The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 16

The four adventurers approached an opening in the ground. Instead of a cave, as Dreekt had expected, there was just a tunnel mouth flush with the ground. It wasn’t a hole in the ground, but instead it sloped underground at a 40-degree angle. If they didn’t know it was the opening to the Dark Under the entrance would look like a jagged, oval hole in the ground.

“So,” Julian said, “this looks like the entrance to Dark Under the governor described.”

“Right.” Gaemacirch shrugged his pack from his ferret form. “Hey, Dreekt, can you put on my armor for me?”

With a quick nod Dreekt kneeled at the bag next to Gaemacirch’s head. “Sure, but you’ll need to talk me through it.”

“What,” Gaemacirch whispered, “is wrong? You keep looking at Julian like you’re seeing a specter.”

“Remember when I used the dagger?” Dreekt whispered back, pulling the armor from the pack.

Gaemacirch glanced at Julian who was arguing with Burner about something. “Yes, but what’s that have to do with him?”

“Well, I remember being at Hereweald and Wassa’s house for that, first, and the events in the forest seem to be different.” Dreekt started sorting the armor to the best of his ability. “Head or tail?” He pointed to a triangular piece.

“Head. See the concave rounded spots? Those go next to my ears.” Gaemacirch sighed deeply. “So, in the forest Julian got killed? I assume it was Mad Cedar. It knocked him out against a root, did he hit harder and break his neck?”

“No, that would’ve been quick and clean. He was impaled through the chest with a branch. I don’t know what happened to his heart, but it was gone.”

Gaemacirch shuddered at that. “Ok,” he said louder, “that’s the correct arrangement. Start putting it on starting at my tail and working toward my head.”

“So that from the front it’s harder to get under the plates.” Dreekt was clearly making a statement and not asking a question.

“Exactly.”

The work of attaching the armor went quickly. The leather tabs had been designed to easily clasp but would take more work to remove them. Dreekt knew, however, that if Gaemacirch transformed into his humanoid form the armor would be forced off and only his undergarments would remain on his frame.

– – –

“So, Gaem, why stay in the ferret form?” Dreekt suddenly ducked under a low-hanging rock. “Question withdrawn.”

Gaemacirch chuckled. “Exactly why.”

After a few minutes of traveling along a winding, branchless tunnel Burner, Dreekt, Gaemacirch, and Julian found themselves in a large cavern. Looking around they spotted at least four exits from the cavern.

“Well, what direction should we go?” Burner spoke softly, but in the silence of the cavern it sounded much louder.

In the distance they heard the scratch of claws against rocks and the sound of rushing air.

Julian turned the dimmer down on his hooded lantern. He spoke even more softly than Burner had, “I’ll try to keep the light down, but I need this to see.”

A large sack of flesh with tentacle-like tendrils growing from the sides floated over a rock and into view.

“Shast.” Burner swore under her breath. “Looks like we’re going to have to deal with gaseous tendrils whether we like it or not.” She pulled her short bow from her back and nocked an arrow wrapped in cloth. “Give me some of that flame, Julian.”

With a sigh Julian opened the lantern enough for Burner to light the arrow off the flame. The arrow burned a strange green color, close to Julian’s skin tone.

“This is a little something I picked up to deal with these guys.” Burner loosed the arrow at the gaseous tendril and when it struck the creature exploded in a purple light. “Oh, that was more intense than I expected.”

The skittering grew louder as the group looked for cover. They quickly realized there would be no cover as more of the gaseous tendrils floated into view.

“Can they give away our position, Gaem?”

Gaemacirch nodded at Dreekt. “Yes, the gaseous tendrils and the skittering creepers have a symbiotic relationship. The creepers follow the tendrils around because they’re drawn to creatures that the creepers see as prey and the creepers attack them, protecting the tendrils. Then, when a gaseous tendril gets old enough, the gasses inside can no longer provide enough ballast and the skittering creepers get a free meal.”

“That sounded nice until the end, then it got dark.” Dreekt shuddered.

“Welcome to Dark Under, where the name says all.” Julian readied a hatchet, brandishing it menacingly while still holding the lantern in his other hand.

Dreekt noticed a second hatchet on Julian’s belt and realized that when he was threatening Mad Cedar he had done so with only one weapon. As he was thinking about this Dreekt’s memory split and he remembered what happened in this version of events. Julian had threatened the tree, raised his hatchet against Burner, realized what he was doing before he struck, dropped the axe, and then the tree conked him over the head. He had never struck Burner, and in this version of events Gaemacirch had not arrived to slice through his shoulder tendon with a throwing knife.

“Dreekt! Head here and now!” Gaemacirch intercepted a skittering creeper that had leapt at the distracted skravyn.

Shaking the thoughts from his head Dreekt readied his dagger and started to ready a spell. “Thanks, Gaem. If you can hold them off, I’m going to conjure something.” He turned to address Burner and Julian. “Once I do this you guys can decide if you want to light it or leave it to hinder them.”

Burner lit a candle and used some of the melted wax to attach it to a rock. She nocked another arrow, lit it, and fired at another gaseous tendril. “I’m focusing on the tendrils. You really don’t want to deal with those.”

With an annoyed sigh Julian set his lantern on top of a different rock and opened the hood all the way, creating a large circle of light for himself. He pulled the second hatchet from his belt and hacked through a skittering creeper. “I forget, are these things good to eat?”

“Do you see a paladin or cleric here?” Gaemacirch pounced on a creeper, gouging deep into its hide. “Oh, or a druid.” He bounced off the creature and landed next to Julian, prepared for another attack.

Dreekt finished some chanting and plucked a small spiderweb from the cave floor. He motioned with his free hand at the area the skittering creepers were coming from and a web formed out of the energies he had summoned, covering the ground five feet deep, using various rocks and low-hanging sections of the ceiling as anchor points.

One of the skittering creepers had been mid-jump when the web had appeared and was caught above the ground, unable to find purchase to break free of the web.

Burner put her shortbow away and grabbed the candle. She walked over to the web. “I’m going to light it. The skittering creepers will just follow us later if we don’t deal with them now.” She bent over and put the flame to the webbing. Instantly the immediate web was ablaze and it didn’t take long for the rest of it to catch. There were screeches of pain followed by silence as many of the skittering creepers died at the same time.

