The Fractured Mountains: Darkness Ascending Ch. 23

[Just a note, I kept forgetting to update the titles of The Fractured Mountains to the title of the first book of what I hope will end up a series, Darkness Ascending. I know that the story will not be wrapped up by the end of the first book. I also want to let you know that the adventures of Kreet and crew will eventually be laid out in the book Oceans Ablaze, which will likely turn into multiple books as well.]

Gaemacirch was scouting ahead of the group. Something that Burner didn’t normally ask them to do, but she was starting to get paranoid that something would attack out of the blue. She was sure it was just her being high-strung with the sidetracks to continuing north, but she still decided to heed the feeling. Julian was bringing up the rear, keeping an eye out for things coming from behind when he noticed that it was starting to get dark.

“Is it really that late already?” Julian studied the sky for a moment. “I didn’t think we left town this late.”

Dreekt shrugged. “The month is ending soon, so winter solstice is almost here. I assumed the days were just getting shorter from that.”

“I suppose so.” Julian looked back at the landscape behind them. “Just seems the days are getting shorter faster than they normally do.”

As the sun set on the party Burner called Gaemacirch back to look for a good campsite. Not long afterward Julian had to pull out his hooded lantern. “Ok, it’s definitely not supposed to be this dark already.” He pointed into the sky. “That’s the sun. What’s going on here?”

Burner followed Julian’s arm to look at the sun. “By the fount! What’s going on?”

No sooner did the words escape Burner’s mouth than an answer echoed across the plains. “Darkness is ascending.” A tall, slim human with short black hair and a short-cropped beard wearing scholarly robes and holding a strange, glowing red stone on a stick like it was a torch approached from the darkness.

“Who are you?” Burner looked at the human strangely, and why is a scholar out here?

Dreekt chuckled. “He’s a historian, not a scholar.” He waved at the human. “Well, hello there, Stigr.”

“The Pathfinder will do. You haven’t earned the right to call me by my first name yet.” Stigr nodded at Dreekt. “Though you will eventually, Wings.”

“Wings?”

“Oops…can’t say anymore. Spoilers.” Stigr blushed slightly. “We tend to meet out of order.”

Gaemacirch walked into the circle of light. “Hey, so it’s getting hard for me to see, and I grew up in Dark Under. Somethings…oh, hello traveler.” He bowed slightly. “I’m Gaemacirch, but people call me Gaem.”

“Call me The Pathfinder.” Stigr nodded even more slightly to Gaemacirch. “I believe you may be coming to the conclusion I came to warn you about.”

“Darkness is ascending from the depths, yes?” Gaemacirch motioned at the darkness around them. “It’s getting thick like the depths of Dark Under. The parts we were told to never wander, even in groups.”

Stigr nodded. “Yes, exactly. I also came to tell you that you must rescue Slapper. He is integral to the future.” He then turned to Enress. “Here, Enress.” He handed her his strange torch. “Keep the stone safe. You’ll know what to do with it when you get there.” With a big smile Stigr disappeared.

“Well, that was foreboding.” Enress looked at the stone torch. “I have no idea what this is, but he seemed to think I would.”

Dreekt pulled out the black stone in the dagger and held it up to the red stone. The dagger leaped from his hand and the stones pressed together. The rattling they made was the same sound two smooth magnetite stones make when they pull together, only louder. The darkness around the adventuring company thinned out as if clean water was poured into a pool of muddy water, then the darkness slowly started flowing back in.

“That wasn’t expected.” Dreekt pulled the dagger from the stone torch. “I expect that there’s some way to make that more powerful. Cleanse the whole realm.”

– – –

When the company finally came to a halt for their rest the chill of the night forced them to scrounge around the plains for sticks to light a fire. Enress offered to keep watch all night again, but Burner insisted on having regular watch rotations on top of that. They had no way of knowing what else was ascending with the darkness.

The first few watches went without a hitch, but when Burner was talking the third watch there was an unmissable rattle that was coming closer and closer to the campsite.

“What is that?” Burner asked, walking toward Enress. “You do hear it too, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.” Enress held the torch higher into the air, increasing the radius of light. A glint of white was just visible on the edge of the lit area. “Could be that.” She pointed at the glint. “I don’t know what it is, though.”

From the darkness six shambling skeletons approached with bits of shadow seeming to billow off of them like cloaks in an invisible wind.

“Everyone, wake up!” Burner turned to shake Gaemacirch awake. “Shadow skeletons are attacking! Six of them.”

Running forward to engage with the creatures Enress threw a punch at the gut of one skeleton, missing because it had not gut. “Shast.”

In response to the swing the shadow skeletons moved in and started to siphon Enress’ life energy away from her. The shadowy bits seemed to grow larger as she felt her life essence being drained.

Swinging again, with more carefully aimed punches, Enress’ spiked brass knuckles shattered the skull of one of the shadow skeletons.

Burner helped Gaemacirch to his feet then slung an arrow at the nearest shadow skeleton’s neck, breaking its head off and sending it to careen into another one.

Getting to his feet Gaemacirch approached and tossed a kunai at one of the shadow skeletons. The kunai passed through a pair of ribs and landed on the ground behind it.

The shadow skeletons were not deterred in their attempts to drain Enress’ life energy and drew even more life from the automaton, healing in the process.

Dreekt stood and tossed a spell at the shadow skeletons, causing a third to fall to the ground in pieces.

As the shadow skeleton fell, Julian’s axe flew through the air and nicked one of the shadow skeletons.

Seeing the shadow skeletons starting to fall Enress punched at the one closest to her. Its arms were outstretched to drain her life essence, but they did not keep the blows from hitting it and turning it to splinters.

With his katana Gaemacirch brought one to the brink and burned it badly. He assumed it was able to stand because it was being bolstered by the life energy being drained from Enress.

Burner shot an arrow at the neck of the shadow skeleton Gaemacirch had almost taken out and severed its head from its body as well.

The last shadow skeleton siphoned life from Enress and used it to bring back its ally whose head had just been severed. The head reattached to the spine and the shadow skeleton stood back up.

A spell passed by one of the shadow skeletons as Dreekt made an opening for Julian to move forward to attack in melee.

Julian approached and brought the flat of his axe’s blade up to smack the shadow skeleton’s head back off. He wasn’t sure if it would work, but it did.

With a final flurry of hits Enress reduced the remaining shadow skeleton to splinters. She then began gathering the bones.

“What are you doing?” Burner asked, not sure what to make of the arrival of the creatures.

Enress didn’t look up from her task. “I’m gathering the remains up to burn them. You know what these things are, is that a good idea?”

“Yes, if there are anymore shadow skeletons, they would be able to bring these ones back if we don’t dispose of them.” Burner sat down heavily. “I don’t know why creatures from Darkfall are doing in Nevre, but it must have something to do with this rising darkness…” She stopped talking, falling deep into thought.

Gaemacirch helped Enress collect the bones to throw on the fire. “The veil must be weakened between here and Darkfall if they’re appearing, right?”

Burner nodded. “Let’s hurry and get Slapper. It’s not going to get any brighter out than this, and then we need to get to Magnus. I’m sure this has something to do with what’s drawing me northward.”

“Yes, let’s hurry. I’m getting a bad feeling.” Julian started packing up his area of the camp. “I wish Adalet was here. She would know what’s going on. She always seemed to, anyway.”

Enress patted Julian on the shoulder. “Hey, let’s get to Slapper. We’ll piece this together as we go.”

“You’re right. Let’s get moving.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 22

Burner and Dreekt sat next to Hereweald’s bed while Gaemacirch paced back and forth.

“Isn’t there some magic you can use to speed his recovery?” Gaemacirch asked.

Standing from the chair Burner approached Hereweald. “Have your burns healed?”

“Mostly.” Hereweald tried to move his arm to take off some of the bandages but was unable to take them off. “I think I lost some muscle. My strength isn’t the same.”

“The muscle will come back with exercise. I can, however, speed the healing in your limbs some more.” Burner reached for a magic that she didn’t use very often, and it pushed back against her. “I’m sorry, I can’t access it now. I don’t do this type of healing magic very often.”

