Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)


Chapter 272

Dawn found the members of the expedition gathered on one of the lower platforms of the tabaxi village, a scant thirty feet above the forest floor below. Each of them checked and rechecked their gear, including the leather packs provided by their hosts that contained food and gourds of water and strong tea. Their armor and weapons were starting to show wear, but there was little they could do about that here, as the cat-men had almost no resources for metalworking. Bredan had experimented with one of the tabaxi spear throwers but ultimately decided that it would take more time than they had to develop any kind of skill with it. So they sharpened their blades and scrubbed the rust off their armor and made the best of what they had.

They were almost ready to depart when three of the sailors descended to the platform. Bredan recognized Kavek from the encounter with the crocodiles on the island, but he knew the other two only by name: Malik and Sandros. The three hesitated for a moment, watching the preparations, before they walked over to Bredan.

“We want to come with you,” Malik said.

“This isn’t a casual walk through the woods that we’re taking,” Kosk said. “We’ll be gone for weeks, most likely, into wild country.”

“These cats are fine, but the dragon-men won’t give up so easily,” Malik persisted. “The cats have been their neighbors for years and they weren’t able to deal with them. Heck, the only reason they helped us is because the dragons had their princess or whatever.”

“The tabaxi have been more than generous,” Quellan said. “The matriarch promised that you could all stay here as long as you wish.”

“They say that when you’re here,” Sandros interjected. “Because you can fight them. But when you’re gone, then we’re just mouths to feed.”

“You’re not making a case for why we would want you with us then,” Kosk said.

“We can fight,” Malik said. “We can carry our own weight.”

“Does Captain Sond know about this?” Glori asked.

“With all due respect to the captain, she’s no longer in command of us,” Malik said. “When the Gull ended, we stopped being part of her crew.”

“Again, your flexible loyalties aren’t exactly making a strong argument,” Kosk noted.

“I think we have the right to have a say in what happens to us,” Malik said, bristling at the dwarf.

“Here, at least, you’re safe,” Glori said.

“With all due respect, ma’am, it seems to us that nowhere in Weltarin is safe,” Malik said. “I’d rather die out there with a weapon in my hand than just sit here eating fruit and waiting.”

“Well said,” Kalasien said.

Kosk turned to Kavek, who’d been hovering in the back of the group during the exchange. “What about you? I would have thought you’d have had enough of adventure after that beach back on the island. Aren’t you worried you’re pushing your luck?”

The sailor looked thoughtful for a moment then shook his head. “After giant crocodiles, the dragon turtle, a shipwreck, and then the dragon-men, seems like luck is maybe not the right word to use.”

Kosk snorted. After a moment, the companions all looked to Bredan. He no longer tried to avoid the responsibility that the others put on him, and did not shrink from their collective stairs. He regarded the three men for a moment. “You can come with us,” he said. “But understand, this is another crew you’re joining. You’ll follow our orders, and understand that out there, we might not be able to protect you. You’ll take the same risks as the rest of us.”

The three men swallowed, but Malik nodded and said, “We understand… captain.”

“Captain,” the other two echoed.

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I could have sworn that I'd posted this one already... must be just another side-effect of the advancing years...

* * *

Chapter 273

The day was overcast and muggy as the column set out from the tabaxi settlement. With the three sailors joining the group they now numbered eleven, not counting their escorts. Mrrik led the tabaxi contingent, accompanied by three veteran scouts armed with spear-throwers. Those scouts spread out to shield their flanks and check ahead, but they remained close enough to call out if they spotted an ambush or other danger waiting for them.

Bredan couldn’t tell where they were headed, except that the cats were taking them on a course that led generally west, further inland. Mrrik—he just couldn’t think of the cat hunter as Clear Eyes—had told them during a conversation facilitated by Quellan’s magic that the lost city was located within a valley surrounded by a range of mountains. None of the cats had ever entered the site, or even crossed those mountains, but Bredan trusted the matriarch’s promise that her people could take them to a place where there was a navigable route over the peaks. The Syvalian captain had come this way, after all, but even beyond that Bredan felt something, an innate sense that they were heading in the right direction. He could not help but wonder if that was a product of his bond with the book, or just self-delusion.

They trudged through the jungle for about an hour, the temperature slowly rising at the day advanced. Bredan went through several gourds of water as he sweat under his armor. He already had an annoying, itchy rash across his torso from the sweltering days they’d already spent here, but since taking off his armor was not an option, he just had to bear it. Quellan had warned them all about keeping their bodies and especially their feet dry, but that was a difficult feat in this place.

The jungle began to thin ahead, and Bredan could see that they were coming up on a broad meadow. The open expanse was covered in a sea of tall green grass that rippled in the slight breeze. Bredan was looking forward to that breeze, grateful for the low clouds that concealed the sun, but they were interrupted by the return of one of the tabaxi scouts. The cat was clearly agitated as it rushed over to Mrrik and reported.

“Looks like trouble,” Glori said.

Quellan came forward and cast his tongues spell. “What is it?” he asked once the spell had taken effect.

“Dragonborn,” Mrrik reported. “Over a hundred. They are arranged in line across the far side of the meadow, under the banner of Natak.”

“Bloody hell!” Malik said once the tabaxi warrior’s words had been translated. “What do we do, go back?”

“I’d be shocked if they hadn’t already anticipated that,” Rodan said. Mrrik clearly agreed with him, for he didn’t wait for Quellan to translate before he gestured to two of his scouts. The two cats shot off into the jungle.

“They knew we’d be here,” Kosk said.

“The shaman,” Glori said.

Quellan nodded. “That seems likely.”

“Let’s see for ourselves,” Bredan said.

They made their way forward cautiously, staying behind the cover of the thinning brush and the scattered trees that extended to the edge of the meadow. They crouched down behind a fallen trunk and scanned the area.

It wasn’t hard to see the dragonborn formation. They were standing in the open, facing the jungle where they were hidden. Bredan could make out the standard, shifting slightly in the breeze. He couldn’t tell what it was made of but he could see black scorch marks on the edges of the material.

“What are they doing?” Glori asked.

“Waiting for us, I’d gather,” Xeeta said. “They’re a little too far for a fireball, but I bet that grass could cover my approach.”

“They’re too spread out,” Rodan noted.

One of the cat scouts returned, darting low over the ground like one of his feline ancestors. Again he reported to Mrrik, letting out a series of low-pitched growls.

“Let me guess,” Kosk said. “The tiefling was right.”

Quellan nodded. “There are two groups of them behind us, moving to cut off our retreat.”

“What’s their game?” Bredan asked. “Why are they just standing there in the open, instead of hitting us with an ambush?”

Once Quellan had repeated his words Mrrik growled an answer. “He says that it is a ritual challenge,” the cleric said. “Natak will face our champion in single combat.”

“Even from here I can tell that’s a bad idea,” Xeeta said. “Look at him, he’s head and shoulders taller than those other red ones, and those are huge.”

“Natak is a dangerous foe,” Mrrik agreed. “Even without the rage induced by the graa plant, he is a mighty foe. I have seen him carve mighty warriors in two with a single blow from his black axe.”

“What if we refuse to meet this challenge?” Glori asked.

“Overwhelming force, I’d say,” Kosk said.

“They will attack with all their strength,” Mrrik confirmed. “Their honor would be satisfied if we rejected the challenge.”

Suddenly a low roar passed through the dragonborn line. Even across the wide breadth of the meadow it sounded like the rumble of an earthquake. “Well, I’d say they know we’re here,” Kalasien said.

“I will face Natak,” Bredan said.

“Bredan,” Glori said. “Think about it. One of those red monsters almost killed you, and that one’s bigger, tougher, and stronger. Between Xeeta’s firepower and my spells, maybe we can…”

“No,” Bredan said. “There are too many of them, and they’re ready for us this time. The longer we wait, the better the chance that the ones behind us will get into position so they can hit us from both sides. Don’t worry. If I die, you can avenge me.”

“That’s not funny,” Xeeta said. “Even if we agree, what guarantee do we have that they won’t just mob us if you do beat him?”

Quellan spoke quietly to Mrrik. “He says that they do follow their code of honor, such as it is,” the cleric reported.

“And what happens if our boy loses?” Kosk asked.

Mrrik barked a single syllable. “Our lives are forfeit,” Quellan said.

“We have no choice, then,” Bredan said. He stood and started forward into the tall grass.


Chapter 274

Bredan’s companions emerged from the shelter of the forest’s edge and followed him out into the meadow. Mrrik and his scouts accompanied them. The sailors were the last, but after a look back at the trail behind them they moved to join the company.

The rumbling coming from the dragonborn ranks ceased, and after a moment Natak started forward, flanked by a cohort of his warriors. The companions were quick to note that their numbers precisely matched their own. The ones closest to the chieftain were reds like him, with an assortment of blacks and greens making up the difference. Some still bore obvious wounds from the fighting back at the dragonborn camp. A small figure walked in the shadow of the chief. They did not need Sond to be present to identify that one as the shaman. The captain had warned them about him, and while they did not know the full extent of his powers, the fact that he could cast the tongues spell was an indication that he was no amateur.

“What are the rules for this thing?” Bredan asked as he walked.

Quellan translated for Mirrik, who responded, “The first one to die loses.”

“I think I can remember that,” Bredan said.

“Have your people fought in many duels with the dragonborn?” Glori asked.

Mrrik growled something quick.

“What did he say?” Xeeta asked when Quellan remained silent.

“He was trying to be diplomatic,” the cleric reported.

“In other words, they’re not stupid enough to agree to them,” Kosk filled in.

The two groups came to a stop about fifty feet from each other. Up close, they could see the full scale of the imposing dragonborn chief.

“Gods above, he has to be at least nine feet tall,” Sandros said.

“The bigger they are…” Glori began, but she couldn’t finish the comment as Natak took a step forward. He said something in his own language. “He offers the challenge,” Quellan said. “One on one.”

Bredan took a step forward to match him. “Tell him I will accept on behalf of the people that he attacked without provocation or reason.”

The exchange took just a moment. “He says that coming here was enough provocation,” Quellan said. He left out what the creature had promised to do to Bredan.

From the look on his face, Bredan had got the gist of it. “And if I am victorious, we are permitted to be on our way without further harassment.”

The dragonborn made a sound that might have been laughter, but Quellan said, “He agrees.”

Natak shrugged his broad shoulders and drew off the huge cloak that hung down his back. As he did so a pair of wings spread into the air, forming an arc some fifteen feet across behind him.

“If he can fly, you’re screwed,” Kosk said.

“I believe they’re vestigial,” Quellan said. “There’s no way they would support a creature of his size and weight.”

The dragonborn chief turned to his shaman, bending so that the much smaller creature could reach up to his face.

“Remember, they use drugs to enhance their strength and endurance,” Quellan said.

“I remember,” Bredan said.

“When you go to face him, I’ll boost you with a haste spell,” Xeeta said. “It will only last a minute.”

“I’ll make good use of it.”

Glori strummed her lyre, and Bredan could feel a surge of vitality flow into him as she bolstered him with her own magic. “It’s not much, but it should let you shrug off a hit or two,” she said. “But don’t get hit.”

“Okay,” he said.

Quellan turned to Glori. “Give me the ring I gave you,” he said. “Back in the Silverpeak.”

She looked at him blankly for a moment then quickly began searching her pockets. A look of panic briefly flashed across her features before she found it.

Quellan took the unadorned platinum band and gave it to Bredan. It barely fit on the pinky finger of his off hand. “This might mess with my grip a bit,” he said.

“It’s worth it,” the cleric said, invoking his warding bond spell. Bredan shivered as he felt the connection take hold. “It will allow me to absorb some of the damage that you take in battle.”

Bredan shook his head. “It could end up killing us both…”

“Don’t be stupid,” Xeeta said. “Glori can heal him. You need every advantage you can get.”

“Looks like big boy is ready,” Kosk said. Natak had stepped back from his shaman, and fresh streaks of the substance they used to enhance their warriors were now visible upon his crest and across his cheeks. He turned as one of his warriors came up bearing a huge axe. The blade was made of a material that was pure black.

“What is that?” Glori asked.

Quellan forwarded the question to Mrrik. “He says it’s fire-mineral,” the cleric said. “Volcanic obsidian, maybe.”

“That stuff can get bloody sharp,” Kosk said.

“Be careful,” Glori said.

“We’ve got your back,” Xeeta said as Bredan stepped forward. He had barely heard the last bit of their exchange as his focus had sharpened. He’d already marked the axe, the drug-marks, and the way his opponent moved. Every inch of Natak’s body appeared to be covered in corded muscle. He wore no armor, but Bredan already knew that the creatures’ scaled hides were as tough as old leather. This foe was deadlier than any he’d faced before. He pushed that thought aside as well. Doubts could only hurt him at this point.