“That was eerie.” Julian’s green skin turned a slightly paler shade and he started swaying slightly.

Dreekt instinctively steadied Julian by tossing Julian’s arm over his shoulders and his arm over Julian’s shoulders. “I don’t think we have time to be queasy. I’m sure that fire’s going to attract something else, so we need to move.”

“Agreed.” Gaemacirch nosed Julian. “Look, if you need to ride for a little that’s fine, but I’m wearing armor so it won’t be very comfortable.”

Julian grabbed Dreekt’s staff from his pack and leaned on it a little. “No, I think this will help, if you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead. We’ll move faster if you can move on your own.”

“I’ll give it back in a few minutes, I’m sure.” Julian stuffed some small pieces of cloth up his nostrils. “And this helbs with the snell.”

“Well, which tunnel should we venture down?” Burner pointed at two tunnels that were to the left of the tunnel they entered through. “Left, or right?”

“Heroes go left,” offered Dreekt.

Burner nodded. “Well, that’s fine with me. Left it is.”

“Why would heroes go left?” Gaemacirch asked. “I thought right is always right.”

“I’m left-handed. That’s why.” Dreekt motioned at the dagger in his left hand.

Gaemacirch rolled his ferret eyes and followed behind Burner.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 15

In front of Dreekt the mist formed into a man. A human man. The man was familiar, but Dreekt couldn’t place where he’d seen the man before.

“Ah, Dreekt. I believe that at this point in your story we haven’t met yet.” The man smiled crookedly.

Blinking a few times Dreekt looked around the man, trying to remember who he was. No matter how hard he tried the identity slipped away from him but was always just on the edge of awareness. “No, I don’t believe we’ve met before, mister…”

The man smiled. “The man who has control over time, yet that time forgot. I know you’ve heard of me, and probably have a feeling you should know me. Almost everyone does.” He sighed and sat on a chair that hadn’t been there before. “I’m The Pathfinder. The god of time and prophecy. This is the second time you visited this place, and the first time you’ve done so on purpose. What knowledge do you seek?”

“I didn’t come with anything specific in mind, I just wanted to see if the dagger worked.” Dreekt thought about what The Pathfinder had said, about having not met yet. “So, you really can travel through time.”

The Pathfinder nodded. “You know, I had assumed you acted so calm with me before because you have seen me here many times before. Now I know it’s just how you are. Calm even in the face of a god.”

A chuckled escaped from Dreekt’s beak. “No, I think it’s because my physical form isn’t here, so I don’t have adrenaline pumping through me.”

“That’s possible, I suppose.” The Pathfinder motioned to the mist. “Well, what do you want to see?”

“How the excursion into the Dark Under goes in general.” Dreekt put all of his mental awareness towards the mist and it started to swirl, revealing flashes of images. The Pathfinder watched, silently, as he focused more on the details. The scene slowed and Dreekt saw Burner and Gaemacirch again. This time they weren’t talking, but were fighting a large, arachnoid creature. Behind them another arachnoid dropped from the ceiling and blocked them in.

“Shast, we need to get out of here!” Burner said as she stabbed at the first arachnoid. “Quick, call for Dreekt.

“You told him to stay behind. He’s at the tunnel where we found-” Dreekt couldn’t make out the name. “He’ll protect them and get them out of here. We’re on our own.”

The arachnoids attacked then and Dreekt dropped his focus on the scene when it was obvious they would fall to the arachnoids.

“So,” The Pathfinder asked, “what will you do about it?”

Dreekt shrugged. “I’ll try to set things up so they don’t get separated from me, but as you must know, that doesn’t always work.”

“Right, some things can’t be avoided once you set foot that way.”

“I know that an easy way to avoid this is to not go in the first place, but if I can save someone’s life by going there and have a chance of getting everyone in my party out alive, I have to take that chance.”

The Pathfinder nodded knowingly. “I understand. Now, go back to your body. Try to save your friends from their own future, it’s not inevitable.”

– – –

Dreekt woke up in a chair in the Blue Flagon. “Wasn’t I Hereweald’s house when I activated the dagger?”

Gaemacirch looked at Dreekt, confused. “No, we were talking with Wassa in the Blue Flagon when you activated the dagger, weren’t we?”

Is that right? Dreekt silently asked the spirit within himself.

Most definitely not. We were in the house when you entered the trance. I went with you, though The Pathfinder seemed not to notice me.

I didn’t either…or I guess I don’t usually notice you, so I didn’t notice you weren’t there.

::I knew about your friend. Oh, and sometimes small details change when you use the dagger and stone together. I think you’ll enjoy the next plot twist.::

Dreekt wasn’t sure how, but he knew that the person that just spoke was The Pathfinder and that he communicated in a way different from Dreekt’s spirit.

“So,” Julian said, “the tree whisperer awakes.”

Dreekt stared wide-eyed at Julian, then immediately hid his surprise. “Yeah, that was different than the first time.”

Burner walked up the stairs from the basement level. “Oh, good. Dreekt’s awake. Let’s get going.”

Julian stiffened up when Burner approached. “Yes, boss.” He spoke in a tone that made it clear he didn’t like taking orders from her.

“Julian, I know you don’t like what happened with Adalet, but she attacked the three of us first. You were the one who retaliated first.”

“Right,” Julian agreed, “but I wasn’t the one who killed her instead of capturing her.”

Gaemacirch stood between the two. “Look, I understand you’re upset, Julian, but you know that you can’t break the contract with Burner. The Wanderer’s travel laws protect our actions, and you know it.”

“Whatever, let’s just get going.” Julian picked up his pack and moved towards the door. “Maybe that tree should’ve killed me instead of knocking me out. Then I wouldn’t have to know Adalet died.”

::She didn’t die, the poor fool.::

What?!

::Oops, spoilers.::

Dreekt shrugged and put the dagger into his pack, then he pulled it back out, wrapped it in cloth, and put it back in the pack. “Don’t want to misuse this,” he mumbled to himself.

“Come on, Dreekt!” Burner was already at the door to the Blue Flagon.

A wizened old hand grabbed Dreekt’s shoulder right before he followed his companions out of the door. He turned to see The Desecrator for the second time in two days. “You unknowingly snatched someone from my hands. Next time that happens I will take something from you.”

Dreekt’s retort froze in his throat as The Desecrator turned into a column of black smoke and dissipated.

