There was a moment of stunned silence. Then a babble broke out as everyone started talking at once.
“Get off my leg you–”
“My aching head!”
“Did anyone see what happened to my–”
“Hey! Where are we?”
“Now I know what a shipwreck feels–”
Aaren ignored the bedlam and leaned over to extract the rune key from its slot. The three lights silently winked out.
It was working just as Beorn promised.
He got up, sliding the key into his boot, and clambered over the pile of bodies. He threw open the port hatchway and scrambled out. The muggy heat hit him like a sledgehammer. It was like stepping into a steam bath.
Gray haze obscured the jungle around him. A foggy steam bath, he corrected. He peered around; a very foggy steam bath. He could already feel the sweat rolling down his face and he hadn’t been in the heat for more than a few heartbeats.
Elric’s head poked out the hatchway. He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh. Horace was right, this place looks like a jungle version of Hell.” He jumped down and joined Aaren in looking around.
Grunts and groans of pain filtered out of the ship but aside from that, it was eerily silent. The distant ‘drip, drip’ of water was the only other sound. Fog drifted silently through the dense tangle of trees and undergrowth, muffling any possible noise, revealing then covering the small clearing they’d landed in. The grass was easily waist-high, obscuring the ground. It swished as they walked, eliminating any possibility of stealthy movement. It was tough and razor-edged, catching painfully at their skin and tearing their clothes. The footing was uncertain beneath the tall grass, by turns damp and squishy, then hard and bumpy, changing without warning, making turned or twisted ankles an ever-present danger. During the brief moments when the drifting fog cleared, they saw towering trees around the clearing spreading their broad leaves to the sun, creepers, and tangled vines looping from one tree to the next. Thick moss covered the massive trunks, moist and glistening. Wide, almost flat branches, two or three cubits thick, spread outward from the trunks, intertwining with each other, forming an almost continual pathway high in the air.
Far off in the distance, they heard something grunt, low, deep, and menacing. The eerie silence deepened and the whole jungle seemed to be holding its breath. Elric and Aaren froze in place too, listening intently, but the sound wasn’t repeated and they slowly relaxed.
Under beads of sweat Elric’s face had gone white as a sheet. “What was that?”
Aaren shrugged nervously. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know.” He was whispering as the overpowering silence began to affect them both. Noise seemed dangerous here, it could attract attention.
The rest of the Knights were emerging from the Wanderer, questioning looks on their faces as they searched for the source of the unnatural cry.
Horace charged out, sword in hand, then halted as the full extent of the smothering heat smote him. “What is this place? The antechamber to the Abyss? I’ve seen bathhouses that weren’t this hot.”
Katrina, emerging more slowly behind him, pushed her hair back and peered at the surrounding greenery. “What a hothouse,” she exclaimed, echoing Horace. Seeing no immediate danger she put her sword away and tied her hair up in a knot. “Woo, that’s better.”
Mira and Jon came out behind her, grimacing at the heat.
“Anyone see where we came down?” the thief asked them.
Katrina nodded. “I was watching pretty close – well, up until the last part anyway. Here, take a look.” She unrolled a piece of parchment and spread it against the side of the Wanderer. A circle, representing Lizard Rock occupied most of the page. A ragged line of triangles wandered down the right side of the circle, a mountain range. Another, shorter line, ran across the top as did one along the lower-left of the circle. A short mountain range was drawn in down the middle with a large, rounded mountain at the northern tip of the range. The rest of the map was blank.
Katrina took out a piece of charcoal and sketched rapidly. “Look at this.” She drew in a long lake between the middle and eastern ranges, with a small protrusion snaking west around the northern face of the rounded mountain. In the western part of the circle, she drew several more lakes and then another two on the far eastern side of the circle. A swirl of wavy lines coming from the top of one of the mountains in the northern range indicated the presence of a volcano. Finally, she drew in a large X on the far western side of the map to indicate the Wanderer’s position.
They stared thoughtfully at the crude map.
Aaren was rubbing his chin.“How accurate is all this?”
Katrina shrugged and spread her hands. “As accurate as I can remember. The mountains I copied from Beorn’s charts, the rest I saw on the way down.” She shrugged again.