Dreekt stood from the bed. “Let me try. We just want to speed his body’s recovery, right?” Burner nodded at him. “I’ll give it a shot.” Articulating his taloned fingers Dreekt focused his magic over Hereweald’s body. He slowly spread his arms wide spreading the magic across Hereweald’s body. The magic spread and the burns began to heal slowly, but noticeably.

“At that rate, you should be able to start rehabilitation tomorrow. Just don’t overdo anything, okay?” Burner watched the burns covering over with scars. “You’ll also get to tell people how you got those scars.”

“What, like, ‘you know how I got these scars?’”

“Exactly.”

– – –

Enress and Julian found themselves at the Blue Flagon. Samuel was behind the small bar polishing a mug with his lower set of arms. He was counting some coins on the counter and a small group was drinking around one of the tables.

“Oh, hello Julian. How may I help you?” Samuel slid a few of the coins into a money box and the other amount into his other upper hand. He set the mug on the counter and started walking towards the group in the corner. “I just need to give this group their change back.” The cohzen jingled as he walked to the table. “Here you go. You’re change.”

“Thanks Sam.”

Julian recognized the man’s voice as one of the surviving guards from the strange salamander attack. He pulled some cohzen out of his coin purse and handed it to Samuel. “The next round is on me, Sam.”

“I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. Now, what did you say you wanted?” He counted the cohzen and handed a coin back to Julian.

“We were just going to wait for Burner, Dreekt, and Gaem here.” Enress answered. “I believe they were off to get the quarterstaff of fatigue or something like that.”

“So, you did take care of the Dark Under entrance.” A look of relief passed over Samuel’s amphibian face. “That’s good. I believe they would have gone to visit Hereweald after that.”

“They told us they would be here. We are a bit early, though.” Julian sat on a stool by the bar. “Know anything about vines that move of their own accord?”

“Yes, they come from Dark Under, I think, and they can be cut down with magical blades. I think regular blades won’t be able to take them down, or they have more resistance. Something like that.” Samuel picked up another mug and started to polish it. “If you don’t have any you can find some in the shop down the street, or if you have a magic weapon and it’s not bladed, I think the local smith might be able to help with that. He’s actually a priest of The Smith.” He set down the mug and picked up a plate. “He reforges them or something. It has to be a metal weapon, though. He can’t remake wooden weapons.”

Julian nodded. “Thanks for the information. I think I’ll have something to drink. Do you have any red dragon crush?”

“Why, certainly.”

– – –

Dreekt opened the door to the Blue Flagon and saw Julian at the bar drinking a deep red wine and talking with Enress and Samuel. “Hi, Sam!” He walked over. “Burner and Gaem are getting some supplies at the shop nearby. Did you guys need anything?”

“Yes.” Enress stood up and started for the door. “I’ll meet up with them there…where is it?” She paused in the threshold.

“Go left out the door then take a right. Can’t miss the sign.” Dreekt waved as she left. “Well, Julian, how’s the wine?”

“It’s pissy.”

“What?”

Samuel laughed lightly. “It’s a joke. The sap that’s used for the recipe is known as red dragon piss.”

“Oh,” Dreekt shrugged, “that’s an interesting name. Anyway, is there anything you wanted, Julian?”

“Enress will get it. We ran into a snag going to help Slapper. There were vines moving around.” Julian shrugged and took another sip of the wine. “She’s pretty sure that Slapper’s in there, so we came back to get you guys to help. After that maybe we can be on our way to Rentaz.”

“One can hope.” Dreekt glanced around the tavern inn. “Where’s Syb, anyway?”

Julian chuckled and pulled his cloak open. Syb poked his head out and then ducked back in. “Seems he feels unwelcome in a bar.”

“As long as he doesn’t bomb anyone’s food or drink, he’ll be fine.” Samuel smiled at Syb. “You can come on out, little birdy.”

Syb hopped onto the bar and chirped at Samuel, annoyedly.

– – –

At Yellow Mercantile and Weapons, Burner and Gaemacirch were looking through some food supplies when Enress entered the shop. She told them about the strange vines and what Samuel had said about needing magical blades and they took a moment to look around the shop.

“Excuse me, shopkeep, but do you have any magically enhanced blades?” Burner approached the gnome standing behind the counter.

The gnome smiled. “You won’t find them out there with the cheap weapons, but I may have some in the back.” He looked over at Gaemacirch and the large katana on his back. “Or I could enchant something you already have.” He pointed at the weapon. “That looks like it could do some large damage with a little bit of magic enhancement.”

Gaemacirch walked over to join Burner. “Did you say something about my blade?”

“Why yes, if you bought a weapon from me, I’d give you half price on enchanting the one you already have.”

“Enress,” Burner called back, “do you see a weapon that would suit you?”

“Yes.” Enress had stopped to stare at a pair of nasty looking knuckle dusters with large spikes on them. “Would that be something my cut would cover?”

“I believe so. How much for the brass knuckles?” Burner started talking pricing with the gnome and paid him the cohzen they settled on for the weapon, the enchantment, and the food.

“Now then, my zarx friend, what do you want as an enchantment on this blade?” The gnome rubbed his small, thick hands together. “You can make it even more vicious, or you can make it deal more damage, or you can add an elemental damage to it. Mostly whatever you want!”

“Fire damage would be interesting. Especially with what we’re going to fight next.” Gaemacirch nodded to Enress. “Do you agree?”

“Most certainly.”

The gnome smiled widely. “I’ll be back in a bit, then. Feel free to continue browsing while I’m gone.”

After a few minutes the gnome returned. “Okay, the enchantment was successful. This will deal quite a bit of fire damage when you strike with it. The blade was finely made, and the enchantment was easily woven.”

“How much for the rapier with the electric damage?” Burner was looking at a list of available enchanted weapons on the wall.

“Well, that’s not as powerful as what I just did with your friend’s blade, but if you trade in your old rapier it won’t be too much cohzen.”

– – –

Resupplied and rearmed Burner, Dreekt, Enress, Gaemacirch, and Julian began to follow Syb back to the writhing vines in a small stand of trees in the northern plains.

“As long as we head north as soon as we finish with this. I don’t want to go back to town again.” Burner turned her head to look in the direction of Frozen Pinnacle. “I am still being drawn to Magnus. I don’t believe he is the one I’m looking for exactly, but he will lead me there.”

Enress nodded. “I will continue with you after we find Slapper, if that’s fine with you.”

“If you wish to continue with us there’s a contract I need you to sign.”

“That wouldn’t be a problem.” Enress smiled at Julian’s back. “Not a problem at all.”

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Medakus Grimoires: Mendacium – Ch. 2

It was a cold morning. The pickup keys were in the ignition and Daren tossed his bag in the back. He slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the keys. The truck didn’t start. It made a clicking noise and Daren hit his head against the top of the steering wheel in exasperation. “I guess I’m walking today.”

He got out of the pickup and pulled his bag from the bed. He walked to the street and looked up and down before he started to cross. As he did so he saw the school bus coming. “Sweet, the bus hasn’t gone by yet!”

The school bus pulled up, Woodfalls Oregon School District stood out in black text against the yellow of the paintjob. The bus driver slowed the bus and stopped in front of the driveway. He waved at Daren to cross.

Daren walked up the steps onto the bus and nodded at the driver.

“Truck won’t start?”

“Yeah, cold snap got the battery. I was lucky you hadn’t gone by yet.”

“I guess it’s a good thing I’m behind schedule today. Find a seat.”

Walking down the aisle Daren sat down in a group of empty benches and tried to avoid the stares. He had only ridden the bus a few times in the last two years. He was glad he was the last stop on the route. As the thought of him being the last stop passed through his mind the bus stopped at the bottom of the hill and three students boarded.

Daren looked over at one of the other students on the bus who was staring at his phone. “Who’re they?”

“I don’t know, they’re new. It’s the first time the bus stopped here.” The student never looked up from his phone.

The three students filed back to where Daren was and sat in the empty seats. They all looked like seniors or juniors.

“Hello,” Daren said, “I’m Daren.”

The two boys muttered their hellos but didn’t offer their names. The girl didn’t even say hello. The rest of the bus ride to the high school was uneventful.

