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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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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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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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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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 17

Automatons were long thought of as machines without sapience. They had enough sentience, people thought, to follow the orders of The Commander and little else. However, whenever The Commander was not commanding the automatons around, they did things of their own accord. At first, they took care of the creation and repair of themselves – which they still do – but eventually they began to leave The Commander’s army. Amir knew that this was happening, but he had long known that automatons were sapient. He knew that any who left would return to his call if he truly needed them, but he doubted any such time would come.
In my interactions, limited as they are, with this god I have heard the tale of how automatons came to be. The souls of ancient humans, not ready to become gods, were included in the great ascension and, instead of becoming immortal in their own flesh, their souls were bonded to the automatons they were creating. Amir knew these people before and said that afterwards he always had a feeling they were more than they seemed.

Excerpt from the works of Jergolt, The Scholar

Burner, Dreekt, Gaemacirch, and Julian found themselves in a much smaller cavern than the first. In this cavern there were piles of metal and wires all over.

Julian handed the quarterstaff back to Dreekt whose taloned hand strapped it back to his pack.

Gaemacirch’s ferret head was turning left and right, scanning the room.

The glow of Burner’s eyes under her hood did little to light the room, but Julian’s lantern did light up the room.

As they surveyed the bare wires and metal Dreekt wished they had a dwarf with them. They would’ve been able to tell what kind of metals there were, and what they were most commonly used for. He moved forward slowly, careful not to cut himself on any jagged pieces.

The four adventurers rounded the corner and found a humanoid automaton lying on its back. Its lower face was missing, and its legs were pinned under a large piece of metal. Its head swiveled around at the sound of their arrival and it motioned at its legs, uttering no sound but that of metal sliding across metal.

With concern Gaemacirch approached in his ferret form. “Don’t worry, we’re here to help.” He nosed at the piece of metal, tested the weight and shook his head. “It’s too heavy, I cannot move it and none of you can. We’ll need to rig something together to deal with this.”

“Dreekt, why don’t you and Julian stay here to work on that while Gaem and I scout further ahead?” Burner motioned forward.

“No, I think we should all work on this.” Dreekt made eye contact with Burner. “I don’t want you two going off alone.”

Gaemacirch sighed. “Look, we need to keep moving, Dreekt I-”

“No, either I go with you two or you stay here. The gem showed me something. You two need to stay with someone while we’re down here.”

Burner broke Dreekt’s eye contact and turned to Julian. “Can you handle this yourself?”

“Only if Dreekt leaves his rope.” Julian started to take the coil from Dreekt’s pack. “I have an idea and there’s a lot of material to work with here. We’ll catch up. If there’s a fork wait there.”

“Alright, Dreekt. You come with us.” Burner motioned forward. “We need to keep moving. The longer we spend down here the thicker the darkness seems.”

Julian watched his three traveling companions leave and turned to the pile of metal covering the automaton. “Ok, automaton, I’m going to do something. Don’t worry about it.”

Some of the automaton’s gears started spinning in its neck where its mouth would be if it hadn’t been torn off.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” Julian sat cross-legged, pulled out a small notebook, set one of his hands on the metal and started reading something in a grating tongue.

After ten minutes of this he stood up, careful to keep his hand still on the metal. Once he was standing upright, he put his other hand under the lip of the metal and pulled. The metal seemed to grow where he pulled it, but the automaton soon realized that as he pulled the metal into a long, thick bar the metal that was on its legs was moving, almost as if Julian was sucking up water with a straw. Eventually Julian pulled enough of the metal away that the automaton’s feet were no longer pinned.

The automaton stood and felt surveyed its overall condition. It smiled at Julian and moved in to hug him.

“Wait, let me end the spell first. You’re made of metal.” Julian removed his hands from the metal, now in the shape of a bar, and said a few words in the same grating tongue as before. “Ok, now you’re fine. Not that I want the hug, but-” Julian was cut off by the automaton hugging him. “Right, now we need to go find the others. It’s been at least twenty minutes.” He picked the rope back up from the ground, uncoiled it, and recoiled it. “There, now it looks like I actually used this. Let’s go. Oh, I’m Julian by the way. The large ferret is Gaemacirch who is a zarx, the skravyn is Dreekt, and the wick is Burner.”

– – –

The tunnel cleared of metal after a few dozen feet. The concern Dreekt felt grew as they approached the small cavern he had seen in his vision.

“Here,” Dreekt said. “Be on the lookout for-” he was cut short as a giant spider attacked Gaemacirch by spitting acid at him.

“Spiders!” Gaemacirch loped towards the giant spider that had spit at him to slash at it with his claws. He missed, but as the spider avoided the attack an opening was created for Dreekt to shoot magic at the creature.

Seeing the opening Dreekt cast a bolt of fire at the creature who seemed to shrug most of the hit off.

Reaching for her bow and arrows Burner noticed another spider. “There’s a second one approaching!” She shot at the first spider, hoping that by focusing they would hold out long enough for Julian to show up to help. One giant spider would be no problem, but two? Big problem.

The second spider jumped forward and attempted to bite Burner but misjudged the distance and moved back again.

The first spider bit at Gaemacirch and managed to sink its fangs in. Venom injected into him, but Gaemacirch was able to shrug off the effects.