Horace wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. “Sounds good to me,” he said jovially. The intense heat reminded him of the years spent around his father’s forge. “Didn’t Beorn say that Seasar’s village was near a small lake? Well, there are several lakes not too far from us, let’s go take a look.”
“Just like that, huh?” quipped Jon. “You make it sound so easy.”
The big fighter flushed in irritation. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“Hey, I flunked ‘Mind Reading’ you know. You could have meant anything.”
Aaren shook his head as the two of them began bickering and drew Katrina and Elric aside. Mira reluctantly joined them.
“The big guy is right,” the priest told them quietly. “We might as well leave the Wanderer and go the rest of the way on foot.” He grinned shamefacedly at them. “I don’t want to chance another landing like that last one.”
Even Mira smiled at that.
“Any particular place you'd like to start?” Elric asked him.
Aaren nodded and took the map from Katrina. He pointed at the northernmost lake. “Why don’t we start here and work our way down? Beorn said this whole place isn’t more than 30 leagues across, it shouldn’t take us long.”
“I just had a thought,” Mira said quietly. “What if we’re on the wrong side of the asteroid or whatever you call it?”
Katrina shook her head. “Uh uh. Beorn’s charts only had a minimum amount of information on them to save on space, and that rounded mountain is the defining characteristic to let you know you’re on the right side.”
Aaren reluctantly inclined his head at the tall ranger. “Good question, Mira. I didn’t think of that. And thanks for answering it, Katrina. In fact,” he gazed around the circle of faces, “can anyone else come up with something I may have forgotten? If you can, now’s the time to bring it up.” Except for the continuing sound of Horace and Jon arguing in the background, silence was his only answer. “Alright then, let’s get our gear and hit the road.”
He turned, climbed back into the ship, and began rummaging around. The others followed suit. Horace and Jon broke off their argument to join them, wondering aloud what the rest had decided.
Elric was the last to follow. He cast a jaundiced eye at the surrounding jungle. “Hit the road? What road?” he muttered. “Tramping through the muck is more like it.”
In no time, his worst fears were realized.
Mira was in the lead, her ranger skills now of paramount importance in keeping them on course through the trackless jungle. Aaren and Katrina followed close behind with Jon and Elric behind them. Horace brought up the rear, his mighty two-handed sword held at the ready.
They were heading in a generally northerly direction, moving slightly eastward as they went. At first, the ground had been mostly firm soil under sodden leaves. Although they squelched as they walked, they had little trouble with their footing. The thick undergrowth was the main problem. Mira spent most of her time hacking through vines, creepers, fronds, stalks, and heavy shoots rather than keeping them on track. Her sword was soon coated with green sap and crushed leaves.
But as time went on the ground became soggy and marshy. Pools of water began appearing, brackish and stagnant. Water plants appeared and the humidity reached the saturation point. The insects Beorn had warned them about showed up as soon as they left the Wanderer, clouds of stinging mosquitoes and gnats, buzzing and whining angrily around them. They were constantly slapping and cursing at the monstrous swarms, but the little pests were relentless, hour after hour.
Elric tried pulling his hood up over his head but within minutes he was drenched in sweat from the stifling heat and had to throw it back. “Blast it!” he spat, fanning the air before him. He wasn’t watching where he was going and stepped off into a pool of oily water that was nearly waist-deep. He felt something slithering around his legs and yelled in panic.
Jon leaned over and grabbed his arm. “Hold on, I’ll get you out,” he said. He heaved backward, straining against the mage’s waterlogged weight. Horace arrived moments later to add his considerable strength. Elric popped out of the muddy water like a cork out of a bottle and the three of them toppled into the mud.
Aaren came back to see what the problem was. He found the three of them wallowing in the sticky, slimy muck and pulled up short. “Making mud pies, gentlemen?” he asked reprovingly, hands on his hips. He was fighting to keep from laughing.
Elric glared up at him. “NO! And I’m not having fun either!”
Mira and Katrina had come back by this time. They took in the situation and smothered a grin. “Gee guys, wouldn't it be easier to bathe in regular water?” the bard asked impishly.
Horace snarled something obscene at them and tried to get up, but he slipped and fell back down.
Katrina giggled in her hand and even Mira was fighting to keep from laughing. Aaren tried to look stern, but failed and wound up grinning widely instead. “Need some help?” he inquired innocently.