– –

Daren walked into his first period chemistry class. He shuffled by Mr. Hans and took his regular stool. He put his bag on the stool next to his and pulled out his textbook just as the tardy bell rang.

“Good morning class. We have a new student today.” Mr. Hans sounded excited if only to get the attention of his students. “Let’s welcome Ms…uh.” He looked down at his attendance sheet. “Ah, Ms. Sara Ainsley to our class.”

There was a half-hearted round of applause.

Mr. Hans nodded. “Yes, why don’t you introduce yourself?” He motioned Sara to step forward.

Sara was somewhat short for a senior and had dyed her waist length hair crimson. “You already know I’m Sara I guess. Uh, I’m from Hilsonville, Washington. It’s kinda in the middle of nowhere in northern Washington.”

“Yes, good. I usually ask favorite colors. My guess is red.”

“I have no idea what makes you think that.” Her voice was obvious sarcasm.

Mr. Hans ignored the sarcasm. “Well, let’s get you assigned a lab partner.” He looked down at his seating chart. “Mr. Medakus, I’m sorry but your solitude has ended.”

Daren sighed and pulled his bag off the stool next to him. As he did so he forgot it was open and all the contents went spilling onto the floor. He looked at the bag in surprise for a moment before he reacted and started picking things up. The first things he grabbed were the baggies of spiders and quickly shoved them in the bag before anyone could register what they were. Then he started grabbing the more mundane looking objects.

A hand reached down and started helping Daren pick up the contents of his bag. He looked up and saw Sara helping him. “Thanks.”

She picked up his grimoire and shoved it in the bag. “You should always grab your journal first.” She continued to help him clean up.

“Okay, now that we’ve cleaned up our messes we can get to work.” Mr. Hans booted up the projector and started the class.

– –

During his third period PE class Daren noticed one of the other students who had gotten on the bus at the bottom of the hill. The PE teacher did a brief introduction.

“This is John Ainsley. He moved here from Hilsonville, Washington. Now, let’s get out of this gym and onto the track. I want to see some leg movement out there today!” Mrs. Carson looked ready to go. “I’ll be joining you on the track today. Anyone who can lap me gets extra credit.”

Daren jogged around the track, getting his heartbeat up, but not much more. He watched as John quickly lapped Mrs. Carson then when he came back around to Daren he slowed to his speed.

“I need all the extra credit I can get. Don’t you?” The question seemed rhetorical. He held out his hand. “I’m John Ainsley. You are?”

Daren jogged sideways to shake the hand. “I’m Daren Medakus. You seemed uninterested in my name this morning on the bus.”

“I’m not a morning person. Sara definitely isn’t either, but in-between classes she mentioned your journal, so I thought I’d introduce myself when I had a chance.” John slowed to a walk. “Let’s talk, shall we?”

Daren slowed and looked at him. “I don’t know why the two of you keep saying journal like that. What do you want to talk about?”

“Mendacium interius veritas. We Ainsley’s aren’t that kind of family, but we know a few.”

The phrase wasn’t quite pronounced right, and by John’s second sentence Daren knew why. “Well, just so we know where we stand, veritas interius mendacium.”

“Don’t they always, though?” John asked in a way that expected a specific response.

Daren shook his head. “Dad never told me the other half of that line. Said I wasn’t ready.”

A smiled appeared on John’s face. “Just answer it how you feel it should be answered, then. I want to know.”

“I’ve always thought the answer was ‘so is reality’.” Daren stopped in his tracks, an inquisitive look on his face.

John stopped and walked back to him. “What’s wrong?”

Shaking his head Daren started walking again. “Why am I so trusting of you? There’s students passing by us. Any one of them could know and be an enemy of the council. If we want to talk about this…”

The school bell chimed, interrupting Daren.

“We can talk this weekend at your place or ours. Let me know on the bus. I have need of your…skills.” John started walking toward the gym. “That is, if you are willing to help an old dog out.”

“I actually have a job after school. We should talk at lunch.”

– –

At lunch Daren was reading his grimoire. He was sitting with his back to the lunchroom wall so that nobody could see the thaumatish written inside. The book was open to a section on supernatural dogs. Black dogs had always fascinated him, especially the church grim which seemed to be the only inherently good one. This time, however he was looking into humanoid creatures that were related in some form to dogs. John had said he had need of his skills if he wanted to help an old dog. That phrase is what caused him to investigate it now.

A lunch tray connected with the table Daren was at, causing him to look up over the lip of the grimoire.

“Is this seat taken?” The last one of the students that had gotten on the bus that morning was asking.

Daren noticed the two Ainsleys waiting beside him. “Ah, the last Ainsley I assume?”

“I’ll take that as a no.” The three Ainsleys sat down.

Putting the grimoire away Daren stared at his sack lunch. He didn’t feel hungry, but he started to eat mechanically. If he didn’t eat now he’d never make it through sixth period.

“So,” Daren asked between bites, “what do you want to talk about? Wolf related topics? Or perhaps the moon?”

John grinned. “See, Jayse? I told you that saying old dog was enough.”

The black-haired boy nodded. “I stand corrected. Nice to meet you, Daren. I’m Jayse.” He went back to shoving food in his mouth and swallowing without tasting it.

Sara shook her head. “Jayse, I know it’s hard for you, but you can at least pretend you’re actually eating.”

“You guys want to talk here, or somewhere else. I can make it hard for people to understand us if you want, but that doesn’t always work out.” Daren took another bite of his sandwich then added a blue and orange powder to his water bottle.

“If there’s somewhere else to talk that’d be best.”

“Okay, Jayse. Where do you recommend?”

“The forested area behind your house. After school.”

“Jayse, I told you Daren has work after school.” John took Jayse’s chocolate milk. “You won’t appreciate this. Why’d you even get chocolate?”

“Right. It’s getting a little hard for me to concentrate in here. I’m going for a walk.” Jayse gave his dessert to John and left with his lunch tray.

Sara shook her head. “Don’t worry about him. It’s a little too crowded in here is all.” She pushed her dessert over to Daren. “Do you want this?”

“Sure. So, we should talk this weekend then. Does that sound good?”

“It does, but it’s a full moon Saturday. How about Sunday?”

Daren looked at John. “You’re still tied down on that then? If you need my help with that I need to get to know you a little more. Now I know what you want, and that’s no small thing.”

“Well, up until now I didn’t care. Something’s come up, though, and I need to be a little more in control of some things.” “John, be careful. We can talk about that Sunday.” Sara picked up her food tray. “Well, see you then.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 21

During the night Enress watched as Julian awoke several times, looked around for who was on watch, saw Enress, and fell back asleep. It was like he didn’t trust whoever was on watch to do their job. Enress shrugged to herself and started to do a circuit around the campsite. A while later, close to sunrise, a small yellow bird, similar to an American Goldfinch, flew from the forest and landed on her shoulder. It chirped at her a few times like it expected her to understand.

“Syb? I don’t understand you. Don’t you hang out with Slapper?” She shook her head. “He doesn’t want to update even though he knows we can talk now. Poor soul.”

Syb chirped more slowly, like that would allow Enress to understand it.

“I can’t speak with animals. You’ll have to bring Slapper here if he wants to talk to me.” With a dismissive gesture Enress continued to do her circuit around the camp.

A short time later Syb came flying back into the range of the campfire. He was bleeding heavily and chirped weakly.

“Oh, that’s not good.” Enress moved swiftly to Burner and shook her awake. Syb was being cradled in Enress’ hand.

Burner slowly opened her orange, glowing eyes. “What is it?”

Holding Syb out Enress answered her, “heal Syb so he can lead me to Slapper. He must be in trouble if Syb looks like this.”

“Who?”

“Please, just heal the finch.”

“Okay. I hate to see creatures suffer anyway, so let’s take a look at this little guy.” Burner pulled a small vial from her pack. “Let’s get closer to the fire. The light will help. I may be able to see in the dark, but it’s not as good as actual light.” She poured the vial out over Syb before Enress started moving. “This will help the bleeding, at least.”

