up in front of her, forming another wall of fire that extended out for thirty feet in either direction.
The closest of the dragon-men were engulfed in those flames, their screams of pain overpowering the angry shouts from before. One staggered through, its green hide now blackened with char. It did not even see Rodan before the tiefling stabbed it through the neck.
“That won’t hold them for long,” he said. “Can you run?”
“If the alternatives are running or dying, I can run,” she said. The two of them rushed off into the jungle even as the flames from Xeeta’s spell continued to surge upward, spreading up into the canopy until it seemed like the whole world behind them was afire.
The meeting with the tabaxi elders took place at dusk.
Bredan could still hardly believe what he was seeing as he and a select cohort of the shipwrecked survivors were escorted to the Hall of Feathers. The tabaxi—they had finally learned the name of their hosts, thanks to Quellan’s tongues spell—lived near the jungle canopy, on platforms erected around the trunks of huge trees. Swaying bridges made of vines and plant fibers braided into ropes connected the platforms. The tree-houses and their connecting “streets” looked fragile, even flimsy, but they supported even Quellan’s weight without difficulty. But it was hard to resist the urge to look down at the forest floor about a hundred feet below them.
They had arrived late last night, after a desperate flight from the camp of the dragon-men—dragonborn, the tabaxi called them. The reptilian creatures had not given up their pursuit until they were almost at the edges of the tabaxi city. Their strength had been flagging at that point, and Bredan didn’t know that they’d reached a transition until he’d seen the sudden change that had come over Mrrik. The tabaxi hunter had lifted his arms and let out a fearsome yowl that had Bredan summoning his sword. But he put it away again quickly once he’d heard the chorus of answering cries around and above them. That was the first time he’d seen what the cats could accomplish high up in the trees.
Bredan guessed that there had to be at least a few hundred residents in the tabaxi settlement. Most watched them with a mixture of wariness and concern, but there had also been excited growls and even what he assumed passed for smiles among the cat-men. Quellan had told him that tales of their assault upon the dragonborn encampment had spread quickly, and that one of the cats they’d rescued had been a female of some importance in their hierarchy.
The Hall of Feathers wasn’t very large by the standards of Arresh, but here in the canopy it looked quite impressive. Curtains made of the material that gave the place its name were drawn wide open by tawny-furred tabaxi at their approach, and they bowed deeply as the companions went inside. In addition to Bredan, Glori, Quellan, and Kosk, the group included Kalasien, Elias, Sond, and Torrin. Xeeta and Rodan had elected to remain behind with the sailors for now. Quellan had healed the sorceress that morning, once he’d refreshed his magical reservoir, but the narrow escape from the dragonborn had taken a lot out of her. Both tieflings had assured Bredan that they trusted him to represent their interests at the conclave.
The interior of the hall consisted of one large room. The place wasn’t elaborately decorated, though there was a row of raised seats along the curving wall opposite the entry. The elders, half a dozen aged tabaxi, were waiting for them. Other tabaxi were seated around the perimeter of the room, and they let out a series of sharp growls that Bredan had learned was a sign of approbation as the adventurers came in.
The leader of the tabaxi was a gray-haired female called Wind Runner. Seated at her feet on a small cushion, draped in a cloak of feathers that seemed huge on her emaciated form, was her daughter, Dancing Leaf. The effects of her captivity and mistreatment at the hands of the dragonborn still showed on her features, but her eyes were bright and alive as she put her hands together and bowed in greeting. Mrrik stood close beside her, hovering protectively, though he too nodded at the companions. Quellan’s spell had revealed that his name meant, “Clear Eyes,” and as Bredan thought back to the assault and flight from the dragonborn he thought it appropriate.
Once they had all been offered cushions and gourds of spiced tea the meeting began. Quellan cast his spell again, allowing him to serve as translator.
“Matriarch Wind Runner, we thank you for your hospitality,” Quellan said once the magic had taken hold.
The aged tabaxi’s response sounded like growls to Bredan’s ears, but she paused after each statement to allow the cleric a chance to translate.
“It is we who are grateful,” she said. “You have taken up arms and risked your lives against our traditional adversaries, and restored our daughter to us.”
“We helped each other,” Bredan said. “They took our people as well.”
“I apologize for the misunderstanding at the beach, and the injury that was inflicted upon your bonds-man.” Quellan had already done some preparatory work in explaining to the tabaxi who they were and why they were here during the earlier casting of his spell, but it was clear that there would be more questions for them. Bredan had spent most of the day thinking on what he would say at this meeting.
“The confusion is understandable,” Glori said. “Our arrival here was unexpected, and we do not share a common language.”