Natak betrayed no surprise when Bredan summoned his sword. The monstrous features of the dragonborn made it difficult to gauge their emotions, but the young warrior sensed no fear, no battle-rage, just an intensity that bored into him like augers. As he stared up at the approaching creature, he could feel the fear that skittered at the edges of the calm he’d gathered around him. If he gave way to it, even for an instant, the fight would be over before it began.

As he lifted the sword the weak light of the day flashed on the runes inscribed upon the blade. He could feel the power there, power that echoed in the core of him. Once he had feared that power, fled from it, but now he embraced it, letting it into him. He could feel something happening as he continued to walk forward, could hear the surprised chatter of his friends behind him, but he ignored everything except the approaching foe.

When they came to a halt, facing each other across twenty paces of flowing grass, Bredan was surprised to find himself looking down at Natak. He blinked in surprise; somehow the magic of the book had caused him to grow to twice his size, until he was larger than even the huge dragonborn chief! Even his sword had become larger, the bright steel of the blade almost as long as the haft of his enemy’s axe.

Bredan felt another surge of power as Xeeta’s haste spell took hold. But a moment later he felt something else, a feeling of power tearing at his awareness. Instinctively he realized that someone was trying to strip his various protections. He sought out the dragonborn shaman and found him among the ranks of the red warriors. A slightly raised hand was the only indication that he was doing anything, but Bredan knew it was him who was behind the assault.

There was nothing he could do to stop him. But even as he felt the layered spells begin to unravel the dispel suddenly came apart. The attack ended, and the shaman slumped back, hissing in defeat.

If Natak was discomfited by the failed effort he didn’t show it. He just stood there, his head slightly lowered, his chest rising and falling as he sucked in deep breaths. Bredan could imagine the drug pulsing through the dragonborn’s system, inuring him to pain and swelling his strength beyond the already impressive levels that his natural gifts gave him.

Bredan lifted his sword. “I am ready…”

But he didn’t get a chance to finish, as Natak abruptly leapt forward to the attack.


Chapter 275

Natak moved with such unexpected speed that the fight was almost over before it began.

The dragonborn’s wings pulsed as he leapt forward. He might not have been capable of flight, but it was enough to carry him across the twenty paces that separated the two combatants in the blink of an eye. Even with Xeeta’s haste spell augmenting his resources, Bredan only just barely dodged the sweep of the deadly obsidian axe. It clipped his shoulder and knocked one of the plates of the dwarf-forged mail he wore flying, slicing through the mail links underneath as if they had been made of string. The edge just barely grazed his skin, but he could feel a trickle of blood start down the arm as he desperately tried to recover.

But Natak gave him no respite. Even as the huge dragonborn landed he spun, transferring his momentum to a heavy backswing. Bredan deflected the blade with his sword, but the force of the impact drove him back a step and nearly knocked the weapon from his grasp. A third swing came at his head with almost impossible swiftness, but he ducked under it and swept his own sword around in a rapid counter. Augmented by the magic flowing through his body, the swing should have connected, but it caught only empty air. Bredan recovered and looked up to see that the dragonborn had fallen back a step and was now watching him with an intense expression.

It was then that Bredan realized that his assumption that his foe would be in a berserk frenzy from the shaman’s drugs was mistaken. Natak might have been augmented, but he was in complete control.

The dragonborn waited only long enough for his enemy to come to that realization before he attacked again.

This time Bredan didn’t try to parry, but as the blade of the axe swept toward him he summoned a shield at the last instant that deflected it high. But Natak kept rushing forward in the wake of the miss, sweeping the long haft of the axe around and driving it under his defense into his belly. Even through the layered protections of his armor Bredan had all of the wind blasted from his body. He staggered back, instinct alone causing him to bring the shield around in time to meet the follow-up that would have taken his head off his shoulders had it connected.

In desperation, Bredan went on the attack. His opponent lacked armor, which should have given the human an advantage, but Natak smoothly parried the first swing, turning it without harming the wooden shaft of his weapon. Bredan managed to catch the dragonborn on the side with his follow-through as he drew back, but the blow lacked strength and he only managed to tear a shallow cut in Natak’s thick hide.

When the pair separated again, Natak met his eyes and smiled.

Bredan felt a sudden calm came over him. He lifted his sword, his boosted strength allowing him to lift the now-huge weapon, and fell into the simple fighting stance that his uncle had drilled into him over so many hours in the yard behind his smithy.

When Natak rushed at him again, he was ready. Their blades swept through the air, sometimes seeming to blur together as the combatants exchanged blows. Bredan took another glancing hit that drew blood, but it didn’t seem to cut as deep as it could have. He realized that it was the effects of Quellan’s spell, absorbing a share of the damage he was taking. He wished he could look over to make sure the cleric was all right, but he could not afford to let his attention shift from his foe for even an instant.

He managed to get another hit in, slashing the dragonborn on the forearm on his primary hand. Natak merely hissed and pulled back a step to adjust his grip on his weapon. Expecting another quick assault, Bredan fell back into his stance once more.

But this time the dragonborn did not charge. Bredan realized too late what he was doing, too late to evade the gout of fire that poured from the creature’s huge jaws and engulfed him.

Again Bredan devolved to instinct, bringing the hilt of his sword up, presenting the weapon point-down toward his foe. He could feel the magic surging at his call. The flames still hurt, but not terribly. As they died, he stepped forward and lifted his sword again. Flames clung to the blade as he swept it into his enemy’s body. This time Natak was caught off guard, and the stroke opened a deep gash just above his left hip. Bredan tried to follow with a thrust toward his face, but the dragonborn recovered swiftly and deflected it with his axe.

Now it was Natak’s turn to fall back. Bredan was not entirely surprised to see the flow of blood from the dragonborn’s wound quickly ease and then cease completely. Just like his own friends were boosting him, the shaman was aiding his champion. Apparently, the creatures’ code of honor did not preclude such aid. It was probably for the best; without Xeeta’s spell and Quellan’s bond Bredan thought the chief might have already killed him.

Natak launched another attack, and Bredan met it with another shield. This time he was expecting the follow-up, and while he took another hard hit across the body he got his foe off-balance enough to score another deep cut across his opponent’s chest. As Natak shifted to bring his axe around Bredan pulled his sword up low and tore it across his foe’s leg, opening yet another gash. The dragonborn was bleeding from several wounds now, too many for the shaman to counter.

But as Bredan prepared for his foe’s next attack, his muscles suddenly froze. He couldn’t move. His sword was halfway up into a defensive stance, useless against the attack that Natak was already launching.

The axe struck Bredan in the chest. The dwarf-forged steel held, but the impact of the blow knocked him off his feet. He flew back several paces and landed in the grass, trampling down a broad swath of it.

Twenty feet away, a stir went through Bredan’s companions. Weapons shifted, echoed by a similar motion on the far side of the circle. “Let me know when to start blasting,” Xeeta said, but Quellan held up a hand. “Wait,” he said to all of them, then focused his attention on the combat.

Bredan could only stare up as the hulking figure of his foe stepped into view. Natak had his axe up but hesitated; maybe his code of honor made him reluctant to strike down a helpless foe, at least while all of his people were watching. But finally he lifted the weapon above his head. Bredan focused his mind, tried to call upon the power that had aided him before, but he couldn’t shake off the shaman’s spell.

A collective hush spread through both sides watching the fight, but the killing strike didn’t come. The axe hung in mid-air. Natak’s entire body tensed, and Bredan realized that Quellan must have hit the chief with the same magic that the shaman had used on him.

Bredan took advantage of the delay, throwing the full force of his will against the spell. For a moment he thought that his muscles might tear themselves apart from the effort, but then he felt it come apart and he was free. He rolled back to his feet, stumbling a bit until he got full control of his legs again. He turned back to his foe, undecided about whether he should take advantage, but he decision was unnecessary. Natak too had recovered, and he was shaking out his limbs as he circled to the side. The dragonborn looked over toward his shaman and made a slashing gesture with one hand, but Bredan couldn’t tell if he was telling him to desist or calling for more aid.

Bredan knew that he was running out of time. He could only call upon his magic so many times, and Xeeta’s spell would only last a few more seconds at best. But beyond that was his own dwindling endurance. He was in good shape, his training augmented by the hard work he’d put his body to since they’d arrived in Weltarin, but he already knew that the dragonborn had a remarkable stamina. He had no idea how long the drugs that boosted their strength and constitution lasted, but he guessed it would be longer than his own muscles would take him.

He went back into his simple stance just as Natak launched another attack. He expected yet another surprise, and so he wasn’t caught entirely off guard when the two blades met in another violent parry and then his foe charged into him. Neither could use their weapons effectively in such close quarters, so Bredan let his sword go and grabbed hold of the axe. The dragonborn’s strength was overpowering, but Bredan had the advantage of size and position. Natak lunged forward, trying to knock his foe off balance, but Bredan dug his feet in and held his ground. The chief snapped his jaws around the warrior’s forearm, trying to shatter his grip and pull the axe free, but Bredan just gritted his teeth and held on. Natak thrust his other hand up, driving his claws toward his opponent’s face, but Bredan snapped his head forward and caught the attack with the brow of his helmet.

For a moment the two foes held each other in a deadly embrace. Then Natak tried one last gambit. The dragonborn spread its wings and leapt up, trying to free himself and attack his foe from above. Bredan held onto the axe, but then Natak drove one clawed foot into his chest, using the strength of his legs to pull away. The chief let out a roar of triumph as he sprang a good ten feet into the air, the axe coming up to strike. But when he looked down, he realized that he’d been tricked. Bredan’s sword was in his hands again and already swinging up to meet his foe as he started to descend. Natak tried to beat his wings in an attempt to evade, but it was too late. The sword struck him on the right side where his leg met his body. The impact shattered his hip and carved deep into his gut. The force of the blow swung the crippled dragonborn around. As he fell Bredan struck again, biting into his right arm and knocking the axe from his grasp.

A dismal sound passed through the gathered dragonborn as Natak fell to the ground. It faded into a pregnant hush as Bredan stepped forward over his fallen foe.

The enlarge spell had faded, restoring him to his normal size, but that only made the sight of the battered human standing over the dying dragonborn that much more impressive. Natak laughed as he looked up at his victorious opponent. Blood gurgled from his jaws as he turned his head, presenting his throat. The point of the sword hung over the chieftain as he waited for Bredan to finish it.

For a moment, it looked as though he would do it. A tense quiet hung over the meadow that had been transformed into a bloody battlefield. The sword waited only for a twitch of a hand for the killing thrust. But then Bredan drew back. Without taking his eyes off his foe, he took several steps back. He paused only to recover the huge axe and then made his way back to his companions.

Glori was the first to meet him. “Are you okay?” she asked, pouring a cure wounds spell into him.

“I’ve been better. Quellan, are you all right?” The cleric looked as though he was having some trouble standing. Blood had seeped out from his armor at all the places where Bredan had been struck by the chief’s axe.

“I’m all right,” Quellan said.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Kosk reminded them. Bredan turned to look at the dragonborn, both the cohort that had accompanied the chief to the duel and the dozens more still standing in a row along the far edge of the meadow.

“Maybe you broke some stupid rule by not killing him,” Xeeta pointed out. As Glori escorted Bredan back into their ranks she stepped protectively in front of him, her rod cradled too-casually in the crook of her arm.

“Nobody do anything aggressive,” Bredan said. “It’s their move.”

The companions watched as Natak slowly pulled himself to his feet. It was clear that it took a herculean effort just to get that far. Blood had poured down over the dragonborn’s legs, and trails of it had coursed from the sides of his jaws to stain his neck and chest. With his hip shattered he could only walk with an awkward, shambling gait that had to be inflicting agony with each step.

“If he gets to the shaman we could have another fight on our hands,” Kosk warned.

“He won’t,” Xeeta said.

But Natak came to a stop a good five or six paces from his allies. With a slow effort accompanied by wheezing huffs he drew himself upright. The six largest of the red berserker warriors stepped forward to form a circle around him.

Then, without any warning, all six leapt upon their leader and began tearing him to pieces. They did not use weapons, just their claws and teeth. Natak made no move to resist, and in fact seemed to be trying to stay upright until the last possible instant. Barely fifteen seconds passed before it was over. There was little left when the reds drew back and returned to their positions.

“Grim,” Glori said.

“It’s a grim world, here,” Kosk noted.

