When the magic symbols stitched into the interior walls of Daggeuro's tent flared bright, Kathy caught the scent of cherries, followed by smoke. There came a deafening thunderclap, followed by a moment of disorientation, culminating in an awareness that they had traveled far north.
The fields they'd been camped out in the previous evening had been lush with short green grass and farmlands, farm houses dotted here and there. As Kathy looked around at their new locale, she was struck numb by the contrast to those lands. Here, they stood in tall purple grasses that climbed up to her breasts in all directions, cleared only in patches and along a trade road due west of them.
With the air as clear as it was, she could see, perhaps five or six miles distant, a dipping valley surrounded by a writhing black ring of bodies; the tolos surrounding the Temple of Korant. Even this far away she could hear them, a mass of ceaselessly marching, crawling and slithering forms, all bent to a singular, mindless purpose.
"Can they see us," she asked in a whisper.
"Nay, we're too far away," Daggeuro replied. "The average tolo can't see much farther than a hundred yards, so focused are they on their immediate surroundings. Their hearing isn't very good either. However, we must tread lightly, for they hunt by feeling vibrations in the ground, and the Baron and myself must refrain from using any shadow magic. They are naturally attuned to it."
So the kennin High Knight took their extra tents from his bag and helped set them up, pushing the stakes in as opposed to hammering them down. With his considerable strength it wasn't hard to make them stable. After that they made a short walk further west, locating a cool, clear pond to drink from. A small stream from the north fed into it, and a similar stream flowed out south, maintaining is balance.
With canteens filled and supplies unpacked, the trio settled in to wait for evening, when Dimanche would be at the height of his power and thus more capable of enhancing Kathy's magical range.The Temple of Korant was enormous, and Daggeuro warned that they would likely have to send in at least two constructs in the end, one to scout, another to retrieve the fragment of the Great Door.
But time was on their side. With the spy's information being faulty, Luga's men wouldn't realize they'd been duped until far too late. None of the members of the trio knew what would come of that as a result, but they would surely learn the answer when they got back to Celia.
Foruk and his company walked in a single-file line through the portal Luga had prepared using a ritual to send them far to the south. As the troll vindicator marched, mace in hand, he conjured up his own magical power, letting it flow and swirl around him.
A good thing, too, for as he came through the portal on the other end of the spell, he sent a curved shield of yellowish flames out before him, catching a leaping specter in midair, reducing it to a smouldering exoskeleton. Giant scorpion specters had gathered to ambush the portal users, but with the vindicator leading the way and hurling raging fire and fists of stone from the ground at them, only two specters remained to attack by the time his first ally came through.
The gotrin woman used a touch upon the fleeing scorpions' waving stinger stalks to begin fatal rotting in their flesh. The death magic felled them after twenty feet.
When all were through, they formed a wedge with Foruk at the tip. Using a sliver of power, he enhanced his vision to look south. An hour away lay the village of Menchis Clan fellins that held the fragment they'd come for. He could clearly see the sleek cat-folken moving about, though one older fellow, a drooping white beard tied into a braid hanging off of his chin, stood in flowing white robes, gnarled hands on the head of a staff, seeming to stare back at him.
"Hmm," he muttered.
"Something amiss, sir," asked one of the goblins.
"Trouble, and in our road," the troll vindicator said. "An elder. I believe he sensed our arrival. Weapons sheathed, people," he said, putting his mace in its loop. They enountered no more specters, and almost an hour later, as they approached the village, Foruk saw the elder speaking hurriedly with several more war-like fellins. The majority of people were being ushered from the streets and outers into their homes, until at last only the elder and four warriors stood in the open to meet them.
Closer now, Foruk could feel the old man's power, a tingly, nervous energy in the air. The elder was ready for the worst, but from the cocky, nonchalant way the warriors stood, they did not share his wisdom or sense of danger.
The elder said something in the sharp, raspy native tongue of the fellins. Kellpit, one of the gotrin men, shifted places with one of the orcs behind Foruk and whispered, "He asks what business such a foul assortment as us has here."
"You understand their tongue," Foruk said over his shoulder. "Can you speak it as well?"
"Nevermind that," the elder said in the common tongue, throwing Foruk mentally off-balance. "Answer, troll."
"I am Foruk, vindicator and right hand of the shade Luga's will," the troll said, meaty fist held over his bare chest. "We have it on good authority that your village houses one of the fragments of the Great Door. Luga sends me as emmissary to negotiate for it." The elder chuckled, shaking his head.
"You have wasted a trip, troll Foruk," the old fellin said. "We have never had such an artifact here."
"Come now, old dad," Foruk chided, half grinning. "We can barter for it, if that's what you're after. We have sovereigns and enchanted items of our own to offer as trade."
