Baron Von Riker
Riker and Kruzco emerged from the caverns just north of the mountain. The rising sun welcomed them as they stood out into the open. “There,” Kruzco grunted as he pointed ahead. The two joined the rest that had been recuperating on the edge of a plateau outside the exit.
“You’re alive,” Llorva announced as they came.
“Everyone this is Kruzco. He helped me escape the caverns,” Riker mentioned as he looked around and notice who was left. Llorva had saved the three remaining horses, Vylasgarden was healing Jared’s back, and Lemuel, Perry and Durbal were the last of Jared’s warbound. Kruzco awkwardly waved at the group. Now that they were in the light, Riker could see Kruzco more clearly. He was older⏤for a human⏤and his featured and lighter skin tone showed that he was not from the Zion Province. He also wore animal fur and skins for clothing.
“It not safe here. Come, I take you to shelter,” Kruzco uttered as he led the way down a path. For several minutes, they traveled between a dwarfmade chasm within the mountain range. The path on either side had evidence of a civilization some time ago. Abandoned mining equipment and decayed wagons littered the way.
“Why did the Iron Clan move from the surface?” Vylasgarden wanted to know but Jared remained silent. Riker noticed that Jared did not speak since his arrival out of the caverns. Jared’s face read sorrow and anger.
Best I do not speak to him right now, Riker concluded when debating if he would speak on the matter of last night. Eventually they all arrived at the face of one of the walls of the chasm that had a small cave in it about fifteen-meters above ground. Llorva secured the horses on the ground and the group settled into the cave. It had animal bones scatted across the floor, and in the middle, was small fire pit with coals that were still lit.
“You live here?” Llorva asked.
“It temporary,” Kruzco replied as he sat on the floor.
“Why do you speak like that?” Llorva interrogated.
“Llorva!” Vylasgarden yelled.
“Common not first tongue,” Kruzco grunted.
“But you are human,” Llorva replied.
“It isn’t important,” Riker interrupted and gave Llorva disapproving glance.
“Thank you for bringing our friend to us,” Vylasgarden said to Kruzco as she helped Jared sit on the floor.
“You all very loud,” Kruzco started. “I hear you when enter mountain.”
“You followed us?” Jared snarled. Kruzco nodded.
“Only matter of time when ignis fatuus and goblins find you,” he said.
During Kruzco’s speech Riker noticed that Llorva was distracted by something. He followed he gaze and saw that she was staring at Kruzco’s bag. In it he saw a bundle of blueish-purple flowered plant poking out from the bag’s opening. That isn’t just any flower, he concluded to himself. She knows something. Why else would she be so interested in them? Riker observed Llorva’s attention to the plant. She pushed her long hair out of her face and appeared to be pondering about something.
Riker’s attention was brought back by a question Jared asked, “Why didn’t you help or warn us?”
Kruzco looked unaffected by Jared’s hostile demeanor. He looked directly at Jared and said, “I not risk life for stranger.”
“What are were those lights anyway?” Llorva asked.
“Dwarf call them ignis fatuus. My people call them Will-o’-wisps,” Kruzco replied. Suddenly the group stopped what they were doing and looked at Kruzco. “They cursed spirits who die in despair and torment.”
“I thought the undead that escape the Dark Realm come back as ethereal bodies of their former,” Riker commented.
“Most common, yes, but the wisp is cure; or so story go,” Kruzco began to say. “Mountain curse long ago.” Jared bowed his head in sorrow and whispered, “May the gods have mercy on my brother,” he looked up with tears in his yellow angry eyes and moved toward Riker. “We should not have followed you. I knew we should have stayed where we were. This is all your fault!” he roared. “If not for you Bomur and Ezekiel would still be alive!”
“Jared, I know you and your brothers are going through a loss, but none of us knew what was going to happen. It could have been any of us that fell into that ditch,” Riker tried to reason.
“Yes, but none of my people had magic to protect them. Did they?” Jared gritted hit teeth. “You led them to their deaths. You killed my brothers!”
“Jared, brother…” Durbal placed a hand on Jared’s shoulder. “He did not want that to happen.”
“Yes,” Lemuel followed. “We all are sure that if any of us knew what was going to happen, we would do something about it.” Jared looked up at them from the floor.
“The two of them are mages,” Jared said referring to Riker and Vylasgarden. “They could have used their magic to save them.”