The dragonborn of the advance party didn’t even look at the companions as they retreated back to their fellows. One of them raised a horn and blew several long notes. Then they turned and made their way back into the jungle. They were still visible when a cohort of several dozen more appeared along the near side of the meadow and hurried to join their comrades.

The adventurers watched until they were all out of sight. “Think that’s the last we’ll see of them?” Glori asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Bredan said. “They know what will happen if they challenge us again.”

“Do you need more healing?” Glori asked.

“I’m fine for now,” Bredan said, and in fact it looked as though he’d gotten his second wind. “Help Quellan, but quickly. I don’t want to stay here another minute longer than necessary.”


Chapter 276

Kosk pulled himself a bit further up on the thick trunk of the fallen tree and peered through the scattered undergrowth between them and the clearing. “I don’t see anything,” the dwarf said. He looked over at Bredan and Glori, who both shrugged.

Mrrik couldn’t understand their words, but the tabaxi accurately sensed their doubt. He reached back and tore a segment of broken branch off of the dead tree. The cat tossed it into the clearing, where it landed in the middle of the open space.

Instantly the bushes to either side of the open space came alive with movement. Tendrils of what looked like creeping vines lunged out and seized hold of the branch. They pulled on it hard enough to snap the wood in two, pulling both pieces into the undergrowth.

“Maybe it would be a good idea to go around,” Kosk said.

As they retraced their steps to where the others waited Bredan watched the sleek figure of the tabaxi hunter. He was grateful that Mrrik and his scouts were with them. This was only the latest of a number of hazards that the tabaxi had helped them evade since they’d left the meadow and the fallen dragonborn chief behind them that morning. Their fears about the dangers of the jungle had been confirmed several times over, and Bredan could not help but think about what they would face once their guides left them and they made their way into the forbidden valley that was their destination.

Mrrik escorted them through the jungle, the tabaxi like a silent ghost in contrast to the rest of them. Bredan spotted a green and yellow snake dangling from a tree branch off to their left. The creature was as thick around as his leg, but since the cats did not seem worried he ignored it and kept his attention on the jungle around them. He heard one of the sailors exclaim and point at the thing a few moments later. He could hear Quellan reassuring them, then a question about whether the thing might be edible. That drew a tired smile from Bredan.

Fortunately, the detour was brief, and Mrrik gestured them back onto the trail that they’d been following for most of that afternoon. It wasn’t much of a path, the forest pressing up around them on both sides, often obscuring the route until they were literally on top of it. Without the tabaxi they would have been lost immediately. Rodan was a good tracker, but this place was alien compared to anything any of them had experienced before.

They passed a tree bearing fruit, juicy-looking red globes that dangled invitingly close to the trail. One of the sailors reached for one, only to be cautioned by a growl from one of Mrrik’s scouts. The two groups were learning to understand each other better, saving Quellan’s spells for circumstances when spoken communication was absolutely necessary. Mrrik saw the exchange and made a gesture with his claws at his throat that was unmistakable.

“The rules here seem simple,” Xeeta said to Bredan as they continued forward. “If it looks good, it will probably kill you. Also, if it looks dangerous, it will also probably kill you. Basically, everything will probably kill you.”

“The tabaxi haven’t tried to kill us,” Quellan pointed out. “Well, not after that first encounter. But that was a misunderstanding.”

The cleric was a little out of breath. Bredan could empathize; he was drenched in sweat under his armor. Fortunately the cats had no difficulty finding fresh water, so dehydration wasn’t a concern, but carrying around sixty pounds of metal, in addition to his other gear, was grueling in this environment. But removing it was not an option, so he gritted his teeth and soldiered on.

A squall caught up to them a bit later, dumping a torrent of rain onto them before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. The rain was refreshing, but the relief was short-lived; it quickly grew as hot as it had been before, and the added moisture made the air so muggy that Bredan thought he could almost drink it. The tabaxi merely shook out their furred bodies and kept on, forcing the others to do the same.

Night came on them so quickly that Bredan almost didn’t notice, or maybe it was the exhaustion from the long trek. He blinked as he realized that the column had stopped, then looked around to see that the surrounding jungle was already deep in shadow. Mrrik directed them a short distance off the trail, to a rocky hollow edged by a shallow pool of clear water.

“Oh, thank the gods,” Sandros said. He started toward the pool, but hesitated and looked at Mrrik. “It’s not bloody poisonous, is it?”

The cat barked a laugh then made a permissive gesture. Several others followed the sailor over to the pool, where they drank deeply before splashing the water on their faces.

“Hey, are you okay?” Glori asked.

Bredan blinked; he’d sort of drifted off for a moment. “Yeah. Just tired.”

“Not surprising, given all that metal you’re lugging around. And the fact that you got your ass kicked this morning.”

“You should see the other guy,” Bredan said.

“Yeah. Listen, you should take off the armor, wash up, relax a bit.”

Bredan started to respond that it was still dangerous, but the thought of remaining in his sweat-soaked clothes became suddenly intolerable. “That sounds like a good idea.”

They began setting up camp. Quellan cast his tongues spell again and began talking with Mrrik about what lay ahead. The tabaxi hunter didn’t have any new information to add about the valley, but he told them that they should reach the mountains that rimmed it by tomorrow evening, if they were able to maintain the same grueling pace.

Malik and Kavek began gathering wood for a fire, but Mrrik warned them that the scent of smoke carried too far in the jungle. Even after the sun set it remained hot enough that they didn’t need to the fire for warmth, but the looks on the faces of the tired travelers said they missed the reassurance that a glowing campfire would have offered.

“Maybe we can have a fire in the morning,” Quellan said. “We need to make sure our clothes are dry before we set out again.”

“I don’t think I have a single piece of clothing left that is even close to dry,” Glori complained as she unlimbered her pack and stretched her back.

Bredan made his way back from the pool, carrying his armor, while the others began sharing out food from the supplies that the tabaxi had prepared for them. Once again it was fruit and paste wrapped in leaves, the former juicy and sweet, the latter blank but filling.

Malik made a face as he picked a bit of shell out of his paste. “Ugh, there’s a bug in this,” he said.

“I think it’s mostly bugs, actually,” Rodan said, as he loudly crunched into a bite of the stuff.

“Gah,” Malik said, putting his leaf down on a rock.

“Insects actually can be quite nutritious,” Quellan said. “Lots of protein.”

“You can have mine,” the sailor said.

“Eat it or don’t, but we’re going to be keeping the same pace tomorrow,” Kosk said. “If you can’t keep up, we won’t be slowing down for you.”

Malik shook his head, but finally reached for the paste again with obvious reluctance.

“Do you eat meat?” Glori asked Malik.

The tabaxi listened as Quellan repeated her question, then growled a response. “They do eat meat while on the hunt,” the cleric explained. “But at the moment their primary goal is to get us to the valley and get back to their village as quickly as possible.”

“Are you afraid that the dragonborn won’t honor Natak’s pledge?” Bredan asked. “What will happen with them now?”

“There will be a new leader,” Mrrik replied. “He will need to prove himself. There will likely be raids.”

“So nothing’s changed, then?” Xeeta asked.

The tabaxi considered. “The defeat of Natak was significant,” he said. “He was a mighty foe, and none of his possible successors will be as much of a threat. And the dragonborn may be hesitant to attack us again, especially while your people remain with us.”

“The rest of our crew aren’t warriors,” Sandros pointed out.

“Don’t underestimate Captain Sond and her magic,” Glori said.

“We appreciate all that you have done for us,” Quellan said.

“You brought our lost ones back to us,” Mrrik replied.

They consumed their meal quickly; they were all too tired for much idle chatter. As they were finishing one of the cats began yowling, a guttural sound that rose to a high-pitched screech. The others joined in, with Mrrik finally adding his voice to the din.

“Gods, that’s an awful racket!” Malik said, covering his ears.

“Show some respect,” Rodan said, but he clearly didn’t enjoy the sound either.

“Does it mean anything?” Glori asked Quellan.

The cleric shook his head. “It may be some kind of ritual,” he said.

“Or maybe it’s what passes for music among them,” Glori said with a smile.

The companions waited until the tabaxi finished their “song.” “What was that?” Bredan asked.

“We bid the day farewell,” Mrrik said. “And thank the spirits of the sky and land for their generosity this day.”

“If today was generous, I don’t want to see what it’s like when they’re being stingy,” Kosk said.

“Why don’t you play something for us, Glori?” Bredan suggested.

The bard touched her lyre. “We’re all tired…”

“I think we could all use a lift,” the warrior said.

Glori looked at Quellan, who nodded. She took out the instrument and began to play a soft melody that filled the hollow. The cats watched her, entranced as she strummed an increasingly intricate lattice of notes that somehow evoked more peaceful times and the camaraderie of old friends gathered around a hearth.

Xeeta came over and sat down next to Bredan. “You seem melancholy,” she said quietly.

“I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” he said. “But I’m not sure I’m going to like what we’re going to find in the coming days.”

“All we can do is live each day,” she said.

“You’re all here because of me,” he said.

The sorcerer poked him in the side. “It is arrogance to bear the weight of others’ choices,” she said. “We are here because we care for you, Bredan. We will support you, whatever waits for us in Savek Vor.”

“Thank you,” Bredan said.

The music came to an end. The companions applauded, while the cats made hissing sounds of appreciation. Mrrik stood and faced them. “Sleep,” he said. “You need not fear the jungle tonight; we will keep watch over your rest. We have a long march ahead of us tomorrow if we wish to reach the base of the peaks that ward the sacred valley by nightfall.”

With that announcement the tabaxi rose and disappeared into the surrounding jungle, leaving the adventurers to unfold their bedrolls and seek comfortable spots around the hollow to take their rest. The ground was rocky and uncomfortable, and the jungle a looming presence that filled the night with unidentified sounds, but within just a few minutes all of them were in the deep sleep of the physically and emotionally spent.


Chapter 277

The next day the journey became even more difficult, as the terrain grew more rugged and the trail became even more of a will-o-wisp. The company trudged through densely-overgrown ravines, clambered over steep ridges, and forded stagnant pools that were thick with clinging muck. They didn’t encounter any large predators or other dangerous creatures, but that didn’t mean that the day was without hazards. At one point a swarm of what had to be a thousand beetles, each a foot long, erupted from the shell of a rotten tree along their path. The things had not attacked, but Bredan experienced a vivid flashback to their desperate fight at the abandoned mine in the Silverpeak Valley. That had been when he’d first discovered his budding magical skills, he recalled. It seemed now like that had been years ago rather than just a few months.

To Bredan it felt like they were barely crawling over the landscape, but in those periodic intervals where they gained a ridge or the jungle parted enough to permit a view of the terrain ahead he could see a gray line of peaks in the distance, larger by far than any of the rises they’d navigated thus far. Those mountains grew steadily closer as the day wore on, until finally they loomed over them as the light began to fade. The jungle began to thin out as the ground became rocky and began to rise. The companions, already exhausted, slowed even further, but Mrrik drove them on, growling at them when his gestures failed to stir them.

“I think… we must be getting close… to where we’re going to camp,” Glori huffed as they struggled up a difficult slope.

“Let’s hope so,” Quellan said. “I don’t think we could manage another mile. But Mrrik said there are caves that offer good shelter along the foot of the mountains.”

“With our luck, there’s probably a dragon living there,” Xeeta said.

“Don’t tempt fate,” Kosk muttered.

They reached the top of the rise and tromped through a final thin fringe of struggling trees to see an almost sheer cliff ahead of them. The exhausted companions stared up at it in dismay, but Mrrik was already gesturing them to the left, where a deep cleft in the stone appeared to offer an easier route forward. A low sound reached their ears, a soft whistling that sounded haunting and sepulchral.

Darkness swallowed them up as they made their way into the fissure. The route was narrow at first, the surrounding cliffs seeming to press in upon them, but within about fifty feet they drew back and they found themselves in a broad canyon. The interior of the canyon was a broad bowl with walls that sloped up gradually into they approached vertical near the summit, about forty feet up. The cliffs were pocked with dozens of caves. Most of them were just shallow gouges in the rock, but there were several that looked as though they might be more substantial. They could just make out another cleft back in the rear of the canyon, where the ground sloped steeply upward into deep shadows. The source of the sound they’d heard earlier was here as well, the whistling coming from some of the gaps in the walls when the evening breeze flowed through them.

Mrrik stopped, and turned to Quellan. The tabaxi waited while the cleric cast his tongues spell again. “These are the Whistling Caves,” the hunter said. “We go no further.”

“We thank you for showing us the way,” the cleric said.

“That crack up there leads to the route over the mountains?” Bredan asked.

