Far from where the Knights were spending a sleepless night in the trees, an eerie sight was unfolding. Beneath the ground, at the end of a long and winding tunnel, a darkened room smelling of blood and stale beer became the birthplace of a terrible evil.
There were four bodies in the room, cold and unmoving, the rigor of death upon them. One of them, larger and more heavily wounded than the rest, bore a strange ring on its finger, a ring that had not been evident before. As the sky outside cleared and the uncaring stars looked down, the ring began to glow. Dim at first, it grew in power and intensity, pulsing with a blood-red light. The flesh under the ring sizzled and smoke curled up. The ring started to crumble, turning to smoke, drifting upwards to join the smoke already circling the body in an unnatural ring, pulsing and heaving in a sickening parody of life. The smoke coalesced, drawing in on itself until it resembled the body laying on the floor . . . a body now devoid of wounds. The creature of smoke turned and dove into the open mouth and nostrils. The light grew in intensity, turning the body transparent with its brilliance.
Then it faded and died.
Darkness filled the room
And amid the darkness . . . rising laughter.
The sauroids called it a god.
It wasn’t . . . but it could have been.
It lay curled on the lip before its cave and sniffed keenly at the night air, cool and crisp with the passing of the storm. The last wisps of clouds were disappearing and tens of thousands of stars twinkled in the sky. The fresh, clean smell of the jungle was a peaceful balm on its senses and it luxuriated in the sensation.
Then, a new scent came to it, drifting in from the south. It was the smell of blood and rotten carrion. The smell of death, of undeath. It wrinkled its nose and reared up, working Art. Studying the results, it growled softly to itself, anger growing in its breast.
Evil had come.
It turned and retreated into its cave to ponder this news, its movements full of power and purpose, rainbow-colored wings scintillating in the starlight. It was strong, ancient, and proud.
The sauroids called it a god.
It wasn’t . . . but it could have been.
Horace lowered his arm and his armor squealed again. The muggy rain and humidity of the last few days had been especially hard on his glittering armor and rust was beginning to make its presence both seen and heard.
Katrina clapped her hands over her ears as Horace moved again. “Yikes! Horace, that’s awful! Put some oil on those hinges!” The noise pierced her skull like a needle, making her teeth ache.
He growled wordlessly at her and dug into his backpack, his armor screeching and squealing with every move he made. He finally surfaced with a can of oil and a rag and began stripping off his armor, laying it out to be worked on.
Katrina lowered her hands in relief and pried herself out of the crotch between two branches she’d wedged herself into the night before. She perched stiffly on a wide branch and stretched precariously. “Oh, gods! I don’t feel like I slept at all,” she groaned miserably.
The rest of them echoed her feelings to one degree or another. They were all soaking wet, stiff, and sore from their night in the trees. They had slept only slightly if at all and their bodies were complaining bitterly at being called upon to move and act.
The sun was rising swiftly in a cloudless sky, promising a day of scorching temperatures and near-total humidity. Steam was already rising from the surging floodwaters. If there was any wind or breeze, it was so slight as to be undetectable.
Jon, perched miserably beside Katrina, surveyed their situation and heaved a heavy sigh. His wet, clammy clothing wasn’t going to dry out in this weather and they were going to be splashing through waist-deep water and sticky mud anyway, so it would be soaked within a few steps even if he could get it dried. He shook his head, wincing at a stiff neck. He wasn’t looking forward to today’s march at all. “Why don’t we find a dry patch of ground and wait for the water to go down,” he suggested hopefully.
Mira laughed joylessly at him. “Good luck,” she said, waving an arm at the flooded swamp. If there’s one piece of dry land within twenty leagues I’ll eat my bow.” She painfully pulled herself upright beside Elric and slowly started rotating her head, getting the kinks out of her neck. Despite her comfort in the wilds, she hadn’t slept much better than the others. “Gods, I ache,” she added plaintively.
Elric sat up carefully and looked around. Something seemed wrong and after a minute it came to him.
Oozing mud squished around his boots and he slipped, windmilled his arms valiantly for a moment, then fell heavily. Mud splattered his face and got in his eyes.
Aaren struggled against the weight of his armor and water-logged belongings, and sat up with a wordless growl, wiping his face with a grimy hand. He spat out a mouthful of muddy water and blinked his eyes rapidly to clear them. He’d lost count of how many times he’d fallen and he was getting awfully tired of it. He made it to his feet and leaned wearily against a tree to catch his breath.
He’d been traveling since around midnight, wading through water that reached his chin in some places and was finally starting to emerge from the swollen lake, but the ground was still wet, muddy, and slippery from the yesterday’s rainstorm. After trying to sleep without noticeable success for several hours, he’d decided to leave the others, get the Wanderer, and bring it back to them. He figured the flood, although it impeded his progress, would also protect him from the normal dangers of the swamp. So far he’d been right.
But it was a wet, messy business. With the sunrise, it was also becoming a hot one.
He pushed away from the tree and resumed slogging his way through the jungle. His hands and face were scratched and raw from leaves and branches swishing back and hitting him. He wondered anew how Mira did it without getting similarly scratched and cut.