“When you saved the life of Swift Climber, then we knew that you were not our enemies,” Wind Runner said. Graaka—Swift Climber—was not present, but he had obviously passed on a detailed account of the fight with the dinosaurs and their subsequent encounter on the way to the dragonborn camp. “We are in your debt,” the matriarch continued. “Your people are welcome to remain here for as long as you wish.”
Bredan knew enough to know that was a two-sided arrangement; their presence here would add a potent defense to the tabaxi settlement. Both the cats and the dragonborn were obviously skilled warriors despite their primitive equipment, but magical talent was apparently as rare here as it was back in Arresh. Sond had told them about the aged priest who had interrogated her, and the tabaxi likewise seemed to have some healers among them, but both appeared to lack anyone with the firepower of Xeeta or the potent enchantments and illusions of Glori.
“Do you think that the dragonborn will attack here?” Kosk asked, putting Bredan’s thoughts into words.
Mrrik bristled at that, his back arching just like a domestic cat’s. “They are welcome to try,” he hissed.
Wind Runner gave the warrior an indulgent look, but she added, “We have learned to remain vigilant when it comes to our enemies,” she said. “If they make a move against us, we will know.”
“Thank you,” Bredan said. He glanced over at Sond, who was dressed in a new tunic provided by the tabaxi. “We would ask that the crew of our ship be allowed to remain here, for a time at least. Our vessel was completely destroyed when we arrived, and we’ve gathered that we’re too far away from Fort Promise to attempt an overland journey. We’ll probably have to build a new ship.”
“The dragonborn may object to such a project,” Mrrik said, once Quellan had repeated Bredan’s words.
“Likely,” Kosk said.
Wind Runner had kept her eyes fixed on Bredan while listening to Quellan’s recitation. “Your words, they suggest that some of you have another plan,” she said.
“That is true,” Bredan said. He quickly looked at each of his companions, confirming their assent, then reached into his pouch and drew out the bronze plaque they had taken from the ancient Syvalian fort further down the coast. They had been able to clean it somewhat, but it still showed its age. “We found this at an old fort that had been built by our people centuries ago,” he said. “It is part of the reason that we came to this continent in the first place, though we had no intent to stop at this particular place.”
A soft stir passed through the elders as Quellan repeated his words. “We remember the coming of your people, many generations ago,” Wind Runner said. “They came seeking Savek Vor.”
The adventurers shared a look at that, though it was evident from their faces that none recognized the name. “What does that mean?” Quellan asked.
Wind Runner lifted her hand and presented her claws, a gesture of negation among the tabaxi. “The origin of the name is not known to us. It is an ancient place, a site of great power. To even speak of it is taboo among our people. We share this information with you because of our debt, but trust that you will not speak of it beyond these walls.”
“Of course,” Glori said, even as Kalasien asked, “Why is it taboo?”
Wind Runner looked reluctant, but she finally said, “The power that resides there is a thing of shadow. It is a part of the world, but yet not wholly part of it. If you seek it, then I suggest that you ask yourselves this: Is this power not better left undisturbed? What good can come of disturbing it again?”
“Then you know what happened, the last time it was disturbed?” Quellan asked.
Wind Runner flashed her claws again. “No, not exactly. Our histories say only that the last coming of your people was a time of great turmoil. It is possible that these stories are part of the reason for the violence at our first meeting.”
Or that Sond’s sailors were trigger-happy, Bredan thought, but he kept his features neutral as he said, “We are here because we were asked to come. We had to come here. There are others who are seeking this power, others that we know wish only evil to come of it. We have fought these others before. I know you have little reason to trust us, but I can only ask you to believe me when I say that we are not here for power or for dominion over others.”
Wind Runner nodded once the translation was completed. “I believe you because you have shown us who you are.” She leaned forward and placed one hand upon her daughter’s shoulder. “And because of that, we will show you something.”
A few of the tabaxi elders hissed softly, and Bredan got the impression that the matriarch’s sentiments were not universal among their high council. But Wind Runner stood and removed her shawl, revealing a metal disk that she wore on a throng around her neck.
“Electrum,” Kosk said, recognizing the material. It had to be old, maybe as old as the bronze plaque, but unlike it the disk bore no obvious signs of wear or decay.
Bredan’s focus was on the sigil etched into the surface of the metal. He extended his hand and summoned his sword.
Another stir went through the cats, and Mrrik tensed for a moment, shifting slightly in a protective gesture over Dancing Leaf. But he relaxed when Bredan released the heavy blade and offered the hilt toward the warrior. The tabaxi came forward, taking the heavy weapon and showing it to Wind Runner.