Mrrik barked assent. Quellan said, “He says that there is a pass, steep but manageable. The ancient city can be seen from the summit.”

Kosk asked, “How does he know, if his people have never been up there?”

Quellan didn’t translate his words, and instead said, “The tabaxi have proven themselves worthy of our trust.”

Mrrik turned back toward the other scouts, who had waited back at the entrance to the canyon, but Bredan quickly said, “Wait, you’re just leaving?”

The cat hunter growled a quick reply without stopping. The other cats fell in around him as he disappeared back into the crevice that led out of the canyon.

“They’re not much for elaborate farewells,” Rodan said.

“I would have thought they would at least have spent the night,” Glori said. “They aren’t carrying as much stuff as we are, but they have to be tired, especially after they kept watch all last night.”

“I think it challenged their taboos to even come this far,” Quellan explained.

“This place certainly feels haunted,” Xeeta said, as a particularly strong gust sounded a mournful cry through the place. The canyon walls caused the sounds to echo weirdly, adding to the effect.

“I hope that not going to continue all night,” Malik said, shuddering.

“There could be a bloody orchestra playing, and it wouldn’t stop me from falling asleep,” Glori said.

“Come on, let’s set up camp,” Quellan suggested.

They were all spent, but hunger and wariness prodded them as they scouted out the canyon. None of the caves were large enough to accommodate the entire group, but there were several that were big enough for offer shelter for at least a few people. The adventurers spread out and claimed them. After a brief discussion they gathered some wood from the edge of the jungle and made a fire in a natural depression close to a few of the larger caves. They were alert to the risks that Mrrik had cited, but they all desperately needed some light and warmth, reassurance against what they had seen and the still-nebulous threats that waited for them ahead.

They had traveled together long enough that they knew their roles, and there was little idle chatter as they set up camp. The constant whistling from the caves made conversation difficult, in any event. Quellan brewed them some hot tea from the herbs that the tabaxi had provided, while Kosk began preparing griddle cakes from the last of the ground meal left from the salvaged stores of the Golden Gull. The companions wrung out sweat-soaked clothes and set them on rocks next to the fire to dry out.

“So what do you think we’ll find, on the other side of them peaks?” Malik finally asked. The sailor was crouched almost on the very lip of the firepit, the gusts from the wind causing the flames to dance and shadows to drift across his features.

“We’re not certain,” Glori said. “The tabaxi weren’t able to tell us all that much about the ruined city. The place is taboo to them. We can only assume it’s dangerous.”

“But you do know enough about it to decide that’s where you need to go,” Sandros persisted. “You’re going there for a reason.” He looked briefly across the fire at Kavek, who was poking the flames with a stick. “We heard about the ruined fort that you found along the coast,” the sailor continued.

The companions shared a long look, clearly weighing how much to share, and their promise to the tabaxi matriarch. Finally, Bredan said, “We’re seeking a very old artifact. That’s why we came to Weltarin. We believe it is located in this ancient city.”

“Where?” Malik asked.

“We don’t know,” Glori said. “Is it hidden? Maybe. Guarded? Maybe. Will there be deadly traps, powerful creatures, magical entities summoned to keep us from finding it? Who knows?”

“That all sounds pretty terrifying,” Sandros said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Bredan said. “We have to go. The artifact is not just a piece of historical lore. It holds great power, power that others are seeking. We have to find it.”

As he spoke, he too stared into the fire with an intensity that had the sailors—and a few of the warrior’s companions—casting glances at each other around the circle. “So, ah, what happens when we find it?” Malik finally asked. “Then what?”

“Then we bring it back to the coast, build a ship, head to Fort Promise, and from there find passage back to Voralis,” Kosk said.

Malik snorted. “You make it sound so simple.”

“Well, he didn’t mention the things that will try to kill us at each step of the way, but yeah,” Glori said.

“Well,” Malik said. “Thank you for telling us what we’re in for, anyway.”

“We tried to dissuade you, back at the tabaxi city,” Rodan reminded them.

“Yeah,” Sandros said, in such a way that suggested he might be reconsidering his decision. He looked over at Kavek again, but the other sailor was still focused on the campfire. His eyes briefly flicked up at Bredan, his face silhouetted by the crackling flames.

“We should all get some rest,” Quellan said. “We may not find a place this protected again.”

Kalasien stood. “I suggest we let the spellcasters get an uninterrupted night’s sleep,” he said. “As the cleric said, we have good shelter here, and plenty of people to keep an eye out. Perhaps four shifts of two… Kosk and Sandros, Rodan and Malik, Elias and myself, and then Bredan and Kavek.”

“I’ll not turn down that offer,” Xeeta said. “This jungle is a miserable place through which to travel.”

“It’s even harder for Bredan, in his heavy armor,” Glori pointed out. “And he had to fight a battle this morning.”

“I’m so used to getting my ass kicked, I hardly notice it anymore,” Bredan said. When Glori opened her mouth to protest he forestalled her with a raised hand. “It’s fine, I can stand my watch. Better go grab a cave before the good ones are all taken.”

She held his eyes for a moment before she nodded in assent. She walked over and took Quellan by the hand. The half-orc couldn’t blush, but he looked slightly embarrassed as she led him toward one of the larger caves along the rise behind the camp. Those not assigned to the first watch began to gather their things and do the same. There were enough caves that most of them could have enough room to lay down their bedrolls and have at least a small modicum of privacy.

Xeeta came over to Bredan, who was watching Glori and Quellan as they disappeared into their chosen cave. “No one would comment if you sought out Rodan,” she said.

“I have too much on my mind to think about that right now,” he said.

“Some might say that times like these are exactly when one should think about such things,” she said, but she didn’t press him, folding her cloak around her as she headed off toward one of the unclaimed caves.

Bredan stood there a while longer, watching the fire. Then he picked up his pack and headed for one of the vacant caves.


Chapter 278

The wind continued to blow deep into the jungle night, the shifting gusts causing hollow moans to sound from the caves within the canyon. Wisps of cloud drifted across the night sky, obscuring the stars and the thin slice of moon that hung low in the sky.

The constant sounds and the lack of light made it difficult to keep watch, but Elias was a trained soldier, used to tackling challenging tasks without complaint. Not that he was happy about it. Deep inside, where none of the others could see, he had profound concerns about this mission that had already claimed the lives of two of his comrades. He did not want to join them, falling in this gods-forsaken place a world away from his homeland.

He rose and took a dozen steps, choosing a new spot that offered him a slightly different vantage of the camp. He was wary of the cliff edge; the descent was steep enough that he would escape a fall with only broken bones if he was lucky. And luck seemed to be a rare commodity in this new land.

From his new position he could see a bit more of the canyon, though all he could make out in the near-darkness was vague shadows. The fire had completely died out, leaving the caves where the others slept just black slits against the only slightly lighter gray of the canyon walls. He could not see Kalasien, but that was not unexpected; the man was hard to see even in the light of the day.

The thought of his superior awoke a fresh stir of disquiet. Elias had spent his life following orders without challenge, but the Arreshian agent had been distant and odd of late. It was probably just this place. It had an effect on all of them, an effect that got only more pronounced as they pushed deeper into the interior of this rotten continent. Strong leadership would have been reassuring at a time like this, but Elias would do his duty even in its absence.

He started to turn away, but caught a hint of motion out of the corner of his eye. Reaching for his sword, he leaned forward—respecting that treacherous edge—to get a better look.

The figure was little more than a shadow, but somehow Elias thought it wasn’t Kalasien. Something off in the way he moved—assuming it was a he. Whoever it was, they were definitely trying to sneak out of the camp undetected. Elias watched as the shadow made its way up into the cleft that ascended at the rear of the canyon before it disappeared from his view.

He considered for a moment. He scanned the canyon again but saw no sign of Kalasien. He could have shouted an alarm to wake those in the camp, but the figure could have been departing for any number of valid reasons, down to seeking a little privacy for a nature break. That would have been stupid but not dangerous, not to the group as a whole, anyway.

Elias made his way along the cliffs toward the cleft. He knew the way; that was how he had gotten up here in the first place. Kalasien had suggested it as a good vantage when they’d taken up their shift about an hour ago. The route was mostly bare rock, with an occasional struggling bush where some soil had managed to find a home in a crevice. Elias had no difficulty even in the poor light.

He went about fifty yards before came to a spot that offered a good view of the cleft. He saw no sign of the mysterious figure at first, but then, as he started to turn back, he saw a form standing next to the gap that led further up into the range. That was the beginnings of the pass that Mrrik had told them about, the route they would be taking once they set out in the morning.

Wary, Elias drew his sword. He started forward, but the figure did not react. In the darkness it was impossible to tell if the other was even facing toward him. Elias considered hissing a greeting, but his suspicions kept him silent. His boots made almost no sound as he glided forward over the bare stone.

They were only about ten paces apart when the figure suddenly took a step forward, out of the shadow of the gap into the faint starlight. He was wearing a heavy cloak but the hood was down, and there was just enough light for Elias to identify him.

“Kavek!” he hissed. “What are you doing here?”

“I am sorry,” the sailor said. “You were a loyal soldier, but I’m afraid you have something that we need.”

Elias tensed, but all he heard was the faintest footstep before someone was on him from behind. The soldier was a strong man, and competent, but his opponent was both fast and powerful. One arm snapped around his throat, almost pulling him off his feet, while the other pinned his wrist, keeping his sword immobile. Elias tried to chop back with his other hand, tried to drive a boot into his foe’s knee, but he might as well have been trying to knock down a tree for all the effect his desperate blows had. The grip around his neck tightened until he could hear the bones inside grinding together. He made a last effort to throw his sword down, to make a clatter that might warn the camp, but Kavek caught the weapon before it could hit the stones.

“Your watch is ended,” he said to Elias as the darkness enveloped him.


Chapter 279

The wind was, if anything, stronger further up into the mountain pass, the gusts screaming as they tore through the narrow space between the steep stone walls.

Kurok knelt in a small hollow just off one of the many twists and turns in the ascent. The loud noises of the wind were a constant here, but the sheer sides of the hollow kept most of its force from reaching him as he inscribed wet marks on the rocks from a dark vial. Together the marks made the outlines of a diagram, though it was all but invisible in the almost perfect darkness.

Once he was finished the hobgoblin knelt alongside the pattern and gathered himself. He’d let his disguise lapse for the moment. It was exhausting, keeping the Mask of Many Faces in place all this time. He’d learned to sleep in snatches, and had even begun to dream in the common tongue of the three kingdoms, the familiar cadences of his native language fading into vague memory. But Drekkath’s strict tutelage had gotten them this far.

He looked up, but even his darksight didn’t reveal anything more than an outline standing in the shadow of the cliffs. The doppelganger had done what was necessary, but it hadn’t shown any inclination to participate in the ritual other than as an observer.

Kurok let Drekkath, the shrieking wind, and every other distraction fade into the background as he focused on his spell. He had foregone the use of his magic for so long—barring the Mask and a few other notable exceptions—that it took him a few moments to summon it. But when it came it came in a flood, causing him to gasp. He had never channeled this much raw power before, and he almost let it slide away before he could manage to direct it into the pattern that he’d been taught on the other side of the world, months ago.

The smears of blood he’d left on the stone began to sizzle as the power hit them. Smoke flared from the marks, swirling together to form a vortex in the middle of the pattern, separate and distinct from the natural flows of the wind that surrounded them. They gathered together in the center, just for a moment coalescing enough to form a coherent circle through which a figure stepped through.

The figure stood there as Kurok slumped back, nearly collapsing upon the stones as he gasped for breath. The newcomer wore the same guise as at their last meeting, down to the pale drapes of rich cloth that did not stir at all in the wind. “Well?” he asked.

It took an effort, but Kurok managed to lean forward and shift one of the stones that made up the edge of his diagram. The blood-marks had completely vanished. As soon as he had moved the rock the outsider stepped out of the remnants of the pattern. He regarded both Kurok and Drekkath with a weighing look.

“I was beginning to despair that you would ever achieve sufficient power to facilitate a transition,” he said.

Kurok pulled himself slowly to his feet. “This is the first opportunity we have had to attempt the ritual with little chance of detection,” he said.

“Yes, well, you were given this job because of your ability to make these judgments,” the other said. He cast an expansive look around the hollow. “So, this is Weltarin. And the others?”

“Asleep in a canyon a few hundred yards from here,” Drekkath said. “We will need to return quickly. If our absence is detected there will be difficulties.”

“Indeed. So, the mission—”

“We have uncovered the location of the book,” the doppelganger broke in. “We are headed there now.”