That’s not good. Dreekt thought to no one in particular.

I agree.

::Don’t worry about him, The Balance approves of your inadvertent action. Julian shouldn’t have died before.::

Are you always going to be in my head now?

::No, just until midnight. That’s the rules of The Black Gem.::

Dreekt turned back toward the door and ran after his adventuring party.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 14

The snow fell lazily on the strange salamander’s corpse in the morning light. It had taken hours to kill the creature, but they had done it. More footmen had joined the fight as it progressed, but they still lost the majority of them.

The sixteen remaining men stood near Gaemacirch’s humanoid form. The ferret armor sat in a heap and Gaemacirch wore simple, tight-fitting clothes. He was helping the men move the bodies of their comrades. Four of the survivors were footmen who had thrown spears at the strange salamander. Only two of the archers were remaining beside Burner, the acid breath of the creature reached as far as the arrows had.

Dreekt was helping put the bodies onto a cart to take back to Dregton for a funeral and burial. Gaemacirch approached, carrying the captain’s body.

“He fought well. Do you know if he had any family?” The captain’s face was untouched, but acid had eaten at his body.

“Yes, a wife.” Dreekt helped place the body carefully onto the cart. “He said to talk to her about a dagger if he couldn’t explain it.” Dreekt handed the scimitar-like weapon to Gaemacirch. “It looks elven, almost.”

Gaemacirch studied the dagger for a moment. “Hmm. Well, Dreekt, I need to get back to helping the men.” He handed the dagger back. “Your cart should head in to be emptied.” Gaemacirch turned away then half collapsed.

“Gaem!” Dreekt steadied him. “I think maybe you need to come with me.”

Looking at his shaking arms Gaemacirch nodded. “Yeah, I probably just need some rest.”

Dreekt nodded then helped Gaemacirch onto the driver’s bench. He pulled himself up next to him. “The men can handle the rest.”

One of the men waved. Almost all the men helping clean up the dead were the archers from the wall. “Hey, Gaem, go get some rest! We won’t start burning the Dark Under creatures until you get back!”

“Remember to harvest the strange salamander!” Gaemacirch yelled back as Dreekt started driving the horses forward.

“We will!”

Part way back to the wall Dreekt slowed down and waved to Burner. She was throwing a skittering creeper onto a pile. She had changed into black robes instead of her purple ones. Dreekt assumed it was so the ichor wouldn’t show up as a stain later.

Burner waved back and started walking toward the cart. The weariness in her eyes shone through the falling snow. “We going to get some rest?”

Nodding Dreekt motioned to the captain’s body. “We found him.”

A deep sigh escaped from Burner. “Well, that’s good. It would’ve been better to find him alive, though.”

He’s not dead yet. Dreekt heard in his head.

“Hey, did we check for a pulse?” Dreekt hopped off the seat and went behind the wagon. He climbed a small ladder and reached for the captain’s neck.

Burner shrugged at Gaemacirch and walked to meet Dreekt at the back of the wagon as he pulled the captain down. She helped lower him to the ground and pulled a small mirror from within her robe. She held it to the captain’s nose, reflective side towards the nose. The mirror fogged very slightly. “Shast!” She pulled a flask from inside her robe and poured it on the captain’s acid burns while humming a dirge and casting a healing spell. After the spell the captain’s breathing became steadier.

The captain’s eyes fluttered open slowly. “Water.”

Dreekt pulled his waterskin from his belt and slowly dripped water into the captain’s mouth.

“How did you know, Dreekt?” Burner put away the now empty flask and pulled her pack off. She was waiting for an answer as she searched for bandages for the man.

Dreekt paused from giving the captain water and looked at Burner. “I just had a feeling. We can discuss later. We need to get him back into town.”

Burner nodded and started binding the captain’s wounds. “What’s your name, anyway? We never got it.”

“Hereweald.”

“Well, hold on Hereweald. We’ll get you back to your family soon. I just need to clean and bind these burns.” She motioned for the flask of water from Dreekt. “If it weren’t for Dreekt here you’d be counted among the dead.”

“Thank.”

Gaemacirch made his way around to the back of the cart, leaning on it the whole way. “Well, the old soldier is alive after all.” He nodded to Hereweald.

“I’ll be right back.” Dreekt stood back up and jogged over to one of the archers who was tossing a skittering creeper on a pile. He quickly told her that the captain was alive and to send for a stretcher. He jogged back with her. “Take the cart and Gaem back to town. Burner and I will stay with Hereweald.”

Gaemacirch nodded. “I would prefer to stay here, but I need my rest. I collapsed earlier.”

– – –

Hereweald sat on a bed on the first basement floor of his house. His wife, Wassa, was watching as Burner applied a new set of bandages and hummed a healing spell.

Burner got him to drink a sleeping draft and eased his head back onto his pillow. She looked back at Wassa. “He’ll need his bandages changed twice a day. I don’t have anything for the pain other than making him sleep. I’m not an alchemist, you’ll need to get one to make you medicines.”

“Of course, there’s one near the Flagon. If you’ll go and explain what we need I’ll send Johnny with you to pay and bring it back.”

“Oh,” Burner said “the mayor said he’ll pay for any medicine for the first month. He says it’s the least he could do and wishes he could do more.”

“Thank The Kindness. That man has been the best mayor this town has had in a long time.” Wassa motioned to the house around her. “If you need a place to lay your heads, you and your two friends, you will always be welcome here.”

Burner smiled, her eyes glowing under her cowl. “Oh, I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer the next time we’re in town. We’re leaving tomorrow to the cave where these creatures are coming from. With these many casualties you won’t be able to defend yourselves against even a small fraction of the numbers we fought.”

Wassa nodded. “Tell Dreekt I need to talk to him about that dagger Hereweald gave to him before you leave.”

“Right. He told me about that as we came back into town. He’s on the ground floor. Let’s go to the alchemist.” Burner nodded at the young human in his early twenties who looked like Hereweald and Wassa’s son. He had been on inner defense in case the dark under creatures had broken through.

Gaemacirch and Dreekt were waiting for Burner on the ground floor. Dreekt sat in a chair and Gaemacirch was curled up in his ferret form on a rug in the center of the room. When Burner walked up the stairs they stood up to leave with her.

“Wassa is coming to talk to you about the dagger.” Burner motioned for them to stay put.