Burner turned and shot at the second spider, now realizing that if they ignored one of the spiders it would be problematic. The arrow found a gap in the spider’s protective carapace, dealing some damage.

Deciding it wouldn’t hurt to try again Dreekt shot another bolt of fire at the first spider. Once again, the fire seemed to bounce off the hide. He quickly addressed his spirit. Any ideas?

Don’t use fire, use force?

Good idea.

Large ferret claws ripped into the first spider, heavily damaging its front legs and making it harder for it to attack.

The second spider ran back up to Burner, not willing to judge a leap again, and bit at her. The bite took a large chunk out of Burner’s side but did not inject any venom into her.

The first spider bit at Gaemacirch again, but he was to swift for it. The spider backed off by climbing up the wall.

A wave of arcane energy blasted from between Dreekt’s outstretched hands and knocked the spider off the wall and back to the ground where Gaemacirch could get to it.

Expecting the spider to still be on the wall, Gaemacirch had leapt toward it and missed when it fell back to the ground, but he ended up between the spider and the cave wall.

Pulling out her rapier Burner stabbed at the second spider, but the spider saw the attack coming and moved out of range before moving forward again biting at Burner. This bite knocked Burner out and the spider moved to close on her two companions, planning to deal with her later.

The first spider turned to attack Dreekt, but he saw it coming and jumped back, out of range. He then pulled out his quarterstaff and attempted to break off one of the spider’s mandibles but missed.

With a slash of his paw Gaemacirch dealt another blow to the first spider. “Dreekt! Burner went down! There’s a second spider!”

As Gaemacirch called out the second spider moved in to bite at Gaemacirch who scuttled to the side, barely avoiding the bite.

With a quick strike that Dreekt couldn’t avoid the first spider sunk its fangs into his arm. The venom entered his blood and he could feel it work it burning through his veins. He swung at the spider with his quarterstaff, missing before falling to one knee, barely able to stand.

Turning back into his humanoid form, Gaemacirch gripped his large, katana-like weapon in his hands, but was unable to strike before the second spider bit his leg. This ended up knocking him over and he hit his head hard against the hard floor of the cavern. He went out at once.

Julian and the automaton entered the cavern just as Gaemacirch went down and then ran over to help. The first spider noticed this and with a swift motion injected more venom into Dreekt, knocking him the rest of the way to the ground and making him lose consciousness. Oddly there was a smile on Dreekt’s face as he went out.

With the sound of metal on metal the automaton charged forward and struck at the first spider, dealing minor damage to it.

A scream loosed from Julian’s lips and he swung and the same spider with both his axes. He was blind in his rage and was unable to connect with the spider.

Circling around, the second spider struck at the automaton and pulled some chunks of metal away.

The first spider bit into Julian’s arm, but he was able to break the hold before the venom was injected into his veins. With the momentum from pulling away Julian attempted to strike at the other spider and missed but created a small opening for the automaton.

Seeing the opening the automaton grabbed Gaemacirch’s katana-like sword from the ground and beheaded the first spider with it.

In anger at having its mate killed the second spider bit at the automaton twice, the second bite finding purchase on the metal, pulling more away from it.

The automaton sliced a slab from the spider’s side just as Julian threw both of his axes at it. Together they dealt a heavy blow against it.

In retaliation the spider backed off and spit acid on the automaton, eating through enough of the metal to cause it to fall, useless, to the floor of the cavern.

Picking up one of his axes Julian tossed it into the spider and picked up his other axe.

Backing away further the spider spit more acid at Julian who was able to avoid some of the acid, but he knew he would be unable to take another hit. Picking up the other axe that had dropped back to the ground Julian threw them both into the spider’s head, killing it.

Exhausted from the battle Julian quickly made his way to Burner, who he knew had the magic to heal his companions. He bound her wounds to stop the bleeding and fed some herbs he had picked up in town to her to wake her up.

With a gasp Burner opened her eyes. “The others, how are they?”

“They’re unconscious, but Dreekt seemed satisfied when I arrived with the automaton. Can you heal them?”

“I can. It will probably take a while, though.” Burner moved over to her friends and started sending healing energy over them. After a while they woke up.

While Burner was distracted with healing Dreekt and Gaemacirch, Julian was using some of his magic to put the automaton back together. With a flash of insight, he cut open the spiders and fished around in their guts. He found parts of other automatons in there, mostly deteriorated by the acid they had spit, but in one he found a voice box.

He brought the voice box over to the mostly repaired automaton and pressed it against the automaton’s throat. After a moment the automaton lifted its hands to hold the box in place while gears and wires snaked from its throat and from the box to join up. In a moment the automaton could speak again.

“Thank you, Julian. You are a wonder among men.” The voice had a metallic echo to it.

Julian shook his head. “Don’t mention it…what’s your name?”

“Enress, call me Enress.”

“Hey, Julian.” Dreekt walked over slowly, his wounds no longer visible with regrown feathers covering them. “How’s he doing?”

“I’m a she, and my name is Enress.” The automaton held out her right hand and offered it to Dreekt. “I believe your name is Dreekt?”

“Yes, it is.” He took the offered hand and shook. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

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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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