“Excellent,” the outsider said. “Most excellent.”

“We have the opportunity to thin their ranks considerably, tonight,” Drekkath went on. “It may even be better if we exterminate them all while we have the opportunity.”

“Such bloodthirstiness!” the outsider said. “I thought that your kind lived for this kind of game?”

“We do not use our gifts for the sake of using them,” Drekkath replied. “We use them to an end.”

“And that end is why you are here.”

“It would be better to wait,” Kurok said. “Securing the book may not be as easy as walking into the city and taking it.”

“It most certainly will not,” the outsider said. “You would be wise to listen to your thoughtful colleague,” he added to Drekkath.

“The longer we wait, the greater the chance that our ruse will be discovered,” the doppelganger said. “And even if we are not, it will be very hard to take the book from them once they have won it.”

“They must not be permitted to gain custody of the book under any circumstances.”

“So what are you telling us, then?” Kurok asked.

“Yes, some more concrete assistance would be welcome,” Drekkath added.

“You both know that I am prohibited from direct intervention,” the outsider said. “The magic that brought me here can only facilitate my presence upon this plane for a short time.”

“Convenient,” Drekkath said.

The other fixed the doppelganger with a long stare that seemed to drop the temperature in the hollow by a few degrees. Finally, he said, “Bredan Karras is the key. Follow him, and he will show you the way to the book. The others are but tools to use and discard as needed.”

“Finally, some directives that suit my tastes,” Drekkath said. The creature started to depart, but hesitated when the outsider walked over to Kurok. The doppelganger paused in the narrow gap that led out of the hollow, clearly curious.

“You have used our gifts well, Kurok,” the summoned entity said. “I offer you a grant of power one last time. This is all we can do. Once you enter the valley, you will not be able to contact us or seek our advice again. The gifts you have received will function, but you cannot open a gateway between our realms. Do you understand?”

After a moment’s delay, Kurok nodded. He’d barely completed the gesture when the other sprang forward, seizing hold of the hobgoblin’s throat with one hand while the other splayed across his forehead. Kurok stiffened and let out a shuddering gasp, his hands twitching as he hung there helplessly. The connection lasted only a few heartbeats before the outsider drew back, leaving the warlock to waver drunkenly for a few moments before he was able to reassert control over his body.

The pale figure stepped back into the circle, a wry smile on his features. “When we next meet, I expect to see the book in your hands,” he said. Then, without any flash or other special effects he simply vanished.

Drekkath and Kurok looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, the doppelganger said, “We’d better get back.”


Chapter 280

Bredan woke suddenly, his chest heaving as he fought back an intense sensation of danger and alarm. He struggled out of his blanket and almost struck his head on the low roof of the cave before he remembered where he was. He slumped back, trying to recover his equilibrium. It was a dream, just a dream. There were no shouts of warning or cries of battle; the camp was not under attack.

He did not remember what the dream had been about, just that it had been intense and threatening. He looked out of the cave and saw that it was still night, though the sky was beginning to brighten incrementally as a preview of dawn.

Bredan slipped out of the cave, leaving his gear and his armor where it was for now. It felt liberating not having his second skin of steel weighing him down. He could summon his sword if need be, a reassuring presence that was always with him.

The camp was utterly quiet. He could make a few of the heads—or feet—of a few of his companions sticking out of some of the smaller caves.

A scuff of boots on stone had him spinning around, his hand shooting out to call his sword. He was barely able to stop himself when he saw it was Kalasien.

“Hey,” the agent said, holding up his hands in reassurance. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” Bredan said, letting his hand drop slowly. “You didn’t wake me for my watch.”

“You had a long day yesterday,” Kalasien said. “I didn’t fight a giant dragon-man before the day’s march.”

Bredan nodded and stepped down toward the fire pit. The fire had long since gone out, leaving just a dark slash in the ground. “You should grab another hour if you can,” he said. “I won’t be able to get back to sleep.” He sat down on one of the rocks that faced the pit.

Kalasien joined him there. “I understand. We’ve come a long way since Severon.”

Bredan looked over at the other man. “Did you have any idea what we would find, that day in the Vault?”

Kalasien looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’m following the threads of fate, just like you,” he said.

“You haven’t offered much in the way of suggestions lately,” Bredan said. “You were more… assertive earlier in the journey.”

The other man shrugged. “You seem to know more about what’s happening here,” he said.

“If I give that impression, it’s an illusion,” Bredan said. He cast a long slow glance around the canyon. “Where’s Elias?” he asked.

“He was keeping watch on the heights atop the cliff,” Kalasien said. “There’s an easy route around from the cleft that leads up into the pass.”

Bredan got up and scanned the cliffs that surrounded the canyon. “I don’t see him,” he said.

“He’s probably hanging back to avoid silhouetting himself against the skyline,” Kalasien said. He got up too and wiped his hands on his trousers. “I’ll go check.”

“We’ll both go,” Bredan said.

The two of them had only gone about fifty yards into the narrow back portion of the canyon when they spotted the body. Kalasien reached him first, turning him over to show his bloody face. He pressed his fingers to the soldier’s throat. “Dead,” Kalasien said. “Looks like his neck is broken.”

“How long?” Bredan asked.

“It’s difficult to tell. The human body retains heat for a while after death. Maybe an hour? A little less?”

“None of us heard him fall,” Bredan said. But he thought back to the sudden way he’d been jarred from sleep.

“Not surprising, with the constant noise of the wind moving through the caves,” Kalasien said.

“And you saw nothing?”

Kalasien shook his head. “I was keeping watch in the canyon.”

“What about Kavek? He was supposed to be with me on this shift.”

“I think he’s still asleep. I would have seen if Elias had come down to wake him. I will go make sure, right now.”

Bredan looked down at the body. “Better wake the others,” he said.


Chapter 281

The ground was too hard for digging, so they buried Elias under a cairn of piled rocks. By the time they were finished the sun had risen fully and it was time to get moving again. They shared out the fallen soldier’s gear, the sailors dividing his armor and weapons between them.

The climb up into the mountain pass was long and arduous. There were numerous places where the route was steep enough to require using both hands and feet to ascend, and they had ample reason to make use of the coils of rope that Rodan had brought along. They were wary of threats, especially after the mysterious death of Elias, but nothing materialized out of the rocks to challenge their progress. The clouds thickened above them, growing steadily darker as the day progressed, but mercifully it did not rain. From all the loose rocks dislodged as they climbed, it seemed like rockslides could be a hazard here.

It took them a good chunk of the day to make their way to the summit, at least six hours of climbing after they left their camp in the canyon below. The jungle stretched out behind them, a vast expanse of green that culminated in a faint blue haze on the distant horizon. They took a brief pause for lunch, but only a few other breaks, since they had the shared motivation of not being caught in the mountains by nightfall.

It looked as though they still had quite a long way to go when they reached a crest to find a deep cleft in the rocks ahead. The cleft passed between two peaks that rose up hundreds of feet to each side, leaving the interior deep in shadow. Alert to something that might be hiding in that darkness, Rodan led them forward.

The cleft quickly narrowed from maybe twenty feet across at the opening to ten feet, then even further until they were forced to walk single file. It was all but impossible to speak since the wind blasted through the gap with a dull shriek, tugging at their clothes. The sky remained a thin line of blue far above them, except occasionally where a boulder had fallen from above and gotten wedged into the cleft. At one point they had to duck to creep under one such slab that had almost managed to block the route completely. They negotiated the obstacle carefully, looked around to confirm that there was nothing waiting to ambush them, then continued forward.

The narrow passage continued for several hundred feet before it widened again and deposited them on a broad stone shelf. Even with the overcast skies the transition left them blinking against the intensity of the light. But as they recovered, their attention was drawn to the remarkable view that stretched out ahead of them.

The valley was broad, miles across at least, the far side just a vague haze in the distance. It looked like the mountains surrounded it on all sides, the pale gray peaks forming a sharp backdrop to the jungle that filled the interior. It extended for as far as they could see, but in the center of the valley, sticking out from that green expanse, was what they had come to find.

“Savek Vor, I presume,” Glori said.

It was difficult to make out details from their current vantage. Wisps of fog hung low over the valley, even at the height of the day, and at places it was difficult to tell where the jungle ended and the city began. The uneven lines of the structures they could see confirmed that the place was in ruins. But they could clearly make out a number of monumental buildings that were still mostly intact, rising above the level of the surrounding jungle.

“It looks like a big place,” Xeeta said. “Spread out.” She cast a meaningful look over at the sailors, who were staring at the city in a mix of trepidation and wonder.

“Lot of ground to cover before we even get there,” Glori said.

“We might be able to get to the base of the range before nightfall,” Rodan said. He’d gone over to the edge of the protruding shelf to scout the best route down. This side of the range looked shallower and less steep than the route they’d spent the day navigating, but it was still a considerable drop to the tops of the trees that filled the floor of the valley.

“We’ll let’s get going, then,” Bredan said.


I'm not so familiar with 5e, but can't Quellan do some sort of commune-type divination to see who the killer is? Or at least get a "the killer walks among you" type hint?
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I'm not so familiar with 5e, but can't Quellan do some sort of commune-type divination to see who the killer is? Or at least get a "the killer walks among you" type hint?
They're still just shy of 9th level, so no commune yet, though Quellan will have cause to try a divination a bit later in the story.

* * *

Chapter 282

The route down was not especially difficult, though Rodan’s chosen path frequently came close to sharp drop-offs that had them all treading carefully. But the descent stressed new muscles, and soon they were all feeling the strain in their legs. At one point, Bredan slipped and slammed against a jut of stone, hard enough to scrape the dwarf-forged breastplate of his armor.

“You okay?” Glori asked as she offered him a hand up.

“Only hurt my pride,” he said.

“Pride can be weighty, but sixty pounds of steel plate is heavier,” she said.

Rodan had paused at the disturbance and called back, “Do you need a rest?”

“I’m okay,” Bredan said. “We should keep going, it’s getting late.”

“Umm… is that bird heading this way?” Xeeta asked.

They all looked up into the sky. The dark clouds still hung low overhead, but they could see some specks in the distance, hovering high over the center of the valley.

One of them, in fact, did seem to be moving in their direction.

“That’s not a bird,” Rodan said after a moment.

“Perhaps it would be a good idea to seek cover,” Quellan said.

The stretch of descent they’d been navigating had been fairly open, but there were plenty of spaces among the rocks that suggested possible hiding places further on. Rodan led them that way, careful of loose rocks or anything else that could cause one of them to take a badly-timed spill.

The companions took frequently looks up at the approaching creature as it approached. As it got closer, they could see that it had a huge, pointed beak and a crest of some sort that rose up above an elongated skull. It was descending swiftly in a glide, its broad wings extended like sharp blades. It was difficult to gauge its size from a distance, but its wingspan had to be at least thirty feet.

Rodan found a deep gap in the ridge, flanked by a litter of boulders that were each large enough to conceal a few of them. He had unlimbered his bow, and quickly set the string as the others rushed past him.

The thing continued to streak down toward them. They could see that it had thin claws situated midway up each wing, and hind legs that were folded back against its body as it flew. Its beak was like a huge sword, and it seemed to shift slightly as the thing considered targets.

The last members of the column were still straggling toward shelter when the thing tilted its wings back and plummeted through the final gap that separated them. Xeeta spun suddenly and lifted her rod, summoning her magic. A bright point of fire shot out from its tip and streaked toward the creature. For a moment it looked as though the shot would miss, but then the bead exploded into the bright rush of a fireball.

The beast jerked to the side, but its size and momentum carried it through the blast with only minor damage. They could see that its wings and head were scorched with char, but it quickly recovered and shot once more toward its prey.

Rodan fired his bow, but the arrow narrowly missed the creature’s head. Bredan, already in cover, started to rush out to Xeeta’s aid, but Kosk and Glori pulled him back. The sorceress was already running toward them, even as the huge monstrosity loomed large behind her.

“Jump!” Rodan yelled.

Xeeta flung herself forward. Rodan caught her and pulled her behind the nearest boulder just a fraction of a heartbeat before the monster flashed past. It came so close that they could all feel the rush of air from its wings as it went by.

Bredan pulled himself up and poked his head out. He could see the creature as it pulled away, slowly beating its wings to regain altitude. Bits of sparkling light trailed from it briefly; Quellan had blasted it with a guiding bolt in the final moment before its attack. It didn’t look to be that badly hurt, but it no doubt had learned that this prey bit back.

“Is it coming back around?” Sandros asked.

Glori peered out past Bredan. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. She tapped Bredan on the arm. “Sorry about that, before. As big as that thing was and as fast as it was moving, it would have shot you off this ridge like a bullet from a sling.”