Dreekt nodded but stayed standing. He pulled his pack off the floor and set it on the chair. He started rummaging through it as Burner left and Wassa walked up the stairs.

“Getting the dagger out?” Wassa nodded to Gaemacirch and approached Dreekt. “Show me the dagger and I’ll explain it.”

Dreekt pulled the dagger out of his, pulled it out of the sheath, and set it on a nearby table.

“You see the hole in the hilt? There’s a gemstone that’s supposed to go there.” She motioned at the hole. “It’s called The Black Gem. It looks like an onyx stone, but with less of an albedo.”

Dreekt looked at Gaemacirch with wide eyes. “Umm…Gaem?”

“Hold on. I’ll go get it.” Gaemacirch stood in his ferret form and started loping out the door toward the Blue Flagon.

Wassa’s eyes went wide. “You have The Black Gem?”

“Maybe. It’s the right size, matches your description, and definitely has magic energy surrounding it.”

“Ok, umm.” Wassa took a deep breath. “Well, the dagger allows the wielder to channel The Black Gem effectively without suffering the ill effects. It allows you to tap into its powers without succumbing to them. It also stores the blood of your enemies when paired with the dagger.” She pointed at a series of small, intricate runes in a shallow trench along the curved blade. “It becomes more effective against those enemies for a short while and allows you to react to them faster in combat.”

Gaemacirch loped back through the door, a small bundle in his maw. He placed the bundle on the table next to the dagger. The wrap around the stone burnt off and the stone floated into the air. The dagger also lifted off the table and the two started spinning rapidly. Dreekt pulled Wassa away from the table and watched as the two objects got closer together then the dagger dropped, still spinning, onto the table with the gem in its hilt.

“Well, that answers that question.” Dreekt reached out for the blade and it floated into his hand. “Uhh, is it supposed to do that?”

“I’ll go out on a limb here and say yes.” Gaemacirch said, keeping a close eye on Dreekt. He positioned himself where he would cushion Dreekt if he fell.

“Think about something you’re going to do soon that you want to know more about. Burner told me you’re going to clear out the dark under caves. Maybe focus on that?” Wassa watched anxiously, also ready to catch Dreekt if he fell.

“I’ll try.” Dreekt focused on the mission and saw the mist he had seen when he touched the stone the first time, only this time he had control. He didn’t feel it, but he somehow knew that his body had fallen and been caught by both Gaemacirch and Wassa. As he focused on the mist a scene began to play in front of him.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 13

Dreekt felt sheer pleasure as he flew up from the skittering creepers to fight the noxious flyers. He was flying! He brought his scythe down on several flyers. After the first few he realized that he only needed to take a wing and they would go plummeting to their deaths. After he sent a few more to their doom he decided to lower back down to the skittering creepers. If he was flying and transformed back into a skravyn he would be unable to keep in the air. He would share their fate.

He glided to the ground, the battle below coming into view through the haze of lazily drifting snowflakes. The peaceful, white snow had hidden the dark and bloody battle below. The inky black ichor that served as blood in the Dark Under creatures stained the snow, making it harder to see in the deepening night.

Burner was standing with the archers on the wall, her face uncovered and her glowing orange eyes a beacon. She was no longer casting spells but was shooting off arrows from a small bow. Dreekt had seen the small bow once or twice peeking out from her pack but had never seen her use it before. Many a noxious flyer fell to her true aim.

Gaemacirch tore skittering creepers apart with his claws, never once using his mouth to bite or tear. His armor was streaked black and would need a thorough scrubbing at the next opportunity.

As Dreekt hung in midair, observing the sight, the defenders of Dregton looked up and saw him there. An avatar of death surveying the battle. His scythe thick with the black ichor of Dark Under creatures. The thrill of battle easily read from its face. They hesitated, all of them, for a moment.

Noticing the collective stare Dreekt shook his head. Gotta get back to the battle. He dove down to the skittering creepers and began to reap them as he had seen farmers do with wheat the few times he was near fields at harvesttime.

“Look, an avatar of death helps us!” Some of the men cried out.

“Either The Balance is with us, or The Desecrator is. Either way, we will win this fight! Onward!” The captain of the guard charged forward to join Gaemacirch in the fray. As he did so a large beast burst from the ground. It had six legs, three on each side, a large tail, and the scent of poison filled the air.

Gaemacirch froze in mid strike. He turned and faced the creature. “Strange salamander.” He turned to the captain of the guard. “We cannot hope to win against that. If we can hold it here until daylight it will go back underground, but many men will lose their lives if we do so.”

“And if we don’t we will lose the town.” The captain over at Dreekt, still reaping strange salamanders. “The tower mage sent me a message. That’s your skravyn friend over there.” He looked concerned. “The men see it as a good sign, but if they knew it was a skravyn that turned into an image of The Desecrator…I’m not sure what they would think.”

“Dreekt!” Gaemacirch called out. “Can you distract the big, ugly thing?”

Turning at the sound of his name Dreekt saw the strange salamander. He had been too preoccupied with thinning the skittering creeper ranks to notice it. He flew over to Gaemacirch. “I don’t think so. If I get hit even once I think I’ll change back.” Dreekt shrugged. “Wouldn’t do any good to get killed out here.”

The guard captain spoke up. “Can you cast spells in that form?”

No, you would lose concentration. You are not strong enough for that. The spirit told Dreekt.

“I don’t think I could do that without changing back.” He shrugged. “I don’t think you want me to do that here.”

“No, but there isn’t much we can do about that.”

The nearby guards stared at the avatar of death hovering next to the captain. They were instilled by both fear and awe as it turned back into a skravyn. Fear because of the ancient stories of the armies of The Desecrator, filled with skravyn, that used to reap whole cities at a time. Awe because he had slain so many of their enemies.

“Okay,” Dreekt said, “is there any specific type of spell I need, or do I just go ham?”

“Go ham but defending the troops should be a priority. If you can protect them I would appreciate it.” The captain said, still staring at the strange salamander. “We need to stop that thing from taking the capital of Newwar province.”

– – –

Burner looked down at the beast in horror. He had heard tales of strange salamanders, but their monstrousness was even more terrifying in person. Slinging her bow over her shoulder she motioned to some of the archers. “Come, we need to stop that thing. The footmen are not enough.” The creature was far out of their range.