Syb chirped indignantly, but the bleeding did stop. He hopped a little on Enress’ hand then chirped again, in pain. His right wing was noticeably broken.

With a few hand gestures and a quick rhyme, “to find the minion that hurt this pinion, I heal thee,” Burner cast a healing spell on the bird.

Flying around Burner’s head Syb let out a few happy bars of birdsong. This awoke the rest of the adventuring party, who stared at the small yellow bird.

“What’s with that thing?” Julian said, gathering his gear together. “Well, it’ll be dawn in a couple of hours now. Might as well stay up.”

Syb landed on Enress’ shoulder again and chirped a few times, then he took off towards the west-north-west.

“Well, I’m going to follow the bird. It’s heading in the general direction of town, so it shouldn’t be too much of a detour.” Enress began following Syb’s flight path.

“Julian, can you go with Enress? We’ll go back to Dregton and wait for you there. I don’t want to keep the mayor waiting.” Burner started gathering her things.

Julian nodded. “Sure, no problem.” He smiled at Enress. “Lead the way.”

Dreekt watched at Julian jogged after Enress. “So, what are they going to do?”

“Something about someone named Slapper needing help.” Burner shrugged. “I don’t know how important it is, but she obviously wants to help.”

The group packed up the campsite and Gaemacirch put his pack over his shoulder. “I think I’ll be staying in my bipedal form for now.”

Dreekt nodded. “I think that would be best.”

– – –

In Dregton Burner, Dreekt, and Gaemacirch approached the mayoral building. They were ushered in quickly.

“Ah, hello Burner. I believe you are missing someone? The human?” The mayor looked the group over. “You seem to have had a hard go of it. I’m assuming the creatures cannot return through the cave?”

Burner nodded. “Yes, the cave is dealt with, and our other traveling companion is off helping someone we met on the road. We expect him back in a few hours.”

“Yes, yes. Quite.” The mayor turned to a large metal chest on his right and pulled a key from under his shirt. “Let me get that quarterstaff for you, and some cohzen of course.” He pulled a runed quarterstaff and a bag of cohzen out of the chest and relocked it. “Both for sealing the cave and helping to protect the town from the strange salamander attack.” He shuddered. “Hopefully another one of those won’t show up.”

“They are unlikely to show up.” Gaemacirch replied. “They tend to only attack settlements when there are overwhelming odds.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad we were here to turn the odds ever so slightly in your favor. If that had been an adult, we would have stood no chance.”

“Well, anyway, that’s your reward.” The mayor motioned at the quarterstaff and money on his desk. “Is there anything else?”

Dreekt spoke up, “yes, how does the staff work, exactly?”

“Oh, it affects the target’s mental fortitude as well as their body.” He shrugged. “It used to be used for interrogations, but I hope that you will find a better use for it.”

“We most certainly will try.” Burner curtsied and turned to leave. “Thank you for your hospitality and gifts. We must go visit you guard captain, now.”

With a swift movement Gaemacirch took the staff and cohzen from the mayor’s desk. “We hope you don’t have need of our services again, but if you do, I hope we are close by.”

“I do, too.” The mayor motioned after Burner. “You better go. I don’t think she likes to be kept waiting.”

“Right. Let’s go, Dreekt.” Gaemacirch turned and noticed Dreekt had already left. “Oh.” Gaemacirch left the mayoral building and started to head for Hereweald and Wassa’s house.

– – –

Julian followed Enress and Syb for a while before they came upon a strange growth of writhing vines growing from a stand of small trees, similar to the stand that was around the cave entrance to Dark Under. The vines would have looked normal if they weren’t moving.

“Uhh, maybe we should go to town and get the others. This doesn’t look good.” Julian tossed a small stone at the vines and they smacked it to the ground. “It really doesn’t look good.”

With a contemplative nod Enress turned to address Syb. “Let’s go to Dregton and retrieve my new friends. They should be able to help with this.”

Syb chirped and landed on Enress shoulder, as if to say ‘lead on’.

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Rebuilding Brangmar – Pt. 11

Erin stared at the elf. She had always played elves at her D&D table when she wasn’t DM’ing. The beauty of the creatures had always fascinated her.

“Excuse me,” the elf said, the wooden earrings clanking softly. “I asked you why you were traveling towards our village.”

Throbor bowed to the elven female. “We were seeking out survivors of Brangmar. We are not of this realm.”

The elf smiled. “I could tell that from the way you look, but you seem to speak our language fluently.”

“That’s because we met with Oghma,” Erin explained, “and he gave us the language we speak now.”

The elven woman looked impressed. “So, the gods speak to you? Why are you here, then?”

Aram spoke up this time. “We were summoned by a man named Sorley Aelfson. Perhaps you know of him and why he would do that?”

“Because the old man believes that he can save his child, the city, from its destruction.” The elf shook her head. “Maybe he can, but these Teblats are too powerful. They have taken over many beasts, and other creatures who hate civilization have flocked to their cause.”

Tribst nodded his head, his bulbous eyes catching the elf’s attention. “Yes, when you are old you wish all of your children to do well, and you see many more things as your children than the younger folk.”

“You know somewhat of how Sorley thinks, but he sees this whole region as his child. Not just the city.” The elf shook her head sadly. “We want the blight of the Teblats gone, but I don’t believe the city is the best thing for this realm.”

“Well, perhaps instead of one large city it will be a collection of towns.” Erin shrugged. “Just because it’s Brangmar doesn’t mean it needs to be the same Brangmar.”

The elf smiled. “Very well, you may come with us. I am Mother Ironbark. You may call me Mother Ironbark, or just Ironbark, but not just Mother.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aram bowed deeply to Mother Ironbark.

“Now, follow us into the forest. We will grant you an audience with our elders.” Mother Ironbark motioned the group forward and turned back into a lioness.

“Well,” Tribst addressed his traveling companions. “Looks like we’re being escorted. Be on your best behavior…and that means you, frost giant.”

“Oh, stow it lizard boy.” Throbor patted Tribst on the back. “Sorry, salamander boy, not lizard.”

The four traveling companions chosen by Sorley moved onward, following Mother Ironbark and the other elves in lion form toward the north western forest.

– – –

As the party entered the forest the elves around them turned back from lions into their humanoid forms. They were beautiful, but the four travelers were not looking at them, rather they were looking at the cedar trees with bright red bark.

“What kind of trees are these?” Tribst brushed a bulbous finger against the bark of a tree. “They look like cedar trees, but their bark is a beautifully unnatural shade of red.”

“Those are rediron trees. The humans call tree’s sap red dragon piss because it smells horribly.” One of the elves that wasn’t Mother Ironbark replied. “However, they also made a delicious wine using that sap, so it does have its uses.”

“If you have any I would love to try it.” Tribst pulled his hand away from the bark of a rediron tree and continued following the group. “I imagine it has a powerful kick.”

“Oh, that it does.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 20

Black ichor dripped from Gaemacirch’s mouth as Dreekt sat down hard on the rocky floor.

Gaemacirch spit the ichor from his mouth. The spikes along his back heaving as he began to vomit. He had enough foresight to turn away from his companions. After a moment the vomit ceased, and he turned back into his humanoid form. He rubbed his three horns and began scooping his armor into his pack. “Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be in here anymore.”

Dreekt straightened his feathers and stopped himself from vomiting as well. He stowed his weapons and scratched the bottom of his beak. “I agree, but we need to do something about this nest first.” He motioned at the hexagonal latticework. “Do you think it burns?”

Pulling her hood down Burner sat down next to Dreekt. Her skin was pale and waxen, she had no hair on her head, and her eyes glowed slightly dimmer. “We need to rest for a moment. I think that the violence will only make it harder to rid all of us from the effects of Dark Under. The two of you are more susceptible to it, but we all feel the effects.” For the first time, Dreekt noticed that Burner’s eyes had changed from a deep orange glow to a deep red glow, bordering on purple.

– – –

The Dark Under, a place of dark magics. When the skravyn were sealed away they had committed several crimes for The Desecrator. While The Desecrator was facing punishment from the gods the skravyn continued his work in Nevre. Flying through the skies the skravyn would swoop down on unsuspecting children and adolescents to take them home and turn them into more skravyn.