"You do not understand," the elder said, humor gone from his tone. He held the short staff now in one hand, other hand loose at his side. This motion revealed a black and yellow sash tied around his midsection, festooned with pins and buttons. "We have no fragment of which you speak. Now leave us, or we will make you go."
The fellin warriors now drew weapons, taking serious combat postures between the elder and Foruk's unit.
"It does not need to come to violence," Foruk warned, "unless you want to see your people die." Before anymore words could be exchanged, Foruk's people drew their weapons, the air filling with power and the promise of bloodshed. He drew his own mace last, jaw set, feet planted. "Give us the fragment and you will live!"
The elder shouted something guttural in his native tongue, and the four warriors launched themselves at his wedge, weapons flailing. Foruk batted one attack easily aside, only to be struck hard from the left by a wall of wind force. He toppled over, grunting as he got back up. A white disc of air magic lashed his wrist, forcing his weapon free to tumble away.
Thusly unarmed, he had to use his thick forearms to block an incoming swing of the old man's short staff. His naturally thick flesh absorbed most of the impact, but his teeth rattled in his skull from the force of the attack. He tried to grab the staff, missed, and used his own momentum to perform a forward somersault.
The old fellin had apparently never seen such an attack, because Foruk rolled right over him, all six-hundred pounds of gray troll crushing the aging cat-man. Foruk felt something snap under him as he pushed up off his foe, and when he stood up and turned around, he saw the old timer trying to drag himself upright, his left leg refusing to cooperate.
The fellin warriors were already all dead, he saw, his own unit having only received a single wound on a goblin skirmisher named Flig. His right cheek had been cut open, but the little fighter showed no signs of discomfort or worry.
Foruk retrieved his mace and came back to loom over the old man, weapon held high. "You dare to defy my master's will?" The old man just spit on Foruk's foot by way of a response. The troll vindicator motioned to his men. "Two of you, hold him," he ordered.
Two orcs hoisted the elder fellin up, holding him by the arms. The elder just glared and said, "You have wronged us, troll! Your information was flawed! Release me, and offer penance for your crimes against these fallen warriors!"
Foruk slapped him with his free hand. He then put the mace in its loop and leaned in close. He whispered, "Witness," then turned to face the village. Foruk swirled his arms back and forth, conjuring a visible swirl of wind. He pushed it away from himself, then used his fingers to draw fiery red sigils in the air, pushing them into the stout whirlwind until a flaming dust devil stood before him.
With a thrust of one palm he sent the flaming devil streaking toward a line of cottages. The elder cried out, struggling to break free of his captors, but to no avail. The crunch and whoomp of walls being torn apart, furniture and appliances flying, and the catching of cloth and fellins on fire roared through the air. The stench of scorched flesh and fur hung thick as the spell was halted after destroying four homes, slaying nearly twenty cat-faerie.
Foruk turned toward the elder once more. "Tell me where the fragment is," he said evenly. With tears in his facial fur the elder shook his head, murmuring as he sniffled.
"Sir, he just asked the gods why we don't believe him," said the gotrin wo spoke fellin. "I think we've been had." Foruk stared into the elder's eyes, and saw the truth laid bare; the fellin had no idea what he was talking about.
"Release him," Foruk snapped, cancelling the flaming dust devil into gray smoke. Without a word he marched out away from the village, hurling random spells in every direction but behind him. His men watched as he raged, content to wait until the boss calmed down.
No need to get themselves killed so early in the game.
Kathy's animated figurine, a four-inch tall skeleton warrior, sprinted along unnoticed through the forest of black legs that were the tolos fixed in their march. Her eyes were closed, so that she could see from a vantage point behind the figurine, commanding it over the distance between them.
When Daggeuro had asked why she chose the skeleton figurine, she explained that its simple, recognizably human-like frame made it easier for her to control and maneuver. He admitted quickly that he didn't begin to understand her form of magic, and she began her task.
Twenty minutes after clearing the tolos, the figurine had descended into the valley and arrived at the open doors leading into the Temple of Korant. Kathy felt her control wavering, but Baron Dimanche sent a stream of his power, unaligned force, into her by putting his hand against the back of her head.
Kathy moved the figurine inside the entry vestibule, gawking at the monolithic architecture. The Temple was a place of worship, this she knew, to an ancient god named Korant. He was said to be a god of knowledge, and the Temple reflected this.
The Temple interior was essentially the largest library in existence. Tomes lined shelves along every inch of wall, except where paintings and tapestries depicting various scenes within the books hung.
Reminding herself that this extended control was only temporary, Kathy sent the figurine scuring through a myriad rooms, until finally, after nearly two hours of searching, she found the fragment, laid out in the open on a reading table.
Kathy returned her mind to her body, immediately slumping back from her seated position. She desperately needed rest, and her body wasn't taking no for an answer. Daggeuro and Baron Dimanche both stayed crouched in the grass on either side of her prone form, ready to defend against any attack.