A few of the archers nodded and left ranks. The other archers spread out to cover the weak points. They followed Burner down the stairs and through the gates that shut promptly behind them.

Burner pulled out her rapier as the bowmen switched to their scimitar daggers. They looked oddly elven to be held by a mostly human force, but burner just shrugged and moved forward through the skittering creepers. The group cut through most of the creatures in their path before the remainder shied away, watching instead of attacking.

The archers saluted the captain and slung their bows off their backs. They then turned to Burner as if waiting for her command.

“Surround the creature. When it faces away from you shoot it.” Burner said when the captain nodded at her. “The creature will become confused and distracted.”

The archers nodded and fanned out. Slowly surrounding the creature from a distance.

Bowing slightly to the captain Burner then turned and joined the archers.

“May The Jester guide our hands.” The captain turned back to his foot soldiers. “Follow Gaemacirch’s lead.”

“My friends call me Gaem.” Gaemacirch said, then turned to face the creature. “If you can get under it that’s where it has the least defense, though its hide is still tough.” Without waiting for a response, Gaemacirch’s ferret form started loping toward the strange salamander.

As Gaemacirch was running Dreekt cast a protective spell over him, then swiftly placed a general ward on the collective foot soldiers. As he finished the captain of the guard placed a dagger in his taloned hand.

“Here, I feel you should have this. If I don’t survive to tell you about it, ask my wife.” The captain turned and ran to join his men, leaving Dreekt staring at the dagger.

The dagger was curved like a scimitar but looked different than the ones he had seen the archers using. There was a place in the pommel for a stone. The shape of the empty spot looked familiar to Dreekt, but he didn’t have time to mull it over. He focused his attention back on the fight. He used the same strategy that Burner had told the archers to use. Only striking when the creature was facing away, to confuse it.

The foot soldiers passed their throwing spears to six of the foot soldiers. They stood back to throw the spears at the strange salamander, careful not to be in the line of fire the archers were using.

Gaemacirch and the majority of the foot soldiers approached the strange salamander from all angles, having fanned out along their approach. Dreekt noticed that there were just over fifteen foot soldiers actually attacking the monster.

Those protection spells were a good start, Dreekt.

How nice of you to speak up, spirit. Is there anything we know that can help this fight?

Avoid acid-based spells.

What do I know?

Just reach for the power. I’ll give you the spells. We need to discuss what I have for you later. Casting the spells yourself makes them more powerful.

 Nodding both to himself and the spirit Dreekt reached for the power he felt in the back of his mind. It left the faint taste of undeath in his mouth, but he knew, somehow, that this undeath was not against the balance of life and death. This spirit was willing to come back to teach him.

Before any of the others had a chance to attack Dreekt shot a large bolt of draining energy into the strange salamander from behind it. The energy washed over Dreekt, making him feel he could take more abuse before succumbing to it.

Just as Dreekt felt the increase in defense the strange salamander turned to him and spit a stream of acid from its mouth. Without thinking Dreekt rolled to the side and ran forward. The creature attempted to correct its aim, but only succeeded in getting a few droplets on its target. Dreekt’s feathers protected him from most of the droplets and he backed away again.

When the strange salamander had spit the acid Gaemacirch saw his chance and scrambled under the beast. He flipped over, onto his back, and clawed at the belly of the beast with the metal armor claws. The other soldiers were stabbing at it from both sides.

Roaring in pain the strange salamander began stomping the ground with its middle set of legs. The tremor knocked several of the soldiers off their feet. The strange salamander’s tail swung and hit two footmen. They crumpled inside their armor. The rest of the men hurried away from the tail but realized if they went too far the jaws would get them. They were stuck between a blunt instrument and a sharp-toothed grin.

As the tail raised for another swing it was peppered with arrows and spears. Some of the spears temporarily pinned the tail to the ground, but the soldiers realized their mistake as the tail came back up with the spears still inside. The tail was more deadly than it had been before.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 12

Riverdale was a small village on the edge of the river. It was so small that Kreet didn’t even remember passing by it. She could’ve blinked and missed it, but she suspected she wasn’t paying attention to anything at the time, trying to ignore her father’s ranting about Dreekt.

The village had slant-roofed buildings, but they all slanted in one direction instead of having a peak. This allowed them to half a small second story and keep the snow off their roofs at the same time.

Krashaeletin walked down the street directly towards the docks. “Come on. They’re this way.” He motioned at a house right up against the river bank.

Draveth, Kreet, and Grefin followed behind. The few villagers that were outside doing chores stared at the riverfolk. The stares were more of surprise than hostility. Grefin waved at a couple of the human villagers.

“Ah, you on river often.” He said to one. “Never take lot fish. Only little.”

The man nodded. “Uh, yeah. I never saw you, though.”

“Good. I not rusty.”

The man chuckled lightly and carried his pile of firewood towards a building. “If you’re with Krash you’re welcome here.” He disappeared through the door.

“Nice guy.” Grefin said, speeding up to keep pace with Krashaeletin.

“Yes,” Krashaeletin replied, “they all are, I think.” He stopped in front of the house at the river’s edge. “Here we are.” He knocked on the door. “Darla, I’m here for that favor.”

The door opened, and an elf stood there. “Already, Krashaeletin? You were only gone a couple days at most.” She nodded at the other three people at the door. “You make friends fast, don’t you?”

“It seems so. People must be attracted to my maddening charm.” He smiled broadly.

“Maddening, yes. Charming? Needs work.” Darla sighed. “What’s the favor?”

Krashaeletin shrugged. “Can you spare a small riverboat?”

“Why?” Darla looked at the riverfolk with Krashaeletin. “Planning on going native?”

“Of course,” Krashaeletin chuckled. “What better way to go mad is there?” He stopped chuckling and his face went serious. “However, that’s not what I’m doing. The riverfolk are being harassed by the sea srengaa. I wish to help.”

“Ah, I see.” Darla glanced at the riverfolk again. “Your tribe is the local one?”

“I chieftain. Call Grefin.”

“If your tribe can provide us some fish for the winter we’ll give you our best riverboat.”

“I see to it now.” Grefin nodded then ran to the end of the nearby pier and dove into the water.

Krashaeletin shook his head. “Man of action, that one.”

“So are you.” Darla smiled. “Where are my manners? It’s cold out. Come in, come in!” She stood out of the doorway. “You must introduce me to you friends.”