“Are there really mages among you?” Lemuel gasped. Vylasgarden gave a pained stare and Riker could not hide his guilt. “So that was you that hexed us back in the cave,” Lemuel accused Riker. “Where were you when my brothers fell to their deaths?”
“I cannot bring back the dead,” Riker defended.
“But the dragonkin healed the bleeding hole in my back. Where were you?” Jared growled.
Vylasgarden crossed her arms and said, “I bare no guilt. Your brothers were beyond my help even if I could have reached them.”
“Your excuses mean nothing to me,” Jared said scowling. “The both of you.” There was a moment of silence in the cave. No one had anything to say, especially Riker. He wanted Jared to understand how his power worked but he was exhausted from the ordeal. He decided to perhaps try to reason with him at a better time. Right now, Jared needed to grieve his lost brothers.
“If it be true the mountain is so dangerous, why are you living here?” Llorva asked Kruzco.
Kruzco paused for a moment and said, “I left tribe in Principium Province. After many moons, I was here in mountain.”
“But why do you stay in the cursed mountain?” Llorva asked a second time.
“Curse protect from other,” Kruzco replied.
“Other? What other?” Durbal huffed.
“You chose this place for peace?” Vylasgarden suggested.
Kruzco nodded and said, “Water good and wild sheep good outside goblin and dwarf territory.”
Riker changed the subject. “We are trying to make it to the Shinning City. Can you help us out of the mountains?”
“Now you rest. You need strength,” Kruzco said then offered Jared and his brothers a stone bowel of water for drinking. For a short while Jared and his brothers recited orcish prayers in hopes of saving the souls of Bomur and Ezekiel; and for several hours later the entire group slept. Vylasgarden, in her wake, went around and balanced everyone’s qi to the best of her draining ability. She became so tired by the end of it that she too passed out from exhaustion. It was the first-time Riker and Llorva had ever seen Vylasgarden actually sleep instead of meditating.
After waking up from a long nap Riker noticed Kruzco fashioning a spear using sheep intestine to tie an arrowhead to a long stick.
“What human tribe are you from?” he asked Kruzco.
Kruzco looked up and studied Riker for moment. “Hidden wolf.”
“Why did you decide to leave?”
“I lost challenge for chieftain.”
“dishonor?” Riker pried
“I ask you question?” Kruzco insisted.
“Please, go ahead.”
“Why you go to Shining City?”
“The emperor is requesting adventurers for a quest. We hope that he will give us favors in exchange.”
“Big risk travel far. Trust powerful men will pay great reward.”
Riker glanced out of the cave’s opening. It was late and the sun was already setting west. “The women and I met under similar circumstances. All three of us were going somewhere but neither of us knew where. At least that is how I see it.”
“Unlikely group,” Kruzco commented then gestured to the sleeping group of strangers. “Elf, human, dragonkin, and orc. Together with common goal. Some say not possible.”
Riker smirked. “I would not believe it so myself.”
“What you hope get from emperor?”
“I want to find someone,” Riker sighed.
“If not what you think?”
“If it is not what I think, then I will find her myself.”
“Ah, ‘twinkle of thy eye,’” Kruzco quoted.
Riker chuckled. “Yes, I suppose. Where did you hear that quote?”
“Kruzco not speak common, but no oaf,” Kruzco said defensively.
Riker laughed quietly and said, “Excuse me Kruzco, but it has been a while since I heard a line from my favorite poem.”
“Riker poet?” Kruzco asked.
“Something like that. I went to poetry school.” Riker then looked up at Kruzco. “Perhaps you can be a part of this too. Come see if the reward is great for yourself.”
“I not know,” Kruzco huffed. “I not want care for other.”
“I understand that,” Riker replied. But disappointment did escape from his voice. He liked this old man, Kruzco. Despite his broken common, Kruzco seemed to have much to offer in conversation. Riker then looked over and picked up his lute. Kruzco looked at him curiously. “You must have been some kind of warrior for your tribe?” Riker asked.
“I was tribe hunter. Tribe need many game for food. Boar, deer, mammoth.”
“Mammoth?” Riker gasped. Seeing how Riker was impressed, Kruzco revealed a necklace of bones from under his fur vest. He took off the necklace then started pointing to and naming the animals the bones belonged to. “Bear… boar… wyvern.”
“You fought and killed a wyvern all on your own?” Riker asked skeptically.