The dark arts practiced by the skravyn to create more of their kind began to poison the land. An alliance of men, elves, dwarves, and halflings – there were no gnomes in those days – formed to take down this threat.

In a last-ditch effort, the humans led the skravyn into a trap prepared by the dwarves and elves. The humans fled into tunnels dug out by the dwarves and got caught in a dead end. As soon as all the skravyn had followed them inside to slaughter them the humans activated the trap, sacrificing their life force to trap the skravyn in a pocket plane.

The dark magics practiced by the skravyn, presumably in their attempts to leave their prison, slowly leaked out into the surrounding tunnels. This darkness formed the part of the underground today known as Dark Under as well as twisting a human tribe dwelling there into zarxii and a strange salamander creche into salamen.

Excerpt from the works of Jergolt, Head Scholar of the University of Rentaz

– – –

“Burner,” Julian looked at her eyes, “do you think we should detox outside, or inside.” He motioned at the nest. “If the two of them have gathered enough dark energy we may be able to use it to destroy the nest.”

With a deep sigh Burner stood back up. “Yes, they might be able to, but I don’t like doing that.”

“Doing what?” Dreekt looked around quizzically. “You all seem to know what that means, but I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Well,” Enress explained, “when organic races spend time in Dark Under they absorb some of the darkness. That’s what created the zarxii and the Salamen. There is a ritual known as darkness detoxification. I assume that’s what Julian is talking about, yes?” She glanced at Julian, who nodded curtly. “When enough of the darkness has been absorbed the detox can be literally explosive.”

Dreekt nodded slowly. “Okay, and since Gaem and I are races that are directly tied to Dark Under you believe we have already absorbed enough to make detoxing explosive?”

“Yes, we have.” Gaemacirch shuddered. “I have never been that overtaken by the darkness before. To use my teeth to rip something’s throat out.” He shuddered again. “I’ve bitten before, but that…” Another shudder passed through his body. “That was different.”

“Well, Gaem, it sounds like you need to show Dreekt how it’s done then. Julian, Enress, and I will wait out here, the two of you go in the nest.” Burner motioned the two of them forward. “Don’t worry, Dreekt, you will be fine. Gaem knows enough to protect you from the energy.”

Gaemacirch shook his head. “Ok, I don’t exactly like this, but we do need to detox.” He glanced at Julian and Burner. “You two should too, even if you don’t feel the effects. Burner’s eyes have changed color.” He then turned to face Enress, the automaton. “I don’t know how the darkness effects automatons, but you’ve been down here for at least a month, right?”

“Yes, if not longer. It’s a little hard to tell time down here.”

“Well, I think it wouldn’t hurt for you to detox as well, just to be safe.” Gaemacirch motioned Dreekt toward the nest. “Let’s go.”

Dreekt followed Gaemacirch into the center of the nest where he sat crisscross on a smooth spot.

“Sit behind me and watch.” Gaemacirch waited for Dreekt to sit, then began chanting in the zarx tongue. After a moment he paused and spoke to Dreekt. “The chanting is necessary, but the words should be your own. The detox ritual requires that you acknowledge that the darkness is there and that it needs to be expelled. I should have done this after the fight with the skittering creepers before, but I have grown unaccustomed to doing this.” He began to chant again in the zarx language. A few moments later a dark aura surrounded Gaemacirch. “At this point you want to direct the energy away from you. Usually you harmlessly dissipate it into the air, but this time I’m going to shoot it out around me. Everywhere but from my back. Ready?”

“Ready.” Dreekt huddled closer to Gaemacirch’s back.

The energy gathered at Gaemacirch’s head, chest, and arms. It shot out in a pulse with most of the energy going out parallel to the ground. It impacted the nest and did a large amount of damage to the structure, but some of it was still standing.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Ok, but to be safe I’m going to leave the nest. That way you won’t have to worry about not hitting me.” Gaemacirch stood up and made for the exit.

As soon as he could no longer see Gaemacirch, Dreekt began to chant in skravyn. The clicking and cawing language filled the room. The words seemed to have more power in Dark Under and Dreekt could feel the darkness around him start to respond to him. Instead of reaching out to that darkness he concentrated on forcing much the darkness out of himself. An aura of darkness began to block out some of his vision. He couldn’t tell from the inside, but the aura he had was much larger than the one that surrounded Gaemacirch. With a powerful mental effort, he closed his eyes and pushed the darkness away from himself.

The darkness shot away from Dreekt in a tidal wave of energy, crushing the nest into dust. Dreekt took a deep breath and started coughing and hacking. He opened his eyes and stood up. Barely able to see through the thick dust floating in the air he made his way back to the entrance of the nest.

“Dreekt, are you ok?” Gaemacirch stuck his horned, humanoid head into the small space. “There was a loud cracking noise. The nest didn’t co-” Gaemacirch’s voice caught in his throat when he saw the nest was obliterated. “Oh, that was you…umm…well, good job. I’m certainly glad I left the room.”

Burner’s voice echoed into the chamber. “Hey, we’re all done here, let’s head back out.”

Gaemacirch pulled his head back out of the room and motioned for Dreekt to follow. “C’mon. I don’t want to be down here any longer.”

“Right.”

– – –

Gaemacirch and Enress stood at the mouth of the tunnel that lead into the Dark Under cavern. They had been rolling stones and boulders into it for hours while Dreekt was summoning boulders from within the cave to assist them. Now the entrance was completely blocked by stones at least a yard deep.

“So, I think we should go collect that quarterstaff and maybe a weapon for Enress.” Julian held rations out to Dreekt and Gaemacirch. “After all, she can’t keep using Gaemacirch’s katana. He needs that in this form.”

“Right. Here.” Enress handed the katana to Gaemacirch. “I can use my fists until we get to this town you have spoken of.”

Dreekt took the offered ration pack and nodded. “The town’s a few hours away, so we’ll need to camp out here for the night.”

“Oh, right. I forgot. Organic’s sleep…I don’t actually require sleep per se…” Enress shrugged. “I’ll keep watch for you, though.”

Burner approached her traveling companions. Her hood was covering her head again, and here eyes had returned to the bright orange they had been before. “I found firewood while you worked, and Julian has found a decent campsite. Some of Adalet’s skills must have rubbed off…” She covered her mouth with her hands. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, she’s going to come up. Don’t worry about it.” Julian reassured Burner, “It hurts, and I miss her, but I also know it wasn’t your fault.” He paused for a moment and turned away. “I know it was an accident. I just get so mad sometimes. Like at Mad Cedar. I almost flew off the handle, but I calmed down then, and I’m calming down now.”

Enress looked from Julian to Burner and back again. “I suppose you’ll tell me about that when you feel I should know.” She walked over to the campsite and started to put together some dry tinder. “I’m going to start a fire, you guys set up your bedrolls or whatever.”

“Don’t worry, Enress. I’ll tell you about Adalet tomorrow. We need our sleep right now though, so I’ll see you in the morning.” Julian pulled his bedroll from his pack and unrolled it. “Goodnight. Sleep well.” Enress leaned against a tree and watched the adventurers prepare to rest for the night.

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World of Souls – Ch. 8: The Left Corridor

Blavet, Elinog, AB-775, Allie, and Janine approached the airlock. The outer door was open, and the airlock was empty. There was no viewport to see inside the station.

“Well,” Blavet motioned at the airlock, “looks like it’s into the airlock or nothing.”

Elinog nodded. “I agree, but once we get in there what do we do? If we meet someone then we discuss payment for docking and refuel, but what if there isn’t anyone on the station?”

“If we meet no one we split up. Elinog will go with me, and the girls will go with Abe.” Blavet motioned at AB-775. “After that we look for things to salvage.”

“Why are we splitting up like that? I think Elinog and I should be together.” Janine motioned at Elinog’s legs. “I can repair those, you can’t.”

With a nod Blavet motioned them into the airlock. “Because if you want to do that we might as well stick together. The idea is that both groups can identify parts we need to replenish on the ship. It’ll go faster if we split up.”

“Makes logical sense, but why is Abe going with us?” Allie motioned at Elinog’s legs. “You have someone with an impairment. You should take Abe.”