Kreet and Draveth followed Krashaeletin into Darla’s house.

“Oh, right.” Krashaeletin motioned to Kreet and Draveth. “This is Kreet, and this is Draveth. I met them not too long ago, but they saved me from a rogue riverfolk tribe. Not Grefin’s tribe, but I’m still not sure how much we can trust him.”

Darla raised an eyebrow. “Yet you’re going to help him fight the sea srengaa?”

“Yes, nobody said I was completely sane.” Krashaeletin smiled broadly.

“No, I suppose not.” Darla shook her head. “So,” she turned to address Kreet, “how did you meet Krashaeletin?”

“We were traveling north on the road, and he was traveling south. Draveth and I had just fought off some sraixen but Draveth had been bitten. Krash took the time to heal Draveth and we asked if he wanted to travel with us.” Kreet shrugged, her ebony feathers reflecting the lamp light. “It never hurts to have a priest of The Wanderer with you.”

“Unless he goes mad.” Draveth added.

“I promise I won’t do that on purpose.”

Darla chuckled lightly. “One rarely does.” She started walking towards the back of her house. “Come, I’ll show you the riverboat while we wait for Grefin. All the boats are inside now unless they’re in use. Can’t have the ice building up and ruining the wood.”

They walked down a hallway with closed doors on either side and stopped at a door at the end of the hallway. Darla fumbled with a ring of keys then inserted one into the lock. There was a click as she turned the key and she opened the door. Beyond was a small room with another locked door and a pile of firewood in the corner. The room was colder than the hallway.

“This is our firewood room. It connects the boat storage and the house.” Darla motioned everyone inside then shut the door behind herself. “Also helps keep more of the heat inside.” She locked the door to the house and unlocked the other door. It opened on a partially enclosed boat dock. There were four boats tied up and a large, shut portcullis made up one wall.

“You keep them here to keep them from freezing?” Draveth asked. “It feels pretty close to freezing to me.”

“Things don’t freeze as easily under cover.” Darla motioned at one of the medium riverboats. “That’s the largest riverboat we have that can be crewed by four people or one in a pinch.” She glanced over the three people with her. “I should probably give you three a rundown on how they work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of you have worked a riverboat before.”

“Well, I haven’t and I’m fairly sure Kreet hasn’t either.” Draveth glanced at Krashaeletin. “Have you ever worked a riverboat?”

Krashaeletin’s eyes went out of focus for a moment, like he was remembering something from his past. “I have. It was a while ago, though. Best to have a refresher.”

“When did you ever work on a riverboat?” Darla asked.

“Maybe I’ll come back and tell you one day, but not today.” Krashaeletin grinned. “You don’t how many different things I was before I settled on being a priest.”

“Okay, well I’ll give you a crash course then.” She turned to the riverboat. “Pun not intended.”

– – –

Draveth, Grefin, Krashaeletin, and Kreet waved to Darla for a moment before they turned to their duties.

Draveth began manning the bow with a pole to push the fore away from the shore. Grefin started looking at the sea charts Darla had given to them, making short notes in simple common on them. Krashaeletin sat down with his priest’s books and started to study wind and water spells in case he needed to turn aside a storm. Kreet looked over the provisions that had been packed and started writing down the different recipes she could put together with them.

Suddenly there was a gasp from below decks. Krashaeletin looked up from his books. “I’ll check it out. I think that was Kreet.”

“Ok. Can’t really go check myself unless you want to try your hand at this.” He motioned at the pole.

“No, no. I don’t think I can handle that.” Krashaeletin shook his head and started down the stairs to the small hold. “Hey, Kreet, is something wrong?”

Kreet looked up from next to the provisions. “Sorry, no. Just realized that helping the riverfolk means I won’t see my family, probably for years.” She took a deep breath. “This past week was the longest I’d ever been away from them.” Shaking her head, she went back to writing down recipes. “I’m fine.”

A skeptical look crept onto Krashaeletin’s face. “You’re fine?”

“Fine.” Kreet sighed. “I just don’t like the idea that my brother’s out there somewhere forging his own story without me, Krash. I knew we needed to leave the nest, but I didn’t expect to part ways for so long.” She shook her head. “I know I’m still part of his story, but not actively. More like in his past.”

“That’s how all siblings become.” Krash nodded. “I should know, my brother is out there somewhere, too. We all fade from their stories, but only so we can be the main characters of our own stories.”

Kreet smiled. “I guess you’re right. I am becoming my own skravyn. Flying off, figuratively, to my own destiny.”

“Yeah, but right now I need to get back to studying those spells. If you need anything, though, don’t hesitate to yell.”

“I won’t.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 11

[The Fractured Mountains will now be taking the Friday slot since The Gods of Nevre is complete.]

Burner, Dreekt, and Gaemacirch stood ready to fight back the Dark Under creatures. Burner stood with the archers on the town fortifications, her battle instrument ready. Dreekt stood at the top of the western mage tower and was in communication with the mage in the eastern tower. Gaemacirch stood with the men just inside the town fortifications. If the creatures broke through they would be the last line of defense.

Burner and Gaemacirch didn’t have enough time when they got back to Dregton to talk to Dreekt. They had given the quarterstaff to the captain of the guard, and then the defense horn sounded.

The captain didn’t want Burner on the wall, but he knew they needed everything they had and let her go.

“You, zarx, don’t transform into your animal form. I don’t know how my men would respond. Just stand and fight as you are.”

“Yes, sir.” Gaemacirch joined the ranks of the guardsmen. They were fine with him choosing to be in front, where the Dark Under creatures would be the worst.

– – –

Up on the tower Dreekt heard a voice in his head. It wasn’t the mage in the other tower, it was something else. Something he had felt in the back of his mind ever since he almost drowned in the Gigli canal in Rentaz.

Dreekt, it said, don’t forget. If you need the knowledge I have you need only ask.

“What do you mean?” Dreekt asked aloud. If he thought to the voice he might accidentally talk to the mage instead. “I know no such thing. This is the first time you’ve deigned to actually communicate with me.”

Don’t get your feathers in a fuss, boy. You’ve never needed my help before.

“And I do now?” Dreekt scoffed. “How would you know?”

You’ve never used magic in combat before. That’s how.

“Well, I’ll keep it in mind, then.”