Jon flung a handful of mud at him but it fell short. “I’ll show you ‘help’,” he muttered resentfully.
The bantering stopped instantly. They spun around, peering this way and that through the drifting fog, warily looking for the source of the noise. The three Knights in the mud quickly rose to their feet, the filth suddenly forgotten.
The jungle held its breath with them.
“Spread out!” Horace whispered urgently. “Don't bunch up.”
They nodded mutely and inched away from each other, weapons at the ready, peering under every leaf and behind each tree. Tension filled the air. There was a rustling noise behind them and they spun back the way they’d come.
“It’s behind us,” Horace whispered.
“What’s behind us?” asked Jon, twin daggers gleaming in his hands. Horace shook his head without answering.
Mira moved up to join them. “Whatever it is, it’s big,” she said quietly.
The thief looked askance at her. “How do you know?”
Before she had a chance to finish, it burst out upon them. They saw a huge, scaly body, clawed feet, and a half dozen, weaving, bobbing heads hissing and screaming.
Elric blanched, swallowed hard, and began casting a spell. Horace bellowed and charged forward, his sword humming angrily.
Mira was right in front of it. She backed away from the slime-covered monster, swinging furiously. Instantly her companions were at her side, presenting a united front to the towering, hissing reptile.
Hurtling streaks of light hit the creature at the base of one of its necks and tore it to pieces. The few remaining strings of flesh weren’t enough to hold up the heavy neck and head, it fell to the ground, writhing and twisting like a snake.
The monster surged forward bellowing in pain.
One of the heads struck, lightning-fast, at Jon. He slammed his daggers into its eyes, but the monster bit down on his chest. He screamed, high and shrill, and dropped to the ground.
Aaren swung his hammer at the blind head hovering over the fallen rogue. He connected solidly and it fell heavily across Jon. Aaren flung it aside and bent over his companion, healing power flowing from his hands.
Horace was in the thick of the battle, yelling and cursing, his sword a glittering arc of steel. Three times he struck off a head with a single blow. But all three times he sacrificed defense for offense to do it and took staggering blows in return. Within moments his muddy figure was splattered with blood from head to toe, some of it his, some from the hydra.
Katrina stood at Horace’s side, hacking at the heads when they started growing back, chopping them off again before they gained enough power and strength to become a threat. Elric cast Art again, flame shooting out from his hands. The monster roared in pain. Its attacks were slower now, and it started to give ground before the united onslaught of the Knights.
One of the heads darted at Aaren’s unprotected back as he worked on Jon, and Mira dove to his aid without hesitation. Blind fury possessed her and she fought like a demon. The creature reared back in astonishment from her wild anger.
Aaren finished with Jon, only vaguely aware of his danger and his protector. He pulled the rogue to his feet. “Let’s finish this ugly beast!” he snarled.
Jon nodded. “I’m with you.”
They turned and charged.
Elric cast Art yet again as the rest of them closed and destroyed the remaining heads. With the loss of the final head the monster quivered, stood for a moment, then collapsed.
They watched it warily for a minute to see if it stirred or regrew it’s heads. When it didn’t move they finally dropped their weapons and sank to the ground, breathing hard.
Aaren looked around. “Anyone need healing?”
Katrina hooked a thumb at Horace. “Him,” she panted.
He nodded and crawled over. He put his hands out and soft, gentle light flowed over the fighter’s wounds. Horace sighed in relief as his wounds healed and vanished under Aaren’s priestly power. “Thanks. I’m glad you pray to the Lord of Light and not one of The Six. You wouldn’t be able to heal us if you did.”
Aaren nodded. “My pleasure. Without you, we’d still be fighting that beast.”
Horace grinned in weary gratitude. “My pleasure,” he echoed. They traded brief smiles.
“Anyone else?” Aaren asked.
Shaking heads and muttered “no’s” answered him. He closed his eyes in relief and sank down with the rest of them.
Exhausted silence prevailed for a long time.
Eventually, Jon propped himself up on one elbow and gazed back along the monster’s path. “I wonder where its lair is?”
Elric wearily opened one eye. “Huh?”
“I wonder where its lair is?”
“Who cares?” the mage shrugged. He closed his eye. “Somewhere out there I guess.” He waved a vague hand at the surrounding jungle.
Jon sat up straight. “But what if it’s got treasure?”