Blavet nodded. “I suppose it does make more logical sense. Very well.” He patted AB-775 on the head. “Looks like you’re coming with us, buddy.”

The air finished cycling and the inner airlock door opened to an empty corridor going in two different directions. There was no welcoming party. Along the walls opposite the airlock were lockers with keys in them. There was a sign above the lockers.

“It says ‘choose a locker, put your things in, lock it, and take the key.’ It looks like communal lockers.” AB-775 motioned at the lockers. “Seems like a good place to leave your vac suits. The air is a little dry, but it has the right mix of gasses.”

A camera above the Dominiot’s crew turned towards them and focused on them.

“I don’t know, would it be safer to wear the vac suits or to deposit them?” Blavet looked at his ungainly suit then over at Blavet’s clunky one. “One second thought, we’d be more mobile without them.” He double checked his exterior air readout. “My readout confirms Abe’s analysis. A little low on moisture, but otherwise breathable.”

Janine and Allie put their suits in lockers, then turned to help Elinog out of the remaining portion of his suit. Blavet was already helping him.

“You know, maybe we should state our intent, just to be safe.” Elinog looked around the empty corridor. “This is the crew of the ISS Dominiot. We are here for repairs, refuel, and foodstuffs. If anyone is here, please respond.” His voice echoed along the corridor. “Well, no answer. Let’s split up. I think our group will go left.”

“That’s fine with me.” Allie turned to the right and started walking, laser cutter at the ready, but pointed at the floor.

Janine shrugged at Elinog and turned to follow Allie. “Wait for me, I’m the one who knows what we’re looking for!”

“Switch to open comms! We need to be inconstant communication!” Blavet yelled after them, turning on his own comm.

Allie’s voice crackled over the comm. “They’re on. Yeesh.”

“Just be careful. Elinog, let’s go.” Blavet motioned forward. “You too, Abe.”

Blavet, Elinog, and AB-775 walked or rolled down the corridor. After a few dozen meters the corridor split in two directions. The one on the left seemed to continue around the outside of the station, while the one on the right seemed to go into crew quarters.

“Still no terminals?” Blavet glanced around the intersection. “I would have expected some sort of access point by now. Have you seen anything, Abe?”

AB-775 glanced around the corridor. “I haven’t seen any interface devices yet, but maybe they’re further in. It seems we’re in the visitor area. Maybe they didn’t give computer access to visitors.”

“Or nothing here runs on computers.” Elinog shrugged. “But then, the air probably wouldn’t be breathable still.”

Blavet shrugged and took the right corridor. “Well, we didn’t find anything up until now. Time to move deeper into the station.”

After another ten meters or so they came across a four-way intersection. There was finally another sign. It had arrows pointing left, right, and forward.

“The sign says quarters left and right. Market forward.” AB-775 looked around. “Whatever happened here seems to have been clean. There’s no debris anywhere inside.”

“Odd, it seemed like a war zone outside. All that junk must’ve been ships.” Blavet shook his head. “This makes no sense.”

“We’re in warp space, and there’s a research station. We left sense behind a long time ago.” Elinog shrugged. “Let’s go left again. Maybe we’ll find something in the quarters. A clue, maybe?”

“Or a survivor, however unlikely.” Blavet rubbed the end of his tail idly. “Yeah, quarters. Let’s go.”

After a short interval the sides of the corridor had doors spaced every three meters. Every door was open.

“Odd, none of the doors are shut.” Elinog looked through one of the doors with his bulbous salaman eyes. “Looks like someone has been using the bed as a nest.”

“Or something.” Blavet looked at the blankets on the floor. “Looks like something that sleeps curled up like a dog.”

Elinog nodded, scratching at a fresh patch of synthetic skin. “Yeah, looks like it. I wonder what it is?”

“We’ll probably meet up with it sooner or later.” Blavet looked at the dresser in the room. “The dresser is covered with dust. Nobody’s used it in a long time…I wonder-”

A piercing scream over the open comm cut Blavet off.

“What was that?” Blavet’s eyes were wide. “Allie! Janine! Can you hear me?!”

There was cawing from the other end of the comm followed by Janine’s voice. “Something’s here, on station! Be careful! I’m getting Allie to safety!”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 19

Dreekt sat cross legged with a large flat rock on his lap. He had another, smaller rock in his left hand. He was doing some geometry and vectors. He looked at what was written on the rock. So that’s what a spell looks like when the mana is swirling around it?

Kwase chuckled, when a mage, channeler, or warlock casts a spell, yes. When a priest casts a spell, I imagine it looks a little different, and when a sorcerer casts a spell it’s more of a maelstrom. If you had the eyes of the magus, you would know what I mean.

What about bards? Somewhere in-between. Their spells are based off performance which is more of an art than a science.

Dreekt stared at his taloned hands. How does one get the eyes of the magus?

I doubt you will need them on your journey, but if ever you feel the need speak to me. You will have to give something up, but the eyes are permanent.

Very well. I see the others returning. Let’s call this meditation here, yes?

Yes, but tonight I will be training you in your dreams.

Dreekt wiped the arcane formulae off the rock and stood up. “Well, are we ready to move on?”

With a curt nod Burner motioned toward a tunnel between the entrances to the curving tunnel. “Right is always right, I suppose.” She smiled at Enress. “Though, I suppose it’s a good thing we went left first.”

“Whole heartedly agreed.” Enress bowed slightly at Burner. “I will follow where you lead, dear wick.”

– – –

After a long walk down a narrow tunnel the adventurers found themselves at a fork in the tunnel. On the left the tunnel continued as normal, and on the right, it appeared to open into a large cavern. Visible at the back of the cavern, barely visible to Julian and Enress in the darkness, was a honeycomb structure, like a beehive, but much, much bigger.

“Looks like there’s some sort of nest in the back of that cavern. Do you think we should check it out, or see where the tunnel leads?” Burner glanced over the group. “Rather, are we feeling healed up enough to try to take it on?”

“I feel fit as a fiddle.” Enress pulled Gaemacirch’s sword from her back. “Let’s go crush some larvae.”

Gaemacirch nodded his large ferret head. “Be extra careful. Skittering creeper elders watch the nest. They are nastier than the ones we’ve been fighting.” He dragged his metal claws against the floor a few times, sharpening them. “They’re bigger too, so don’t let them surround you.”

“Well, let’s go. I want to get this over with so I can see the sky again. It’s been a long time.” Enress motioned with the jagged katana.

Gaemacirch and Enress moved ahead with Julian close behind. Burner and Dreekt kept some distance so they could cast their spells without worry of being interrupted. After a few yards of this movement two large skittering creepers appeared next to the honeycomb structure.

“The mother and father. The mother will be more vicious, she’s the bigger one.” Gaemacirch started loping forward. “For Dregton!” He crashed into the female and gashed her across the face.

Immediately the father turned to protect his mate, biting at Gaemacirch, but was unable to break through his metal armor. As he did so Dreekt took a second to focus on a spell, then summoned a large rock above the male. It fell on it with a glancing blow, but it got his attention away from Gaemacirch.

Seeing the slight opening, Julian rushed forward with his twin axes. He did a slashing motion with both and took some chitin off the creature. The skittering creeper elder howled in pain.

The matriarch skittering creeper brought down her large front paws in an attempt to smash Gaemacirch’s head into the ground. She succeeded, and Gaemacirch felt a large headache beginning to throb through his temples.

With a few bars of a strange melody, Burner attempted to bolster her companions’ attacks. Her allies felt a surge of confidence come over them.

The surge of confidence fresh in her steel, Enress surged forward with Gaemacirch’s katana. “Die, foul stain upon the land!” She struck out at the patriarch and dealt a glancing blow.

Gaemacirch slashed at the matriarch, but she dodged out of the way. She bit at him in retaliation, and got a mouth-full of air.

Dreekt focused his energy on transporting the rock he had attempted to use earlier, hoping to crush the matriarch this time, but she was still pulling back from her bite and he misjudged the distance.