– – –

Up on the wall Burner had a decent view of the road. The mass of creatures started out small, then more and more of them filtered out of the northern highland grasses and onto the road. The sheer number of them surprised her.

Burner immediately started setting up defensive wards as quickly as she could. Some of the archers looked at her strangely when she started rapping spells.

As the horde of creatures approached a thick snow began to fall from the sky. It was hard enough that they were approaching at night, now even those with night vision were having a hard time seeing the road.

– – –

At the top of the mage tower Dreekt was trying to hold two conversations simultaneously while keeping his sight on the Dark Under creatures.

Do you have any fire spells? The mage asked.

“Do I?” Dreekt asked the voice in his head.

The voice responded, yes. A sphere of fire.

I do, Dreekt responded to the mage. A sphere of fire.

When I tell you to, place that in the center of the road about twenty feet from the gate. The mage said. I’ll cover the ground in ice just behind the sphere so when the skittering creepers try to divide some of them will end up in the fire. After that just kill any of them any way you can.

Got it. Dreekt prepared the spell, waiting for the mage’s signal.

You know, the voice told Dreekt, we need to talk after this fight. You shouldn’t need to ask what spells I have for you. You should know what you can cast and prepare them for faster casting. I’m only here to guide your powers. They belong to you.

“Remind me after the battle.”

Will do.

A layer of ice appeared on the road, snow immediately started covering it.

Wait for them to reach that patch, then cast the spell. The mage said. I’m going to end our communication now. It’s hard to concentrate with it in effect. The presence of the communication spell left Dreekt’s mind.

The first few skittering creepers hit the ice patch. Dreekt immediately loosed the fire orb from his hands into the center of the road. The skittering creepers who were on the road tried to run around the sphere but slipped on the ice and slid into it. A few more were caught in the trap before they started running around the icy patch.

Dreekt started to cast other spells, keeping the fire sphere up. It was melting some of the snowflakes and was giving more sight to the archers.

– – –

The archers started loosing their arrows into the mass of skittering creepers and Burner lobbed a few spells at them as well. Burner wasn’t focused on the ground, though. She was looking out for noxious flyers.

The skittering creepers were insectoid dog-like six-legged creatures. They would have a hard time breaking through the gates. The noxious flyers, however, could just go over the walls. The stench of noxious flyers wasn’t bad in small numbers, but if enough of them arrived it would make it difficult to focus on anything else.

She saw Dreekt fire a few bolts of lightning down on the skittering creepers. The creatures were falling fast, but not fast enough. Burner was considering casting the spells she was saving for the possibility of noxious flyers on the creepers when she saw movement in the snow-filled sky.

“Noxious flyers!” Burner shouted, casting a light spell up into the sky. “Where my light is.” The noxious flyers were momentarily distracted by the light and a few fell to arrows before the group of them turned to dive at the town walls.

– – –

“Open the gates!” The guard captain yelled. “Archers focus on the sky! Footmen, to arms!”

Gaemacirch was the first through the gate. The skittering creepers saw a zarx and some of them fell back in fear. The zarx that still lived in Dark Under had instilled fear into the creatures. Taking advantage of the opening, Gaemacirch swung his blade in an arc killing three of the skittering creepers. The guardsmen rallied to Gaemacirch and started pushing out into the horde of creatures.

“When the last of us are through close the gate behind us. Let no skittering creeper into Dregton!” The guard captain joined Gaemacirch in the thick of the battle. “Well, zarx, time to prove your worth.”

Gaemacirch smiled at the captain. “Well, the only way to truly do that is to transform. Do you think your men could handle that?”

“Sure, just be careful.”

“I will.” Gaemacirch fell to the back. “I need a moment.”

“When the zarx returns as a beast do nothing to him! Pass it along!” The captain stabbed at a skittering creeper, but the carapace was too thick.

Gaemacirch ran back to the Blue Flagon and waved down Samuel, the barkeep. “I need some help with armor.”

The salaman looked strangely at Gaemacirch. “You look well armored to me.”

“No, not this armor, my beast armor.”

Samuel’s eyes grew wide. “Is it that bad?”

“Not yet, but the archers are occupied with the sky and the footsoldiers will only last so long. Quickly!” Gaemacirch ran to his room and retrieved his pack. He spilled the beast armor on the ground. “I’ll tell you where each goes.” He transformed into a giant ferret. “Ok, the big one first, straps around my front legs.”

– – –

Burner saw Gaemacirch run for the Blue Flagon and saw the gate close shortly afterward. “When a giant armored ferret appears, don’t shoot it! It’s on our side!”

The nearby archers looked at the wick strangely then shrugged. They turned their attention back to the skys.

Burner started sending arcane bolts into the air, most of the humans were unable to keep track of what she was saying, she was rapping so quickly. Later, they would remember her as being the fastest spell caster they had ever met.

A group of archers ran out of arrows and another group moved to take their place. That’s when the dive-bombing began. The noxious flyers would dive down, release the fumes from their gas-sacs and take back to the sky. At first the gas was nothing, but then the gas started to overwhelm the archers and Burner.

“Cover your mouths! The gas is poisonous! It will cause your vision to blur and your hands to be slower!” Burner did nothing to cover her own mouth.

One of the archers nearby tried to hand Burner a cloth. “Here, cover up. We need your spells.”

“No, I’m immune to poison. Heated metabolism and all that.” Burner breathed deep. “Hmm…smells flammable. Careful! The fumes may combust!”

There was a strange clinking of metal and a form jumped over the archers. Gaemacirch’s blaze-patterned underbelly was visible for a moment, and none of the archers had enough time to react.

Gaemacirch was able to grab a couple of noxious flyers out of the air and landed on the mass of skittering creepers. His paw armor had metal claws attached and he began to rake through the mass of enemies. The foot soldiers watched in awe as he tore apart several skittering creepers in one turn.

“Stop staring and start fighting!” Gaemacirch’s voice sounded more feral than before. “I can’t take all of them myself!”

– – –

Seeing Gaemacirch jump over the wall Dreekt felt a longing in himself to do such carnage. To transform and take down the skittering creepers down on the ground, or to fly through the air and destroy the noxious flyers. As he delved inside himself to find out where this desire stemmed from a figure appeared before him.

The figure was covered by a black cloak and had shadows that floated under a cowl, blocking his face from view.