The wait for her to recover would feel like an eternity for both men.
Foruk stamped through the portal created when he snapped the returner tube, snarling as he led his group towards Luga's command tent. While still a dozen tents distant, he could hear his master raving about something.
His men waited outside as the troll vindicator strode within, finding Luga towering over a kennin with the head and coloring of a Rottwieler, his entire lower half a shapeless mass of wispy shadows flapping about. He was mid-sentence when Foruk drew up by the entrance. "-to the darkest, most frozen pit of existence, you miserable little shit!"
The kennin was about to voice some protest in his own defense when a tendril of shadow lashed outward, wrapping around his snout to silence him. Luga turned his upper body toward Foruk, who saluted.
"Master, the information my spy gave me was a lie."
"So this spy of mine has just finished informing me," the hade hissed, his voice high-pitched and whiny. "He claims he didn't have the chance too tell me this earlier, because he was being watched by Royal Guard members for allegedly stealing from the king's manor. Had he been behaving himself, we would have known sooner than this!" The tentacle sprouted serrated edges and whipped downward, cutting half of the kennin's face off in a shower of gore. He shrieked, collapsing to the floor with hands on what remained of his face. Another shadow tentacle lashed out, stabbing like a spear through his gut, flailing him around in the air until he went limp. With a grunt Luga slapped the body on the ground and returned to his normal shape and size, clearing his throat. "I'll prepare another sending. Get your people ready."
Foruk saluted again, then exited to his men to relay the order. He could sympathize with his master's fury.
"She's coming around," said Dimanche, standing up in the tall purple grass. "Dere's somet'ing else, near us but not too close. It feels familiar." He looked around, trying to pinpoint some visual clue, while Daggeuro helped Kathy up into a sitting position.
She took water and wolfed down a sandwich Daggeuro offered, not bothering to taste the food. She ate now for fuel alone, for she had another exhausting task ahead of her. The skin on her arms broke out suddenly in gooseflesh, and she grabbed Daggeuro by the shoulder plate.
"Stay down," she rasped. Dimanche heard her and took off his top hat, crouching so he could barely see over the top of the grasses. A loud bang and whir echoed out, and the Baron watched as a bruiser of a troll and eight followers streamed out of a portal. He recognized the troll as Luga's right-hand man.
"Foruk and a company of eight soldiers," he whispered, kneeling down facing the kennin and human. "Miss Kathy, de fragment, you have to get it now!"
"I agree with the Baron on that," Daggeuro whispered. "I hate to push you so hard, but you must do it now, lest Luga gain another fragment." Kathy said nothing, just grabbed the dragon figurine and brought it to life. Dimanche put his hands on Kathy's head, feeding her power.
The figurine took flight, soaring unseen over the tolos, who now were moving in an agitated manner.
Foruk spared no thought for the inky black specters between his company and his goal. Instead, he cast at them a crashing wall of water, infused with the force of a tsunami. The wave, twenty yards across, smashed open a hole in the ranks of the creatures which filled in entirely before he'd taken ten strides.
"Fucking bothersome pests," he snarled, hurling fireballs at them. His accompanying magic wielders threw their own magic forth, felling three and four tolos at a time, but making no discernible impact on their total numbers. Foruk limbered free his mace, sending a tri-pronged bolt of lightning through the nearest tolos, which blew them apart. Then, they were in the thick of it.
While savage and bound by some unknown compulsion to surround the Temple of Korant, no tolo was utterly mindless. They knew how to fight, how to kill. And when faced with clearly lethal foes, such as now, they stayed back out of attack range. These worthies could not be cowed, so no fear was present to feed upon. Every blow sent at Foruk's people was either dodged or blocked, so no pain to eat either.
It took ten minutes to fight clear of them all, but the troll vindicator and his unit cleared their way down into the valley, now jogging along. Soon, Foruk thought.
Kathy kept the dragon figurine in check just inside the Temple entrance, watching over its shoulder as the troll and his soldiers neared. Her timing would be vital; with the large chunk of door slowing its movement, the figurine could only fly a little faster than these people could run. She needed them to be close when she wanted the figurine to make a break for it.
She could see the troll starting up the steps leading in, and then she drew the figurine out, flying by only five or six feet over Foruk's head. Startled, wide-eyed, he turned and tracked the movement. There was a space of about ten seconds before she heard him bellow, "After it!"
Foruk sensed something amiss, something he should have detected before even wading through the tolos; he and his people weren't alone out here. He no sooner thought this, climbing the first step, when a tiny dragon flew by overhead, the fragment of the Great Door grasped in its claws. He watched it flying away for an unknown (to him) time before bellowing, "After it!"
He and his people gave chase, but he knew it was useless. The dragon would fly over the tolos while he and his unit fought through again. Even as he swung his mace into the blank black face of one such creature, he lost sight of the tiny dragon.
He had failed.