The patriarch swung his large paw at Enress and connected with her metallic frame. He wasn’t expecting so much resistance and only scratched the surface. In response, Enress swung the katana at him. She caught the chitin where its ear would be, causing the creature to leak ichor.

The axes in Julian’s hands swung at the patriarch, and sunk them both into him. The creeper cried out in pain and turned to face Julian.

Seeing a small opening, Burner pulled her shortbow from her back and loosed an arrow at the patriarch. She wasn’t able to get a good shot and pulled up at the last second to avoid hitting her allies. The arrow thudded harmlessly into the honeycomb structure.

Seeing the arrow strike the nest, the matriarch roared in motherly rage. It ran away from Gaemacirch, and lunged at Burner. Under the weight of the elder, Burner lost consciousness. The boost she had been giving herself and her allies fell away.

As Gaemacirch’s opponent ran away and took out Burner, he glanced at the patriarch and realized he was heavily wounded. With a bestial, guttural roar he lunged at the patriarch, mouth aimed for his throat. He ripped the patriarch’s throat so violently that his head was torn from his body. With shock in his eyes Gaemacirch spit the visceral from his maw and started heaving.

Dreekt saw Burner go down and rage boiled up inside him. “Not again! I will not let you do this. Pulling at the air like pulling the strings of puppets Dreekt caused many large rocks to fall on the matriarch. When the dust settled pieces of skittering creeper chitin and black ichor littered the scene. Realizing that he could have just killed Burner Dreekt ran to the rubble and began to pull it away.

“I’m here. I’m trapped, but I’m still alive.” Burner’s voice echoed out from under the rubble. “Just get me out of here. Then we take care of this nest and leave. The Dark Under is seeping into you and Gaem. We can’t let it consume you.”

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Terra Incognita – Ch. 13

Lourek awoke deep in the bowels of a large beast. He heard the beast’s voice echo around. He couldn’t understand it, but he assumed it was in draconic. “Well, this is just wonderful. I take a dip in the hot springs and I end up in the belly of a serpent without my armor or weapons.”

Taking a look around Lourek realized he was on a small island in the serpent’s stomach. The pile was made of undigested bones, the remains of armor, and acid-damaged weapons. With a mighty sigh he sifted through part of the pile and found a damaged short sword.

Swinging the sword a few times, Lourek nodded. “Well, it’s better than nothing.” His voice echoed through the cavernous stomach. He thought back to all the stories he had heard growing up of heroes. None that he could remember involved anyone being swallowed by a serpent. “Probably because nobody ever survived to tell the tale.” He muttered to the large, stench-filled cavern.

– – –

Lukren edged to the water and pulled his armor and Lourek’s armor and weapons away. “Ok, let me put on my armor and we can talk about what to do.”

“I think my friend Donaar should try speaking with the serpent. It does speak draconic, right?” Krakust motioned at the hematite dragonkin.

With a shrug Donaar sheathed his sword. “It wouldn’t hurt.”

Helena nodded then said something to Donaar in a language that sounded like deep growls with grating consonants.

A similar sounding string of words responded to Helena. Then, in common, Donaar addressed the group. “I think Helena might be a little better at this. She knows more about serpents than I, and she obviously speaks draconic very well.”

“Well, I don’t see why not.” Sorley nodded at Helena. “I assume you want to do this?”

“Of course.” Helena approached the edge of the pool and called out in draconic. “Serpent, I seek a moot with you.”

Rising from the pool, a large brass colored serpent sprayed warm water into the air. “Speak, elf of the sky.”

“I am Helena Dabaetodh, a dracomage. I wish to know what you want in return for spitting up our dwarven friend you have swallowed.” Helena did the same intricate bow she had done for Donaar earlier.

The serpent laughed a large, booming, mirth-filled sound echoing in the hot spring clearing. “Once swallowed you must find your own way out. If you wish to enter and help him you may, or you may send him items you think will help. There is nothing you can do for me to just spit him up.”

With a deep sigh Helena nodded. “Very well, I shall commune with my companions and we shall decide what to do.”

“Take your time. I believe he landed on, ahem, dry land.” With that the serpent coiled back into the water but kept his head near the shore. “Toss in anything or enter. Anything that goes in my mouth will be swallowed.” The serpent opened his maw and stopped moving.

Donaar was already telling the others what the serpent had said when Helena returned. “So, I think we should send him his weapons and armor first, then decide what else we wish to do.”

“Agreed.” Lukren took the bundle of armor with Lourek’s items and tossed it into the serpent’s mouth. At once the serpent reared its head up and swallowed. Then it lowered its head, resuming the open maw position.

– – –

Lourek had just found an old, tattered raft made of something that seemed to resist the serpent’s stomach bile when he felt a rumble and a package landed next to him with a loud thump. He looked at the bundle in shock and realized that it was his armor and items.

“By the gods, they’re making deals with the beast! What are they thinking?” Lourek took the armor and donned it, strapping his daggers to his side and putting the bag on his back. “Well, I’m grateful none the less.” Lourek climbed onto the raft and saw a long pole cobbled together with bones with sinew used as twine. “Looks like it’s time to move.”

– – –

“I’m definitely offering to go in there to help…Lourek was it?” Donaar looked to Lukren for confirmation.

“Yes, it’s Lourek.”

“But if I go in alone, then he will probably see me as a threat.” Donaar scanned the other’s faces. “Who else is willing?”

Sorley shrugged. “I’ll go.” He looked at Ember. “You stay here, though.”

Helena nodded. “Orby will go with you. I’ll keep an eye on Ember out here.”

“Ok, as long as you have someone looking out for your back, I guess.” Ember shook her head, her red fur reflecting the sunlight. “I just don’t like the idea of you or anyone going in there.”

“Well, it’s decided.” Sorley held a hand towards Orby. “Let’s go, shall we?”

Orby floated over and flowed into Sorley’s hand. This still feels weird, but Helena obviously trusts you to let this happen twice.

I guess so. Sorley smiled at Helena. “Thanks.” He turned and nodded to Donaar, his face more serious. “Let’s go, dragonkin.”

With a curt nod Donaar approached the serpent, Sorley in tow. They climbed up onto the beast’s tongue and felt what all food feels. The sensation of being completely swallowed.

– – –

Lourek reached a new island of bone and undigested food. He looked around and saw a pedestal with a few runes. “Well, let’s take a look, shall we?” As he approached, he heard a distant scream. “Well, it seems I’m not the only unfortunate soul in here.” Looking around he tried to locate where the sound was coming from. It was approaching rapidly from somewhere. By the time he thought to look up he didn’t have time to move out of the way. Donaar and Sorley landed on top of him.

“Sorry, Lourek. Once we started falling, we couldn’t steer.” Sorley helped Donaar off Lourek and then reached out a hand to help the dwarf up. “This is Donaar, a dragonkin that’s willing to help.”

Shaking his head Lourek offered a hand. “I’m Lourek, but I don’t know who would’ve been dumb enough to come down here, there’s no way out except dead.”

“Don’t worry,” Donaar said, “we made no deals with the serpent. He said if we wished to help, he would send us down here. He acts like people have survived this before.”

“Well, if there were people who got out alive…there weren’t very many of them.” Lourek motioned at the surface of bones they were standing on. “Pretty much a million to one odds.”

Sorley nodded. “Oh, Orby’s here too by the way.”

“Right.” Lourek looked back at the pedestal. “I was about to examine the runes on this. Looks like some sort of puzzle.”

The group walked, or floated, over to the pedestal. The three natives to Domhan seemed confused by the carvings.

“Almost looks elvish, but not as flowing.” Donaar traced the side of the pedestal. “Anyone read elvish?”

Sorley chuckled lightly. “It’s in English. My native tongue. Let me take a look.” He approached the pedestal. On the edges there was a single sentence. “It says, ‘Capture the king, let not your king be captured’. Does anyone know how to play chess?”

As Sorley said chess the top of the pedestal flipped, and chess pieces appeared. On the opposite side of the pedestal a man in green robes appeared. “Welcome, traveler. This is my magic chess board. If you win a game against me, I will give you a great boon. But if you lose, you will battle for my amusement.”

“What boons might you grant us?” Donaar eyed the figure. “You are but the shadow of a great mage. You are not here.”