“Dreekt,” the figure said in a deep voice that sent chills through Dreekt, “you have power from death. Use it how you will.” He held out an ancient, pale hand. “Spirit, reveal to Dreekt his power.”

Dreekt’s desire to fight in the thick of the battle combined with his magical power and with the power of the spirit that had been talking to him. Inspired by the figure of death in front of him he turned into a pale reflection of that death.

“Yes,” the figure said, “become like the creator of your race. Like me. Like The Desecrator.” The figure faded away.

Dreekt, now looking similar to the figure of The Desecrator, held a scythe in his hands. He floated down to the skittering creeper mass and began to reap them.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 10

A large, for a small creature, riverfolk stood squared off against Draveth. His stance told Draveth that he’d been through many battles. The duel was to go until one of them gave up. Draveth stepped sideways around the marked-out circle. The snow and grass had been cleared from the spot, leaving only cold, hard earth.

The riverfolk followed Draveth step for step, brandishing his twin swords. He had to take longer strides, but he kept up.

“Boring!” The riverfolk shouted in riverish. “You’re supposed to fight! Fight!”

“They say get going!” Kreet shouted at Draveth.

“Fine.” Draveth muttered. “You want a fight? You’ll get a fight.” He walked forward and swung his claymore towards the riverfolk.

Seeing the blow coming the riverfolk parried with one of his swords and tried to hit Draveth’s midsection with his other. To his surprise Draveth had already moved to his side. He turned to face him. “Tricks no help. Only battle sense.” He attacked Draveth again, but Draveth was able to sweep both swords to the side.

Draveth changed his grip on his claymore and swung laterally, hoping to get the riverfolk in the side. The riverfolk half blocked the blow, taking only a small hit.

“You inexperienced, human.” The riverfolk grinned. “You lose.” He stabbed thrice in quick succession, one of the stabs pierced Draveth’s armor and grazed his side.

Draveth backed up and jabbed into the riverfolk’s left arm with his claymore. The riverfolk dropped his left sword and his arm hung limp at his side. “I have better reach, though.”

The riverfolk dodged under the sword and came up under Draveth’s guard. He jabbed upward with his sword, but it bounced off the armor. He stayed close to Draveth so he couldn’t bring his blade to bear. “I get close, cancel reach.”

Draveth brought his pommel down on the riverfolk’s head, or at least tried to. He ended up hitting the riverfold’s left shoulder again, agrivating the fresh wound.

“Smart human.” The riverfolk winced in pain and jabbed at Draveth again with his sword. This time Draveth interposed his chain mailed arm to block the brunt of the blow. The riverfolk growled in anger.

Bringing the pommel down again Draveth hit the riverfolk square in the center of his head. The riverfolk fell to the ground, dazed.

“Give. Give. Human win!” The riverfolk dropped his remaining sword and cradled his head in his right arm.

– – –

“There,” Krashaeletin said. “That arm should be fine in a couple of days.”

The riverfolk tested his left shoulder. “Sore, but work.”

“So,” Kreet said in riverfolk, “you said you would tell us what you know about Krash being captured.”

“Krash is the elf?” The riverfolk responded in riverish.

Kreet motioned to Krashaeletin. “He’s Krash, I’m Kreet, and the paladin you fought is Draveth.”

The riverfolk shook his head. “A paladin? That explains a lot.” He rubbed his shoulder again. “Another tribe captured your elf friend.”

“Why did you shoot at him when he went to get his quarterstaff?” Kreet put her hands on her hips and clicked her beak. “That doesn’t make me want to believe you.”

The riverfolk looked back at the nearby group. “Trest has a twitchy finger.”

“I’m sorry!”

Kreet sighed. “Fine, just tell us why you think they wanted him.”

“I don’t think they wanted him in particular. They just wanted a traveler.” The riverfolk nodded in Trest’s direction. “He shot because we were raided last night. He’s still a little shaken up.”

“Fine. Should we stay away from the water’s edge?” Kreet motioned at the river.

The riverfolk nodded. “That would be best. Also, watch out for sea srengaa. They’ve been forcing other tribes upriver and out of the ocean.”

Kreet glanced at Krashaeletin and Draveth. She switched back to common. “What do you two know about sea srengaa?”

Krashaeletin’s eyes went wide. “The Drowned Cursed? What about them?”

“Sea srengaa?” Draveth shook his head. “I don’t know about them, seems like Krash does, though.” He turned to Krashaeletin. “Anything we should know?”

“They were cursed by The Drowned. The elven goddess. I thought everyone knew about them. I guess I was wrong.” Krashaeletin sat down on the path. “They were originally a group of riverfolk like these.” He motioned at the riverfolk tribesmen. “They looked like halflings with gills in the same way. One day the tribe decided to attack and kill everyone in the riverfolk village The Drowned called home. They killed the warrior, the women, the infirm, and even the children.” He shook his head. “They attempted to kill her, but as you know the gods are immortal. In order to take vengeance on the tribe, she cursed them. They became known as the sea srengaa after a time. Many call them sea devils and they mostly reside in the depths of the ocean. They don’t resemble riverfolk anymore, except for once in a blue moon when they bear a child that looks like a riverfolk.”

Kreet shook her head and switched back to riverish. “Is there some offense against these sea srengaa? Can any of the tribes push them back to the ocean’s depths?”

The riverfolk shrugged. “Alone, no. If we could be united? Yes.”

“What?” Draveth saw a strange look in Kreet’s eyes.

“A change of plans,” Kreet said in common. “What do either of you know about sailing?”

“What are you thinking?” Krashaeletin asked.

“Let’s help the riverfolk defeat the sea srengaa.”

“If you want help, you need prove self first.” The riverfolk spoke up. “You defeat me, you must same to chieftains for unify.”

Draveth saw the conviction in Kreet’s eyes and stance. “Well, where do we begin?”

“In Riverdale. Some people owe me a favor. Maybe they’ll give me a riverboat for it.”

“I want to hear that story, sometime, Krash.” Draveth collected his pack.

“It’s actually rather boring. I healed some people. Those people offered me money and I said I’ll take a favor. I’m sure it won’t be a very nice riverboat, but any riverboat is better than none.”

“I go with.” The riverfolk chieftain hit his chest with a closed fist. “I say you beat chieftain in ritual. I Grefin. You call Grefin.”

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