Kruzco nodded seriously. “Yes, I kill more than one. Wyvern hunt us so we hunt back.” He placed the necklace around his neck again. “We lose many-a-hunter from wyvern attack. I survive and kill two. Venom burn like fire.”
“I should think so,” Riker chimed. “They say wyvern venom is the deadliest there is; that no man, elf, nor orc can survive a single sting from its tail or from its bite.”
“Kruzco still here,” Kruzco said with a smile.
“More like you got extremely lucky. I bet that was not your first brush with death. The Phoenix must favor you more than any other mortal of this realm,” Riker replied then fell quiet for a moment. “You know I owe you for getting me out of that cavern last night. Why don’t you tag along so that someday I may repay the favor?”
“If around you mean I need saving, then I pass on offer,” Kruzco said with a deep chuckle. Riker nodded then looked out into the wilderness. The twilight was upon them.
“We should wake them up and be on our way,” Riker suggested and he and Kruzco went around and woke everyone up. As the group packed their things, Vylasgarden attempted to heal the three remaining horses. One of the three horses refused to stand on its legs.
“What is wrong with it?” Jared asked as he approached.
“This one’s injuries are internal,” Vylasgarden explained. “I think a javelin pierced an organ but fell out somehow.”
“Doesn’t your magic work for that?” Jared asked impatiently.
“Focusing qi is more complicated than casting a spell. I cannot heal major injuries when I have not meditated for an extended period of time. I need to focus and a clear my mind in order to find where the injury is inside the horse.”
“So, there isn’t anything we can do for it?” Jared followed.
“I am afraid not,” Vylasgarden reluctantly replied. “At least not right now, but maybe if waited till I have had a proper meditation session I can try again.”
“We do not have time to wait,” Jared said right before taking his battle axe and burying it into the horse’s neck. Blood sprayed across the cave’s wall and across faces. He pulled the axe out then walked away. The horse’s head slumped to the ground then bled out till the life fully drained from its eyes.
“You monster!” Llorva exclaimed. “We could have saved her!”
“We have two good horses. That one would have slowed us down,” Jared replied as he exited the cave.
Llorva exchanged a look with Riker and though no words were spoken, it was obvious to each other what was happening. Jared’s grief had turned into anger and fury.
As they all walked through the caverns they all moved as if the rest they had before was not enough. Despite having a beautiful view of the twilight sky, members of the group either looked down at their feet or aimlessly looked forward as if stunned by their experiences. They soon came across another one of the stone statues on the ground. This one was immense and completely intact. It was not of a dwarf though, nor was it a common animal. This statue depicted a ferocious dragon.
“This looks familiar,” Riker commented.
“Yes, it is familiar,” Llorva agreed. “This is no ordinary dragon.”
“It no ordinary dragon,” Kruzco replied. “Is statue of The Red Devil, Diaboli.”
“I know that name,” Durbal said as if finally recognizing the statue himself.
“Chances are that you have heard his name at least once,” Vylasgarden replied. “You see, this province may belong to the emperor, but this mountain and all its wealth belongs to Diaboli,” Vylasgarden chanted looking up at and gesturing to the statue.
“I recall reading an elfish script that spoke about how the ancient red dragon gained godly power and then used it to horde the world’s precious metals and ores. Because of him massive settlements burned because they could not pay tribute,” Llorva said in remembrance. “But that was centuries ago. Even before my time.”
“Is it true? Does one dragon have that much power?” Jared asked.
“Thankfully he isn’t around anymore,” Riker uttered.
“It is indeed a mystery. I have heard many stories about Diaboli,” Vylasgarden followed. “Most spoke about how cults of kings and wealthy nobles worshiped him so that he may grant them greater wealth and power beyond any normal creature could have. But if anyone knows more about The Red Devil, it would be the dwarves who made this monument.”
“Well, I do not want to stand hear and find out,” Llorva said before walking away from the statue. One by one everyone followed down the path, but each person lingered and gazed at the statue for a moment longer. Not too long after Kruzco had finally led them out of the mountains and before them was a dirt path that led north through a great meadow. The Shining City in all its glory could be seen in the distance.
“Kruzco we all are very grateful for your help,” Riker said as he shook Kruzco’s rough hand.
“Would not be bad see you again,” Kruzco replied then shook everyone’s hand. “Follow road. It merchant path.” Riker nodded and the party was on their way through the night.