After another hour of slipping, sliding, and cursing bitterly, he emerged into the clearing where they’d left the Wanderer. The floodwaters had moved it to the side of the clearing but aside from that, it appeared to have survived the storm unharmed. He tramped across the soggy meadow, pulled the hatch open, and peered in.
Hot and dry.
He smiled in relief.
He sat down in the hatchway and shrugged off his pack. It hit the deck with a sodden thud. He pulled off his boots and wiped as much of the mud off them as possible then set them just inside the hatch. The rune key he’d tucked into his boots fell out. He scooped it up and padded over to the pilot’s chair, inserted the key into its slot, and fell back into the seat. Power crackled and he took command of the tiny ship. It lifted out of the sucking mud with a sudden jolt and climbed rapidly up over the trees, heading back the way he’d come, skimming the treetops by scant cubits.
The modified engine built into the pilot’s chair also provided cool, clean air while it was on and Aaren reveled in the sudden change as it displaced the hot muggy atmosphere around him.
Leagues that had taken him all night to cover on foot, sped by in the twinkling of an eye. Within minutes he was circling over the Knight’s tree-camp. The thick foliage obscured his vision though and he gently nosed the Wanderer down into the upper branches of the trees and shook them violently. He was rewarded by a chorus of screams and yells.
He stretched out an arm and pushed open one of the windows. “Hey everyone! It’s me. I’ve got the ship up here!” he bellowed down to them.
A faint shout reached his ears. “What?”
“It’s me!” he repeated. “Aaren!”
The branches started quivering and shaking. Moments later, Jon poked his head through a curtain of leaves and stared in through the window at him. “Where have you been?” the rogue puffed, breathing hard from his climb. “We were about ready to start searching for a dead body or something. You scared us to death!”
Aaren grinned sheepishly. “I couldn’t sleep,” he explained, “so I went on ahead to get the ship. I guess I should have left a note or something.”
Jon started to answer him but a violent jerk almost threw him off his perch. He grabbed wildly, cursing at the perpetrator. Mira burst out of the foliage, ignoring Jon’s scathing outburst, and clambered aboard the Wanderer. A single stride took her to Aaren’s side and she flung herself on him with a strangled sob. “Don’t you ever disappear like that again! You hear me? EVER!” she cried, clutching him in a death grip. She burrowed into his chest and he felt hot tears on his skin.
He opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. Finally, he just settled for stroking her hair reassuringly, offering a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord of Light. He wasn’t sure how his disappearance managed to turn Mira around so completely, and he wasn’t about to ask. He was just happy to accept it. It took her a long time to settle down and by the time she did, the rest of their friends were all on board. They castigated him for vanishing without a word, but his swift return with the Wanderer more than made up for it and they soon forgave him.
Katrina pulled out her charts then wrinkled her nose. “Sheesh! It sure got stinky in here all the sudden.”
Elric opened the rest of the windows. He turned back to her. “We’re stinky. You just didn’t notice it out in the open.”
Mira wiped her eyes, smudging her already tear-streaked face. “He’s right,” she sniffed. “After spending the night in a tree in muddy clothes, it’s a miracle we don’t smell even worse than we already do.”
Katrina held up her begrimed hands and examined them distastefully. She sniffed delicately at them. “Whew!” She jerked her head back. “You’re right. I need a bath – now.”
Aaren backed the Wanderer out of the treetops. He turned to the east and accelerated away. “Well, when we get to Seasar’s village we can ask them if they have any bathtubs laying around. In the meantime, where am I supposed to be going?”
“Uh,” Katrina bent over her chart. She lifted her head and looked out the window, searching for landmarks. She glanced back at the chart, muttering fitfully to herself. She tapped Aaren on the shoulder. “Head for the northern flank of that rounded mountain up ahead where the pirate hideout is, then take keep on going due east over that second mountain range. The small lake should be just on the other side it.”
Aaren nodded back at her. “Good deal.” He increased their speed, climbing as he did.
The Knights were dirty and tired. Consequently, their attention was fixed on their condition and destination rather than what was going on around them, so they didn’t see the ship high above, heading down toward the pirate hideout in the rounded mountain they were leaving behind. They also didn’t see the powerful figure watching them from the shadows of a gigantic cavern on the volcano to the north.
They sped onward, oblivious to what was around them. They crossed the far mountain range and sighted the small lake on the other side. Aaren nosed the ship down toward the distant body of water and began slowing.
“Keep a sharp eye out,” Horace warned everyone. “We don’t know exactly what we’re looking for. A sauroid village could be anywhere.”
“We know that,” Jon retorted in an irritated voice. “You don’t have to treat us like children you know.”
Aaren and Mira exchanged a resigned look as the two men broke into an argument that was fast becoming overly familiar. Elric and Katrina also traded glances. “You think maybe they like each other?” the bard ask, sotto voce.
The mage lowered his voice and leaned closer. “Almost sounds like sibling rivalry doesn’t it? If they don’t turn out to be best friends, I figure they’ll probably kill each other long about tomorrow morning.”
“Hmm,” she replied. She started to say more when Mira gave a shout and pointed toward the southern edge of the lake.