“I am not, but a piece of my soul is. I can enchant armor and weapons or give you a clue on how to get out of here.” The figure swept his arms wide. “If you win ask, and I may be able to give.”

Donaar stepped forward. “I know a thing or two about chess. Let’s have a go.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 18

After a short rest to get their breaths back the four adventurers and the automaton started moving again. It didn’t take long for the tunnel to start looping to the right. When they noticed it had turned almost all the way back around again, they were able to smell burning skittering creepers.

“Great, it loops.” Julian sighed with annoyance. “I think we’re going to have a welcoming party.”

“Don’t worry, friends, you have me now. I won’t let you die on my watch.” Enress saluted by clanging her fist on her chest.

Burner smiled slightly. “Yes, I know. You and Julian saved our hides back there. Thanks again, Enress.”

Enress shook her head. “No thanks required. We have shown we will help each other. I trust you, and I hope that goes both ways.”

With a nod Burner moved out of the tunnel and looked around. “Stay sharp. There’s some skittering creepers out here.”

Gaemacirch lumbered forward in his ferret shape and motioned with his snout at Enress. “Hey, take my sword. Consider it yours until we find you your own weapon.” Enress took it and nodded in thanks. Gaemacirch jumped into a group of creepers, distracting them for long enough for Enress to attack them and she took quite a few out. After a few scrapes the five came through just fine.

“Okay, Enress, do you know where we need to go to get deeper into Dark Under and seal the darkness?” Julian leaned against a wall, a little winded.

With a sigh Enress nodded. “I was afraid that was why you were here.” She sat down with a thud. “Yes, but only if you make me a better face, Julian.”

“Fine.” Julian motioned back towards the tunnel they had just come back through. “Let’s go.”

Burner, Dreekt, and Gaemacirch looked at each other and shrugged.

“So, should we come with, or…?” Burner asked.

“No, we’ll only be a few minutes.” Julian waved as he went into the entrance of the tunnel that they had gone in first. “The metal’s pretty close to this end of the tunnel.”

– – –

“Magnus, sir, more news from the realm.” A man in a beautifully crafted grey tunic handed a parchment to another, slightly taller man with short blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and a golden tan wearing a deep blue robe.

“Thank you, Jersun, I’ll just take a look at that.” Magnus took the parchment from his manservant. “I wonder what lies they’ve been spreading about me.”

“Well, sir, they’ve done something worse. I think maybe you should sit down before I tell you.”

Shrugging, Magnus sat down on a cushioned stool. “Well, tell me.”

“It’s about your wife, sir.” Jersun paused for a moment. “They’ve kidnapped her.”

“What?!” Magnus Overton stood at his full six-foot, two inches. “Where have they taken her?”

A popping noise resounded through the halls as a woman with orange skin appeared next to Magnus’ table. “That’s a good question, Magnus. I’ll tell you where they have her, but only if you make a deal with me.”

Magnus looked aghast. “Adalet! The Sorceress told me you were missing!”

“The Vengeance is never gone for long.” Adalet smiled broadly. “If I tell you where they have her you hire a certain group to save her. You don’t go yourself.”

“This will be binding? If so, I will get the appropriate components.” Jersun motioned towards a door out of the small dining hall.”

A small, insincere smile came to Magnus’ lips. “I believe she does intend that. Grab the components.”

“Very well, sir.” Jersun turned and walked out of the hall.

“Another thing. Next time you marry the offspring of the gods? Make sure not to lose her.”

Magnus’ eyes grew wide. “Surely The Warrior and The Vicious are not out for my blood. Their daughter can hold her own against fifty armed men.”

The Vengeance shook her head. “Not when she’s been drugged, she can’t.”

Jersun entered the room with an odd collection of spell components. “Here you are sir,” he turned and nodded at Magnus, “goddess,” he nodded at The Vengeance.

“Thankyou, Jersun. You may take the rest of the night off, if you wish.” Magnus took the components from him.

“I believe you will need a friend, sir, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes. I believe I shall. Please, stay.”

Magnus and The Vengeance mixed a thick brew out of the spell components and soaked a rag in them. They then tied the rag around their right hands, which were in a clasp.

“I will tell you where your wife is, and in return you will hire the one group I specify to find her, and no one else, including yourself, will go to find her for at least a year.” The Vengeance looked at Magnus in the eyes. “Are these terms agreed upon?”

“Yes, they are.” Magnus kept his eyes locked on The Vengeance’s eyes until the spell was complete. “Well, where and whom?”

– – –

While Julian and Enress were away Burner and Gaemacirch sat down on some rocks while Dreekt did some circuits around the cavern. The gaseous tendrils were still floating about, but they seemed disinterested in him.

About ten minutes went by and Burner started to get concerned. “Hey, Gaem, do you think you can go check on them? I don’t really know what they’re doing, and I feel the need to stick together.” She glanced over in Dreekt’s direction. “After that spider run-in I think Dreekt was right. No small groups.”

“Agreed.” Gaemacirch slinked off.

Dreekt noticed Gaemacirch leaving and swiftly returned to Burner. “What’s up?”

“I sent Gaem to check on Julian and Enress. I’m getting a bad feeling.”

“Oh, good idea.” Dreekt leaned against the wall and looked out over the quiet, still stinking, cavern. “I’m going to meditate for a little bit. You may need to shake me out of it when we move on.”

Burner’s glowing eyes stared into Dreekt’s avian eyes. “Don’t use the stone, not in here.”

“No, no. I’m meditating on my powers. With any luck I’ll be better with them afterward.”

“Good.” Burner took a position to watch the cavern and the tunnel entrance.

Ok, spirit. We have some time. How do we do this knowledge thing?

Like this, Dreekt. Also, now that we aren’t in any danger, my name is Kwase.

Nice to meet you, Kwase.

So, Kwase began, in order to use your powers more effectively you need only commune with me. You may do that like this for a short boost in abilities, or in a dream state where I can train you more directly. I think a dream state is not the best at this time.

Agreed. Dreekt set his bag on the ground and folded up into lotus position on the uneven ground.

Kwase laughed lightly. I don’t believe that does anything, but not a bad idea. Now, grab some paper and a quill. You will be doing arcane formulae today.

Great, more school. Dreekt pulled the aforementioned materials from his pack and grabbed a stone tablet for a writing surface.

You forget, I know you slacked during basic math. This will be much, much harder.

– – –

Gaemacirch rounded a corner in the tunnel and saw Julian literally molding the metal of Enress’ face. Gaemacirch slowly backed away and curled up on the ground. “Hey, guys! Burner sent me to keep watch. I’ll just be over here, not watching.

“Prevest!” Julian yelled. “Wait, I can fix it. Gaemacirch just startled me.”

“No, I like it.” Enress said with satisfaction in her voice.

A few seconds passed, Gaemacirch assumed Julian was assessing whatever happened.

“Well,” Julian said with genuine agreement, “it does look ferocious…and a little attractive.”

Enress chuckled lightly, the sound was that of small bells. “Yes, I agree. Let’s go rejoin the group.” Enress came around the corner and Gaemacirch got a good look at her new face. It looked like Julian was going for a small nose and subtle features, and when Gaemacirch had startled him he had brushed along her face from the bottom left to the top right. It made lines that looked like war paint. Gaemacirch had to admit to himself that it was indeed attractive.

“That looks very nice. A great improvement, of course, but also a work of art.” Gaemacirch bowed his ferret head. “My compliments to model and artisan.”

“So, myself twice?” Enress asked, amusement in her voice.

Julian punched her lightly on the metallic shoulder. “And me once, for the current state of your face.”

“Right, right.” She turned and hugged Julian. “Thank you so much!”

Gaemacirch stood up from his curled position and motioned his head towards the mouth of the cave. “Let’s go…and I saw what you were doing. That’s an interesting magic you have there.”

“It runs in the family…kinda.” Julian looked mildly embarrassed. “I really wasn’t supposed to show anyone, but now I guess the creeper’s out of the trap.”

With a hearty chuckle Gaemacirch turned to head back to Dreekt and Burner. “I never noticed how stupid that zarx saying was until you said it.”

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