“It was the right call,” he said. “A close one, though.”

Xeeta rose, brushing off her leggings. “I do know what I’m doing, you know,” she said lightly.

Malik emerged from behind another of the boulders, staring at the shadowed form still visible in the distance. “What was that bloody thing?” he asked.

“I’ve actually seen something like that before,” Quellan said. “There’s a skeleton in the National History archives back in Severon. It was called a ‘pteranodon.’ Though the one they had was much smaller, its wingspan maybe six or seven feet. They have been extinct in Voralis for millennia.”

“Apparently rather less so over here,” Kosk noted.

“We should keep on moving,” Rodan said. “Keep an eye out in case that thing or one of its friends decides to make another go of it, but don’t go tumbling into a chasm because you’re staring up at the sky.”

The sun had already dropped below the line of peaks on the far side of the valley by the time they reached the base of the mountains, but Rodan found them a good site for a camp before the arrival of full dark. The site was a good bowshot back from the jungle’s edge, in a sheltered nook surrounded by a scatter of boulders. A stream that trickled out of the rocks fed a broad pool that filled half of the nook. Just past the stream there was a gap that led to a hollow protected by a thick overhang that made it almost a cave. The space was clean, without any droppings or other indications that some creature used it as a lair, and it was easily big enough to accommodate the entire group.

The hard day’s climb and descent had left them all exhausted, so after a quick meal and refilling their various containers at the pool they unrolled their bedrolls, set watches, and collapsed into an uneasy sleep.


When preparing Weltarin I drew inspiration from my old Isle of Dread story.

* * *

Chapter 283

Kosk awoke feeling stiff. There must have been a rock or a bit of protruding stone under his bedroll, and it felt like a part of it had gotten under his skin and taken up residence in his muscles.

Kosk had spent the last several years training his body, gaining control over it by asserting control of his ki. He had learned to ignore pain and discomfort, but that didn’t mean that he no longer felt it.

It was still early, the sky outside their little shelter just beginning to brighten with the coming dawn. It looked like most of the others were still asleep; faint sounds of snoring issued from further back in the cleft. Kosk grabbed his robe—what was left of it, the garment was starting to come apart at the seams—and made his way to the narrow opening that led outside. He was already beginning to stretch his muscles when he saw something that brought him to an abrupt halt.

The rocky hollow was full of creatures. Each was about the size of a cart, with a long neck and tail sticking out from a bulbous body supported by squat legs shaped like inverted tree stumps. Their hides were hairless and wrinkled, but looked thick.

Most of the creatures had gathered around the pool, and were dipping their blunt heads into the water to slurp up water. One turned its head slowly around to regard the dwarf with eyes that reminded him of some cows he’d encountered in his earlier days.

“They’re herbivores,” Quellan said.

Kosk turned to see the cleric sitting on a rock nearby. He had a small leather book out and appeared to be sketching the creatures. He had his armor on, and Kosk nodded in approval when he saw his shield and mace sitting next to him, within easy reach.

“I gathered that when they didn’t immediately try to eat us,” Kosk said as he went over to join his friend. “You taking notes for a book on the Weltarin fauna?”

“I can certainly gaining enough data for such a study,” Quellan said. “It looks as though the evolutionary paths diverged significantly on the two continents.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m mostly worried if these things have predators that will try to eat us, like those creatures that ambushed us when we rescued that cat.”

“It would be logical to expect larger predators, given the size of the herd animals here,” Quellan said.

“You always know how to make me feel better,” Kosk said with a growl. “Who else is on watch?”

“Sandros. He’s keeping an eye out on the other side of those rocks over there, just in case one of your predators decides to head over this way for breakfast.”

Kosk nodded. “Good. Speaking of breakfast, do you think these things are edible?”

“Perhaps, but I would not want to risk provoking them. Even an herbivore can be lethal if roused to panic. In any case, the tabaxi have provided us with ample supplies.”

“For now. But we don’t know how long it will take us to find what we’re looking for.”

“If it comes to it, there appears to be no shortage of forage in this jungle.”

“Fair enough. Seems appropriate, given that almost everything we’ve encountered here has tried to eat us.”

“It has been a difficult journey thus far,” Quellan said.

“We’ve seen worse,” Kosk said.

“Aye. We have. But there are still unknown dangers to come.”

“There always are. So what do you think we’ll find in this gods-forsaken city?”

“An interesting choice of words,” Quellan said. “I do not know. I have considered asking Hosrenu for guidance, but it seems that we will find out for ourselves soon enough.”

“I have wondered if Bredan knows more than he’s letting on,” Kosk said.

“Bredan wouldn’t put us at risk,” Quellan said quickly.

“I’m not saying he would. I’m just wondering if he’s fully objective.”

“I don’t know if any of us can say that we are. But we cannot let him go through this alone.”

“Of course not. But we may have to save him from himself.”

Any response Quellan might have made was interrupted by the sounds of activity from within the sheltered nook. A few moments later Malik appeared, followed by Kalasien and then Glori.

“Woah,” the bard said as she caught sight of the placid herbivores. The curious one that had glanced at Kosk earlier turned its head toward her and let out a deep lowing sound. “Cool.”

“Careful,” Quellan said as she went over to it. The creature took a wary step back, even though her head barely came up to its shoulder.

“I won’t hurt it,” she said.

“I don’t think he’s worried about it,” Kosk said.

Glori merely grinned back at them and ran her hand along the creature’s wrinkled hide. “Feels like old shoes,” she said.

Bredan appeared from the hollow, already clad in his armor. He gave the dinosaurs barely a look before he turned to the others. “We should get moving,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.”

There were a few groans, but the members of the little company headed back into the nook to gather up their gear.

What had seemed like a reasonable distance from the ridge above turned out to be anything but once the company reentered the jungle.

They acutely felt the absence of their tabaxi guides. Rodan did his best, but the growth was even denser than it had been on their way here, and the forest floor remained mired in shadows even as the day matured. If anything, it was even hotter, and soon even those not wearing armor were drenched in sweat. Quellan was able to keep them all hydrated through liberal use of his create water spell.

Unfortunately, the cleric could do nothing about the swarms of tiny insects that accompanied their every step for most of the day. It was a miserable and exhausted group that stumbled into a small hollow formed by a pair of fallen trees that Rodan had located as the sun waned. The canopy remained so thick above that their only way of knowing that was when the light started to fade. Night came on so swiftly that Quellan had to summon his light spell to help them clear a space and prepare their evening meal.

The heat and humidity had already ruined some of their consumables, but the tabaxi had also given them a supply of nuts and dried fruit that held up better over time. Rodan had shot an odd-looking monkey thing about the size of a dog that he cleaned while the sailors gathered wood for a fire. They were all alert to the danger of the cooking meat attracting a hungry predator, but with the rigors of the journey they needed something more substantial than insect paste.

But they had only just gotten the fire started when a loud crackling noise within the brush around the hollow got their attention. They all reached for their weapons, but were still surprised when a blunt-shaped head the size of a barrel poked out from the growth and peered at them with fist-sized black eyes.


Chapter 284

For a moment the creature and the companions just stared at each other. The dense jungle growth made it difficult to make out any details of the creature, but they could see that it was huge, well over twenty feet long.

After what felt like minutes but what only a matter of a few heartbeats Sandros shifted, adjusting his grip on Elias’s sword. The huge head swung slowly toward him, and the sailor nearly stumbled as he took a reflexive step back.

“Hold!” Bredan hissed. “Nobody make any aggressive moves.”

“Where did it come from?” Malik asked. “Why didn’t we hear it approaching?”

“It must have been nearby when we arrived,” Rodan said.

“What is it?” Glori asked.

“It’s another species of dinosaur,” Quellan said. “Another herbivore, I believe.”

The creature seemed to confirm the diagnosis as it bent its head and took a huge bite out of the tangled brush in front of it. It continued to watch them as it chewed, branches crunching as its considerable jaws worked.

“Shoo!” Malik said.

“Be careful,” Kosk warned. “Even if it doesn’t want to eat you, it can do a lot of damage if it gets spooked.”

“Well, we can’t just let it stay here,” Kalasien said. “If it stumbles into our camp later it could easily step on someone.”

“We could look for another place,” Rodan suggested.

“I’d be more worried about what we stumble into if we go heading into the jungle at night,” Quellan said. “We would need light for Bredan and the sailors to see.”

“I might be able to drive it off with fire,” Xeeta said.

“Or you might provoke it to stampede through the camp,” Kosk said.

“We could climb the trees first,” Sandros said.

“That thing has to weigh several thousand pounds,” Kosk pointed out.

Rodan had slowly circled around to the edge of the camp, leaning into the bushes. “Its body is armored,” he reported. “It has some kind of big club for a tail.”

“Useful for dealing with the local predators, I’d imagine,” Quellan said.

The creature continued to watch them, even as it took another bite of the undergrowth.

“We need to do something,” Malik said.

Glori strummed her lyre. A sound materialized out of the jungle behind them, from the side of the hollow opposite where the creature stood. The sailors tensed as it seemed to draw closer, an echo of the crashing noises that had announced the creature’s arrival.

“Don’t panic, it’s just Glori working her magic,” Bredan said, looking to her for confirmation. They all looked back at the dinosaur, but it continued chewing, unconcerned.

Glori subtly shifted her fingers on the strings, and another sound issued from the jungle: a deep, feral roar. Even knowing that it was an illusion, the others tensed a bit at the sound.

Finally, the dinosaur seemed to stir. It turned and headed back into the jungle, leaving behind a trampled path through the bushes in its wake. As it departed it shouldered aside a tree as thick around as a man’s torso, leaving it leaning to the side with its bark shredded.

“Told you,” Kosk said.

“What if that noise draws a real predator?” Malik asked as Glori let her spell fade.

“It wasn’t as far away as it sounded,” Glori said. “I adjusted the volume to make it seem like it was coming closer.”

“Still…” the sailor persisted.

“If something does show up, we’ll deal with it,” Bredan said. “We need food, and we need rest. We have no idea how much longer it will take to get to the ruined city, but we need to be ready for anything when we get there.”

The meal was quick and nerve-wracking; every sound that issued from the jungle around them had them reaching for weapons. As soon as the monkey had been cooked Rodan smothered the fire. The meat was greasy and not very appetizing, but they all ate their portion without complaint. Quellan covered his shield so that his light spell would give them enough illumination to prepare their camp for the night without drawing excess attention from the jungle. The insects certainly had no difficulty finding them, and he quickly let the spell lapse.

“I’ll take a watch tonight,” Glori volunteered.

“Spellcasters should sleep,” Kalasien quickly interjected, but she said, “I only used one spell today. In any case, keeping watch shouldn’t be a problem as long as I don’t do anything physically or mentally taxing. Besides, if that thing comes back, or a predator does find us, you’ll want a caster ready to deal with it.”

“I agree,” Xeeta said. “Better that Bredan get a full night’s sleep, especially with what we’re heading into. I will also stand a watch.”

Kalasien looked at Bredan, who nodded. “Very well,” the agent said. “Glori and Kavek, Malik and Xeeta, Sandros and Kosk, and then myself and Rodan last. If all are agreed?”

The jungle night was hardly quiet, but their little shelter was still as those not on watch retired to their bedrolls. Glori adjusted her lyre on its strap and went over to the far side of the hollow where Kavek had found a good vantage atop one of the fallen trees. With her elvish nightsight she had little difficulty, but he started visibly as she joined him.

“It’s just me,” she said.

“Sorry,” he replied. “Can’t see much in this dark.”

“That’s why we have someone with darkvision on each shift,” she said.

She watched him, aware that he could not see her. “Are you worried about what we’ll find in the ruined city?”

He shrugged. “I’d be a fool not to be.”

“I’ve noticed that you sort of keep to yourself,” she said. “Apart from the other sailors, I mean.”

“I’m fairly new to the crew,” he said. “They hired me on just before we left Li Syval.”

“Still, the others seem to follow your lead,” she said. “The idea to come with us… that was yours, wasn’t it?”

He fidgeted a moment before responding. “From what I’ve seen since we set out, you guys can kick the ass of anything we’re likely to find in this place.”

“I certainly hope that’s true,” she said. “I’ll be on the other side of the camp by the other tree. If you see or hear anything, give a little whistle. You can whistle, yes?”

He let out a tinny trill. “Good enough,” she said. She made her way across the camp, careful of her sleeping companions. Had she happened to glance back, she might have seen the sailor watching her intently, despite the darkness.