The matriarch examined the steel, her eyes drawn to the runes that ran down the length of the blade. Those runes had first appeared when he had immersed the sword in the font of magic in the Silverpeak Valley, and since then they had reappeared one by one as his connection to the Elderlore Libram had grown stronger. One of them was the same as the one marked upon the electrum disk. She directed Mrrik to hold the sword up so that the other elders could see.
“We are forbidden from entering Savek Vor,” she said, “even on behalf of new friends. But we will show you the way.”
The tabaxi village was an odd juxtaposition of traditional structures and three dimensionality, tied together by a complex map of bridges and rope lines, branches bound together or otherwise shaped to form avenues, and in more than one case dangling vines that the inhabitants used to swing from one platform to the next.
It was certainly exotic to the travelers from Voralis, but as the initial newness began to wear off, they could begin to notice patterns in the layout of the place that were familiar to them. The sailors’ adaptation was made easier in one respect. The means of travel around the city was not that dissimilar from the rigging they’d had to crawl over on the Gull, and they were used to negotiating great heights from their work on the ship. At first, still terrified by their ordeal with the dragonborn, the sailors huddled in the huts provided for their use by the tabaxi, but as the day went on some of them began to filter out and explore their new surroundings. Rumor was that the cat-people might offer them sanctuary, a sentiment that was borne out by the polite curiosity of their hosts. The sailors’ clothes were in a shoddy state, and most of their possessions had been confiscated by their captors, but a small commerce began nevertheless, with the sailors offering what few trinkets they’d been able to conceal for new garments or other necessities. Perhaps they sensed that they were being given overly generous deals by the tabaxi traders, but it helped all of them to preserve the illusion that they were equals.
The cats visited the cluster of huts that hosted their guests as night descended, bringing leather satchels full of fruit and gourds packed with a nutritious paste made of nuts and insects. While their leaders went off to parlay with the cat-men the crew enjoyed the feast and continued their trade with the locals. They lacked a common language, but some of the sailors quickly made connections by demonstrating rope knots and other elements of the sailor’s craft to their bemused hosts.
With both humans and tabaxi coming and going, no one particularly noted the figure that slipped off and crossed to a small hut on an adjoining platform. From the sagging fronds that formed its roof the place was clearly not currently occupied, but as the shadowy figure ducked through the low opening of its entrance he saw someone waiting for him. There were no lights on the platform or inside the hut, so he was just a vague outline in the dim glow that penetrated through the gaps in the slumping roof.
“Is the meeting with the elders over already?” the newcomer asked.
“The essential negotiations are concluded,” the other said. “They’ll probably be up feasting for hours yet.”
“You won’t be missed?”
“I told the dwarf I was feeling ill, but I needn’t have bothered. They hardly even notice me anymore,” the dark figure said. “They see only what they expect to see. You should attend to your role with equal devotion. All it takes is one slip to someone to awaken suspicion.”
“Yes, yes, your lessons on the way here were quite thorough. I’ve even learned to wake myself every hour in order to maintain the Mask of Many Faces. But I’m not a bloody machine, nor can I change my actual form like you can. There were plenty of places where an accidental contact almost gave up the game, especially on the ship.”
“You only need to maintain the disguise for a little while longer. Once we’ve located the book, we can eliminate the others.”
“Did the cats have some useful information?”
“Perhaps. They know of an ancient city deeper within the jungle where supposedly the last Syvalian expedition ventured. Bredan and the others will be setting out for it tomorrow, with a few native guides to show them the way. Sond and the crew will be staying behind. You will need to arrange to be included in the expedition.”
“That won’t be easy to set up so quickly.”
“Nevertheless, it must be done. I have probed a few of the crew and sensed a general discontent. They fear the dragonborn and some are suspicious of the tabaxi after that first encounter on the beach. Those sentiments can be exploited, with the proper care.”
“It would be easier to do with your talent.”
“No. Even this brief meeting is a risk. There must be no connection perceived between us.”
“What if someone saw you coming out here?”
The figure leaned forward a bit, drawing off his cloak to reveal the features of a tabaxi female.
“Clever. I’m sure the others would be happy to brand me as some kind of pervert.”
“As long as it keeps them from discovering the truth. I must get back, just in case one of them thinks to bring me a purgative. Remember, they leave in the morning.”
“I’m not likely to forget.” As the other rose and started toward the door he said, “Wait. You said that we could kill them once we located the book. Shouldn’t we wait until we get it in our hands? What if we need them to get past its defenses?”
There was a pause. “Bredan is the key, but he must not be permitted to get his hands on the book. The rest of them, they are expendable. In fact, it would be to our benefit if we could thin out their ranks a bit before we get to this lost city. I assume you have no difficulties with this plan?”