Chapter 285

Dawn found them marching through the jungle once more. Progress was again slow. A thin fog hung over the landscape well into the morning, giving the place a sort of ethereal presence. The companions were more alert to potential hazards lurking in the mists, especially after Rodan pointed out a serpent that was thick around as the tiefling’s torso dangling across the branches of a tree. The creature didn’t move toward them, but they gave it a wide berth and continued on.

The fog dissolved as midday approached, but even so the ruins managed to sneak up on them. It seemed like one moment the jungle was the same as it had been since they’d made their way down from the mountain pass, and the next there were crumbling blocks of stone visible among the growth. What had seemed like a narrow trail cutting through the forest became the remains of a road, with ancient cobbles overgrown with tall grasses and creeping vines.

“I’d say we’re getting closer,” Rodan said. The jungle remained thick enough ahead that they couldn’t see any sign of the huge structures they had spotted from the mountains, but the road at least seemed to continue on for quite some distance.

“Looks like we’ll make better time, anyway,” Glori said.

“Just stay alert,” Bredan said.

It was an unnecessary warning; they were all on edge as they continued forward, with Rodan taking the lead about twenty feet ahead of the others. The armored clank of Quellan and Bredan made stealth almost impossible, but they’d agreed to stay relatively close together, at least for their initial survey. They had already learned that one could be standing just a few feet away from a creature in the jungle and not see them; the encounter with the giant dinosaur last night had only confirmed the lesson.

The trees thinned out as they made their way into the outskirts of the city, but they were replaced by the overgrown bulk of ruined buildings. There was little left, just masses of crumbling stone that were not substantial enough to offer clues to what purpose they might have served. There was nothing else left of whatever civilization had once existed here, the jungle having reclaimed everything except for the bare stone. Occasionally they saw something that might have been a carved pillar or part of a statue, but what remained were just hints that invited speculation but offered no answers.

Quellan would have welcomed a chance to study the ruins further, but Bredan urged them to keep moving after just a brief break for lunch. The warrior’s mood became contagious, and all of them began to feel a growing sense of expectation, that the end of their quest was growing near. It was becoming clear that the city was huge, and that they could spend days searching it for the book, but they kept pressing forward, seeking the center they had seen from the pass.

“How could they have sustained this place?” Xeeta asked as they continued down the street. Occasionally the collapsed remnants of an adjacent building spilled out into their path, but thus far they hadn’t encountered anything substantial enough to block them. “We saw no fields, and there’s no way that caravans could have come over those mountains.”

“We’re talking thousands of years ago, potentially,” Quellan said. “This valley could have contained an entirely different landscape back then.”

“Still, why would they have picked such an inaccessible place to build?” Glori chimed in.

“Who knows?” Kosk said. “If the Mai’i built this place, we already know they were kind of nuts.”

“This place seems older than even the Mai’i ruins we’ve explored back in Voralis,” Glori said.

“It’s creepy,” Malik said. “I feel like there’s someone watching me, but every time I turn around there’s nothing there.”

“That is a common psychological phenomenon in situations where there is great stress or uncertainty,” Quellan said.

“For all we know there could be a hundred creatures watching us from these ruined buildings,” Kosk said.

“Great, now I’m feeling it too,” Glori said.

“Quiet,” Bredan said. “Rodan’s seen something.”

They looked ahead to where the tiefling had raised an arm in warning. They slowly moved ahead but could already see what had alerted him. The street ahead of them was blocked by a collapse that had left a mound of rubble a good eight or nine feet high extending between the two ruined structures to each side. The ruins looked as though they had been quite substantial at some point, with a few partial walls suggesting that they’d once had multiple stories. All that was left now were heaps of rubble that formed a cul-de-sac ahead of them.

“Go over, or around?” Glori asked.

“Let’s try moving one street over,” Bredan suggested. “It seems like we’re making progress, the buildings have been getting more intact as we get closer to the center.”

“Assuming we’re heading in the right direction,” Kosk noted.

“Eventually we should be able to see something,” Quellan said. “Those buildings we saw from the mountains should be hard to miss.”

“Over here,” Rodan said. “It looks like there’s a route through this ruin.”

They followed the tiefling through a breached wall, the uneven blocks that remained rising to only four or five feet in height, into what might have once been some kind of courtyard. There was a round depression filled with rubble that might have once been a fountain or other decorative structure. The house behind it was completely collapsed, with bushes and tangles of weeds jutting up from crevices in the mounded stone.

The wall on the other side of the courtyard was more intact, though Rodan found a spot where a few blocks had tumbled free to leave a niche wide enough for a man to fit through. He peered carefully beyond the opening and then slipped through, pausing to check the area more thoroughly before signaling for the others to follow. Only Quellan had difficulty, his bulky armor scraping on the stones before he was able to squeeze through.

They found themselves on another street that continued on a more or less parallel route to the one they had just left. But they’d only covered about fifty yards before they saw another blockage up ahead.

“Are you starting to feel like we’re being channeled?” Glori asked.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Bredan suggested.

They continued forward, scanning the ruins to either side for any threats. Malik’s earlier presentiment was felt by all of them, now, even though they had seen nothing that suggested that this place hadn’t been utterly deserted for thousands of years.

The barrier blocking the street was much like the first, the remnants of the buildings to either side forming a loose wall of rubble about nine feet tall. Rodan clambered up a slanted but still intact fragment of wall to get a look at what waited beyond. “The street continues past the obstacle,” he reported.

“Any sign of anything promising ahead?” Glori asked.

The tiefling ascended carefully, placing his feet with care until he had reached the crest of the mound of rubble. “Actually, I can see a bit of something through the trees ahead of us,” he said. “It could be one of those large buildings we saw earlier.”

“Any monsters?” Malik called up.

“I assure you, you will be the first to know if I see any,” Rodan said.

“How’s the footing?” Kosk asked.

“Treacherous. But manageable, I think.”

The others made their way up, following Rodan’s example of using the collapsed wall as a staircase. Bits of rock shifted as they moved, but they were able to help each other over the more difficult parts. They each paused at the top to peer into the distance. There was definitely something there, but it was impossible to be sure what it was through the obscuring trees. More of the rubble cascaded down as they made their way down the far side of the barrier, but they all made it down more or less intact.

At least they did until it was Quellan’s turn. As he started down from the crest his foot landed on a bit of rock that collapsed under his weight. He tried to recover his balance, but only managed to start a general slide that had him falling hard onto his back. The others quickly got out of the way as he slid down all the way to the street below, bits of rock pinging off his armor.

“Oops,” he said.

“Are you all right?” Glori asked.

“Yes, just a bit bludgeoned,” he said. He accepted the hands that she and Bredan offered and pulled himself to his feet. “For once I am glad for all this weight of metal I’ve been lugging around.”

Sandros and Kosk, who had been bringing up the rear, appeared at the top of the mound. “Is it safe?” the sailor asked, scanning the channel that Quellan had created through the loose rock dubiously.

“If you slip, just drop to your rear and slide down,” Rodan suggested. He started forward to help him, but was interrupted by a sound of shifting rocks that hadn’t come from them.

“That sounded close,” Xeeta said.

“Come on, get down!” Rodan said. But before Sandros could attempt the descent they were startled by another sound, this one an echoing animal roar that seemed to come from all around them.

The companions that were gathered in the street all came together instinctively, their weapons in their hands as they scanned their surroundings for the source of the cry. “There!” Glori shouted, pointing.

They all turned as something shifted in the ruins of the collapsed building to their left. None of them had time to react before a creature suddenly appeared, vaulting atop the even larger heap of rubble there in a single agile bound.

The creature was an ape, a muscled hulk that stood a head taller than Quellan and had to be at least twice his weight, if not more. Its body was covered in a thick hide of pale fur, with powerful jaws that opened to reveal ugly, protruding yellow teeth.

But more notable was the fact that the creature had an extra set of arms that jutted from its torso. All four of those arms spread wide as it regarded the intruders into its demesne, then it pounded its chest as it let out another ear-splitting roar.


Chapter 286

Xeeta recovered from the dramatic and sudden appearance of the four-armed ape-creature first, blasting it with a series of scorching rays.

The girallon screamed as the first pulse of fire scorched its side, but it reacted quickly, launching itself forward over the rubble toward them. The awkward footing appeared to give it no trouble as it landed on the sliding edge of the heap and sprang at them. Its quick movement caused Xeeta’s second ray to miss, but the third caught it a solid blow to the belly that caused it to scream again in pain and fury. It landed in a crouch and quickly flung itself at the startled sorcerer.

But before it could get close enough to lash out with its long arms, Bredan and Quellan both rushed forward to intercept its charge. The cleric absorbed a punishing strike on his shield that staggered him, knocking him back several steps. But he retaliated with a guiding bolt, which blasted into the creature’s chest and surrounded it with a limning aura of sparkling motes.

Bredan took full advantage of that distraction, his sword materializing in his hands as he met the creature. Its size gave it a clear advantage, and he absorbed a solid impact from one of its lower arms that failed to gain purchase on the hard lines of his dwarf-forged armor. But that wasn’t enough to stop him as he planted his feet and swept his sword around in a brilliant arc. The heavy blade tore into the thing’s torso, nearly ripping one of the arms clear off its body in the process. The creature, already bending forward in an attempt to bite its armored foe, kept going and toppled hard onto the overgrown cobbles of the street as Bredan and Quellan quickly stepped clear. The dying ape made a few abortive attempts to rise before it slumped down, its blood forming a spreading pool beneath its massive bulk.

The companions had no chance to celebrate their victory, as ferocious cries echoed from the surrounding buildings.

“They’re all around us!” Malik cried.

“That’s just the echo from all these ruins,” Glori said. “They’re mostly behind us and on our flanks, I think.”

Kosk quickly slid down the mound of rubble that blocked the street. “More of those things coming fast,” he said, confirming Glori’s assessment. Sandros slid down awkwardly after him, losing his footing and falling heavily to the ground. Kavek quickly moved to help him up. Quellan went to offer aid, but the sailor did not appear to be seriously hurt.

“This is a bad spot for defense,” Rodan said.

“Forward, then,” Bredan said. “Quickly!”

They ran down the street, glancing back frequently as the sounds of pursuit grew closer. They came to an intersection, but before they could decide on a path the decision was made for them as more of the creatures appeared along the crossing boulevard to either side. The girallons vaulted the scattered piles of rubble and the fragmented walls with equal facility, barely slowing as they closed upon the companions. Rodan loosed an arrow at one of them, but while the arrow scored a direct hit it seemed to do little more than drive the creature into a further frenzy.

“They’re faster than us!” Bredan yelled, turning to face the onrushing creatures.

“Keep going, I’ll try to delay them!” Glori yelled.

She already had her lyre in her hands as her companions rushed through the intersection, continuing forward where the street remained, for the moment at least, clear ahead. Another of the apes appeared atop a partially-intact wall behind them, its weight causing the ancient structure to finally give way and collapse as it sprang forward. There were now three of the apes in view, but they could all hear what sounded like a small army of them still closing out of their line-of-sight from within the ruins.

The nearest girallon was only about twenty feet away when Glori summoned forth a wall of fire from her magical lyre. The blazing flames, which rose to a full twenty feet in height, stretched across the street and extended well into the rubbled structures to each side. She could hear a simian cry of fury from the other side, but didn’t wait to see what they would do, sprinting to rejoin the others.

As she caught up to them the street opened onto a broad open square. Weeds had filled in the gaps between the stone blocks that covered the ground, but the place remained far more open than the portions of the city that they’d explored thus far. Huge pillars that rose as high as thirty feet studded the space, supporting nothing but adding a certain monumental flavor to the place.

The buildings on the near side of the square were all in an advanced state of ruin, but on the far side to the right they could see what looked to be a mostly-intact structure. Flanked by a portico that had collapsed partially on one side, a set of steps lead up to a dark opening that offered at least the promise of shelter.

Rodan and Bredan both saw it and pointed at the same time. “There!” the tiefling shouted, urging his flagging companions forward. They had gotten spread out in their flight, but the scattered column turned and hurried toward the damaged building.

They were maybe halfway across the plaza when a roar drew their attention. They turned to see a girallon vault the uneven mounds of rubble that had once probably been rich houses and shops facing the square. As it crested the top of the heap it lashed out with one of its huge arms and launched a piece of stone at the fleeing companions. The improvised missile bounced off a pillar and unluckily caught Kavek in the left knee, knocking him off his feet. Bredan and Kalasien happened to be the closest to the stricken sailor, and rushed to his aid.

A few of the others hesitated as well, but before they could decide what to do a second creature appeared about thirty feet further along the square. It burst through the leaning remnants of a wall, launching a spray of debris that looked dramatic but which didn’t threaten any of the adventurers. Kosk immediately shifted course to meet it, but it focused on Sandros, who lifted his spear with hands that shook as it barreled forward toward him.

Quellan started after Kosk, but even as he started running he glanced over to check on Glori. The bard had caught up after she’d blocked the street with her wall of fire, the top of which was still visible over the ruins back the way they had come. But she was still bringing up the rear of the column, and even as he spotted her, he saw another girallon that exploded from another street and loped toward her.

“Glori, look out!” he shouted, changing course to join her.

Xeeta had been pacing Rodan at the front of the column, but both tieflings came to a stop as the apes assaulted their comrades. Rodan fired an arrow at the one rushing toward Bredan and Kalasien, scoring a hit but barely slowing it. “If they get us with numbers in this open space, they’ll tear us to pieces,” he said.

“You don’t have to tell me,” she growled back as she lifted her rod and summoned her magic. The apes were too far apart to hit more than one with a fireball, and they were already too close to her friends to risk a wall of fire. She quickly scanned the ruins for signs of more of them, but for the moment these three looked to be it. Maybe, if they could defeat them quickly before reinforcements arrived, they could still make it to the cover of the far building and make a stand.

But even as she started to summon her magic, movement on the far side of the square caught her eye. She glanced that way, and her jaw dropped.

Another ape rose up out of the ruins. It had four arms like the others, but this one… this one was thirty feet tall, literally dwarfing the heaped wreckage of the surrounding buildings. It rose up to its full height, unleashing a roar that felt like it shook the stones of the still-intact buildings nearby. That shout drew the attention of every living creature in the square, and for a moment both the girallons and the companions could only stare, the former in awe, the latter in terror.


Chapter 287

The appearance of the massive ape shook the adventurers, but they had no time to deal with it as the girallons hurled themselves into melee range.

Quellan’s warning had given Glori a moment to react before the pursuing girallon overcame her. She instinctively strummed her lyre, trying to infect it with fear, but either its rage protected it or her casting faltered as it barreled into her. It lashed out powerfully with its claws, trying to drag her into an embrace that could have only ended one way. But she was able to twist free of its grasp, narrowly escaping its snapping jaws but absorbing a solid buffet that knocked her sprawling. The ape lifted its arms high above its head and sought to pound her into paste, but before it could strike Quellan slammed hard into it from the side. For once the big half-orc found himself yielding the advantage of height and weight to a foe, but despite that he still managed to knock it back a step, his mace delivering a punishing blow to its ribs.

“Get your stinking paws off her, you damned dirty ape!” he yelled.

Bredan had gained the measure of these foes, and knew how powerful they were. But with Kavek still clutching his battered knee behind him he could not give ground. He waited until the last instant, ducking the creature’s first swing before sweeping his sword around in an echo of the stroke that had killed the first one back at the blocked street. But this time the ape surprised him, batting his stroke aside with one of its inner arms before seizing him in a grapple with the other. It wrapped one of its big arms around his body, pinning his arms so that he could not effectively use his sword. It roared in triumph as it bent its head forward to snap off his face with its massive jaws.

Sandros stood his ground as the ape rushed him, planting his spear like a pikeman receiving a cavalry charge. The head of the weapon pierced its chest, its momentum driving the flanged blade deep, but the shaft of the spear snapped as it unleashed a full series of attacks upon him. It seized hold of him, the inner arms holding him while the outer ones delivered crushing blows that snapped bones like sticks. The sailor let out a shriek of pain that abruptly ended as it tore his throat open with a ferocious bite.

Malik had taken a step toward his comrade when the girallons had first appeared, but the sight of the giant ape had overwhelmed him. He stood there, frozen, as the monstrous thing leapt over the remains of what had once been a two-story house and landed on the edge of the plaza with enough force to shake the ground. It reached back and grabbed hold of a massive slab of rock and launched it toward the hard-pressed companions. It hit the ground once, bounced, and then slammed into Malik with such force that he was catapulted clear across the square, finally landing in a broken heap right in front of the building that had been their original destination.

“Gods above!” Rodan breathed. “How do we fight such a thing?”

“With everything we’ve got!” Xeeta shouted back. She held her rod out, and as flames kindled in her eyes she drew upon the power of the Demon, focusing her magic into the concentrated destructive potential of a fireball.

The others fought their own desperate battles, all too aware of the greater threat that was coming up behind them. Quellan managed to hold his ground against the fury of the girallon, even though it hit him with blows that would have felled an average man. But its sheer ferocity would have overpowered him eventually, had he been alone. But he managed to distract it enough that it did not notice Glori coming up behind it until she delivered a thunderwave that knocked it off balance. It staggered right into a guiding bolt that blasted up from Quellan’s shield, dazzling it as the divine sparks flashed around its face.

Bredan flinched back as the girallon’s teeth scraped on his helmet. But with the creature’s powerful arms locked around him, there was no place he could go. But then the ape let out a sharp screech of pain, and its grip loosened. Bredan saw Kalasien dart behind it, narrowly avoiding a sweep from its free hand. The warrior took full advantage of the distraction to slide his own arm free, lifting his sword and driving it deep into the monster’s body. The girallon reared back and let out a pained roar, but Bredan held on, using his weight to rip the terrible wound wider.

With Sandros’s death Kosk faced the last creature alone, but the dwarf did not quail against this foe that rose to more than twice his height. Even with his staff he could barely reach higher than its chest, but he delivered a series of punishing blows to its legs and body that soon drove to a wild frenzy. But even with four arms and that huge advantage in size it somehow found itself grasping only air each time it lunged at him. The staff in turn seemed to be everywhere, smacking into its leathery hide with enough force to numb muscles and shiver bone. Arrows jutted from its upper body; Rodan had done his best to even the odds. Blood trickled from one side of the dwarf’s jaw where a claw had scored a glancing hit, but thus far his patient defense had frustrated the creature.

Finally, the ape let out a violent roar and threw itself at the dwarf with wild abandon. But to its surprise, instead of running or evading its foe in turn leapt to meet it, his fists and feet moving in a blur as they unleashed their own deadly flurry.

The giant ape roared as the wisps of smoke from Xeeta’s fireball cleared; she’d certainly gotten its attention. Her companions seemed to be holding their own against the girallons, but it looked like they would not be able to help her for at least the next few moments. There was a pillar nearby, a reassuring solidity that offered a place to hide, but instead she strode further out into the open center of the square.

“What are you doing?” Rodan yelled. His quiver was empty; he’d just fired the last of his arrows at the monster battling Kosk.

“Buying us some time,” Xeeta said.

The giant ape, its upper body scorched black where the fireball had struck, reached back and yanked another hunk of rubble from the mound that edged the plaza. With an angry roar it hurled the missile at Xeeta. The tiefling barely had time to flinch before the stone skipped by her, so close that she could have reached out and touched it as it passed.

“You have too much luck for your own good,” Rodan said.

At that moment Xeeta could hardly disagree with him. The giant ape, seeing that its shot had missed, had already started forward. It was still more than sixty feet away, but with its size it would not take long for it to close the distance. She knew that she only had time for one more spell before it reached her. She glanced over and saw that Bredan had finished off his foe and was helping Kavek to his feet, but he was too far away to reach her in time.

“Get behind one of those pillars,” she said to Rodan.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. He’d drawn his sword, the slender weapon almost laughable in the face of what was coming.

The ape surged forward, moving every bit as fast as she had expected. But it had only covered a few huge strides when it staggered. It drifted to the side, clearly thrown off balance by something. Xeeta scanned the plaza and quickly spotted Glori, strumming her lyre from the shadow of one of the pillars. Both she and Quellan bore obvious wounds, but the girallon they’d been battling was on the ground, still moving but clearly out of the fight.

“Come on,” Xeeta breathed. She willed for whatever spell the bard was working to take hold. The ape was moving now as if drunk, shaking its head back and forth as if trying to shake off the magic.

The giant ape was still carrying a lot of momentum as it slammed into one of the pillars. It stumbled back a step, dazed by the impact. The pillar was more than eight feet thick, but it slowly leaned over before it toppled down onto the plaza.

Xeeta’s heart froze in her chest as she realized it was headed right toward where Bredan was running toward the battle, with Kalasien and Kavek just a few steps behind.

“Look out!” she yelled, but the words seemed to hang in the air, overpowered by the beat of her pulse in her ears. There was nothing she could do except watch as the pillar came apart and dropped tons of rock onto the ground. For a moment she caught a glimpse of Bredan, and started to feel a glimmer of relief that it had missed him, that he was alive. But then the ground beneath his feet gave way, and with a sound that felt like the end of the world part of the plaza collapsed, dropping the warrior and the two men with him into oblivion.


Chpater 288

For a moment the collapse of the plaza overshadowed even the still-deadly presence of the giant ape. Xeeta could only stare at the hole in the ground where Bredan and two other members of their company had been standing just moments ago. Several of the pillars had collapsed as well, tumbling into the sinkhole and filling it with rubble. Xeeta saw Glori standing on the far side, almost at the edge of the hole, a look of stunned horror on her face.

But then the giant ape roared again, pulling them all back into the reality of the moment and the danger that they still faced.

Glori was closest to it now, and clearly it had shaken off whatever spell she’d used to disorient it. Xeeta was quick to draw its attention back to her, hitting it with another fireball. The blast engulfed the creature’s body, briefly obscuring it from view. But it quickly reappeared as the flames disappeared, and it vaulted the edge of the sinkhole to close toward the sorceress.

Xeeta waited for it, her eyes blazing as her magic surged through her. The air began to ripple around her as her Demon woke at her call, and the weeds sticking up from the cracks in the plaza’s stone floor withered and blackened. Rodan, standing a few feet away with his sword in his hand, looked at her in alarm but had to focus his attention on the rapidly-closing monstrosity. The ground was shaking under them with each stride it took now, and the ranger had to concentrate on keeping his footing.

The ape was only about twenty feet away, its huge outer arms already coming up in anticipation of an attack, when a small figure darted out from behind one of the still-intact pillars nearby. It was Kosk, moving with a speed that none of them could have matched, outpacing even the giant ape as it rushed toward the two tieflings. The dwarf’s face was a mask of blood and bruises, and a series of deep scratches had left one side of his robe a shredded and bloody mess, but there was only determination on his face as he rushed toward this even greater adversary.

The giant girallon sensed his approach, but was too late to intercept the monk as he leapt to the attack. The dwarf barely came up past its ankles, offering a truly ludicrous comparison to those watching, but to their amazement he sprang up and swept his staff around to deliver a precise strike to the back of its left knee. The weapon was like a toothpick against the sheer mass of the creature, but somehow the blow buckled the limb and the huge ape stumbled, falling over heavily onto one side. Kosk stayed with it as it fell, delivering a flurry of blows to its body and head. His staff cracked hard into its left eye, drawing a deafening roar of pain from the creature.

Stunned by this development, Rodan finally recovered and rushed forward to take advantage of the creature’s misfortune. He stabbed his sword deep into its thigh, missing the artery there but nevertheless drawing another furious roar from it. Xeeta hit it with a quick barrage of scorching rays, careful to target areas far from where her friends were hitting it. That wasn’t especially difficult; even prone the thing was the size of a house.

The ape had absorbed a beating, but it clearly wasn’t finished yet. Ignoring its wounds, it pushed itself to its feet, its multitude of arms helping it steady itself. It was surrounded by enemies, but its one good eye focused on the diminutive thing that had stung it so and half blinded it.

It lunged for the dwarf. Kosk darted to the side and almost, almost evaded its grasp. But it caught hold of one arm and pulled him off his feet. The lower pair of hands grabbed hold of him, the claws digging channels into his flesh. Even despite that Kosk kept on fighting, slamming his staff into an elbow joint with enough force to disable the limb. But even as he started to fall free it caught him in one of its upper paws, trapping his legs between its huge fingers. He struggled to escape, but its strength held him firmly in its grasp. His face twisted in pain as it squeezed tightly.

“Kosk!” Quellan yelled. The cleric was running toward the fight, his own face a bloody mask of pain. He lifted his shield and projected a guiding bolt that struck the ape in the back, but it was not enough to distract it from its victim. Rodan lunged and stabbed it again in the leg, but the ape ignored him. There was nothing any of them could do as the ape took a single step forward and slammed the dwarf against one of the nearby pillars with all of its might.

The crack of impact briefly overpowered the chaotic din of the battle. The giant ape held up the now limp form of its adversary and bellowed in triumph before tossing Kosk’s broken and lifeless body to the ground.

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